Buddenbrooks Chapter One

Senator Buddenbrook followed the two gentlemen, old Dr. Grabow and young Dr. Langhals, out of the Frau Consul’s bed-chamber into the breakfast-room and closed the door.

“May I ask you to give me a moment, gentlemen?” he said, and led them up the steps, through the corridor, and into the landscape-room, where, on account of the raw, damp weather, the stove was already burning. “You will understand my anxiety,” he said. “Sit down and tell me something reassuring, if possible.”

“Zounds, my dear Senator,” answered Dr. Grabow, leaning back comfortably, his chin in his neck-cloth, his hat-brim propped in both hands against his stomach. Dr. Langhals put his top-hat down on the carpet beside him and regarded his hands, which were exceptionally small and covered with hair. He was a heavy dark man with a pointed beard, a pompadour hair-cut, beautiful eyes, and a vain expression.

“There is positively no reason for serious disquiet at present,” Dr. Grabow went on. “When we take into consideration our honoured patient’s powers of resistance—my word, I think, as an old and tried counsellor, I ought to know what that resistance is—it is simply astonishing, for her years, I must say.”

“Yes, precisely: for her years,” said the Senator, uneasily, twisting his moustaches.

“I don’t say,” went on Dr. Grabow, in his gentle voice, “that your dear Mother will be walking out to-morrow. You can tell that by looking at her, of course. There is no denying that the inflammation has taken a disappointing turn in the last twenty-four hours. The chill yesterday afternoon did not please me at all, and to-day there is actually pain in the side. And some fever—oh, nothing to speak of, but still—In short, my dear Senator, we shall probably have to reckon with the troublesome fact that the lung is slightly affected.”

“Inflammation of the lungs then?” asked the Senator, and looked from one physician to the other.

“Yes—pneumonia,” said Dr. Langhals, with a solemn and correct bow.

“A slight inflammation, however, and confined to the right side,” answered the family physician. “We will do our best to localize it”

“Then there is ground for serious concern, after all?” The Senator sat quite still and looked the speaker full in the face.

“Concern—oh, we must be concerned to limit the affection. We must ease the cough, and go at the fever energetically. The quinine will see to that. And by the by, my dear Senator, let me warn you against feeling alarm over single symptoms, you know. If the difficulty in breathing increases, or there should be a little delirium in the night, or a good deal of discharge to-morrow—a sort of rusty-looking mucous, with a little blood in it—well, all that is to be expected, entirely regular and normal. Do reassure dear Madame Permaneder on this point too—she is nursing the patient with such devotion.—How is she feeling? I quite forgot to ask how she has been, in the last few days.”

“She is about as usual,” the Senator said “I have not heard of anything new. She is not taking much thought for her own condition, these days—”

“Of course, of course. And, apropos: your sister needs rest, especially at night, and Mamsell Severin has not time to give her all the rest she needs. What about a nurse, my dear Senator? Why not have one of our good Grey Sisters, in whom you feel such an interest? The Mother Superior would be glad to send you one.”

“You consider it necessary?”

“I am only suggesting it. The sisters are invaluable—their experience and calmness are always so soothing to the patient, especially in an illness like this, where there is a succession of disquieting symptoms. Well—let me repeat, no anxiety, my dear Senator. And we shall see, we shall see. We will have another talk this evening.”

“Positively,” said Dr. Langhals, took his hat and got up, with his colleague. But the Senator had not finished: he had another question, another test to make.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “one word more. My brother Christian is a nervous man. He cannot stand much. Do you advise me to send him word? Should I suggest to him to come home?”

“Your brother Christian is not in town?”

“No, he is in Hamburg—for a short time, on business, I understand.”

Dr. Grabow gave his colleague a glance. Then he laughingly shook the Senator’s hand and said, “Well, we’ll let him attend to his business in peace. No use upsetting him unnecessarily. If any change comes which seems to make it advisable, to quiet the patient, or to raise her spirits—well, there is plenty of time still, plenty of time.”

The gentlemen traversed the pillared hall and stood on the steps awhile, talking about other matters: politics, and the agitations and changes due to the war just then ended.

“Well, good times will be coming now, eh, Herr Senator? Money in the country, and fresh confidence everywhere.”

And the Senator partially agreed with him. He said that the grain trade with Russia had been greatly stimulated since the outbreak. of war, and mentioned the dimensions to which the import trade in oats had attained—though the profit, it was true, had been very unevenly divided.

The physicians took their leave, and Senator Buddenbrook turned to go back to the sick-room. He revolved what Dr. Grabow had said. He had spoken with reserve—he gave the impression of avoiding anything definite. The single plain word was “inflammation of the lungs”; which became no more reassuring after Dr. Langhals added the scientific terminology. Pneumonia—at the Frau Consul’s age. The fact that there were two physicians coming and going was in itself disquieting. Grabow had arranged that very unobtrusively. He intended to retire before long, and as young Dr. Langhals would then be taking over the practice, he, Dr. Grabow, would be pleased if he might bring him in now and again.

