Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
After Years
By Theodor Storm (1817–1888)
From ‘Immen-see’: Translation of H. Clark

ONCE more years have fled. It is a warm spring afternoon; and a young man, with sunburnt and strongly marked features, strolls leisurely along a shady road leading down the side of a hill. His grave gray eyes seem watching attentively for some alteration in the monotonous features of the road, which is long in making its appearance. By-and-by a cart comes slowly up the hill. “Halloo, good friend,” cries the wanderer to the peasant trudging by its side, “does this road lead to Immen-see?”  1
  “Straight on,” replies the man, touching his round hat.  2
  “Is it far from here?”  3
  “Your Honor’s just there. You’ll see the lake before you could half finish a pipe: the manor-house is close on to it.”  4
  The peasant went his way, and the other quickened his pace under the trees. After a quarter of a mile their friendly shade ceased on the left hand; and the path lay along the ridge of a descent, wooded with ancient oaks, whose crests hardly reached the level on which the traveler stood. Beyond these a wide landscape was glowing in the sunlight. Far beneath him lay the lake, calm, dark-blue, almost encircled by green waving forests, which, opening on but one side, disclosed an extensive perspective, bounded in its turn by a blue mountain range. Exactly opposite, it seemed as if snow had been strown among the green foliage of the woods: this effect was caused by the fruit-trees, now in full blossom; and amidst them, crowning the bank of the lake, stood the whitewashed manor-house,—a substantial edifice covered with red tiles. A stork flew from the chimney and circled slowly over the water. “Immen-see!” cried the traveler. It almost seemed as if he had reached the end of his journey; for he stood several minutes perfectly motionless, gazing over the summits of the trees at his feet towards the opposite shore, where the reflection of the house lay gently quivering on the water. Then suddenly he continued his course.  5
  The descent now became steep, so that the trees again shaded the path; but also shut out all view of the prospect beyond, of which a glimpse could only now and then be caught through their branches. Soon the ground again rose, and the woods were replaced by well-cultivated vineyards; on both sides of the road stood blossoming fruit-trees, among whose fragrant branches the bees were humming merrily and rifling the flowers. A stately man, clad in a brown coat, now advanced to meet our pedestrian; and when within a few paces he waved his cap in the air, and in a clear hearty voice joyfully exclaimed, “Welcome, brother Reinhardt! welcome to Immen-see!”  6
  “God bless you, Eric! thanks for your kind welcome!” cried the other in answer.  7
  Here the old friends met, and a hearty shaking of hands followed. “But is it really you?” said Eric after the first greeting, as he looked closely into the grave countenance of his old schoolfellow.  8
  “Certainly it is I. And you are your old self too, Eric; only you look, if possible, even more cheerful than you always used to do.”  9
  At these words a pleasant smile made Eric’s simple features look even merrier than before. “Yes, brother Reinhardt,” said he, once more pressing his friend’s hand: “since then I have drawn the great prize. But you know all about that.” Then, rubbing his hands and chuckling with inward satisfaction, he added, “That will be a surprise! She’d never expect him,—not him, to all eternity!”  10
  “A surprise? To whom then?” demanded Reinhardt.  11
  “To Elizabeth.”  12
  “Elizabeth! You do not mean that you have not told her of my visit?”  13
  “Not a word, brother Reinhardt! She’s not expecting you, nor does mother either. I invited you quite privately, that the pleasure might be all the greater. You know how I enjoy carrying out my little plans sometimes.”  14
  Reinhardt grew thoughtful; and as they approached the house, he with difficulty drew breath. On the left hand the vineyards were soon succeeded by a large kitchen-garden, stretching down to the water’s edge. Meanwhile the stork had descended to terra firma, and was marching gravely among the vegetable beds. “Halloo!” cried Eric, clapping his hands: “is that long-legged Egyptian stealing my short pea-sticks again?” The bird rose slowly, and perched on the roof of a new building, which, almost covered by the branches of the peach and apricot trees trained against it, lay at the end of the kitchen garden. “That is the manufactory,” said Eric. “I had that added two years ago. The business premises were built by my father, of blessed memory; the dwelling-house dates from my grandfather’s time. So each generation gets forward a little.”  15
  As he spoke, they reached an open space, bounded on both sides by the business premises, and on the background by the manor-house, whose two wings were joined by a high garden wall; which did not, however, quite shut out all view of the rows of dark yew-trees within, and over which drooped here and there the clusters of the now flowering lilacs. Men with faces heated alike by toil and exposure came and went, and saluted the two friends; and for each Eric had some order or inquiry respecting his daily work. At length they reached the house. A cool and spacious hall received them, at the end of which they entered a somewhat darker side passage. Here Eric opened a door, and they passed into a large garden-room. The thick foliage which covered the windows had filled both sides of this apartment with a sort of green twilight; but between these the wide-open folding-doors at once admitted the full splendor of the spring sunshine, and revealed the charming view of a garden, full of circular flower-beds and dark shady alleys, and divided down the centre by a broad walk, beyond which appeared the lake and the forest on its opposite shore. As the two companions entered, a breeze laden with delicious perfume from the parterres was wafted towards them.  16
