Hubertus in Flight
by Paul Alverdes
A FEW years ago I was spending the last weeks of Advent with some
cousins of mine at their shooting-box on the northern spurs of the
Thuringian forest. It was there that I got to know Hubertus. My
reason to-day for giving some impression of his personality and of all
that he told me about himself is that he seemed to me a very
characteristic mixture of all the elements of this distracted age, even
though in him they were not fixed but in a state rather of continual
effervescence and ferment. I have never seen him again since those
days, but I heard of his death recently. He was shot through the
forehead in a duel with the husband of a woman with whom he was in
love, and I can imagine that his end was not unwelcome to him.
It was very soon clear to me why my cousins, two jolly, wine- and
card-loving old bachelors, invited him to shoot with them. That he was
a good shot, a good hand with dogs and an authority on all the customs
and traditions of the sport, goes without saying; but it was at night
when he sat round the lamp over mulled wine and stronger drinks that he
showed his real powers of enchantment. Without being talkative he was
never at a loss for something entertaining to say. The ways he had of
giving an amusing turn to every incident of the day's sport, of
addressing the dogs lying round the stove, and finally of calling on
each of us as he chose to keep the ball rolling, seemed inexhaustible.
And at any moment he would sing a verse or two of a song, usually one
of the kind which students delight in; but however bawdy it might be,
the effect was only exhilarating. Wine had a strong influence over him.
His face, tanned with the frosty air and cold winds, then took on a
deeper red and his eyes lost something of their keenness and glancing
restlessness. Sometimes he kept them bent over his glass and it seemed
to me that a secret tear gathered under his eyelids. At cards, which
often kept us up after dinner till the small hours, he was at the same
time cool and impetuous. He took long odds, but only for the game's
sake, never for what he might win, and it might well have been over
cards that he first won the hearts of his hosts. Everybody knows that
a game of cards is nothing without the running accompaniment of
catchwords and traditional phrases which have come down to us from our
forefathers, and which must be rapped out at certain stages of the
game. Hubertus was master of them all, and in addition he could invent
a hundred or a thousand new ones when asking his partner for a card, or
taking a trick, or summing up the result of a rubber, and the two old
boys, as they sat at the table and smiled under their moustaches, had
no choice but to love him like a younger brother.
All the same, I soon thought I detected that his unbounded good
spirits were not the real secret of Hubertus's nature. I observed that
he tried to delay the end of an evening's cards or drinking, as though
to push it forward into a realm of secret dread. He called for another
round of healths, or began on a long story just as we broke up, so as
to force us back into our chairs, or caught hold of the concertina to
sing us reservist songs of his soldiering days. He would ask me, too,
to come out with him and have a last look at the stars or to see what
the weather promised for the morrow's sport; he listened to the cry of
the wood-owls and to the distant chimes resounding through the frosty
air, and made one pretext after another for delay, till at last, with a
sigh, he prevailed on himself to go up to the bedroom he shared with
me. And then when I had got under the eiderdown and lay with my teeth
chattering, he often asked me if I minded him smoking, and sat on a
long while on his bed with his short pipe between his teeth in the
starlight and snowshine which came in through the window panes.
Sometimes on these occasions he told me of his experiences in the war,
and sometimes he merely sighed now and again as he puffed away at his
pipe till at last, without lighting the candle again, he got undressed
and lay still. He needed little sleep apparently, for he was always up
in the darkness of the winter dawn. I could hear him joking loudly
with the man in the kitchen, chopping wood outside the door, putting
water on to boil, cleaning the guns, greasing his shooting boots, till
at last, with a lighted lantern in his hand, he came upstairs, in the
best of spirits apparently, and urged me with cheery impatience to get
up. Later, while my cousins were getting up and carefully screwing
themselves together, as he called it, he whistled to the dogs and
romped about with them in the snow. Finally, much too late for his
liking, we were all collected at the breakfast table.
Thus the time passed. By daylight we were out after hares and foxes
and buzzards and at night we drank and played cards with my cousins.
