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Autumn by Hermann Sudermann

Chapter I.

It was on a sunny afternoon in October. Human masses streamed through the alleys of the Tiergarten. With the desperate passion of an ageing woman who feels herself about to be deserted, the giant city received the last caresses of summer. A dotted throng that was not unlike the chaos of the Champs Elysees, filled the broad, gray road that leads to Charlottenburg.

Berlin, which cannot compete with any other great European city, as far as the luxury of vehicular traffic is concerned, seemed to have sent out to-day all it possessed in that kind. The weather was too beautiful for closed coupes, and hence the comfortable family landau was most in evidence. Only now and then did an elegant victoria glide along, or an aristocratic four-in-hand demand the respectful yielding of the crowd.

A dog-cart of dark yellow, drawn by a magnificent trotter, attracted the attention of experts. The noble animal, which seemed to feel the security of the guiding hand, leaned, snorting, upon its bit. With far out-reaching hind legs, it flew along, holding its neck moveless, as became a scion of its race.

The man who drove was sinewy, tall, about forty, with clear, gray eyes, sharply cut profile and a close-clipped moustache. In his thin, brownish cheeks were several deep scars, and between the straight, narrow brows could be seen two salient furrows.

His attire—an asphalt-gray, thick-seamed overcoat, a coloured shirt and red gloves—did not deny the sportsman. His legs, which pressed against the footboard, were clad in tight, yellow riding boots.

Many people saluted him. He returned their salutations with that careless courtesy which belongs to those who know themselves to have transcended the judgment of men.

If one of his acquaintances happened to be accompanied by a lady, he bowed deeply and respectfully, but without giving the ladies in question a single glance.

People looked after him and mentioned his name: Baron von Stueckrath.

Ah, that fellow ...

And they looked around once more.

At the square of the Great Star he turned to the left, drove along the river, passed the well-known resort called simply The Tents, and stopped not far from the building of the general staff of the army and drew up before a large distinguished house with a fenced front garden and cast-iron gate to the driveway.

He threw the reins to the groom, who sat statuesquely behind him, and said: “Drive home.”

Jumping from the cart, he observed the handle of the scraper sticking in the top of one of his boots. He drew it out, threw it on the seat, and entered the house.

The janitor, an old acquaintance, greeted him with the servile intimacy of the tip-expecting tribe.

On the second floor he stopped and pulled the bell whose glass knob glittered above a neat brass plate.

“Ludovika Kraissl,” was engraved upon it.

A maid, clad with prim propriety in a white apron and white lace cap, opened the door.

He entered and handed her his hat.

“Is Madame at home?”

“No, sir.”

He looked at her through half-closed lids, and observed how her milk-white little madonna's face flushed to the roots of her blonde hair.

“Where did she go?”

“Madame meant to go to the dressmaker,” the girl stuttered, “and to make some purchases.” She avoided his eyes. She had been in service only three months and had not yet perfected herself in lying.

He whistled a tune between his set teeth and entered the drawing-room.

A penetrating perfume streamed forth.

“Open the window, Meta.”

She passed noiselessly through the room and executed his command.

Frowning, he looked about him. The empty pomp of the light woman offended his taste. The creature who lived here had a gift for filling every corner with banal and tasteless trivialities.

When he had turned over the flat to her it had been a charming little place, full of delicate tints and the simple lines of Louis Seize furniture. In a few years she had made a junk shop of it.

“Would you care for tea, sir, or anything else?” the girl asked.

“No, thank you. Pull off my boots, Meta. I'll change my dress and then go out again.”

Modestly, almost humbly, she bowed before him and set his spurred foot gently on her lap. Then she loosened the top straps. He let his glance rest, well pleased, upon her smooth, silvery blonde hair.

How would it work if he sent his mistress packing and installed this girl in her place?

But he immediately abandoned the thought. He had seen the thing done by some of his friends. In a single year the chastest and most modest servant girl was so thoroughly corrupted that she had to be driven into the streets.

“We men seem to emit a pestilential air,” he reflected, “that corrupts every woman.”

“Or at least men of my kind,” he added carefully.

“Have you any other wishes, sir?” asked the girl, daintily wiping her hands on her apron.

“No, thank you.”

She turned to the door.

“One thing more, Meta. When did Madame say she would be back?”

Her face was again mantled with blood.

“She didn't say anything definite. I was to make her excuses. She intended to return home by evening, at all events.”

He nodded and the girl went with a sigh of relief, gently closing the door behind her.

He continued to whistle, and looked up at a hanging lamp, which defined itself against the window niche by means of a wreath of gay artificial flowers.

