Gottfried Keller (18191890). The Banner of the Upright Seven.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
With this diplomatic declaration and the latest number of the Republican he withdrew to his study. Mrs. Hediger, on the contrary, now wanted to get hold of her son and satisfy her curiosity by calling him to account; but she suddenly discovered that he had made off, as the whole discussion seemed to him to be absolutely superfluous and useless, and he did not care, in any case, to talk over his love affairs with his parents.
So much the earlier did he get into his little boat that evening and row out to where he had been on many previous evenings. But he sang his little song once and twice, and even through to the last verse without anyone showing herself, and after rowing up and down in front of the lumber yard for more than an hour in vain, he went back puzzled and depressed, and thought his affair was really in a bad way. On the following four or five evenings he had the same experience, and then gave up trying to meet the faithless girl, as he took her to be; for although he remembered her resolution only to see him once in four weeks, he thought that to be merely the preparation for a final rupture, and fell into indignant sadness. Hence the practice period for the sharpshooter recruits, which was just about to begin, came at a very welcome time. On several afternoons beforehand he went out to the range with an acquaintance who was a marksman to get at least a little practice, and be able to show the number of hits necessary for his application. His father looked on at this rather scornfully, and unexpectedly came to the range himself to dissuade his son in time from carrying out his foolish purpose, if, as he supposed, Karl knew nothing about shooting.
Even as a boy I often watched the shooting, listened to what the men said about it, and for years have so longed to do it that I used to dream about it, and after I had gone to bed I used to spend hours aiming at a target, and in that way Ive fired hundreds of good shots.
Its not so ridiculous as it sounds, said the experienced marksman who was teaching Karl, it is certain that, of two riflemen who are equally gifted as regards eye and hand, the one who is accustomed to reflection will outstrip the other. Pulling the trigger requires an inborn knack and there are very peculiar things about it as there are about all exercises.
The oftener and the better Karl shot, the more did old Hediger shake his head; the world seemed to him to be turned upside down, for he himself had only attained to what he was and knew how to do by industry and strenuous practice; even his principles, which people often pack into their minds as easily and numerously as herrings, had only been acquired by persevering study in his little back room. Now, however, he no longer ventured to interfere, and departed, not without inward satisfaction at numbering among his sons one of his countrys sharpshooters; and by the time he had reached home he was resolved to make Karl a well-fitting uniform of good cloth. Of course, he will have to pay for it, he said to himself, but he knew in his heart that he never asked his sons to repay anything, and that they never offered to do so. That is wholesome for parents, and enables them to reach a good old age when they can see how their children in turn are merrily fleeced by their grandchildren, and so it goes down from father to son, and all survive and enjoy good appetites.
Karl now had to go into barracks for several weeks, and developed into a good-looking and trained soldier who, although he was in love and neither saw nor heard anything of his sweetheart, nevertheless attentively and cheerfully performed his duties as long as the daylight lasted; and at night the conversation and jokes of his comrades gave him no chance to brood. There were a dozen of them, young fellows from different districts, who exchanged the tricks and jokes of their homes and continued to make the most of them long after the lights were out and until midnight came on. There was only one from the city besides Karl, and the latter knew him by name. He was a few years older than Karl and had already served as a fusileer. A bookbinder by trade, he had not done a stroke of work for a long time, but lived on the inflated rents of old houses which he cleverly managed to buy without capital. Sometimes he would sell one again to some simpleton at an exorbitant price, then if the purchaser could not hold it he would pocket the forfeit and the paid instalments and again take possession of the house, at the same time raising the rents once more. He was also skilful in making slight changes in the construction of the dwellings, thus enlarging them by the addition of a tiny chamber or little room, so that he might again raise the rent. These alterations were by no means practical or planned for convenience, but quite arbitrary and stupid; he knew, too, all the bunglers among the artisans, who did the worst and cheapest work and with whom he could do as he liked. When he could think of absolutely nothing else to do, he would have the outside of one of his old buildings whitewashed and ask a still higher rent. By these methods he enjoyed a good annual income without doing an hours actual work. His errands and appointments did not take long, and he would spend as much time in front of other peoples buildings as before his own reconstructed shanties, play the expert and give advice about everything. In all other matters he was the stupidest fellow in the world. Hence he was considered a shrewd and prosperous young man who would make an early success in life, and he denied himself nothing. He considered himself too good for an infantry private and had wanted to become an officer. But there he had failed owing to his laziness and ignorance, and now by obstinate and importunate persistence he had got into the sharpshooters.