We were soon very good friends, and at last I thought I divined the
hidden source of his uproarious restlessness. "Hubertus," I said to
him one night when the mulled wine had exalted me to a philosophic
condition and brought me to the pitch of imparting my suspicions,
"Hubertus, I know now what torments you." "Well, doctor?" he replied
and knocked his pipe out. "It is very simple," I said boldly; "you
cannot sleep, and you are afraid of your dreams and even more, so it
seems to me, of the silence within yourself. You are in love, and your
love is tragic!" "Slander, sir," Hubertus declaimed. "Slander, for the
imp of satire might as well say that old men have grey beards and that
their faces are wrinkled, . . . ."
He got up and walked to the window and, breathing on it, wiped a
round space on the frosted pane. "The stars," he said, after he had
peered through for a long time, speaking in a low and hesitating voice
I had never known in him before, "the stars, from the beginning of
things, move the heart with a power of their own. You are right,
doctor, women too. And so, unfortunately, does religion." With this he
lay down under his quilt.
"At first," he said after a while, "if you really want to know, at
first is the bodily. I have had many women and often after seven
kisses I have been secretly tired of them. But it happened to me this
summer that one of them drew me to her with planetary force, yes, God
knows, with the force of the planets; there is no other word for it.
For the rest—I do not know her and I have lost her. It was on a lake
in Kärrnten. We were in the same inn for a fortnight without ever
speaking; one night we met on a landing-stage at the water's edge. Her
husband had gone to see a distant conflagration right across the lake,
and she stood wrapped in a dark cloak and raised her pale face, with
the dark lips half open, to mine. And there I stood and gazed in her
face breathing deeply, and the water sounded and the wind sounded and
the reflection of the fire in the lake paled and slowly died away, and
there she stood and, breathing deeply, gazed in my face. She drew me
to her with a greater force than love's and I held her with a greater
force than love's. Doctor, if at that moment I had taken her husband
by the throat and flung him throttled into the water she would have
gone with me without a word.
"I have never seen her again. Next morning when I came in from my
swim I found they had gone, very suddenly, as the waitress told me, and
quite contrary to their plans. Since then I see her eyes whenever I
shut my own. It is as though they swoop down from far away like two
birds and look deeply into mine."
"Hubertus," I said after a while when he said no more, "may I ask
why you wish to hide yourself from those eyes?"
For a long time he made no answer.
"Tell me," he cried suddenly, bending over towards me, "where does
all that happen to us and who allows it and sees to it?"
I did not understand him at once.
"You told me of other things," I then said, "which seemed to me
harder to undergo than this."
"No, sir," he said resolutely, "for then I knew where that happened
to us, and someone saw to it, or at least so it seemed to me. That is
over now. Unfortunately so is religion. You must know that I have
He lay back and said no more. Then after a moment I heard his voice
again, this time in an altered tone. If I had not gone to sleep, he
said, he would like to tell me an Advent story. That very night was its
anniversary and there were carols in it and lighted candles and real
Christmas-tree apples—everything, in short, that the Kalendar could
"Seven years ago," he began, "I came back from France and went to
Freiburg University. At that time the students had just started a
dramatic club and it was to be opened with the performance of an old
Nativity play. As I had a piano in my room and knew something of old
music, the rehearsal of the carols and incidental music was entrusted
to me, and I put all my heart into the task. I don't know exactly how
it came about, but the youthful leading lady of the municipal theatre
was induced to play the part of Mary. Perhaps she had offered herself
for the part because she wanted for once to play the Mother of God or
because the poetry of the old play appealed to her. She was a really
youthful leading lady—a beautiful girl, or young woman rather, with
white teeth and very red lips, and thick dark hair, and the neck and
the breasts of a goddess. She was much courted, but it was said that
she was engaged or in any case unapproachable. Well then—she was at
the rehearsals with me and I loved to look at her. She spoke verse as I
have never heard a woman speak it since, or at least never these verses
announcing the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. Go to the city of David
and to the babe in the manger. Apart from these hours when we worked
together I saw nothing of her.
"One day she came an hour or two before the time agreed upon and
explained with a lovely blush that she had got tired of waiting and
would I play over the old carols in my collection to her until the
Joseph and the shepherds came, as she would like so much to hear them.
