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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Peterle was born in hospital. — The first hiccuppy breaths drawn, his little body washed and swathed, he was wheeled, together with his mother, down the corridor to another ward, and put to sleep under a feather-bed in a blue-and-white checked covering. Seven beds stood in this ward, with seven cots beside them, and five were in use when Peterle came to his. The seventh was taken possession of before sunset. Again the doors of the ward opened, to admit two attendants pushing a truckle-bed. The new arrival was a sturdy fellow, who had all but been the death of the young girl his mother: she lay white as chalk, her eyes closed, her auburn hair tumbled loose on the pillow. — Meanwhile Peterle, bottle to mouth, was engaged in learning to suck; and the imbibing of a smooth sweet fluid, that lulled and sated, was the first good joy he knew.
Peterle was very puny: emotional visitors clasped their hands and turned up their eyes at the sight of him. But he was of a contented humour, and would occupy himself for minutes on end, making worm-like movements of his fingers before his face, in a vain attempt to guide them to his mouth. If a sunbeam tickled his nose he sneezed, and then his tiny wizened face puckered into a thousand fresh crinkles and creases — like the hands of a laundress on Monday evening. Every day a square of sunshine took a journey across him, his bed standing next one of the high windows that opened on the garden. It travelled over his mother, too, who, to begin with, so weak was she, could hardly raise her arm to pat him when he cried; she lay and dozed in the warmth, a delicate-looking girl, with fine princess hands, which years of scouring and scrubbing had not disfigured.
On the third day, pulling herself up in bed, she moistened her handkerchief and cleaned out the corners of the infant’s mouth and nose. In the afternoon came visitors. Peterle had just emptied a bottle, and, exhausted with the labour of drinking, had fallen asleep. On being handled he wakened, was sick, and uttered shrill cries.
His grandmother shook her head.
“Well, well!” was her heaved sigh of comment on him, as she put him back in his cot, where he fretted himself to sleep again. — She was a pale, thin, tidy woman, with a face which, in its ineffectual flatness, resembled a mask of scantly worked clay. The grinding years, instead of deepening the charactery, had blurred . . . erased.
With her were the babe’s two brothers. Gustave, who had arrived at breeches, neither felt nor feigned an interest in the newcomer. Thumb in mouth, noisily shuffling his feet, he strayed round the ward, staring with a child’s audacious curiosity at the bedridden women, and dragging a sticky finger unrebuked over tables and chairs. But Willi, who had seen only three summers, gurgled with joy on discovering his mother, and made for her outstretched arms with all the speed his infirmity permitted: his legs were so bandy that, when he walked, he staggered, like an old salt taking land. And Peterle’s mother forgot Peterle over him; for Willi was the apple of her eye. In briefly responding to the elder woman’s brief questions, it was Willi’s butter-coloured hair she smoothed, Willi’s eyes she looked into — two limpid, black-fringed pools, that had caught and kept a glint of the May blueness on which they, too, had opened.
A bell rang; the handful of strangers retired; the ward resumed its everyday air. Sinking as into downy depths, the weary childbearers surrendered themselves anew to a dreamless repose; and the hush was broken only by the quickly stilled wail of an infant, or the flip-flop of a nurse’s bast shoes. For days Peterle lay at peace in his generous bed: he slept, sucked, and stared into the sunshine: and, except when raised to be stripped of his swaddling, found life a very pleasant state of being.
On the morning when he was nine days old, his mother threw off her coverings, and having reached a chair, dressed first herself, then Peterle, whom she bound to a pillow. Downstairs in the tesselated corridor, where lilac rapped and beckoned at the windows, the perambulator was in waiting — a big-bellied clothes-basket on wheels. Peterle, placed in it, was topped by a feather-bed, and trundled out on his homeward journey.
