Christmas morning. And how cheerfully I spent it! I tried first of all to forget that it was Christmas, and only succeeded in impressing the fact more forcibly and vividly upon my mind, and with it others; the fact that I was alone especially predominating. And a German Christmas is not the kind of thing to let a lonely person forget his loneliness in; its very bustle and union serves to emphasize their solitude to solitary people.
I had seen such quantities of Christmas-trees go past the day before. One to every house in the neighborhood. One had even come here, and the widow of the piano-tuner had hung it with lights and invited some children to make merry for the feast of Weihnachten Abend.
Every one had a present except me. Every one had some one with whom to spend their Christmas—except me. A little tiny Christmas-tree had gone to the rooms whose windows faced mine. I had watched its arrival; for once I had broken through my rule of not deliberately watching my neighbors, and had done so. The tree arrived in the morning. It was kept a profound mystery from Sigmund, who was relegated, much to his disgust, to the society of Frau Schmidt down-stairs, who kept a vigilant watch upon him and would not let him go upstairs on any account.
The afternoon gradually darkened down. My landlady invited me to join her party down-stairs; I declined. The rapturous, untutored joy of half a dozen children had no attraction for me; the hermit-like watching of the scene over the way had. I did not light my lamp. I was secure of not being disturbed; for Frau Lutzler, when I would not come to her, had sent my supper upstairs, and said she would not be able to come to me again that evening.
“So much the better!” I murmured, and put myself in a window corner.
The lights over the way were presently lighted. For a moment I trembled lest the blinds were going to be put down, and all my chance of spying spoiled. But no; my neighbors were careless fellows—not given to watching their neighbors themselves nor to suspecting other people of it. The blinds were left up, and I was free to observe all that passed.
Toward half past five I saw by the light of the street-lamp, which was just opposite, two people come into the house; a young man who held the hand of a little girl. The young man was Karl Linders, the violoncellist; the little girl, I supposed, must be his sister. They went upstairs, or rather Karl went upstairs; his little sister remained below.
There was a great shaking of hands and some laughing when Karl came into the room. He produced various packages which were opened, their contents criticised, and hung upon the tree. Then the three men surveyed their handiwork with much satisfaction. I could see the whole scene. They could not see my watching face pressed against the window, for they were in light and I was in darkness.
Friedhelm went out of the room, and, I suppose, exerted his lungs from the top of the stairs, for he came back, flushed and laughing, and presently the door opened, and Frau Schmidt, looking like the mother of the Gracchi, entered, holding a child by each hand. She never moved a muscle. She held a hand of each, and looked alternately at them. Breathless, I watched. It was almost as exciting as if I had been joining in the play—more so, for to me everything was sur l’imprévu—revealed piecemeal, while to them some degree of foreknowledge must exist, to deprive the ceremony of some of its charms.
There was awed silence for a time. It was a pretty scene. In the middle of the room a wooden table; upon it the small green fir, covered with little twinkling tapers; the orthodox waxen angels, and strings of balls and bonbons hanging about—the white Christ-kind at the top in the arms of Father Christmas. The three men standing in a semi-circle at one side; how well I could see them! A suppressed smile upon Eugen’s face, such as it always wore when pleasing other people. Friedhelm not allowing the smile to fully appear upon his countenance, but with a grave delight upon his face, and with great satisfaction beaming from his luminous brown eyes. Karl with his hands in his pockets, and an attitude by which I knew he said, “There! what do you think of that?” Frau Schmidt and the two children on the other side.
The tree was not a big one. The wax-lights were probably cheap ones; the gifts that hung upon the boughs or lay on the table must have been measured by the available funds of three poor musicians. But the whole affair did its mission admirably—even more effectively than an official commission to (let us say) inquire into the cause of the loss of an ironclad. It—the tree I mean, not the commission—was intended to excite joy and delight, and it did excite them to a very high extent. It was meant to produce astonishment in unsophisticated minds—it did that too, and here it has a point in common with the proceedings of the commission respectfully alluded to.
The little girl who was a head taller than Sigmund, had quantities of flaxen hair plaited in a pigtail and tied with light blue ribbon—new; and a sweet face which was a softened girl miniature of her brother’s. She jumped for joy, and eyed the tree and the bonbons, and everything else with irrepressible rapture. Sigmund was not given to effusive declaration of his emotion, but after gazing long and solemnly at the show, his eyes turned to his father, and the two smiled in the odd manner they had, as if at some private understanding existing between themselves. Then the festivities were considered inaugurated.
