Theodor Fontane (18191898). Trials and Tribulations.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
WHEN Rienäcker was alone again, he was as if benumbed by this meeting and by all that he had heard toward the close of the interview. Whenever, since his marriage, he had recalled the little house in the garden and its inmates, he had as a matter of course pictured everything in his mind just as it had been formerly, and now everything was changed and he must find his way in a completely new world: there were strangers living in the little house, if indeed it was occupied at all; there was no fire burning in the fireplace any more, at least not day in and day out, and Frau Nimptsch, who had kept up the fire, was dead and buried in the new Jacobs churchyard. All this whirled round and round in his head, and suddenly he also recalled the day when, half seriously, half in jest, he had promised the good old woman to lay a wreath of immortelles on her grave. In the restlessness that had come over him, he was very glad that he had remembered the promise and decided to fulfil it at once. To the Rollkrug at noon and the sun reflected from the grounda regular journey to central Africa. But the good old woman shall have her wreath.
At the corner there was a cab stand, a small one, indeed, and so it happened that in spite of the sign: Standing room for three cabs there was usually nothing there but standing room or, very seldom, one cab. It was so to-day also, which in consideration of the noon hour (when all cabs are in the habit of disappearing as if the earth had swallowed them) was not particularly surprising at this cab stand which was one merely in name. Therefore Botho went further along, until, near the Von der Heydt Bridge, he met a somewhat rickety vehicle, painted light green, with a red plush seat and drawn by a white horse. The horse seemed barely able to trot and Rienäcker could not keep from smiling rather pitifully when he thought of the tour that was in store for the poor beast. But as far as his eye could see, nothing better was in sight, and so he stepped up to the driver and said: To the Rollkrug. Jacobs churchyard.
During this conversation Botho had got in, meaning to make himself as comfortable as possible in the corner of the plush cushioned seat, but he soon gave up that idea, for the corner was as hot as an oven.
Rienäcker had, in common with all Brandenburg noblemen, the pleasing and good-hearted trait that he preferred to talk with plain people rather than with more cultivated folk, and so he began at once, while they were in the half shade of the young trees along the canal: How hot it is! Your horse cannot have been much pleased when he heard me say Rollkrug.
Oh, Rollkrug is well enough; Rollkrug is well enough because of the woods. When he gets there and smells the pines, he is always pleased. You see, he is from the country. Or perhaps it is the music too. At any rate, he always pricks up his ears.
There is no use talking about pretty well. Everything costs too much and one has to have always the best quality. And hay is dear. But I should do well enough, if only nothing would happen. But something is always sure to happento-day an axle breaks and to-morrow a horse falls down. I have another horse at home, a light bay, that used to be with the Fürstenwald Uhlans; a good horse, only he has no wind and he will not last much longer. And all of a sudden he will be gone. And then the traffic police; never satisfied, you mustnt go here and you mustnt go there. And one is always having to repaint. And red plush is not to be had for nothing.
While they were chatting together, they had driven along by the canal, as far as the Halle Gate. And now a battalion of infantry with the band playing spiritedly was coming straight toward them from the Kreuzberg, and Botho, who did not wish to meet acquaintances, urged the coachman to drive faster. And they passed rapidly over the Belle-Alliance Bridge, but on the further side, Botho asked the driver to stop, because he had seen a sign on one of the first houses that read: Artistic and Practical Florist. Three or four steps led into a shop, in the show window of which were all kinds of wreaths.
The young woman in black, who, perhaps because she sold mostly funeral wreaths, looked ridiculously like one of the Fates (even the shears were not lacking), came back quickly with an evergreen wreath with white roses among the green. She apologised at once for having only white roses. White camellias were far more expensive. Botho, for his part, was satisfied, declined to have more flowers shown him and only asked whether he could not have a wreath of immortelles in addition to the wreath of fresh flowers.
The young woman seemed rather surprised at the old-fashioned notions that this question seemed to imply, but assented and immediately brought a box containing five or six wreaths of yellow, red and white immortelles.
I think I had better decide on this one at once. And Botho took the yellow wreath that lay nearest him, hung it on his arm, put the wreath of white roses with it and got quickly into his cab. Both wreaths were rather large and took up so much room on the red plush seat that Botho thought of handing them over to the driver. But he soon decided against this change, saying to himself: If one wants to carry a wreath to old Frau Nimptsch, one must be willing to own up to the wreath. And if one is ashamed of it, he should not have promised it.