Here he sought to force himself into a position of respect, without exerting himself, solely with the aid of his money. He was forever inviting the non-commissioned officers and his comrades to eat and drink with him, and thought that by clumsy liberality he could obtain privileges and freedom. But he only succeeded in making himself a laughing-stock, though, to be sure, he did enjoy a sort of indulgence, in that the others soon gave up trying to make anything out of him and let him go his own way as long as he did not bother the rest.
A single recruit attached himself to him and acted as his servant, cleaned his arms and clothes and spoke in his defence. This was the tight-fisted son of a rich peasant, who had always a frightful appetite for food and drink whenever he could satisfy it at anothers expense. He thought heaven would be his reward if he could carry back home all his shining silver and still be able to say he had lived merrily during his service and caroused like a true sharpshooter; at the same time he was jolly and good-natured and entertained his patron, who had much less voice than he, with his thin falsetto in which, from behind his bottle, he sang all sorts of popular country songs very oddly indeed; for he was a merry miser. And so Ruckstuhl, the young extortioner, and Spörri, the young skinflint, lived on in glorious friendship. The former always had meat and wine before him and did as he chose, and the latter left him as little as possible, sang and cleaned his boots and did not even scorn the tips that the other gave.
Meanwhile the others made fun of them and agreed among themselves that they would not tolerate Ruckstuhl in any company. This did not apply to his factotum, however, for, strangely enough, he was a good shot, and anyone who knows his business is welcome in the army whether he be a Philistine or a scamp.
Karl was foremost in making fun of the pair; but one night he lost his desire to joke, when the wine-gladdened Ruckstuhl boasted to his follower, after the room had grown quiet, of what a fine gentleman he was and of how he soon expected to marry a rich wife, the daughter of the carpenter Frymann, whom, if he read the signs aright, he could not fail to get.
Karls peace of mind was now gone, and the next day, as soon as he had a free hour, he went to his parents to find out, by listening, what was going on. But as he did not care to introduce the subject himself, he heard nothing of Hermine until just before he went, when his mother told him she had wanted to be remembered to him.
Oh, she comes to the market every day now with the maid to learn how to buy supplies. She always asks me for advice when we meet and then we make the rounds of the market and find a lot to laugh at; for shes always in good spirits.
Oh, ho! said Hediger, so thats why you stay out so long sometimes! And its match-making that you are up to? Do you think its fitting for a mother to behave like that, running around with people who are forbidden to her son, and carrying messages?
Forbidden people! Nonsense! Havent I known the dear child since she was a baby and I carried her in my arms? And now Im not to associate with her! And why shouldnt she ask to be remembered to the people in our house? And why shouldnt a mother take such a message? And may not a mother be allowed to make a match for her child? It seems to me that shes the very person to do it! But we never talk about such things, we women are not half so keen about you ill-mannered men, and if Hermine takes my advice she wont marry anyone.
Karl did not wait for the end of the conversation, but went his way; for she had sent him a message and there had been no mention of any suspicious news. Only he did tap his forehead, puzzled by Hermines good spirits, for it was not like her to laugh so much. He finally decided it was a sign in his favor and she had been merry because she had met his mother. So he resolved to keep quiet, have faith in the girl, and let things take their course.
A few days later Hermine came to visit Mrs. Hediger, bringing her knitting with her, and there was so much cordiality, talking, and laughing that Hediger, cutting out a frock coat in his workshop, was almost disturbed and wondered what old gossip could be there. Still, he did not pay much attention to it till finally he heard his wife go to a cupboard and begin to rattle the blue coffee set. For the Gunsmithy was making as good a pot of coffee as she had ever brewed; she also took a good handful of sage leaves, dipped them in an egg-batter and fried them in butter, thus making so-called little mice, since the stems of the leaves looked like mouse-tails. They rose beautifully and made a heaping dish full, the fragrance of which, together with that of the fresh coffee ascended to Master Hediger above. When, finally, he heard her pounding sugar he became highly impatient to be called to the table; but he would not have gone one moment earlier, for he belonged to the Staunch and Upright. As he now entered the room he saw his wife and the graceful forbidden person sitting in close friendship behind the coffee-pot and, moreover, it was the blue-flowered coffee-pot; and besides the little mice there was butter on the table and the blue-flowered pot full of honey; it was not real honey, to be sure, but only cherry-jam, about the color of Hermines eyes; and it was Saturday too, a day on which all respectable middle-class women scrub and scour, clean and polish, and never cook a bite thats fit to eat.