In this hanging lamp, which hung there unnoticed and unreachable from the floor, he had, a year ago, quite by accident, discovered a store of love letters. His mistress had concealed them there since she evidently did not even consider the secret drawer of her desk a sufficiently safe repository.

He had carefully kept the secret of the lamp to himself, and had only fed his grim humour from time to time by observing the changes of her heart by means of added missives. In this way he had been able to observe the number of his excellent friends with whom she deceived him.

Thus his contempt for mankind assumed monstrous proportions, but this contempt was the one emotional luxury which his egoism was still capable of.

He grasped a chair and seemed, for a moment about to mount to the lamp to inspect her latest history. But he let his hand fall. After all, it was indifferent with whom she was unfaithful to-day....

And he was tired. A bad day's work lay behind him. A three-year-old full-blooded horse, recently imported from Hull, had proven itself abnormally sensitive and had brought him to the verge of despair by its fearfulness and its moods. He had exercised it for hours, and had only succeeded in making the animal more nervous than before. Great sums were at stake if the fault should prove constitutional and not curable.

He felt the impulse to share his worries with some one, but he knew of no one. From the point of view of Miss Ludi's naive selfishness, it was simply his duty to be successful. She didn't care for the troublesome details. At his club, again, each one was warily guarding his own interests. Hence it was necessary there to speak carefully, since an inadvertent expression might affect general opinion.

He almost felt impelled to call in the maid and speak to her of his worries.

Then his own softness annoyed him.

It was his wont to pass through life in lordly isolation and to astonish the world by his successes. That was all he needed.

Yawning he stretched himself out on the chaise longue. Time dragged.

Three hours would pass until Ludi's probable return. He was so accustomed to the woman's society that he almost longed for her. Her idle chatter helped him. Her little tricks refreshed him. But the most important point was this: she was no trouble. He could caress her or beat her, call to her and drive her from him like a little dog. He could let her feel the full measure of his contempt, and she would not move a muscle. She was used to nothing else.

He passed two or three hours daily in her company, for time had to be killed somehow. Sometimes, too, he took her to the circus or the theatre. He had long broken with the families of his acquaintance and could appear in public with light women.

And yet he felt a sharp revulsion at the atmosphere that surrounded him. A strange discomfort invaded his soul in her presence. He didn't feel degraded. He knew her to be a harlot. But that was what he wanted. None but such an one would permit herself to be so treated. It was rather a disguised discouragement that held him captive.

Was life to pass thus unto the very end? Was life worth living, if it offered a favourite of fortune, a master of his will and of his actions, nothing better than this?

“Surely I have the spleen,” he said to himself, sprang up, and went into the next room to change his clothes. He had a wardrobe in Ludi's dressing room in order to be able to go out from here in the evening unrestrainedly.

Chapter II.

It was near four o'clock.

The sun laughed through the window. Its light was deep purple, changing gradually to violet. Masses of leaves, red as rust, gleamed over from the Tiergarten. The figure of Victory upon the triumphal column towered toward heaven like a mighty flame.

He felt an impulse to wander through the alleys of the park idly and aimlessly, at most to give a coin to a begging child.

He left the house and went past the Moltke monument and the winding ways that lead to the Charlottenburg road.

The ground exhaled the sweetish odour of decaying plants. Rustling heaps of leaves, which the breezes of noon had swept together, flew apart under his tread. The westering sun threw red splotches of light on the faint green of the tree trunks that exuded their moisture in long streaks.

Here it was lonely. Only beyond the great road, whose many-coloured pageant passed by him like a kinematograph, did he hear again in the alleys the sounds of children's voices, song and laughter.

In the neighbourhood of the Rousseau Island he met a gentleman whom he knew and who had been a friend of his youth. Stout of form, his round face surrounded by a close-clipped beard, he wandered along, leading two little girls in red, while a boy in a blue sailor suit rode ahead, herald-like, on his father's walking-stick.

The two men bowed to each other coolly, but without ill-will. They were simply estranged. The busy servant of the state and father of a family was scarcely to be found in those circles were the daily work consists in riding and betting and gambling.

Stueckrath sat down on a bench and gazed after the group. The little red frocks gleamed through the bushes, and Papa's admonishing and restraining voice was to be heard above the noise of the boy who made a trumpet of his hollow hand.

“Is that the way happiness looks?” he asked himself. “Can a man of energy and action find satisfaction in these banal domesticities?”

