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The Victim by Hermann Sudermann

 

Madame Nelson, the beautiful American, had come to us from Paris, equipped with a phenomenal voice and solid Italian technique. She had immediately sung her way into the hearts of Berlin music-lovers, provided that you care to call a mixture of snobbishness, sophisticated impressionableness and goose-like imitativeness—heart. She had, therefore, been acquired by one of our most distinguished opera houses at a large salary and with long leaves of absence. I use the plural of opera house in order that no one may try to scent out the facts.

Now we had her, more especially our world of Lotharios had her. Not the younger sons of high finance, who make the boudoirs unsafe with their tall collars and short breeches; nor the bearers of ancient names who, having hung up their uniforms in the evening, assume monocle and bracelet and drag these through second and third-class drawing-rooms. No, she belonged to those worthy men of middle age, who have their palaces in the west end, whose wives one treats with infinite respect, and to whose evenings one gives a final touch of elegance by singing two or three songs for nothing.

Then she committed her first folly. She went travelling with an Italian tenor. “For purposes of art,” was the official version. But the time for the trip—the end of August—had been unfortunately chosen. And, as she returned ornamented with scratches administered by the tenor's pursuing wife—no one believed her.

Next winter she ruined a counsellor of a legation and magnate's son so thoroughly that he decamped to an unfrequented equatorial region, leaving behind him numerous promissory notes of questionable value.

This poor fellow was revenged the following winter by a dark-haired Roumanian fiddler, who beat her and forced her to carry her jewels to a pawnshop, where they were redeemed at half price by their original donour and used to adorn the plump, firm body of a stupid little ballet dancer.

Of course her social position was now forfeited. But then Berlin forgets so rapidly. She became proper again and returned to her earlier inclinations for gentlemen of middle life with extensive palaces and extensive wives. So there were quite a few houses—none of the strictest tone, of course—that were very glad to welcome the radiant blonde with her famous name and fragrant and modest gowns—from Paquin at ten thousand francs a piece.

At the same time she developed a remarkable business instinct. Her connections with the stock exchange permitted her to speculate without the slightest risk. For what gallant broker would let a lovely woman lose? Thus she laid the foundation of a goodly fortune, which was made to assume stately proportions by a tour through the United States, and was given a last touch of solidity by a successful speculation in Dresden real estate.

Furthermore, it would be unjust to conceal the fact that her most recent admirer, the wool manufacturer Wormser, had a considerable share in this hurtling rise of her fortunes.

Wormser guarded his good repute carefully. He insisted that his illegitimate inclinations never lack the stamp of highest elegance. He desired that they be given the greatest possible publicity at race-meets and first nights. He didn't care if people spoke with a degree of rancour, if only he was connected with the temporary lady of his heart.

Now, to be sure, there was a Mrs. Wormser. She came of a good Frankfort family. Dowry: a million and a half. She was modern to the very tips of her nervous, restless fingers.

This lady was inspired by such lofty social ideals that she would have considered an inelegant liaison on her husband's part, an insult not only offered to good taste in general, but to her own in particular. Such an one she would, never have forgiven. On the other hand, she approved of Madame Nelson thoroughly. She considered her the most costly and striking addition to her household. Quite figuratively, of course. Everything was arranged with the utmost propriety. At great charity festivals the two ladies exchanged a friendly glance, and they saw to it that their gowns were never made after the same model.

Then it happened that the house of Wormser was shaken. It wasn't a serious breakdown, but among the good things that had to be thrown overboard belonged—at the demand of the helping Frankforters—Madame Nelson.

And so she waited, like a virgin, for love, like a man in the weather bureau, for a given star. She felt that her star was yet to rise.

This was the situation when, one day, Herr von Karlstadt had himself presented to her. He was a captain of industry; international reputation; ennobled; the not undistinguished son of a great father. He had not hitherto been found in the market of love, but it was said of him that notable women had committed follies for his sake. All in all, he was a man who commanded the general interest in quite a different measure from Wormser.