Hediger looked very critically at the whole scene and his greeting was rather stern; but Hermine was so charming and at the same time so resolute that he sat there as if muzzled and ended by going himself to get a glass of wine out of the cellar and even drawing it from the small keg. Hermine responded to this mark of favor by declaring that she must have a plate of mice kept for Karl, as he probably didnt get very good things to eat in the barracks. She took her plate and pulled out the finest mice by their tails with her own dainty fingers and kept on piling them up till at last Karls mother herself cried that it was enough. Hermine then put the plate beside her, looked at it with satisfaction from time to time, and occasionally picked out a piece and ate it, saying that she was Karls guest now; after which she would conscientiously replace the plunder from the dish.
When they got there, however, instead of Miss Hermine they found Karl, the sharpshooter, who had unbuttoned his green waistcoat and was enjoying his mice and what wine there was left all the more because his mother had just happened to mention that Hermine was going rowing on the lake again that evening as it would be bright moonlight and she hadnt been on the lake for a month.
Karl started out on the lake all the earlier because he had to be back in barracks at the sound of taps, blown in heavenly harmonies by the Zurich buglers on beautiful spring and summer evenings. It was not yet quite dark when he reached the lumber yard; but alas, Master Frymanns skiff was not floating in the water as usual; it lay bottom up, on two blocks, about ten yards from the shore.
Was that a hoax, or a trick of the old mans, he wondered and, disappointed and angry, he was just about to row off when the great, golden moon rose out of the woods on Mt. Zurich and at the same time Hermine stepped out from behind a blossoming willow that hung full of yellow cattails.
I didnt know that our boat was being freshly painted, she whispered, so Ill have to come into yours, row fast! And she sprang lightly in, and sat down at the other end of the skiff which was scarcely seven feet long. They rowed out till they were beyond the range of any spying eye and Karl began at once to call Hermine to account as regarded Ruckstuhl, telling her of the latters words and acts.
Hermine shrugged her shoulders and said: Father is full of the idea of building a number of houses and speculating with them; for that reason, he wants a son-in-law who can be of assistance to him in such matters, particularly in speculating, and who will know that he is working for his own advantage in furthering the whole enterprise. He has in mind that he wants someone with whom he can take pleasure in working and scheming, as he would have done with a son of his own, and now this fellow appears to him to have just that kind of talent. All he needs, father says, to make him a practical expert, is a thorough business life. Father knows nothing of the foolish way he lives because he doesnt watch other peoples doings and never goes anywhere except to his old friends. In short, as to-morrow is Sunday, Ruckstuhl has been invited to dine with us, to strengthen the acquaintance, and Im afraid that he will plunge right into a proposal. Besides, Ive heard that hes a wretched flatterer and an impudent fellow when hes trying to grab something that he wants.
Ive thought of a plan, though its rather a queer one to be sure. Couldnt you lead him into doing something foolish to-day or early to-morrow morning so that youd both be sent to the guard-room for twenty-four or forty-eight hours?
Its necessary that you should share his suffering so that we may not have too much on our consciences. As for my refusal, I dont want it to come to the point where I shall have to say yes or no to the fellow; its bad enough that he should talk about me in the barracks. I dont want him to get a step beyond that.
Youre right, sweetheart! Nevertheless I think the rascal will have to be locked up alone; a scheme is beginning to dawn on me. But enough of that, its a pity to waste our precious time and the golden moonlight. Doesnt it remind you of anything?
Then I will also make a declaration, my dear sir. If you so much as touch me with the tips of your fingers to-night against my will, its all over between us and I will never see you again; I swear it by Heaven and my own honor. For I am in earnest.
But whether it was that he thought her capable of keeping her word, or whether he himself did not want her to break her vow, he stayed obediently in his seat and gazed at her with shining eyes, peering to see by the moonlight if the corners of her mouth were not twitching and she were not laughing at him.
Then I shall have to console myself with the past again and let my memories compensate me, he began after a brief silence; who would believe that those stern and firmly closed lips knew how to kiss so sweetly years ago!