And strangely enough, these fathers of families, men who serve the state and society, who occupy high offices, make important inventions and write good books—these men have red cheeks and laughing eyes. They do not look as though the burden which they carry squeezes the breath of life out of them. They get ahead, in spite of the childish hands that cling to their coats, in spite of the trivialities with which they pass their hours of leisure.

An indeterminate feeling of envy bored into his soul. He fought it down and went on, right into the throng that filled the footpaths of the Tiergarten. Groups of ladies from the west end went by him in rustling gowns of black. He did not know them and did not wish to know them.

Here, too, he recognized fewer of the men. The financiers who have made this quarter their own appear but rarely at the races.

Accompanying carriages kept pace with the promenaders in order to explain and excuse their unusual exertion. For in this world the continued absence of one's carriage may well shake one's credit.

The trumpeting motor-cars whirred by with gleaming brasses. Of the beautiful women in them, little could be seen in the swift gleams. It was the haste of a new age that does not even find time to display its vanity.

Upon the windows of the villas and palaces opposite lay the iridescent glow of the evening sun. The facades took on purple colours, and the decaying masses of vines that weighed heavily upon the fences seemed to glow and shine from within with the very phosphorescence of decay.

Flooded by this light, a slender, abnormally tall girl came into Stueckrath's field of vision. She led by the arm an aged lady, who hobbled with difficulty along the pebbly path. A closed carriage with escutcheon and coronet followed the two slowly.

He stopped short. An involuntary movement had passed through his body, an impulse to turn off into one of the side paths. But he conquered himself at once, and looked straight at the approaching ladies.

Like a mere line of blackness, thin of limb and waist, attired with nun-like austerity in garments that hung as if withering upon her, she stood against the background of autumnal splendour.

Now she recognised him, too. A sudden redness that at once gave way to lifeless pallor flashed across her delicate, stern face.

They looked straight into each other's eyes.

He bowed deeply. She smiled with an effort at indifference.

“And so she is faded, too,” he thought. To be sure, her face still bore the stamp of a simple and severe beauty, but time and grief had dealt ungently with it. The lips were pale and anaemic, two or three folds, sharp as if made with a knife, surrounded them. About the eyes, whose soft and lambent light of other days had turned into a hard and troubled sharpness, spread concentric rings, united by a net-work of veins and wrinkles.

He stood still, lost in thought, and looked after her.

She still trod the earth like a queen, but her outline was detestable.

Only hopelessness bears and attires itself thus.

He calculated. She must be thirty-six. Thirteen years ago he had known her and—loved her? Perhaps....

At least he had left her the evening before their formal betrothal was to take place because her father had dared to remark upon his way of life.

He loved his personal liberty more than his beautiful and wealthy betrothed who clung to him with every fibre of her delicate and noble soul. One word from her, had it been but a word of farewell, would have recalled him. That word remained unspoken.

Thus her life's happiness had been wrecked. Perhaps his, too. What did it matter?

Since then he had nothing but contempt for the daughters of good families. Other women were less exacting; they did not attempt to circumscribe his freedom.

He gazed after her long. Now groups of other pedestrians intervened; now her form reappeared sharp and narrow against the trees. From time to time she stooped lovingly toward the old lady, who, as is the wont of aged people, trod eagerly and fearfully.

This fragile heap of bones, with the dull eyes and the sharp voice—he remembered the voice well: it had had part in his decision. This strange, unsympathetic, suspicious old woman, he would have had to call “Mother.”

What madness! What hypocrisy!

And yet his hunger for happiness, which had not yet died, reminded him of all that might have been.

A sea of warm, tender and unselfish love would have flooded him and fructified and vivified the desert of his soul. And instead of becoming withered and embittered, she would have blossomed at his side more richly from day to day.

Now it was too late. A long, thin, wretched little creature—she went her way and was soon lost in the distance.

But there clung to his soul the yearning for a woman—one who had more of womanliness than its name and its body, more than the harlot whom he kept because he was too slothful to drive her from him.

He sought the depths of his memory. His life had been rich in gallant adventures. Many a full-blooded young woman had thrown herself at him, and had again vanished from his life under the compulsion of his growing coldness.

He loved his liberty. Even an unlawful relation felt like a fetter so soon as it demanded any sacrifice of time or interests. Also, he did not like to give less than he received. For, since the passing of his unscrupulous youth, he had not cared to receive the gift of a human destiny only to throw it aside as his whim demanded.

And therefore his life had grown quiet during the last few years.

He thought of one of his last loves ... the very last ... and smiled.

The image of a delicately plump brunette little woman, with dreamy eyes and delicious little curls around her ears, rose up before him. She dwelt in his memory as she had seemed to him: modest, soulful, all ecstatic yielding and charming simple-heartedness.

