Theodor Fontane (18191898). Trials and Tribulations.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
IT was already growing dark when they stood once more in front of Frau Nimptschs house, and Botho, who had quickly recovered his high spirits, wanted to come in for just a moment and then bid good-bye at once. But when Lena had reminded him of all sorts of promises, and Frau Dörr with much emphasis and much use of her eyes had reminded him of the still outstanding philopena, he yielded and decided to spend the evening.
That is right, said Frau Dörr. And I will stay too. That is, if I may and if I shall not be in the way of the philopena. For one can never know. And I will just take my hat and cloak home and then come right back.
No, no, laughed Frau Dörr, We shall never be so young when we meet again. And it is quite impossible, of course even if we should meet again to-morrow. For a day is always a day and must amount to something. And therefore it is perfectly true that we shall never be so young when we meet again. And every one must agree to that.
In this fashion she went on for a while longer, and the wholly undisputed fact of growing older every day pleased her so much that she repeated it several times yet. And then she went out. Lena escorted her out through the hall, while Botho sat down by Frau Nimptsch and asked, as he put her shawl around her shoulders, whether she was still angry with him for taking Lena away again for a couple of hours? But it had been so beautiful there on the mound where they had sat to rest and talk that they had quite forgotten the time.
Yes, happy people forget the time, said the old woman. And youth is happy, and that is right and good. But when one grows old, dear Herr Baron, the hours grow long and one wishes the day was done and life too.
But she had already regained her self-control and with a quick gesture she refused his sympathy, as if to say: Do not ask. And while Botho was talking with Frau Nimptsch, she went to the kitchen cupboard, rummaged about there a little and came back immediately with a perfectly cheerful face, bringing a little blue book sewed up in paper, which looked like the books in which housewives write down their daily tasks. In fact the book served this purpose and also contained questions which Lena had noted down either out of curiosity or because of some deeper interest. She now opened it and pointed to the last page, on which Bothos eyes immediately fell upon the heavily underscored words: Things I need to know.
It was fortunate that Frau Dörr was not present to hear this answer or else there would have been a fresh embarrassment. But the good lady who was usually so brisk, at least where the Baron was concerned, had not yet returned, and so Lena said: Very well, then, have it your own way. And for all I care, the two ladies may wait until another time! But what do the foreign names mean? I asked you before, the time you brought the bonbons. But you gave me no real answer, only half an answer. Is it a secret?
Botho was about to contradict this, both in earnest and in jest, but Frau Dörr, who just then came in, broke off the conversation, by excusing herself for having kept them waiting so long. But an order had come in and she had been obliged to make a burial wreath in a hurry.
Oh, Lord! went on Frau Nimptsch, every one is wild about ivy and azaleas, but I am not. Ivy is well enough when it grows on the grave and covers it all so green and thick that the grave seems as peaceful as he who lies below. But ivy in a wreath, that is not right. In my day we used immortelles, yellow or half yellow, and if we wanted something very fine we took red ones or white ones and made a wreath out of those, or even just one color and hung it on the cross, and there it hung all winter, and when spring came there it hung still. And some lasted longer than that. But this ivy and azalea is no good at all. And why not? because it does not last long. And I always think that the longer the wreath hangs on the grave, the longer people remember him who lies below. And a widow too, if she is not too young. And that is why I favor immortelles, yellow or red or even white, and any one can hang up another wreath also if he wants to. That is just for the looks of it. But the immortelle is the real thing.
Yes, child, everyone speaks as he thinks. And if one is thinking of a wedding, he talks about weddings, and if he is thinking of a funeral, then he talks about graves. And, anyway, I didnt begin talking about graves and wreaths; Frau Dörr began it, which was quite right. And I only keep on talking about it because I am always anxious and I keep thinking. Who will bring you one?
Yes, Lena, you are good, you are a dear child. But man proposes and God disposes, and to-day red, to-morrow dead. And you might die any day as well as I; for all that, I do not believe you will. And Frau Dörr may die, or when I die she may live somewhere else, or I may be living somewhere else and may have just moved in. Ah, my dear Lena, one can never be sure of anything, not even of a wreath for ones grave.
The aged womans face brightened for joy. There, now you have said something, Herr Baron. And now I shall have a wreath for my grave and it is dear to me that I shall have it. For I cannot endure bare graves, that look like a burial ground for orphans or prisoners or worse. But now make the tea, Lena, the water is boiling already, and we have strawberries and milk. And sour too. Heavens, the Herr Baron must be quite starved. Looking and looking makes folks hungry, I can remember so much yet. Yes, Frau Dörr, we had our youth, even if it was long ago. But men were the same then as they are to-day.
Frau Nimptsch, who happened to be talkative this evening, philosophised for a while longer, while Lena was bringing in the supper and Botho continued to amuse himself by teasing Frau Dörr. It was a good thing that she had put away her theatre, but not for the mound near Wilmersdorf. Where did she get the hat? No princess had such a hat. And he had never seen anything so becoming; he would not speak for himself alone, but a prince might have fallen in love with it.
The good woman did indeed realize that he was joking. But still she said: Yes, indeed, when Dörr once gets started, he is so eager and so fastidious that I can hardly tell what has come over him. Day by day he is quite dull, but all of a sudden he is as if he had changed into another man and then I always say to myself: there must be something the matter with him and this is the only way he knows how to show it.
And so the talk went on over the tea, until ten oclock. Then Botho rose to go and Lena and Frau Dörr accompanied him through the front garden to the gate. While they were standing there Frau Dörr reminded them that after all they had forgotten the philopena. Both seemed desirous to disregard this reminder and repeated once more how delightful the afternoon had been. We must make such little excursions oftener, Lena, and when I come again, we will think where to go. I shall be sure to think of something, some place where it is quiet and beautiful, and further away, and not just across the fields.