The dusty sunlight of a June afternoon slanted in under the iron shutters, which were lowered and thrust outwards, upon the Professor and his sister, who sat at tea. The table was small, and covered with a waxed cloth, the floor was laid with waxed linoleum, and a tall, white, tiled stove stood like a gravestone in one corner. The cups and saucers were Delft, and did not match.
For some moments the Professor was silent, twiddling the cord of his eyeglasses between finger and thumb. Then, waking with a start, he said: “Annemarie! . . . I will thank you to give me another cup of tea.”
For years he had, with these words, at this same hour of day, passed his cup to be refilled. On the present occasion, however, Annemarie, instead of taking it, jerked up her chin, gazed at him, and ejaculated: “ANOTHER? But, Paulchen, you have already had two!”
The Professor shot back his extended arm, and put his cup down as though it had bitten him. “Indeed?” he said in confusion. “I . . . that is, my thoughts must have been elsewhere.”
“I think so, too,” said Annemarie.
Raising the stocking she had on her pins to knitting level, she became absorbed in the arithmetic of the heel. She was a tall, angular woman, with large hands, a flat figure, and iron-grey hair. Her speech had something of the drill-sergeant’s bark; and it was clear she was used to being obeyed, when, at the stroke of a clock, she said shortly: “Five o’clock, Paulchen!”
“Thank you, Annemarie. I heard it strike.”
But, in place of rising to leave the room, the Professor remained sitting, still fidgeting nervously with his cord. Annemarie bore with this for a further second or two; then, letting her knitting sink to her lap, she asked in a tone of stupefaction: “But, Paulchen, is anything the matter? Is it possible you do not intend to take your walk to-day?”
For the first time in his life the Professor felt that Annemarie’s emphasis was excessive, her regulation of his habits overdone. Nevertheless, he at once got up, replacing his chair at the table.
At which Annemarie added: “Besides, Marthe is waiting to clear away the tea-things.”
“Surely five minutes’ delay will not seriously inconvenience her, Annemarie?”
The protest was made in a tone of extreme diffidence, not to say weakness; none the less, his attitude was so unheard-of that again his sister sat dumbfounded. Worse still, he went out of the room in the middle of her reply, leaving her with her words only half uttered. Now, what in all the world! . . . Something must be seriously amiss. Either Paulchen was going to be ill; or else some hitch had occurred in connection with his MAGNUM OPUS, the “Oscan Declension,” on which he had been at work for the past fifteen years. It had happened more than once, during this time, that some nimbler colleague had filched a valuable discovery from under his very nose: Paulchen always cut his learned journals with a trembling hand. Also, awkward crises had sometimes arisen when the facts refused to fit into his theory of them. Being only a woman, Annemarie understood little of learned details. But she knew that these were black moments indeed, in her good Paulchen’s life. Then must all voices sink to a whisper, the felt-shod servant creep on tip-toe past the study door; behind which Paulchen wrestled with these devils of his own conjuring, and sought to bend them to his will.
During the time it took Annemarie to meditate these things, in picking her teeth with her spare needle, the Professor was dawdling in the corridor — dawdling deliberately — for as long as he dared. With his hat and umbrella laid in readiness, he made as though he searched for his gloves — though these were snug in his pocket — going into his bedroom on a pretended hunt for them, and returning, openly bearing but one, while he smacked his pockets for its fellow. The moment, however, a step on the stair was heard, he snatched up hat and gamp, and in two-twos was outside the door of the flat. Going down, he met the postman coming up, and wordlessly held out his hand. The man, having once more peered solemnly through his spectacles at a letter, handed it over, and the Professor, after one hasty glance at the superscription, as hastily thrust it into his pocket.
On emerging from the house, he opened a large grey cotton umbrella, which he carried in a wrinkled grey cotton hand. It shaded a grey felt hat, broad of brim and shapeless with age, which would have suited a stage bandit. His blue-grey clothes, built for ease rather than show, were so much too big for his short, thick figure that the seat of the trousers hung far below that portion of the body it was designed to fit; while the legs of the garment descended in corkscrew folds over his elastic-sided boots. These boots, shaped like spades, had as little pretence to form as the rest of him, and continued a series of transverse lines which, in their prodigality, would have delighted a Durer. But the eyes that beamed from behind the double spectacles — cross-lined these, too — were kindly, and the face, when pleased, had a childlike candour and glow.
His way led him past small white villas, towered and turreted like baronial halls; across shadeless, unfenced fields where vegetables grew. It was very hot; and, on reaching the shade of an avenue of poplars, the Professor sighed with relief. Entering the town park and leaving a Gothic restaurant behind him, he crossed an artificial lake, spanned by rustic bridges and dotted with manufactured islets, and climbed a sham mountain path that wound round an imitation precipice and led to a new plantation, where he would be safe from interruption. Seating himself, the Professor laid hat and umbrella at his side, and rubbed his spectacles free of dust. His glasses on his nose again, however, he still let several minutes go by before he drew from an inner pocket the letter he had come out to read. He seemed timid of opening it. He scrutinised it back and front, took in the size of the envelope, the hour of posting, the wording of the address. At length, heaving another sigh, he inserted his penknife and neatly slit it. It was not a long letter, did not quite fill a page; and it was written in a copperplate hand, minute as the strokes of an etching, regular as print, the capitals alone opulent and handsome with their prescribed loops and bows. In it the Professor could spy but two errors: a redundant comma, and a slight tendency in the lines to slant upward at the end. Perhaps, too . . . yes, perhaps the upper strokes might have been a trifle lighter, the down a shade thicker. That they failed in symmetry was no doubt due to the fact that, while on the school-bench, the writer had let her mind wander — had not kept perfect time with the teacher’s beat, according to which the whole class wrote in unison: a lift of the baton for the up-strokes, a drop for the down. The little rogue! The bewitching young lazy-bones! He could imagine her titivating at a bow, or throwing sly glances at the spring buds that enticed through the schoolroom windows. It was even possible that her thoughts had strayed to this supreme moment of a female’s existence, of which none other than he was the begetter. Meanwhile, his brain had swiftly taken in the contents of the letter. It was what he had expected. There was mention in it of the great honour done, of the happiness felt, of sincerest gratitude; and it bore the signature “Elsa Braun.” The Professor let the hand that held it fall to his knee, and sat gazing at the arrangement of shrubs and ferns on the rockery before him: they seemed suddenly to have grown very lush and green. For the first time, too, he noticed that the nightingales were uproarious in the surrounding bushes; while the roses, trailing in festoons from post to post of the central avenue, were a hot and scented mass of bloom.
The Professor was about to take the great step in life.
He had turned seven and forty, and it could not be said of him that he was young for his age. Life had been something of a struggle for him. For he had not been brought up to a profession, but had spent his green years on the stool of a merchant’s office. He was well past the middle of the twenties before, finding himself his own master, he had given the rein to his ambition, and begun to equip himself for a learned career. Annemarie had joined her slender means to his, both while he went through his course as a student, and afterwards when he lived as unsalaried lecturer at the university of his native town. Until he was ready to publish the earliest results of his research — mere crumbs and droppings, such as would not damage the appearance of his MAGNUM OPUS— brother and sister had scraped and pinched as one. Shortly after the publication of his pamphlet, however, success had come, and in a truly gratifying way. From PRIVATDOZENT he had been made EXTRA-ORDINARIUS; and, not six years later, an invitation had reached him to fill the Chair of Comparative Philology in his present place of abode.
