Theodor Fontane (18191898). Trials and Tribulations.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
KATHERINES first letter was posted in Cologne and reached Berlin the following morning, according to expectations. The accompanying address had been given by Botho himself, who, smiling and goodhumored, held in his hand a rather thick-feeling letter. Three cards faintly written on both sides with a pencil had been put in the envelope, and all of them barely legible, so that Rienäcker went out on the balcony, in order better to decipher the indistinct scrawl.
The train, my dear Botho, stops here only three minutes, but I will make the best use I can of the time, and in case of need I will write, well or ill as it happens, when the train is in motion. I am travelling with a very charming young bankers wife, Madame Salinger, née Saling, from Vienna. When I wondered at the similarity of the names, she said: Yes, it looks as if I had married my own comparative. She talks like that right straight along, and in spite of having a ten-year-old daughter (blonde; the mother is brunette) she too is going to Schlangenbad. And she is going by way of Cologne too, like me, because of a visit that she is to make there. The child has naturally a good disposition, but is not well brought up and has already broken my parasol by her constant climbing about in the railway carriage, a mishap which embarrassed her mother very much. The railroad station, where we are just now stopping (that is to say, the train is starting again this very moment), is swarming with soldiers, among them Brandenburg Cuirassiers with a name in yellow letters on their shoulder straps; apparently it was Nicholas. It looked very well. There were fusiliers there too, from the thirty-fifth, little people, who seemed to me far too small, although Uncle Osten always used to say the best fusilier was one who could not be seen with the naked eye. But I will close. The little girl, alas, is running from one window to the other as before and makes it hard for me to write. And besides she is constantly munching cakes, little pastry tarts with cherries and pistachio nuts on top. She began that long ago, between Potsdam and Werder. The mother is too weak. I would be more severe.
Botho laid the card aside and ran through the second one as well as he could. It ran:
Goltz was at the Magdeburg station and told me you had written him that I was coming. How very good and kind you were once more. You are always the best and most attentive of men. Goltz has charge of the survey in the Harz Mountains now, that is, he begins July first. The train stops a quarter of an hour in Hannover, and I have made use of the time to see the place immediately around the station: regular hotels and beer-drinking places that have grown up under our government, one of which is built completely in the Gothic style. The Hannoverians call it the Prussian been church, as a fellow traveller told me, simply because of Guelphish hostility. How painful such things are! But time will mitigate this feeling also. Heaven send that it may. The child still keeps no nibbling, which begins to make me nervous. What will be the upshot of it? But the mother is really charming and has already told me everything. She has also been in Würzburg, with Scanzoni, about whom she is enthusiastic. Her way of confiding in me is embarrassing and almost painful. For the rest, she is, as I can only repeat, perfectly comme il faut. To mention just one thing, what a dressing case! In Vienna they far surpass us in such things; one can notice the older culture.
COLOGNE, 8 oclock in the evening. Headquarters.
I prefer to mail my cards here rather than to wait until I reach Schlangenbad, where Frau Salinger and I expect to arrive to-morrow noon. All goes well with me. The Schroffensteins are very friendly and pleasant; especially Herr Schroffenstein. By the way, not to omit anything of interest, Frau Salinger was fetched from the station by the Oppenheims carriage. Our journey, which began so charmingly, grew somewhat burdensome and unattractive from Hamm on. The little girl had a hard time, and moreover it was her mothers fault. What more do you want? as soon as the train had left the Hamm station, whereupon the child answers: Drops. And it was from that very moment that things got so bad. Ah, dear Botho, young or old, our wishes ought to be constantly kept under strict and conscientious control. This thought has been constantly in my mind ever since and the meeting with this charming woman was perhaps no chance occurrence in my life. How often have I heard Kluckhuhn speak in this vein. And he was right. More to-morrow.
Botho put the three cards back in the envelope and said: Exactly like Katherine. What gift she has for small talk! And I ought to be glad that she writes as she does. But there is something lacking. It is all so trivial and comes so easily, like a mere echo of society talk. But she will change when she has duties of her own. Or perhaps she will. In any case, I will not give up the hope.
