‘Sultry Days’ (‘Schwüle Tage’) by Eduard Graf von Keyserling – Part Seven

SEVEN

During dinner, I attempted to drown my sorrows in drink.  That brought a little of the holiday spirit back to my blood.  I was amused by the goings-on at the long dinner table.  When I looked above the roses to the girls’ faces, they seemed rather white, with an uneasy gleam in their eyes, and overly red lips.  Everything I looked at seemed slightly out of focus.  I found myself laughing without quite knowing why.  I sat between the Marsow girls.  Their fleshy white shoulders brushed against my sleeves.  I sensed the warmth of their plump girlish bodies.  They frequently giggled when I talked to them.

My father gave a speech.  As he stood there, the flower in his buttonhole, champagne glass in hand, smiling a little when the guests laughed at his jokes, I tried to recall the figure he had made back in his study.  But it was as if these two people had nothing in common.  He spoke of ancestors, and of marriage, calling it an enduring peace treaty.  That got a lot of laughs.  Then he became more serious.  But – he went on – it is also a pedestal, an altar: “our marriages” upon which women – “our wives” – stood, sacred and protected.  For our women, our wives, are the bloom of our aristocratic culture, they are the representatives and guardians of all that is good and noble that we have achieved over the centuries.  This “our” was accompanied by a sweeping gesture, which seemed intended to unite the whole party and raise it high above those not among our number.  Everyone listened reverently.  An elderly noblewoman nodded her head.  Old man Marsow leant back in his chair, pursed his lips and did his best to look dignified.  I, too, felt a pleasant sense of pride.  It was, after all, good to hear that you had your own culture.  A toast was called for, and everyone raised their glasses.  My memories of the end of the meal were a little hazy.  I was glad when it was over, and I could head out onto the veranda.  I sat down in the moonlight, as if under a shower.  Pleasant thoughts ran through my head.

Gerda appeared on the veranda.  I immediately went over to her.  I grabbed hold of the end of her sash.  “Oh, Bill, it’s you.  What are you doing out here all by yourself?” she asked.
“I’m out here by myself,” I began, “because I’m upset that we argued.  Can’t we make up?  You know how much I love you.”
She took a step back, as if she were afraid.  “Really, Bill,” she said, “you’ve had too much to drink.  You should be ashamed of yourself.”
Then she was gone.  What was I to do?  She was afraid of me.  She had said ‘really’ to me.  It was all over.  Now I too had my great love pains.  I sat down on the bench, covered my face with my hands, I sat there – like – like him – back in the study.  I had no tears.  Rather, it was fury towards everyone in the house that made me burn inside.  I climbed up onto the bench and looked through the window into the dining room.

There they all sat together.  The way their lips moved, without my being able to hear their words, the way they opened their mouths wide, with no sound reaching me, it all looked rather eerie.  My aunt, draped in her white cape, lay on the corner of the sofa like a discarded doll that has been dressed up in new clothes.  Old man Marsow was stretched out in an armchair, rather red in the face.  The elderly noblewoman sat between the Marsow girls and sniffed with her sharp nose in the manner of a mouse sensing sugar.  Then their faces suddenly turned gentle and reverent, for in the adjoining room I saw Went standing by the piano.  He sang, “Let me miss you – let me kiss you,” his eyes raised to the ceiling, gently swaying from side to side, and his tenor poured out streams of honey.  How brazen was this sweet voice! The way it filled the room, caressed everyone until their expressions changed, seemed to kiss the girls’ moist, half-open lips.  I found it revolting.  In the meantime, like images from a Laterna magica, two shapes approached each other outside my window.  Ellita, tall and white, her head slightly tilted back, her lips tightly closed.  Oh!  She was not to be kissed by the soulful voice!  Ellita had a way of walking that made her dress follow the movements of her figure.  I always imagined that the white muslin would be warm from her body.  There came, then, from the opposite direction, my father.  They stood opposite one another.  He said something, smiled, stroked his moustache.  However, there was no answering laugh, her face turned serious, angry – she looked my father full in the face like someone ready for battle, seeking out the best spot to inflict an injury.  I could almost feel her body tensing and stretching.  My father made a slight gesture with his hand, but his expression altered, he bit his lip, he stared, sharply, aroused, hungrily into Ellita’s eyes, his own eyes standing out in the light of the lamp, I saw them shimmering, fixed on Ellita’s face.  She slowly bent her head, lowered her eyes, closed them.  She turned pale and stood there humbly, as if robbed of all strength.  I could hardly watch.  There was something about it all that perplexed me.  I stepped back from the window.  My thoughts flailed wildly around something I didn’t dare to consider.  Is there something going on between them?  Those two?  Those two?  These things actually happen – is life really that strange?  There they all are, sitting quietly listening to Went purring his “Let me miss you – let me kiss you,” – and in the midst of all this stirred something primal – something incomprehensible.