Friedhelm Helfen took the rest of the proceedings into his own hands; and distributed the presents exactly as if he had found them all growing on the tree, and had not the least idea what they were nor whence they came. A doll which fell to the share of the little Gretchen was from Sigmund, as I found from the lively demonstrations that took place. Gretchen kissed him, at which every one laughed, and made him kiss the doll, or receive a kiss from it—a waxy salute which did not seem to cause him much enthusiasm.
I could not see what the other things were, only it was evident that every one gave every one else something, and Frau Schmidt’s face relaxed into a stern smile on one or two occasions, as the young men presented her one after the other with some offering, accompanied with speeches and bows and ceremony. A conspicuous parcel done up in white paper was left to the last. Then Friedhelm took it up, and apparently made a long harangue, for the company—especially Karl Linders—became attentive. I saw a convulsive smile twitch Eugen’s lips now and then, as the oration proceeded. Karl by and by grew even solemn, and it was with an almost awe-struck glance that he at last received the parcel from Friedhelm’s hands, who gave it as if he were bestowing his blessing.
Great gravity, eager attention on the part of the children, who pressed up to him as he opened it; then the last wrapper was torn off, and to my utter amazement and bewilderment Karl drew forth a white woolly animal of indefinite race, on a green stand. The look which crossed his face was indescribable; the shout of laughter which greeted the discovery penetrated even to my ears.
With my face pressed against the window I watched; it was really too interesting. But my spying was put an end to. A speech appeared to be made to Frau Schmidt, to which she answered by a frosty smile and an elaborate courtesy. She was apparently saying good-night, but, with the instinct of a housekeeper, set a few chairs straight, pulled a table-cloth, and pushed a footstool to its place, and in her tour round the room her eyes fell upon the windows. She came and put the shutters to. In one moment it had all flashed from my sight—tree and faces and lamp-light and brightness.
I raised my chin from my hands, and found that I was cold, numb, and stiff. I lighted the lamp, and passed my hands over my eyes; but could not quite find myself, and instead of getting to some occupation of my own, I sat with Richter’s “Through Bass and Harmony” before me and a pen in my hand, and wondered what they were doing now.
It was with the remembrance of this evening in my mind to emphasize my loneliness that I woke on Christmas morning.
At post-time my landlady brought me a letter, scented, monogrammed, with the Roman post-mark. Adelaide wrote:
“I won’t wish you a merry Christmas. I think it is such nonsense. Who does have a merry Christmas now, except children and paupers? And, all being well—or rather ill, so far as I am concerned—we shall meet before long. We are coming to Elberthal. I will tell you why when we meet. It is too long to write—and too vexatious” (this word was half erased), “troublesome. I will let you know when we come, and our address. How are you getting on?
I was much puzzled with this letter, and meditated long over it. Something lay in the background. Adelaide was not happy. It surely could not be that Sir Peter gave her any cause for discomfort. Impossible! Did he not dote upon her? Was not the being able to “turn him round her finger” one of the principal advantages of her marriage? And yet, that she should be coming to Elberthal of her own will, was an idea which my understanding declined to accept. She must have been compelled to it—and by nothing pleasant. This threw another shadow over my spirit.
Going to the window, I saw again how lonely I was. The people were passing in groups and throngs; it was Christmas-time; they were glad. They had nothing in common with me. I looked inside my room—bare, meager chamber that it was—the piano the only thing in it that was more than barely necessary, and a great wonder came over me.
“What is the use of it all? What is the use of working hard? Why am I leading this life? To earn money, and perhaps applause—some time. Well, and when I have got it—even supposing, which is extremely improbable, that I win it while I am young and can enjoy it—what good will it do me? I don’t believe it will make me very happy. I don’t know that I long for it very much. I don’t know why I am working for it, except because Herr von Francius has a stronger will than I have, and rather compels me to it. Otherwise—
“Well, what should I like? What do I wish for?” At the moment I seemed to feel myself free from all prejudice and all influence, and surveying with a calm, impartial eye possibilities and prospects, I could not discover that there was anything I particularly wished for. Had something within me changed during the last night?
