Who does not know what a German dinner is like? Watery soup with knobby dumplings and pieces of cinnamon, boiled beef dry as cork, with white fat attached, slimy potatoes, soft beetroot and mashed horseradish, a bluish eel with French capers and vinegar, a roast joint with jam, and the inevitable ‘Mehlspeise,’ something of the nature of a pudding with sourish red sauce; but to make up, the beer and wine first-rate! With just such a dinner the tavernkeeper at Soden regaled his customers. The dinner, itself, however, went off satisfactorily. No special liveliness was perceptible, certainly; not even when Herr Klüber proposed the toast ‘What we like!’ (Was wir lieben!) But at least everything was decorous and seemly. After dinner, coffee was served, thin, reddish, typically German coffee. Herr Klüber, with true gallantry, asked Gemma’s permission to smoke a cigar. . . . But at this point suddenly something occurred, unexpected, and decidedly unpleasant, and even unseemly!
At one of the tables near were sitting several officers of the garrison of the Maine. From their glances and whispering together it was easy to perceive that they were struck by Gemma’s beauty; one of them, who had probably stayed in Frankfort, stared at her persistently, as at a figure familiar to him; he obviously knew who she was. He suddenly got up, and glass in hand — all the officers had been drinking hard, and the cloth before them was crowded with bottles — approached the table at which Gemma was sitting. He was a very young flaxen-haired man, with a rather pleasing and even attractive face, but his features were distorted with the wine he had drunk, his cheeks were twitching, his blood-shot eyes wandered, and wore an insolent expression. His companions at first tried to hold him back, but afterwards let him go, interested apparently to see what he would do, and how it would end. Slightly unsteady on his legs, the officer stopped before Gemma, and in an unnaturally screaming voice, in which, in spite of himself, an inward struggle could be discerned, he articulated, ‘I drink to the health of the prettiest confectioner in all Frankfort, in all the world (he emptied his glass), and in return I take this flower, picked by her divine little fingers!’ He took from the table a rose that lay beside Gemma’s plate. At first she was astonished, alarmed, and turned fearfully white . . . then alarm was replaced by indignation; she suddenly crimsoned all over, to her very hair — and her eyes, fastened directly on the offender, at the same time darkened and flamed, they were filled with black gloom, and burned with the fire of irrepressible fury. The officer must have been confused by this look; he muttered something unintelligible, bowed, and walked back to his friends. They greeted him with a laugh, and faint applause.
Herr Klüber rose spasmodically from his seat, drew himself up to his full height, and putting on his hat pronounced with dignity, but not too loud, ‘Unheard of! Unheard of! Unheard of impertinence!’ and at once calling up the waiter, in a severe voice asked for the bill . . . more than that, ordered the carriage to be put to, adding that it was impossible for respectable people to frequent the establishment if they were exposed to insult! At those words Gemma, who still sat in her place without stirring — her bosom was heaving violently — Gemma raised her eyes to Herr Klüber . . . and she gazed as intently, with the same expression at him as at the officer. Emil was simply shaking with rage.
‘Get up, mein Fräulein,’ Klüber admonished her with the same severity, ‘it is not proper for you to remain here. We will go inside, in the tavern!’
Gemma rose in silence; he offered her his arm, she gave him hers, and he walked into the tavern with a majestic step, which became, with his whole bearing, more majestic and haughty the farther he got from the place where they had dined. Poor Emil dragged himself after them.
But while Herr Klüber was settling up with the waiter, to whom, by way of punishment, he gave not a single kreutzer for himself, Sanin with rapid steps approached the table at which the officers were sitting, and addressing Gemma’s assailant, who was at that instant offering her rose to his companions in turns to smell, he uttered very distinctly in French, ‘What you have just done, sir, is conduct unworthy of an honest man, unworthy of the uniform you wear, and I have come to tell you you are an ill-bred cur!’ The young man leaped on to his feet, but another officer, rather older, checked him with a gesture, made him sit down, and turning to Sanin asked him also in French, ‘Was he a relation, brother, or betrothed of the girl?’