So I lit the candles and began to play, and she sat down near me in an
armchair and hummed the tunes as I played them—with her eyes, I think,
on my face. After a while she took a plate of apples from the table on
to her lap and began to peel them and whenever I stopped playing she
slipped a slice of the cold fruit into my mouth. So it went on for two
hours, I should say, and then I had played all the carols and the
apples too were finished. But now the hour struck and in came Joseph
with the shepherds from the field, and the kings of the East."
"And?" I asked, when Hubertus was silent.
"Nothing," he replied. "The Advent story is ended. Joseph sat down
beside Mary on my army trunk which had to represent a stone on the road
to Bethlehem and later a manger in the stable, and the recitative
began. I may add that I took it all in perfect earnest and that it did
not strike me at all as it would to-day. For in those days it was the
truth for me and the living present. To-day it would be theatricals
and I should probably think of weeping. It would be as if an old man
looked back on his youth, and really, Doctor, he would have to be very
hale and hearty not to burst into tears."
I heard Hubertus turn over on his side; probably he then fell asleep.
Next morning he seemed to be quite his old self again and played the
fool as madly as ever. He spouted Hamlet, which he knew
by heart; with the help of the concertina, which had to serve him as an
organ, he extemporised the death scene from a film scenario; he made a
funeral oration during dinner over a roasted hare; finally he made the
wildest mistakes over the cards without my cousins' observing it, and
was as reluctant as ever to go to bed. Yet he appealed to me now and
then in the midst of his foolery with a look which I scarcely knew
whether to take as roguish or sad. My cousins were so delighted that
they implored him to go home with them for Christmas; but he held to
his design of spending those days, if they would allow him to, quite
alone at the shooting-box. My cousins then returned to the town and I
was leaving, too, but on the day before I went, my talks with Hubertus
were resumed in a way that impressed them deeply on my memory.
The keeper had noticed the tracks of a fox and we resolved to lie in
wait for it that evening when the stars were out and when the moon's
stronger light fell on the fresh snow. It was bitterly cold and the
sky was clear and thronged with stars. Occasionally a glimmer of
powdery snow traversed the soundless air. The forest stood tranced.
Finally I left my place in the clearing and tramped across to
Hubertus. He was sitting where the trees ended and the upland meadows
began in front of a group of old pines, with his shoulders up to his
ears. He did not seem to observe my approach at first. His attention
was fixed upon the distance. He had a red scarf wound round his ears
to protect them from the biting frost, and his hat on the top of it.
His rifle was slung on a tree behind him.
"We may as well go home," I said. "The fox must be frozen to death
Hubertus made no answer at first and he did not get up.
"For an hour," he then said, "I've been hearing that song again.
Oh, damn it!"
Suddenly he made a wide sweep of his arm over the sky and the hills,
which lay below in the glitter of the snow, and over the blue of the
woods with the blaze of stars above them. "Here we have the fields of
Bethlehem," he said in a low voice. "The gates of heaven open all
round the sky. From horizon to zenith they are slowly flung wide to
let the gloria sound forth, and now like flocks of butterflies angels
and cherubim descend, fanning their wide wings. They tread these
fields of snow with rosy feet and greet the son of God. You can see it
I stared at him.
"You can't?" he said. "You can't? . . . Of course not. But
that the inhabitants of Mars or God knows where should land here in
some contraption, armed to the teeth with lethal weapons—you can
imagine that, I dare say?"
"I admit it."
He got up and shook the snow from his clothes and slung his rifle
from his shoulder. "Not even a couple of angels, not the beat of a
wing," he said as he tramped beside me through the snow, "that's the
I don't know what induced him to confide in me particularly, for I
scarcely knew what answer to make to his questions. But I have never
been able to forget what he said and even though to-day, in spite of
the forcible words he used, it all appears to me to have come from a
weakness and distraction of his soul rather than from any inner
strength, I wish at least to put it on record.