I had been so eager before; I felt so apathetic now. I looked across the way. I dimly saw Courvoisier snatch up his boy, hold him in the air, and then, gathering him to him, cover him with kisses. I smiled. At the moment I felt neutral—experienced neither pleasure nor pain from the sight. I had loved the man so eagerly and intensely—with such warmth, fervor, and humility. It seemed as if now a pause had come (only for a time, I knew, but still a pause) in the warm current of delusion, and I contemplated facts with a dry, unmoved eye. After all—what was he? A man who seemed quite content with his station—not a particularly good or noble man that I could see; with some musical talent which he turned to account to earn his bread. He had a fine figure, a handsome face, a winning smile, plenty of presence of mind, and an excellent opinion of himself.
Stay! Let me be fair—he had only asserted his right to be treated as a gentleman by one whom he had treated in every respect as a lady. He did not want me—nor to know anything about me—else, why could he laugh for very glee as his boy’s eyes met his? Want me? No! he was rich already. What he had was sufficient for him, and no wonder, I thought, with a jealous pang.
Who would want to have anything to do with grown-up people, with their larger selfishnesses, more developed self-seeking—robust jealousies and full-grown exactions and sophistications, when they had a beautiful little one like that? A child of one’s own—not any child, but that very child to love in that ideal way. It was a relation that one scarcely sees out of a romance; it was the most beautiful thing I ever saw.
His life was sufficient to him. He did not suffer as I had been suffering. Suppose some one were to offer him a better post than that he now had. He would be glad, and would take it without a scruple. Perhaps, for a little while some casual thought of me might now and then cross his mind—but not for long; certainly in no importunate or troublesome manner. While I—why was I there, if not for his sake? What, when I accepted the proposal of von Francius, had been my chief thought? It had been, though all unspoken, scarcely acknowledged—yet a whispered force—“I shall not lose sight of him—of Eugen Courvoisier.” I was rightly punished.
I felt no great pain just now in thinking of this. I saw myself, and judged myself, and remembered how Faust had said once, in an immortal passage, half to himself, half to Mephisto:
“Entbehren sollst du; sollst entbehren.”
And that read both ways, it comes to the same thing.
“Entbehren sollst du; sollst entbehren.”
It flitted rhythmically through my mind on this dreamful morning, when I seemed a stranger to myself; or rather, when I seemed to stand outside myself, and contemplate, calmly and judicially, the heart which had of late beaten and throbbed with such vivid, and such unreasoning, unconnected pangs. It is as painful and as humiliating a description of self-vivisection as there is, and one not without its peculiar merits.
The end of my reflections was the same as that which is, I believe, often arrived at by the talented class called philosophers, who spend much learning and science in going into the questions about whose skirts I skimmed; many of them, like me, after summing up, say, Cui bono?
So passed the morning, and the gray cloud still hung over my spirits. My landlady brought me a slice of kuchen at dinner-time, for Christmas, and wished me guten appetit to it, for which I thanked her with gravity.
In the afternoon I turned to the piano. After all it was Christmas-day. After beginning a bravura singing exercise, I suddenly stopped myself, and found myself, before I knew what I was about, singing the “Adeste Fidelis”—till I could not sing any more. Something rose in my throat—ceasing abruptly, I burst into tears, and cried plentifully over the piano keys.
“In tears, Fräulein May! Aber—what does that mean?”
I looked up. Von Francius stood in the door-way, looking not unkindly at me, with a bouquet in his hand of Christmas roses and ferns.
“It is only because it is Christmas,” said I.
“Are you quite alone?”
“So am I.”
“You! But you have so many friends.”
“Have I? It is true, that if friends count by the number of invitations that one has, I have many. Unfortunately I could not make up my mind to accept any. As I passed through the flower-market this morning I thought of you—naturally. It struck me that perhaps you had no one to come and wish you the Merry Christmas and Happy New-year which belongs to you of right, so I came, and have the pleasure to wish it you now, with these flowers, though truly they are not Maiblümchen.”
He raised my hand to his lips, and I was quite amazed at the sense of strength, healthiness, and new life which his presence brought.