She did not belong to society. He had met her at a dinner given by a financial magnate. She was the wife of an upper clerk who was well respected in the business world. With adoring curiosity, she peeped into the great strange world, whose doors opened to her for the first time.

He took her to the table, was vastly entertained by the lack of sophistication with which she received all these new impressions, and smilingly accepted the undisguised adoration with which she regarded him in his character of a famous horseman and rake.

He flirted with her a bit and that turned her head completely. In lonely dreams her yearning for elegant and phantastic sin had grown to enormity. She was now so wholly and irresistibly intoxicated that he received next morning a deliciously scribbled note in which she begged him for a secret meeting—somewhere in the neighbourhood of the Arkona Place or Weinmeisterstrasse, regions as unknown to him as the North Cape or Yokohama.

Two or three meetings followed. She appeared, modest, anxious and in love, a bunch of violets for his button-hole in her hand, and some surprise for her husband in her pocket.

Then the affair began to bore him and he refused an appointment.

One evening, during the last days of November, she appeared, thickly veiled, in his dwelling, and sank sobbing upon his breast. She could not live without seeing him; she was half crazed with longing; he was to do with her what he would. He consoled her, warmed her, and kissed the melting snow from her hair. But when in his joy at what he considered the full possession of a jewel his tenderness went beyond hers, her conscience smote her. She was an honest woman. Horror and shame would drive her into her grave if she went hence an adulteress. He must have pity on her and be content with her pure adoration.

He had the requisite pity, dismissed her with a paternal kiss upon her forehead, but at the same time ordered his servant to admit her no more.

Then came two or three letters. In her agony over the thought of losing him, she was willing to break down the last reserve. But he did not answer the letters.

At the same time the thought came to him of going up the Nile in a dahabiyeh. He was bored and had a cold.

On the evening of his departure he found her waiting in his rooms.

“What do you want?”

“Take me along.”

“How do you know?”

“Take me along.”

She said nothing else.

The necessity of comforting her was clear. A thoroughgoing farewell was celebrated, with the understanding that it was a farewell forever.

The pact had been kept. After his return and for two years more she had given no sign of life. He now thought of this woman. He felt a poignant longing for the ripe sweetness of her oval face, the veiled depth of her voice. He desired once more to be embraced by her firm arms, to be kissed by her mad, hesitating lips.

Why had he dropped her? How could he have abandoned her so rudely?

The thought came into his head of looking her up now, in this very hour.

He had a dim recollection of the whereabouts of her dwelling. He could soon ascertain its exact situation.

Then again the problems of his racing stable came into his head. The thought of “Maidenhood,” the newly purchased horse, worried him. He had staked much upon one throw. If he lost, it would take time to repair the damage.

Suddenly he found himself in a tobacconist's shop, looking for her name in the directory. Friedrich-Wilhelm Strasse was the address. Quite near, as he had surmised.

He was not at loss for an excuse. Her husband must still be in his office at this hour. He would not be asked for any very strict accounting for his action. At worst there was an approaching riding festival, for which he could request her cooperation.

Perhaps she had forgotten him and would revenge herself for her humiliation. Perhaps she would be insulted and not even receive him. At best he must count upon coldness, bitter truths and that appearance of hatred which injured love assumes.

What did it matter? She was a woman, after all.

The vestibule of the house was supported by pillars; its walls were ornately stuccoed; the floor was covered with imitation oriental rugs. It was the rented luxury with which the better middle-class loves to surround itself.

He ascended three flights of stairs.

An elderly servant in a blue apron regarded the stranger suspiciously.

He asked for her mistress.

She would see. Holding his card gingerly, she disappeared.

Now he would see....

Then, as he bent forward, listening, he heard through the open door a cry—not of horrified surprise, but of triumph and jubilation, such a cry of sudden joy as only a long and hopeless and unrestrainable yearning can send forth.

He thought he had heard wrong, but the smiling face of the returning servant reassured him.

He was to be made welcome.

Chapter III.

He entered. With outstretched hands, tears in her eyes, her face a-quiver with a vain attempt at equanimity—thus she came forward to meet him.

“There you are ... there you are ... you....”

Overwhelmed and put to shame by her forgiveness and her happiness, he stood before her in silence.

What could he have said to her that would not have sounded either coarse or trivial?

And she demanded neither explanation nor excuse.

He was here—that was enough for her.

As he let his glance rest upon her, he confessed that his mental image of her fell short of the present reality.

She had grown in soul and stature. Her features bore signs of power and restraint, and of a strong inner tension. Her eyes sought him with a steady light; in her bosom battled the pent-up joy.