Up till now, the Professor had lived absorbed in his work, as blind to the visible world around him as the mole in its ebony burrowings: roots, derivatives, and their subterranean branchings, had been the world in which he was at home, a failure to trace a radix his profoundest grief, success in this his most piquant joy. But, having attained material prosperity — his income was the princely one of six thousand marks a year; never again would he feel the nip of poverty — he had grown conscious of a change in himself. He was invaded by a set of soft, pushful feelings and wishes, such as he had not dreamed were in him. He caught himself remembering that he was, after all, only in middle age, with at least fifteen years of energy and activity before him. And his eye WOULD range round the circle of his colleagues, whom he saw one and all comfortably housed, with plump, devoted wives at their elbows, their wives’ furniture in their rooms, and knots of thriving children at their heels. The comparison made his own home seem the more cheerless. Annemarie’s ideas of comfort had never altered — were Spartan in their simplicity. And the wish rose in him to line his own nest: to have at his side one to whom HIS word would be law; to see his youth renewed in sons who would look up to him and obey him.
These sensations were still chaotic in him when, as if in answer to them, a suitable person crossed his path. First met on the annual excursion of the Faculty to the mountains, in which Annemarie did not join, owing to a corn on her foot, the young woman in question, who was there under the wing of a friend, had at once favourably impressed him, not only by her retiring, womanly bearing, but also, it must be confessed, by a pleasing plumpness, an air of only half-concealed drollery. He had had her as his companion on the climb through a pine forest to a celebrated nunnery; and later on, with a peculiar pleasure, had found himself picking out her voice in the part-songs to which the moonshine stirred the ladies. As he walked home from the railway-station, he hummed what he believed to be these airs, while at the same time his thoughts played round the mysterious charm of a woman’s form. Almost he forgot to enter the house quietly, so as not to disturb Annemarie. In the weeks that followed he set a few private inquiries on foot; engineered — with all caution, and so that they committed to nothing — a couple of meetings with the lady at the friend’s house, and, finally resolved, with a great heart-thump, with the sudden forcible-feeble courage of the weak, to take the chance Fate offered, had, the day previously, made by letter his proposal of marriage.
Things had gone smoothly with him; he had every reason to feel satisfied; and he did — so long as he kept his mind off Annemarie. At thought of her, the goose-flesh rose along his thighs. How in all the world should he break the news to her, who had no more suspicion of the truth than a babe unborn?
As far back as he could remember, Annemarie had lived for him and domineered over him: she was eight years older than he, and her word had always been law. In earlier life, he had accepted her attitude as a matter of course. After entering on his present post, however, it had begun to gall him; and now, with this momentous step before him, it seemed sheerly unbearable. He was a person of authority everywhere but in his own home. There, Annemarie held sway; it was she who handled his salary, who prescribed his expenditure: in spite of her pride in his learning, she was never able to forget the days when she had cuffed him and cuddled him.
The Professor was rebel against this yoke.
As he walked home — he had never in his life been late for a meal — he told himself, for the dozenth time, that reason was on his side; that the step he proposed to take was a natural one; that he had neither selfishness nor unkindness with which to reproach himself. That might be; but the seventeen years for which Annemarie had gone through hardship and privation with him rose like a century before his mind’s eye. And, admit it or not, he knew that he had acted in an underhand fashion. He had fixed the whole matter before approaching her, making it firm, irremediable, an instinct warning him that only in this way could he hope to bring it off. The moisture broke out on his forehead; and the nearer he drew to home, the more impossible did it seem that he could ever tell her, in plain language, what he was about to do.
Annemarie was in the kitchen, slicing potatoes for a salad — he saw her through a chink in the door — and before he had been in his room for more than a couple of minutes came the tinkle of the little hand-bell that called him to meals. A drop of perspiration emerged from his hair, crossed his neck, and, gathering momentum as it ran, trickled rapidly down his spine.
They sat opposite each other at table, and Annemarie prepared to apportion the food. But the neat white heaps of cold potato shining in oil, the red circlets of fat-flecked sausage were not fated to be disturbed on their dishes. The guilty flurry, the red confusion of the Professor’s manner betrayed him; and, laying down spoon and fork before these had touched the eatables, Annemarie demanded to know what the matter was. His behaviour at tea-time had been peculiar; Marthe had espied him receiving a letter, which he had seemed to wish to hide — even the postman had made a joke about it, on a later round — and she was resolved not to touch bite or sup till she learnt what this meant. Had he come into conflict with the university authorities? — he, her sober-minded, order-loving brother? Or had the bank failed, that held their scanty savings? Either of these would have been earthquake-events in her life; but they were as nothing to the truth. When, at length, from the Professor’s stammerings, as from his last brutal outburst, in which, despairing, he flung the truth like a ball at her head: when Annemarie learnt the worst, she was paralysed. She sat with her two hands pressed against the table and stared at him, without uttering a word, till the poor little Professor shrivelled in his seat, under sensations not unlike those he had felt when, as a child, he had ripped a rent in the seat of new trousers, or, out of curiosity to see if anything would happen to, him, had swallowed his cherry-stones, instead of obediently parting with them as ordered by Annemarie.
Then, she found her tongue, found words for her anger, her contemptuous, unbounded amaze. Under their lash, the Professor drank a hasty gulp of half-cold tea, wiped his forehead with his table-napkin, and rose to pace the room. For now all manner of unpleasant things came to light. He heard, for the first time, her true opinion of him, heard of his weakness, his want of character. It was very unpleasant, very unpleasant indeed.
But when she passed to herself, it was worse still.
“Have I failed in any way in my duty? Have I left anything undone?”
“Annemarie! I assure you. . . . On the contrary!”
“Then why have you served me this trick?”
“Annemarie, if . . . if . . . I— I . . .”
“I . . . I! If . . . if! Oh! that such a thing should happen . . . at your age . . . an old man like you! . . . and after all I have done for you.”
“Annemarie!” said the Professor distractedly, and wrung his hands. “Since you take it thus I will break off the match. I will write to-night, and say it was a mistake-yes, all a mistake!”
“What? — and make yourself the laughing-stock of the town? Have the person bring an action against you? — you? — at your age? Is there no dignity in you? I knew it wasn’t much, but so little as this I never suspected it to be,” cried his sister shrilly. Oh, how painful was this scratching-up of the surface!
“Control yourself, Annemarie!” he implored her. “What if Marthe should hear what you say?”
“What matters Marthe, when every one of our acquaintances must soon know of your disgrace?”
Then she wept.
Her tears were the last straw. The Professor had never seen the gaunt, manly woman cry, and, at the sight, was reduced to tears himself. He outdid himself in expostulation and supplication, knowing all the shame an erring son knows, when he sees his mother’s tears flow for his misdoing.
But she would not listen to him. “You’ve gone mad — mad!” she cried, and, leaving him vainly reiterating: “My home will always be yours,” disappeared into her own room, and locked the door.
The Professor spent a distracted night, and the letter he wrote to his “bride” was stiff and cold. Annemarie’s wrathful grief numbed his faculties; now, he saw his action through her eyes, and himself believed that he had not been far from madness when he undertook it: reasons and excuses fell to pieces like burning paper. All that beforehand had seemed to him natural and right took on blackest shapes of folly and ingratitude.
