The Mysterious Individual/VII
— I must become even better acquainted with the family, Kronenberg said to himself after a few days; I still don't know how to commence my negotiations. He did not want to admit to himself that the daughter's kind complaisance had enthralled him. And she too seemed to have eyes for him alone, and to live for his glance; she went for walks with him and spoke with him alone, even when others accompanied them; she allowed him to read to her, and she praised his voice and the expressiveness with which he read more than his friends had ever done. And so the hours and days were passed in fun and games, and he could never find the right time to speak on his friend's behalf, much less write the promised letter to him or to old Wildhausen.
When they were amusing themselves with a book one rainy afternoon in the library, Kronenberg began:
— I must confess, after what I heard about your preference for French literature, I did not expect to find all our great German writers here, and I am still surprised that so far you have only requested me to read to you from their works.
— My dear Sir, said her mother, I see no works here that could possibly surprise you. It's just that we don't take reading so seriously and ponderously all the time, unlike the majority of people, who have only recently acquired the very annoying habit of being seen as enthusiastically in favour of this or that party, or in outright hostility against another. Then they construct an idol for themselves which they call good taste, or the progress of civilization, or culture, and to which they sacrifice their amusement, and in which they themselves often have no faith, just so that they can appear noble and exalted. Whatever should one do? Once we are so conditioned, we are obliged to read now and then, — that goes hand in hand with our feminine pursuits, and so hours, days and weeks slip by very comfortably.
Fräulein Lila had spoken a short while before with enthusiasm and radiant eyes of the deep impression that the tragedy, so splendidly declaimed, had made on her, but the enthusiastic vanity of the reader had been violently quenched by this latest speech.
— One floats leisurely, Lila now said, on a stream of melody, and does not notice the lingering of the present.
— I don't understand, exclaimed Wehlen, I'm just delighted with them (indicating the poets and novelists), to think that all these shelves of German, French and English books have disseminated on such a large and comprehensive scale that which is also my hobby. Surely not even one grain of truth could be burnt out of all these hundredweights of lies. But no doubt the respectable, ethical Herr Kronenberg will hold this innocent recreation against me!
— How can you compare such things to one another, Kronenberg exclaimed.
— Why not? remarked the Baron's son. The same talent is involved, just more skilfully applied and taken to greater lengths. I was even annoyed from my childhood on whenever my mother or sister cried over fictional things. I cannot describe how strange such remarks, loud laughter or intense interest seemed to me, as I had never fallen under that delusion. I have also noticed that one must actually train oneself to become truly accustomed to it, if one is to lead such a life as one finds in books; also, such people lose all sense of reality.
— But, his father said with a grave and important air, let us take up our French favourites again, my friends; because the time may be imminent when we will stand in great need of the language and expressions of this nation's polite society. Whoever knows how to converse well and in his own way with the French has already won half the battle, and if the monarchs are mobilizing their troops, building up their arsenals and strengthening their defences, then let us also, my dears, take up once more those idioms, puns and easy conversation of our so-called enemies, so that, through a detailed knowledge of Racine, Voltaire and Diderot, we may resist them with as little recourse to violence as possible.
— Hear! Hear! said his son. These are offensive, if not also defensive, weapons, which could be of great use to us.
— We must lie, Wehlen interjected, laughing, so that these fellows will be completely at a loss and begin to bluster. When they feel like Germans, then we shall have won.
The next day, when Kronenberg was alone in the garden with Fräulein Lila, it seemed to him that she was behaving in a more intimate manner with him. He likewise indulged his good humour, though he silently reproached himself for failing to mention the message with which his friend had entrusted him. He could only excuse his conduct by quietly concluding that his friend had never been loved, and that it would be wrong therefore to promote an engagement which could only lead to the unhappiness of both parties. He was still undecided whether he should accept his own good fortune, which had fallen into his lap like a ripe fruit without any assistance from him; also, as he felt no passion, he decided to leave it to the future to decide the outcome one way or the other.
