‘Nachbarn’ (‘Neighbours’) by Eduard Graf von Keyserling – Part Two

Back at the small farmhouse where Oskar and Dina were staying, the milk and cold cuts could be seen on the table through the twilight.  The couple sat down and began to eat in silence.

Could there be anything more depressing, Dina thought, than this meal?  Eventually the silence became so unbearable that she decided to say something friendly to break the mood.

“Did you think of anything good for your writing during the walk?”

Oskar looked up in surprise, and then responded as if Dina had insulted him.

“What would I have thought of? And, when it comes to my writing!  I don’t enjoy being asked about it, just like being asked: does your tooth still hurt?”

“Oh, I didn’t realise,” Dina retorted pointedly.

It was a blessing when Resei, the maid, entered the room to fetch the dishes.  Dina immediately began to talk to her.

“Tell us, the lady and the gentleman downstairs, what kind of people are they?”

“Them,” Resei replied, “there’s something not quite right about them.  You’re not sure what to think.  They’re not married, they’re not brother and sister, they sit at home all day behind closed shutters, in the evening they go out and row around on the lake until it’s dark, and when they come back, they sit out there on the balcony all night and talk and talk.  And the way they look, pale as ghosts, it gives you the shivers.  No, there’s no telling what they’re up to.  He calls himself Doctor Krammer, and she’s Adine Mieke, a student.”  And then Resei gave a sigh and added: “Yes, there are all kinds of folk.”

“Ah, really,” Oskar said, and with that the girl was dismissed.

Oskar and Dina went out onto the balcony and looked out silently into the night.  The stars stood bright and flickered restlessly in the sky, far above the darkness that lay over the land.  From time to time, a cry would ring out somewhere in the distance, coming towards them through the darkness as if traversing an enormous, silent void.  A feeling of never-ending loneliness gripped Dina, she could have cried, and she waited almost in fear for Oskar to say something and tear her out of that loneliness.  However, he merely held his peace, or softly whistled a tune to himself now and then, a tune Dina found hopelessly melancholy.

Suddenly, a voice could be discerned.  It came from the balcony below, a deep, slightly sing-song woman’s voice, that let out its words slowly, as if wishing to give each one time to fly off alone into the darkness.

“Oh, you must be patient with me, it will happen, I’m sure it will happen, but today it was all so strange again –“.

“We have time,” a male voice countered, sounding uneasy and excitable in comparison with the woman’s dark, dreamy voice, “of course, it will happen, like something inevitable, it won’t even require the effort of a decision.  It will overcome us naturally, like the only thing we could ever desire.”

“Today,” the woman’s voice began once more, “today on the lake, there was a moment when I could have done it, when the twilight came and the mist rose all around us, and it seemed as if everything surrounding us had been erased.  There was nothing but a cool breeze.  At that moment, I wanted to say to you, now – but then I suddenly noticed lights being lit in the houses on the far shore, small yellow dots, and I immediately imagined the room in which the lights were burning, and the people who sat there together, warm and snug, safe behind locked doors – and then I felt so cold and then –“.

“I know, I know,” the man’s voice cut in, “but you can rest assured, soon we won’t even be able to see these dirty yellow lights anymore.  Just wait until we’ve reached that point.”

Now the voices fell silent.  Dina had listened breathlessly, and when the conversation died out, a sudden terror gripped her, it was as if the two lamenting voices had infected the quiet of the night with a strange fever, something that lay in wait, threatening and suffering in solitude.  No, she couldn’t bear it.

“I’ll light the lamp,” she said, and went inside.  Oskar followed her, his eyes shining, and he began to speak animatedly.

“A destiny is unfolding down there, you’ll see.  That’s what I call an experience, that’s what I call a scene.”

“I find it eerie,” said Dina, cuddling up to him.

For Oskar, this stay in the country had now become more interesting, he constantly talked about the mysterious lovers downstairs.  He attempted to cross their paths when they went down to the lake, waiting excitedly for their return, or stood on the shore watching the boat with the two lovers inside rocking through the water.

“It’s obvious,” he told Dina, “that he’s dragging the poor girl down with him into his degradation, he’s got her hypnotised, yes, that how it looks.  If people only knew, perhaps someone could save her.”

“Who?  You?” Dina asked.

“Well, why not?” Oskar replied energetically.  “If I see a tragedy unfolding, it’s my duty as a human to prevent it.  But you can never be sure.  By the way, I managed to catch a glimpse of her up close today, she has one of those thin, pale faces that can be so appealing.  And her eyes, golden-brown, they almost look tired from the brightness they emit.  And her mouth, with such a brilliant expression of suffering.”

“You’re becoming poetic,” Dina commented.  Oskar admitted that this encounter had greatly inspired him.  Dina raised her eyebrow a touch, which was intended to express a lack of interest in the conversation.

“It’s such a shame for your talents,” she said, ‘that I have a round face, without the tired eyes and a brilliant mouth.”

“Rubbish,” Oskar growled, then he started up heatedly.

“It amazes me that you don’t feel sorry for her.  In cases like this, you can’t help but feel a certain sympathy, even for strangers.”

Dina shrugged her shoulders.

“Sympathy, of course, but women like that are so far from my experience that my interest isn’t all that keen.”

At this, Oskar laughed mockingly.

“Of course, you all clothe yourselves in your bourgeois values and are thus far above human feelings.”

“Well, do you really want me to take an interest in women like that?” Dina asked in irritation.

“Women like that?” Oskar echoed.  He made a dismissive gesture, took his hat and left the house.

← Part One     Part Three →

Translation © 2020 by Tony Malone. All rights reserved.

The image of the author’s painting (1900), by Lovis Corinth, was sourced from the writer’s German-language Wikipedia page.

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