Old New Land/Book 1/Part 1
Altneuland - Book One - An Educated, Desperate Young Man
Sunk in deep melancholy, Dr. Friedrich Loewenberg sat at a round marble table in his cafe on the Alsergrund. It was one of the most charming of Viennese cafes. Ever since his student days he had been coming there, appearing every afternoon at five o'clock with bureaucratic punctuality. The sickly, pale waiter greeted him submissively, and he would bow with formality to the equally pale girl cashier to whom he never spoke.
After that, he would seat himself at the round reading table, drink his coffee, and read the papers with which the waiter plied him. And when he had finished with the dailies and the weeklies, the comic sheets and the professional magazines-this never consumed less than an hour and a half-there were chats with friends or solitary musings.
That is to say, once upon a time, there had been lighthearted talk. Now only dreams were left, for the two good comrades with whom he had been wont to while away the idle, pleasant evening hours at this cafe had died several months previously. Both had been older than he; and it was, as Heinrich had written him just before sending a bullet into his temple, "chronologically reasonable" that they should yield to despair sooner than he. Oswald went to Brazil to help in founding a Jewish labor settlement, and there succumbed to the yellow fever.
So it happened that for several months past Friedrich had been sitting alone at their old table. Now, having worked through to the bottom of the pile of newspapers, he sat staring straight ahead without seeking out someone to talk to. He felt too tired to make new acquaintances, as if he were not a young man of twenty-three, but a graybeard who had all too often parted with cherished friends. His gaze was fixed upon the light cloud of smoke that veiled the comers of the room.
Several young men stood about the billiard table, making bold strokes with their long poles. They were in the same boat as himself, but for all that not too unhappy these budding physicians, newly baked jurists, freshly graduated engineers. They had completed their professional studies, and now they had nothing to do. Most of them were Jews. When they were not too engrossed in cards or billiards, they complained how very hard it was to make one's way "these days." Meanwhile they passed "these days" in endless rounds of cards. Friedrich felt sorry for the thoughtless young fellows, though at the same time he rather envied them.
They were really only a kind of superior proletariat, victims of a viewpoint that had dominated middle-class Jewry twenty or thirty years before: the sons must not be what the fathers had been. They were to be freed from the hardships of trade and commerce. And so the younger generation entered the "liberal" professions en masse. The result was an unfortunate surplus of trained men who could find no work, but were at the same time spoiled for a modest way of life. They could not, like their Christian colleagues, slip into pubic posts; and became, so to say a drug on the market. Nevertheless, they had the obligations of their "station in life," an arrogant sense of class distinction, and degrees that they could not back up with a shilling. Those who had some means gradually used them up, or else continued to live on the paternal purse. Others were on the lookout for eligible part is, facing the delicious prospect of servitude to wealthy fathers-in-law. Still others engaged in ruthless and not always honorable competition in pursuits where genteel manners were requisite. They furnished the curious and lamentable spectacle of men who, because they did not want to become merchants, dealt at "professionals" in secret diseases and unlawful legal affairs. Some who in their need became journalists trafficked in public opinion. Others ran about to public assemblies and hawked worthless slogans in order to make themselves known in quarters where they could make useful party connections.
Friedrich would not resort to any of these shifts. "You are not fit for life," poor Oswald had said grimly just before going off to Brazil. "You let too many things disgust you. One must be able to swallow things. Vermin, for example, or offal. So a man becomes strong and well-fleshed, and winds up in a good berth. But you-you are nothing but a noble ass. 'Get thee to a nunnery, Ophelia!' No one will believe that you are an honest man, because you are a Jew....What will happen to you? Your few inherited shillings will melt away long before you can get a foothold in the law. Then you will be compelled either to do something disgusting-or to hang yourself. Buy yourself a rope, I beg you, while you still have a gulden. Don't count on me! For one thing, I shall not be here. For another, I am your friend!"
Oswald had coaxed him to come along to Brazil, but he had not been able to decide to do so. He did not confide his secret reason to the friend who was going to an early death in a strange land. The "reason" was blond and dreamy, a marvelously sweet creature. Not even to these trusted comrades had he ventured to speak of Ernestine, fearing their jests. And now the two dear fellows were gone. He could not turn to them for sympathy or advice even if he wished. His situation was very difficult. What would they have said if he had told them? Suppose they had never gone away, and all three were now sitting together at the old reading table? Closing his eyes, Friedrich held an imaginary conversation.
"My friends, I am in love. No, I love...."
"Poor fellow!" Heinrich would have said.
