Theodor Fontane (18191898). Trials and Tribulations.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
BOTH were up early and the sun was still struggling with the morning mist as they came down stairs to take breakfast. A light early breeze was blowing, which the boatmen did not want to lose, and so, as our young couple were stepping out of doors, a whole flotilla of sailboats glided past on the Spree.
Lena was still in her morning dress. She took Bothos arm and wandered along the bank with him to a place where the reeds and rushes grew tall. He looked at her tenderly. Lena, I have never seen you look as you do to-day. I hardly know how to express it. I cannot find any other word; you look so happy.
And that was true. Yes, she was happy, perfectly happy and saw the world in a rosy light. She was leaning on her lovers arm and the hour was very precious to her. Was not that enough? And if this hour was the last, then let it be the last. Was it not a privilege to pass such a day, even if it were only once?
Thus all thoughts of care and sorrow vanished, which in spite of herself had oppressed her spirit, and she felt nothing but pride and joy and thankfulness. But she said nothing, for she was superstitious and did not dare to talk about her happiness, and it was only through a slight tremor of her arm that Botho knew that his words I believe you are happy, Lena had found their way to her innermost heart.
Admirably, said Botho. The herb tea, which your good wife recommended, did wonders and the crescent moon shone right in at our window, and the nightingales sang softly, so softly that we could barely hear them. Who would not sleep as if in paradise? I hope that no steamer with two hundred and forty guests has been announced for this afternoon. That indeed would drive us forth from paradise. You smile and are probably thinking, Who can tell? and perhaps my own words have conjured up the devil, but he is not here yet. I see neither smokestack nor smoke, the Spree is still undisturbed, and even if all Berlin is on the way our breakfast at least we can enjoy in peace. Can we not? But where?
The host went to order the breakfast, but the young couple walked as far as a little promontory on their side of the stream, from which they could see the red roofs of a neighboring village and close to the village the sharp church steeple of Königs-Wusterhausen. By the waters edge lay the trunk of a willow that had drifted down steam and lodged there. They sat down on this log and watched a fisherman and his wife who were cutting the tall reeds and throwing great bundles of them into their skiff. They enjoyed the pretty sight, and when they arrived at the tavern again, their breakfast was just being served. The breakfast was in the English style rather than the German: coffee and tea, with eggs and meat and even slices of toast in a silver rack.
Just look, Lena. We must take breakfast here often. What do you think? It is heavenly. And look over towards the dockyard; they are already at work caulking the boats and the work follows a regular rhythm. Really, the rhythm of any such work is the best kind of music.
Lena nodded, but she was only half listening, for again to-day her attention was attracted toward the pier. It was not, indeed, the boats that were moored there, and which had so aroused her interest yesterday, but a pretty maid, who was kneeling half way down the pier amongst her kettles and copperware. With a hearty pleasure in her work, which was expressed in every motion of her arms, she polished the cans, kettles, and saucepans, and whenever she had finished one, she let the water run over the highly polished vessel. Then she would hold it up, let it glisten a moment in the sun and then put it in a basket.
Nothing? And yet your eyes are glistening as if you were nearer to tears than to laughter. You certainly must have seen copper kettles before and a cook polishing them. It seems almost as if you envied the girl kneeling there and working hard enough for three women.
When she returned she found that a programme proposed by the host had been unconditionally accepted by Botho: the young people were to take a sailboat as far as the next village, Nieder Löme, which was charmingly situated on the Wendisch Spree. From this village they were to walk as far as Königs-Wusterhausen, visit the park and the castle, and then return in the same way. This excursion would take half a day. The manner of passing the afternoon could be arranged later.
Lena was pleased with the plan and a couple of wraps were just being put in the boat, which had been hastily gotten ready, when voices and hearty laughter were heard from the gardena sound which seemed to indicate visitors the probability that their solitude would be disturbed.
And they both started off to reach the boat as quickly as possible. But before they could reach the pier they saw that they were already surrounded and caught. The guests were not only Bothos comrades, but his most intimate friends, Pitt, Serge, and Balafré. All three had ladies with them.
Ah, les beaux esprits se rencontrent, said Balafré in a rather wild mood, which quickly changed to a more conventional manner, as he observed that he was being watched by the host and hostess from the threshold. How fortunate we are to meet here. Allow me, Gaston, to present our ladies to you: Queen Isabeau, Fräulein Johanna, Fräulein Margot.
All the three men bowed civilly, even to all appearances respectfully, while the two daughters of Thibaut dArc made a very slight curtsey, and Queen Isabeau, who was at least fifteen years older, offered a more friendly greeting to Agnes Sorel, who was not only a stranger to her, but apparently embarrassed.