She asked him to be seated. “In that corner,” she said, and led him to a tiny sofa covered with glittering, light-green silk, above which hung a withered palm-leaf fan.

“I have sat there so often,” she went on, “so often, and have thought of you, always—always. You'll drink tea, won't you?”

He was about to refuse, but she interrupted him.

“Oh, but you must, you must. You can't refuse! It has been my dream all this time to drink tea with you here just once—just once. To serve you on this little table and hand you the basket with cakes! Do you see this little lacquer table, with the lovely birds of inlaid mother-of-pearl? I had that given to me last Christmas for the especial purpose of serving you tea on it. For I said to myself: 'He is accustomed to the highest elegance.' And you are here and are going to refuse? No, no, that's impossible. I couldn't bear that.”

And she flew to the door and called out her orders to the servant.

He regarded her in happy astonishment. In all her movements there was a rhythm of unconscious loveliness, such as he had rarely seen in any woman. With simple, unconscious elegance, her dress flowed about her taller figure, whose severe lines were softened by the womanly curves of her limbs. And all that belonged to him.

He could command this radiant young body and this radiant young soul. All that was one hunger to be possessed by him.

“Bind her to yourself,” cried his soul, “and build yourself a new happiness!”

Then she returned. She stopped a few paces from him, folded her hands under her chin, gazed at him wide-eyed and whispered: “There he is! There he is!”

He grew uncomfortable under this expense of passion.

“I should wager that I sit here with a foolish face,” he thought.

“But now I'm going to be sensible,” she went on, sitting down on a low stool that stood next to the sofa. “And while the tea is steeping you must tell me how things have gone with you all this long time. For it is a very long time since ... Ah, a long time....”

It seemed to him that there was a reproach behind these words. He gave but a dry answer to her question, but threw the more warmth into his inquiries concerning her life.

She laughed and waved her hand.

“Oh, I!” she cried. “I have fared admirably. Why should I not? Life makes me as happy as though I were a child. Oh, I can always be happy.... That's characteristic of me. Nearly every day brings something new and usually something delightful.... And since I've been in love with you.... You mustn't take that for a banal declaration of passion, dear friend.... Just imagine you are merely my confidant, and that I'm telling you of my distant lover who takes little notice of a foolish woman like myself. But then, that doesn't matter so long as I know that he is alive and can fear and pray for him; so long as the same morning sun shines on us both. Why, do you know, it's a most delicious feeling, when the morning is fair and the sun golden and one may stand at the window and say: 'Thank God, it is a beautiful day for him.'“

He passed his hand over his forehead.

“It isn't possible,” he thought. “Such things don't exist in this world.”

And she went on, not thinking that perhaps he, too, would want to speak.

“I don't know whether many people have the good fortune to be as happy as I. But I am, thank God. And do you know, the best part of it all and the sunniest, I owe to you. For instance: Summer before last we went to Heligoland, last summer to Schwarzburg.... Do you know it? Isn't it beautiful? Well, for instance: I wake up; I open my eyes to the dawn. I get up softly, so as not to disturb my husband, and go on my bare feet to the window. Without, the wooded mountains lie dark and peaceful. There is a peace over it all that draws one's tears ... it is so beautiful ... and behind, on the horizon, there shines a broad path of gold. And the fir-trees upon the highest peaks are sharply defined against the gold, like little men with many outstretched arms. And already the early piping of a few birds is heard. And I fold my hands and think: I wonder where he is.... And if he is asleep, has he fair dreams? Ah, if he were here and could see all this loveliness. And I think of him with such impassioned intensity that it is not hard to believe him here and able to see it all. And at last a chill comes up, for it is always cool in the mountains, as you know.... And then one slips back into bed, and is annoyed to think that one must sleep four hours more instead of being up and thinking of him. And when one wakes up for a second time, the sun throws its golden light into the windows, and the breakfast table is set on the balcony. And one's husband has been up quite a while, but waits patiently. And his dear, peaceful face is seen through the glass door. At such moments one's heart expands in gratitude to God who has made life so beautiful and one can hardly bear one's own happiness—and—there is the tea.”

The elderly maid came in with a salver, which she placed on the piano, in order to set the little table properly. A beautiful napkin of damask silk lay ready. The lady of the house scolded jestingly. It would injure the polish of the piano, and what was her guest to think of such shiftlessness.

The maid went out.

She took up the tea-kettle, and asked in a voice full of bliss.

“Strong or weak, dear master?”

“Strong, please.”

“One or two lumps of sugar?”

“Two lumps, please.”