He was quickly and unpleasantly wrenched from these sophistries when the young lady suddenly exclaimed with an altered voice and expression:
— So you too belong to the majority of unprincipled men, those who cannot resist temptation, who cannot nobly reject an apparent favour? You wish to be a good friend, and yet you have hardly mentioned the name of my beloved to me? He informed me, before your arrival, that you would be acting on his behalf; but at the slightest possibility that I might be attracted to you, you have forgotten all your promises. Whenever I have indulged in such pleasantries, I have always been successful; so we girls should not be blamed if we fail to amass particularly noble opinions of the excellence of the male sex.
Kronenberg tried to compose himself quickly, and replied:
— But do you really think, my charming young lady, that I did not immediately recognize in you the prudent coquette? Did you actually think that I wanted something else when you tested how far you might push your mischievousness? I must be a much better actor than I realized if you, who are so discerning, could have been so convinced that I was a lovesick swain.
— Your talent, she replied, laughing, is only so-so; at least you played the lover much more naturally than you did the man of the world just now, removing his artfully contrived mask. You are obviously embarrassed, try as you might to compose yourself. O, yes, Sir, you still have much to learn in the school we call the big wide world; you are just playing truant from one of the lowest classes.
She left him with this taunt, and the disgruntled man went into a dark arbour, where he found the Baron's son reading.
— Where is your father? he cried lively. I must take my leave of him, for my journey is pressing.
— My father, replied the son, is upstairs in his study, engaged in the most necessary and the most superfluous task in the world.
— What do you mean?
— You have surely heard him say that he takes great pride in the fact that he manages his own affairs. But, as it happens, he has absolutely no idea how to go about it. And his people know this; but he goes to extraordinary lengths to conceal this from them, or so he thinks. Housekeepers, foresters and caretakers must attend him daily to give an account of their work and to receive fresh orders. This conference lasts several hours. My father toils to come up with excellent questions, to make regulations that are impossible or impracticable, and in order not to treat the thing frivolously and terminate the comedy too quickly, there is often fifteen minutes of holy silence when he cannot think of any more questions to ask and the others of course have no more answers to give. Every day he dreads this hour, and every day it takes him a long time to recover from it. Go on up: you may perhaps release him from this Purgatory.
Kronenberg followed this suggestion, and in the Baron's room he found the servants drawn up in silence and forced attention, contemplating their master, who was gazing at the Heavens. His countenance brightened when he noticed the intruder; he dismissed everyone with the exclamation:
— Tomorrow we'll look into these matters in greater detail, — I have no more time to spare today.
He was sorry to hear that his entertaining guest intended to leave as early as the next day or the day after that. Just then they heard the sound of doors being banged, the violent ringing of bells, the shouts of servants, intermittently the loud voice of the Baron's son, and steps hurrying through the corridors, down the stairs and out the door.
— Good Heavens! cried the astonished Kronenberg. What does this mean?
— Don't be alarmed, replied the Baron calmly. It's just my son studying.
— What? Studying?
— Yes, he notified me this morning that he intends to resume his studies before evening. I knew that things were going to get a bit restless as a result, so I've been waiting for this uproar. The young fellow, as you may have noticed, is rather scatterbrained and quite idle. So long as his time is taken up with aimless walks, the pleasures of the chase, easy reading, riding and social calls, he is quite calm. But every three months it once again crosses his mind that he must not neglect his studies entirely. Then he laboriously surrounds himself with weighty tomes, and sits down amongst them with single-minded zealousness. But hardly has he opened them than a thousand things occur to him in this secluded recess which would never have crossed his mind anywhere else: a servant has taken away this or that which he must now search for; an important note must be sent to the neighbours; the carpenter and the smith are to be summoned so that he can order post-haste some utensil that is actually superfluous; now he has the library ransacked for a book that is later mislaid. And so it's a case of one noisy kerfuffle after another. So it is not always true that the Muses love solitude and silence, and if we have no roaring waterfalls, which, as many claim, are to be considered sublime, then we'll use the staircase here as a cascade and the slamming of doors as the mountains' echoes.
