Theodor Fontane (18191898). Trials and Tribulations.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
TOWARDS twelve his service at the barracks being over, Botho von Rienäcker was walking along under the Lindens toward the Gate, simply with the intention of filling up the time as well as he could until his interview at Hillers. Two or three picture shops were very welcome to him in this interim. At Lepkes there were a couple of Oswald Achenbachs in the show window, among them a street in Palermo, dirty and sunny, and strikingly truthful as to life and color. There are things, then, about which one is never quite clear. So it is with these Achenbachs. Until recently I always swore by Andreas; but when I see something like this, I do not know that Oswald is not this equal or his superior. In any case he is more brilliant and varied. But such things as this I can only think to myself, for to say them before people would be to lower the value of my Storm at Sea by half, and quite unnecessarily.
Thinking of these matters he stood for a time before Lepkes show window and then walked across the Parisian Square to the Gate and the path turning sharply to the left toward the Zoological Garden, until he paused before Wolfs group of lions. Here he looked at the clock. Half past twelve. Then it is time. And so he turned and went back over the same path towards the Lindens.
Yes, but what of it? I am to breakfast with an old uncle of mine, an old Neumärker who lives in an odd corner with Aldermann, Petermann and Zimmermannall names that rhyme with man, but without connection or obligation. By the way, he was once in your regiment, my Uncle, I mean. To be sure it was long ago, about forty years. Baron Osten.
The same. I tell you what, Wedell, you had better come too. The club can wait and Pitt and Serge too; you can find them at three just as well as at one. The old gentleman is still wild over the blue and gold of the dragoons, and is enough of a Neumärker to consider every Wedell an acquisition.
During this talk they had reached Hillers, where the old Baron was already standing by the glass door looking out, for it was a minute after one. He made no comments, however, and was evidently overjoyed when Botho presented Lieutenant von Wedell.
No excuses, Herr von Wedell, everyone who bears the name of Wedell is welcome to me, and doubly and trebly so when wearing this coat. Come, gentlemen, we will extricate ourselves from this mêlée of tables and chairs, and concentrate in the rear as well as we can. It is not Prussian to retreat, but here it does not matter. And therewith he preceded his guests to choose a good place, and after looking into several little private rooms, he decided on a rather large room, with walls of some leather colored material, which was not very light, in spite of the fact that it had a broad window in three parts, because this looked out on a narrow and dark court. The table was already laid for four, but in the twinkling of an eye the fourth cover was removed, and while the two officers placed their side arms in the corner of the window, the old Baron turned to the head waiter, who had followed at some distance, and ordered a lobster and some white Burgundy. But what kind, Botho?
Very well, Chablis, and fresh water. But not from the tap. I want it cold in a carafe. And now, gentlemen, be seated: my dear Wedell, sit here, and Botho there. If only we hadnt this heat, this dog-day weather coming so early. Air, gentlemen, air. Your beautiful Berlin, (which, so they tell me, grows more beautiful all the time, at least those who know no better say so), your beautiful Berlin has everything but air. And with these words he threw open the big window sash, and sat so that he had the large middle opening directly opposite him.
The lobster had not yet come, but the Chablis was already on the table. Old Baron Osten restlessly began to cut one of the rolls from the basket quickly and skilfully into diagonal strips, merely for the sake of having something to do. Then he laid down the knife again and offered his hand to Wedell. I am endlessly grateful to you, Herr von Wedell, and it was a brilliant idea of Bothos to alienate your affections from the club for a couple of hours. I take it as a good omen, to have the privilege of meeting a Wedell immediately after my arrival in Berlin.
