Buddenbrooks Chapter One

It sometimes happens that we may recall this or that person whom we have not lately seen and wonder how he is. And then, with a start, we remember that he has disappeared from the stage, that his voice no longer swells the general concert—that he is, in short, departed from among us, and lies somewhere outside the walls, beneath the sod.

Frau Consul Buddenbrook, she that was a Stüwing, Uncle Gotthold’s widow, passed away. Death set his reconciling and atoning seal upon the brow of her who in her life had been the cause of such violent discord; and her three daughters, Friederike, Henriette, and Pfiffi, received the condolences of their relatives with an affronted air which seemed to say: “You see, your persecutions have at last brought her down to her grave!” As if the Frau Consul were not as old as the hills already!

And Madame Kethelsen had gone to her long rest. In her later years she had suffered much from gout; but she died gently and simply, resting upon a childlike faith which was much envied by her educated sister, who had always had her periodic attacks of rationalistic doubt, and who, though she grew constantly smaller and more bent, was relentlessly bound by an iron constitution to this sinful earth.

Consul Peter Döhlmann was called away. He had eaten up all his money, and finally fell a prey to Hunyadi-Janos, leaving his daughter an income of two hundred marks a year. He depended upon the respect felt in the community for the name of Döhlmann to insure her being admitted into the Order of St. John.

Justus Kröger also departed this life, which was a loss, for now nobody was left to prevent his wife selling everything she owned to send money to the wretched Jacob, who was still leading a dissolute existence somewhere in the world.

Christian Buddenbrook had likewise disappeared from the streets of his native city. He would have been sought in vain within her walls. He had moved to Hamburg, less than a year after his brother’s death, and there he united himself, before God and men, with Fräulein Aline Puvogel, a lady with whom he had long stood in a close relationship. No one could now stop him. His inheritance from his mother, indeed, half the interest of which had always found its way to Hamburg, was managed by Herr Stephan Kistenmaker—in so far as it was not already spent in advance. Herr Kistenmaker, in fact, had been appointed administrator by the terms of his deceased friend’s will. But in all other respects Christian was his own master. Directly the marriage became known, Frau Permaneder addressed to Frau Aline Buddenbrook in Hamburg a long and extraordinarily violent letter, beginning “Madame!” and declaring in carefully poisoned words that she had absolutely no intention of recognizing as a relative either the person addressed or any of her children.

Herr Kistenmaker was executor and administrator of the Buddenbrook estate and guardian of little Johann. He held these offices in high regard. They were an important activity which justified him in rubbing his head on the Bourse with every indication of overwork and telling everybody that he was simply wearing himself out. Besides, he received two per cent. of the revenues, very punctually. But he was not too successful in the performance of his duties, and Gerda Buddenbrook soon had reason to feel dissatisfied.

The business was to close, the firm to go into liquidation, and the estate to be settled within a year. This was Thomas Buddenbrook’s wish, as expressed in his will. Frau Permaneder felt much upset. “And Hanno? And little Johann—what about Hanno?” She was disappointed and grieved that her brother had passed over his son and heir and had not wished to keep the firm alive for him to step into. She wept for hours to think that one should dispose thus summarily of that honourable shield, that jewel cherished by four generations of Buddenbrooks: that the history of the firm was now to close, while yet there existed a direct heir to carry it on. But she finally consoled herself by thinking that the end of the firm was not, after all, the end of the family, and that her nephew might as easily, in a new and different career, perform the high task allotted to him—that task being to carry on the family name and add fresh lustre to the family reputation. It could not be in vain that he possessed so much likeness to his great-grandfather.

The liquidation of the business began, under the auspices of Herr Kistenmaker and old Herr Marcus; and it took a most deplorable course. The time was short, and it must be punctiliously kept to. The pending business was disposed of on hurried and unfavourable terms. One precipitate and disadvantageous sale followed another. The granaries and warehouses were turned into money at a great loss; and what was not lost by Herr Kistenmaker’s over-zealousness was wasted by the procrastination of old Herr Marcus. In town they said that the old man, before he left his house in winter warmed not only his coat and hat, but his walking-stick as well. If ever a favourable opportunity arose, he invariably let it slip through his fingers. And so the losses piled up. Thomas Buddenbrook had left, on paper, an estate of six hundred and fifty thousand marks. A year after the will was opened it had become abundantly clear that there was no question of such a sum.

Indefinite, exaggerated rumours of the unfavourable liquidation got about, and were fed by the news that Gerda Buddenbrook meant to sell the great house. Wonderful stories flew about, of the reasons which obliged her to take such a step; of the collapse of the Buddenbrook fortune. Things were thought to look very badly: and a feeling began to grow up in the town, of which the widowed Frau Senator became aware, at first with surprise and astonishment, and then with growing anger. When she told her sister-in-law, one day, that she had been pressed in an unpleasant way for the payment of some considerable accounts, Frau Permaneder had at first been speechless, and then had burst out into frightful laughter. Gerda Buddenbrook was so outraged that she expressed a half-determination to leave the city for ever with little Johann and go back to Amsterdam to play duets with her old father. But this called forth such a storm of protest from Frau Permaneder that she was obliged to give up the plan for the time being.