It was May, and a dazzling morning; streets and houses lay as if new-scoured in the strong, pure light. The steep roofs shone gaily red; their dormer windows flashed and twinkled. In old walled gardens, snowy masses of fruit-blossom seemed to focus the sunlight and give it back intensified. On the banks of the river ancient wood-encrusted buildings, square bridge-towers, the prim, delicate lines of a chateau, all lived again, to their tenderest details, in the water at their feet. Distances were marvellously clear. To the north a chain of mountains drew its bold profile against the sky; behind the town, a second chain rose a little more nearly, a little less boldly: a ridge of infinitely blue hills, deeper in tint where a cloud’s shadow hovered or a valley narrowed — two natural walls to the fertile, Rhine-washed plain. Peterle’s mother had not far to go, but she covered the ground painfully: the roads were cobbled, and her unused feet burned. Her way led her through the old inner town, where the winding streets were narrowest; the electric tram-cars, which came bounding along in a series of jerks, were so incongruously big that they called to mind unnatural stage proportions. Twelve o’clock had not yet rung out from the many steeples, but in shops and offices the midday rest had already been called, and the pavements were black with people. In the roadway companies of soldiers, in various uniforms, were returning to barracks from drill on the military grounds outside the city gates: at their head rode or strode their lieutenant, dusty and begrimed as they. Peterle’s mother paused, with a quickened interest, to watch a handful of sappers salute a general: he pranced by, proud and gaudy, and the parade-step hammered the stones. On a bridge spanning the river she drew up anew, to look over at the fishers who dotted the paved footpath that ran level with the water: they stood vacant yet absorbed, lost in ponderous expectation of the fish that never bit. Farther downstream were moored the floating wash-houses — shallow, roofed barges, in which women knelt to scrub, and rinse, and wring. Alongside of the tramway lines, sturdy dogs strained at their harness in milk and ice-carts; vegetablemongers cried their wares; yellow post-vans, manned by blue-coated officials, lumbered heavily. Over all this noise and colour, over toiling women, fishermen and soldiers, over a congeries of gabled housetops, hooded chimneys, storks’ nests, rose the slender solitary tower of the immortal Minster, a landmark on the plain for many a mile round — from afar off, when the rest of the town still lay level with the horizon, this spire rose like a giant finger pointing skywards — and, in wandering about the place, did one by chance turn into a certain little narrow street, the vast pile itself, all the red-brown glories of portal and facade, broke upon the sight with a splendour that took the breath away. Seen thus, by one standing midge-like in the shade of its mighty walls, the lace-work of the tapering spire pierced so far into the sky, was so little more than a streak of filigree against the blue, that it was hard to believe it the work of human hands: the ancient houses, six and seven stories high, that ringed in the square, reached but to the foot of the great rose-window. And when storms were abroad, and clouds raced and flew, it was possible to fancy one saw, with the naked eye, the yielding swing of the frail apex to the wind.
In his wheeled bed, Peterle blinked and averted his face from the too vivid light. Before the open stall of an arcade he made a long halt, his bald head bare to the sun, while his mother, over some trivial purchase, drank in the gossip of the saleswoman, the immense black bow of whose head-dress filled the narrow opening like the outspread wings of a bat. Crossing a leafy square, the two entered a side street. In this, Peterle’s home to be, the pavement formed a mere edging to the houses, from the Overhanging upper stories of which the inmates could talk across in everyday tones.
At a doorway two men were standing. One had a long black cigar between his lips.
“BOSCHUR, MAMSELL HENRIETTE!” he greeted affably, steadying the cigar with his hand: it was an itinerant vegetable-hawker, who lodged in the family attic. “Welcome home! But you bring back more luggage than you started with. I see!”
A binder’s apprentice from the ground floor capped the pleasantry; and both laughed.
Peterle’s mother did not turn colour. “BOSCHUR BISAMME!” she gave back politely and impassively. Then, since it was beyond her strength to get the perambulator, with Peterle in it, up the two high steps leading to the front door, she first carried in the child, whom she laid on the wooden lid of the pump, just over the threshold; then, returning, dragged, bumped and coaxed the unwieldy carriage after.
It was a very old house, of generous proportions. In earlier times, before the town had burst its girdle of river and canal, this alley had been an aristocratic dwelling-place; and the heavily brassed door, which now swung to and fro on its leather pad, had remained shut to the street, in proud reserve. Both flights of stairs ended in landings the size of a goodly room. On the first of these, the walls were composed of enormous presses, built in, and faced with mirrors — or what had once been mirrors; for the glass had long since disappeared: great cupboards, in which a man could stand upright. On the second story they were wanting: but, in the low, spacious rooms themselves, the fireplaces, supplanted now for a score or more years by unlovely iron stoves, were equally ornate with those of the BEL-ETAGE: oil-paintings and small looking-glasses were inserted in their woodwork, which was carved by hand, and had once been white.
This upper landing, which Peterle’s mother reached panting for breath, was sand-strewn, and two oleanders grew in tubs. In a dark little kitchen overlooking the courtyard, a man with his arm in a sling sat smoking, an empty wine-carafe on the table before him. His chin was sunk on his breast, and he did not glance up at the ascending step; nor did Peterle’s mother pause to greet him. She went past, into the front room where she housed with her children, and, in default of the perambulator, laid her infant on one of the great feather beds, in a nest burrowed out by Willi and still warm.
On entering the kitchen she found her stepfather in the same dejected attitude.
“No better, Father?”
He shook his head, without speaking. He was down on his luck at present. A stone mason, earning his six marks a day, he had had the misfortune to break his arm: it had been set crooked by a quack in the neighbourhood; and when he went, under protest, to the hospital, the doctors had held it necessary to re-break and re-set the limb. — In person, he was a small, blond, sallow man, with a pair of ethereal blue eyes.
Peterle’s mother, while waiting for a pan of milk to boil, drew a chair to the table.
He eyed her lackadaisically. “Where’s the child?”
She pointed with her thumb over her shoulder, wasting no words. She was reckoning up the days that must elapse before she could go out to work again. — Not that there was any very pressing need for her to do so. Besides what Mother earned by charring, they had three of their rooms let; and this was enough to keep them; for they were thrifty folk. Still, Father, as a good German, liked his chunk of beef in the pot at midday — liked a genuine meat soup, not a sham one, such as was sometimes served in even the best houses — and his keg of red wine in the cellar. The children ran through boots and clothes; there was now an extra mouth to feed; while she, too, if she was to dance this summer, must have a new blouse, a neckerchief, a pair of pointed shoes. — And, as she sat there, her hands open in her lap, her body as limp as though some of the bones had been withdrawn from it, Henriette let her thoughts stray to one of her partners of the year before: a merry, black-eyed Italian overseer this, who had brought a gang of navvies up over the Gotthard, and, on leaving, had more than half-promised to return. In fancy she talked hot nothings with him at FUCHS AM BUCKEL, or tripped it at the MESSTI in Ruprechtsau . . .
