Buddenbrooks Chapter Four

The senator, when he was alone again, sat down at the table, took out his glasses, and tried to resume his reading. But in a few minutes his eyes had roved from the printed page, and he sat for a long time without changing his position, gazing straight ahead of him between the portieres into the darkness of the salon.

His face, when he was alone, changed so that it was hardly recognizable. The muscles of his mouth and cheeks, otherwise obedient to his will, relaxed and became flabby. Like a mask the look of vigour, alertness, and amiability, which now for a long time had been preserved only by constant effort, fell from his face, and betrayed an anguished weariness instead. The tired, worried eyes gazed at objects without seeing them; they became red and watery. He made no effort to deceive even himself; and of all the dull, confused, rambling thoughts that filled his mind he clung to only one: the single, despairing thought that Thomas Buddenbrook, at forty-three years, was an old, worn-out man.

He rubbed his hand over his eyes and forehead, drawing a long, deep breath, mechanically lighted another cigarette, though he knew they were bad for him, and continued to gaze through the smoke-haze into the darkness. What a contrast between that relaxed and suffering face and the elegant, almost military style of his hair and beard! the stiffened and perfumed moustaches, the meticulously shaven cheeks and chin, and the careful hair-dressing which sedulously hid a beginning thinness. The hair ran back in two longish bays from the delicate temples, with a narrow parting on top; over the ears it was not long and waving, but kept short-cut now, in order not to betray how grey it had grown. He himself felt the change and knew it could not have escaped the eyes of others: the contrast between his active, elastic movements and the dull pallor of his face.

Not that he was in reality less of an important and indispensable personage than he always had been. His friends said, and his enemies could not deny, that Senator Buddenbrook was the Burgomaster’s right hand: Burgomaster Langhals was even more emphatic on that point than his predecessor Överdieck had been. But the firm of Johann Buddenbrook was no longer what it had been—this seemed to be common property, so much so that Herr Stuht discussed it with his wife over their bacon broth—and Thomas Buddenbrook groaned over the fact.

At the same time, it was true that he himself was mainly responsible. He was still a rich man, and none of the losses he had suffered, even the severe one of the year ’66, had seriously undermined the existence of the firm. But the notion that his luck and his consequence had fled, based though it was more upon inward feelings than upon outward facts, brought him to a state of lowness and suspicion. He entertained, of course, as before, and set before his guests the normal and expected number of courses. But, as never before, he began to cling to money and, in his private life, to save in small and petty ways. He had a hundred times regretted the building of his new house, which he felt had brought him nothing but bad luck. The summer holidays were given up, and the little city garden had to take the place of mountains or seashore. The family meals were, by his express and emphatic command, of such simplicity as to seem absurd by contrast with the lofty, splendid dining-room, with its extent of parquetry floors and its imposing oak furniture. For a long time now, there had been dessert only on Sundays. His own appearance was as elegant as ever; but the old servant, Anton, carried to the kitchen the news that the master only changed his shirt now every other day, as the washing was too hard on the fine linen. He knew more than that. He knew that he was to be dismissed. Gerda protested: three servants were few enough to do the work of so large a house as it should be done. But it was no use: old Anton, who had so long sat on the box when Thomas Buddenbrook drove down to the Senate, was sent away with a suitable present.

Such decrees as these were in harmony with the joyless state of affairs in the firm. That fresh enterprising spirit with which young Thomas Buddenbrook had taken up the reins—that was all gone, now; and his partner, Herr Friedrich Wilhelm Marcus—who, with his small capital, could not have had a prepondering influence in any case—was by nature lacking in initiative.