Manlike, he had never thought out clearly what was to become of his sister after his marriage; he had only said vaguely to himself that she should never want. Now, the fatal promise that she should continue to live with him given, he was chained to her as securely as before. This had indeed not been a part of his scheme, and he emitted sigh on sigh. Then, however, he shook himself, vowing that nothing would be too much to atone to Annemarie for what she was suffering: life comprised duty, not pleasure alone; and, after all, blood-ties came before any other.
But this was not the end. Annemarie’s tears dried, but her tongue retained its sting; and in the days that followed she drove home his crime to her brother, with wordy force: his ingratitude, his cowardice, his age, the poltroonish figure he was going to cut: till the Professor felt as if she had been saying these things to him all his life. And, again and again, she put the unanswerable question: “HOW did I fail to satisfy you? — I! I who would have given the skin off my bones to serve you.”
Explanation was useless: it would also have been no easy matter so much as to hint at the spring-like sensations that had got into his blood. Annemarie was a woman; such feelings were a closed book to her. Repentant, galled, humiliated, he could only reiterate: “There shall be no change — no difference. It will be the business of our lives to make you happy.”
But his use of the plural cut Annemarie to the heart. It also stiffened her determination not to yield her place. For she was of those who can suffer on behalf of another only so long as the object of their devotion remains wholly theirs, their thing, the ivy to their tree. To endure without reward, or under neglect, was beyond her.
And of the stuff of which human sacrifices are made, she essentially was not.
The bride-elect dutifully repeated her betrothed’s assurances, on that red-letter day when Annemarie so far manned herself as to tie on her bonnet and pay the visit custom required of her. Arm in arm brother and sister covered the intervening streets, Annemarie looking straight before her with unseeing eyes. For, as they walked, the matchless harmony of their steps brought home to her, once more, their lifelong unity. Never should interloping stranger come between!
Before this hardest of tests, Elsa Braun was fluttered and ill at ease. She reddened to the ears had she to accost the Professor; deferred meekly, in word and look, to her “dear sister-in-law;” hung on Annemarie’s lips, her own parted in a thin, ingratiating smile that should beg for favour; and finally, her various little arts failing of effect, found it as much as she could do to keep from crying. All of which gave her manner something childishly unformed.
Annemarie sat stubborn as a stone image on the plush sofa, responding in dry monosyllables to the amiable efforts of Elsa and her father. She took but a single sip at her wine glass; left her aniseed biscuit unbroken. And the ten minutes prescribed by convention at an end, she pushed wine and biscuit from her, and rose to her feet. The Professor followed suit with alacrity. He had sat on thorns, lest anything should be said to wound Annemarie’s sensibility. He was, besides, consumed with curiosity to hear her opinion of his choice: after having all his life walked by her judgment, he could not now suddenly dispense with it. And so, farewell embraces having been exchanged, the rites and formalities of passage and front-door were rapidly got over, to the grand relief of all parties. Hardly had the sound of steps on the wooden stair died away, before Elsa was dissolved in tears. At the same time, she could not control a spasm of hysterical laughter at the epithets which her father, who was free of speech, heaped on Annemarie’s head.
Elsa Braun was no longer young; she had passed her four-and-twentieth year. She was plump, a little too plump now for an unmarried girl, and tall, with a bright, cherry complexion, which with the years had grown a shade too marked. Her eyes had once been of the radiant, glancing kind, which leap to every sally; and though time had tamed them, they could still twinkle merrily when she laughed. And laugh she did, readily as a child; for little things amused her, and the ridiculous was for ever popping up. In few, she was one of those beings who are intended by nature to advance joyously through life, to the tune of happiness; and who, baulked in this, still retain a suppleness, a willowy grace of movement, to be seen in those slim, fleet, dancing figures on vase or frieze, in which has been caught and fixed the joy of motion. Against her, as she went, a many-folded drapery should have flattened or swayed.
There was a good reason why she had not married, at marrying-time. Just turned eighteen, she had been indiscreet enough openly to betray her feelings for a handsome young lieutenant. His mess-room comments on her behaviour having got abroad, a buzz of scandal ensued; and, for long after, Elsa had been asked nowhere. Now, however, the tale of her indiscretion was of such old date as to be a mere legend, and, assuredly, it had not reached the Professor’s ears. She lived alone with her father, who was retired from business — a genial, red-faced, white-haired man, fond of good living, of a racy story, and not at all displeased to be widowed of his spouse, who had been thin and a grumbler.
So jubilant was he, over Elsa’s late-found good fortune, that the marriage settlements fell out better than the Professor had dared to hope.
“Dear son-in-law, you have made me a proud and happy man!”
The bridal stock of household linen was large enough to satisfy even Annemarie: Elsa had stitched at it since her earliest school-days, tatting and crotcheting the laces that trimmed it, drawing threads and embroidering monograms, her lips growing yearly more pinched at the thought that she might never need it. Now, all was changed; and she bloomed anew in the weeks that followed — uplifting weeks of congratulatory visits, of the sending of betrothal cards, the exchange of rings. She was not in love with the Professor, and, with the best will in the world, could not find him handsome: he was small and thick-set; hair and beard were of a sandy red; his broad, flat nose had a crest of little hairs feathering from the tip. But the blue eyes behind the spectacles were mild and fatherly, and on this benignant gaze, which was now often bent on her, Elsa set great store. She felt passionately grateful to him for having singled her out from among so many; and, when her feelings were drowsiest, would rehearse to herself the several ways in which she might repay him: they ranged from airing his house-jacket to tidying his writing-table, and even, in moments of ecstasy, soared to copying his manuscripts. Such a firing of her affection was most needful on coming in from one of the bi-weekly walks which she now took on his arm, under the chaperonage of Annemarie. Conversation drooped on such excursions; for Elsa was tongue-tied, Annemarie adamant; while the Professor had for so long been accustomed to think out the morrow’s work as he walked, that he could not at once break himself of the habit. And so there often fell a silence between the three. Then, on reaching home, Elsa would fling her arms round her father’s neck and hug and kiss him.
“There, there, snailkin!” said Herr Braun, and laughed, and laughed. “Practising on poor old pa, what? Well, well! he must take what he can get, while he can get it.”
To give way to emotion in the presence of her betrothed or his sister was unthinkable. Manlike, the Professor might have looked with leniency on her lack of restraint; but the stern eye of Annemarie would have blighted any fit of girlish expansiveness at its core. And so it was with everything. In Annemarie’s presence, Elsa never lost the sense of being an unfinished child. Had she to speak, her words came haltingly; to use her hands, they seemed all thumbs; while the consciousness of her ignorance, her shallowness, her utter incapacity, in short, was magnified tenfold. Humbly she consulted Annemarie at every turn; and, what was more, took the advice given — even in matters of dress. And this called for considerable self-denial, her own tastes leaning to the airy and bright, not to say gaudy; while Annemarie poured scorn on flimsiness and colour, and looked only to the number of years a stuff would wear. Elsa also sat meekly by while, with practised hands, Annemarie disposed on the Professor’s shelves the lavendered dozens of sheets and cloths into which she, Elsa, had sewn so many hopes. She would, too, dearly have liked a say in the arrangement of the handsome furniture she brought with her, in the rooms that would also be hers; but a timid hint to the Professor called forth a mild, yet peremptory: “True, my love. But think of the occupation it will afford Annemarie during our absence.” To which there was nothing to be said.