Oswald, however: "Such stupidity is quite like you, dear Friedrich!"
"Oh, it's more than stupidity, my friends. It's full-fledged madness. If I were to ask Ernestine Loeffler's father for her hand, he would probably laugh at me. I am a mere lawyer's assistant, with a salary of forty gulden a month. I have nothing left nothing at all. These last few months have been my ruin. I have spent the last few hundred gulden of my inheritance. I know it was madness to strip myself of everything. But I wanted to be near her ...to watch her graceful gestures, to listen to her sweet voice. I had to go to the spa where she was staying for the summer. There were plays, concerts, and all the rest of it. And a man has to dress well in that set. Now I have nothing left, but I love her as much as ever. No, more than ever!"
"And what do you want to do?" Heinrich was asking. "I want to tell her of my love for her, and ask her to wait for me for a few years until I can establish myself."
Oswald's cynical laughter echoed through the reverie. "Yes, yes! To wait! Ernestine Loeffler wait for a starveling until she is passe. Hal hal ha!"
Someone actually was laughing close to Friedrich's ear. He opened his eyes with a start. Schiffmann, a young bank clerk whom he had met at the Loefhers, stood before him laughing heartily. "You must have gone to bed very late last night, Dr. Loewenberg, to be sleepy at this hour!"
Friedrich was embarrassed. "I was not asleep," he replied.
"Well, this will be another late night. Of course you're going to the Loeffers'." Schiffmann lounged into a seat beside the reading table.
Friedrich cared little for the young fellow, but tolerated his company because he could speak to him of Ernestine, and often learned from him what plays she was to attend. (Schiffmann had his connections with theatrical box offices, and could secure tickets for the most crowded performances.) "Yes," he replied, "I also am invited there tonight."
Shiffmann, who had picked up a newspaper, exclaimed suddenly, "I say, this is curious!"
"What is it?"
"Ah, you read the advertisements, too!" commented Friedrich, with an ironic smile.
"Do I read the advertisements too?" retorted Schiffmann. "I read the advertisements in particular. There's nothing more interesting in the paper except the stock exchange reports."
"Indeed! I never read the stock exchange reports."
"Ah, yes, you... But I! After one glance at the exchange rates, I can sum up the whole European situation...But after that I turn at once to the advertisements. You've no idea of the things one finds there. Heaps of things and people are for sale. That is to say, everything in the world can be bought for a price, but one cannot always pay the price. From the advertising columns I if always find out what opportunities there are. I say: Know everything, need nothing! ...I have noticed a remarkable advertisement for the last few days, but I do not understand it."
"Is it in a foreign language?"
"Well, just look at this." Schiffmann handed the paper to Friedrich, and pointed to a small notice. It read: "Wanted, an educated, desperate young man willing to make a last experiment with his life. Apply N. O. Body, this office."
"You are right," said Friedrich. "That is a remarkable advertisement. 'An educated, desperate young man.' Such a man might be found, of course, but the condition imposed is a very difficult one. A man must be desperate indeed to throwaway his life on a last experiment."
"Well, Mr. Body seems not to have found him. He has been advertising for some time. But I should like to know who this Mr. Body is with his queer tastes."
"It is no one."
"N. O. Body-Nobody. Means no one in English." "Ah, yes. I had not thought of English. Know everything, need nothing. ...But it's time to go if we're not to be late at the Loefflers'. We must be punctual this evening."
"Why this evening particularly?"
"Sorry, but I can't tell! Discretion is a point of honor with me.. ..But be prepared for a surprise...Waiter! Check!"
A surprise? Of a sudden Friedrich felt a vague anxiety.
As he left the cafe with Schiffmann, he noticed a ten year-old boy standing in the outer doorway. The child's shoulders were hunched up in a thin little coat. He held his arms tightly across his body, and stamped on the drifted snow in a sheltered nook. The hopping seemed almost like a pose, but Friedrich realized that with those tom shoes the child must be freezing bitterly. He picked three copper coins out of his pocket by the light of the street lamp. The boy thanked him shiveringly, and ran off.
"What! You encourage street begging!" cried Schiffmann indignantly.
"I don't imagine the little fellow is running around in this December weather to amuse himself. ...Seemed like a Jewish child too."
"Then let him go to the Jewish Community or to the Israelitsche Allianz, and not loiter about cafes in the evening!"
"Don't get excited, Mr. Schiffmann. You gave him nothing."
"My dear sir," said Schiffmann firmly, "I am a member of the Society against Pauperization and Beggary. Annual dues, one gulden."