Herr Marcus’ pedantry had so increased in the course of years that it had become a distinct eccentricity. It took him a quarter of an hour of stroking his moustaches, casting side-glances, and giving little coughs, just to cut his cigar and put the tip in his pocket-book. Evenings, when the gas-light made every corner of the office as bright as day, he still used a tallow candle on his own desk. Every half-hour he would get up and go to the tap and put water on his head. One morning there had been an empty sack untidily left under his desk. He took it for a cat and began to shoo it out with loud imprecations, to the joy of the office staff. No, he was not the man to give any quickening impulse to the business in the face of his partner’s present lassitude. Mortification and a sort of desperate irritation often seized upon the Senator: as now, when he sat and stared wearily into the darkness, bringing home to himself the petty retail transactions and the pennywise policies to which the firm of Johann Buddenbrook had lately sunk.

But, after all, was it not best thus? Misfortune too has its time, he thought. Is it not better, while it holds sway, to keep oneself still, to wait in quiet and assemble one’s inner powers? Why must this proposition come up just now, to shake him untimely out of his canny resignation and make him a prey to doubts and suspicions? Was the time come? Was this a sign? Should he feel encouraged to stand up and strike a blow? He had refused with all the decisiveness he could put into his voice, to think of the proposition; but had that settled it? It seemed not, since here he sat and brooded over it. “We are most likely to get angry in our opposition to some idea when we ourselves are not quite certain of our own position.” A deucedly sly little person, Tony was!

What had he answered her? He had spoken very impressively, he recollected, about “underhand maneuvers,” “fishing in troubled waters,” “fleecing the poor land-owner,” “usury,” and so on. Very fine! But really one might ask if this were just the right time for so many large words. Consul Hermann Hagenström would not have thought of them, and would not have used them. Was he, Thomas Buddenbrook, a man of action, a business man—or was he a finicking dreamer?

Yes, that was the question. It had always been, as far back as he could remember, the question. Life was harsh: and business, with its ruthless unsentimentality, was an epitome of life. Did Thomas Buddenbrook, like his father, stand firmly on his two feet, in face of this hard practicality of life? Often enough, even far back in the past, he had seen reason to doubt it. Often enough, from his youth onwards, he had sternly brought his feelings into line. To inflict punishment, to take punishment, and not to think of it as punishment, but as something to be taken for granted—should he never completely learn that lesson?

He recalled the catastrophe of the year 1866, and the inexpressibly painful emotions which had then overpowered him. He had lost a large sum of money in the affair—but that had not been the unbearable thing about it. For the first time in his career he had fully and personally experienced the ruthless brutality of business life and seen how all better, gentler, and kindlier sentiments creep away and hid themselves before the one raw, naked, dominating instinct of self-preservation. He had seen that when one suffers a misfortune in business, one is met by one’s friends—and one’s best friends—not with sympathy, not with compassion, but with suspicion—cold, cruel, hostile suspicion. But he had known all this before; why should he be surprised at it? And in stronger and hardier hours he had blushed for his own weakness, for his own distress and sleepless nights, for his revulsion and disgust at the hateful and shameless harshness of life!

How foolish all that was! How ridiculous such feelings had been! How could he entertain them?—unless, indeed, he were a feeble visionary and not a practical business man at all! Ah, how many times had he asked himself that question? And how many times had he answered it: in strong and purposeful hours with one answer, in weak and discouraged ones with another! But he was too shrewd and too honest not to admit, after all, that he was a mixture of both.

All his life, he had made the impression on others of a practical man of action. But in so far as he legitimately passed for one—he, with his fondness for quotations from Goethe—was it not because he deliberately set out to do so? He had been successful in the past, but was that not because of the enthusiasm and impetus drawn from reflection? And if he were now discouraged, if his powers were lamed—God grant it was only for a time—was not his depression the natural consequence of the conflict that went on within himself? Whether his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather would have bought the Pöppenrade harvest in the blade was not the point after all. The thing was that they were practical men, more naturally, more vigorously, more impeccably practical than he was himself.

