The Man without Fear
by Paul Alverdes
From Changed Men, by Paul Alverdes, translated
from German to English by Basil Creighton.
Reinhold Oder Die Verwandelten, Munich: Georg Muller
Verlag, 1932, London: Martin Secker Ltd., 1933.
STAFF-CAPTAIN AXEL VON BERRMANN-PLEHWE, of the Livonian branch of
that family, sat one April night in 1916 on the log floor of a
communication trench east of Smorgen, in Russia. The Petersburg
guards with whom he served according to the tradition of his family
were to raid the German lines, which were some distance away on the
edge of a pine forest, at dawn.
The stars were beginning to grow pale and disappear, and the men
stood to all along the trench, restlessly shifting about in the ranks
and waiting for the first glimmer of day. Their long thin bayonets
were fixed and their rolled cloaks tied aslant across their chests like
officers' sashes. Now and then one of them leant back out of the ranks
to look for a comrade who was separated from him, or to whisper
something across those who stood between. Others were praying
bare-headed, bowing their heads again and again before little pictures
which they had fixed up on the side of the trench. The N.C.O.s tramped
to and fro behind, pushing their way along as they told off the men,
compared their watches and argued with one another.
Axel sat a little to one side of them wrapped in a light fur and
smoking one cigarette after another which he took from a gold
cigarette-case lying open between his feet. He was thinking that that
morning might be the last he had to live; and he was afraid. Yet when
he tried to go over the thirty years of his life, he found scarcely
anything which it would cost him a tremor to leave behind. But no
sooner had he realised this than he knew that there lay the real reason
why death was so repugnant.
Yes—when had he ever really lived? He threw away his cigarette and
sank his neck deeper into the collar of his fur cloak and felt its soft
caress. He thought of a summer morning not long before the outbreak of
war when he swam alone across the wide lake in the grounds of his
estate. It was fringed with sparsely-grown beech woods, and their deep
green foliage was softly dappled by the water which dazzled him with
innumerable sparkles of reflected sunshine. An ecstasy of joy suddenly
came over him; he had never since been able to think of it without
intense longing. He spun round like a top on the mirror of the lake
and luxuriously inhaled breath after breath, which filled him to
overflowing with a sense of refreshment and renewed life. Sometimes he
waved his arms and shouted aloud across the echoing expanses without
thinking whether there were anyone to hear him. Then he lay almost
motionless, gently twirling his hands and whispering to the water
beneath him as though to a lover. It pressed caressingly between his
lips and he replied with kisses.
Afterwards—but quite in vain—he tried sometimes to recapture this
fulness of emotion in which alone seemed to lie the whole pleasure of
living on this earth. It eluded him, do what he might. But a
different experience unexpectedly brought it back to him. It was in
the gambling rooms of the regimental club where he was playing for
recklessly high stakes.
Axel was genuinely fond of play, but he almost always had
notoriously bad luck, and for that reason he usually resisted the
fascination of the card tables. Winning or losing meant little to him,
but it wounded him in the inmost core of his being that an invisible
and mysterious power, whose influence was obvious enough, should
persist in an undeserved but insatiable hatred againt him. After nights
like these he could scarcely rid himself of a profound dejection. He
vexed and wearied himself, until he felt a loathing of life, with
questions to which no one has ever yet found any answer.
One night, however, his luck abruptly changed. He had merely to take
up a card to find that it was the very one he wanted. The others might
stake what they liked against him everything in an incomprehensible
manner served his turn. Banknotes, gold, and I.O.U.s heaped themselves
round him while he sat thrilled and blissful, scarcely venturing to
move in his chair. A demon, an angel of God or Satan, had put an
irresistible power at his disposal, and silently he offered up prayers
and petitions and promised to worship him all his life long if only he
would never desert him.
Next day he gave the money away to the poor and the monasteries, and
tore up the I.O.U.s.
But the angel departed and, conjure him as he might, his old luck
Axel gave a pull to his cap and passed his hand over his eyes.
Other scenes emerged from the past, but, as though they had never had
any real life, they passed away again, colourless and nebulous, on the
stream of time spent which with a dream-like rapidity flowed through
his memory. Then he sought about among the women, the dancers and
singers and expensive courtesans with whom, like others of his sort, he
had had affairs of one kind and another. But as soon as he tried to
draw near them in reminiscent emotion he found their kisses insipid
compared with the kisses of the water that morning, and their bodies
cold compared with the power of the demon who had sat unseen beside him
at the card table with his incorporeal arms resting on his shoulders.
