Theodor Fontane (18191898). Trials and Tribulations.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
IT was a glorious morning, the sky was half clouded and in the gentle west wind the young couple sat on the balcony, while Minette was clearing the coffee table, and looked over toward the Zoological Garden where the gay cupolas of the elephant houses shone softly in the dim morning light.
Oh yes, tell you; what shall I tell you? I wrote you so many letters that you must know Anna Grävenitz and Frau Salinger quite as well as I do, or perhaps still better, for among other things I wrote more than I knew myself.
Perhaps. But you always said, More about this when we meet. And that time has now come, or do you want me to think you are keeping something from me? I know actually nothing at all about your excursions and yet you were in Wiesbaden. You said indeed that there were only colonels and old generals in Wiesbaden, but there are Englishmen there too. And speaking of Englishmen reminds me of your Scotchman, about whom you were going to tell me. Let me see, what was his name?
Armstrong; Mr. Armstrong. He certainly was a delightful man, and I cannot understand his wife, an Alvensleben, as I think I told you before, who was always embarrassed whenever he spoke. And yet he was a perfect gentleman, who always respected himself, even when he let himself go and showed a certain nonchalance. At such moments, gentlemen are always the most easily recognised. Dont you agree with me? He wore a blue necktie and a yellow summer suit, and he looked as if he had been sewed into it, and Anna Grävenitz always used to say: There comes the penholder. And he always carried a big, open umbrella, a habit he had formed in India. For he was an officer in a Scotch regiment, that had been stationed a long time in Madras or Bombay, or perhaps it may have been Delhi. But any way it is all the same. And what had he not been through! His conversation was charming, even if sometimes one hardly knew how to take it.
I beg your pardon, Botho, how can you speak so? Such a man as he; a cavalier comme il faut. I will give you an example of his style of conversation. Opposite us sat an old lady, the wife of General von Wedell, and Anna Grüvenitz asked her (I believe it was the anniversary of Küniggratz), whether it was true that thirty-three Wedells fell in the seven years war? Old Frau von Wedell said that it was quite true, and added that there had really been more. All who were present, were astonished at so great a number, excepting Mr. Armstrong, and when I playfully took him to task, he said that he could not get excited over such small numbers. Small numbers! I interrupted him, but he laughed and added, for the sake of refuting me, that one hundred and thirty-three of the Armstrongs had perished in the various wars and feuds of their clan. And when Frau von Wedell at first refused to believe this, but finally (as Mr. A. stuck to his story) asked eagerly, whether the whole hundred and thirty-three had really fallen? he replied No, my dear lady, not exactly fallen. Most of them were hung as horse thieves by the English, who were then our enemies. And when everybody was horrified over this unsuitable, one might almost say embarrassing tale of hanging, he swore that we were wrong to be offended by any such a thing, for times and opinions had changed and as far as his own immediate family were concerned, they regarded their heroic forbears with pride. The Scottish method of warfare for three hundred years had consisted of cattle lifting and horse stealing. Different lands, different customs, and he could not see any great difference between stealing land and stealing cattle.
Surely. And I was always on his side, when he made such statements. Oh, he would make you die of laughter. He used to say that one should not take anything seriously, it did not pay, and fishing was the only serious occupation. He would occasionally go fishing for a fortnight on Loch Ness or Loch Lochyonly think what funny names they have in Scotlandand he would sleep in the boat, and when the sun rose, there he was again; and when the fortnight was ended, he would moult and his whole sunburnt skin would come off and then he would have a skin like a baby. And he did all this through vanity, for a smooth, even color is really the best thing that one can have. And as he said this, he looked at me in such a way, that I did not know how to answer for a moment. Oh, you men! But yet from the beginning I really had a warm attachment for him and took no offence at his way of talking, which sometimes pursued one subject for some time, but far, far oftener shifted constantly here and there. One of his favorite sayings was: I cannot bear to have one dish stay on the table a whole hour; if only it is not always the same, I am much better pleased when the courses are changed rapidly. And so he was always jumping from the hundreds into the thousands.
So we did. And we mean to write to each other, in the same style in which we used to talk; we agreed on that as we were saying good-bye. Our men, even your friends, are always so thoroughgoing. And you are the most thoroughgoing of all, which sometimes annoys me and puts me quite out of patience. And you must promise me that you will be more like Mr. Armstrong and try to talk a little more simply and amusingly and a little faster and not always on the same subject.
Botho promised to amend his ways, and as Katherine, who loved superlatives, after describing a phenomenally rich American, an absolutely albino Swede with rabbits eyes, and a fascinating Spanish beautyhad closed with an afternoon excursion to Limburg, Oranienstein and Nassau, and had described to her husband in turn the crypt, the cadets training school and the water-cure establishment, she suddenly pointed to the towers of the castle at Charlottenburg and said: Do you know, Botho, we must go there to-day or to Westend or to Hallensee. The Berlin air is rather heavy and there is none of the breath of God in it, as there is in the country where the poets so justly praise it. And when one has just come back fresh from nature, as I have, one has learned to love once more what I might call purity and innocence. Ah, Botho, what a treasure an innocent heart is. I have fully determined to keep my heart pure. And you must help me. Yes, you must promise me. No, not that way; you must kiss me three times on my forehead like a bride. I want no tenderness, I want a kiss of consecration And if we take lunch, a warm dish, of course, we can get out there at about three.
And so they went on their excursion and although the air of Charlottenburg was still less like the breath of God than the Berlin air, yet Katherine was fully determined to stay in the castle park and to give up Hallensee. Westend was so tiresome and Hallensee was half a journey further, almost as far as Schlangenbad. But in the castle park one could see the mausoleum, where the blue lights were always so strangely moving, indeed she might say it was as if a bit of heaven had fallen into ones soul. That produced a thoughtful mood and led to pious reflections. And even if it were not for the mausoleum, still there was the bridge where you could see the carp, the bridge with the bell on it, and if a great big mossy carp came swimming by, it always seemed to her as if it were a crocodile. And perhaps there might be a woman there with round cakes and wafers, and one might buy some and so, in a small way, do a good work. She said a good work on purpose and avoided the word Christian, for Frau Salinger was always charitable.
And everything went according to the programme, and when the carps had been fed they both walked further into the park until they reached the Belvedere with its rococo figures and its historical associations. Katherine knew nothing of these associations and Botho therefore took occasion to tell her of the ghosts of the departed Emperor and Electors whom General von Bischofswerder caused to appear at this very place in order to arouse King Frederick William the Second from his lethargy, or what amounted to the same thing, to get him out of the hands of his lady love and bring him back to the path of virtue.
What a pity! Anything like that always moves me so painfully. And if I consider that the unhappy prince (for he must have been unhappy) was the father-in-law of Queen Luise then my heart bleeds. How she must have suffered! I can never rightly imagine such things in our Prussia. And you say Bischofswerder was the name of the general who caused the ghosts to appear?