When the Senator entered the darkened room, his mien appeared alert and his bearing energetic. He was used to hiding his cares and weariness under an air of calmness and poise; and the mask glided over his features as he opened the door, almost as though by a single act of will.

Frau Permaneder sat by the high bed, the hangings of which were thrust back, and held her mother’s hand. The old lady was propped up on pillows. She turned her head as her son came in, and looked searchingly with her pale blue eyes into his face—a look of calm self-control, yet of deliberate insistence. Coming as it did, slightly sidewise, there was almost something sinister about it, too. Two red spots stood out upon the pallor of her cheeks, but there were no signs of weakness or exhaustion. The old lady was very wide awake, more so in fact than those around her—for, after all, she was the person most concerned. And she mistrusted this illness; she was not at all disposed to lie down and let it have its own way.

“What did they say, Thomas?” she asked in a brisk, decided voice which made her cough directly. She tried to keep the cough behind her closed lips, but it burst out and made her put her hand to her side.

“They said,” answered the Senator, when the spasm was over, stroking her hand, “they said that our dear, good mother will be up again in a few days. The wretched cough is responsible for your lying here. The lung is of course slightly affected—it is not exactly inflammation,” he hastened to say, as he saw her narrowing gaze, “but even if it were, that needn’t necessarily be so bad. It might be much worse,” he finished. “In short, the lung is somewhat irritated, and they may be right—where is Mamsell Severin?”

“Gone to the chemist’s,” said Frau Permaneder.

“Yes, you see. She has gone to the chemist’s again, and you look as though you might go to sleep any minute, Tony. No, it isn’t good enough. If only for a day or so, we should have a nurse in, don’t you think so? I will find out if my Mother Superior up at the Grey Sisters has any one free.”

“Thomas,” said the Frau Consul, this time in a more cautious voice, so as not to let loose another cough, “believe me, you cause a good deal of feeling by your protection of the Catholic order against the black Protestant Sisters. You have shown the Catholics a distinct preference. Pastor Pringsheim complained to me about it very strenuously a little time ago.”

“Well, he needn’t. I am convinced that the Grey Sisters are more faithful, devoted, and self-sacrificing than the Black ones are. The Protestants aren’t the real thing. They all marry the first chance they get. They are worldly, egotistical, and ordinary, while the Grey Sisters are perfectly disinterested. I am sure they are much nearer Heaven. And they are better for us for the very reason that they owe me some gratitude. What should we have done without Sister Leandra when Hanno had convulsions? I only hope she is free!”

And Sister Leandra came. She put down her cloak and little handbag, took off the grey veil which she wore on the street over her white one, and went softly about her work, in her gentle, friendly way, the rosary at her waist clicking as she moved. She remained a day and a night with the querulous, not always patient sufferer, and then withdrew, almost apologetic over the human weakness that enforced a little repose. She was replaced by another sister, but came back again after she had slept.

The Frau Consul required constant attendance at her bedside. The worse her condition grew, the more she bent all her thoughts and all her energies upon her illness, for which she felt a naïve hatred. Nearly all her life she had been a woman of the world, with a quiet, native, and permanent love of life and good living. Yet she had filled her latter years with piety and charitable deeds: largely out of loyalty toward her dead husband, but also, perhaps, by reason of an unconscious impulse which bade her make her peace with Heaven for her own strong vitality, and induce it to grant her a gentle death despite the tenacious clutch she had always had on life. But the gentle death was not to be hers. Despite many a sore trial, her form was quite unbowed, her eyes still clear. She still loved to set a good table, to dress well and richly, to ignore events that were unpleasant, and to share with complacency in the high regard that was everywhere felt for her son. And now this illness, this inflammation of the lungs, had attacked her erect form without any previous warning, without any preparation to soften the blow. There had been no spiritual anticipation, none of that mining and sapping of the forces which slowly, painfully estranges us from life and rouses in us the sweet longing for a better world, for the end, for peace. No, the old Frau Consul, despite the spiritual courses of her latter years, felt scarce prepared to die; and she was filled with agony of spirit at the thought that if this were indeed the end, then this illness, of itself, in awful haste, in the last hour, must, with bodily torments, break down her spirit and bring her to surrender.

She prayed much; but almost more she watched, as often as she was conscious, over her own condition: felt her pulse, took her temperature, and fought her cough. But the pulse was poor, the temperature mounted after falling a little, and she passed from chills to fever and delirium; her cough increased, bringing up a blood-impregnated mucous, and she was alarmed by the difficulty she had in breathing. It was accounted for by the fact that now not only a lobe of the right lung, but the whole right lung, was affected, with even distinct traces of a process in the left, which Dr. Langhals, looking at his nails, called hepatization, and about which Dr. Grabow said nothing at all. The fever wasted the patient relentlessly. The digestion failed. Slowly, inexorably, the decline of strength went on.