As was to be expected, Frau Permaneder protested against the sale of the house which her brother had built. She bewailed the bad impression it would make and complained of the blow it would deal the family prestige. But she had to grant it would be folly to continue to keep up the spacious and splendid dwelling that had been Thomas Buddenbrook’s costly hobby, and that Gerda’s idea of a comfortable little villa outside the wall, in the country, had, after all, much to commend it.

A great day dawned for Siegismund Gosch the broker. His old age was illumined by an event so stupendous that for many hours it held his knees from trembling. It came about that he sat in Gerda Buddenbrook’s salon, in an easy-chair, opposite her and discussed tête-à-tête the price of her house. His snow-white locks streamed over his face, his chin protruded grimly, he succeeded for once in looking thoroughly hump-backed. He hissed when he talked, but his manners were cold and businesslike, and nothing betrayed the emotions of his soul. He bound himself to take over the house, stretched out his hand, smiled cunningly, and bid eighty-five thousand marks—which was a possible offer, for some loss would certainly have to be taken in this sale. But Herr Kistenmaker’s opinion must be heard; and Gerda Buddenbrook had to let Herr Gosch go without making the bargain. Then it appeared that Herr Kistenmaker was not minded to allow any interference in what he considered his prerogative. He mistrusted Herr Gosch’s offer; he laughed at it, and swore that he could easily get much more. He continued to swear this, until at length he was forced to dispose of the property for Seventy-five thousand marks to an elderly spinster who had returned from extended travel and decided to settle in the town.

Herr Kistenmaker also arranged for the purchase of the new house, a pleasant little villa for which he paid rather too high a price, but which was about what Gerda Buddenbrook wanted. It lay outside the Castle Gate, on a chestnut-bordered avenue; and thither, in the autumn of the year 1876, the Frau Senator moved with her son, her servants, and a part of her household goods—the remainder, to Frau Permaneder’s great distress, being left behind to pass into the possession of the elderly gentlewoman.

As if these were not changes enough, Mamsell Jungmann, after forty years in the service of the Buddenbrook family, left it to return to her native West Prussia to live out the evening of her life. To tell the truth, she was dismissed by the Frau Senator. This good soul had taken up with little Johann when the previous generation had outgrown her. She had cherished him fondly, read him fairy stories, and told him about the uncle who died of hiccoughs. But now little Johann was no longer small. He was a lad of fifteen years, to whom, despite his lack of strength, she could no longer be of much service; and with his mother her relations had not for a long time been on a very comfortable footing. She had never been able to think of this lady, who had entered the family so much later than herself, as a proper Buddenbrook; and of late she had begun, with the freedom of an old servant, to arrogate to herself exaggerated authority. She stirred up dissension in the household by this or that encroachment; the position became untenable; there were disagreements—and though Frau Permaneder made an impassioned plea in her behalf, as for the old house and the furniture, old Ida had to go.

She wept bitterly when the hour came to bid little Johann farewell. He put his arms about her and embraced her. Then, with his hands behind his back, resting his weight on one leg while the other poised on the tips of the toes, he watched her out of sight; his face wore the same brooding, introspective look with which he had stood at his father’s death-bed, and his grandmother’s bier, witnessed the breaking-up of the great household, and shared in so many events of the same kind, though of lesser outward significance. The departure of old Ida belonged to the same category as other events with which he was already familiar: breakings-up, closings, endings, disintegrations—he had seen them all. Such events did not disturb him—they had never disturbed him. But he would lift his head, with the curling light-brown hair, inflate one delicate nostril, and it was as if he cautiously sniffed the air about him, expecting to perceive that odour, that strange and yet familiar odour which, at his grandmother’s bier, not all the scent of the flowers had been able to disguise.

When Frau Permaneder visited her sister-in-law, she would draw her nephew to her and tell him of the Buddenbrook family past, and of that future for which, next to the mercy of God, they would have to thank little Johann. The more depressing the present appeared, the more she strove to depict the elegance of the life that went on in the houses of her parents and grandparents; and she would tell Hanno how his great-grandfather had driven all over the country with his carriage and four horses. One day she had a severe attack of cramps in the stomach because Friederike, Henriette, and Pfiffi had asserted that the Hagenströms were the crême de la crême of town society.

Bad news came of Christian. His marriage seemed not to have improved his health. He had become more and more subject to uncanny delusions and morbid hallucinations, until finally his wife had acted upon the advice of a physician and had him put into an institution. He was unhappy there, and wrote pathetic letters to his relatives, expressive of a fervent desire to leave the establishment, where, it seemed, he was none too well treated. But they kept him shut up, and it was probably the best thing for him. It also put his wife in a position to continue her former independent existence without prejudice to her status as a married woman or to the practical advantages accruing from her marriage.