She passed him the cup with a certain solemnity.

“So this is the great moment, the pinnacle of all happiness as I have dreamed of it! Now, tell me yourself: Am I not to be envied? Whatever I wish is fulfilled. And, do you know, last year in Heligoland I had a curious experience. We capsised by the dunes and I fell into the water. As I lost consciousness, I thought that you were there and were saving me. Later when I lay on the beach, I saw, of course, that it had been only a stupid old fisherman. But the feeling was so wonderful while it lasted that I almost felt like jumping into the water again. Speaking of water, do you take rum in your tea?”

He shook his head. Her chatter, which at first had enraptured him, began to fill him with sadness. He did not know how to respond. His youthfulness and flexibility of mind had passed from him long ago: he had long lost any inner cheerfulness.

And while she continued to chat, his thoughts wandered, like a horse, on their accustomed path on the road of his daily worries. He thought of an unsatisfactory jockey, of the nervous horse.

What was this woman to him, after all?

“By the way,” he heard her say, “I wanted to ask you whether 'Maidenhood' has arrived?”

He sat up sharply and stared at her. Surely he had heard wrong.

“What do you know about 'Maidenhood'?”

“But, my dear friend, do you suppose I haven't heard of your beautiful horse, by 'Blue Devil' out of 'Nina'? Now, do you see? I believe I know the grandparents, too. Anyhow, you are to be congratulated on your purchase. The English trackmen are bursting with envy. To judge by that, you ought to have an immense success.”

“But, for heaven's sake, how do you know all this?”

“Dear me, didn't your purchase appear in all the sporting papers?”

“Do you read those papers?”

“Surely. You see, here is the last number of the Spur, and yonder is the bound copy of the German Sporting News.”

“I see; but to what purpose?”

“Oh, I'm a sporting lady, dear master. I look upon the world of horses—is that the right expression?—with benevolent interest. I hope that isn't forbidden?”

“But you never told me a word about that before!”

She blushed a little and cast her eyes down.

“Oh, before, before.... That interest didn't come until later.”

He understood and dared not understand.

“Don't look at me so,” she besought him; there's nothing very remarkable about it. I just said to myself: “Well, if he doesn't want you, at least you can share his life from afar. That isn't immodest, is it? And then the race meets were the only occasions on which I could see you from afar. And whenever you yourself rode—oh, how my heart beat—fit to burst. And when you won, oh, how proud I was! I could have cried out my secret for all the world to hear. And my poor husband's arm was always black and blue. I pinched him first in my anxiety and then in my joy.”

“So your husband happily shares your enthusiasm?”

“Oh, at first he wasn't very willing. But then, he is so good, so good. And as I couldn't go to the races alone, why he just had to go with me! And in the end he has become as great an enthusiast as I am. We can sit together for hours and discuss the tips. And he just admires you so—almost more than I. Oh, how happy he'd be to meet you here. You mustn't refuse him that pleasure. And now you're laughing at me. Shame on you!”

“I give you my word that nothing—”

“Oh, but you smiled. I saw you smile.”

“Perhaps. But assuredly with no evil intention. And now you'll permit me to ask a serious question, won't you?”

“But surely!”

“Do you love your husband?”

“Why, of course I love him. You don't know him, or you wouldn't ask. How could I help it? We're like two children together. And I don't mean anything silly. We're like that in hours of grief, too. Sometimes when I look at him in his sleep—the kind, careworn forehead, the silent serious mouth—and when I think how faithfully and carefully he guides me, how his one dreaming and waking thought is for my happiness—why, then I kneel down and kiss his hands till he wakes up. Once he thought it was our little dog, and murmured 'Shoo, shoo!' Oh, how we laughed! And if you imagine that such a state of affairs can't be reconciled with my feeling for you, why, then you're quite wrong. That is upon an entirely different plane.”

“And your life is happy?”

“Perfectly, perfectly.”

Radiantly she folded her hands.

She did not suspect her position on the fearful edge of an abyss. She had not yet realised what his coming meant, nor how defenceless she was.

He had but to stretch out his arms and she would fly to him, ready to sacrifice her fate to his mood. And this time there would be no returning to that well-ordered content.

A dull feeling of responsibility arose in him and paralysed his will. Here was all that he needed in order to conquer a few years of new freshness and joy for the arid desert of his life. Here was the spring of life for which he was athirst. And he had not the courage to touch it with his lips.

Chapter IV.

A silence ensued in which their mood threatened to darken and grow turbid.

Then he pulled himself together.

“You don't ask me why I came, dear friend.”

She shrugged her shoulders and smiled.