But artistic successes had raised Madame Nelson's name once more, too, and when news of the accomplished fact circulated, society found it hard to decide as to which of the two lent the other a more brilliant light, or which was the more to be envied.

However that was, history was richer by a famous pair of lovers.

But, just as there had been a Mrs. Wormser, so there was a Mrs. von Karlstadt.

And it is this lady of whom I wish to speak.

Mentally as well as physically Mara von Karlstadt did not belong to that class of persons which imperatively commands the attention of the public. She was sensitive to the point of madness, a little sensuous, something of an enthusiast, coquettish only in so far as good taste demanded it, and hopelessly in love with her husband. She was in love with him to the extent that she regarded the conquests which occasionally came to him, spoiled as he was, as the inevitable consequences of her fortunate choice. They inspired her with a certain woeful anger and also with a degree of pride.

The daughter of a great land owner in South Germany, she had been brought up in seclusion, and had learned only very gradually how to glide unconcernedly through the drawing-rooms. A tense smile upon her lips, which many took for irony, was only a remnant of her old diffidence. Delicate, dark in colouring, with a fine cameo-like profile, smooth hair and a tawny look in her near-sighted eyes—thus she glided about in society, and few but friends of the house took any notice of her.

And this woman who found her most genuine satisfaction in the peacefulness of life, who was satisfied if she could slip into her carriage at midnight without the annoyance of one searching glance, of one inquiring word, saw herself suddenly and without suspecting the reason, become the centre of a secret and almost insulting curiosity. She felt a whispering behind her in society; she saw from her box the lenses of many opera glasses pointing her way.

The conversation of her friends began to teem with hints, and into the tone of the men whom she knew there crept a kind of tender compassion which pained her even though she knew not how to interpret it.

For the present no change was to be noted in the demeanour of her husband. His club and his business had always kept him away from home a good deal, and if a few extra hours of absence were now added, it was easy to account for these in harmless ways, or rather, not to account for them at all, since no one made any inquiry.

Then, however, anonymous letters began to come—thick, fragrant ones with stamped coronets, and thin ones on ruled paper with the smudges of soiled fingers.

She burned the first batch; the second she handed to her husband.

The latter, who was not far from forty, and who had trained himself to an attitude of imperious brusqueness, straightened up, knotted his bushy Bismarck moustache, and said:

“Well, suppose it is true. What have you to lose?”

She did not burst into tears of despair; she did not indulge in fits of rage; she didn't even leave the room with quiet dignity; her soul seemed neither wounded nor broken. She was not even affrighted. She only thought: “I have forgiven him so much; why not forgive him this, too?”

And as she had shared him before without feeling herself degraded, so she would try to share him again.

But she soon observed that this logic of the heart would prove wanting in this instance.

In former cases she had concealed his weakness under a veil of care and considerateness. The fear of discovery had made a conscious but silent accessory of her. When it was all over she breathed deep relief at the thought; “I am the only one who even suspected.”

This time all the world seemed invited to witness the spectacle.

For now she understood all that, in recent days had tortured her like an unexplained blot, an alien daub in the face which every one sees but he whom it disfigures. Now she knew what the smiling hints of her friends and the consoling desires of men had meant. Now she recognised the reason why she was wounded by the attention of all.

She was “the wife of the man whom Madame Nelson ...”

And so torturing a shame came upon her as though she herself were the cause of the disgrace with which the world seemed to overwhelm her.

This feeling had not come upon her suddenly. At first a stabbing curiosity had awakened in her a self-torturing expectation, not without its element of morbid attraction. Daily she asked herself: “What will develope to-day?”

With quivering nerves and cramped heart, she entered evening after evening, for the season was at its height, the halls of strangers on her husband's arm.

And it was always the same thing. The same glances that passed from her to him and from him to her, the same compassionate sarcasm upon averted faces, the same hypocritical delicacy in conversation, the same sudden silence as soon as she turned to any group of people to listen—the same cruel pillory for her evening after evening, night after night.

