The Mysterious Individual/VI
After some time Kronenberg was mounted and on his way to Neuhaus. Spring had arrived, bringing the heat of summer with it; the traveller had forgotten his troubles and was now light-hearted and in good spirits, as young men are accustomed to be when they leave home for the first time to become acquainted with the wider world. He had already visited some pleasant country estates in the neighbourhood, and had rambled cheerfully through the forests and mountains; and now, as he travelled happily across the plain, images and incidents from his earliest youth passed through his mind; he was caught up in that happy reverie in which all our memories enthral us, and foolishness looks through the same eyes as seriousness. But he also had much opportunity to be mindful of his friend's warning; for his horse had to be handled skilfully and attentively. It was strong and of a fine breed, but spoilt by its rider; the characteristics of the master are transferred in a certain manner to his animals, and so this horse was curiously absent-minded; it often took fright for no apparent reason, and jumped aside; it also stumbled without due cause: it had already taken the bridle in its teeth once and rushed off at a reckless pace without having the slightest regard for the rider or his pleasure. So, as he considered himself an excellent horseman, Kronenberg had a secondary object in mind when he undertook this journey, namely, to reaccustom this beautiful animal to reason and order: he learned, as he trained it, that he too was more absent-minded than he had thought: the worst failing, and the one which ensures that all training, whether by someone of a reasonable or an unreasonable disposition, becomes impossible.
The following day from an eminence he sighted the castle, surrounded by trees, just as a young man, who was also on horseback, joined him. When the latter, after a few questions and answers, had learned Kronenberg's intentions, he exclaimed:
— Why, you have arrived at just the right time, for in two or three days the young lady's wedding will be taking place.
— The young lady of the estate? — Impossible!
— Why impossible? Surely you don't intend to forbid the banns? The festivities will be all the more resplendent, as her father wishes to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of his own wedding on the same day. The entire neighbourhood has already been invited, and as the event is so well known, I could hardly imagine it's news to you. The castle is teeming with guests, so you will probably have to make do with a farm building or a tenant's cottage.
— But in Heaven's name, exclaimed Kronenberg, who on Earth is the young lady marrying?
— That's what's so strange about it, the young man prattled on in as careless and voluble a manner imaginable: it is a match that neither the father nor the mother, nor even the girl herself, could scarcely have thought possible even three months ago: for it is a mésalliance which really makes no sense whatsoever. Just think, about four months ago a young fop passes through the village, presents a letter, is well received, a man about my age, and not unlike me in manners and appearance. He has just graduated from the university, a magistrate's son, living seven or eight miles from here. The young fellow writes verses, makes pretty speeches, is courteous, reads books to her. He falls madly in love with the beautiful rich girl; unperceived, she is infected with the same folly; the parents are dissatisfied, her mother weeps, her father rages. But one can only rage so much, and even the most profusive tears eventually dry up; only love is eternal and inexhaustible. Isn't it so, as all the world says? And so it proved to be in this case; after all, putting up a brave front is really what comes most naturally to the gentry. In short, the young braggart is successful.
— Forgive my asking, said the traveller: you're not by any chance the groom, are you?
The young man looked at him with loud mischievous laughter, spurred his horse, and flew off. His light summer coat fluttered behind him on the air, as he called back:
— Follow me without delay, comrade.
— Poor friend, Kronenberg said to himself, and so all your hopes and wishes are dashed for good! Just as your father is now relieved of all anxiety, and my contradictory instructions can no longer cause me any grief.
He rode on more slowly, lost in his thoughts, and when he finally arrived in the courtyard of the castle, the young light-hearted fellow bounded out of the stables and once again accosted him.
— Aha! he cried laughingly, here you are at last! You will be surprised, however, when you see who is upstairs with the Baron! An old acquaintance!
— Surely you don't mean to say that my friend Herr von Wildhausen has hurried ahead of me? asked Kronenberg.
— No, that is not his name.
— Or Herr Freimund?
— Far from it.
— Surely not, said the young man hesitantly, a Herr Wandel?
— Correct! cried the young man, and he sprang up the steps, as he had noticed how Kronenberg had suddenly become pale, for the latter's most expensive bill of exchange was made out in this man's name.
