Theodor Fontane (18191898). Trials and Tribulations.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
BOTHO gazed at the ashes. How little and yet how much. And then he replaced the handsome fire screen, in the centre of which was a copy of a Pompeian frescoed figure. A hundred times his eye had glanced at it without noticing what it really was, but to-day he saw it and said: Minerva with her shield and spear. But her spear is resting on the ground. Perhaps that signifies peace Would that it might be so. And then he rose, closed the secret drawer which had now been despoiled of its chief treasure and returned to the front of the house.
As he was passing through the long, narrow corridor, he met the cook and the housemaid who were just coming back from a walk in the Zoological Garden. As he saw them both standing there nervous and confused, he felt a movement of compassion, but he controlled it and reminded himself, although indeed somewhat ironically, that it was high time that an example should be made. So he began, as well as he could, to play the part of Jove with his thunderbolts. Where in the world had they been? Was that the proper way to behave? Their mistress might come home any time, perhaps even to-day, and he had no desire to hand over a disorganised household to her. And the man too? Now, I dont want to know anything about it, I will not listen; least of all to any excuses. And when he had finished his little scolding, he walked on smiling, chiefly at himself. How easy it is to preach and how hard it is to live up to ones principles. I am a hero only in words. Am I not myself out of bounds? Have I not, myself, fallen away from correct and virtuous customs? That it has been, might be tolerated, but that it still is, that is the worst.
So saying he took his former seat on the balcony and rang. His man came now, almost more nervous and troubled than the women, but there was no longer any need, for the storm was over. Tell the cook to get me something to eat. Well, what are you waiting for? Oh, I see now (and he laughed), there is nothing in the house. All this happens so conveniently Then some tea; bring me tea, that will surely be in the house. And let them make a couple of sandwiches. Good Lord, how hungry I am. And have the evening papers come yet?
The tea table was soon served on the balcony and a bit of something to eat had also been discovered. Botho leaned back in a rocking chair and gazed thoughtfully at the little blue flame. Then he picked up his little wifes monitor, the Fremdenblatt, and after that the Kreuzzeitung, and looked at the last page. Heavens, how glad Katherine will be, when she can study this last page every day fresh from the source, that is, twelve hours earlier than in Schlangenbad. And is she not right? Adalbert von Lichterloh, Government Referendar and Lieutenant of Reserves, and Hildegard von Lichterloh, née Holtze, have the honor to announce their marriage which took place to-day. Wonderful! And really it is fine to see how life and love goes on in the world. Weddings and christenings! And now and then a few deaths interspersed. Oh well, one does not need to read them. Katherine does not, nor I either, and only when the Vandals have lost one of their alten Herren and I see the name of my regiment among the death notices do I read it; that interests me and it always seems to me as if the old camp at Hofbräu were invited to Walhalla. Spatenbräu is still more suitable.
He laid the paper aside, because the bell rung Can she really No, it was nothing but a bill of fare of soups sent up by the landlord with a charge of fifty pfennings. But for all that he was much disturbed all the evening, because he constantly imagined the possibility of a surprise, and whenever he saw a cab with a trunk in front and a ladys travelling hat on the back seat turning into the Landgrafenstrasse, he would exclaim to himself: That is she; she loves such doings and I can already hear her saying: I thought it would be so funny, Botho.
However, Katherine did not come. A letter from her came next morning instead, in which she said that she should return on the third day after the date of the letter. She wanted to travel with Frau Salinger again, for, take it for all in all, she was a very nice woman, with many pleasant traits, a great deal of style and also knew how to travel very comfortably.
Botho laid down the letter and for the moment was sincerely pleased at the thought of seeing his pretty young wife within three days. There is room in the human heart for all sorts of contradictions. She talks nonsense, certainly, but even a foolish young wife is better than none at all.
Then he called the servants and told them that their mistress was coming back in three days; they must have everything in order and polish all the locks and other brasses. And there must be no fly specks on the big mirror.
His programme for the intervening time was, that until noon he would be on the parade ground, then ride for a couple of hours and after his ride dine at the club. If he did not find anyone else there, he would at least find Balafré, which implied two-handed whist and a wealth of true of untrue stories of the Court. For Balafré, however trustworthy he was, made it a principle to set aside one hour of the day for humbug and exaggeration. Indeed, with him, this activity took the lead among the pleasures of the mind.
And the programme was carried out just as it was planned. The big clock at the barracks was striking twelve as he sprung into the saddle and after he had passed the Lindens and immediately after the Luisenstrasse, he at last turned into a road that ran along beside the canal and further on ran in the direction of Plötzensee. As he rode along, he recalled the day when he had ridden here before, to gain courage for his parting with Lena, for the parting that had been so hard for him and that still had to be. That was three years ago. And what had there been for him in the meantime? Much happiness, certainly. But it had been no real happiness. A sugar plum, not much more. And who can live on sweets alone!
He was still brooding over these thoughts, when he saw two comrades coming along a bridle path from the woods towards the canal. They were Uhlans, as he could plainly see even from a distance by their Czapkas. But who were they? To be sure, he could not remain long in doubt and before they had approached within a hundred paces, Botho saw that they were the Rexins, cousins, and both from the same regiment.