Her father was the only one of the party who did not sing placebo. For him, the tall angular spinster stood for the epitome of all a woman ought not to be. Blind to her sterling qualities, he never tired of mimicking her, thereby sadly embarrassing his daughter, who, having entered the Professor’s family, feared to impinge on her loyalty did she so much as smile at her father’s antics. To himself, Herr Braun called Annemarie “a dry-nurse . . . an old he-goat,” and wished an apoplexy might carry her off soon after the wedding ceremony. All said and done though, she formed but a trifling drawback to the match. At heart, the old man was as proud as Punch at Elsa’s rise in life; and, in frequenting his Ninepin Club, played fast and loose with the phrase: “My son-in-law, the Professor.” Another thing: he no longer needed to worry his poor old head over what was to become of Elsa when he was gone. And he grew rounder and ruddier than before.
And society was in league with him, helping to forge the coming fetters with a unanimity that smacked of malice. Annemarie’s raven prophecy was not fulfilled: no one rose up to find that the Professor, by reason of his years, and his ancient bachelordom, cut a sorry figure. On the contrary, he was greeted on every hand like an overdue vessel that at long last makes harbour.
Met in Aula or Vestibule, those of his colleagues who already wore the yoke wrung his hand with a new warmth; on their lips the set patter of congratulation stood for his entry into a mystic brotherhood. The unmarried were also well content with him; did not his example light them along a road they were only too pressed to follow?
But if the men looked more than they said, their women-folk made up for this restraint. They buzzed and hummed round Elsa, a very Greek chorus of approbation. Her decision was applauded to the echo. Especially by the matrons. These deep-bosomed, wide-hipped women of forty-odd were never weary of stressing the advantages that would accrue to her from the match. Position and title came first in order. After which, they sang the praises of her betrothed’s steady-going habits; and, in this connection, hinted at dark dangers, the shoals and currents of the married state, which she might count herself fortunate in escaping. Out of the depths of their experience, they fished up dire tales of previous attachments, of early entanglements, errant fancies — on the part of these light-o’-loves, men — and though it was no more than an infidelity of the eye. Ah, yes, she was a thrice lucky girl. — They even made the best of Annemarie. What a prop, said they, for a young wife to have at her side. What a mine of wisdom to draw on, till she should be thoroughly schooled in all her husband’s wants, ways and wishes. Thus led, she, in her ignorance, would run small risk of failing to please.
Wives of a briefer standing frankly envied her the title. But, gossiping over their needlework, one and all agreed they would choose to have no old maid interfering in THEIR homes. As for the shoals and shallows Elsa was to avoid, did not these give the relish to marriage of mustard to meat? A husband with no little excesses to make up for — a flirtation, a beer-journey, an over-long seance at the skat-table — would, thought his wife, prove but a dull and stingy partner; while the cream of wifehood, that of comparing notes over the coffee-table, would be lost. In short, none was exactly averse, at heart, to having a mild Lothario for spouse.
The young girls of the circle made game, among themselves, of the Professor’s appearance — though, like Elsa, any of them would have learned to overlook this, had his choice fallen upon her — and went on nursing their secret girlish passions for shapely lieutenants. However, they accepted Elsa’s invitations to coffee, and, in viewing and discussing the trousseau, ate enormous quantities of cakes, pastry, and whipped cream; and Elsa, who had begun to stand uncomfortably alone, too old for the unmarried, yet shut out by her spinsterhood from the society of matrons, was again re-admitted to the fold.
Thus, Annemarie alone stood for revolution, for a violent break with tradition.
And the engagement was as short as decency permitted, there being nothing to wait for, and the Professor falling every day more deeply in love. The wedding — a very quiet affair — took place early one morning in September. The Professor’s hands and feet were ice-cold, both at the civil marriage and afterwards in the church. Elsa did not know whether to laugh or to cry, and did a little of each. But Annemarie was neither nervous nor in doubt of her feelings; and face and air, as she stood gauntly erect in her brown silk dress, would better have befitted a funeral.
The Professor could not take his eyes off Elsa as they stood on the railway-platform, waiting for the train in to bear them south: Elsa, in a drab-coloured dust-coat, a grey hat with a brown gossamer veil flying from it, and yellow boots; with a little travelling-bag slung across her shoulders, and carrying a band-box and a brown-holland hold-all, on which, in red cotton, with many a flourish, was embroidered: “A pleasant journey!” The charming sight so worked on the Professor that, disregarding her protests, he gallantly relieved her of the band-box; and, alone with her in a compartment of the train, shut the door leading to the corridor, sat down beside her, and took her hand in his. “My sweet little wife!”
The honeymoon was planned to last six weeks; but a bare four had elapsed when the postman delivered a letter announcing the pair’s return; and a couple of evenings later Annemarie stood waiting at the front door, which was green-begarlanded, and topped by a large “Welcome!” Then the travellers appeared from the dark well of the staircase, Marthe toiling up with the baggage in their rear. The Professor was in high feather at getting home; he rubbed his hands, cracked jokes, and, as soon as Elsa had removed hat and mantle, offered her his arm for a tour of inspection. They went from room to room, while the Professor appraised the new wallpapers, the placing of the new furniture. the rows on rows of shining crockery and skyblue saucepans that decorated the kitchen shelves; winding up with the study, where accumulated letters and papers so engrossed him that, forgetting the ladies, he took root there, and had to be rung to supper.
At table, his satisfaction with the world continued.
“All said and done, my loves, there is no place like home,” he declared, the while he helped himself to sausage and the little golden potato-balls that accompanied it. “Home, home, sweet home! Annemarie, my felicitations! We have not tasted so delicately prepared a potato since our departure.”
‘I knew before you went, Paulchen, that foreign travel would not agree with you,” was Annemarie’s retort as she diluted the tea.
“True, Annemarie, true! Still, it is a well-known fact that to see other countries than one’s own enlarges the mind. But now, my dears, I must leave you,” said the Professor, and therewith untied his table-napkin, which he had worn knotted round his neck after the fashion of a child’s bib. “So vast a quantity of work awaits me that it will take many a long day to make up for lost time. Well, well, we know who is to blame for that!” And leaning over, he mischievously tweaked his wife’s ear.
Finding Annemarie’s eye on him, however, he abruptly desisted. “I hope we are not to have any nonsense of that kind here!” it seemed to say. Aloud, Annemarie remarked dryly:‘I think, Paulchen, you are not aware that you are still wearing your best coat.”
“Dear me, so I am,” ejaculated the Professor, and made this an excuse to hurry from the room.
Elsa had sat silent, with far-away eyes; she jumped when spoken to, then smiled, in a hasty, apologetic kind of way. The journey had greatly fatigued her; and as soon as she had unpacked her trunk she went to bed. When, towards midnight, the Professor tore himself from his desk and tiptoed into the bedroom, she lay rosy and relaxed, fast asleep. And as he moved warily to and fro, shaking out and folding up his coat, and hanging up his socks to air, his heart warmed, as on the first day, towards this gracious creature who had come to adorn his home.
The following morning Elsa paid a visit to her father; and, sitting on the old man’s knee, enlarged on her travels as she had not yet had a chance of doing: in face of the Professor’s measured sentences, she had shrunk from stuttering out her delight; and her letters had been of a pathetic poverty of expression. Now, with neither pen nor husband to disconcert her, she gave full play to her enthusiasm; and Herr Braun listened with admirable patience, considering this kind of thing was not at all in his line. At length, however, he cut her raptures short with a hearty kiss, and set her down; for she was heavy, and made his old bones ache.
“Little Frau Professor!” said he, and patted her cheek; the while he indulged anew the comfortable reflection that the responsibility for her welfare now lay on some one else’s shoulders.
