Theodor Fontane (18191898). Trials and Tribulations.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
AND now the next evening had come, the time for Baron Bothos promised visit. Lena was walking up and down in the front garden, but in the large front room Frau Nimptsch sat as usual by the hearth, while to-day again the whole Dörr family had grouped themselves around her. Frau Dörr was knitting with big wooden needles on a blue woolen jacket for her husband, and the work, as yet quite shapeless, lay on her lap like a great fleece. Near her, with his legs comfortably crossed, Dörr was smoking a clay pipe, while his son sat in a big grandfathers chair close to the window, leaning his red head against the wing of the chair. Every morning he was up by cockcrow, so to-day he had once more fallen asleep through weariness. There was but little talk, and so nothing was to be heard but the clicking of the needles and the chattering of the squirrel, which from time to time came out of his box and gazed curiously about. The only light came from the fire on the hearth and the afterglow of the sunset.
Ah, there he comes, said she. Now, Dörr, just let your pipe go out. You are just like a chimney to-day, puffing and smoking all day long. And such a stinking old pipe as yours is not fit for everyone.
Dörr did not let such speeches trouble him much and before his wife could say any more or repeat her verdict, the Baron came in. He was visibly mellow, as he had just come from a punch bowl, which had been the subject of a wager at the club, and said, as he took Frau Nimptschs hand: Good evening, mother. I hope all is well with you. Ah, and Frau Dörr; and Herr Dörr, my favorite old friend. See here, Dörr, what do you say to the weather? Specially ordered for you and for me too. My meadows at home, that are under water four years out of five and bear nothing but crows foot, such weather will do them good. And it will do Lena good too; she can stay out of doors more; she is growing too pale to suit me.
Meanwhile Lena had drawn up a wooden chair near her old mother, because she knew that this was Baron Bothos favorite place; but Frau Dörr, who was fully impressed with the idea that a Baron must occupy the seat of honor, had meanwhile risen, and with the blue fleecy mass trailing after her, she called out to her stepson: Will you get up! I say, now. If there is nothing in him, its no use to expect anything from him. The poor boy stood up, all stupid and sleepy and was going to give up his seat, but the Baron would not allow it. For heavens sake, dear Frau Dörr, leave the poor boy alone. I would far rather sit on a bench, like my friend Dörr here.
Certainly. And why not? Every class and calling is worthy of respect. And a washerwoman too. Do you know, Mutterchen, that here in Berlin there was a famous poet who wrote a poem about his old washerwoman?
And do you know, Mutterchen, now dont you forget it, he was quite right, and I say the very same? Oh yes, you laugh to yourself. But just look about you here. How do you live? Like the good Lord in France. In the first place, you have your house and hearth, and then the garden and Frau Dörr. And then you have Lena. Havent you? But what has become of her?
He would have gone on talking, but just then Lena came in with a tray, on which was a carafe of water and some cider, for which the Baron had a preference not easily to be understood, but for his belief in its wonderful curative properties.
Why Lena, how you spoil me. But you should not offer it to me so formally. It seems just as if I were at the club. You must bring it to me in your hand, it tastes best that way. And now give me your little hand, and let me stroke it. No, no, the left one; that is nearest the heart. And now sit right there, between Herr and Frau Dörr, so that you will be opposite me and I can see you all the time. I have been happy all day, looking forward to this time.
Perhaps you dont believe it? But I can prove it to you, Lena, for I have brought you something from the fine party that we had yesterday. And when one has a little present to bring, he always feels happy about the girl who is to receive it. Isnt that so, my dear Dörr?
Frau Dörr was delighted when the cracker snapped, and still more so when Lenas forefinger began to bleed. That doesnt hurt, Lena, I know it doesnt. It is just like a bride who pricks her finger. I used to know one who was so crazy about it, that she kept pricking herself and sucked and sucked, as if it were something wonderful.
Nor I either, laughed Lena. Frau Dörr is quite right: for that matter, she is always right. But really, when one reads such averse, one has always something to start with, I mean to begin a conversation with, for the beginning is always the hardest, just as it is with writing letters. And I simply cannot imagine how you can begin a conversation at once with no more ado, with so many strange ladies, for you are not all acquainted with each other.
And now I say to you: If I am not mistaken, I saw you yesterday at the flower show, you and your mother together. It is not surprising. The weather entices us out every day now and we might almost say that it is fit for travelling. Have you made any plans for the summer, Countess? And now you answer, that unfortunately nothing is settled yet, because your papa is determined to go to Bavaria, while your dearest wish is to see Saxon Switzerland with the Königstein and the Bastei.
