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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The First False Step
By Berthold Auerbach (1812–1882)
 
From ‘On the Heights’: Translation of Simon Adler Stern

THE BALL was to be given in the palace and the adjoining winter garden. The intendant now informed Irma of his plan, and was delighted to find that she approved of it. At the end of the garden he intended to erect a large fountain, ornamented with antique groups. In the foreground he meant to have trees and shrubbery and various kinds of rocks, so that none could approach too closely; and the background was to be a Grecian landscape, painted in the grand style.  1
  Irma promised to keep his secret. Suddenly she exclaimed, “We are all of us no better than lackeys and kitchen-maids. We are kept busy stewing, roasting, and cooking for weeks, in order to prepare a dish that may please their Majesties.”  2
  The intendant made no reply.  3
  “Do you remember,” continued Irma, “how, when we were at the lake, we spoke of the fact that man possessed the advantage of being able to change his dress, and thus to alter his appearance? While yet a child, masquerading was my greatest delight. The soul wings its flight in callow infancy. A bal costumé is indeed one of the noblest fruits of culture. The love of coquetry which is innate with all of us displays itself there undisguised.”  4
  The intendant took his leave. While walking away, his mind was filled with his old thoughts about Irma.  5
  “No,” said he to himself, “such a woman would be a constant strain, and would require one to be brilliant and intellectual all day long. She would exhaust one,” said he, almost aloud.  6
  No one knew what character Irma intended to appear in, although many supposed that it would be as “Victory,” since it was well known that she had stood for the model of the statue that surmounted the arsenal. They were busy conjecturing how she could assume that character without violating the social proprieties.  7
  Irma spent much of her time in the atelier, and worked assiduously. She was unable to escape a feeling of unrest, far greater than that she had experienced years ago when looking forward to her first ball. She could not reconcile herself to the idea of preparing for the fête so long beforehand, and would like to have had it take place in the very next hour, so that something else might be taken up at once. The long delay tried her patience. She almost envied those beings to whom the preparation for pleasure affords the greatest part of the enjoyment. Work alone calmed her unrest. She had something to do, and this prevented the thoughts of the festival from engaging her mind during the day. It was only in the evening that she would recompense herself for the day’s work, by giving full swing to her fancy.  8
  The statue of Victory was still in the atelier and was almost finished. High ladders were placed beside it. The artist was still chiseling at the figure, and would now and then hurry down to observe the general effect, and then hastily mount the ladder again in order to add a touch here or there. Irma scarcely ventured to look up at this effigy of herself in Grecian costume—transformed and yet herself. The idea of being thus translated into the purest of art’s forms filled her with a tremor, half joy, half fear.  9
  It was on a winter afternoon. Irma was working assiduously at a copy of a bust of Theseus, for it was growing dark. Near her stood her preceptor’s marble bust of Doctor Gunther. All was silent; not a sound was heard save now and then the picking or scratching of the chisel.  10
  At that moment the master descended the ladder, and drawing a deep breath, said:—  11
  “There—that will do. One can never finish. I shall not put another stroke to it. I am afraid that retouching would only injure it. It is done.”  12
  In the master’s words and manner, struggling effort and calm content seemed mingled. He laid the chisel aside. Irma looked at him earnestly and said:—  13
  “You are a happy man; but I can imagine that you are still unsatisfied. I don’t believe that even Raphael or Michael Angelo was ever satisfied with the work he had completed. The remnant of dissatisfaction which an artist feels at the completion of a work is the germ of a new creation.”  14
  The master nodded his approval of her words. His eyes expressed his thanks. He went to the water-tap and washed his hands. Then he placed himself near Irma and looked at her, while telling her that in every work an artist parts with a portion of his life; that the figure will never again inspire the same feelings that it did while in the workshop. Viewed from afar, and serving as an ornament, no regard would be had to the care bestowed upon details. But the artist’s great satisfaction in his work is in having pleased himself; and yet no one can accurately determine how, or to what extent, a conscientious working up of details will influence the general effect.  15
  While the master was speaking, the King was announced. Irma hurriedly spread a damp cloth over her clay model.  16
  The King entered. He was unattended, and begged Irma not to allow herself to be disturbed in her work. Without looking up, she went on with her modeling. The King was earnest in his praise of the master’s work.  17
  “The grandeur that dwells in this figure will show posterity what our days have beheld. I am proud of such contemporaries.”  18
  Irma felt that the words applied to her as well. Her heart throbbed. The plaster which stood before her suddenly seemed to gaze at her with a strange expression.  19
  “I should like to compare the finished work with the first models,” said the king to the artist.  20
  “I regret that the experimental models are in my small atelier. Does your Majesty wish me to have them brought here?”  21
  “If you will be good enough to do so.”  22
  The master left. The King and Irma were alone. With rapid steps the King mounted the ladder, and exclaimed in a tremulous voice:—  23
  “I ascend into heaven—I ascend to you. Irma, I kiss you, I kiss your image, and may this kiss forever rest upon those lips, enduring beyond all time. I kiss thee with the kiss of eternity.” He stood aloft and kissed the lips of the statue. Irma could not help looking up, and just at that moment a slanting sunbeam fell on the King and on the face of the marble figure, making it glow as if with life.  24
  Irma felt as if wrapped in a fiery cloud, bearing her away into eternity.  25
  The King descended and placed himself beside her. His breathing was short and quick. She did not dare to look up; she stood as silent and as immovable as a statue. Then the King embraced her—and living lips kissed each other.  26
 
 
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