Meanwhile, though, such dreams were idle: there was Peterle to watch and tend. And this, and much more, she did, with the mute and stoic patience that was in her. Unaided, too. For, regularly at seven of the clock, Peterle’s grandmother pinned on shawl and apron, took her big covered basket, and went forth to char. She was in constant demand, being the pink of cleanliness, and honesty itself; and never of her own free will did she spend a day at home. This setting out of a morning was her panacea, HER method of surmounting the dullness of existence. She savoured the excitement of seeing below the surface of strange households; forgot herself and her home troubles in sipping at the overflow of other people’s fates. And so Henriette, left to herself, washed, dressed and fed her children; cooked the family meals; held the house spotless; and for a time her sole outing was to the market, whence she would come back bearing, on top of the necessaries, such dainties as half a pound of frogs’ hind legs, delicate and juicy, a bowl of green gherkins, or red cranberries, or blue bilberries; or, greatest titbit of any, a lump of jellied eel.
In the sunny front room, Peterle, a tiny prisoner to life, lay stretched and bound in his carriage bed. Between sunrise and sunset a variety of things happened to him. Fairly early he was washed; and thereby he learned to know the taste of yellow soap, and to writhe under its cruel bite in the eye. Then, his top having been coated, his naked legs were seized and thrust into a kind of pillow-case, in which they were tied up. Only when a fresh loincloth became necessary were they free to kick and sprawl — two diminutive sticks, lean as the bare wish-bones of a chicken. His feeding-bottle was his first love; and its appearance had power to throw him into transports of delight, long before he was able to recognise her who held it: as if mounted on wires, his tiny arms would work towards it, his hampered legs feebly trying to imitate the motion. Next in favour stood his “comforter” though with this he could, on occasion, pick a quarrel. But just awake, his judgment still cloudy with sleep, he would start, did he find this friend at his lips, to suck with tremendous energy, believing it to be the mouthpiece of his adored bottle; and then, instead of the soft thick flow of milk, empty air-bubbles would drive down his little gullet. — Gradually, there emerged from chaos the gracious author of bottle and comforter, and he learned to know the touch of the kind hands that caressed his body. His brothers, on the contrary, were early objects of fear to him. Gustave pinched him on the quiet, and made ugly faces at him, once, too, dropping into the perambulator something slimy and ice-cold, which hopped on to Peterle’s face, and caused him to make agonised protest. Willi was less to be dreaded. Willi snuggled down beside him, slobbered over him, and indulged in wild bouts of tickling him in the stomach. He practically never went out. His world was the big old square wicker perambulator, the dark walls of which hemmed him in on three sides, the fourth consisting of his featherbed, beneath which, throughout the summer, he lay unresistant. For sky he had the dingy ceiling of the room, on which the flies walked upside down. These flies were his enemies: they descended by the dozen to investigate his sticky little lids, to feed on his succulent dribblings. And his blind strokes fought them in vain, or dismayed them only for an instant: they retired, rubbed their probosces. clean, and came back to tickle and bite anew.
Thus the first tender weeks slipped away, added themselves to a month, then to two, and to three. In the life around the perambulator certain changes took place. Even twice-broken arms heal at last; and, sooner or later after childbirth, the colour comes back to the cheek, springiness to the step. Henriette’s slim form looked as girlish as of old. On her meek and placid face alone was the stamp of her maternity visible; and even in this, which time would surely hammer into a replica of her life-worn mother’s, the blue eyes could still flash with pleasure, the pupils darken and dilate.
That was a hot summer. Day for day, the sun beat on the hard-baked ground. At five o’clock of an afternoon, stone steps were still too hot to be touched by the bare hand. The roads that led countrywards from the several gates of the city were inches deep in a dust that powdered white, trees, vehicles and people.
With the dusk, the river vanished beneath a pall of white mist; mists hung over the woody swamps at its edge. Above these danced, in millions, the giant Rhine-mosquitoes. At nightfall they raided the town, where those sweating inhabitants, whom experience had not rendered artful, became their prey. In Peterle’s home no extraordinary care was exercised; and the babe’s bald head, his soft face and hands, were soon a mass of sores.
Still, the young life made headway: the blue eyes learnt to turn corners, to follow people about the room, to linger with approval on the mother form. Then, however, a week broke that was big with consequence for every one.