So he let the wreaths lie where they were, and almost forgot them, as the carriage immediately turned into a part of the road whose varied and here and there grotesque scenes led him aside from his former thoughts. On the right, at a distance of about five hundred paces, was a board fence, above which could be seen all sorts of booths, pavilions, and doorways decorated with lamps, and all covered with a wealth of inscriptions. Most of these were of rather recent, or even extremely recent, date, but a few of the biggest and brightest dated further back, and, although in a weather-beaten state, they had lasted over from the previous year. Among these pleasure resorts, and alternating with them, various artisans had set up their workshops, especially sculptors and stone cutters, who mostly exhibited crosses, pillars, and obelisks hereabouts, because of the numerous cemeteries. All this could not fail to strike whoever passed this way, and Rienäcker too was strangely impressed, as he read from the cab, with growing curiosity, the endless and strongly contrasted announcements and looked at the accompanying pictures. Fräulein Rosella, the living wonder maiden; Crosses and Gravestones at the Lowest Prices; Quick Photography, American Style; Russian Ball throwing, six shots for ten pfennig; Swedish Punch with Waffles; Figaros Finest Opportunity, or the First Hairdressing Parlor in the World; Crosses and Gravestones at the Lowest Prices; Swiss Shooting Gallery:
Finally the cab reached the end of the long board fence and at this point the road made a sharp turn toward the wood and now, breaking the stillness of noon, the rattle of guns could be heard from the shooting stands. Otherwise everything was much the same on this continuation of the street: Blondin, clad only in his tights and his medals, was balancing on the tightrope, with fireworks flashing around him, while near him various small placards announced balloon ascensions as well as the pleasures of the dance. One read: A Sicilian Night. At two oclock Vienna Bonbon Waltzes.
Botho, who had not seen this place for a long time, read all these placards with real interest, until after he had passed through the wood, where he found the shade very refreshing for a few minutes, and beyond which he turned into the principal street of a populous suburb that extended as far as Rixdorf. Wagons, two and even three abreast, were passing before him, until suddenly everything came to a standstill and the traffic was blocked. What are we stopping for? he asked, but before the coachman could answer, Botho heard cursing and swearing from in front, and saw that the wagons had become wedged. He leaned forward and looked about with interest, true to his fondness for plain people, and apparently the incident would have amused rather than annoyed him, if both the load and the inscription on a wagon that had stopped in front of him had not impressed him painfully. Broken glass bought and sold, Max Zippel, Rixdorf was painted in big letters on the high tailboard and a perfect mountain of pieces of glass was piled up in the body of the wagon. Luck goes with glass And he looked at the load with distaste and felt as if the fragments were cutting all his finger tips.
But at last the wagons moved on again and the horse did his best to make up for lost time, and before long the driver stopped before a corner house, with a high roof and a projecting gable and ground floor windows so low that they were almost on a level with the street. An iron bracket projected from the gable, supporting a gilded key placed upright.
The driver gave the horse a cut with the whip and they began to go up a rather steep, hilly street, on one side of which lay the old Jacobs cemetery, which was half closed up because of being over full, while across the street from the cemetery fence rose some high tenement houses.
In front of the last house stood some wandering musicians, apparently man and wife, with a horn and a harp. The woman was singing too, but the wind, which was rather strong here, blew the sound away up hill and only when Botho had gone more than ten steps beyond the poor old couple, was he able to distinguish the words and melody. It was the same song that they had sung so happily long ago on the walk to Wilmersdorf, and he sat up and looked out as if the music had called him back to the musicians. They, however, were facing another way and did not see him, but a pretty maid, who was washing windows on the gable side of the house, and who might have thought that the young officer was looking back at her, waved her chamois skin gayly at him and joined vigorously in the chorus:
Ich denke dran, ich danke dir, mein Leben; doch du Soldat,
Botho threw himself back in the cab and buried his face in his hands, while an endlessly sweet, sad feeling swept over him. But the sadness outweighed the sweetness and he could not shake it off until he had left the town behind and saw the Müggelberg on the distant horizon in the blue midday haze.