* * *
The first duty of the newly-wed was to pay a series of formal calls on the Professor’s colleagues; Annemarie drew up a list in order of precedence. And thereafter, for many a week to come, between twelve and one of a Sunday morning, Elsa in her best dress, the Professor in voluminous frock-coat and curly-brimmed silk hat, hurried from house to house, and up and down stairs of varying quality: from shallow flights, richly carpeted, to steep and bare stone steps. Over the breakfast-table frank calculations were made how many visits could, with decency, be got through in a morning. Elsa and he became virtuosi in the art of greeting their hosts, sustaining an animated conversation for the fewest possible moments, and then adroitly taking their leave, bringing it up, despite distances, to the incredible figure of six visits per hour. From so business-like a proceeding little pleasure was to be got. And before many Sundays were over, Elsa had no feeling for anything but the scandalous fleetness with which quarters-of-an-hour escaped them.
“Tch, tch, tch!” the Professor would mutter, consulting his watch as they padded down a stair. “We stayed there five minutes too long. I MUST beg of you, Elsa, not to forget yourself in conversation. At this rate, we shall hardly reach the Spiegelbergs’ before they go to table.”
Sometimes, too, the callers were kept waiting, sat listening to the seconds ticking by, while the lady of the house, busy in her kitchen with the boiling of her Sunday roast, or the basting of a vinegared hare, scrambled into her Sunday silk; so that when she did appear, scarlet and soap-glazed, they had either to offer their adieux with her apologies hardly cold on the air, or to break into the quarter allotted to the recipient next on their list. And setbacks of this kind grew commoner as they sank in the scale, descending from the Ordinaries to the Extraordinaries and PRIVATDOZENTS.
Then came the return visits, when Elsa ceremoniously led each lady to the sofa; and the Professor, at the first tinkle of the door-bell exchanging his working-jacket for the black coat that hung in readiness behind the study-door, emerged to give voice to his pleasure and surprise. The receiving of calls did not make so criminal an incursion on his time as the paying of them. All the same, Elsa breathed more freely as the whole business drew to a close, and ceased to provide the main topic of the dinner-table, in the shape of endless grumbles from her husband, and comments of the: “I knew it! I told you so!” order from Annemarie.
However, finally the day came when the last pair of callers pressed the springs of the furniture; and therewith the long formality was over. It constituted the sole concession the Professor was willed to make to the claims of society. Before marriage he had laid before Elsa, in detail, the manner of life she would be expected to lead at his side — just as one instructs the incoming domestic in his or her particular duties — and Elsa had agreed and been content. So that now there was nothing in the way of them taking up their regular routine.
Punctually at half-past six of a morning, a match was applied to the wood-fire laid overnight in the stove of the Professor’s dressing-room. Breakfast was at half-past seven: by eight o’clock, all trace of the meal had been cleared away. At this hour, the Professor, carrying his newspaper under his arm — for he liked to be first of his household to learn what had happened in the world — but not unfolding it, for fear of distracting his mind: at eight o’clock, the Professor withdrew to his study and was seen no more till midday. Elsa watered the flowers, did a few light jobs about the house, and answered the door-bell while Annemarie and Marthe were at market. Did they return, she herself went out to walk, or to do a little shopping, or to visit her father. After dinner, which was served on the stroke of half-past twelve, the Professor read his newspaper, informed his ladies of any news he thought would interest them, and took a nap; during which not a pin might fall. Annemarie, letting her knitting sink to her lap, nodded in unison; and Elsa, her hands condemned to idleness, sat looking at the two of them across her embroidery-frame. On those afternoons when the Professor was on duty, she walked down the street with him to the University, and met him again when the lecture was over. On other days, he continued his habit of walking alone. After supper, before retiring to his desk for the evening, he would read aloud to them — preferably a French or an English book, for the sake of the language — and this was the pleasantest hour of the day.
Their programme never varied; was repeated week after week, month after month, till it began to seem to Elsa that the three of them were mere clockwork figures, wound up to perform a series of mechanical actions. With words that fitted these, and appropriate doll-like gestures.
She had no enterprise; and consequently never succeeded in getting even a tithe of the housekeeping into her own hands. The earliest arrangement, which was that of Annemarie continuing to hold the keys while she gradually initiated Elsa into the Professor’s ways, remained the abiding one, except that, after a very short time, the initiation ceased. The fond girlish dreams of ministering to her husband’s comfort, which she had nursed before marriage, came to nothing; he did not care for her cooking, or her schemes for variety: he was dyspeptic, and kept a rigid dietary, his stomach warming only to Annemarie’s familiar dishes. And so it was with everything. If she aired his slippers or his house-jacket for him, she saw, in spite of his attempt to look pleased, that he was vexed not to find them in their accustomed places. For, at heart, the Professor abhorred change — he called it disorder — and, after one forcible-feeble effort to escape from his crusted shell, he sank back into it with what was almost a sigh of thanksgiving. For he, too, made a discovery in these early months; and that was, that he prized above all else the peace and tranquillity necessary to mental production. And fortune was on his side. Elsa gave no trouble; put up no fight for self-assertion. On the contrary, so faithfully did she obliterate herself that, his first ardours over, the Professor began to take her presence in his house as a matter of course, and, lost in the deeps of the Oscan Declension, to forget all about her.
For company she was thrown wholly on Annemarie. From the first, her own friends were not very welcome guests here: they ate too many cakes and sweets to suit Annemarie’s purse; brought too loud a buzz of chat and laughter into the ordered stillness. Besides, they could only be comfortably entertained during the Professor’s brief absences. No sooner was his key heard in the lock than Elsa fell into a nervous twitter, and could think only of politely getting rid of them. Otherwise, supper would be one long jeremiad. Nor was it any better with the regulation coffee-parties given by the wives of other Professors. Did she, Elsa, attend these, it meant entertaining in return — and still worse grumbles. She soon learnt her lesson, and became an adept at excusing herself.
It was Annemarie or no one. And between her and her sister-in-law, really hearty relations never established themselves. The two just rubbed along. Oddly enough, when it came to the point, Elsa’s very submissiveness and anxiety to please formed the chief stumbling-block to their intimacy. For all her martinet airs, Annemarie would have preferred to see her brother’s wife showing more spirit; venturing here and there to stand up for her rights. As Elsa, however, only waxed more and more listless, she despised her for her want of backbone as roundly as, at bottom, she would have resented any show of independence.
Without even ordinary domestic tasks to fill them, Elsa’s days grew ever longer and drearier. She had already spent a third of her life at her needle; and every bit of her was a-scream for a little harmless variety — the variety she had fondly expected marriage would bring her. Whereas life in the Professor’s house was whittled down to a monotony, a dead level of dullness, that passed belief. She had known dull enough days at home, and the disgrace of a prolonged spinsterhood had begun to weigh heavy on her. But life there had had a bright side. Her father had always been ready to crack his jokes; and had liked nothing better than to hear her laugh and see her merry. Nor had things ever needed to be up to time — time, whose bondslave she now was — but had gone as they listed, in a haphazard, chancy kind of way. There had also been an abundance of talk, and gossip, and loving raillery. Here, the primness, the soulless exactitude, the undeviating punctuality she was called on to exercise ground her down; and before a year was out the Professor seemed to her a mere dry little pedant, without a single human stirring under his hard-baked surface. As for Annemarie — well, enough to say, Elsa never dared to carry out even the one little breach of discipline she was always contemplating: that of some day coming in late for a meal. Before Annemarie, she stood the eternal schoolgirl in face of her mistress. And the heckling and pruning she had to submit to lent body to this feeling. She knew she was untidy, and gave herself all pains to cure the fault; but it went beyond her; for she simply did not know what Annemarie would call untidy next. If a curl caught by the wind strayed on to her forehead; if a string slipped and her petticoat showed beneath her skirt . . . oh, it did not matter what . . . she was hauled up as for a crime. She could not open a book unrebuked: they must always be commenting on what she read. Annemarie disapproved of poetry; the Professor was sarcastic over the light literature which, before marriage, had been her chief fare. Music disturbed him; she might not play the piano save in his short absences; she might not run, or sing, or even laugh too loudly. And the fine inborn gaiety of her nature declined from day to day.