  On the terrace, facing the garden, sat a slight, girlish figure. She rose, and advanced to meet the new-comers; but half-way paused and stared at the stranger, motionless as though rooted to the spot. He smiled, and held his hand towards her. “Reinhardt!” cried she, “Reinhardt! My God! is it you? It is long since we met.”  17
  “Long indeed,” said he,—and could utter no more; for as he heard her voice, a sharp bodily pang shot through his heart; and when he looked at her, she stood before him, the same sweet tender form to whom years ago, he had bidden farewell in his native place.  18
  Eric, his whole face beaming with delight, had remained standing at the door. “Well, Elizabeth,” said he, “what do you say to that? You didn’t expect him,—not him, to all eternity!”  19
  Elizabeth’s eyes were turned with a look of sisterly affection towards him. “You are always so kind, Eric!” said she.  20
  He took her small hand caressingly in his. “And now we have got him,” said he, “we will not let him go again in a hurry. He has been so long away, we must make him one of ourselves. He looks quite a stranger. Only see what a fine gentleman he has become!”  21
  Elizabeth stole a shy glance at the well-remembered face.  22
  “It is only the time that we have not seen each other,” said he.  23
  At this moment her mother entered, a little key-basket jingling on her arm. “Mr. Werner!” exclaimed she, on perceiving Reinhardt; “a guest as welcome as unexpected!” And now the conversation became general. The ladies settled themselves to their needlework; and while Reinhardt partook of the refreshments provided for him, Eric lighted his pipe, and sat, puffing and discoursing, by his side….  24
  Some days after this, when evening was drawing on, the family were assembled, as usual at this hour, in the garden-room. The door stood open, and the sun had already sunk behind the forests beyond the lake.  25
  At the request of the whole party, Reinhardt consented to read aloud some ballads which he had that afternoon received from a friend in the country. He went to his room, and returned, bringing a roll of papers, which seemed to consist of several clearly written but detached sheets of paper.  26
  They seated themselves round the table, Elizabeth by Reinhardt’s side. “We will take them as they come,” said he. “I have not yet had time to look them over.”  27
  Elizabeth unrolled the manuscripts. “Some are set to music,” said she. “You must sing them, Reinhardt.”  28
  The first he came to were some Tyrolese herdsman’s songs, of which he now and then hummed the cheerful airs as he read. A general gayety began to pervade the little circle.  29
  “Who can have composed these charming songs?” asked Elizabeth.  30
  “Ah!” said Eric, “easy enough to guess, I should think! Journeymen tailors and hairdressers, and merry souls of that sort!”  31
  “They never were composed,” observed Reinhardt: “they grow,—fall from the air, are borne on every breeze, like the gossamers, and are sung in thousands of spots at the same moment. Every circumstance of our own most personal actions or sufferings may be found described among these ballads. It is as though all had helped to write them.”  32
  He took up another sheet. “I stood on the high mountain—”  33
  “I know that!” cried Elizabeth. “You begin, and I will join in, Reinhardt!” And now they sang together that wondrous melody, which one can hardly believe to have been discovered by any merely human being; Elizabeth with her rather subdued contralto accompanying his deeper tones.  34
  The mother sat meanwhile stitching industriously at her needlework; and Eric had folded his hands, and was listening with the most devout attention. They finished; and Reinhardt silently laid the paper aside. From the shore of the lake the chiming of the cattle bells was borne through the still evening air. Involuntarily they listened, and then in a clear boy’s voice, the familiar sounds broke on their ear:—
  “I stood on the high mountain,
And marked the vale beneath.”
Reinhardt smiled. “Do you not hear? So it is carried from mouth to mouth.”
  “It is often sung about here,” said Elizabeth.  36
  “Yes,” remarked Eric: “it is only Caspar the cowboy, driving home the cattle.”  37
  They listened till the sounds had died away.  38
  “Those are creation’s echoes, and sleep in the forest depths,” said Reinhardt; “God alone knows who first awakened them.”  39
  He drew out a fresh leaf.  40
  It had already grown darker, and a crimson glow now bathed the distant woods which bounded their horizon. Reinhardt unrolled the paper. Elizabeth laid her hand on its other side, and looked over the lines with him. Reinhardt read:—

  “Mother would not list to me:
The other’s bride I was to be;
  All I had learnt to cherish
  Was from my heart to perish:
But that could never be.
“Mother well her work may rue:
Whom I fondly loved she knew;
  What else had been so blameless
  Is sinful now and shameless.