Next he tried the first days of the war. He saw the faces of many
of his friends, now dead, transfigured and glowing with an inner light
as though with kisses of invisible lips. He had seen it with envy at
the time, for his soul felt nothing of this enchantment. He was a
soldier of the Czar according to the tradition of his family; when the
Czar went to war he did not hang back; he did what he could and what
came along. He had no other reason than this for sitting where he was
on the log floor of the trench, into which now the rising dawn wind
precipitated rivulets of fine sand and pebbles, while he tried to
master his apprehension at the thought of an untimely end.
When the moment came and the whistle blew, he climbed calmly out of
the trench and strode with a heavy revolver in one hand and a riding
switch in the other in front of his men towards the low, pale mounds of
thrownup earth which were all that could be seen of the German
trenches. But before he reached the rusty wire, he was hit in the left
arm by the first shot to be fired. It shattered his elbow and he fell
senseless to the ground. It was not till nightfall that his batman,
with the help of two or three more brave fellows, was able to bring him
in, for the attack did not succeed in getting a footing in the German
In due course Axel found himself in a hospital in St. Petersburg,
and there he got to know the young and lovely Irina Feodorovna, who had
volunteered as a nurse. It was there they fell in love with one
another. Irina was the wife of Prince Oblonski, who at the outbreak of
war had been sent on a diplomatic mission to French Headquarters where
he still was. Not long after his departure she put her little son into
the charge of a relative and had come to this hospital as a nurse.
At first they paid each other little attention, and indeed displayed
a marked indifference hardly in keeping with the situation. But then
they began to look at each other, and to listen when the other spoke,
with an ever-deepening pleasure, and before long their eyes
involuntarily met whenever they were together and lingered in a look of
mutual tenderness. Axel had never encountered looks like these. They
did not sadden or oppress him. Rather, they illumined his being with a
peace which made it vast and still like a landscape beneath a wide sky.
We live and are here, her two eyes said unceasingly as long as he
gazed into them, and he felt that he saw the sky for the first time
with the golden progress of the stars and that he had only heard of it
until then without ever being able to believe in it. The word
"eternal" now came often to his mind. He had encountered it with
envious contempt in volumes of famous love-letters in his library,
where many a lyrical passage and many a signature, and even the very
kisses and embraces of the lovers were harnessed by this word to the
motion of the planets. Now he knew its truth. It was nothing less
than the indubitable experience of eternal life that met him in the
eyes of his beloved and put him far beyond fear once for all.
Nevertheless, they made no confession, and nothing occurred which
had the force of a confession until they were parted for the first time.
One evening, towards the end of June, Axel sat lost in a book with a
lamp beside him. A large moth fluttered down from the lime trees in
bloom outside the open window. It was a strange beast of a kind he
could not remember having seen before—half bird, half moth, with a
body nearly a finger's length swathed in light brown fur as soft as
velvet, on which was folded a pair of tremulous and shimmering grey
wings. It seemed to be ailing or injured, for it kept quite still on
the spot where it landed after eddying down, and did not shrink from
the cautious touch of Axel's finger. Carefully he put it on his hand,
and now he saw that it had a face, round and feathered like an owl's,
with a fiercely curved beak of the colour of an apple-pip, and a pair
of large, lidless, wide-open eyes as black as jet. It was an earnest,
valiant bird-face, like an eagle's or an eagle-faced man's, and Axel
was lost in contemplation of it.
He was utterly convinced that this ghostlike creature was linked
with the being of his beloved. She had sent it to him, or, at any rate,
it was enclosed within the cycle of their love and was mutely aware of
He was tormented by the longing to make it an answer and to
acknowledge its presence with love, but it had no means of appeasing
his pain. The tears of a bliss he had never known before streamed down
his face while he sat with this visitant from infinity on the palm of
his hand and stammered out to it Irma's name.
"A friend has come to us, Princess," he said next morning when Irina
came into his room, "a friend who loves us has come." He slipped a
piece of paper carefully underneath the creature, which had stayed
where he had put it the night before. "He is still alive, and who
knows what he wants of us," he said seriously. "I should like to show
him the love and honour he has shown us. But I don't know how it is to
be done, and we shan't ever know either."
He looked up at her in perplexity and then gazed down again at the
creature on his hand, which now began turning itself about with
wavering movements of its feet and a tremulous fluttering of its wings.
Irina bent slowly down, and abruptly, with a sound like a groan, he
pressed his face against her hip and covered her hand with kisses. She
stood and stared down at the crown of his head and a wild longing to
bury her lips in his hair swept through her. But at once she felt as
though a poison paralysed her and she could move only her hand. She
turned it round beneath his lips and offered each finger in succession
and at last the palm, which she closed over his mouth. She stayed like
this for a long time. Then in silence she released herself and left
the room with her head bent low to her breast.
That very day she made an excuse for resigning her duties at the
hospital and escaped, as she thought, to her married sister's country
house in Livonia without having seen Axel again. Not long after, Axel
also left the hospital and got his discharge—for his arm was
permanently crippled. He went back to his estate, which was at some
distance from the one where Irina had taken refuge. She knew nothing
of this; nor had he the least idea where she had gone.
