Theodor Fontane (18191898). Trials and Tribulations.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
BOTHO entrusted himself to the guidance of an old man who was busy near the entrance gate and found Frau Nimptschs grave well cared for: ivy vines had been planted, a pot of geraniums stood between them and a wreath of immortelles was already hanging on a little iron stand. Ah, Lena, said Botho to himself. Always the same. I have come too late. And then he turned to the old man who was standing near and asked: Was it a very small funeral?
Exactly four. And of course our old superintendent. He only made a prayer and the big middle-aged woman, about forty or so, who was here, cried all the time. And a young woman was here too. She comes once a week and last Sunday she brought the geranium. And she means to get a stone too, the kind that are fashionable now: a green polished one with the name and date on it.
And herewith the old man drew back with the politeness common to all who are employed about a cemetery, while Botho hung his wreath of immortelles together with Lenas, but the wreath of evergreens and white roses he laid around the pot of geraniums. And then he walked back to the entrance of the cemetery, after looking a little longer at the modest grave and thinking lovingly of good old Frau Nimptsch. The old man, who had meanwhile returned to the care of his vines, took off his cap and looked after him, and puzzled over the question, what could have brought such a fine gentleman (for after that last handshake of his, he had had no doubts as to the quality of the visitor) to the grave of an old woman. There must be some reason for it. And he did not have the cab wait. However he could come to no conclusion, and at least to show his gratitude as best he could, he took a watering pot and filled it and then went to Frau Nimptschs grave and watered the ivy, which had grown rather dry in the hot sun.
There was not a sound in the house and even the servants were away, because they knew that he was usually at the club at about this time, at least during his wifes absence. Untrustworthy people, he grumbled to himself and seemed quite provoked. Nevertheless he was glad to be alone. He did not want to see anyone and went and sat out on the balcony, to be alone with his dreams. But it was close under the awning which was down and had also a deep, drooping fringe and so he rose to put up the awning. That was better. The fresh air, which now entered freely, did him good and drawing a deep breath he stepped to the railing and looked over fields and woods to the castle tower of Charlottenburg, whose greenish copper roof shimmered in the bright afternoon sunshine.
Behind lies Spandau, said he to himself. And behind Spandau there is an embankment and a railroad track which runs as far as the Rhine. And on that track I see a train, with many carriages and Katherine is sitting in one of them. I wonder how she looks? Well, of course. And what is she probably talking about? A little of everything, I think: piquant tales about the baths, or about Frau Salingers toilettes, and how it is really best in Berlin. And ought I not to be glad that she is coming home again? Such a pretty woman, so young, so happy and cheerful. And I am glad too. But she must not come to-day. For heavens sake, no. And yet I can believe it of her. She has not written for three days and it is quite likely that she is planning a surprise.
He followed these fancies for a while yet, but then the pictures changed and, instead of Katherines, long past images arose again in his mind: the Dörrs garden, the walk to Wilmersdorf, the excursion to Hankels Ablage. That had been their last beautiful day, their last happy hour. She said then that a hair would bind too tight, and so she refused and did not want to do it. And I? Why did I insist upon it? Yes, there are such mysterious powers, such affinities that come from heaven or hell, and now I am bound and cannot free myself. Oh how dear and good she was that afternoon, while we were still alone and did not dream of being disturbed, and I cannot forget the picture of Lena among the grasses picking flowers here and there. I have the flowers still. But I will destroy them. Why should I keep the poor dead things, that only make me restless and might cost me what little happiness I have and disturb the peacefulness of my marriage, if ever another eye should see them.
And he rose from his seat on the balcony and passed through the whole length of the house to his workroom, which overlooked the courtyard and was very sunny a the morning, but was now in deep shadow. The coolness did him good and he went to a handsome desk which he had had ever since his bachelor days, and which had little ebony drawers decorated with various little silver garlands. In the middle, surrounded by these drawers there was a sort of temple-like structure with pillars and a pediment; this temple was meant to keep valuables in and had a secret drawer behind it, which closed with a spring. Botho pressed the spring and when the drawer sprung open, took out a small bundle of letters, tied up with a red cord, on top of which, as if put there as an afterthought, lay the flowers of which he had just been speaking. He weighed the packet in his hand and said, as he was untying the cord: Great joy, great grief. Trials and tribulations. The old song.
He was alone and need fear no surprises. But still, fancying himself not sufficiently secure, he rose and locked the door. And only then did he take the topmost letter and read it. It was the one written the day before the walk to Wilmersdorf, and he now looked very tenderly at the words which he had formerly underlined with his pencil. Stiehl. Alléh. How these poor dear little hs take my fancy to-day, more than all the orthography in the world. And how clear the handwriting is. And how good and at the same time how playful is what she wrote. Ah, how happily her traits were mingled. She was both reasonable and passionate. Everything that she said showed character and depth of feeling. How poor a thing is culture, and how ill it compares with genuine qualities.
He picked up the second letter and meant to read the whole correspondence from beginning to end. But it distressed him too much. What is the use? Why should I recall to life what is dead and must remain dead? I must destroy all this and I must hope that even memory itself will fade with the reminders that awakened it.
Now that his mind was fully made up, he rose quickly from his desk, pushed the fire screen to one side and stepped to the little hearth to burn the letters. And slowly, as if he wanted to prolong the sweet sorrow, he let leaf by leaf fall on the hearth and vanish in the flames. The last thing left in his hand was the bunch of flowers and while he was thinking and pondering, a change of feeling come over him and he felt as if he must untie the strand of hair and look at each flower separately. But suddenly, as if overcome with superstitious fear, he threw the flowers after the letters.