What shall I do?
“For all my joy and pride
I’ve now this grief to hide:
  Ah, were those vows unsaid!
  Ah, could I beg my bread
Far o’er yon brown hillside!”
  While reading, Reinhardt had noticed a slight trembling of the paper; and as he uttered the last words, Elizabeth gently pushed back her chair and passed silently into the garden. Her mother’s look followed her. Eric would have gone after her; but her mother remarked, “Elizabeth is engaged in the garden,” and nothing more passed.  42
  Gradually the pall of evening descended deeper and deeper on lake and garden. The bats flew whirring past the open doors, through which the perfume of the flowers and shrubs entered with ever-increasing strength. From the water rose the croaking of the frogs; and while the moon shed her calm radiance over the whole scene, a nightingale under the window commenced her song, soon answered by another from a thicket in the garden. Reinhardt’s gaze long rested on the spot where Elizabeth’s graceful form had disappeared among the trees; then he rolled up his papers, and bowing to his companions, he passed through the house and down to the quiet water.  43
  The silent forests threw their dark shadows far out over the lake, while the centre glistened in the pale moonlight. As he passed, a slight breeze shivered among the trees; but it was not wind,—it was but the breath of the summer night. Reinhardt strolled along the shore; and presently, at about a stone’s-throw from the water’s edge, he perceived a white water-lily. All at once the wish seized him to examine it more closely; and throwing off his clothes, he sprang into the water. The bottom was level. Sharp stones and plants wounded his feet, and still it never became deep enough for swimming. Suddenly the ground ceased from beneath him, the water closed over his head, and it was some time before he again rose to the surface. Now he struggled with hand and foot; and swam round in circles until he could find out where he had entered the lake. Soon he again saw the lily. She lay lonely among her broad, shining leaves. He swam slowly out, now and then raising his arms out of the water, while the falling drops glittered in the moonlight. Still it seemed as though the distance between himself and the flower would never lessen: only when he looked towards the shore its outline grew ever more and more indistinct. He would not, however, be baffled, and swimming boldly forward, he came at length so close to the object of his pursuit that he could clearly distinguish its silvery leaves; but at the same moment he felt himself caught in a network of its strong and slippery roots, which, rising from the earth, had entwined themselves round his naked limbs. The unknown waters stretched black around him; close behind he heard the spring of a fish; suddenly so strong a thrill of horror came over him in the strange element, that violently tearing himself free from the tangled plants, he swam in breathless haste to the shore. Here he once more looked back over the lake, where, beautiful and distant as ever, the lily yet floated upon the surface of the dark deep. He dressed, and returned slowly to the house; where, on entering, he found Eric and his mother-in-law busied with the preparations for a short journey on business matters which was to take place the following day.  44
  “Why, where have you been so late at night?” cried the lady.  45
  “I?” replied he: “I wished to pay a visit to the water-lily; but I could not manage it.”  46
  “Who would ever think of such a thing?” said Eric. “What the deuce had you to do with the lily?”  47
  “I knew her well in former days,—a long time ago,” answered Reinhardt.  48
  The following day Reinhardt and Elizabeth wandered together on the farther shore of the lake; now through the wood, and now on the steep and high banks by the water-side. Eric had begged Elizabeth during his and her mother’s absence to show their visitor all the most beautiful views of the neighborhood; and especially those from the farther shore, which commanded the house itself. Thus they rambled from one lovely spot to another, until at length Elizabeth became tired, and seated herself in the shade of some overhanging branches. Reinhardt stood opposite to her, leaning against the trunk of a tree. All at once, deep in the forest, he heard the cry of the cuckoo; and suddenly it struck him that all this had happened just so once before.  49
  “Shall we gather strawberries?” asked he, with a bitter smile.  50
  “It is not the strawberry season,” she replied.  51
  “It will soon be here, however.”  52
  Elizabeth shook her head in silence. She rose, and they continued their stroll. Often and often did his earnest gaze rest on her as she walked by his side,—she moved so gracefully, almost as though borne along by her light, floating drapery. Frequently he involuntarily remained a step behind, that he might the better observe her; and thus proceeding, they arrived at a wide, open heath, from which there was an extensive prospect over the surrounding country. Reinhardt stooped, and gathered something from among the plants which covered the ground. When he again looked up, his whole face bore an expression of passionate sorrow. “Do you know this flower?” demanded he.  53
  She looked at him inquiringly. “It is a heath: I have often found them in the woods.”  54
  “I have an old book at home,” continued he, “in which formerly I used to write all sorts of rhymes and songs,—though it is very long now since I did so. Between its leaves there lies another heath-blossom, though it is but a withered one. Do you remember who gave it me?”  55
  She bowed her head without reply; but her downcast eyes rested fixedly on the plant which he held in his hand. So they stood a long time; and as she again raised her eyes to his, he saw that they were full of tears.  56