It was October before they met again. Every year at this season
Irma's brother-in-law used to have a big shoot in his woods and to
invite all the landowners from far and near, who were fond of sport, to
spend several weeks at his place. Axel was invited with the rest. He
could only handle a gun with the help of his servant, but it was
oblivion, not sport, he was in search of. On the evening of his
arrival he entered the hall where the family and their guests were
assembled and saw Irina in front of him. She swayed unsteadily and for
a moment all the colour left her face, but she made no sign of
recognition that any other could see and, after greeting him as she
greeted the rest, turned away. But at dinner their eyes met, and hers,
like a twin constellation in the pale heaven of her face, greeted him
this time with a dark glow.
Now all turned out as she had feared and longed. Speechless and
shivering with delight they lay that very night in each other's arms.
Blissful days and nights followed, while in the sacred intoxication of
those who truly love, they dared to make destiny their own. Their
kisses and embraces had their source in a power that lies beyond all
earths and heavens. It seemed that it made for them its one and only
appearance in this world and had never been granted to mortals before.
Thus the days of the shoot passed away and one early dawn the day of
parting had come.
Axel's carriage waited in the courtyard and he sat by Irma's bed,
ready to go and holding her hand once more in his. They had never, so
far, said a word of the future, and Axel, as he kissed her hand,
stammered out the brief words which were all that his utter conviction
needed to say. But Irina sat with altered face, silent, a frown of
stubbornness on her forehead. Suddenly she burst into tears and threw
herself on his breast. Sobbing wildly, she said that for her son's sake
she could never be his.
He sat mute and erect and stared in front of him. The tears
streamed down her face while she went on to say in a voice which only
confirmed her refusal that though their happiness was over, the
terrible penalty of a life without him was not too high a price to pay
for it. In spite of her agony she had wrung this resolve from herself.
She gasped out her words with difficulty and dug her nails deeply into
his arm. In a few days, she said, she was leaving with her son to join
her husband in Paris.
Axel was silent with despair. At last he got up and bending again
and again over her hand, he said, without looking at her, that for him
life was over and all that remained was a slow death. He turned and
left her; and she, blinded by uncontrollable tears, fell back on her
pillows, and while she nodded her head to confirm the verdict, her arms
were tremulously outstretched and her agony of grief seemed to give the
lie to all her resolutions. They never saw one another again.
A few months later, as though anticipating what lay before him, Axel
wrote her a letter:
"Ever since you made me realise," he wrote, "that we no longer
counted for each other among the living, I have spent my days in a
state of resigned indifference of which it would be difficult to give
you an idea. I did not, my unforgettable love, come to your arms as a
boy, yet, until I lay on your breast, I had never passed a day without
fear. I do not mean fear of death, but, if I am not mistaken, fear of
life, with which death is intertwined. I was always afraid of living
without living, of dying without having lived. Now it is all behind
me. Since you kissed me for the last time, wherever I turn it is
always downhill. But when life has no more happiness in store it hides
no unhappiness either. And so I live without dread while the world we
know collapses round us. And perhaps that is the same as saying that I
live no longer . . ."
As it happened, Irina did not receive this letter in Paris until
long afterwards, and with it came the news of Axel's death. Shortly
after he wrote it, the revolution broke out in Russia, and in Livonia
as well the peasants and labourers rose against the landowners. Then
the series of murderous riots began, which exterminated the nobility in
those countries, and all classes of society connected with it.
The castle of Berrmann-Plehwe was one of the first to go up in
flames. Axel had been warned by loyal peasants, but he replied with
indifference and even contempt. Then one dark and rainy night the
revolutionaries arrived in lorries. The gates were opened by
treachery, but the first of them who tried to enter the inner courtyard
received the fire of Axel's revolvers and the guns of two of his grooms
who had remained faithful. The darkness and confusion were increased
by a fire which broke out in the wings, and it was some while before
the revolutionaries, two or three of whom fell dead in the court-yard,
were able to carry out a concerted attack. After that it did not last
long. Both grooms, taking too little thought of cover, fell together,
shot through the head. Axel fired off all his cartridges and then
retreated up the steps which alone gave access to the house, if the
attackers meant to pursue him. By a still undamaged cellar passage
which served as a store for disused furniture and empty barrels and
bottles, he reached the stables through the back yard and outbuildings.
There were only a few of the revolutionaries posted there with torches
and shot-guns, and they probably mistook him for one of their own
party, or for one of the treacherous inmates of the castle. Meanwhile,
their companions in front of the house prepared for a final assault
with a loud outburst of firing, not knowing that the enemy had retired.
