Hermann Suderman ~ The Woman Who Was His Friend

prosit-neujahr

Oh, how tired I am, dear lady! I’ve been writing New Year’s letters the whole day and have disposed of everything that has gone unanswered the entire year. Goodness, what ancient debts turned up! And what an awful lazybones I’ve been! The number of good friends that I’ve insulted through sheer neglect, the number of little thorns I’ve left sticking in people’s flesh! But enough said.

 

I sent out New Year’s cards, too, and you will also receive my card on New Year’s morning with a stiff “Many wishes for a Happy New Year” and not so much as even a sugary little verse beside the 1/1/86.

Don’t laugh. On second thought 1/1 is a highly significant figure, and we oughtn’t to make fun of it the way I did. The day it designates is a turning-point for people’s hearts. On that day love changes its residence. Not always, of course. Many people have a contract for a number of years, for life even, and it’s a good snug berth that love falls into in homey dwelling-places like that. But the giddy creatures, the butterflies–if one may speak of butterflies at New Year–the ones that have been evicted and all the others who are looking for new quarters either out of choice or out of necessity–you see them preparing at New Year’s time for moving in or moving out.

Why just at New Year’s time, you ask?

Another season has begun, new relations are entered into, new intrigues are woven, inclinations newly awakened crop up shyly to the surface. Christmas belonged to the old era still; the happiness comfortably enjoying itself in dressing-gown and slippers still held sway over the discomforts of the new passion knocking turbulently at the door. But now, at New Year, there’s a general clearing out, and all worn love-goods are disposed of “previous to removal,” as the advertisements read.

The heart’s change of residence is probably the saddest there is. Many things get broken and many a cherished memento falls into the gutter. But if it cannot be prevented, then the moving may as well be done thoroughly and energetically.

“Off with the old love before you’re on with the new.”

A truth of startling pregnancy. Many a person has arrived too late because he lingered too long saying good-bye. Piles of novels could be written on this subject.

Sometimes, too, the heart stays in the old house but moves to another apartment. Then hate follows love and love follows hate, the latter, at least, in Marlitt’s romances. And more than this, friendship moves in where love once dwelt.

And then, finally, there are the cases in which friendship clears the way for love.

You shake your head. You believe friendship never clears the way for love? You mean because we two friends are so proof against love? Oh, we are the exception. Between us rises the intellectual love of truth like a crystal wall in the Arctic Ocean. But I can give you examples, my dear lady, any number of examples, of friendship clearing the way for love. And mostly unhappy examples.

It seems to be an iron law of happiness that love should begin with passion and end in the peace of tranquil friendship–marriage, I mean. The reverse way is not excluded, but it leads–to the desert.

There are abstract enthusiasts that construe the marriage of souls as a necessary preliminary to physical love. But nature punishes lying. When friendship between a man and a woman ends in love, either the friendship or the love is not true. And woe, woe if the friendship has not been friendship but love.

Apropos of this–do you happen to remember the portrait of a woman that created such a stir at the exhibition two or three years ago and brought the painter so much fame and so many orders? A frail figure, almost too frail, in a simple black velvet dress. A thin suffering face, a pale forehead with the crown on it of the quiet aristocracy of thought. Half-closed dreamy eyes, a bluish gleam from between dark lashes. Upper lip covered with fine down and an expression of longing and smiling melancholy about the mouth. Now I remember to a dot. You and I admired the picture together. You stood studying it a long time and then said:

“That’s the way I fancy Vittoria Colonna must have looked.”

I said nothing to that. I was astonished by your keenness, because there really were many resemblances of character between the lady of the portrait and Michael Angelo’s unhappy friend. Her fate, too, was curiously like Vittoria Colonna’s. Of course, I may not tell how I came to know her story. At that time it was still in progress, and the change that came later–well—-

She was the widow of a well-known architect. His house was a social centre for a swarm of talented young artists, among them K—-, the painter of the portrait. He was a jolly young fellow, easy-going and saucy. The maelstrom of the years at the Academy had not destroyed the perfect childlikeness of his genius, and, as a result, the air of being blasé and weighted with the woes of the world that he put on in deference to his varied experiences was all the more becoming as at the slightest provocation he dropped this manner and burst into a ringing laugh.

Hedwig soon realised there was a sound core to the young man’s rather giddy character, and since everybody felt that his talent was of the first order and only needed a little cultivation to bear glorious fruit, she took pleasure in looking out for him. And he, for his part, surrendered himself ardently to the guidance of a woman a few years older than himself, a woman whom he came to adore.