  “Elizabeth,” said he, “behind yonder blue mountains lies our youth. Alas! what traces of it remain to us?”  57
  Neither spoke further. In silence they again descended to the lake. The air was sultry and heavy; lowering clouds began to gather in the west. “There will be a storm,” said Elizabeth, quickening her steps. Reinhardt nodded silently, and both walked rapidly along the shore till they reached their boat.  58
  As Reinhardt steered across, his look turned constantly on his companion; but no answering glance met his. With eyes fixed on the far distance, Elizabeth sat opposite to him, and allowed her hand to lie on the edge of the little skiff. Gradually his gaze sunk, and rested on it; and in a moment this slight and wasted hand betrayed all that her face had striven so well to conceal. On it the secret grief which will so frequently show itself in a beautiful woman-hand that lies all night on a sickened heart, had left its unmistakable traces; but as Elizabeth felt his eyes resting on her hand, she allowed it to glide slowly overboard into the water.  59
  On arriving at home, they found a knife-grinder’s cart posted in front of the house. A man with long and shaggy black locks stood busily turning the wheel and humming a gipsy air, while a dog, harnessed to his little vehicle, lay growling beside him on the ground. In the hall stood a ragged girl, with disfigured though once beautiful features, who stretched her hand towards Elizabeth, imploring charity. Reinhardt felt in his pocket; but Elizabeth was too quick for him, and hastily pouring the whole contents of her purse into the beggar’s hand, she turned abruptly away. Reinhardt heard her smothered sobs as she passed up the stairs.  60
  His first impulse was to follow her, but instantly recollecting himself, he remained behind. The girl still stood motionless in the hall, the money just given her in her hand.  61
  “What do you want?” asked Reinhardt.  62
  She started violently. “I want nothing more,” said she. Then turning her head and fixing on him her piercing gaze, she retreated slowly towards the door. A cry, a name, burst from his lips; but she heard it not. With bowed head, and arms folded on her breast, she crossed the court-yard below; while in his ear there sounded the long-forgotten and ominous words,—
  “Death, death will o’ertake me,
For a few moments the very power of breathing seemed suspended; then he too turned, and sought the solitude of his own chamber.
  He seated himself, and tried to study: but he could not collect his scattered thoughts; and after wasting an hour in a fruitless effort to fix his attention, he went down to the general sitting-room. No one was there,—only the cool green twilight. On Elizabeth’s work-table lay a red ribbon she had worn the previous day. He took it in his hand; but its very touch gave him pain, and he laid it down on its old resting-place. He could not rest. He went down to the lake, and unmooring the boat, he steered across, and once more went over every spot that he had visited so shortly before with Elizabeth. When he again returned to the house it was dark, and in the court-yard he met the coachman taking the carriage-horses to graze; the travelers were just returned. As he entered the hall, he heard Eric pacing up and down the garden-room. Reinhardt could not go to him. A moment he paused irresolute; then he softly mounted the stairs leading to his own room. Here he threw himself into an armchair at the window. He tried to persuade himself that he was listening to the nightingale which was already singing among the yew-trees beneath him; but he only heard the wild throbbing of his own heart. Below in the house all were going to rest. The night passed away; but he felt it not. For hours he sat thus. At length he rose, and lay down in the open window. The night-dew trickled between the leaves; the nightingale had left off singing. Gradually towards the east the deep blue of the leaves was broken by a pale yellow flush; a fresh breeze sprang up and played on Reinhardt’s burning forehead; the first lark sprang rejoicing in the air. Reinhardt turned quickly from the window, and went to the table. He felt for a pencil, with which he traced a few lines on a loose sheet of paper. This done, he took his hat and stick, and leaving the note on his desk, he carefully opened the door and descended into the hall. The gray dawn still rested in every corner: the great cat stretched herself out on the straw mat, and rubbed herself against the hand which he unconsciously held towards her. In the garden, however, the sparrows were already twittering among the branches, and proclaimed to every one that the night was past. Suddenly he heard a door open above. Some one came down the stairs, and as he looked up, Elizabeth stood before him. She laid her hand on his arm; she moved her lips, but he caught no sound. “Thou wilt never come back,” said she at length. “I know it. Do not deceive me. Thou wilt never come back.”  64
  “Never!” said he. She let her hand fall, and said no more. He crossed the hall to the door, and there he once more turned towards her. She stood motionless on the same spot, and gazed after him with dead, glazing eyes. He made one step forward, and stretched out his arms; then violently he tore himself away, and went out. Without lay the world in the fresh morning light. The dewdrops hanging in the spiders’ webs sparkled in the first rays of the sun. He looked not behind. Quickly he hurried forward; and as he left that quiet home farther and farther behind, there rose before him the wide, wide world.  65

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