“A moment's impulse—or loneliness. That's all.”

“And a bit of remorse, don't you think so?”

“Remorse? For what? You have nothing with which to reproach yourself. Was not our agreement made to be kept?”

“And yet I couldn't wholly avoid the feeling as if my unbroken silence must have left a sting in your soul which would embitter your memory of me.”

Thoughtfully she stirred her tea.

“No,” she said at last, “I'm not so foolish. The memory of you is a sacred one. If that were not so, how could I have gone on living? That time, to be sure, I wanted to take my life. I had determined on that before I came to you. For that one can leave the man with whom.... I never thought that possible.... But one learns a good deal—a good deal.... And now I'll tell you how it came to pass that I didn't take my life that night. When everything was over, and I stood in the street before your house, I said to myself: 'Now the river is all that is left.' In spite of rain and storm, I took an open cab and drove out to the Tiergarten. Wasn't the weather horrible! At the Great Star I left the cab and ran about in the muddy ways, weeping, weeping. I was blind with tears, and lost my way. I said to myself that I would die at six. There were still four minutes left. I asked a policeman the way to Bellevue, for I did remember that the river flows hard behind the castle. The policeman said: 'There it is. The hour is striking in the tower now.' And when I heard the clock strike, the thought came to me: 'Now my husband is coming home, tired and hungry, and I'm not there. If at least he wouldn't let his dinner get cold. But of course he will wait. He'd rather starve than eat without me. And he'll be frightened more and more as the hours pass. Then he'll run to the police. And next morning he'll be summoned by telegram to the morgue. There he'll break down helplessly and hopelessly and I won't be able to console him.' And when I saw that scene in my mind, I called out: 'Cab! cab!' But there was no cab. So I ran back to the Great Star, and jumped into the street-car, and rode home and rushed into his arms and cried my fill.”

“And had your husband no questions to ask? Did he entertain no suspicion?”

“Oh, no, he knows me, I am taken that way sometimes. If anything moves or delights me deeply—a lovely child on the street—you see, I haven't any—or some glorious music, or sometimes only the park in spring and some white statue in the midst of the greenery. Oh, sometimes I seem to feel my very soul melt, and then he lays his cool, firm hand on my forehead and I am healed.”

“And were you healed on that occasion, too?”

“Yes. I was calmed at once. 'Here,' I said to myself, 'is this dear, good man, to whom you can be kind. And as far as the other is concerned, why it was mere mad egoism to hope to have a share in his life. For to give love means, after all, to demand love. And what can a poor, supersensitive thing like you mean to him? He has others. He need but stretch forth his hand, and the hearts of countesses and princesses are his!'“

“Dear God,” he thought, and saw the image of the purchasable harlot, who was supposed to satisfy his heart's needs.

But she chatted on, and bit by bit built up for him the image of him which she had cherished during these two years. All the heroes of Byron, Poushkine, Spielhagen and Scott melted into one glittering figure. There was no splendour of earth with which her generous imagination had not dowered him.

He listened with a melancholy smile, and thought: “Thank God, she doesn't know me. If I didn't take a bit of pleasure in my stable, the contrast would be too terrible to contemplate.”

And there was nothing forward, nothing immodest, in this joyous enthusiasm. It was, in fact, as if he were a mere confidant, and she were singing a hymn in praise of her beloved.

And thus she spared him any feeling of shame.

But what was to happen now?

It went without saying that this visit must have consequences of some sort. It was her right to demand that he do not, for a second time, take her up and then fling her aside at the convenience of a given hour.

Almost timidly he asked after her thoughts of the future.

“Let's not speak of it. You won't come back, anyhow.”

“How can you think....”

“Oh, no, you won't come back. And what is there here for you? Do you want to be adored by me? You spoiled gentlemen soon tire of that sort of thing.... Or would you like to converse with my husband? That wouldn't amuse you. He's a very silent man and his reserve thaws only when he is alone with me.... But it doesn't matter.... You have been here. And the memory of this hour will always be dear and precious to me. Now, I have something more in which my soul can take pleasure.”

A muffled pain stirred in him. He felt impelled to throw himself at her feet and bury his head in her lap. But he respected the majesty of her happiness.

“And if I myself desired....”

That was all he said; all he dared to say. The sudden glory in her face commanded his silence. Under the prudence which his long experience dictated, his mood grew calmer.

But she had understood him.

In silent blessedness, she leaned her head against the wall. Then she whispered, with closed eyes: “It is well that you said no more. I might grow bold and revive hopes that are dead. But if you....”

She raised her eyes to his. A complete surrender to his will lay in her glance.