That is worth thinking of. I believe I will join the party, that is, provided that I do not intrude. Kurt (and as he spoke he turned to his younger companion), I beg your pardon. But I want to speak with Rienäcker. And under the circumstances
You would rather speak with him privately. Just as you prefer, Bozel, and Kurt von Rexin touched his hat and rode on. The cousin who had been addressed as Bozel, however, turned his horse around, took the left side of Rienäcker, who was far above him in rank and said: Very well then, to Saatwinkel. We shall take care not to ride into the Tegeler rifle range.
At all events I shall try to avoid it, replied Rienäcker, first for my own sake and second for yours. And third and last because of Henrietta. What would that interesting brunette say, if her Bogislaw should be shot and killed and that too by some friend?
An affair! laughed Botho. Why, I am at your service, Rexin. But, to be frank with you, I hardly know just what leads you to confide in me. I am not a remarkable fount of wisdom in any direction, least of all in this. And then, too, we have quite different authorities. One of these you know very well. And moreover he is a special friend of yours and of your cousins.
Rexin felt that there was something like reluctance or refusal in these words and stopped talking with some air of finality. But that was more than Botho had meant, and so he led on a little further. Affairs. Pardon me, Rexin, there are so many affairs.
Botho shrugged his shoulders and smiled. But Rexin, evidently not meaning to be stopped the second time through his own sensitiveness, only repeated in an indifferent tone: Yes, however many there are, yet they are different. And I wonder, Rienäcker, that you should be the one to shrug your shoulders. I really thought
And after a while Rexin went on: I have been through the University, and have served with the Uhlans, and before that (you know I joined them rather late) I was at Bonn and Göttingen and I need no instruction and advice when the case is a usual one. But when I examine myself carefully, I find that in my case the affair is not usual but exceptional.
To speak plainly, I feel myself engaged, and more than that, I love Henrietta, or to show you my feeling more plainly, I love my dark Yetta. Yes, this importunate pet name with its suggestion of the canteen suits me best, because I want to avoid all solemn airs in this connection. I feel sufficiently in earnest and just because I am in earnest, I feel no need of anything like pompous or artificial forms of speech. They only weaken the expression.
Yetta, Rexin went on, is not descended from a line of angels nor is she one herself. But where can you find one who is? In our own sphere? Absurd. All these distinctions are purely artificial and the most artificial are to be found in the realm of virtue. Naturally, virtue and other such fine things do exist, but innocence and virtue are like Bismarck and Moltke, that is, they are rare. I have observed very carefully her life and conduct, I believe her to be genuine and I intend to act accordingly as far as possible. And now listen, Rienäcker. If, instead of riding beside this tiresome canal, as straight and monotonous as the forms and formulas of our society, I say, if we were now riding by the Sacramento instead of beside this wretched ditch, and if we had the diggings before us instead of the Tegeler shooting range, I would marry Yetta at once. I cannot live without her. She has bewitched me, and her simplicity, modesty and genuine love have more weight with me than ten countesses. But it is impossible, I cannot treat my parents so, and besides, I cannot leave the service at twenty-seven years of age, to become a cowboy in Texas or a waiter on a Mississippi steamer. Therefore the middle way.
If you like, yes. The mere word means nothing to me, just as little as legalisation, sanctification, or whatever else such things may be called; I am a bit touched with nihilism and have no real faith in the blessing of the church. But, to cut a long story short, I am in favor of monogamy, not on moral grounds, but because I cannot help it, and because of my own inborn nature. All relations are repugnant to me, where beginning and breaking off may happen within the same hour, so to speak. And if I just now called myself a nihilist, I may with still more justice call myself a Philistine. I long for simple forms, for a quiet, natural way of living, where heart speaks to heart and where one has the best that there is, faithfulness, love and freedom.
And I will answer you, said Rienäcker, who was growing more and more serious, as these confidences recalled his own life, both past and present, to his mind. Yes, Rexin, I will answer you as well as I can, and I believe that I am able to answer you. And so I implore you, keep out of all that. In such a relation as you are planning for, only two things are possible, and the one is fully as bad as the other. If you play the true and faithful lover, or what amounts to the same thing, if you break entirely with your position and birth and the customs of your class, sooner or later, if you do not go to pieces altogether, you will become a horror and a burden to yourself; but if things do not go that way, and if, as is more common, you make your peace, after a year or more, with your family and with the social order, then there is sorrow, for the tie must be loosened which has been knit and strengthened by happiness, and alas, what means still more, by unhappiness and pain and distress. And that hurts dreadfully.
Rexin looked as if he were about to answer, but Botho did not notice him and went on: My dear Rexin, a short time ago you were speaking, in a way that might serve as a model of decorous expression, of relations where beginning and breaking off may happen within the same hour, but these relations, which are really none at all, are not the worst. The worst are those, to quote you once more, which keep to the middle course. I warn you, beware of this middle course, beware of half-way measures. What you think is gain is bankruptcy, and what seems to you a harbor means shipwreck. That way leads to no good, even if to outward appearances all runs smoothly and no curse is pronounced and scarcely a gentle reproach is uttered. And there is no other way. For everything brings its own natural consequences, we must remember that. Nothing that has happened can be undone, and an image that has once been engraved in the soul, never wholly fades out again, never completely disappears. Memory remains and comparisons will arise in the mind. And so once more, my friend, give up your intention or else the whole course of your life will be disturbed and you will never again win your way through to clearness and light. Many things may be permitted, but not those that involve the soul, not those that entangle the heart, even if it is only your own.