She grew uncertain in temper: sulked, would not speak when spoken to. Annemarie put up with this for some time, then complained to her brother, and the Professor, grieved and surprised, laid down his pen to point out the selfishness of giving way to moods and whimsies. Elsa burst out crying, and locked herself in the bedroom. Altogether, at this time, she cried easily: sometimes of a morning, as she walked along the banks of the canal, where barges swam and women washed linen, she could hardly see to put one foot in front of the other, for the sudden mist of tears that blurred her eyes. “Why did he marry me? Oh, why did he marry me?” And the thoughts that darted through her brain in answer were dark and unwifely.
But the day came when she ceased to question; when doubts and frets were swallowed up in a vast satisfaction; and the Professor, as father of the child that was to be, took on a new significance in her eyes. She had been unjust to him, she saw it now: he was as pleased at the prospect as she herself — if in a sedater way. For now she had to sing: there was no keeping back the tunes that rose to her lips. At last, too, she had found an occupation: with Annemarie’s help she cut out and stitched the many little garments needed; and over this work she glimpsed unsuspected qualities in even her stern old sister-in-law.
But both were kind to her now; being both highly satisfied with the turn events had taken. Thought the Professor: it was the duty of every woman to bear children; they were as exactly the complement of her existence as work was of a man’s; and would put an end to all dumps and doldrums. Annemarie’s reflections were of the same nature — with a fine shade of difference. It was, of course, proper that her brother’s union should be blessed with offspring; a family would, in her eyes, form its only justification. Otherwise, she was tempted to wonder what had been the object of bringing this weak, moping, untidy girl into their well-regulated home. Poor dear Paulchen! . . . unless at his desk, delving roots and their derivatives, he was as blind as a bat; and quite unversed in the difficult task of appraising women. Man-like, he had let himself be captivated by an agreeable exterior. What a different choice she would have made for him! However, much would now be forgiven Elsa if she did her part in a sensible and healthy manner; by no flightiness or carelessness endangering the precious young life that had been given into her keeping. For, towards the unborn child, her brother’s child, Annemarie’s heart was already tender.
All the same, she would not have been a woman if she had not felt a slight malicious satisfaction. She did not begrudge Paulchen his pride at becoming a father; but he had, she knew, as little idea what it cost to bring a human being into the world, as the unconscious arrival itself. Now, if a man would persist in marrying, he must face the music; and she saw no reason why Paulchen should have the experience softened for him. So she impressed on him the necessity of making Elsa’s welfare and Elsa’s wishes — no matter how strained and far-fetched these seemed — the hub round which all else turned. And for the first time in his life, the Professor found himself a person of secondary importance.
Elsa held first place. And it did not offend her that this new dignity was only, as it were, a kind of reflection cast by the coming child. She had never had any morbid, modern sense of her own individuality; had never, in fact, been conscious of it at all; and she was, besides, already much more engrossed with the new arrival than either of the others could be. In addition, she had two thoughts for company which uplifted her far above petty considerations. She said to herself: this little one that is coming will be all mine, belong to me alone; for, young-motherlike, she forgot in her way, just as Annemarie in hers, that two go to the parenting of a child. Again, when she felt most crushed by her sister-in-law’s superior airs, she would remind herself: soon, now, there will be something about which I shall know more than she does. Which was a prop to sustain her.
She enjoyed, with her whole heart, the regime of do-as-you-please idleness, to which by doctor’s orders she was now condemned: she might get up late in the morning, stay at home if she did not feel moved to go out, spend several hours of each day on the sofa. Her father came to see her every afternoon. The fat, rubicund little man would tiptoe into the room, finger on lip, half in order to amuse Elsa, half from a very genuine fear of disturbing or calling forth his learned son-in-law, with whom he found it impossible to fraternise. And Elsa never failed to laugh at the threadbare joke, and pulled the joker down by his long, white beard, to kiss him. He brought her sweets, which were not allowed her; and the light and foolish novels she loved. And though these might now have passed unscathed, she kept them tucked away under the sewing in her work-basket.
Father and daughter shared a secret; and when, in their hearing, Annemarie, whose say neither dared dispute, magisterially wished the expected infant to be a boy, Elsa would look slily across at her father, and lift her embroidery to her lips to hide the smile that played there. For her part, she hoped otherwise. In a boy the other two would claim too large a share; while a mere girl she could have for her very own.
Now, the baking heat of summer was upon them; and Elsa seldom left the house. Never a day passed, however, but what Herr Braun toiled up the steep stairs to visit her. He panted more loudly each time; his face was red as a boiled lobster; and so stout had he grown that his beard stood out from his chest at right angles. The doctor was uneasy, he said, because he did not transpire properly; but he snapped his fingers at such a trifle.
Annemarie eyed his retreating figure with disapproval. “Your father is letting himself go,” she said severely: he had puffed into the room that afternoon like a veritable grampus. Annemarie could feel no respect for Herr Braun, because of the many shortcomings of Elsa’s up-bringing.
“But so long as he is happy?” gave back Elsa lightly, without thinking what she said — as she often dared nowadays to answer.
“Happy? Pray, what has that to do with it? You talk as if happiness was the sole aim of existence!” snorted Annemarie, out of patience with such soft, indulgent notions.
Elsa flushed an apology. She had never seriously reflected on life or life’s meaning. Now, in face of Annemarie’s sterner standards, the laxity of her ideas came painfully home to her.
Weeks passed, and all was going well, when one day Herr Braun dropped dead in the street of an apoplexy. A foolish servant carried the news hotfoot, and the grief to which Elsa yielded was so immoderate that days of acutest anxiety followed. By doctor’s orders she was put to bed in a darkened room, and kept there; was forbidden to move hand or foot, Annemarie sitting over her to enforce obedience. And by the time the danger was over, and she permitted to rise, Herr Braun lay, stiff-stretched and decorous, under his new mound of earth, and would never be seen by mortal eyes again.
Looking very wan in her new black dress, Elsa sat and moped and fretted. The doctor recommended a thorough change of scene; and as July was now well advanced, it was arranged that she and Annemarie should set out forthwith for a watering-place in the mountains. There, when the academic term ended, the Professor would join them.
In their absence he was left to the mercy of the servant — a thing that had not happened to him within living memory — and he tasted all the many, petty discomforts of bachelorhood. His meals were unpunctually served, indifferently cooked; and he, who had never wanted for anything, might now tinkle his hand-bell or raise his voice in vain. Marthe was never where she should be: escaped from the unwinking control of Annemarie, she did what she chose, went where she listed. Once, late in the evening when he believed her to be in bed, the Professor came upon her at the house-door, gallivanting with a soldier; and once, he was sure of it, he heard not two but four feet ascending to the servants’ quarters at the top of the house. Listening on the landing in his night-clothes, he could have sworn to apprehending a male snore. He did not, however, dare to tackle Marthe outright; she took even a mild reproof for dawdling, in saucy fashion. He was afraid of her, and the traps he laid for her were underhand traps; but, try as he would, he could not catch her. The chase assumed a morbid interest for him; and the composure necessary to scientific literary production went to pieces over it.