He was seized by a great unrest, by a need for movement, space, and light. He shoved back his chair, went into the salon, and lighted several burners of the chandelier over the centre-table. He stood there, pulling slowly and spasmodically at the long ends of his moustaches and vacantly gazing about the luxurious room. Together with the living-room it occupied the whole front of the house; it had light, ornate furniture and looked like a music-room, with the great grand piano, Gerda’s violin-case, the étagère with music books, the carved music-stand, and the bas-reliefs of singing cupids over the doors. The bow-window was filled with palms.

Senator Buddenbrook stood for two or three minutes motionless. Then he went back through the living-room into the dining-room and made light there also. He stopped at the sideboard and poured a glass of water, either to be doing something or to quiet his heart. Then he moved quickly on through the house, lighting up as he went. The smoking-room was furnished in dark colours and wainscoted. He absently opened the door of the cigar cabinet and shut it again, and at the table lifted the lid of a little oak box which had playing-cards, score-cards, and other such things in it. He let some of the bone counters glide through his fingers with a rattling sound, clapped the lid shut, and began again to walk up and down.

A little room with a small stained-glass window opened into the smoking-room. It was empty except for some small light serving-tables of the kind which fit one within another. On one of them a liqueur cabinet stood. From here one entered the dining-room, with its great extent of parquetry flooring and its four high windows, hung with wine-coloured curtains, looking out into the garden. It also occupied the whole breadth of the house. It was furnished by two low, heavy sofas, covered with the same wine-coloured material as the curtains, and by a number of high-backed chairs standing stiffly along the walls. Behind the fire-screen was a chimney-place, its artificial coals covered with shining red paper to make them look glowing. On the marble mantel-shelf in front of the mirror stood two towering Chinese vases.

The whole storey was now lighted by the flame of single gas-jets, and looked like a party the moment after the last guest is gone. The Senator measured the room throughout its length, and then stood at one of the windows and looked down into the garden.

The moon stood high and small between fleecy clouds, and the little fountain splashed in the stillness on the overhanging boughs of the walnut tree. Thomas looked down on the pavilion which enclosed his view, on the little glistening white terrace with the two obelisks, the regular gravel paths, and the freshly turned earth of the neat borders and beds. But this whole minute and punctilious symmetry, far from soothing him, only made him feel the more exasperated. He held the catch of the window, leaned his forehead on it, and gave rein to his tormenting thoughts again.

What was he coming to? He thought of a remark he had let fall to his sister—something he had felt vexed with himself the next minute for saying, it seemed so unnecessary. He was speaking of Count Strelitz and the landed aristocracy, and he had expressed the view that the producer had a social advantage over the middleman. What was the point of that? It might be true and it might not; but was he, Thomas Buddenbrook, called upon to express such ideas—was he called upon to even think them? Should he have been able to explain to the satisfaction of his father, his grandfather—or any of his fellow townsmen—how he came to be expressing, or indulging in, such thoughts? A man who stands firm and confident in his own calling, whatever it may be, recognizes only it, understands only it, values only it.

Then he suddenly felt the blood rushing to his face as he recalled another memory, from farther back in the past. He saw himself and his brother Christian, walking around the garden of the Meng Street house, involved in a quarrel—one of those painful, regrettable, heated discussions. Christian, with artless indiscretion, had made a highly undesirable, a compromising remark, which a number of people had heard; and Thomas, furiously angry, irritated to the last degree, had called him to account. At bottom, Christian had said, at bottom every business man was a rascal. Well! was that foolish and trifling remark, in point of fact, so different from what he himself had just said to his sister? He had been furiously angry then, had protested violently—but what was it that sly little Tony said? “When we ourselves are not quite certain of our own position …”

“No,” said the Senator, suddenly, aloud, lifted his head with a jerk, and let go the window fastening. He fairly pushed himself away from it. “That settles it,” he said. He coughed, for the sound of his own voice in the emptiness made him feel unpleasant. He turned and began to walk quickly through all the rooms, his hands behind his back and his head bowed.