Now, it was midsummer: the tubbed oleanders, everywhere set out, were masses of intolerable red sweetness. In the town park, the green knobs that dotted the orange-trees were turning yellow; the hanging-gardens on roofs and balconies shrivelled for want of water, or ran wild. Dwelling-houses were deserted, given over to easygoing caretakers. The German residents had fled, exasperated: even the sun-loving Alsatian, rejoiced though he was by their absence, thought it time to make a move: and were it only to a hired cottage outside the walls of the town. Here might be seen little black-eyed boys in barred stockings and without coats; here were dolly little girls, and thin, natty women in black, or masterful, high-bosomed business women, who had come out from the counting-house of some MAGASIN DE COMMERCE, some EPICERIE or PATISSERIE, to sit about in overgrown vegetable-gardens, and inhale the rarer air. The inhabitants of the most ancient quarters — the BUNGAVERTS, or KLEIN FRANKREICH— frequented the pavement-cafes, and made excursions of a Sunday.
About this time Peterle’s mother went out to dance. It was not quite a novelty: more than once of late Henriette had rebelled against the confinement of the long, sultry evenings, and Peterle had wept for her ministrations in vain. But now came a certain Sunday when even the blindest might have seen that something was in the wind. Henriette, having gone about all the morning in petticoat and bed-jacket, began to prepare herself festally directly the midday-meal was over. Taking off her bodice, and exposing her grey cotton corset, above which showed the unbleached linen of her shift, she let down her black hair and combed it. Like that of most aspiring merry-makers, her temper was none of the best; she grew short even with Willi, when he clung to her skirts and hindered her: she shook and slapped him: and both babies piped in unison. Her arms and neck lathered and dried, she drew on her best blouse and laid her shawl in readiness, moving about the room in her stocking-soles; for the new pointed shoes, which she had just freed from tissue-paper, were tight, and she spared herself their nips and pinches till the last. Meanwhile her stepfather went in and out, in a white dickey and a black suit, of which only the coat had still to be donned: this hung brushed and folded over a chair. At three o’clock the pair set off. Henriette was very cross indeed when it came. to leaving the children, and many were the reproaches heaped on the absent grandmother’s head. For Grandmother, after promising to stay at home and mind them, had, in the end, let herself be seduced by a wedding engagement; and, since none of the three adults was willing to forgo a pleasure: skat, a wedding, and the dance respectively: there was nothing for it but to shut the door on the little ones, and trust to luck that they would come to no harm.
But the six-year-old Gustave was also bent on holiday-making; and having watched his elders turn the corner, he straightway reached for the milk, being resolved to get the nourishing of the infants, with which he had been entrusted, over once and for all. In this, he was unlucky enough to upset the jug: he fled the consequences, and played truant in the streets till evening. As feeding-time drew near, Peterle and Willi became as restless as caged animals in a Zoo; but their protests went unheard: and finally Peterle, a baffled, empty, outraged babe, cried himself to sleep, and slept till he was wakened by his grandmother’s hands.
To her cares ensued a period of sated repose. Then again he was disturbed.
It was the middle of the night. High, angry voices, broken by sobs, filled the room. The grandmother it was who wept; Henriette, like a statue come to life, was talking, talking, in a passionate, threatening way. Her stepfather sat at the table, his head between his hands, sullen and malignant; a kitchen lamp, backed by a round tin radiator, shed its blinding glare on his eyes, heavy with wine. When Peterle woke and cried, Henriette snatched him from his bed and cuddled him to her. The mother-arms soothed his wailing; and over his head the bandying of taunts and accusations went on, punctuated by the grandmother’s lament of: “Ah! it’s me that ought to go. Yes, if I were out of the way!”
Henriette’s black brows drooped over her wrathful blue eyes, which glowered at her stepfather. “Mother had two when you took her!”
“Two . . . yes!”
“What! You’d throw this up at me, would you?”— and she jerked Peterle forward.
He pshawed. “But here you’d be off down over the Alps with this blackamoor!”
“Blackamoor yourself! He’s willing to marry me.”
“And you’d go? . . . leave us all? . . . never come back? Henriette! MADELE!”
He pleaded with her, in a low voice, talking volubly. And Henriette let herself be moved; she ceased to be angry, lost her readiness of tongue, and drooped her head till it touched the head of the child, fallen into a light sleep on her heart.
Suddenly the relative calm was broken by a rude hubbub without. This proved to be the vegetable-hawker who lived in the attic: he was mounting the stairs, plainly neither sober nor alone. An indignant family met him on the landing and barred his way, Grandmother even coming out of her bed, to which she had retired; and the candle she held aloft illumined her wispy grey hair, her night-costume of jacket and shift, her thin naked legs. All three were justly irate: theirs was a respectable and orderly house, and no WACKES should carry on in it with promiscuous FRAUENZIMMER, if they could help it! The hawker, too drunk to argue, leaned against the wall and stuttered irrelevancies. But the good-looking piece his companion was only mildly tipsy, and did not shrink from parley. The rough dialect flew. At length she was got downstairs and locked out into the street, where her abuse died away; and the other inhabitants, who had been peeping curiously from their doors, closed them and withdrew. The hawker was half cajoled, half bullied up the third flight to his attic; after which two nervous women, one with a fretful babe at her breast, sat in the dark on the bottom stair, till the drunkard’s light went out, and snores told of his physical collapse.