And if all this had not been, she would have felt it just the same.

And in these drawing-rooms there were so many women whose husbands' affairs were the talk of the town. Even her predecessor, Mrs. Wormser, had passed over the expensive immorality of her husband with a self-sufficing smile and a condescending jest, and the world had bowed down to her respectfully, as it always does when scenting a temperament that it is powerless to wound.

Why had this martyrdom come to her, of all people?

Thus, half against her own will, she began to hide, to refuse this or that invitation, and to spend the free evenings in the nursery, watching over the sleep of her boys and weaving dreams of a new happiness. The illness of her older child gave her an excuse for withdrawing from society altogether and her husband did not restrain her.

It had never come to an explanation between them, and as he was always considerate, even tender, and as sharp speeches were not native to her temper, the peace of the home was not disturbed.

Soon it seemed to her, too, as though the rude inquisitiveness of the world were slowly passing away. Either one had abandoned the critical condition of her wedded happiness for more vivid topics, or else she had become accustomed to the state of affairs.

She took up a more social life, and the shame which she had felt in appearing publicly with her husband gradually died out.

What did not die out, however, was a keen desire to know the nature and appearance of the woman in whose hands lay her own destiny. How did she administer the dear possession that fate had put in her power? And when and how would she give it back?

She threw aside the last remnant of reserve and questioned friends. Then, when she was met by a smile of compassionate ignorance, she asked women. These were more ready to report. But she would not and could not believe what she was told. He had surely not degraded himself into being one of a succession of moneyed rakes. It was clear to her that, in order to soothe her grief, people slandered the woman and him with her.

In order to watch her secretly, she veiled heavily and drove to the theatre where Madame Nelson was singing. Shadowlike she cowered in the depths of a box which she had rented under an assumed name and followed with a kind of pained voluptuousness the ecstasies of love which the other woman, fully conscious of the victorious loveliness of her body, unfolded for the benefit of the breathless crowd.

With such an abandoned raising of her radiant arms, she threw herself upon his breast; with that curve of her modelled limbs, she lay before his knees.

And in her awakened a reverent, renouncing envy of a being who had so much to give, beside whom she was but a dim and poor shadow, weary with motherhood, corroded with grief.

At the same time there appeared a California mine owner, a multi-millionaire, with whom her husband had manifold business dealings. He introduced his daughters into society and himself gave a number of luxurious dinners at which he tried to assemble guests of the most exclusive character.

Just as they were about to enter a carriage to drive to the “Bristol,” to one of these dinners, a message came which forced Herr von Karlstadt to take an immediate trip to his factories. He begged his wife to go instead, and she did not refuse.

The company was almost complete and the daughter of the mine owner was doing the honours of the occasion with appropriate grace when the doors of the reception room opened for the last time and through the open doorway floated rather than walked—Madame Nelson.

The petrified little group turned its glance of inquisitive horror upon Mrs. von Karlstadt, while the mine owner's daughter adjusted the necessary introductions with a grand air.

Should she go or not? No one was to be found who would offer her his arm. Her feet were paralysed. And she remained.

The company sat down at table. And since fate, in such cases, never does its work by halves, it came to pass that Madame Nelson was assigned to a seat immediately opposite her.

The people present seemed grateful to her that they had not been forced to witness a scene, and overwhelmed her with delicate signs of this gratitude. Slowly her self-control returned to her. She dared to look about her observantly, and, behold, Madame Nelson appealed to her.

Her French was faultless, her manners equally so, and when the Californian drew her into the conversation, she practised the delicate art of modest considerateness to the extent of talking past Mrs. von Karlstadt in such a way that those who did not know were not enlightened and those who knew felt their anxiety depart.

In order to thank her for this alleviation of a fatally painful situation, Mrs. von Karlstadt occasionally turned perceptibly toward the singer. For this Madame Nelson was grateful in her turn. Thus their glances began to meet in friendly fashion, their voices to cross, the atmosphere became less constrained from minute to minute, and when the meal was over the astonished assembly had come to the conclusion that Mrs. von Karlstadt was ignorant of the true state of affairs.