And now he began to fill the glasses, because he could not control his uneasiness any longer. He ordered a bottle of Clicquot to be set to cool and then went on: Really, dear Wedell, we are related; there are no Wedells to whom we are not related, were it only through a bushel of peas; we all have Neumärk blood. And when I see the blue of my old dragoons once more, my heart jumps right up in my mouth. Yes, Herr von Wedell, old affection does not rust. But here comes the lobster. Please bring me the big shears. The shears are always the best. But, as I was saying, old love does not grow rusty, nor the edge of the blade either. And I wish to add, the Lord be praised. In those days we still had old Dobeneck. Heavens, what a man he was! A man like a child. But if things did not go well and would not work out properly, I should have liked to see the man who could keep his face under old Dobenecks eye. He was a regular old East Prussian dating from the year 13 and 14. We were afraid of him, but we loved him too. For he was like a father. And, do you know, Herr von Wedell, who my riding master was ?
But that was not wise nor clever of Botho, as was soon manifest, for the old Baron, who was already subject to congestion, turned red all over his bald head and what little curly hair still remained on his temples seemed to curl still tighter. I dont understand you, Botho; what do you mean by one may well say so, that is the same as to say one might also not say so. And I know, too, what all this points to. It signifies that a certain officer of Cuirassiers from the reserves, who, for the rest, held nothing in reserve, least of all revolutionary measures, it signifies, I say, that a certain man from Halberstadt with a sulphur-yellow collar, himself personally stormed St. Privat and closed the great circle around Sedan. Botho, you ought not to come to me with any such tale as that. He was a young barrister and worked for the government at Potsdam, and what is more, under old Meding, who never spoke well of him, as I know, and for that matter, he never learned anything but how to write despatches. I am willing to grant him that much, he does understand that, or in other words, he is a quill driver. But it is not quill drivers who have made Prussia great. Was the hero of Fehrbellin a quill driver? Was the hero of Leuthen a quill driver? Was Blücher a quill driver, or York? The power of the Prussian pen is here! I cannot suffer this cult.
But, but, I will tolerate no buts. Believe me, Botho, it takes years to settle such questions; I understand such things better. How is it then? He tips over the ladder by which he has climbed, and even suppresses the Kreuzzeitung, and, to speak plainly, he ruins us; he despises us, he tells us foolish things, and if he takes a notion to, he denounces us for robbery or interception of documents and sends us to the fortress. But why do I say fortress? The fortress is for decent people; no, he sends us to the poor-house to pluck wool. But air, gentlemen, air. There is no air here. Damnable hole.
And he jumped up, and in addition to the middle window which was already open, he flung wide the two side windows also, so that the draught that passed through blew the curtains and the tablecloth about. Then, sitting down again, he took a piece of ice from the champagne cooler and passed it over his forehead.
Ah, he went on, this piece of ice is the best thing in the whole breakfast. And now tell me, Herr von Wedell, am I right or not? Botho, with your hand on your heart, am I right? Is it not true that one, as a member of the Märkisch nobility, may talk oneself into a charge of high treason simply through the pure indignation of a nobleman? Such a man from one of our very finest families finer than Bismarcks, and so many have fallen for the throne and for the Hohenzollerns, that you could form a whole regimental company of them, a company with helmets, and the Boitzenburger to command them. Yes, my friends. And such an affront to such a family. And what for? Interception of documents, indiscretion, betrayal of official secrets. I should like to know if there is anything else left except child murder and offences against morality, and it is actually strange that they have not loaded those on also. But you gentlemen are not saying any thing. Speak out, I beg you. Believe me, I can listen to other opinions patiently; I am not like him; speak, Herr von Wedell, speak.
Wedell, whose embarrassment was increasing, sought for some soothing and reconciling words: Certainly, Herr Baron, it is as you say. But, pardon me, at the time that the affair was decided, I heard many express the opinion, and the words have remained in my memory, that the weaker must give up all idea of crossing the path of the stronger, for that is impossible in life just as in politics. Once for all it is so: might is more than right.