In the further course of that night Henriette, having unwisely drunk a glass of beer after eating stone fruit, was taken very unwell. Time and again she started up from feverish dreams, in which the dapper Italian, his languishing eyes, his milk-white teeth and coal-black moustachios played the leading part — was wakened by spasms of knifelike pain.
Next morning she was limp and distracted; and hasty-handed with two peevish little children. She had a hard day’s work before her, too. In addition to her ordinary job, the main item of which was “doing” the room of the second lodger, who, a late sleeper, rose at the last possible moment, threw on her clothing and fled for the shop in which she was employed, carrying her BRIOCHE half-eaten in her hand, and leaving everything, even to the freeing of her comb from its fluff of dead hair, to Henriette: in addition to this, which always took a considerable time, to-day was the day on which the big front room had to be turned out and set in order.
For twenty-nine or thirty days in the month, the family had free use of this room: and they availed themselves of it, with due respect for its contents. For here were gathered the handsomest strip of carpet, a console-pedestal and mirror, a suite of furniture, an embroidered table cover, bunches of dried grasses and artificial flowers. The room had two large windows, flanked by scarlet geraniums, which blossomed furiously in the fierce sun; and the bed stood in a curtained alcove. The tenant, an elegant and formidable Councillor of justice, “in the best years,” paid them rent to the amount of twenty marks a month. — In person he was tall, dark and colourless; and wore a shiny black pointed beard, gold spectacles, buttoned patent-leather boots, and lemon-coloured kid gloves.
So, throughout the morning, Henriette swept and scrubbed and polished, sometimes heaving a sigh, sometimes rebuking her children, but for the most part silent as a songless bird.
After dinner, when Gustave had gone back to, school, when everything was clean and shining, and she herself washed and dressed, she lingered by the flower-box to snip off the withered leaves from the overgrown geraniums. The window in the mansard opposite was open, and the man who was dying of consumption behind it had pushed a sickly indiarubber-plant out into the guttering. No sun fell on that side of the street, and the plant looked as unwholesome as himself. On seeing Henriette, he pulled his blue lips back over his gums, in what was meant to be a smile, and addressed her in the stringy voice that made her think of a cracked guitar.
“You look pale to-day.”
Henriette heard the malice in his tone — the satisfaction with which he verified the decrease of colour in another’s cheeks — and the attitude of defiance she instinctively assumed was that of the living towards the dead.
She nodded vengefully.
“I was dancing last night.”
“In this heat? I thank God it wasn’t me!”
“And now I’m going out.”
“Why not? I— I, too, shall go out next week!” he gave back, devoured by hatred, well knowing that he would never set foot in the sunlit streets again.
Henriette turned contemptuously away. The liar! . . . thinking he could befool a person like that. — And she made a great show, knowing he watched her, of pinning on her neckerchief and dressing the children.
The idea of going out had been invented only to annoy him. Now, however, she asked herself why not. Why should she not take the afternoon off, and join father for the VIEREBROT, at his work on the banks of the Little Rhine?
With the aid of a neighbour she got the perambulator down the stairs, and laid Peterle in it. At his feet she put his bottle, a cake for Willi, and a surprise for Father in the shape of a big white beer-radish. Above this came the feather-bed, and on top of all perched Willi, his legs dangling over the side of the carriage.
Henriette pushed this load through the summer streets, in bent and muscle-less fashion. While in the crowded inner town, she walked mainly in the middle of the roadway; for in places the footpath was not much more than a glorified doorstep. But having crossed a bridge, she came into the modern quarter, where the streets were wide, and tree-lined. Arrived at the east gate, she followed a narrow canal that linked the two rivers. High poplars edged the path: she rested for a time on a shady seat. Barges, so heavily laden that their rims were level with the water, moved forward inch by inch; women sat at their helms and steered, or dandled infants, or hung out washing; their little chimneys smoked, noisy dogs raced yapping from stern to prow. These barges were towed by men, three abreast, yoked like oxen and bronzed to blackness, who crawled laboriously along the towing-path, head and neck bent, eyes fixed on the ground. Beyond the canal was a sprinkling of old French villas, painted in delicate pinks and lavender-greys, one and all furnished with heavy green shutters, and surrounded by damp, overgrown gardens. Stiff rows of poplars led up to them. On some steps that ran down to the water, washer-women were at work: they knelt and scrubbed garments with brushes on the wooden steps. Now and then one of them would sit back on her haunches, and hold up for scrutiny some gaudy red or blue rag; after which, bending forward, she plunged it afresh into the water. The swing-bridge was in motion when Henriette got to it, and she made one of a group that watched, with idle interest, a bigger barge than usual glide through. Crossing it, she shuffled through the dust of the road. The bicycles that dashed to and fro left long, slowly subsiding trails, as of smoke, in their wake. By a weir stood the last little inn, in the garden of which workmen and bargemen sat at VESPERBROT. But Henriette went further, went round the corner and out among the sandbank cones, where she found her stepfather smoking in sight of his work — the repairing of the stone embankment that protected the low-lying, wooded ground from the inroads of the swift and shifty Rhine.
