Buddenbrooks Chapter Four

“It is not right, it is not right, Gerda,” said old Fräulein Weichbrodt, perhaps for the hundredth time. Her voice was full of reproach and distress. She had a sofa place to-day in the circle that sat round the centre-table in the drawing-room of her former pupil. Gerda Buddenbrook, Frau Permaneder, her daughter Erica, poor Clothilde, and the three Misses Buddenbrook made up the group. The green capstrings still fell down upon the old lady’s childish shoulders; but she had grown so tiny, with her seventy-five years of life, that she could scarcely raise her elbow high enough to gesticulate above the surface of the table.

“No, it is not right, and so I tell you, Gerda,” she repeated. She spoke with such warmth that her voice trembled. “I have one foot in the grave, my time is short—and you can think of leaving me—of leaving us all—for ever! If it were just a visit to Amsterdam that you were thinking of—but to leave us for ever—!” She shook her bird-like old head vigorously, and her brown eyes were clouded with her distress. “It is true, you have lost a great deal—”

“No, she has not lost a great deal, she has lost everything,” said Frau Permaneder. “We must not be selfish, Therese. Gerda wishes to go, and she is going—that is all. She came with Thomas, one-and-twenty years ago; and we all loved her, though she very likely didn’t like any of us.—No, you didn’t, Gerda; don’t deny it!—But Thomas is no more—and nothing is any more. What are we to her? Nothing. We feel it very much, we cannot help feeling it; but yet I say, go, with God’s blessing, Gerda, and thanks for not going before, when Thomas died.”

It was an autumn evening, after supper. Little Johann (Justus, Johann, Kaspar) had been lying for nearly six months, equipped with the blessing of Pastor Pringsheim, out there at the edge of the little grove, beneath the sandstone cross, beneath the family arms. The rain rustled the half-leafless trees in the avenue, and sometimes gusts of wind drove it against the window-panes. All eight ladies were dressed in black.

The little family had gathered to take leave of Gerda Buddenbrook, who was about to leave the town and return to Amsterdam, to play duets once more with her old father. No duties now restrained her. Frau Permaneder could no longer oppose her decision. She said it was right, she knew it must be so; but in her heart she mourned over her sister-in-law’s departure. If the Senator’s widow had remained in the town, and kept her station and her place in society, and left her property where it was, there would still have remained a little prestige to the family name. But let that be as it must, Frau Antoine was determined to hold her head high while she lived and there were people to look at her. Had not her grandfather driven with four horses all over the country?

Despite the stormy life that lay behind her, and despite her weak digestion, she did not look her fifty years. Her skin was a little faded and downy, and a few hairs grew on her upper lip—the pretty upper lip of Tony Buddenbrook. But there was not a white hair in the smooth coiffure beneath the mourning cap.

Poor Clothilde bore up under the departure of her relative, as one must bear up under the afflictions of this life. She took it with patience and tranquillity. She had done wonders at the supper table, and now she sat among the others, lean and grey as of yore, and her words were drawling and friendly.

Erica Weinschenk, now thirty-one years old, was likewise not one to excite herself unduly over her aunt’s departure. She had lived through worse things, and had early learned resignation. Submission was her strongest characteristic: one read it in her weary light-blue eyes—the eyes of Bendix Grünlich—and heard it in the tones of her patient, sometimes plaintive voice.

The three Misses Buddenbrook, Uncle Gotthold’s daughters, wore their old affronted and critical air; Friederike and Henriette, the eldest, had grown leaner and more angular with the years; while Pfiffi, the youngest, now fifty-three years old, was much too little and fat.

Old Frau Consul Kröger, Uncle Justus’ widow, had been asked too, but she was rather ailing—or perhaps she had no suitable gown to put on: one couldn’t tell which.

They talked about Gerda’s journey and the train she was to take; about the sale of the villa and its furnishings, which Herr Gosch had undertaken. For Gerda was taking nothing with her—she was going away as she had come.

Then Frau Permaneder began to talk about life. She was very serious and made observations upon the past and the future—though of the future there was in truth almost nothing to be said.

“When I am dead,” she declared, “Erica may move away if she likes. But as for me, I cannot live anywhere else; and so long as I am on earth, we will come together here, we who are left. Once a week you will come to dinner with me—and we will read the family papers.” She put her hand on the portfolio that lay before her on the table. “Yes, Gerda, I will take them over, and be glad to have them. Well, that is settled. Do you hear, Tilda? Though it might exactly as well be you who should invite us, for you are just as well off as we are now. Yes—so it goes. I’ve struggled against fate, and done my best, and you have just sat there and waited for everything to come round. But you are a goose, you know, all the same—please don’t mind if I say so—”

“Oh, Tony,” Clothilde said, smiling.

“I am sorry I cannot say good-bye to Christian,” said Gerda, and the talk turned aside to that subject. There was small prospect of his ever coming out of the institution in which he was confined, although he was probably not too bad to go about in freedom. But the present state of things was very agreeable for his wife. She was, Frau Permaneder asserted, in league with the doctor; and Christian would, in all probability, end his days where he was.

There was a pause. They touched delicately and with hesitation upon recent events, and when one of them let fall little Johann’s name, it was still in the room, except for the sound of the rain, which fell faster than before.

This silence lay like a heavy secret over the events of Hanno’s last illness. It must have been a frightful onslaught. They did not look in each other’s eyes as they talked; their voices were hushed, and their words were broken. But they spoke of one last episode—the visit of the little ragged count who had almost forced his way to Hanno’s bedside. Hanno had smiled when he heard his voice, though he hardly knew any one; and Kai had kissed his hands again and again.

“He kissed his hands?” asked the Buddenbrook ladies.

“Ye s, over and over.”

They all thought for a while of this strange thing, and then suddenly Frau Permaneder burst into tears.

“I loved him so much,” she sobbed. “You don’t any of you know how much—more than any of you—yes, forgive me, Gerda—you are his mother.—Oh, he was an angel.”

“He is an angel, now,” corrected Sesemi.

“Hanno, little Hanno,” went on Frau Permaneder, the tears flowing down over her soft faded cheeks. “Tom, Father, Grandfather, and all the rest! Where are they? We shall see them no more. Oh, it is so sad, so hard!”

“There will be a reunion,” said Friederike Buddenbrook. She folded her hands in her lap, cast down her eyes, and put her nose in the air.

“Yes—they say so.—Oh, there are times, Friederike, when that is no consolation, God forgive me! When one begins to doubt—doubt justice and goodness—and everything. Life crushes so much in us, it destroys so many of our beliefs—! A reunion—if that were so—”

But now Sesemi Weichbrodt stood up, as tall as ever she could. She stood on tip-toe, rapped on the table; the cap shook on her old head.

“It is so!” she said, with her whole strength; and looked at them all with a challenge in her eyes.

She stood there, a victor in the good fight which all her life she had waged against the assaults of Reason: hump-backed, tiny, quivering with the strength of her convictions, a little prophetess, admonishing and inspired.