“I am very foolish,” I remarked; “I ought to know better. But I am unhappy about my sister, and also I have been foolishly thinking of old times, when she and I were at home together.”
“Ei! That is foolish. Those things—old times and all that—are the very deuce for making one miserable. Strauss—he who writes dance music—has made a waltz, and called it ‘The Good Old times.’ Lieber Himmel! Fancy waltzing to the memory of old times. A requiem or a funeral march would have been intelligible.”
“Well, you must not sit here and let these old times say what they like to you. Will you come out with me?”
“Go out!” I echoed, with an unwilling shrinking from it. My soul preferred rather to shut herself up in her case and turn surlily away from the light outside. But, as usual, he had his way.
“Yes—out. The two loneliest people in Elberthal will make a little zauberfest for themselves. I will show you some pictures. There are some new ones at the exhibition. Make haste.”
So calm, so matter-of-fact was his manner, so indisputable did he seem to think his proposition, that I half rose; then I sat down again.
“I don’t want to go out, Herr von Francius.”
“That is foolish. Quick! before the daylight fades and it grows too dark for the pictures.”
Scarcely knowing why I complied, I went to my room and put on my things. What a shabby sight I looked! I felt it keenly; so much, that when I came back and found him seated at the piano, and playing a wonderful in-and-out fugue of immense learning and immense difficulty, and quite without pathos or tenderness, I interrupted him incontinently.
“Here I am, Herr von Francius. You have asked the most shabbily dressed person in Elberthal to be your companion. I have a mind to make you hold to your bargain, whether you like it or not.”
Von Francius turned, surveying me from head to foot, with a smile. All the pedagogue was put off. It was holiday-time. I was half vexed at myself for beginning to feel as if it were holiday-time with me too.
We went out together. The wind was raw and cold, the day dreary, the streets not so full as they had been. We went along the street past the Tonhalle, and there we met Courvoisier alone. He looked at us, but though von Francius raised his hat, he did not notice us. There was a pallid change upon his face, a fixed look in his eyes, a strange, drawn, subdued expression upon his whole countenance. My heart leaped with an answering pang. That mood of the morning had fled. I had “found myself again,” but again not “happily.”
I followed von Francius up the stairs of the picture exhibition. No one was in the room. All the world had other occupations on Christmas afternoon, or preferred the stove-side and the family circle.
Von Francius showed me a picture which he said every one was talking about.
“Why?” I inquired when I had contemplated it, and failed to find it lovely.
“The drawing, the grouping, are admirable, as you must see. The art displayed is wonderful. I find the picture excellent.”
“But the subject?” said I.
It was not a large picture, and represented the interior of an artist’s atelier. In the foreground a dissipated-looking young man tilted his chair backward as he held his gloves in one hand, and with the other stroked his mustache, while he contemplated a picture standing on an easel before him. The face was hard, worn, blasé; the features, originally good, and even beautiful, had had all the latent loveliness worn out of them by a wrong, unbeautiful life. He wore a tall hat, very much to one side, as if to accent the fact that the rest of the company, upon whom he had turned his back, certainly did not merit that he should be at the trouble of baring his head to them. And the rest of the company—a girl, a model, seated on a chair upon a raised dais, dressed in a long, flounced white skirt, not of the freshest, some kind of Oriental wrap falling negligently about it—arms, models of shapeliness, folded, and she crouching herself together as if wearied, or contemptuous, or perhaps a little chilly. Upon a divan near her a man—presumably the artist to whom the establishment pertained—stretched at full length, looking up carelessly into her face, a pipe in his mouth, with indifference and—scarcely impertinence—it did not take the trouble to be a fully developed impertinence—in every gesture. This was the picture; faithful to life, significant in its very insignificance, before which von Francius sat, and declared that the drawing, coloring, and grouping were perfect.[B]
“The subject?” he echoed, after a pause. “It is only a scrap of artist-life.”
“Is that artist-life?” said I, shrugging my shoulders. “I do not like it at all; it is common, low, vulgar. There is no romance about it; it only reminds one of stale tobacco and flat champagne.”
“You are too particular,” said von Francius, after a pause, and with a flavor of some feeling which I did not quite understand tincturing his voice.