When, however, he joined his ladies, he found so marked an improvement in Elsa that he forgave and forgot his tribulations as a housekeeper. Her bloom took him back to the early days of his courtship, and made him feel wondrous kind.
He playfully pulled her ear. “My pretty little wife once more!”
The three of them, Elsa leaning on his arm, promenaded the flat, pleasant roads, shaded by fruit-trees; and, now, brother and sister suited their steps to hers. When the band played they drank coffee in the KURPARK, while Annemarie knitted and the Professor read; and Elsa, who had never been much from home, found occupation enough in watching the crowd of summer visitors. If they went farther afield, she rode in a bath-chair, which was pushed by an old, one-eyed man.
Thus the summer passed.
On their return — it was the end of September, and the evenings were beginning to strike chill — returning, Annemarie found dirt and disorder everywhere, and plunged them into a belated house-cleaning. Even the Professor saw the need of this; but, none the less, it was a time of forlorn discomfort. He had never before been present at a thorough-paced cleaning; and mournfully he picked his steps over the dust and shavings of scraped parquet, or avoided, with a sigh that was deep enough for an oath, pails of steaming, strong-smelling water. The whacking of beds and furniture, the scraping of floors, trampling feet and loud voices murdered thought; and only his confidence in Annemarie’s sound judgment sustained him. He had had a further proof of her acumen: her hawk eye had at once detected Marthe’s backsliding; and, the house in order again, you could hardly say Jack Robinson before the miscreant’s box was packed, and a new brawny-armed maidservant dumped down the soup-tureen. Yes, some women were born to generalship. Had it been Elsa now . . . Elsa? . . . SOME women, he said.
After the many sacrifices they had made on her behalf, Elsa was behaving poorly again. Pressed, she declared that the sight of the house brought her loss back to her anew: it was here she had seen her father last — now who would have thought she had so doted on him? Annemarie did not mince her words; the Professor reasoned and expostulated. As, however, nothing they could say took effect, and she was twice found in tears, they called in the doctor.
“Try cheerful society,” said he. “Your wife is too much alone.”
But out of Elsa’s hearing he was more explicit, and even hinted darkly at a constitutional weakness. Upon which, the eyes of brother and sister met in a wordless flash. What! . . . this, too? In trying to pick up the scattered threads of his work, the Professor was mastered by a very human irritation: had he been the dupe of a mere surface rosiness and plumpness? While Annemarie’s big-boned hands trembled, as she dished up potatoes in their jackets for dinner. Was the last stroke to be put to Elsa’s wish-washy shallowness by her inability to bear a healthy child?
Well! they would do their duty, no matter at what cost. Grimly Annemarie issued invitations for a coffee-party; the Professor as grimly retired, with an armful of books, to the seclusion of a sunless attic; and a round dozen of ladies, armed with work-bags and satchels, arrived to sit in circle about the wax-cloth of the dinner-table. But, cakes and coffee disposed of, the infant trousseau duly examined and admired, an air of flatness settled on the party. Elsa, who should have been its life, sat vacant and aloof, taking no share in the gossipy talk. Thus the entertainment planned to distract her proved a failure; and the Professor resumed possession of his study with a sigh of relief, and the clearest of husbandly consciences.
Had it only ended here! This, however, was but the first of a series of derangements and discomforts, the like of which he could never have believed possible. His home was no longer his own; his day’s routine was broken into, he himself pushed to one side, the last person in the house to be considered. Or initiated. Annemarie went about ropt in mystery and importance; the very maidservant was more in the swim than he. He seemed merely in the way: a tripper over unlooked-for baskets and cradles; an unwilling trespasser on private conversations, which, at his entry, crashed into silence.
There was, for example, that unfortunate afternoon when, going to the bedroom to wash his hands, he found that he had blundered in on a confabulation with the midwife, come to pay her visit of ceremony: a burly, big-bosomed female, of a type hitherto unknown to him, her top crowned by a vast, flower-laden hat. She sat with her knees apart, a pudgy hand on each, and turned, at the opening of the door, to fix the intruder with two beady, inquisitive little eyes.
“AHA! DER HERR PAPA!”
The Professor fled.
Again, the whole thing could not have happened, for him, at a more inconvenient time. He was just prepared to issue, in pamphlet form, a further slice of his life-work — the second in ten years — and for this momentous undertaking he needed not only the utmost tranquillity of mind, but the peace of the grave about him. The deliberatings, the weighings of the fors and againsts, that preceded his decision to publish, were a labour in themselves. For the Professor suffered from so deep-seated a lack of self-confidence that it amounted almost to mental paralysis; causing him to sift and re-sift his findings till scarcely anything of them remained. He had also to look to it that, whilst whetting the appetite of his brother-philologists, he did not make them all too free of his main issue: that master theory of the “Oscan Declension,” which was some day to settle the vexed question for good and all. Yes! a thousand subtle doubts and inhibitions had to be battled with and overthrown, ere the fruits of his learning could come to birth.
Now, however, all preliminaries were behind him; and, as he walked home one late November afternoon, under an avenue of maples still richly hung with rosy-yellow leaves, he, too, felt as if bathed in a sunset glow. On his desk the first proofs of his booklet lay awaiting him. They had come by the morning post, but he had resisted even stealing a peep at them, till his work in the lecture-room was over. Proofs! Most seductive form of printed matter! In fancy the Professor tasted the good things that lay before him. First, he would drink a cup of tea, savouring to the full the fine flavour of Annemarie’s brew. Then, going into his study and shutting the door on the world, he would change his coat, seat himself at his desk, and let the galley-slips unroll: as it were to see himself, see the very essence of him materialise, in the black and white of the printed page. Oh! life held no purer joy than this. Afterwards came the exquisite pleasure of correction. Not the smallest inaccuracy escaped his eye; never yet had malicious printer got the better of him! And, had a note to be made, it trickled scroll-like, microscopic, a decoration in itself, a-down the clean, white margin of the page.
Of things such as these did the Professor dream, hastening towards them as another to the arms of his lover.
But they were fated to remain a dream. For, on entering the house, he found himself in a scene of wild confusion. Elsa’s hour had come, and Annemarie and Mathilde were scuttling about, banking up the stoves, disarranging the furniture, rearranging the beds. Not even the kettle had been put on for his tea; and, dry-throated and unrefreshed, he had to sally forth again to fetch doctor and midwife.
For three nights he did not take his clothes off. His meals were cold scraps, served at odd times; his bed remained unmade, his boots uncleaned. When, at dawn on the third day, the surgeon’s forceps brought a puny infant into the world, and Elsa’s cries ceased, the Professor himself felt on the verge of collapse. The strain on his nerves had been too great. He had also discovered in himself an unsuspected tender-heartedness. Again and again, in waiting, in listening, his eyes had filled and overflowed. None the less, deep down in him, there housed a bitter resentment. Other women bore children without this merciless ado. Why not his wife? Why must all this happen just to him, who, loved peace and tranquillity more than anything? . . . yes, verily, above ANYTHING on earth.