Kronenberg departed with a strange feeling; he reflected how the members of this family seemed to have no respect for one another, and yet they all got along rather well. In the evening, when they had assembled once again for tea, the Baroness approached her guest affably and whispered to him:
— My daughter tells me her girlish banter caused you some pique; but as a man of the world you should not take offence. What else could possibly divert us poor lonely women as much as the adulation of young and old? My dear young friend, it is just another kind of card game. Knowing how to shuffle the cards skilfully, how to play with finesse, how to guess what your opponent has while never revealing your own hand, and last but not least, never taking this type of entertainment seriously: all these are qualities which a good education must teach thoroughly. I have taken the time and effort to teach my sensible daughter all these little arts, so that she will never be the victim of a cleverly educated man, who could trap an inexperienced girl with such tricks to her own misfortune. We delude men, but we must never allow ourselves to be deluded; I was surprised when you walked right into her trap on the very first day.
Kronenberg bowed politely and with some emotion declared himself grateful that she had not insisted on being too hard on him. But soon their quiet conversation was interrupted by the drolleries which young Wehlen was singing in his raucous style, and to which the Baron and his son had for some time been lending a willing ear.
A letter was delivered.
— Ah! From the elderly Baron Mannlich! exclaimed Wehlen, — who was the talk of the town last year for such a long time when he was visiting you. You are no doubt still unaware of one of his strangest escapades. You were out of town, but he was quite happy to spend a few days here alone with me. I'm out hunting. A carriage breaks down outside the village; the old gentleman condescends to assist an older and a younger woman to their feet, who, as it afterwards transpired, were two teachers; he leads them on foot, shows them the gardens and the neighbourhood and finally even the whole palace, passing them off as his own property. In order to convince the ladies that he is in charge, he reprimands the estate's servants, in the farm buildings he rants and curses all over the shop, orders this and that to be done quite differently the following day, and as the baffled farmhands and day-labourers do not recognize him, he boasts to his entourage how much all his subjects fear his majesty. But the funniest thing was that he had a farmer who was smoking tobacco in his own yard sent to prison with a great hue and cry. So when the women, exhausted with all the hiking and the noise and the endless respect shown to them, finally resumed their journey in their little old patched-up carriage, he had to compensate the imprisoned farmer with several thalers, bribe the village courts, handsomely tip the farmhands and day-labourers, and administer to insignificant little me numerous hugs and kisses as well as warm protestations of friendship, lest I reveal to anyone how he had decked himself out in a blaze of false glory as a three-hour tyrant.
The young man followed this up with numerous jokes and anecdotes; his stock really seemed to be inexhaustible; and though many of his tales had no particular point to them, they still found a willing audience in the Baron's household; but Kronenberg, who was by now somewhat out of sorts, couldn't understand how everyone found these rambling nonsensical stories so amusing. When he ventured a modest criticism, the Baron replied:
— I must confess, I find that what one calls anecdotes are almost the most amusing form of entertainment. These fanciful scraps and drolleries delight us precisely because we do not need any prior knowledge in order to understand and relish them. It is exactly the same with history, as far as my interests are concerned. I am still waiting for that witty author who will someday turn all these weighty matters into drolleries for me and completely dissolve this apparent and tedious harmony, this sequence of causes and effects. Because everything is just one big lie. Some French memoirs have already come pretty close to what I am looking for.
— Also, the literature of every nation, said his daughter, can interest us in no other way; I am attracted to it only as a chaos of isolated, tattered, often bizarre, often incomprehensible phenomena.
— Why then, exclaimed young Wehlen, the German is well on his way to winning your warmest applause. Soon our little yearly almanac will be providing us with the greatest and most coherent works. These Christmas lambs whose little mouths are sealed with gold, or whose cheerful little eyes are first opened, like kittens' eyes, after about nine days, when pretty, elegant and well-pointed fingers have worn away the gilded covering from the tender pages, and poems like narratives have loosened the tongue. But however cute their little pictures might be, however tasteful their illustrations, however touching their stories, however delicately woven their verse, I still find in these works, despite their small size, too much German ponderousness, and with it a too assertive one-sidedness, not to mention the iniquitous trend towards Christmas and New Year and the social round of seasonal greetings, like sextons and night-watchmen. Contrast that with our weekly and daily newspapers! Here in a handful of pages are poured forth world history, erudition, satires, epigrams, city gossip, reviews, theatre, anecdotes, weather reports, riddles, liberalism, hints for rulers, philosophy, charades and above all poems. Is it not so? And what a mess if seven or eight of these papers lay stacked up on a dressing table. Objection, response, withdrawal; a squabble between two people; here praise where someone else rebukes; there a discovery which is already as old as the hills; a query by someone which any encyclopaedia can answer; then a philosophical problem, whether it is a good thing to be able taste mustard for too long after a meal. Here too it is only the stories that are particularly successful, for which reason they are forever saying: To be continued. It is only a pity that these are spun out to enormous lengths. If I were to publish such a paper, I would insist on serving up the remarkable adventure in roughly the following courses:
To be continued.