The news of this peculiar meeting spread like a conflagration. Her women friends hastened to congratulate her on her strength of mind; her male friends praised her loftiness of spirit. She went through the degradation which she had suffered as though it were a triumph. Only her husband went about for a time with an evil conscience and a frowning forehead.

Months went by. The quietness of summer intervened, but the memory of that evening rankled in her and blinded her soul. Slowly the thought arose in her which was really grounded in vanity, but looked, in its execution, like suffering love—the thought that she would legitimise her husband's irregularity in the face of society.

Hence when the season began again she wrote a letter to Madame Nelson in which she invited her, in a most cordial way, to sing at an approaching function in her home. She proffered this request, not only in admiration of the singer's gifts, but also, as she put it, “to render nugatory a persistent and disagreeable rumour.”

Madame Nelson, to whom this chance of repairing her fair fame was very welcome, had the indiscretion to assent, and even to accept the condition of entire secrecy in regard to the affair.

The chronicler may pass over the painful evening in question with suitable delicacy of touch. Nothing obvious or crass took place. Madame Nelson sang three enchanting songs, accompanied by a first-rate pianist. A friend of the house of whom the hostess had requested this favour took Madame Nelson to the buffet. A number of guileless individuals surrounded that lady with hopeful adoration. An ecstatic mood prevailed. The one regrettable feature of the occasion was that the host had to withdraw—as quietly as possible, of course—on account of a splitting head-ache.

Berlin society, which felt wounded in the innermost depth of its ethics, never forgave the Karlstadts for this evening. I believe that in certain circles the event is still remembered, although years have passed.

Its immediate result, however, was a breach between man and wife. Mara went to the Riviera, where she remained until spring.

An apparent reconciliation was then patched up, but its validity was purely external.

Socially, too, things readjusted themselves, although people continued to speak of the Karlstadt house with a smile that asked for indulgence.

Mara felt this acutely, and while her husband appeared oftener and more openly with his mistress, she withdrew into the silence of her inner chambers.

       * * * * *

Then she took a lover.

Or, rather, she was taken by him.

A lonely evening ... A fire in the chimney ... A friend who came in by accident ... The same friend who had taken care of Madame Nelson for her on that memorable evening ... The fall of snow without ... A burst of confidence ... A sob ... A nestling against the caressing hand ... It was done ...

Months passed. She experienced not one hour of intoxication, not one of that inner absolution which love brings. It was moral slackness and weariness that made her yield again....

Then the consequences appeared.

Of course, the child could not, must not, be born. And it was not born. One can imagine the horror of that tragic time: the criminal flame of sleepless nights, the blood-charged atmosphere of guilty despair, the moans of agony that had to be throttled behind closed doors.

What remained to her was lasting invalidism.

The way from her bed to an invalid's chair was long and hard.

Time passed. Improvements came and gave place to lapses in her condition. Trips to watering-places alternated with visits to sanatoriums.

In those places sat the pallid, anaemic women who had been tortured and ruined by their own or alien guilt. There they sat and engaged in wretched flirtations with flighty neurasthenics.

And gradually things went from bad to worse. The physicians shrugged their friendly shoulders.

And then it happened that Madame Nelson felt the inner necessity of running away with a handsome young tutor. She did this less out of passion than to convince the world—after having thoroughly fleeced it—of the unselfishness of her feelings. For it was her ambition to be counted among the great lovers of all time.

       * * * * *

One evening von Karlstadt entered the sick chamber of his wife, sat down beside her bed and silently took her hand. She was aware of everything, and asked with a gentle smile upon her white lips:

“Be frank with me: did you love her, at least?”

He laughed shrilly. “What should have made me love this—business lady?”

They looked at each other long. Upon her face death had set its seal. His hair was gray, his self-respect broken, his human worth squandered....

And then, suddenly, they clung to each other, and leaned their foreheads against each other, and wept.

 
 
 

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