Then she raised her head with a listening gesture.

“My husband,” she said, after she had fought down a slight involuntary fright, and said it with sincere joy.

Three glowing fingers barely touched his. Then she hastened to the door.

“Guess who is here,” she called out; “guess!”

On the threshold appeared a sturdy man of middle size and middle age. His round, blonde beard came to a grayish point beneath the chin. His thin cheeks were yellow, but with no unhealthful hue. His quiet, friendly eyes gleamed behind glasses that sat a trifle too far down his nose, so that in speaking his head was slightly thrown back and his lids drawn.

With quiet astonishment he regarded the elegant stranger. Coming nearer, however, he recognised him at once in spite of the twilight, and, a little confused with pleasure, stretched out his hand.

Upon his tired, peaceful features, there was no sign of any sense of strangeness, any desire for an explanation.

Stueckrath realized that toward so simple a nature craft would have been out of place, and simply declared that he had desired to renew an acquaintance which he had always remembered with much pleasure.

“I don't want to speak of myself, Baron,” the man replied, “but you probably scarcely realise what pleasure you are giving my wife.” And he nodded down at her who stood beside him, apparently unconcerned except for her wifely joy.

A few friendly words were exchanged. Further speech was really superfluous, since the man's unassailable innocence demanded no caution. But Stueckrath was too much pleased with him to let him feel his insignificance by an immediate departure.

Hence he sat a little longer, told of his latest purchases, and was shamed by the satisfaction with which the man rehearsed the history of his stable.

He did not neglect the courtesy of asking them both to call on him, and took his leave, accompanied by the couple to the door. He could not decide which of the two pressed his hand more warmly.

When in the darkness of the lower hall he looked upward, he saw two faces which gazed after him with genuine feeling.

       * * * * *

Out amid the common noises of the street he had the feeling as though he had returned from some far island of alien seas into the wonted current of life.

He shuddered at the thought of what lay before him.

Then he went toward the Tiergarten. A red afterglow eddied amid the trees. In the sky gleamed a harmony of delicate blue tints, shading into green. Great white clouds towered above, but rested upon the redness of the sunset.

The human stream flooded as always between the flickering, starry street-lamps of the Tiergartenstrasse. Each man and woman sought to wrest a last hour of radiance from the dying day.

Dreaming, estranged, Stueckrath made his way through the crowd, and hurriedly sought a lonely footpath that disappeared in the darkness of the foliage.

Again for a moment the thought seared him: “Take her and rebuild the structure of your life.”

But when he sought to hold the thought and the accompanying emotion, it was gone. Nothing remained but a flat after taste—the dregs of a weary intoxication.

The withered leaves rustled beneath his tread. Beside the path glimmered the leaf-flecked surface of a pool.

“It would be a crime, to be sure,” he said to himself, “to shatter the peace of those two poor souls. But, after all, life is made up of such crimes. The life of one is the other's death; one's happiness the other's wretchedness. If only I could be sure that some happiness would result, that the sacrifice of their idyl would bring some profit.”

But he had too often had the discouraging and disappointing experience that he had become incapable of any strong and enduring emotion. What had he to offer that woman, who, in a mixture of passion, and naive unmorality of soul, had thrown herself at his breast? The shallow dregs of a draught, a power to love that had been wasted in sensual trifling—emptiness, weariness, a longing for sensation and a longing for repose. That was all the gift he could bring her.

And how soon would he be satiated!

Any sign of remorse or of fear in her would suffice to make her a burden, even a hated burden!

“Be her good angel,” he said to himself, “and let her be.” He whistled and the sound was echoed by the trees.

He sought a bench on which to sit down, and lit a cigarette. As the match flared up, he became conscious of the fact that night had fallen.

A great quietude rested upon the dying forest. Like the strains of a beautifully perishing harmony the sound of the world's distant strife floated into this solitude.

Attentively Stueckrath observed the little point of glowing fire in his hand, from which eddied upward a wreath of fragrant smoke.

“Thank God,” he said, “that at least remains—one's cigarette.”

Then he arose and wandered thoughtfully onward.

Without knowing how he had come there, he found himself suddenly in front of his mistress's dwelling.

Light shimmered in her windows—the raspberry coloured light of red curtains which loose women delight in.

“Pah!” he said and shuddered.

But, after all, up there a supper table was set for him; there was laughter and society, warmth and a pair of slippers.

He opened the gate.

A chill wind rattled in the twigs of the trees and blew the dead leaves about in conical whirls. They fluttered along like wandering shadows, only to end in some puddle ...

Autumn ...

 
 
 

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