Be calm! Just this once more we will direct our gaze back to those golden hours and more particularly to the last kiss that you gave me; I remember the circumstances as clearly and distinctly as if it were to-day, and I am sure that you do too. I was thirteen and you about ten and it was several years since we had kissed each other, for we felt very old and grown-up. But there was to be a pleasant ending after allor was it the lark, the herald of the morn? It was a beautiful Whitmonday
You are right, it was a glorious Ascension Day in the month of May and we were on an excursion with a party of young people, we two being the only children among them; you stuck close to the big girls and I to the older boys and we disdained to play with each other or even to talk. After we had walked hither and yon we sat down in a bright grove of tall trees and began to play forfeits; for evening was coming on and the party did not want to go home without a few kisses. Two of them were condemned to kiss each other with flowers in their mouths without dropping them. After they, and the couple that tried it after them, had failed, you suddenly came running up to me without a trace of embarrassment, with a lily-of-the-valley in your mouth, stuck another between my lips and said, Try it! Sure enough, both blossoms fell to join their sisters on the ground, but, in your eagerness, you kissed me all the same. It felt as if a beautiful, light-winged butterfly had alighted, and involuntarily I put up two finger-tips to catch it. The others thought I wanted to wipe my lips and laughed at me.
Because you sat so still and treated my word with the respect due to it, she said, I will, if necessary, go out with you again before four weeks have passed and will write you a note to say when. That will be the first writing I have ever confided to you.
On his way through the street he encountered Ruckstuhl and Spörri who were slightly tipsy; greeting them pleasantly and familiarly, he grasped the former by the arm and began to praise and flatter him.
Thundering guns! cried Ruckstuhl, highly flattered that someone else besides Spörri should make up to him and compliment him, its a shame that we have to turn in so soon. Havent we time to drink a bottle of good wine together?
Sst! We can do that in our room. Its the custom among the sharpshooters anyway to take in the officers, at least once during their service and secretly carouse in their room all night. Were only recruits, but well show them that were worthy of the carbine.
When they reached the barracks their room-mates were all in the canteen drinking a night-cap. Karl confided in a few of them, who passed the tidings on, and so each of them provided himself with a few bottles which, one after the other, they carried out unnoticed and hid under their cots. In their room they quietly went to bed at ten oclock to wait till the rounds had been made to see if the lights were out. They then all got up again, hung coats over the windows, lighted the lights, brought out the wine and began a regular drinking bout. Ruckstuhl felt as if he were in paradise, for they all drank to him and toasted him as a great man. His ardent desire to be considered somebody in military as well as in civil life without doing anything to deserve it made him stupider than he naturally was. When he and his henchman seemed to have been put completely out of business, various drinking feats were carried out. One of the men, while standing on his head, had to drink a ladle of wine which someone else held to his lips; another, seated in a chair, with a bullet suspended from the ceiling swinging round his head, had to drink three glassses before the bullet touched his head; a third had some other trick to perform, and on all who failed some droll penalty was imposed. All this was done in perfect silence; whoever made a noise also did penance, and they were all in their nightshirts so that, if surprised, they could crawl quickly into bed. Now as the time approached when the officer would make his rounds through the corridors, the two friends were also assigned a drinking-feat. Each was to balance a full glass on the flat of his sword and hold it to the others mouth and each had to drain the glass so held without spilling a drop. They drew their short-swords with a swagger and crossed the blades with the glasses on them; but they trembled so that both glasses fell off and they did not get a drop. They were, therefore, sentenced to stand guard outside the door, in undress uniform, for fifteen minutes, and this prank was admiringly said to be the boldest ever carried out in those barracks within the memory of man. Their haversacks and short-swords were hung crosswise over their shirts, they were made to put on their shakoes and blue leggings, but no shoes, and thus, their rifles in their hands, they were led out and posted one on either side of the door. They were scarcely there before the others bolted the door, removed all traces of the carousal, uncovered the windows, put out the lights and slipped into bed as if they had been asleep for hours. In the meantime the two sentries marched up and down in the gleam of the corridor-lamp, their rifles on their shoulders, and looked about them with bold glances. Spörri, filled with bliss because he had been able to get drunk at no expense, grew quite reckless and suddenly began to sing, and that hastened the steps of the officer on duty who was already on the way. As he approached they tried to slip quickly into the room; but they couldnt open the door and before they could think of anything else to do the enemy was upon them. Now everything whirled through their heads in a mad dance. In their confusion each placed himself at his post, presented arms and cried, Who goes there?
In the name of all thats holy, what does this mean? What are you doing there? cried the officer on duty, but without receiving a sufficient answer, for the two clowns could not get out a sensible word. The officer quickly opened the door and looked into the room, for Karl who had been straining his ears, had hopped hastily out of bed, pushed back the back the bolt and as hastily hopped in again. When the officer saw that everything was dark and quiet and heard nothing but puffing and snoring, he cried, Hallo there, men!
