In Warnow, my aunt sat in her finery in the midst of her guests on the veranda; beside her was the old Lord Chamberlain von Telfen, his hair dyed black as coal, and with an unbearably strong smell. The girls wore white dresses with roses attached, the men all had tuberose flowers in their buttonholes. The tendrils of the creepers all around cast trembling shadows across all the colours, their greenish-grey colour rendering faces paler, eyes darker. Old man Marsow had squeezed his round stomach into a white silk waistcoat and was lambasting the ministers in rather loud tones. In the background, my aunt’s plaintive voice could be heard telling the Lord Chamberlain about a certain Countess Bethusi-Huk, who had been friendly to her many years back in Carlsbad. Ellita sat to one side. She stroked the feathers of her fan, lost in thought with a beautiful, sullen expression on her face. It seemed to say: “I wish you had all stayed away.”
“Where’s the bridegroom?” asked my father. Someone said that he was down in the garden with Gerda. “One sister’s not enough for him,” boomed out old man Marsow. No-one laughed at this tactless remark.
“Bill, if you could just go down and call them,” Ellita said.
I found the two of them down by the swing. Went was swinging himself while standing on the seat. He flew up high, almost into the branches of the elm tree. He was quite a sight. His slim body buttoned into his blue uniform, his head bathed in the golden sunlight. Gerda gazed up at him, her lips half-open, her eyes wide, as if lost in an enthralling dream. She placed her hand on her chest in an unfamiliar gesture, pressing down firmly on her right breast. She hadn’t even noticed that I was standing beside her, and I was miserable with jealousy.
“Hello, Gerda,” I said roughly.
She looked at me, startled, with the unhappy gaze of someone torn from their sleep. This was something the two Warnow girls had in common, from one moment to the next they could take on the look of beautiful, sullen boys.
“Oh, it’s you, Bill,” she said. She didn’t sound very welcoming.
“You’re having a swing?” I asked, for the sake of saying something.
“Yes – just look at him,” Gerda replied looking up, and the dreamy smile appeared on her face once more.
Went had stopped and was letting the swing slowly come to a halt. He leaned against one of the support poles, showing off his figure to full effect. I couldn’t bear him standing there bathing in the rays from Gerda’s eyes.
“Instead of swinging, you might want to go and join the others,” I called up to him. “Ellita’s asking for you.”
He leapt off. “Did Ellita send you? Is she annoyed?” he asked.
“Of course,” I lied.
“Ah – ah. Well then, children, I’ll leave you to it.” Now he looked like a nervous schoolboy. He hurried off towards the house. I laughed darkly at his misfortune.
“He’s scared of her,” I said.
“Him? As if!” Gerda turned away from me angrily and sat down on a bench. Then she became lost in her thoughts.
“What do you two have to talk to each other about?” I asked in irritation.
“We talk about Ellita, of course, always Ellita,” Gerda replied, absent-mindedly. “Went’s given me a lot to think about.”
“He should do his thinking himself!” I was so annoyed that I tore a maple leaf to pieces with my teeth.
Gerda looked up. There was real distress on her face, something astonished and pleading. Tears appeared in her eyes. “Why are you saying that? You don’t know…”
“Why should you care what he thinks…” I murmured under my breath. My throat was constricted by love. If it had only been possible, I would have liked to cry, too. Gerda began to speak, quickly, accusing. She wasn’t speaking for my benefit, she simply had to get it off her chest. “Why does Ellita have to treat him so badly? He loves her, after all. And now she can finally get away from here. That’s what she wants. He only wants the best for her. But she was always like that, I know, now she’ll no longer be lonely and poor.”
“Yes, Ellita says we’re poor.”
“But everything here is so elegant,” I protested.
“Pff!” said Gerda, “That’s all for Mama’s sake, because she was a beauté at court, she can’t do without all that.”
“Right, that was back when she wore those plunging necklines, like in the picture in the dining room,” I said.
“Don’t be so stupid,” she snapped. “Of course we’re poor and are always stuck here. And when we’re snowed in, and no-one comes to visit, and we skimp on heating and candles in the rooms, Ellita walks around the house, roaming up and down ceaselessly like a polar bear, and she won’t speak to anyone and keeps glaring at Mama and me. Or she shuts herself up in her room and dances the Bolero for hours on end, and then at night she cries. I hear it from the next room. I feel sorry for her, but she’s also a bit scary. But now she has everything she wants. Why isn’t she happy? Why is she torturing Went? Why does she cry every night? Why does she dance the Bolero alone?” Now tears hung on Gerda’s eyelashes, little round drops that glinted in the sunlight. “Yes – there’s something sad lurking around us. I just don’t know what it is.”
I had no idea what to say to all of that. Instead, I reached for Gerda’s hand and began to kiss it. However, she snatched it away. “Bill, don’t be so silly. Come on, just give me a push instead.”
She sat down on the swing, leaned her head back and looked up in rapture, completely motionless, only the feet in her white shoes moved nervously and restlessly. While I was pushing her on the swing, I dwelled on my gloomy thoughts: of course, Gerda was in love with Went. She was weeping for him, at this very moment she was thinking about him, experiencing exciting, depressing things with him, and I was just some schoolboy who had to study and didn’t really matter. It all hurt so much that I couldn’t bring myself to carry on pushing her.
“Why have you stopped?” asked Gerda from the midst of her daydreams.
“Because I don’t want to do it anymore,” I replied, “because,” I grasped for something hurtful to say, “because I get nothing out of pushing you on the swing so that you can enjoy thinking about your Went.”
“My Went?” Gerda’s face went red, as it always did when she got angry, a warm rose-pink that extended to the very roots of her hair.
“That’s right, you’re all in love with that great ape.” I regretted saying it, but it needed to be said.
Gerda got off the swing in silence, adjusted her sash, then, turning to leave, she remarked with a voice that rang superior, grown-up, that created a gulf between Gerda and myself, “You know, Bill, all that sitting on your own in Fernow has given you truly bad manners. I regret having discussed this with you.”
“As you please,” I said defiantly.
Gerda left. I stayed sitting on the bench for a while. So, the one joy I had this summer had also gone up in smoke. I didn’t even have the right to quietly fall in love. Everyone else loved and was loved in return, they had their secrets and tragedies; I just had my mouldy books. Even when Gerda said I had bad manners, this wasn’t something you could describe as real pain. I’d show them. I’d think of something!
Translation © 2018 by Tony Malone. All rights reserved.