The whole affair was a disturbance, perhaps even an intentional disturbance, but the more successfully the plan worked out, the more needful did it seem to keep a bold front at a losing game. And in this Botho was entirely successful. He asked one question after another, and thus found out that the little group had taken one of the small steamers very early and had left the boat at Schmöckwitz, and from there had come to Zeuthen on a sailboat. From Zeuthen they had walked, since it took scarcely twenty minutes; it had been charming: old trees, green fields and red roofs.
While the entire group of new-comers, but especially Queen Isabeau, who was almost more distinguished for her talkativeness than for her stout figure, were narrating these things, they had by chance strolled up to the veranda, where they sat down at one of the long tables.
Yes, added Balafré, a moonlight promenade. That is all very fine. But it is now barely ten oclock, and before we can have a moonlight promenade we have about twelve hours to dispose of. I propose a boating trip.
No, said Isabeau, a boating trip will not do; we have already had more than enough of that to-day. First the steamer and then the sailboat and now another boat, would be too much. I am against it. Besides I never can see the good of all this paddling: we might just as well fish or catch some little creatures with our hands and amuse ourselves with the poor little beasts. No, there will be no more paddling to-day. I must earnestly beg you.
The men, to whom these words were addressed, were evidently amused at the desires of the Queen Mother, and immediately made other proposals, which, however, met with the same fate. Isabeau rejected everything; and at last, when the others, half in jest and half in earnest, began to disapprove of her conduct, she merely begged to be left in peace. Gentlemen, said she, Patience. I beg you to give me a chance to speak for at least a moment. This request was followed by ironical applause, for she had done all the talking thus far. But she went on quite unconcernedly: Gentlemen, I beg you, teach me to understand men. What is an excursion into the country? It is taking breakfast and playing cards. Isnt that so?
Isabeau is always right,laughed Balafré giving her a slap on the shoulder. We will play cards. This is a capital place for it; I almost think that everyone must win here. And the ladies can go to walk in the meantime or perhaps take a forenoon nap. That will do them the most good, and an hour and a half will be time enough. And at twelve oclock we will meet again. And the menu shall be according to the judgment of our Queen. Yes, Queen, life is still sweet. To be sure that is from Don Carlos. But must everything be quoted from the Maid of Orleans?
That shot struck home and the two younger girls giggled, although they had scarcely understood the innuendo. But Isabeau who had grown up amongst conversations that were always interspersed with such slightly hinted sarcasms, remained perfectly calm and said, turning to the three other women: Ladies, if I may beg you, we are now abandoned and have two hours to ourselves. For that matter, things might be worse.
Thereupon they rose and went into the house, where the Queen went to the kitchen, and after greeting those present in a friendly but superior manner, she asked for the host. The latter was not in the house, so the young woman offered to go and call him in from the garden, but Isabeau would not hear of it. She would go herself, and she actually went, still followed by her cortège of three (Balafré called them the hen and chickens). She went into the garden, where she found the host arranging the new asparagus beds. Close by there was an old-fashioned greenhouse, very low in front, with big, sloping windows, and a somewhat broken-down wall on which Lena and the daughters of Thibaut dArc sat, while Isabeau was arranging her business.
Everything? That is a great deal, almost too much. Now I should like eels. Only not like this, but like this. And as she spoke she pointed first to a ring on her finger and then to her broad thick bracelet.
I am very sorry, ladies, answered the host. We have no eels. Nor any kind of fish; I cannot serve you with fish, it is an exception. Yesterday we had tench and dill, but it came from Berlin. If I want a fish, I have to go to the Cologne fish market for it.
Hm, that sounds rather well. And before that some vegetables for a salad. It is too late or almost too late for asparagus. But I see you still have some young beans there. And here in the hot bed there is surely something to be found, a couple of small cucumbers or some lettuce. And then a sweet dish. Something with whipped cream. I do not care so much for it myself, but men, who always behave as if they did not like such things, are always wanting sweets. This will make three or four courses, I think. And then bread and butter and cheese.
Well, I think quite soon, or at least as soon as possible. Is that right? We are hungry and half an hour is long enough to roast the saddle of venison. So let us say at about twelve. And if I may ask, we will have punch, a bottle of Rhine wine, three of Moselle and three of Champagne. But good brands. You must not think that it will be wasted. I am familiar with wines, and can tell by the taste whether it is Möt or Mumm. But you will come out all right; you inspire me with confidence. By the way, can we not go from your garden directly into the wood? I hate every unnecessary step. And perhaps we may find some mushrooms. That would be heavenly. They would go well with the saddle of venison; mushrooms never spoil anything. The host not only answered the question in the affirmative, but escorted the ladies as far as the garden gate, from which it was only a couple of steps to the edge of the wood. Only a public road ran between. As soon as one had crossed the road, one was in the shady woods, and Isabeau, who suffered greatly from the increasing heat, thought herself fortunate in having avoided the rather long detour over a strip of treeless grass land. She played the fine lady, but her parasol, which she hung to her girdle, was decorated with a big grease spot. She took Lenas arm, while the two ladies followed. Isabeau appeared to be in the best humour and said, glancing back, to Margot and Johanna: We must have a goal. It is quite dreadful to see only woods and then more woods. What do you think, Johanna?