For my part, I was looking at the picture and thinking of what Courvoisier had said: “Beauty, impudence, assurance, and an admiring public.” That the girl was beautiful—at least, she had the battered remains of a decided beauty; she had impudence certainly, and assurance too, and an admiring public, I supposed, which testified its admiration by lolling on a couch and staring at her, or keeping its hat on and turning its back to her.
“Do you really admire the picture, Herr von Francius?” I inquired.
“Indeed I do. It is so admirably true. That is the kind of life into which I was born, and in which I was for a long time brought up; but I escaped from it.”
I looked at him in astonishment. It seemed so extraordinary that that model of reticence should speak to me, above all, about himself. It struck me for the very first time that no one ever spoke of von Francius as if he had any one belonging to him. Calm, cold, lonely, self-sufficing—and self-sufficing, too, because he must be so, because he had none other to whom to turn—that was his character, and viewing him in that manner I had always judged him. But what might the truth be?
“Were you not happy when you were young?” I asked, on a quick impulse.
“Happy! Who expects to be happy? If I had been simply not miserable, I should have counted my childhood a good one; but—”
He paused a moment, then went on:
“Your great novelist, Dickens, had a poor, sordid kind of childhood in outward circumstances. But mine was spiritually sordid—hideous, repulsive. There are some plants which spring from and flourish in mud and slime; they are but a flabby, pestiferous growth, as you may suppose. I was, to begin with, a human specimen of that kind; I was in an atmosphere of moral mud, an intellectual hot-bed. I don’t know what there was in me that set me against the life; that I never can tell. It was a sort of hell on earth that I was living in. One day something happened—I was twelve years old then—something happened, and it seemed as if all my nature—its good and its evil, its energies and indolence, its pride and humility—all ran together, welded by the furnace of passion into one furious, white-hot rage of anger, rebellion. In an instant I had decided my course; in an hour I had acted upon it. I am an odd kind of fellow, I believe. I quitted that scene and have never visited it since. I can not describe to you the anger I then felt, and to which I yielded. Twelve years old I was then. I fought hard for many years; but, mein Fräulein”—(he looked at me, and paused a moment)—“that was the first occasion upon which I ever was really angry; it has been the last. I have never felt the sensation of anger since—I mean personal anger. Artistic anger I have known; the anger at bad work, at false interpretations, at charlatanry in art; but I have never been angry with the anger that resents. I tell you this as a curiosity of character. With that brief flash all resentment seemed to evaporate from me—to exhaust itself in one brief, resolute, effective attempt at self-cleansing, self-government.”
“Tell me more, Herr von Francius,” I besought. “Do not leave off there. Afterward?”
“You really care to hear? Afterward I lived through hardships in plenty; but I had effectually severed the whole connection with that which dragged me down. I used all my will to rise. I am not boasting, but simply stating a peculiarity of my temperament when I tell you that what I determine upon I always accomplish. I determined upon rising, and I have risen to what I am. I set it, or something like it, before me as my goal, and I have attained it.”
“Well?” I asked, with some eagerness; for I, after all my unfulfilled strivings, had asked myself Cui bono? “And what is the end of it? Are you satisfied?”
“How quickly and how easily you see!” said he, with a smile. “I value the position I have, in a certain way—that is, I see the advantage it gives me, and the influence. But that deep inner happiness, which lies outside of condition and circumstances—that feeling of the poet in ‘Faust’—don’t you remember?—
“‘I nothing had, and yet enough’—
all that is unknown to me. For I ask myself, Cui bono?”
“Like me,” I could not help saying.
“Fräulein May, the nearest feeling I have had to happiness has been the knowing you. Do you know that you are a person who makes joy?”
“No, indeed I did not.”
“It is true, though. I should like, if you do not mind—if you can say it truly—to hear from your lips that you look upon me as your friend.”
“Indeed, Herr von Francius, I feel you my very best friend, and I would not lose your regard for anything,” I was able to assure him.
And then, as it was growing dark, the woman from the receipt of custom by the door came in and told us that she must close the rooms.
We got up and went out. In the street the lamps were lighted, and the people going up and down.
Von Francius left me at the door of my lodgings.
“Good-evening, liebes Fräulein; and thank you for your company this afternoon.”
A light burned steadily all evening in the sitting-room of my opposite neighbors; but the shutters were closed. I only saw a thin stream coming through a chink.