Here they ate their meal. Not many words passed between them. Willi had to be kept from under the wheels of the bicycles that spun along to the end of the parapet: had to be dabbed with spittle for the relief of gnat and mosquito bites. Peterle gave trouble, too. For the first time in his life, after lustily crying for food, he refused his bottle, averting his head when it was offered to him, pushing the mouthpiece away with protruded lips. Henriette felt the milk anxiously: it was still warm, as how could it fail to be, considering it had been sat on by Willi, and used as a foot-warmer by the babe himself? She tried it, but could taste nothing wrong; so, following her stepfather’s advice, she dropped in several lumps of sugar, begged from the inn. Having shaken the bottle till these dissolved, she forced the teat between Peterle’s lips; and now he drank, though not with his usual gusto.
Until both children slept, she caused the carriage to move gently to and fro. Then, she felt herself nudged.
“Look here, my girl, would you like a new neckerchief?”
She shook her head. “I’ve got one.”
“Aye, but a handsomer than that?”
“NE, it’s good enough.”
“One with roses on it.”
“Roses?” Her eyes ceased their straying; the pupils grew.
“Aye, great roses, and forget-me-nots, and madonna lilies! On a yellow ground.”
“Lilies? Where ‘ud you get it from?”
“Where d’you think? MADELE, SCHAU HER!” and from an inner pocket the man drew forth a slim packet, folded in tissue paper. Opening it, he disclosed the lovely cloth.
“Makes you open your eyes, lass, what? Put it on!”
Dazzled, Henriette removed her own drab little cape, and laid the new finery round her shoulders. Her eye hung reverently on the silky texture; her fingers followed it. “How pretty! . . . oh, how pretty!”
“What did I tell you?” He spat, well content. “Cost me the inside of a five-mark piece. And now just you remember it was me that bought it — me, MADELE . . . for you!”
Long after her stepfather had gone back to work, she sat with it still about her; and more than one of his fellow-workmen sent a glance at the girl in her grandeur, which set off, by vivid contrast, her raven black hair, lake-blue eyes, and pale, oval face.
Then, however, suddenly waking from her reverie, she saw that a great army of storm clouds had come up and was resting on the mountains, which in their turn had drawn perceptibly nearer. Hastily removing the neck-cloth and tucking it into the perambulator, she straightened out her children and pushed off on her homeward journey. It was none too soon: as she entered the house the first raindrops fell, the size of florins, and simultaneously came a loud clap of thunder.
Not many minutes later a messenger handed in the fruit, flowers and sweet-meats which the JUSTIZRAT never failed to provide; and, shortly after, Mamsell Mimi herself arrived in person to decorate and arrange.
These were gala evenings. Grandmother left her job early; Father came straight home from work. For they all adored Mamsell Mimi, who, when she had finished what she came to do, usually stayed for supper with the family, bringing lollipops to the children, and to their elders a goodly supply of piquant gossip. For Mamsell Mimi knew life; she had also frank and cynical opinions about it, and a sprightly, over-charged tongue. She was a big, handsome woman, with golden hair, and a figure that swept in and out in astonishing curves — like those of the letter S. In observing her, the wonder grew that it was possible exactly to control such a surplusage of flesh. And indeed, after she had eaten, and was sitting at ease on the sofa, she herself offered scant apology for loosening both bodice and corset.
“Or I shall explode with the heat, good people! . . . go off pop, like a child’s balloon. Heavens! The struggle it is to keep one’s figure!”
For figure was the SINE QUA NON of her profession — that of BUFFLETDAME in a popular restaurant — and the wasp waist and monstrous billowing of the bosom were as necessary to success in it as a good head for arithmetic and a pretty wit. She looked longingly forward, she told them — between ear-splitting crashes of thunder — to the day when, casting constraint and care for appearance behind her, she would be able to live wholly in NEGLIGEE. That would come to pass when she retired from business and settled down, it might be with a good, complaisant husband, it might also be without. For herself, she would prefer to be free. Men were too great a nuisance; one had always to be dancing to their tune. Now in a village not far over the borders of Baden she had an old motherkin, and there, too, lived her heart’s darling, her little cabbage, her P’TIT TONERL, a strapping youngster some five years old; and, if she pleased herself, she would take up her abode with these two, and never again have to do with anything more troublesome than pigs or hens. Of course, though, that would not be for many a year yet; and Mamsell Mimi heaved a great boom of a sigh that resembled a soundless laugh; then drew a rapid sketch of herself in the faded years, and laughed in earnest. Well, well! when the day did come, she would at least be able to drink her fill of beer. Now, if they would believe her, she was prohibited a drop. Oh! she did not want to say a word against a certain person: he was very generous to her, and in every respect EIN ANSTANDIGER MENSCH; but they would not misunderstand her if she called him exacting. Only two months ago it had almost come to a rupture between them; he had accused her of letting herself go, of growing fat, of enjoying her MUNCHENER on the sly: and — would they believe it? — next time he had actually brought a yard-measure in his pocket, to see if his suspicions were justified. Fortunately, she had been able to persuade him that the extra inch was due to a bulkier petticoat; but it had given her, all the same, a shock, and the very next day she had purchased new corsets, of the rigour of iron — yes, truly! an iron bandage, in which she had ever since been encased. Except at night: that she could not bring herself to. Some did, who were more ambitious than she; but she — ACH HERRJE! — she loved her ease too well. One night she had made the effort, and in the morning had been obliged, on rising, to part with the cheese and cucumber of which she had partaken for supper. Such a thing had never happened to her before. No, there was no doubt the skinny and bony — though she did not envy them! — had the best of it. It was simple enough for THEM to imitate nature; and here followed several merry tales of the ruses “the scrags” resorted to. But even they ran a constant risk — that of discovery. ACH, DU MEIN GOTTELE! women truly did not have an easy time of it in this difficult world.