This was done, and when the light fell on the two buffoons peals of laughter came from under all the bedclothes as if the entire company were taken utterly by surprise. Ruckstuhl and Spörri joined crazily in the laughter and marched up and down holding their sides, for their minds had now taken a tack in a different direction. Ruckstuhl repeatedly snapped his fingers in the officers face and Spörri stuck out his tongue at him. When the derided officer saw that there was nothing to be done with the joyful pair, he took out his pad and wrote down their names. Now, as ill-luck would have it, he happened to live in one of Ruckstuhls houses and had not yet paid the rentdue at Easter which was just overit might be because he was not in funds or because he had been too busy while on military duty to attend to it. In any case, Ruckstuhls evil genius suddenly hit on this fact and, reeling towards the officer, he laughed foolishly and stuttered,
Four of you get up, said the officer quietly, and take these men to the guard-house, see that theyre well locked up at once. In about three days well see if they have slept this off yet. Throw their cloaks over their shoulders and let them take their trousers on their arms. March!
If you sh-sh-shake them, mister, repeated Spörri and both of them swung their trousers about till the coins jingled in the pockets. So they marched off with their escort, laughing and shouting, through the corridors and down the stairs and soon disappeared in a cellar-like room in the basement, whereupon it grew quiet.
The following day at noon, Master Frymanns table was more elaborately set than usual. Hermine filled the cut-glass decanters with the vintage of 46, put a shining glass at every place, laid a handsome napkin on every plate, and cut up a fresh loaf from the bakery at the sign of the Hen where they baked an old-fashioned kind of bread for high days and holidays, the delight of all the children in Zurich and of the women who sat gossiping over their afternoon coffee-cups. She also sent an apprentice, dressed in his Sunday best, to the pastry-cooks to fetch the macaroni pie and the coffee cake, and finally she arranged the dessert on a small side table: little curled cookies, and wafers, the pound cake, the little cocked hats, and the conical raisin loaf. Frymann, pleasantly affected by the beautiful Sunday weather, interpreted his daughters zeal to mean that she did not intend seriously to resist his plans, and he said to himself with amusement, Theyre all like that! As soon as an acceptable and definite opportunity offers itself they make haste to seize it by the forelock!
And when the soup was finished and Ruckstuhl had still not arrived the master called in the apprentices and the maidservant who were eating by themselves that day and had already half done, and said to them:
There was no need to ask them a second time, and they were jolly and in good spirits, and Hermine was the merriest of all, and her appetite grew better and better the more annoyed and displeased her father became.
He finished his meal in the worst of humors and, contrary to his habit, went at once to a coffee-house simply that he should not be at home if the negligent suitor should finally come. Towards four oclock, instead of joining the Seven as usual, he came home again, curious to see whether Ruckstuhl had put in an appearance. As he came through the garden, there sat Mrs. Hediger with Hermine in the summer-house, as it was a warm spring day, and they were drinking coffee and eating the cocked hats and the raisin loaf and seemed to be in high spirits. He said good afternoon to Mrs. Hediger, and although it annoyed him to see her there, he asked her at once whether she had no news from the barracks, and if all the sharpshooters had not perhaps gone on an excursion.
July, and with it the National Shooting Match of 1849, was now scarcely a fortnight distant. The Seven held another meeting; for the cup and banner were finished and had to be inspected and approved. The banner was raised aloft and set up in the room, and in its shadow there now took place the stormiest session that had ever stirred the Upright Seven. For the fact suddenly became apparent that a banner carried in a presentation procession involves a speaker, and it was the choice of the latter that nearly wrecked the little boat with its crew of seven. Each in turn was chosen thrice, and thrice did each in turn most decisively decline. They were all indignant that none would consent, and it made each of them angry to think that just he should be picked out to bear this burden and do this unheard-of thing. As eagerly as other men come forward when its a question of taking the floor and airing their views, just so timidly did these men avoid speaking in public, and each plead his unfitness, and declared that he had never in his life done anything of the kind and never would. For they still believed speechmaking to be an honorable art requiring both talent and study, and they cherished an unreserved and honest respect for good orators who could touch them, and accepted everything that such a man said as true and sacred. They distinguished these orators sharply from themselves and imposed upon themselves the meritorious duty of attentive listeners, to consider conscientiously, to agree or to reject, and this seemed to them a sufficiently honorable task.
So when it appeared that no speaker was procurable by vote, a tumult and general uproar arose, in which each tried to convince another that he was the man who should sacrifice himself. They picked out Hediger and Frymann in particular and vigorously assaulted them. They, however, resisted forcibly, and each tried to shift it to the other till Frymann called for silence and said:
My friends! We have made a thoughtless mistake and now we cannot fail to see that, after all, we had better leave our banner at home; so let us quickly decide to do that and attend the festival without any fuss.