Johanna was the taller of the two dArcs, and was very pretty, but somewhat pale and dressed with studied simplicity. Serge liked that. Her gloves fitted wonderfully, and one might have taken her for a lady if she had not used her teeth to button one of her glove buttons which had sprung out.
Well, then, I propose that we should go back to the village from which we came. It was called Zeuthen, and looked so romantic and so melancholy, and the road between there and here was so beautiful. And it must be just as beautiful or more so going back in the other direction. And on the right hand, that is to say, on the left going from here, was a churchyard with crosses. And there was a very large marble one.
But, Johanna, the elders are no longer in bloom; the acacia is about all, and that already pods. My goodness, if you are so wild about churchyards, you can see the one in the Oranienstrasse every day. Zeuthen and the churchyard. what nonsense! We had rather stay right here and see nothing at all. Come, little one, give me your arm again.
The little one, who by the way was not little, was Lena. She obeyed. But as they walked on again, the Queen continued in a confidential tone: Oh that Johanna, one really cannot go about with her; she has not a good reputation, and she is a goose. Ah, child, you would not believe what kind of folks there are going about now; Oh well, she has a fine figure and is particular about her gloves. But she might better be particular about some other things. And if you will notice, it is always such as she who talk continually about the churchyard and dying. And now you ought to see her by and by. So long as things are all right, they are all right. But when the punch bowl comes and is emptied and comes in again, then she screeches and screams. No idea of propriety. But where should it come from? She was always amongst the commonest people, out on the Chaussée towards Tegel, where no one ever goes and only the artillery passes by. And artillery Oh well. You would hardly believe how different all that is. And now Serge has taken her up and is trying to make something out of her. My goodness, it cant be done, or at least not all of a sudden; good work takes time. But here are some strawberries still. How nice! Come, little one, let us pick some (if it were not for this accursed stooping), and if we find a real big one we will take it back with us. I will put it in his mouth and he will be pleased. For I want to tell you that he is just like a child and he is just the very best man.
Lena, who saw that Balafré was referred to, asked a question or two, and also asked once more why the men had those peculiar names? She had already asked about it, but had never learned anything worth speaking of.
Good Lord, said the Queen, there would have to be something like that and no one should take any notice; and any way it is all put on. For in the first place no one concerns himself about it, and even if anyone did, why, it is so all same. And why not? What harm does it do? They have nothing to cast up at one another, and each one is just like the rest.
And really, child, you will find it out for yourself, really all this is simply tiresome. For a while it goes well enough, and I have nothing to say against it, and I will not deny it myself. But time brings weariness. Ever since you are fifteen and not even confirmed. Truly, the sooner one gets out of all this the better. Then I shall buy me a distillery (for I get plenty of money), and I already know where; and then I shall marry a widower and I already know whom. And he is willing too. For I must tell you I like order and propriety and bringing up children decently, and whether they are his or mine, it is all the same to me. And how is it really with you?
Heavens, child, you are changing color; perhaps something in her (she pointed to her heart) is involved and you are doing everything for the sake of love? Ah, child, that is bad, then there is sure to be some sudden smash.
Like her? Not at all. The very idea that such girls should take a hand in the game and come to be the fashion! Just see how her gloves fit. And her hat doesnt amount to much. He ought not to let her go like that. And she must be stupid too, for she has not a word to say.
Well, have it your own way. But you cannot deny that she is a comical figure to look at. Just see how she waddles; like a fat duck. And always buttoned up to her chin because otherwise she would not look fit to be seen among decent people. And, Margot, I will not give way on that point, a slender figure is really the principal thing. We are not Turks, you know. And why wouldnt she go with us to the churchyard? Because she is afraid. Heaven forbid, she isnt thinking of any such thing, its because shes buttoned up so tight and she cant stand the heat. And yet it isnt really so terribly hot to-day.
But when it was half past eleven, she said: Now, my friends, it is time; I think we have had enough of nature and may quite properly pass on to something else. We have never had a bite to eat since early this morning at about seven. For those ham sandwiches at Grunauer do not count. But the Lord be praised, self-denial brings its own reward, as Balafré says. and hunger is the best cook. Come, ladies, the saddle of venison is beginning to be more important than anything else. Dont you think so, Johanna?
And hereupon they all started to return from the woods through the garden, where a pair of yellow butterflies were fluttering together, and from the garden to the front of the house where they were to take luncheon.