Now, however, a divine quiet restored, he manned himself, and went bravely through with his day’s work. But he returned towards evening feeling more dead than alive; and there being no change in the sickroom, where Elsa lay in a heavy sleep, he retired to his shakedown, losing consciousness as his head touched the pillow.
He seemed hardly to have closed his eyes when he found himself sitting up in bed, trembling violently. What was it? . . . what had happened? He listened into the darkness, straining his ears. Nothing . . . nothing . . . and he was just on the point of sinking back into a heavenly oblivion, when a shrill scream jerked him up again and brought the sweat out on his forehead. So that was it! . . . Elsa! — God in Heaven! she was beginning anew.
His first feeling was one of utter rebellion. Impossible! . . . he could not, no, he could not . . . every nerve in his body rose in arms at the prospect of being racked afresh. Between the second and the third cry, there was almost time to fall asleep again. The fourth roused him to a mood of murderous fury, as, utterly without shame, it shrilled through the house.
Now some one was battering at his door.
“Paulchen! — get up, get up! The doctor! Something terrible has happened.” It was Annemarie’s voice, choked, unrecognisable.
“Yes, yes! I’m coming.”
Throwing back the feather coverlet, he dropped his legs over the side of the bed and groped on the floor for his socks. And so dizzy with sleep was he that for some seconds it did not occur to him to light the candle. Again and again his lids fell to; and the effort of putting on each single piece of clothing was enormous. But one breath of the cold night air roused him.
This was at midnight; and so it went on till dawn, when Elsa died without regaining consciousness.
For a fortnight after, the wailing of a sick child made the days and nights a torture. Then, despite their care, the babe, too, died; and he and Annemarie drove a second time to the cemetery, a miniature coffin before them on the seat of the DROSCHKE. When they reached home, black as crows in their stiff, heavy mourning, the house itself, sepulchrally dark, sepulchrally silent, felt like a tomb. Annemarie went round drawing up the shutters. Mathilde was bidden to prepare the tea.
While this was being done, the Professor retired to his study. As he went, he drew a black-edged handkerchief from his tail-pocket, and, for the dozenth time, blew his nose and wiped his eyes. He was still deeply moved; it would be many a day before his heart healed of its wounds. To lose wife and child thus, at one stroke . . . the mere thought of his widowed state so touched him that it was again necessary to fumble for his handkerchief.
This time, however, he did not find it — neither it nor the pocket that hid it. For, following the habit of a lifetime, on entering his room he had automatically exchanged his tail-coat for the familiar grey working-jacket that hung behind the door. So he had now to content himself with sniffing. For at the selfsame moment he espied a bundle of letters lying on his desk. Not one had yet been replied to. Crossing to the table he sat down. And then it was, in handling the letters, that the forgotten proofs caught his eye. They lay just as on the day Elsa was taken ill, virgin-pure of ink-mark or correction. Putting out his hand, he drew them to him. He read a sentence; he skimmed a paragraph. Whereafter, as always for reading, he removed his spectacles and peered at the print with a naked eye. A magic stillness reigned. He read on. Suddenly to give vent to a click of the tongue. A wrong fount had been used. And again: a ridiculous misspelling! Tch! the carelessness of printers. Mechanically he reached for his pen.
When, a little later, Annemarie opened the door by a hand’s-breadth to peep in, he was too engrossed to hear her. Noiselessly she withdrew.
Back in the sitting-room, she, too, looked about her for an occupation. Her work-basket stood in a corner; taking from it a half-finished sock, untouched now for weeks, she began to knit. The table was spread; in a little while she would tinkle the hand-bell that summoned Paulchen to tea.
Click-click, click-a-click, went the busy pins. And except that her dress was black and crepe-laden, Annemarie sat as she had sat for the past twenty years, and as she might be expected from now on again to sit, day in, day out, waiting for the same meal, at the same hour, turning the heels and narrowing the toes of Paulchen’s socks. But appearances deceived: for all her seeming placidity, her brain was a whirl of new, queer thoughts. And soon this inner commotion grew so strong that hands and pins fell to her lap, and she sat idle, staring straight before her.
It began with her catching herself listening for an infant’s cry. And when the silence remained unbroken, and she reminded herself that never again need she hope to hear that thin, fluty wail, she felt a sudden stab of . . . of what was almost fear. Yes, let her confess it, she was afraid: afraid of the stillness, the vacancy, the deadness that had closed down again upon the house. And on those in it. For a year past, she had had at her side some one to parley with, to manage, to whip up. She had also learnt what it meant to care for a little child. Now, the days to come yawned empty as untenanted space. What should she do with them? . . . how endure the creeping of the hours? For what had once satisfied her was no longer enough. Never again could she sink back into the automaton, the figurehead, who existed solely to smooth another’s path, smothering meanwhile every personal wish or want, to receive, in return, hardly a thank-you for her pains.
Since last she had sat here knitting, knitting, knitting for Paulchen, hanging on Paulchen’s words, awaiting his pleasure, she had passed through a great, a vital experience. The mysteries of birth and death had been enacted before her: the coming of a new soul, the going forth of one with whom you had shared your daily bread. This was life — what it really meant to be alive — not the humdrum monotony that had always fallen to her lot, which she had put up with only because she knew no better. Advantage had been taken of her ignorance. And by whom? By Paulchen. — Paulchen? Who was Paulchen that he should demand such a sacrifice? Was his life of so much more worth than hers? She turned her eyes on him, and, as she looked, the scales fell, and she saw him as she had never yet dared to see him; as a mouldy little book-worm, a narrow blear-eyed little delver in abstruse symbols, who lived wrapped up in himself, and for himself alone, without thought or care for the well-being of those around him. As long as he was ministered to, his comfort assured, nothing else mattered. Even at this moment, with wife and child barely cold in the grave, he found it possible to take up his old routine. And no doubt confidently expected her to do the same. At this thought, the suppressed, unconscious resentment of years came to the surface in Annemarie, and she felt that she almost hated him. He and his Oscan Declension! Was it worth a rap to anybody but himself? Did it do anyone good? . . . help the sick and needy? . . . or those in travail? What had it ever done for her, but rob her? . . . of all life might have held for her as a woman. Had it not been for this fetish, this Moloch, she, too, might have joined the ranks of happy wives, have fulfilled her woman’s mission, borne children. In a flash she saw them, these lost children of hers, a whole row of them, rising step by step from the toddlers up: SHE would not have died in giving them birth, not she! And, in their stead, all that had been offered her was the right to stand by and watch Paulchen work, for his own honour and glory, at this bloodless abstraction. Oh! her scorn, her bitterness, knew no bounds. His mole-like absorption; his inflated self-importance; his pitiable worthlessness as a human being. — “Mouldy . . . mouldy . . . mouldy . . . and I am to moulder, too!”
Mathilde, carrying in tea, nearly dropped the pot at sight of her mistress sitting stormily weeping, and not even troubling to hide her face. Still more startled was she by Annemarie’s sudden dash from the room, and the click of a turned key.
“Now who’d ever have thought the old stick had so much feeling in her!” was the girl’s comment, in retailing the juicy incident to the maid in the flat above.
And the Professor, in place of the peace and serenity he craved, having knocked till his knuckles were sore and got but an angry bidding to let her be, had not only for the first time in his life to pour out his own tea, but to drink it in a solitude peopled by gloomiest forebodings.
The while, behind her locked door, Annemarie continued to indulge thoughts and hatch plans of the kind that herald revolutions.
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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59