"You have already realised," he began, "that I am in flight, and
also for what I fly. But apparently it is all in vain—as though the
almanack had the same power as a sorcerer's wand in old days. Up
here, I thought, no organ note can reach me, and no sound of matins at
midnight, and not the gleam of a candle will steal under the threshold,
and the choristers' 'From heaven high' and their 'This is the day' will
ring out for me only from outside the world. And I wanted to hunt the
woods through with the dogs as though it would help if I caught hares
in my bare hands, and as though it were not enough to call for wine and
cards, to rap out any yellowed verse and text that would come to my
lips and drown it in a round of drinks!"
"Hubertus," I said, "it seems to me that you love what you think you
"Because I cannot live any longer like this," he groaned, his fists
clenched on his chest, "I have strayed, or been driven, from the garden
where angels and saints and God himself walked in the cool of the
evening. I don't know how it has happened, but it still has power over
me, a power diminished till it merely poisons my will. Incapable of
seeing even a couple of silly angels, I still prowl into old churches
where the organ rolls among the forest of pillars like a wind among the
stars and drink my fill of the tears I shed for my lost youth. My dear
fellow, I must speak out for once—either I believe all or I believe
nothing, and then my own brain is my sole authority. Resurrection of
the body—that means flesh, hair, skin, teeth, and I should like to
know how it is to be spiritually understood. And eternal life—no,
don't talk to me of the immortality of the lovely dust—for it means:
Up, out of your graves, you who departed this life millenniums ago, and
clothe yourselves with flesh and try the voice in your throats!—or
else it means nothing at all and is idle talk. Imagine to yourself,
Doctor, where Paradise is, here above, amid the whirling wrack of gases
and star dust, or here, under our feet? And I must ask, too, like the
simplest yokel, a finger on the page, from the beginning—for as to the
construction and turning and twisting of the text—and you can twist it
a thousand ways to show what has spiritual significance and what is
mere nonsense—there you have only the business of the betrayers.
Sitting on the right hand of God, whence he shall come to judge the
quick and the dead. Doctor, do you believe that he—He, I say, no
spirit or symbol or ghost, but Jesus Christ of Nazareth in the
body—will one day beckon you with His hand and pardon or condemn? Do
you believe that?"
I was embarrassed and could find no reply to make; but apparently he
expected none, for he walked on heavily beside me, breathing deeply,
and looked at the ground.
"Do you remember," he went on after a while in a faltering voice,
"what a prayer was and an obeisance and a request for forgiveness,
addressed to the creator of heaven and earth?"
I nodded silently.
"My father," Hubertus continued, "lost two sons in the war and he
has lost me too. At this moment he is sitting at home in candle-light
at the piano. He lives alone there and he has collected his
grandchildren about him. He is teaching them the song of the shoot
which sprang up green from a root, and that other one of the good
tidings. Once he taught them to me too, and I remembered them for a
He stopped and unwound the scarf from his ears. We were nearly home.
"You see," he went on with a sad smile, "and that is why the past
has power over me, like the love affairs of her youth over an old
woman. And perhaps that would be all right if I were white-haired and
toothless, and had sons and grandchildren."
"Granted," I said, lingering before the door of the house, "granted
you succeed at last in your flight—and you will, Hubertus—then
"That is just what I won't," he interrupted, pointing to his
forehead, "I will not accept the tyranny of 1400 or I don't know how
many grammes of evolved mechanism in here. It is not enough. It gives
me no pleasure. Look up there," he said and he drew me over the
threshold again and pointed up to the stars, "I have watched night
after night beneath the up-storming fireballs; I have had friends and
buried them; women have loved me and this one whom I never knew had
power to do as she liked with me. And was I not to know that my knees
were made to bend, and my back to be bowed? But I must know, too, to
what and to whom, and I shall never find out so long as what has power
over me has passed away for ever. And that is why you see me in
We entered the house. Our meal was gone through in silence.
Hubertus's eyes seemed to be extinguished. The light hurt him, he
said, and he shaded his eyes with his hand. We went early to bed and I
soon fell into a deep sleep.
When I woke in the early morning the other bed was empty. I heard
from the man that Hubertus begged to be excused. He had gone before
daybreak into the forest. I have never seen him since. I think he was
very unhappy and that no one could help him. I can't help wondering
how it is that more and more of us grow like him.