‘I am nothing to her at all,’ cried Sanin, ‘I am a Russian, but I cannot look on at such insolence with indifference; but here is my card and my address; monsieur l’officier can find me.’
As he uttered these words, Sanin threw his visiting-card on the table, and at the same moment hastily snatched Gemma’s rose, which one of the officers sitting at the table had dropped into his plate. The young man was again on the point of jumping up from the table, but his companion again checked him, saying, ‘Dönhof, be quiet! Dönhof, sit still.’ Then he got up himself, and putting his hand to the peak of his cap, with a certain shade of respectfulness in his voice and manner, told Sanin that tomorrow morning an officer of the regiment would have the honour of calling upon him. Sanin replied with a short bow, and hurriedly returned to his friends.
Herr Klüber pretended he had not noticed either Sanin’s absence nor his interview with the officers; he was urging on the coachman, who was putting in the horses, and was furiously angry at his deliberateness. Gemma too said nothing to Sanin, she did not even look at him; from her knitted brows, from her pale and compressed lips, from her very immobility it could be seen that she was suffering inwardly. Only Emil obviously wanted to speak to Sanin, wanted to question him; he had seen Sanin go up to the officers, he had seen him give them something white — a scrap of paper, a note, or a card. . . . The poor boy’s heart was beating, his cheeks burned, he was ready to throw himself on Sanin’s neck, ready to cry, or to go with him at once to crush all those accursed officers into dust and ashes! He controlled himself, however, and did no more than watch intently every movement of his noble Russian friend.
The coachman had at last harnessed the horses; the whole party seated themselves in the carriage. Emil climbed on to the box, after Tartaglia; he was more comfortable there, and had not Klüber, whom he could hardly bear the sight of, sitting opposite to him.
The whole way home Herr Klüber discoursed . . . and he discoursed alone; no one, absolutely no one, opposed him, nor did any one agree with him. He especially insisted on the point that they had been wrong in not following his advice when he suggested dining in a shut-up summer-house. There no unpleasantness could have occurred! Then he expressed a few decided and even liberal sentiments on the unpardonable way in which the government favoured the military, neglected their discipline, and did not sufficiently consider the civilian element in society (das bürgerliche Element in der Societät!), and foretold that in time this cause would give rise to discontent, which might well pass into revolution, of which (here he dropped a sympathetic though severe sigh) France had given them a sorrowful example! He added, however, that he personally had the greatest respect for authority, and never . . . no, never! . . . could be a revolutionist — but he could not but express his . . . disapprobation at the sight of such licence! Then he made a few general observations on morality and immorality, good-breeding, and the sense of dignity.
During all these lucubrations, Gemma, who even while they were walking before dinner had not seemed quite pleased with Herr Klüber, and had therefore held rather aloof from Sanin, and had been, as it were, embarrassed by his presence — Gemma was unmistakably ashamed of her betrothed! Towards the end of the drive she was positively wretched, and though, as before, she did not address a word to Sanin, she suddenly flung an imploring glance at him. . . . He, for his part, felt much more sorry for her than indignant with Herr Klüber; he was even secretly, half-consciously, delighted at what had happened in the course of that day, even though he had every reason to expect a challenge next morning.
This miserable partie de plaisir came to an end at last. As he helped Gemma out of the carriage at the confectionery shop, Sanin without a word put into her hand the rose he had recovered. She flushed crimson, pressed his hand, and instantly hid the rose. He did not want to go into the house, though the evening was only just beginning. She did not even invite him. Moreover Pantaleone, who came out on the steps, announced that Frau Lenore was asleep. Emil took a shy good-bye of Sanin; he felt as it were in awe of him; he greatly admired him. Klüber saw Sanin to his lodging, and took leave of him stiffly. The well-regulated German, for all his self-confidence, felt awkward. And indeed every one felt awkward.
But in Sanin this feeling of awkwardness soon passed off. It was replaced by a vague, but pleasant, even triumphant feeling. He walked up and down his room, whistling, and not caring to think about anything, and was very well pleased with himself.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01