Oh yes, Herr Baron. Under some circumstances an appeal is possible. And, to be perfectly frank, I have known of cases where opposition was justified. What weakness dare not venture, sincerity might, the sincerity of belief, the courage of conviction. In such cases resistance is not only a right but a duty. But who has this sincerity? Had he But I will be silent, for I do not want to offend either you, Herr Baron, or the family to whom we have reference. But you know, even without my telling you, that he who had that audacity, had not such sincerity of belief. He who is merely the weaker should dare nothing, only the pure in heart should dare everything.
Only the pure in heart should dare everything, repeated the old Baron, with such a roguish expression, that it seemed doubtful whether he was more impressed by the truth or by the untenability of the thesis. The pure in heart should dare everything. A capital saying which I shall carry away with me. It will please my pastor, who undertook a controversy with me last autumn and demanded a strip of my land. Not for his own sake, the Lord forbid! but for the sake of principle, and of posterity, for which reasons he ought not to yield. The sly old fox. But the pure in heart should dare everything.
Yes, he was a tutor there and knew no better than to shorten the lesson hours and lengthen the recreation hours. And he could play grace-hoops like a young marquis; really, it was a pleasure to watch him. But now he has been seven years in orders and you would never know the Schönemann who used to pay court to the charming mistress of the house. But I must admit this, he educated both the young ladies well, especially your Katherine.
Botho glanced timidly at his uncle, almost as if to beg him to be discreet. But the old Baron, delighted to have seized upon so favorable an opportunity to enter on his favorite theme, went on in exuberant and ever-increasing good humor: There, there, Botho. Discretion. Nonsense! Wedell is from our region and must know the story just as well as anyone else. Why should we keep silence about such things? You are already as good as bound. And God knows, young man, when I pass the young girls in review, you cannot find a betterteeth like pearls, and she is always laughing so that you can see the whole row. A flaxen blonde to tempt your kisses, and if I were only thirty years younger, I declare
Wedell, who noticed Bothos confusion, tried to come to his aid and said: The Sellenthin ladies are all very pleasing, the mother as well as the daughters; last summer I met them in Norderney, and they were charming, but I would prefer the second.
So much the better, Wedell. You will not come into any conflict and we can celebrate a double wedding. And Schönemann may be sure that if Kluckhuhn, who is touchy like all old people, agrees, I will not only put a spoke in his wheel, but I will give up the strip of parsonage land to him without further ado if I can see such a wedding within the year. You are rich, dear Wedell, and there is really no haste about you. But look at our friend Botho. That he looks so well nourished is no thanks to his sandy wastes, which, excepting a couple of meadows, are really nothing but a nursery of young pines, and still less to his eel pond. Eel pond, sounds wonderful, you might almost say poetic. But that is all. One cannot live on eels. I know you do not like to hear about this, but so long as we are on the subject, I may as well come out with it. How do matters stand, then? Your grandfather had the timber cut down and your late fathera capital fellow, but I never saw anyone play the man of affairs so poorly and so expensively tooyour late father, I say, divided up the five hundred acres of eastern farming-land among the Jeseritz peasants, and there is not much good land left, and the thirty thousand thalers are long since gone. If you were alone, it might do, but you must share with your brother, and at present the mamma, my sister Liebden, has the whole still in her hands, an admirable woman, clever and skilful, but she does not err on the saving side. Botho, what is the use of belonging to the Imperial Cuirassiers and what is the use of having a rich cousin, who is only waiting for you to come and seal and ratify by a formal proposal what your parents had already agreed upon when you were still children? Why consider longer? Listen, if I could go to your mother to-morrow on my return and bring her the news: Dear Josephine, Botho consents; everything is arranged, listen, boy, that would be something for an old uncle who means well by you to rejoice over. Speak to him, Wedell. It is time that he should quit this bachelor life. Otherwise he will squander his bit of property or get caught by some little bourgeoise. Am I right? Naturally. Done! And we must drink to the happy event. But not with these dregs. And he rang the bell. A bottle of Heidsieck. The best brand.