He brought her his sketches, and she passed upon them, with a sharp eye for both the painter’s sense of form and for the tiniest slip of his still uncertain hand. He made her the confidante of his creative ideas, which gushed from his brain impetuously, and he received them back from her matured and refined. There was not a corner of his heart that did not lie open to her view, and she was wise enough even to place the right estimate upon the youthful coarseness with which his sentiments sometimes bubbled over. Another woman might have felt hurt, while she took it as evidence of his surplus of strength, and smiled and gently poked fun at him, and so brought harmony out of the chaos within him.

She showered riches on him, and what she got back in return was scarcely less in value. Held fast at the side of an ill-tempered aging husband, an ailing woman herself and growing weaker from year to year, she had matured in mind at an early age; and she had paid toll in the loss of youthful spirits and elasticity. But now whole streams of a fresh blithe life poured out of him into her. She felt rejuvenated in his presence. And a tender motherliness, the shadow of a joy that had been denied her, was interwoven with her other feelings for him.

Her husband was glad to see his lonely wife occupied and did not interfere. And why should he have interfered? Never was there less occasion for jealousy. The young scapegrace, as a matter of fact, even confided his love affairs to her, and she tried by smiling advice to render them at least innocuous enough not to hamper the development of his talent.

Three years passed. Hedwig’s husband died. Her illness had grown worse, and at the physician’s advice she went south, to Nice.

She lived in great retirement, broken into only now and then, when a young genius long of hair and none too clean of shirt turned up in her modest drawing-room, generally in money difficulties and bringing a letter of recommendation from her friend.

Her one diversion was corresponding with K—-, whose work and position kept him in Berlin.

He often wrote her that he adored her like a saint.

She, for her part, parried his onslaughts of ecstasy and was satisfied that in spite of his volatile nature and his growing fame, he preserved his old liking for her.

Three years more passed. Then, once, late in autumn he suddenly appeared at Nice, tired, worn out by work, spiritually desolate, unsteadier than ever, but–a full-grown man.

“I have come to be cured by you,” he exclaimed the first time he was in her house.

She wept for joy.

Soon they dropped into greater intimacy than ever, and yet she sometimes experienced a sense of shyness which she had not felt before in her relation with him, for the very reason that he was no longer the boy she could look down on with unconstrained motherliness. The difference in years seemed to have been wiped out, inwardly as well as outwardly, and he had grown close to her intellectually, alarmingly close.

He often complained to her of his afflictions–the miserable headaches that kept bothering him, the result of overwork, and then the worries of his profession, the disillusionments. They were by no means formidable, but easily too much for the spoiled darling of fortune. She devoured everything he said. The least little thing of concern to him assumed prodigious importance.

But there seemed to be a good deal that he did not tell her.

“And how about the women?” she asked, smiling, though tortured by suddenly rising jealousy.

“Oh, let’s not talk of the women. I’ve forgotten every one of them. Now you are my one and only one.”

She thrilled, but said nothing. Oh, had he known how her whole being lost itself in his!

These words of his caressed her from now on, echoing even in her sleep at night.

They celebrated Christmas together.

When the candles were burning on the tree and the homelike scent of pine and apples filled the room, he caught her hands, looked long into her eyes smiling, and said:

“You know, you and I ought really to marry.”

She felt her blood bounding hot through her veins, but she held on to herself, and burst out laughing.

“You think I’m joking,” he went on. “No, no, I’m not. I am in deep earnest. You yourself tell me–we’re each of us alone, we don’t care about the world, we have come to understand each other as no other two people on earth have ever understood each other. Why should we not share our fate the rest of our lives?”

“Now do be sensible,” she said, trying to keep up a show of lightness, “and don’t talk such nonsense any more; for nonsense it is, whether said in fun or in deep earnest. Exactly what you need–a woman hanging round your neck who is five years older than you and soon will be altogether faded. Besides, you don’t strike me as having been born to be a nurse, and you know I am slowly making my way graveward. So the matter’s settled.”

That night she cried to herself.

The next day his headache bothered him worse than ever. With her he was privileged to make himself comfortable, and he stretched out on the sofa, and she adjusted the cushions under his head.

“Your hands are always so cool,” he said. “In the days of old you sometimes used to stroke my forehead so soothingly. It did me no end of good. I have spoiled my chance for that form of happiness, too.”

She passed her shaking hand over his head and brow, and when she touched his cheek, he caught her fingers in both his hands.

“Let them stay there,” he said with a great sigh. “My cheeks are on fire.”

Her cheeks were burning, too.

Christmas week went by, and the man and the woman drew still closer together in the solitude of their hearts. New Year’s eve came, and they decided to wait up and greet the new year together.

