Hermann Sudermann ~ The New Year’s Eve Confession

prosit-neujahrAh, dear lady, it’s good to be here with you again, sitting so peacefully in this comfortable chair, ready for a cosy chat. Thank goodness, the holiday hubbub is over and done with and you have a little leisure for me again.

Oh, the Christmas season! I do believe it was invented by the devil especially for the annoyance of us bachelors, to impress upon us the dreariness of our homeless lives. The thing that is a source of delight to others is a torture to us. Of course, of course, we’re not all of us lonely. The joy of bestowing joy blooms for most of us, too. But the pure pleasure of sharing pleasure with others is embittered partly by a dose of ironical self-criticism, partly by that acid yearning which I might call, instead of homesickness, marriage-sickness.

Why did I not come and pour my heart out to you? you ask, you sympathetic soul, who bestow consolation as generously as most of your sex bestow petty spite. Ah, but you see, the matter is not so simple. Don’t you know what Speidel says in his charmingly chatty “Lonely Sparrows,” which you, correctly divining the state of my soul, sent me on the third day of the holiday? He says, “The genuine bachelor does not want to be consoled. Once having become unhappy, he wants to indulge his unhappiness.”

Beside Speidel’s lonely sparrow, there is also a species of confirmed old bachelors, family friends. I do not mean those professional destroyers of the family who insinuate themselves hypocritically with evil intent while making themselves comfortable at the hospitable hearth. I mean the good old uncle, papa’s whilom schoolmate, who dandles baby on his knees while respectably reading aloud to mamma the story in the evening paper with omission of the indecent passages.

I know men whose whole life goes in the service of a family with which they have become friendly, men who pass their days without desire beside a lovely woman whom they secretly adore.

You are sceptical? Oh, it is the “without desire” that you object to? You may be right. In the depths of even the tamest heart there probably lurks a wild desire, but a desire–it is understood–that is held in check.

I should like to give you an example and tell you of a conversation that two ancient gentlemen had with each other this very New Year’s eve. You must not ask me how I found out about the conversation, and you must not tell it to any one else. May I begin?

Picture, as the scene, a high-ceilinged room furnished in an old-fashioned style and dimly lighted by a green-shaded, brightly polished hanging lamp, such as our parents used before the era of kerosene; the light falling upon a round table covered with a white cloth and set with the ingredients for mixing a New Year’s punch, and in the centre a few drippings of oil spreading slowly.

My two ancient gentlemen sat half in the dimness cast by the green shade. Mouldy ruins they were of a time long past, each tremulously sunk in himself and each staring into space with the dim eyes and the dull look of old age. The one, the host, was a military man, as was clear at first glance from his closefitting stock, his pointed moustache, shaved off under the points, and his eyebrows knitted in a martial frown. He sat huddled in a rolling chair and clutched the handle of the steering rod with both hands like a crooked walking-stick. Nothing about him stirred except his lower jaw, which went up and down incessantly with a chewing movement. The other, who was sitting beside him on the sofa, was tall and thin, with narrow shoulders and the head of a thinker, angular and broad of brow. He drew skimpy clouds of smoke from a long pipe that was about to go out. Snowy white curls framed his face, and in the thousand fine lines of his smooth, dried-up skin nestled a soft, quiet smile, such as nothing but the peace of renunciation can impress upon an aged countenance.

They sat without talking. In the silence you could hear the slight bubbling of the burning oil mingled with the slight bubbling of the tobacco juice. Then the clock on the wall in the dark background wheezed and struck eleven.

“This is about the time you usually brew the punch,” said the man with the thinker’s head. His voice sounded soft and quavered a little.

“Yes, this is the time,” the other rejoined. His tone was harsh, as if again resounding with the strident shouts of command.

“I should never have thought,” the guest continued, “that it would be so sad without her.”

The host nodded and chewed on.

“She made the New Year’s punch for us forty-four times.”

“Yes,” the old soldier put in, “ever since I have been living here in Berlin and you have been coming to see us.”

“Last year at this time,” the guest continued, “we three were still together, so happily. She sat there in the easy chair, knitting socks for Paul’s oldest child, and hurrying as fast as she could. They had to be finished by twelve o’clock, she said. And they were. Then we drank the punch and very comfortably discussed death. And two months later she actually was carried out to the cemetery. You know I wrote a thick volume on the immortality of the idea. You never could bear it. I cannot bear it any more either since your wife died. As a matter of fact, I don’t give a fig for any philosophic ideas any more.”

“Yes, she was a good woman,” said the husband of the deceased. “She took good care of me. When I had to be out for service by five o’clock in the morning, she was always up ahead of me and saw to it that I had a good cup of coffee before I left. To be sure, she had her faults, too. When once she got to philosophising with you–whew!”

“You simply never understood her,” murmured the guest, something like restrained resentment quivering about the corners of his mouth, though the look he allowed to rest on his friend a long time was mild and sad, as though his soul carried the secret consciousness of guilt.

After a period of silence, he began:

“Listen, Franz, I must tell you something–something that has been gnawing at me a long while. I cannot possibly go down into the grave carrying it along with me.”

“Fire away, then,” said Franz, and picked up the long pipe leaning against his rolling chair.

“Once something–happened between–me and your wife.”

“Please don’t joke, Doc,” said Franz.

“I’m in grim earnest, Franz. I have been carrying it round with me for more than forty years, and now the time has come at last to make a clean breast of it.”

“Do you mean to say my wife deceived me?” the old soldier shouted in a rage.