Kronenberg quickly debated with himself whether it might not be better to get back on his horse as fast as he could and make for the highway with all dispatch; in the meantime, however, the stable boys had arrived and he was surrounded by servants. He considered himself a virtual prisoner, and with a heavy heart he followed a servant who had rushed forward, eager to announce him. A young woman with a beautiful figure greeted him from the balcony with gracious affability. As he raised his eyes, he thought he saw a trace of mischievous or perhaps even malicious laughter, which, however, immediately resolved itself into a gracious smile. When he ascended the stairs and crossed the broad entrance hall, he was astonished to find the place so incomprehensibly quiet, considering how many guests there were. The Baron advanced and greeted him with a cheerful welcome, delighted to make the acquaintance of one of young Wildhausen's friends, who would help to brighten up the solitude of his provincial house.
— Solitude? asked Kronenbreg, surprised: I fear I must be an unwelcome guest in your house during this beautiful celebration of your life.
The Baron looked at him in astonishment.
— Your daughter's wedding, your silver wedding anniversary, continued Kronenberg — but the Baron interrupted his speech with peals of laughter, and finally exclaimed:
— Ah, I see that you have already fallen into the hands of our windbag, young Wehlen. This fellow, a college friend of my son's, has for so long made it his business to invent lie upon lie that lying has finally become second nature to him and he is now quite unable to tell the truth about anything, even where matters of the least consequence are concerned. He never returns from a stroll without having fabricated something of no particular interest that could possibly have befallen him. He plays thousands of practical jokes on my daughter. We are all so used to it now that no one in the house takes any notice of him anymore; so he has a field day whenever he meets a stranger who is not yet familiar with his ways.
With this explanation, a heavy weight was lifted from the young man's chest, who assumed that he probably did not have anything to fear from Herr Wandel either: but still, he could not suppress his irritation when he discovered that he had been duped by a young buck.
— If the young fellow, he said, has made such a habit of lying, it has become more than just a joke; one might even call this utter contempt for the truth a vice. And will he never make use of this tendency for evil ends? I fear this folly, which admittedly is only intended to provoke laughter now, will in the future occasion him and others many bitter tears. How can one play games like that with life? But he will certainly not escape punishment, and a repentance that will be perhaps too late.
— Splendid! said the Baron with a smile: but, my dear young friend, do you actually know any people who tell the truth? Everybody in the world tells lies, each after his own manner, and silly Wehlen's manner is one of the most innocent. I trust no one, and I do not expect anyone to trust me. It is surely not Truth that keeps the world from falling apart, and what a terrible thing it would be if this fine creature, of whom so many wonderful tales are told, should actually show up one day. You have expressed yourself very fervently and sincerely, and many others would find your manner more pleasing than I do; for — come, my dear sir, let's go into the garden! — I have always noticed that we reserve our bitterest denunciations for those failings in others which we ourselves are not entirely free from.
In the garden they met the Baroness and her daughter, accompanied by the young enemy of the truth. The Baron's words had made Kronenberg blush unduly. Wehlen approached him without any embarrassment and even recounted his merry little prank, as he called it.
— You have already treated me, said Kronenberg, entirely like a familiar friend, for which I must thank you.
— You're welcome, replied the young madcap. This business would surely be completely innocent if every conscience in the world, even the best and most thick-skinned, did not have some sore spots; it was you yourself who placed the name Wandel in my hands, like a magic wand with which I might terrify you. But then I have to quickly concoct another story on top of that.
The traveller became upset; for this flippant and tactless manner seemed to him to border on rudeness, and he did not understand how the inhabitants of the house, especially the ladies, could tolerate it. The latter, however, seemed to be completely at ease, and the young fool was loudly encouraged to monopolize the conversation even more with his rather crude manners. Presently the Baron's son returned home from the chase, and as he handed his shotgun and the snipes he had bagged to another hunter, he exclaimed:
— Hey! Wehlen! Is that you? Your father is in the woods and says he has the money that you recently wrote about.
Without replying, the other man ran off, whereupon the young Baron burst out laughing:
— For once, it seems, I have paid him back in his own coin, he exclaimed; he is determined that no one shall hoodwink him. His father has no intention of coming.
Kronenberg would have felt very ill at ease if the kindness of the beautiful girl and her courteous and obliging manner had not made amends. At dinner he sat next to her, and their conversation, albeit inconsequential, was nevertheless cheerful and light-hearted; and it was only towards the end of the meal that the humiliated Wehlen slunk in and everyone maintained that for the first time in a month he had been rendered shamefaced and speechless.