Thus talked Mamsell Mimi; and, of her three hearers, the smoking man smiled cynically and nodded, while the two pale, pack-horse women drank in, open-mouthed, their guest’s gay wisdom. All the time she talked, she dandled Peterle, who was restless and would not sleep: it was the thunder had unsettled his stomach, said Grandmother, and gave him her horny, work-seamed finger to suck. Mamsell Mimi adored children: her dream would have been, she vowed, to have a dozen of them round her, one always small enough to fill her arms. But GOTT BEWAHRE! such joys were not for the like of her: her single one, her Tonikin, had added a whole stone to her weight. Love them, though, that she could! — and she hugged Peterle to her great bosom, which — NICHT WAHR, MEINE LIEBEN? — they would have judged able to nourish the dozen of which she dreamed; whereas, if they could credit it, for her treasure, her well-beloved little cock-chafer, it had yielded not so much as a mouthful. And so she fondled Peterle, drawing him to her, then holding him away again to look at him, many times in succession, always with loud smacks of kisses in between. — In the course of which Peterle hiccupped, and was very sick.
He was sick again after Mamsell Mimi’s great deep laugh had died away on the stairs, leaving its echo on the different floors, and a pleased content in the hearts of all who heard it that something so big and handsome and jolly as this woman should exist. He was sick also several times later on; Henriette was in and out of bed with him during the night. And next day the sickness continued; he could not keep his milk down, and, unless she paced the floor with him, cried unceasingly. She hardly dared to let him out of her arms, for fear his wailing might disturb the inmates of the front room. In the afternoon, as other violent symptoms set in, and he had twice turned from milk altogether and was tossing as if in pain, she bore him to a wise woman who lived in the neighbourhood.
This person who, in the intervals of her profession as midwife, carried on a kind of surreptitious practice, poohpoohed Henriette’s fears. It was merely an attack of indigestion: a “spoilt stomach.” She prescribed doses of camomile-tea; but, more especially, cognac.
“A dash in each bottle, FRAULEIN— that’s all that’s needed. He’ll take to it, you see, like a cat to fish.”
But this was not the case: Peterle continued to avert his face when his bottle was presented to him, to wail, and to slobber a watery fluid. Next morning, as he looked pinched about mouth and nose, and did not seem able to wake up properly, his mother put him in the perambulator and wheeled him through the sunshine to a free dispensary for children, in the new quarter of the town: among the stratum of the population to which Henriette belonged, they were held to know “double as much about children” as at the real hospitals.
After waiting half an hour she was called into a room built wholly of white tiles. The doctor was in a white overall, flanked by a Sister, also in stiff, white starch. Henriette felt that she and Peterle, well washed as their garments were, formed drab blots on the snowiness of the room. Otherwise the doctor, a youngish man, gave principally an impression of squareness: his yellow beard was cut square, as was also his brushlike hair; he had a square forehead, and large square hands. But he was not ungentle, and had, besides, the shortsighted man’s ingratiating habit of pushing up his glasses while he talked, and smoothing out a tired eye with a band three fingers broad. He examined Peterle — far too cursorily to please Henriette — touched him here and there with a big white forefinger, and looked inside his mouth.
Her lengthy explanations were cut short. “You’ve been careless.”
This charge she could honestly rebut.
“Haven’t troubled to boil the milk, eh?”
Henriette denied this, but less surely; she remembered how, on the afternoon excursion, she had been in a hurry to set off, and had thought the milk would “do”— was hot enough, the day being so hot — without waiting for it to spin and bubble.
The doctor made an entry in his notebook. “Well, leave him here. We’ll see what we can do for him.”
But at this Henriette hugged Peterle to her. “I’d rather look after him myself.”
“At your own risk then!”
The doctor shrugged his shoulders: he had no time to argue and persuade; other mothers hushed sickly wailings in the outer room. So, giving her some instructions, he bade her come back with the child next day. But as she disappeared he could not refrain from saying hotly to the Sister at his side: “You women are not fit even to look after your own children. They should be taken from you at birth.”— At which the woman who, being young, and radiant with health, thought him the most wonderful man in the world, merely smiled.
Henriette did not return: a wild fear gripped her lest they should have some power policeman-like to wrest Peterle from her. As, however, next morning the babe was perceptibly worse, she carried him to one of the hospitals. Here, the doctor was less gentle. He turned back Peterle’s eyelid as carelessly as though it had been a dead leaf, and said gruffly: “Why come here only when the child is dying?” Still, he gave her the medicine she had been counting on: you could always reckon on getting that at a proper hospital: and the very size of the bottle, and the redness of the fluid it contained, reassured her for the time being.
