Dinner was all it should be, and Daahlen laughed and expounded and spoke of culinary delights from all five continents. He barely let anyone else speak. Only Spall managed to interrupt him now and then to talk of town news. Daahlen asked for more details, and the two began to gossip away. I held my tongue whenever possible, it was pleasant to simply be quiet along with Claudia, it was as if our silences understood each other. Claudia, her head bowed low over her plate, carefully ate the delicacies, eggs à la Mayerbeer, chicken breasts in crab sauce.
“You enjoy your food?” I asked in a low voice.
“Yes,” she replied seriously, ”provided it’s something entertaining.”
Spall had overheard this and laughed: “That’s typical Claudia, demanding that the poor chicken cutlets be eaten and entertaining at the same time.” All the while, he managed to look at her possessively with his maudlin eyes. Claudia blushed slightly and pouted crossly with her lower lip like a naughty little girl. “Look, that’s not what I meant.”
“Typical of women,” Daahlen pontificated. “They speak as the Romans did to the gladiators: die, but please me. That reminds me of – the blacks in Africa.”
I didn’t quite catch what it was about the blacks in Africa that it reminded him of, I was thinking about Spall. I wasn’t about to be intimidated by him.
No, my friend, you won’t be getting close to her with eyes like yours that keep pushing and pressing her!
The windows looking out onto the garden stood open. The dense darkness of the massive trees seemed to be peering in. Above the black tree tops, the crescent moon now had a strong, white glow.
“Listen to the frogs – our ‘table music’,” said Daahlen.
After dinner, we went back out onto the veranda, seated ourselves in comfortable straw chairs. The servant brought out ‘cold duck’, that heady mix of various wines, in silver goblets. The great calm of the night even made Daahlen fall silent for a while. Then he turned to me and spoke of a moonlit night in the Congo. Claudia and Spall sat slightly apart from us. Once, I heard Claudia reply to a question, terse, hard, it seemed. You are doing my work for me, my friend, I thought. I was amazed at how happy and confident I felt. Spall got up. – “Come on,” he said, “let’s take a little walk down to the frogs.” – Claudia got up, too, took a few steps and then turned swiftly towards me – no, there was no mistake, pleadingly. “Ah, Herr von Brühlen, I promised to show you the pond.” I stood up hesitantly. Was it all right to leave Daahlen here alone? From the light that escaped through the door out onto the veranda, I could clearly see Spall’s handsome face fall. He turned around and sat back down in his chair. “Oh, right – well, I wouldn’t want to leave Daahlen all alone,” he said. “Shall we get the cards out and have a rubber?”
Claudia and I walked down into the garden. At first, I felt slightly self-conscious walking alone with her at night. Down among the trees, it was as cool as under a church dome, and very dark. All I could hear were the gentle sounds of her steps and the train of her muslin dress brushing across the gravel. Then we talked about the garden, and about the heat and the lavender, I believe, whose fragrance drifted across to us from the terrace garden. Polite and calm as our voices were, I still felt how tightly the darkness bound us together. We were far closer to one another than our voices were; I could clearly feel, as if I had grasped it, her hand in mine, as slender and cool as flower petals at night; I could feel myself putting my arm around her waist, the honeysuckle on her dress must be slightly damp from the dew by now. My God, actual physical contact is always simply the final touch, the last helplessness of this secret communing of our bodies. I don’t quite know how it came up in conversation, but Claudia said: “Your given name is Magnus?”
“Yes, Magnus!” I replied. “Unfortunately. Nobody’s called Magnus.”
“It runs in the family?”
“Yes, names are just like the moles that our ancestors had and that keep cropping up again and again.”
“I’m not that keen on my name, either,” Claudia said thoughtfully. “Claudia sounds so, like – like something lifeless.”
“Claudia,” I repeated, and attempted to imbue the tone with something musical, failing, however, in the process. “When I heard that name before, I always imagined a great Roman figure in stiff, heavy robes.”
“Now – I came across the name yesterday in my Livy and, and I could smell the scent of the large flower bed over by your steps.”
“Ah, that,” said Claudia, “that’s the smell of loneliness.”
“Yes, don’t you think? When the afternoon sun beats down, and the fragrances of the various flowers are blended together in the warmth, it all seems so lonely – lonely.”
We stopped by the pond, a green covering of plants lay on the water. The moon spread just a touch of white light upon the black surface.