To be continued.
To be continued.
To be continued.
To be continued.
To be concluded.
— Such a treatment could still engage the reader's ingenuity; but with the current practice it is inevitable that the reader will guess everything at the outset and completely abandon himself to the stream of emotions, which makes even our compatriots much too faint-hearted and sentimental.
A carriage drove up, and the curious Wehlen ran down to see who had arrived. He returned presently and cried:
— Rejoice! The gentleman you have been waiting so long for is finally here to conclude the negotiations concerning the goods.
Since, however, no one ever believed anything he said, the only response he received was a universal outburst of laughter. But it did not last long, for a handsome young man then entered, whom the family greeted with an exclamation of surprise before warmly welcoming him. In all the commotion they forgot to mention his name or introduce the strangers to him.
— I have, said the intruder once calm had been restored, been travelling through my native land and that has prevented me from visiting you sooner, as I probably should have, according to our arrangement. I stayed longer than I should have at Count Burchheim's.
Kronenberg was all ears.
— The eldest daughter Cecilia, continued the other man, had suffered a strange fate, if such an expression is permitted here; her fine disposition had to recover from this incident, and I was of some assistance to her in this regard.
— I know, said Kronenberg; her fiancé forsook her suddenly and broke off the engagement because he discovered a rival passion in her heart.
— No, Sir, replied the stranger sharply and with flashing eyes: you have been completely misinformed. A young nobleman, whom her father treats with courtesy and kindness, gradually ensconces himself in the household; he flatters everyone, he makes love to the Count's daughter. To the father he is a patriot, to the son a raving cosmopolitan, to the mother an amusing court-historian, to the children a playmate — in short, he is all things to all men. He knows how to conjure up images of great riches in the eyes of the father, who wishes to see his beloved daughter well provided for. Cecilia feels no affection for her lover; however, she does not oppose her father, whose happiness and love she treasures above all else, and — as young innocent minds are apt to do — she strives to overcome the aversion she secretly feels for this engagement. Meanwhile, it transpires not without surprise that the lover, whenever he is absent, has been diligently visiting a wealthy family half a day's journey away; it is even rumoured that he has been courting the daughter there. This is confirmed, and at the same time news is received that, instead of the supposed riches, he has only large debts, that he is in fact loaded down with bills of exchange. The Count's daughter is aggrieved, — her injured father tried to persuade him to confess the truth, — he steadfastly denies it. Then the Count's indignant son decides to confront him in a more serious manner, but the tender lover suddenly disappears.
— Could there be such a character? asked the Baron.
— Oh, this fellow, added the narrator, is capable of telling the farmers that he has also fought before Troy, or a village schoolmaster that he is the author of all the works of Voltaire.
There immediately ensued a heated discussion concerning the purchase of goods, business matters and financial affairs. Kronenberg once more took his leave, because he had to resume his journey at the earliest the following morning; he begged to be excused for the evening, as he still had some extremely urgent letters to write. Little notice was taken of him, and soon thereafter they had forgotten all about him, as the important negotiations seemed to be taxing everyone's mind; only young Wehlen crept after him to take his leave of him outside somewhat more solemnly and with greater emotion, and to wish him the best of luck.
- Little wooden lambkins covered with tinsel which were once peddled at Christmas fairs. In the early decades of the 19th century the term was applied to popular gilt-edged pocket books or almanacs because they generally appeared before Christmas.
- That is, the gilt-edging on the edges of the pages.
- Tieck is referring to the Yuletide custom of tipping one's local sexton and night-watchmen, who wander from house to house at this time of the year, wishing their parishioners a merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year.