Hedwig was preparing the tea, and he was leaning back in an easy chair, smoking cigarettes and looking through the blue clouds at her housewifely ways. There was a rosy sheen on her cheeks and something like the promise of happiness glittering in her eyes.

He felt so happy and yet so oppressed that he wanted to jump up and clasp her in his arms simply to lift the burden from his soul.

She spoke little. She seemed occupied with her own thoughts, and he with his.

At about eleven o’clock there was a noise on the street, and the red glow of smoking torches came through the window. It was a procession of masqueraders got up by a private society, a foretaste of the public carnival to follow.

She opened the French window and they went out on the balcony, on which potted pomegranate-trees were in full bloom. It was a soft warm night, like our own nights in spring. The stars were sparkling, and a vague shimmer lay upon the ocean.

As the giddy throng flowed past below them whistling and hooting and laughing, he felt her arm laid on his almost anxiously.

“Aren’t we standing here as on an isolated rock in mid-ocean?” he whispered.

She nodded and pressed herself against him softly.

“And yet have to remain strangers,” he went on.

She made no reply, and lowered her head to dip it into the mass of blossoms. He felt the quivering of her body.

“Hedwig,” he said softly.

She shrank. It was the first time he had ever called her by her first name.

“Hedwig.”

“What is it?”

“Hedwig, my heart’s so full. I must thank you. I must tell you loving things. What would I be without you? Whatever I am I owe to you. Hedwig, I can’t bear any longer to be standing beside you so stiff and so cold while my heart is throbbing. I must get some air–I must tell you—-“

“Oh, God!” she breathed, clapping her hands to her face and rushing back into the room, where she dropped down on a settee.

He followed her and caught both her hands.

She was panting.

“Let us talk sensibly,” she said, making an effort to sit up erect. “Sit down–there–and listen to me.” He obeyed mechanically. “Why can’t things stay the same as they always have been between us? Wasn’t it lovely? Didn’t we use to enjoy each other? And now suddenly something has seethed up in us that makes us ungrateful for all the happiness we had. We mustn’t give in. It would plunge us–me, at least–into unhappiness. You see, a few days ago you told me I was your one and only one. I feel that in a certain sense I really am, and that makes me proud and happy. But the moment we want to reap love where we sowed friendship, the magic departs that held us in its spell for so long. Until then I shall have been your one and only one. Afterward I shall be–one more.”

He started.

“What an ugly notion!” he said dully.

“Ugly, perhaps, but all the truer,” she replied, plucking at the tablecloth with palsied fingers. “We must not surrender to self-deception. This moment determines our future. It lies within our power to decide which way we shall go. You know that–I–love you–and that–I am lonely. So have pity on me. Spare me suffering. I should like to mean as much in your life as I always have.”

“You are to mean more in my life, not less!” he cried, putting his hands to his forehead. “I want to devote myself to you altogether, with all my body, all my soul, and all my art. I want to have peace–peace from the world without and peace from the passions within. And where could I be surer of finding peace than with you?”

She drew a deep sigh, as if in awakening hope, and her gaze hung on his ardently.

At that instant the hands of the clock were close on twelve.

“A few moments,” he said, “and the year will be over–a new one will be coming. Shall it forever remain the same for me, always doing futile empty things? And shall it always remain the same for you, always living in sadness and loneliness? Ahead of us is darkness, and, crouching in the darkness like a hungry beast, is the grave.”

She shuddered.

“Soon it will have us in its clutches at any rate. Why should we doubt and hesitate? It’s all the same whatever we do. In the background stands Nothing. So let us be happy as long as there is still intoxication in life.”

The clock struck twelve.

Each stroke was like the flapping of wings of some lonely straying soul.

With a sob she fell on his breast.


At the same time a year later Hedwig was sitting in the same room–but alone. He had meant to be there by Christmas, but then had postponed his coming until New Year, and by New Year’s eve he had not yet arrived. Instead a letter had come. She had been reading it over and over again for hours.

She had aged greatly and bore the marks of intense suffering. A hard bitter smile hovered about her lips. Her cheeks were aflame with the fires of death, while she stared at the phrases in the letter, forced hollow phrases of tenderness, forced because he was embarrassed.

She sank down in front of the settee on the same spot on which he had kneeled a year before, a woman tortured and humbled to death; and hiding her face in the cushions, she murmured:

“One more!”


Dear lady, why are you looking at me so mournfully? What’s the story to us?

In the first place I am not a genius; secondly, you haven’t got the talent for being deserted, and, thirdly, we shall stay the same good old friends we’ve always been even after New Year.

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