“What’s that over there?” I asked – for in the middle of the pond there stood a large, dark shape that seemed to be stretching its arms out into the darkness.
“That,” said Claudia, “is a statue of a Danaïde, but her hands and the sieve have broken off.”
“Well, at least she’s at rest now,” I remarked. Claudia smiled slightly. “Yes – yes – she’s at rest now.”
We slowly walked along the edge of the pond, listening to the frogs, who were chatting away beneath the covering of plants, telling stories, each interrupting the others. I was in a rather unusual mood, far away from everything I usually considered real, alone with Claudia in this twilit world, which seemed overlaid with pain, but a pain that I was to bear along with Claudia, as if we were walking the same Via Dolorosa together. This is, I believe, rather typical of my condition. Claudia turned into a dark corridor of trees that led, a little steeply, back up towards the house. The darkness brought her close to me once more – again, it were as if I were taking her slight frame in my arms, as if I were kissing her wonderfully cool lips.
“You’re not fond of solitude, Baroness?” I heard myself ask politely.
“Goodness!” Claudia replied. “I’m just used to it, just as I am to – to – to…”
“Julchen,” I suggested.
She smiled. “Yes – to Julchen.”
“Have you really been alone that much?” I asked, which was perhaps a little too forward of me.
“It’s not that,” she said. “ Loneliness – I think, is when you simply wait – sit and wait. Waiting causes loneliness.”
“Very true,” I chimed in – which was rather tactless.
“Just like at my childhood home,” Claudia continued. “There were five of us sisters, each with just a year’s difference in age – we were constantly together. We didn’t get out much – we weren’t even that keen to go into the village. Our clothes were so ill-fitting. I believe that my confirmation dress was the first one that hadn’t been worn by at least two sisters before me, I was so small. We had no money, and we had to save wherever we could.” She laughed with the bitter undertone of a young girl.
“Oh,” was my only reply, which I now regret.
“Whenever we passed, a cobbler’s apprentice used to say – ah, the five fashion models. We weren’t exactly popular. Even at home, whenever anything happened, the five countesses were always to blame.”
I should have said something, instead I remained silent – at that moment, I loved Claudia deeply.
“That’s how we ended up spending most of our time in our big garden,” Claudia continued, and I sensed from her voice that she was smiling. “Not a lot got done to the garden, though. We planted cabbages, and the fruit trees were overgrown with moss. But there were lots of gooseberries. Even they had shrunk, they’d got small and hairy. We used to enjoy lying down under the bushes. When the sun shines on gooseberry bushes, there’s a smell of warm wool, don’t you think?”
“Yes – I – I remember that, too…”
“Yes, and that is loneliness, we lay there eating the small, hairy berries – and waited for something to turn up.” My God! How clearly I could see them, the girls with their strawberry-blonde hair and ill-fitting dresses, and their beautiful, expectant faces beneath the gooseberry bushes in the sun…
“And something always does turn up,” I said.
“Yes – of course,” Claudia replied.
“And then,” I continued – I stressed the words -, “then we must heed that call.” That may have come out rather enthusiastically.
Claudia stopped. Her voice now became soft with emotion: “That’s true, we must – no matter what, we must.”
I had, I believe, said something decisive there.
We stepped out of the darkness of the trees onto the terrace in front of the house. On the veranda, like a little yellow photograph in all the darkness, we saw the two gentlemen in the light of two candles, sitting with their wine glasses playing cards, their profiles brightly outlined. Spall’s blonde locks surrounded his head with a faint golden glow. Claudia laughed out loud. “Very pretty,” she said. I was surprised that she could laugh like that, after the emotional moment we had just shared. When we arrived on the veranda, Spall remarked ironically: “So – did you enjoy the poetry?” While doing so, he once more considered Claudia with his strange, possessive gaze. Claudia turned away and walked back to the railing in the shadows. You’re driving her towards me, my friend, I thought.
“Capital, down there,” Daahlen began. “Lots of atmosphere, just a little too much atmosphere. My wife loves all that. Her way of relieving depression.”
Shortly after that, Spall and I left. On the way home, Spall commented:
“A remarkable woman – my cousin.”
“A most charming lady,” I countered. It was the most neutral expression I could find to erect a barricade around Claudia.
Right – and now I want to sleep – not think.
These feelings can’t be carefully folded up and put away each night like our clothes. It is as if I were in the midst of a dream, and had to tread very lightly so as not to wake up.
Translation © 2019 by Tony Malone. All rights reserved.