Axel led the stallion he always rode out into the jumping ring by a
fodder door at the back of the stables, and mounted. Nothing but a low
railing separated him from the park and the forest. But the animal,
though usually it obeyed the lightest touch on the rein or the least
pressure of the knee, seemed suddenly crazed. Rearing up, it turned
about in a circle and then danced sideways on all four feet and finally
came to a stand with legs extended and teeth chattering as though
bewitched. Thus it stood like a rock, front feet thrown forward, head
pressed into its neck and held low between its knees, and neither whip
nor spur could make it budge.
Axel threw away his riding switch and abruptly dismounted; then with
a clap on the animal's neck which was lathered in sweat and foam, he
walked slowly up to the insurgents. Gaping awkwardly, they collected
round him, at a loss to know what to make of it. He gave himself up as
the owner of the castle and told them to bring him to their leader.
That same night he was taken in a lorry to the neighbouring town,
which was in the hands of the revolutionaries. They had turned the
large cellar of a vodka distillery into a prison. Two armed men
conducted him there at dawn. He found there a number of landowners and
priests who had been brought in from the country round and were all in
the same plight as himself. Some were wounded and bandaged with
improvised bandages torn from their clothing; and some, anxious and
alert, tried with a childish and pathetic amiability to make a joke of
what was no joking matter, in the hope of extracting from their stolid
or officious guards some favourable news of the fate that awaited them.
There were others, however, who succeeded in preserving the dignity
and calm which alone were in keeping with the situation; and one of
these, an elderly priest with a bearded sallow face, now approached the
new arrival very courteously and offered him the consolations of
religion. The day ahead of them, he observed with a quiet smile, would
afford little time for such matters.
Axel got up from the heap of faggots on which he had sunk down in
his exhaustion and bowed politely. He thanked the priest for the
well-meant attention, but said that as far as he was concerned no
consolation was necessary, for he was in no distress either of body or
mind. The priest conveyed by a gesture that Axel had misunderstood
him; whereupon Axel explained by way of apology and with a certain
embarrassment that for him—unlike the rest, no doubt, who had been
brought together in such unhappy circumstances—nothing could happen
that had not already happened long ago. He then very politely bowed
again and begging that his fatigue might be his excuse sat down again
on his heap of firewood. The priest looked at him in sorrowful
perplexity and then with a bow of respectful consideration walked away.
Shortly after, their new rulers summoned the prisoners before a
court-martial, and here Axel witnessed a scene which was utterly
incomprehensible to him. The trial was held in the chapel of the
school close by, and the tribunal sat behind the barrier which on
former occasions separated the pupils from the staff. Two of its
members came from a company of refractory soldiers which had been
stationed in the town, two more, who were apparently overwrought and
over-excited, were drawn from a committee of revolutionaries, and the
fifth was a cobbler who, on the strength of a dogmatical familiarity
with revolutionary writings, dragged out the proceedings in a manner
that greatly disgusted his colleagues, who were in favour of making
short work of the business.
And now when one of the prisoners, the great landowner, Prince L., a
stout man with a white moustache, suddenly threw himself on his knees
before the tribunal begging for mercy, protesting his innocence and
pleading the good-will of which he had given life-long proof, Axel
broke loose from his guards and forced his way to the barrier and laid
his hand on the shoulder of the kneeling man. "But, my dear Prince,"
he said, bending down close to his ear, "do you remember nothing? Does
nothing come to your mind for which you are not glad here and now to
pay the price?"
"No, no," wailed the prince. He raised his face swollen with blows
and streaming with tears and caught hold of Axel round the knees. "My
dearest Baron," he implored, "save me, save me, for my son's sake."
"Well then," Axel cried almost indignantly, and shook him as though
to rouse him from a dream or a drunken state, "think of the night when
you begot him or of the moment when you saw him for the first time."
"For the last time, for the last time, my precious, my beautiful
Mischa," the old man howled, suddenly recollecting afresh the events of
the past night. Then raising his hands he turned back to his
fellow-prisoners to shew his son being beaten to death by the rifle
butts of the rioters. Axel made a gesture of despair at this useless
display, and went back to his place while the prince, still raving, was
dragged out by the guards.
After a moment Axel was called forward and in a bored voice made a
few casual replies to the questions he was asked. Then putting one
hand over his eyes he called out: "Enough. Not another word. Now I
wish to think."
From that moment he was silent, and no threat could elicit any
answer to the questions they put him. The priest, whose life was saved
by the accident that the cobbler recognised him as a past benefactor,
related afterwards that the smile beneath the hand which veiled Axel's
eyes was of unforgettable beauty, though he could give no explanation
of his behaviour. He went on to say that when at midday Axel, with the
rest of the prisoners, was stood against the wall of the school
gymnasium and shot, he died with this smile still on his face.