The next day there came a short letter from Schlangenbad, in which there was far, far less than in the three cards, and from this time on she wrote only twice a week and gossiped about Anna Grävenitz and Elly Winterfeld, who had actually put in an appearance, but most of all about Madame Salinger and her charming little Sarah. There were always the same asseverations and only at the close of the third week did some lessening of enthusiasm appear:
I now think the little girl more charming than her mother. Frau Salinger indulges in such luxurious toilettes as I find scarcely appropriate, especially as there are practically no men here. And then too, I see now that her complexion is artificial; her eyebrows are certainly painted and perhaps her lips too, for they are cherry-red. But the child is perfectly natural. Whenever she sees me, she rushes up to me and kisses my hand and makes her excuses for the hundredth time about the drops, but it was Mammas fault, in which I fully agree with the child. And yet, on the other hand, there must be a mysterious streak of greediness in Sarahs nature, I might almost say something like a besetting sin (do you believe in besetting sins? I do, my dear Botho), for she cannot let sweet things alone and constantly buys wafers, not the Berlin kind that taste like buns with meringue on top, but the Karlsbad kind with sugar sprinkled over. But I will not write any more about all this. When I see you, which may be very soonfor I should like to travel with Anna Grävenitz, we should be so much more by ourselveswe will talk about it and about a great many other things too. Ah, how glad I shall be to see you and to sit on the balcony with you. After all, Berlin is the most beautiful place, and when the sun goes down behind Charlottenburg and the Grünewald, and one grows so tired and dreamy, how lovely it is! Dont you think so? And do you know what Frau Salinger told me yesterday? She said that I had grown still blonder. Well, you will see for yourself.
Rienäcker nodded and smiled. Charming little woman. She writes nothing at all about her health or the effects of the cure; I will wager that she goes out to drive and has hardly taken ten baths yet. And after saying this to himself, he gave some orders to his man servant who had just come in and then walked through the Zoological Garden and the Brandenburg gate, then under the Lindens and then to the barracks, where he was on duty until noon.
Soon after twelve oclock, when he was at home again, and had had something to eat, and was about to make himself comfortable for a little, the servant announced that a gentleman a man (he hesitated over the word) was outside, and wished to speak with the Herr Baron.
In a moment the visitor entered the room and bowed somewhat stiffly at the door. He wore a dark-brown coat closely buttoned up, highly polished boots and shiny black hair, which lay very thick on both temples. He wore black gloves and a spotlessly white high collar.
And I want to add at once, Franke went on, that it is nothing troublesome that has brought me here. What I wish to say, or if you will permit me, Herr Baron, to ask, will cause no inconvenience to you or to your family. I already know that your gracious lady, the Frau Baroness is away, and I carefully waited until you should be alone, or, if I may say so, until you should be a grass widower.
Bothos discriminating ear perceived that, in spite of his rather ordinary middle-class clothes, the man was frank and high-minded. This soon helped him to get over his embarrassment and he had recovered his usual calmness of manner, as he asked, across the table: Are you a relative of Lenas? Pardon me, Herr Franke, for calling my old friend by the old name of which I am so fond.
Franke bowed and replied: No, Herr Baron, no relative; I have not that right to speak. But my right is perhaps quite as good: I have known Lena for a year and more and I intend to marry her. She has given her consent, but on that occasion she told me of her previous life and spoke of you so affectionately, that I at once determined to ask you yourself, Herr Baron, freely and openly, what you can tell me about Lena. When I told Lena of my intention, she at first encouraged me gladly, but immediately afterwards she added, that I might as well not ask you, as you would be sure to speak too well of her.
Botho looked straight before him and found it difficult to control the beating of his heart. Finally, however, he mastered himself and said: You are an excellent man, Herr Franke, and you want to make Lena happy. So much I can see at once, and that gives you a perfect right to an answer. I have no doubt at all as to what I ought to tell you, and I only hesitate as to how I shall tell it. The best way will be to tell you how it all began and continued and then how it came to an end.
Very well then, began Rienäcker, it is about three years or perhaps a couple of months more, since on a boating excursion around the Liebesinsel near Treptow I had the opportunity of doing two young girls a service by preventing their boat from capsizing. One of these two young girls was Lena, and from her manner of thanking me, I saw at once that she was different from others. She was wholly free from affectation, both then and later, a fact which I specially wish to emphasise. For no matter how merry and at times almost boisterous she may be, yet she is naturally thoughtful, serious and simple.
Botho mechanically pushed aside the tray, which was still standing on the table, smoothed the cloth and then went on: I asked leave to escort her home, and she consented without more ado, which at that time surprised me for a moment. For I did not yet know her. But I soon saw what it meant; from her youth on she had been accustomed to act according to her own judgement, without much regard for others, and in any case without fearing their opinion.