“That settles it,” he repeated. “It will have to settle it. I am wasting time, I am sinking into a morass, I’m getting worse than Christian.” It was something to be glad of, at least, that he was in no doubt where he stood. It lay, then, in his own hands to apply the corrective. Relentlessly. Let us see, now—let us see—what sort of offer was it they had made? The Pöppenrade harvest, in the blade? “I will do it!” he said in a passionate whisper, even stretching out one hand and shaking the forefinger. “I will do it!”

It would be, he supposed, what one would call a coup: an opportunity to double a capital of, say, forty thousand marks current—though that was probably an exaggeration.—Yes, it was a sign—a signal to him that he should rouse himself! It was the first step, the beginning, that counted; and the risk connected with it was a sort of offset to his moral scruples. If it succeeded, then he was himself again, then he would venture once more, then he would know how to hold fortune and influence fast within his grip.

No, Messrs. Strunck and Hagenström would not be able to profit by this occasion, unfortunately for them. There was another firm in the place, which, thanks to personal connections, had the upper hand. In fact, the personal was here the decisive factor. It was no ordinary business, to be carried out in the ordinary way. Coming through Tony, as it had, it bore more the character of a private transaction, and would need to be carried out with discretion and tact. Hermann Hagenström would hardly have been the man for the job. He, Thomas Buddenbrook, as a business man, was taking advantage of the market—and he would, by God, when he sold, know how to do the same. On the other hand, he was doing the hard-pressed land-owner a favour which he was called upon to do, by reason of Tony’s connection with the Maibooms. The thing to do was to write, to write this evening—not on the business paper with the firm name, but on his own personal letter-paper with “Senator Buddenbrook” stamped across it. He would write in a courteous tone and ask if a visit in the next few days would be agreeable. But it was a difficult business, none the less—slippery ground, upon which one needed to move with care.—Well, so much the better for him.

His step grew quicker, his breathing deeper. He sat down a moment, sprang up again, and began roaming about through all the rooms. He thought it all out again; he thought about Herr Marcus, Hermann Hagenström, Christian, and Tony; he saw the golden harvests of Pöppenrade wave in the breeze, and dreamed of the upward bound the old firm would take after this coup; scornfully repulsed all his scruples and hesitations, put out his hand and said “I’ll do it!”

Frau Permaneder opened the door and called out “Good-bye!” He answered her without knowing it. Gerda said good-night to Christian at the house door and came upstairs, her strange deep-set eyes wearing the expression that music always gave them. The Senator stopped mechanically in his walk, asked mechanically about the concert and the Spanish virtuoso, and said he was ready to go to bed.

But he did not go. He took up his wanderings again. He thought about the sacks of wheat and rye and oats and barley which should fill the lofts of the Lion, the Walrus, the Oak, and the Linden; he thought about the price he intended to ask—of course it should not be an extravagant price. He went softly at midnight down into the counting-house and, by the light of Herr Marcus’ tallow candle, wrote a letter to Herr von Maiboom of Pöppenrade—a letter which, as he read it through, his head feeling feverish and heavy, he thought was the best and most tactful he had ever written.

That was the night of May 27. The next day he indicated to his sister, treating the affair in a light, semi-humorous way, that he had thought it all over and decided that he could not just refuse Herr von Maiboom out of hand and leave him at the mercy of the nearest swindler. On the thirtieth of May he went to Rostock, whence he drove in a hired wagon out to the country.

His mood for the next few days was of the best, his step elastic and free, his manners easy. He teased Clothilde, laughed heartily at Christian, joked with Tony, and played with Hanno in the little gallery for a whole hour on Sunday, helping him to hoist up miniature sacks of grain into a little brick-red granary, and imitating the hollow, drawling shouts of the workmen. And at the Burgesses’ meeting of the third of June he made a speech on the most tiresome subject in the world, something connected with taxation, which was so brilliant and witty that everybody agreed with it unanimously, and Consul Hagenström, who had opposed him, became almost a laughing-stock.