Now I heard a dress brushing the floor.  Ellita came through the open glass door and down the steps.  “Ellita,” I heard myself say.
“Is that you, Bill?” she asked.  “Are you all by yourself?  Come on, let’s go down to the garden.”
She put her arm around my shoulders once more, and we walked down the avenue of linden trees.  Ellita spoke softly, breathlessly.  “Why did you run off on the others?  Are you sad?  Did someone do something to you?  Tell me.  Has Gerda treated you badly?  You love her, right?  Go ahead; it doesn’t really matter!  No one can stop you.  Gerda will come around, the poor child.”
Her soft, mournful voice touched me, made me feel sorry for myself.  Tears rolled down my cheeks.  “Are you crying, little Bill?” asked Ellita.  It was so dark in the avenue, that she couldn’t tell.  She touched my damp face with her cool hand.  “You are.  It doesn’t matter.  Go ahead and cry.  No one can see us.  There’s no need for tenue here.”

We walked on for a while in silence.  In places a little moonlight made it through the branches, dancing across Ellita’s hair and her white dress, making the ring on her finger, the small diamond sword on her chest, light up, before the soft darkness replete with scents and whispers returned.  At the end of the avenue was the old stone grotto, a small dilapidated hall filled with the gently swaying shadows of leaves cast by the moon.
“Have you ever seen me dance the Bolero?” Ellita suddenly asked.  “Come on, I’ll dance it for you.”
I sat down on the stone bench in the grotto, and Ellita, among the shadows of the leaves, danced silently in her white shoes, their buckles glistening in the moonlight.  She threw up her arms and turned her head skywards, as if she were holding grapes in the air for which her half-open lips thirsted.  She proudly threw an invisible coat around her shoulders, or picked invisible flowers; all with the same soft, rhythmic movements of her body, surrounded in soft rustles by the muslin train of her dress like a white cloud of fog.  She danced silently, passionately. I heard her breathing become heavier.  It was ghostly, unreal.  All the uproar inside me fell still.  It was as if I were far away, in a place I recognised from my dreams, now she came to a halt, brushed some hair out of her face and laughed: “You see. That felt good.  Now we can go back to the others.  Now we’ve reclaimed our tenue.”  As we walked back to the house, Ellita went back to her usual manner of speaking, calm and a little patronising.  Back in the dining room, she smiled over to Went, saying: “Have you had your fill of singing, darling?”

Back in my bedroom at home, I felt both worried and excited.  Life seemed sad and perplexing.  There was no way I could sleep.  Persistent and unsettling images came to torture me.  The night was rather sultry.  The trees stood motionless and black in the garden.  Thunder could be heard in the distance.  Down in the park, Margusch was singing her peaceful, somewhat sleepy lament.  Her voice did me good.  I wanted to be close to her, to have her comfort me as I closed my eyes and thought of nothing but: rai – rai – rah.

← Part Six     Part Eight →

Translation © 2018 by Tony Malone. All rights reserved.

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