Next day, in despair, she fetched the wise woman. But now the latter, too, only shrugged her shoulders, attributing the change for the worse in Peterle’s condition to want of faith in her treatment.
“Take my advice, FRAULEIN, and stick to milk. Children don’t never thrive on them barley messes.”
But Peterle’s day for milk was over. Inserted now dropwise between his lips, it dribbled idly out again. He could not swallow: his little mouth and throat were a bed of ulcers. All through the long, hot afternoon, Henriette, unconscious of fatigue, paced the floor with him, his head, hardly strewn yet with a light down, lolling helplessly from side to side. And whenever she turned at the door, to make the length of the narrow room again, she saw fixed on her, at the opposite window, the glittering eye of the living skeleton behind it — an eye alight with malignant pleasure that it was no longer he only, who was to be called on to leave daylight and the sun.
Towards evening her strength gave out: she laid the babe back in the perambulator. Here, beneath a square of mosquito-netting, the mountain of feather-bed sloping steeply up over him, Peterle, alone and unaided, fought his tiny, blind, unknowing way towards the great dark . . . .
The MADAME for whom Henriette had worked before her confinement, hearing of his plight, came to see him. She, being tender-hearted, could not listen unmoved to his puny moans, and shed tears of pity as, lifting the net, she peered down at the waste bit of humanity beneath it.
“Give him air. Take off the feather-bed,” she pleaded. But Henriette shook her head: Peterle had had his comforts while he was well; they should not be withdrawn from him now.
Towards evening his moans grew fainter, his little feet turned cold. And just as dusk was settling definitely into night, he heaved a sigh and died.
Henriette went out at once to fetch a doctor; and a young man in the neighbourhood, who had a small, working-class practice, was found to certify that Peterle Luthy, a male, of the Protestant religion, aged four and a half months, had just, by reason of infant cholera, ceased to breathe. As it was late, and his work over for the day, the doctor was in no hurry to be gone. He sat and enjoyed with Father a glass of red wine and a slice of bilberry-tart, over which, having discovered in each other “good SOZIS,” they cracked the obligatory jokes concerning “Siegfried Meyer’s” latest dodge with regard to Morocco.
Next morning there was much to be done. Father set off earlier than usual for work, that he might register the decease by the way. Grandmother stayed at home from her job, without even troubling to send word of her intention, “a death in the family” being a fact of sufficient importance to allow a break with precedent. Henriette walked to the cemetery, to arrange about the grave; and, on her road there, ordered the coffin. This was to be made by a joiner who lived a few doors down the street, and was promised for that evening; for, in such hot weather, and considering the nature of the illness . . . .
All day Peterle lay in state on the top of a chest of drawers. He had several visitors — an ugly, shrivelled little yellow doll, in a dress fantastically bunched up with blue ribbons. Two real wax candles burnt at his head and feet. These were a present from Mamsell Mimi, and had been brought by special messenger. There was also a magnificent wreath of painted tin immortelles. The kind-hearted MADAME, on the news being carried to her, had given Henriette three marks for a wreath. The latter chose, not living flowers, which would be dead by the morning, but this solid and enduring symbol, which would last for weeks, even months, to come; which would still be there, still existent, when all that remained of little Peterle had become a thing unspeakable, from which thought shrank away . . . .
His coffin, a small deal box, painted a light and vivid green, was a misfit balcony flower-box, which the joiner seized this opportunity to get rid of.
“For such a little man as him one must have something bright and cheerful,” he said chattily, while he inserted the body. Adding piously, as he noted Henriette’s downcast air: “And give thanks, FRAULEIN, that it has pleased the Lord to put an end to his pain.”
Next morning the perambulator, with the green box inside it, was carried down the stairs once more. There was no need to-day for the feather-bed. Henriette spread a shawl across the foot-end of the box, and upon this perched Willi, his legs dangling over the side of the carriage.
The cemetery was a long way off — was out beyond the octroi-house and the city walls. The dusty road wound slightly uphill, and Henriette had to exert all her strength. In the vicinity of a barracks she passed many idle, lolling soldiers, and heard expressions of curiosity about the contents of her box, only one or two catching sight of the wreath and baring their heads. At the grave there was no time for ceremony: Peterle was lowered and covered over almost before you could count twenty, Henriette’s chief concern being to prevent Willi from falling in and getting buried, too. The mound raised, she laid the tin wreath on it: by this she would know in future where Peterle lay.
Her load was lighter now. But now, too, for the first time, she felt how tired she was. And on the way home, Willi having fallen asleep, she sat down at the table of a pavement-cafe to drink a glass of beer. Her arms felt, and no doubt for a day or two would feel, strangely empty. Still, it was better so. Two were enough, more than enough. And she would take care — oh! such care . . . .
Her thoughts swam to a mist. She fell into a doze as she sat, under the stainless violet-blue of the summer sky. Then, however, waking with a start, she sprang to her feet with a guilty sense of work undone; and laying the money for the beer on the table, pushed with fresh zeal for home.
And before the sun went down that night, it was almost as though Peterle had never been.
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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University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005