“Shame on you, Franz,” said the philosopher, with his sad, mild smile.

Franz mumbled and muttered a little and then lighted his pipe.

“No, she was pure as an angel,” the philosopher went on. “You and I are the criminals. Listen to me. It was forty-three years ago. You had just been ordered to Berlin as a captain, and I was teaching at the University. You know what a wild fellow you were then.”

“Hm,” said Franz, and raised his shaking hand to twist the points of his moustache.

“There was a beautiful actress with big black eyes and small white teeth. Do you remember?”

“Do I remember! Bianca was her name.” A feeble smile flitted across the old man’s weatherbeaten countenance with the marks on it of hard and fast living. “She could bite, I tell you, she could bite!”

“You deceived your wife, and she suspected it. But she never said anything, and suffered in silence. You did not notice it, but I did. She was the first woman I got to know after my mother’s death. She came into my life like a shining star, and I looked up to her as to a shining star. Finally I summoned up the courage to ask her what was troubling her. She smiled and said she was not feeling quite well yet. You remember, it was only a short while before that Paul had been born. Then came New Year’s eve–exactly forty-three years ago this very night. I came to your house at about eight o’clock, as usual. She sat embroidering, and I read to her while we waited for you. The hours passed, one by one. You did not come. I saw how uneasy she became and how she began to tremble, and I trembled with her. I knew what was keeping you, and I was afraid that you would forget twelve o’clock in that woman’s arms. It was getting very near the hour. She stopped embroidering, and I stopped reading, and an awful silence descended on us. I saw a tear creep out slowly from between her lashes and fall down on her embroidery. I jumped up and wanted to go out and bring you home. I felt capable of tearing you by force from that woman’s side. But at the same instant your wife jumped up, too, from this very seat I am sitting on.

“‘Where are you going?’ she cried. There was unspeakable dread in her face.

“‘I am going to get Franz,’ I said.

“At that she fairly screamed.

“‘For goodness sake, stay with me. At least you stay with me. Don’t you leave me.’

“And she threw herself on me and laid her hands on my shoulders and hid her wet face on my chest. My whole body quivered. Never before had a woman been so close to me. But I held on to myself and spoke to her comfortingly. She so needed comforting. Soon after, you came back. You did not notice my confusion. Your cheeks were flushed and there was a love-drunken weariness in your eyes.

“That New Year’s eve produced a change in me, which filled me with alarm. Since I had felt her soft arms around my neck and had drawn in the perfume of her hair, the star had fallen from heaven, and instead of the star it was the woman,the woman, beautiful, and breathing love. I knew there was ardour in my glances, and I denounced myself as a blackguard, a deceiver, and to make at least partial atonement to my conscience, I went to work to separate you from your mistress. Fortunately I had some money, which I had inherited, and she was satisfied with the sum I offered her, and—-”

“By Jingo,” the old soldier interjected, “so you’re the one to blame for Bianca’s writing me that touching good-bye letter in which she told me it was with a breaking heart that she had to forego my love?”

“Yes, I am the one to blame for it. But listen. I had expected to purchase peace with the money I gave her. I was mistaken. The wild thoughts kept going round and round in my brain worse and worse. I buried myself in my work. It was just then that I conceived the central thought for my ‘Immortality of the Idea.’ No use. Peace did not come that way.

“And so a whole year went by, and another New Year’s eve arrived. I was sitting beside her on this seat once again. This time you were at home, but you were lying asleep on the sofa in the next room, tired out by a jollification at the club. Sitting there, close beside her, looking at her pale face, the recollection of the New Year’s eve before came back and overwhelmed me irresistibly. Just to feel her head at my neck once again, just to kiss her once again, and then let come what may! Our glances met for an instant. It seemed to me that a secret understanding flashed into her eyes. I could not control myself any longer. I dropped at her feet and hid my burning face in her lap.

“I lay there like that, motionless, for possibly two seconds, when I felt her hand cool on my head and heard her say softly and gently:

“‘You must be good.’

“Yes, I must be good. I must not deceive the man sleeping in the next room so trustfully. I jumped up and looked about, disconcerted. She picked up a book from the table and handed it to me. I knew what she meant and opened the book at random and started to read aloud. I do not know what I read. The letters danced before my eyes. But gradually the storm in my soul subsided, and when it struck twelve and you, with a sleepy look in your eyes, came in to wish us a Happy New Year, I felt as though that instant of sin lay far, far behind me, in an era long past.

“From that time on I became calmer. I knew she did not return my love and I had nothing to hope for from her but compassion. The years went by. Your children grew up and married. We three grew old. You gave up sowing wild oats and lived for only the one woman, like myself. I did not stop loving her. No, that was impossible. But my love took on other forms. It discarded earthly desires and turned into a spiritual communion. You often used to laugh when you heard us philosophising. But had you divined how my soul became one with hers, it would have made you very jealous. And now she’s dead. Perhaps by next New Year’s eve we shall have followed her. That is why it is high time for me to unburden myself of my secret and say to you, ‘Franz, I once did you a wrong. Forgive me!'”

He held out his hand to his friend pleadingly, but Franz answered testily:

“Bah, stuff and nonsense! A lot to forgive! This news of yours, this confession, is stale. I’ve known it for ages. She herself told me all about it forty years ago. And now I’ll tell you the reason I ran after women the way I did until I was an old man–because, when she told me, she also said that you were the only man she had ever loved.”

His guest stared at him in silence. The clock on the wall wheezed and struck twelve o’clock.

DMdJ Neu2

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