The same night (continued)
On the terrace, I was met by a servant.
“His lordship begs leave to ask,” he said, “whether your lordship would be willing to come in for a moment.”
“Yes, his lordship requests it.”
“Very well, I’ll come in.”
I followed the man, but all the while I thought: I can’t possibly go in there. But I did. Daahlen greeted me with a warm, if hurried, welcome.
“There you are, my young friend. I saw you wandering around down there. Thanks for coming. This solitude’s enough to drive you mad.”
He looked worn-out, older than usual. His face like yellowed parchment, his eyes empty and sunken. “Take a seat,” he went on, “have a cigar. So, let’s have a little chat.” He gave me a searching glance. “Oh,” he said, “never fear, I won’t bore you with my stories. We all have our stories, don’t we? But there are other things to talk about – thank God.” He smiled and rested his hand on a book that lay open in front of him on the table.
“I’m reading a book about Africa, a trip taken by Buonaventura Meyer. Well. I know him, a sensible fellow. He’s seen the same regions I’ve seen, the same blacks, the same customs, you know? But he sees something very different to what I saw. I ask myself, is he lying or am I? Was he drunk when he saw all this, or was I? How would you explain it?”
I had to come up with a reply and began to speak without knowing what I was saying.
“It’s probably because everything we see is seen by us alone. That is to say that everyone has their own Africa. For example, say there’s a painting I love hanging in my room. Imagine that it’s stolen, or that I find myself forced to sell it. It is a comfort to know that the picture I have seen and loved cannot possibly be stolen or sold as it is unique, it is – it –“ I faltered, for I saw from Daahlen’s face that I was being tactless.
“Not exactly scientific,” Daahlen said, sternly.
“No, certainly not scientific,” I stumbled.
“Now, science.” Daahlen began to speak enthusiastically about science, he became lively, passionate, almost sensual even. It sounded like a husband’s declaration of love to his eternally faithful wife. Then the servant opened the doors of the dining room and announced dinner.
We ate mutton chops, with the runner beans that had been bought for Claudia, and drank Würzburger Stein wine. Daahlen drank a lot and spoke incessantly about distant affairs, things that all lay on the other side of the ocean. And he felt the need to boast about his experiences: “My dear fellow, to do what I’ve done and experienced requires an iron will, something our men down at the club know nothing about. Senses as quick as a predator, presence of mind and energy, I tell you, you feel the energy in your blood, like a fist that holds you, drives you, pushes you along.” With each word, he seemed to grow in his own estimation.
The windows looking out onto the garden were open. The wind had picked up outside. It made the clouds race across the face of the moon. Light and shadow alternated, as if there were a flame in the sky struggling to stay alight. The old trees moaned, and a sudden gust of wind invaded the room, bringing with it the heavy fragrance of all the roses outside. Daahlen fell silent. His face took on a gentle, helpless expression. And I, I too thought simply: Claudia, Claudia – I felt as if she had just walked through the room. Even the servant turned his head to one side, and with his expressionless eyes gazing wistfully into the distance.
“You,” said Daahlen to the servant, “tell Fräulein Julchen that she’s to send up some of the old cognac, the one in the corner, she’ll know what I mean, and that she’s to use some ice to cool off the big English glasses. This cognac,” he said, turning to me, “is from the wine cellars of Louis XVIII, some butler must have swiped it during the disturbance; I got it from an acquaintance of mine in Paris. I tell you straight, this cognac is to other spirits what a genius is to ordinary men.”
The cognac arrived. Daahlen bent over his glass and breathed in the heavy aroma. “Ah, that warms your soul.” Once the servant had left, Daahlen leaned over towards me, looked at me from under his hooded eyes and said softly: “My dear young friend, what would you say if I told you that I knew something like this would happen?”
“What do you mean?” I murmured, reluctantly meeting his gaze.
Daahlen nodded wistfully. “You get soft with age, where did all the energy go? Something must be done, you need to act fast, I told myself during my sleepless nights, but you see, I gave myself a period of grace. This one month of quiet and comfort, then discipline, le mari jaloux – well, and then I enjoyed this period of grace in small bites, just as some children like to eat their cake crumb by crumb, so that it lasts for ages. I tell you, whenever she read to me for an hour from my manuscript, I chopped those hours into such small pieces that they seemed three times as long. That’s something you learn to do as you get older.
“It reminds me of something that happened out in East Africa. I had latched onto a punitive expedition led by Lieutenant von Marlow. Now, there was a young, chocolate-skinned chap who had done something very bad – treason, or something similar. He was to be shot, but not on the spot, rather we had to walk some ten kilometres or so. Anyway, after about four kilometres, the boy began to drag his feet as if he were too tired to go on. ‘He needs a break,’ said Marlow. ‘Listen,’ I said to Marlow, ‘he can’t be tired already, what are four kilometres to someone like him?’ Marlow’s reply? ‘For him, these four kilometres seem like forty. He no longer lives superficially like we do, he lives every second fully, and that tires you out.’ Do you understand what I mean?”
I couldn’t find a response. I was appalled by this African comparison. Daahlen rested his head in his hands and said to himself gloomily: “For just one more month I wanted to see her as the Claudia I knew, and then I would be ready to have it out with the other Claudia. She didn’t wait that long.”
He sat up straight, was proud again, the old tiger hunter. “And I would have acted, my friend, the old strength isn’t quite all gone yet. I can be quite terrible, my friend. To every thing there is a season, so it says in the Bible, a time to gather stones together and a time to cast them away. Oh, I would have cast some away, all right.” He laughed derisively and poured the cognac down his throat. But he then immediately grew sentimental again, he lay his hand on top of mine and said: “You admired her, too, I know. Now we’re both left sitting here.”
I stood up, I wanted to leave. I found the idea of being a companion to this old man and his pain unbearable.
“You’re off already?” Daahlen said, “many thanks, my young friend; there’s no cure for loneliness, all the social distractions in the world can’t do a thing to help.”
I left the house. Now the night was dark and warm. Above me, in the trees on the avenue, there was a pitter-patter of light rain. There are moments in which the world appears almost unreal, in which we seem to walk beside ourselves, as if next to a fantastic and incomprehensible apparition. I know that at that moment I thought not of Claudia, but of Toni. If she were now to hang on my arm heavily, with my arm gently pressing against her breast, and look at me with her calm, voluptuous baby-blue eyes, how calming and natural that would be.
Now, I sit in my room, having written all this down. That is how it all happened. But what is it, exactly, that I have experienced? What comes to mind now is the evening on the lonely veranda at Bohrer’s. The wide, dark plain, the lonely voice that rang out there, and the other that responded. Perhaps it was merely an echo? Are our so-called experiences of love all just echoes of ourselves, perhaps? Is that, perhaps, the secret to it all? That would be a relief, and then I could wash my hands of whatever relationship Frau von Daahlen and Herr von Spall had. My adventure would be safe and secure. But, then, why does it hurt so much? Why does it leave such an ugly, humiliating pain in its wake?
The first grey light of morning is emerging behind the drapes. I shall awaken Josef and order him to pack my bags. I need to get away. I intend to travel to some fishing village on the Baltic coast, sit quietly on the beach, my feet in the warm sand, and watch the waves as they call out to each other and reply, wash in with one another and then fade away. That’s the best thing for me now. Why? I’m sure the answer to that is also out there waiting for me, somewhere.
← Part Twelve Translator’s Afterword →