So we went all the long distance together and I escorted her home and was delighted with all that I saw there, with the old mother, with the fireplace by which she sat, with the garden in which the house stood, and with the modest seclusion and stillness of the place. A quarter of an hour later I took my leave, and as I was saying good-bye to Lena at the garden gate, I asked whether I might come again, and she answered the question with a simple Yes. She showed no false modesty, and yet was not unwomanly. On the contrary, there was something touching in her voice and manner.
As all this came so vividly before his mind once more, Rienäcker rose, in manifest excitement and opened both halves of the balcony door, as if the room were growing too hot. Then, as he walked back and forth, he went on more rapidly: I have scarcely anything more to add. That was about Easter and we had a whole long happy summer. Ought I to tell you about it? No. And then came life with all its serious claims. And that was what separated us.
And it could not be any other way, Herr Franke. For LenaI rejoice with all my heart to be able to say so once moreLena does not lie, and would sooner bite her tongue off than to boast or speak falsely. She has two kinds of pride; one is to live by the work of her own hands, the other is to speak right out freely and make no false pretences and not to represent anything as more or less than it really is. I do not need to do it and I will not do it, I have often heard her say. She certainly has a will of her own, perhaps rather more than she should have, and one who wanted to criticise her, might reproach her with being obstinate. But she only persists in what she thinks she can take the responsibility for, and she really can too, and that sort of strength of will is, I think rather character than self-righteousness. I see by you nodding your head that we are of the same opinion, and that pleases me greatly. And now just one word more, Herr Franke. What has been, has been. If you cannot pass over it, I must respect your feeling. But if you can, I want to tell you, you will have an exceptionally good wife. For her heart is in the right place and she has a strong sense of duty and right and order.
That is how I have always found Lena, and I believe that she will make me an uncommonly good wife, precisely as the Herr Baron says. Yes, one ought to keep the Commandments, one ought to keep them all, but yet there is a distinction, according to which commandments they are, and he who fails to keep one of them all, may yet be good for something, but he who fails to keep another, even if it stands the very next one in the catechism, he is worthless and is condemned from the beginning and stands beyond the hope of grace.
Botho gazed at him in surprise and evidently did not know what to make of this solemn address. Gideon Franke, however, who for his part had now gotten well started, had no longer any sense of the impression produced by his homemade opinions, and so went on in a tone that more and more suggested that of a preacher: And he who, because of the weakness of the flesh sins against the sixth commandment, he may be forgiven if he repents and turns to better ways, but he breaks the seventh, sins not merely through the weakness of the flesh but through the corruption of the soul, and he who lies and deceives, or slanders and bears false witness, he is rotten to the core and is a child of darkness, and for him there is no salvation, and he is like a field in which the nettles have grown so tall that the weeds always come uppermost, no matter how much good corn may be sown. And I will live and die by that and have always found it true. Yes, Herr Baron, the important things are neatness and honesty and practicality. And in marriage it is the same. For honesty is the best policy, and ones word is his word and one must be able to have confidence. But what has been, has been, and that is in the hands of God. And if I think otherwise about it, which I too respect, exactly as the Herr Baron does, then it is my place to keep away and not allow my love and inclination to get a foothold. I was in the United States for a long time, and although over there just the same as here, all is not gold that glitters, yet it is true, that there one learns to see differently and not always through the same glass. And one learns also that there are many ways to salvation and many ways to happiness. Yes, Herr Baron, there are many roads that lead to God, and there are many roads that lead to happiness, of that I feel sure in my very heart. And the one road is good and the other road is good. But every good road must be straight and open, and lie in the sun, without swamps or quicksands or will-o-the-wisps. Truth is the main thing, and trustworthiness and honor.
And now, Herr Franke, as we are bidding good-bye I will ask just one thing more: Please greet Frau Dörr from me, if you see her, and if the old friendship with her still continues, and above all give my greetings to good old Frau Nimptsch. Does she still have her gout and her days of suffering, of which she used to complain scconstantly?
Over behind the Rollkrug, in the new Jacobs churchyard. She was a good old woman. And how she did love Lena! Yes, Herr Baron, Mother Nimptsch is dead But Frau Dörr is still living (and he laughed), and she will live a long time yet. And if she comesit is a long wayI will give her your greeting. And I can see already how pleased she will be. You know her, Herr Baron. Oh yes, Frau Dörr