It was August when Alexander met Hannele. She was walking under a chintz parasol, wearing a dress of blue cotton with little red roses, and a red silk apron. She had no hat, her arms were bare and soft, and she had white stockings under her short dress. The Herr Regierungsrat was at her side, large, nimble, and laughing with a new witticism.
Alexander, in a light summer suit and Panama hat, was just coming out of the bank, shoving twenty thousand kronen into his pocket. He saw her coming across from the Amtsgericht, with the Herr Regierungsrat at her side, across the space of sunshine. She was laughing, and did not notice him.
She did not notice till he had taken off his hat and was saluting her. Then what she saw was the black, smooth, shining head, and she went pale. His black, smooth, close head — and all the blue Austrian day seemed to shrivel before her eyes.
‘How do you do, Countess! I hoped I should meet you.’
She heard his slow, sad-clanging, straying voice again, and she pressed her hand with the umbrella stick against her breast. She had forgotten it — forgotten his peculiar, slow voice. And now it seemed like a noise that sounds in the silence of night. Ah, how difficult it was, that suddenly the world could split under her eyes, and show this darkness inside. She wished he had not come.
She presented him to the Herr Regierungsrat, who was stiff and cold. She asked where the captain was staying. And then, not knowing what else to say, she said:
‘Won’t you come to tea?’
She was staying in a villa across the lake. Yes, he would come to tea.
He went. He hired a boat and a man to row him across. It was not far. There stood the villa, with its brown balconies one above the other, the bright red geraniums and white geraniums twinkling all round, the trees of purple clematis tumbling at one corner. All the green window doors were open: but nobody about. In the little garden by the water’s edge the rose trees were tall and lank, drawn up by the dark green trees of the background. A white table with chairs and garden seats stood under — the shadow of a big willow tree, and a hammock with cushions swung just behind. But no one in sight. There was a little landing bridge on to the garden: and a fairly large boat-house at the garden end.
The captain was not sure that the boat-house belonged to the villa. Voices were shouting and laughing from the water’s surface, bathers swimming. A tall, naked youth with a little red cap on his head and a tiny red loin-cloth round his slender young hips was standing on the steps of the boat-house calling to the three women who were swimming near. The dark-haired woman with the white cap swam up to the steps and caught the boy by the ankle. He cried and laughed and remonstrated, and poked her in the breast with his foot.
‘Nein, nein, Hardu!’ she cried as he tickled her with his toe. ‘Hardu! Hardu! Hör’ auf! — Leave off!’ — and she fell with a crash back into the water. The youth laughed a loud, deep laugh of a lad whose voice is newly broken.
‘Was macht er dann?’ cried a voice from the waters. ‘What is he doing?’ It was a dark-skinned girl swimming swiftly, her big dark eyes watching amused from the water surface.
‘Jetzt Hardu hör’ auf. Nein. Jetzt ruhig! Now leave off! Now be quiet.’ And the dark-skinned woman was climbing out in the sunshine onto the pale, raw-wood steps of the boathouse, the water glistening on her dark-blue, stockinette, soft-moulded back and loins: while the boy, with his foot stretched out, was trying to push her back into the water. She clambered out, however, and sat on the steps in the sun, panting slightly. She was dark and attractive-looking, with a mature beautiful figure, and handsome, strong woman’s legs.
In the garden appeared a black-and-white maid-servant with a tray.
‘Kaffee, gnädige Frau!’
The voice came so distinct over the water.
‘Hannele! Hannele! Kaffee!’ called the woman on the steps of the bathing-house.
‘Tante Hannele! Kaffee!’ called the dark-eyed girl, turning round in the water, then swimming for home.
‘Kaffee! Kaffee!’ roared the youth, in anticipation.
‘Ja — a! Ich kom — mm,’ sang Hannele’s voice from the water.
The dark-eyed girl, her hair tied up in a silk bandana, had reached the steps and was climbing out, a slim young fish in her close dark suit. The three stood clustered on the steps, the elder woman with one arm over the naked shoulders of the youth, the other arm over the shoulders of the girl. And all in chorus sang:
‘Hannele! Hannele! Hannele! Wir warten auf dich.’
The boatman had left off rowing, and the boat was drifting slowly in. The family became quiet, because of the intrusion. The attractive-looking woman turned and picked up her blue bath-robe, of a mid-blue colour that became her. She swung it round her as if it were an opera cloak. The youth stared at the boat.
The captain was watching Hannele. With a white kerchief tied round her silky, brownish hair, she was swimming home. He saw her white shoulders and her white, wavering legs below in the clear water. Round the boat fishes were suddenly jumping.
The three on the steps beyond stood silent, watching the intruding boat with resentment. The boatman twisted his head round and watched them. The captain, who was facing them, watched Hannele. She swam slowly and easily up, caught the rail of the steps, and stooping forward, climbed slowly out of the water. Her legs were large and flashing white and looked rich, the rich, white thighs with the blue veins behind, and the full, rich softness of her sloping loins.
‘Ach! Schön! ‘S war schön! Das Wasser ist gut,’ her voice was heard, half singing as she took her breath. ‘It was lovely.’
‘Heiss,’ said the woman above. ‘Zu warm. Too warm.’
The youth made way for Hannele, who drew herself erect at the top of the steps, looking round, panting a little and putting up her hands to the knot of her kerchief on her head. Her legs were magnificent and white.
‘Kuck de Leut, die da bleiben,’ said the woman in the blue wrap, in a low voice. ‘Look at the people stopping there.’
‘Ja!’ said Hannele negligently. Then she looked. She started as if in fear, looked round, as if to run away, looked back again, and met the eyes of the captain, who took off his hat.
She cried in a loud, frightened voice:
‘Oh, but — I thought it was TOMORROW!’
‘No — today,’ came the quiet voice of the captain over the water.
‘TODAY! Are you sure?’ she cried, calling to the boat.
‘Quite sure. But we’ll make it tomorrow if you like,’ he said.
‘Today! Today!’ she repeated in bewilderment.’ No! Wait a minute.’ And she ran into the boat-house.
‘Was ist es?’ asked the dark woman, following her. ‘What is it?’
‘A friend — a visitor — Captain Hepburn,’ came Hannele’s voice.
The boatman now rowed slowly to the landing-stage. The dark woman, huddled in her blue wrap as in an opera-cloak, walked proudly and unconcernedly across the background of the garden and up the steps to the first balcony. Hannele, her feet slip-slopping in loose slippers, clutching an old yellow wrap round her, came to the landing-stage and shook hands.
‘I am so sorry. It is so stupid of me. I was sure it was tomorrow,’ she said.
‘No, it was today. But I wish for your sake it had been tomorrow,’ he replied.
‘No. No. It doesn’t matter. You won’t mind waiting a minute, will you? You mustn’t be angry with me for being so stupid.’
So she went away, the heelless slippers flipping up to her naked heels. Then the big-eyed, dusky girl stole into the house: and then the naked youth, who went with sang-froid. He would make a fine, handsome man: and he knew it.
Last updated Saturday, May 23, 2015 at 22:23