You see, that goes very well. And then I go on: Yes, gracious Countess, in that we share the same tastes. I prefer Saxon Switzerland to any other part of the world, even to the actual Switzerland itself. One cannot always revel in the grander aspects of nature, and clamber and get out of breath all the time. But Saxon Switzerland! Heavenly, ideal. There is Dresden; in a quarter or a half hour I can be there, and I can see pictures, the theatre, the great gardens, the Zwinger, and the green vault. Do not neglect to see the tankard with the foolish virgins, and above all things that cherry stone, on which the whole of the Lords prayer is carved. It can only be seen through the magnifying glass.
Oh why not, why shouldnt it do, dear Frau Dörr? That is a very serious and instructive subject and is more important than you think. I once visited a friend in Poland, a comrade in my regiment and also during the war, who lived in a great castle; it was red and had two huge towers, and was so fearfully old, that you never see anything like it nowadays. And the last room was living room; for he was unmarried, because he was a woman hater.
And everywhere the old rotten boards were trodden through and wherever there were a couple of boards lacking, there was a mushroom bed, and I passed by all the mushroom beds, until at last I came to his room.
No, not always. But really quite often, and anyway it makes no difference what you talk about. If it isnt mushrooms it is champignons, and if it is not the red castle in Poland it is Schloss Tegel or Saatwinkel, or Valentinswerder. Or Italy or Paris, or the city railway, or whether the Panke should be filled in. It is all the same. One can always talk a little about anything, whether it is especially pleasing or not. And yes is just as good as no.
Oh you see beautiful women and handsome gowns and sometimes you catch glances that will betray a whole romance, if you look sharp. And anyway, it does not last long, so that you still have a chance to make up for lost time at the club. And at the club it is really charming, for there the artificial talk ceases and reality begins. Yesterday I took Pitts black mare from him.
Oh, those are just names that we have among ourselves, and we use them when we are together. The Crown Prince himself says Vicky, in speaking of Victoria. It really is pleasant that there are such affectionate pet names. But listen, the concert is beginning over there. Cant we open the windows, so as to hear it better? You are already tapping with your foot. How would it do for us to take our places and try a Quadrille or a Française? We have three couples: Father Dörr and good Frau Nimptsch, and Frau Dörr and I (I beg the honor) and then comes Lena with Hans.
And both pairs actually took their places and Frau Dörrs stateliness visibly increased, as her partner began in a formal, dancing-masters French: En avant deux, Pas de Basque. The poor sleepy freckle-faced boy looked about mechanically and allowed himself to be shoved here and there, but the three others danced as if they knew how, and old Dörr was so delighted that he jumped up and beat time on his tray with his knuckles instead of with his spoon. The spirit of other days seemed to return to Frau Nimptsch also, and since she found nothing better to do, she poked the fire until the flames leaped up.
This went on until the music stopped; Botho led Frau Dörr back to her place, but Lena still stood there, because the poor awkward boy did not know what he ought to do with her. But that suited Botho exactly, for when the music at the garden began again, he began to waltz with her, and to whisper to her, how charming she was, more charming than ever.
They had all grown warm, especially Frau Dörr, who now stood close to the open window. Lord, how I am shivering, said she suddenly, whereupon Both courteously sprang forward to close the window. But Frau Dörr would not hear of such a thing and said, the fine people were all wild about fresh air, and many of them so much so that the bed coverings froze to their mouths in winter. Their breath was just like the steam from the spout of the kettle. So the window must stay open, she would not give up that point. But if dear Lena had something comforting to give them, something to warm the cockles of the heart
And before Frau Dörr could decide between punch and tea, the flask of cherry brandy was already there, with small and large glasses which each could fill according to their own desire. And now Lena went around, the block kettle in her hand, and poured the boiling water into the glasses. Not too much, Lena, not too much. Let us get the good of it. Water takes away the strength. And in a moment the room was full of the rising aroma of cherry brandy.
How nicely you did that, said Botho, as he sipped from his glass. Lord knows, I had nothing yesterday, nor to-day at the club that tasted like this. Hurrah for Lena! But the chief credit of it all belongs to our friend, Frau Dörr, because she had that shivering fit, and so I am going to drink a second health. Frau Dörr; Hurrah for Frau Dörr.
They all pronounced it a delicate drink, far finer than punch extract, which in summer always tastes of sour lemon, because you mostly get old bottles, which have been standing in the hot sun, in shop windows, ever since Shrove Tuesday. But cherry brandy was something wholesome and never spoiled, and rather than poison ones self with that bitter almond poison one ought to take some proper good stuff, at least a bottle.
It was Frau Dörr who made this remark, and her husband, who did not want things to go too far, perhaps because he knew his wifes pet weakness, urged their departure: There will be another day to-morrow.
Botho and Lena asked them to stay a while longer. But good Frau Dörr, who well knew that one must yield at the proper time, in order to keep the upper hand, merely said: Never mind, Lena. I know him; he wants to go to bed with the birds. Well, said Botho, what is settled is settled. But at least we will escort the Dörrs home.