She followed it. She took eagerly, whenever she could, the concentrated nourishment which they gave her. She knew the hours for her medicines better than the nurse; and she was so absorbed in watching the progress of her case that she hardly spoke to any one but the physicians, and displayed actual interest only when talking with them. Callers had been admitted in the beginning, and the old ladies of her social circle, pastors’ wives and members of the Jerusalem evenings, came to see her; but she received them with apathy and soon dismissed them. Her relatives felt the difference in the old lady’s greeting: it was almost disdainful, as though she were saying to them: “You can’t do anything for me.” Even when little Hanno came, in a good hour, she only stroked his cheek and turned away. Her manner said more plainly than words: “Children, you are all very good—but—perhaps—I may be dying!” She received the two physicians, on the other hand, with very lively interest, and went into the details of her condition.

One day the Gerhardt ladies appeared, the descendants of Paul Gerhardt. They came in their mantles, with their flat shepherdess hats and their provision-baskets, from visiting the poor, and could not be prevented from seeing their sick friend. They were left alone with her, and God only knows what they said as they sat at her bedside. But when they departed, their eyes and their faces were more gentle, more radiant, more blissfully remote than ever; while the Frau Consul lay within, with just such eyes and just such an expression, quite still, quite peaceful, more peaceful than ever before; her breath came very softly and at long intervals, and she was visibly declining from weakness to weakness. Frau Permaneder murmured a strong word in the wake of the Gerhardt ladies, and sent at once for the physicians. The two gentlemen had barely entered the sick-chamber when a surprising alteration took place in the patient. She stirred, she moved, she almost sat up. The sight of her trusted and faithful professional advisers brought her back to earth at a bound. She put out her hands to them and began: “Welcome, gentlemen. To-day, in the course of the day—”

The illness had attacked both lungs—of that there was no more room for doubt.

“Yes, my dear Senator,” Dr. Grabow said, and took Thomas Buddenbrook by the hand, “it is now both lungs—we have not been able to prevent it. That is always serious, you know as well as I do. I should not attempt to deceive you. No matter what the age of the patient, the condition is serious; and if you ask me again to-day whether in my opinion your brother should be written to—or perhaps a telegram would be better—I should hesitate to deter you from it. How is he, by the way? A good fellow, Christian; I’ve always liked him immensely.—But for Heaven’s sake, my dear Senator, don’t draw any exaggerated conclusions from what I say. There is no immediate danger—I am foolish to take the word in my mouth! But still—under the circumstances, you know, one must reckon with the unexpected. We are very well satisfied with your mother as a patient. She helps all she can, she doesn’t leave us in the lurch; no, on my word, she is an incomparable patient! So there is still great hope, my dear sir. And we must hope for the best.”

But there is a moment when hope becomes something artificial and insincere. There is a change in the patient. He alters—there is something strange about him—he is not as he was in life. He speaks, but we do not know how to reply: what he says is strange, it seems to cut off his retreat back to life, it condemns him to death. And when that moment comes, even if he is our dearest upon this earth, we do not know how to wish him back. If we could bid him arise and walk, he would be as frightful as one risen from his coffin.

Dreadful symptoms of the coming dissolution showed themselves, even though the organs, still in command of a tenacious will, continued to function. It had now been weeks since Frau Consul first took to her bed with a cold; and she began to have bed sores. They would not heal, and grew worse and worse. She could not sleep, because of pain, coughing and shortness of breath, and also because she herself clung to consciousness with all her might. Only for minutes at a time did she lose herself in fever; but now she began, even when she was conscious, to talk to people who had long been dead. One afternoon, in the twilight, she said suddenly, in a loud, fervent, anxious voice, “Yes, my dear Jean, I am coming!” And the immediacy of the reply was such that one almost thought to hear the voice of the deceased Consul calling her.

Christian arrived. He came from Hamburg, where he had been, he said, on business. He only stopped a short time in the sick-room, and left it, his eyes roving wildly, rubbing his forehead, and saying “It’s frightful—it’s frightful—I can’t stand it any longer.”

Pastor Pringsheim came, measured Sister Leandra with a chilling glance, and prayed with a beautifully modulated voice at the bedside.

Then came the brief “lightening”: the flickering up of the dying flame. The fever slackened; there was a deceptive return of strength, and a few plain, hopeful words, that brought tears of joy to the eyes of the watchers at the bedside.

“Children, we shall keep her; you’ll see, we shall keep her after all!” cried Thomas Buddenbrook. “She will be with us next Christmas!”

But even in the next night, shortly after Gerda and her husband had gone to bed, they were summoned back to Meng Street by Frau Permaneder, for the mother was struggling with death. A cold rain was failing, and a high wind drove it against the windowpanes.

The bed-chamber, as the Senator and his wife entered it, was lighted by two sconces burning on the table; and both physicians were present. Christian too had been summoned from his room and sat with his back to the bed and his forehead bowed in his hands. They had sent for the dying woman’s brother, Justus Kröger, and he would shortly be here. Frau Permaneder and Erica were sobbing softly at the foot of the bed. Sister Leandra and Mamsell Severin had nothing more to do, and stood gazing in sadness on the face of the dying.

The Frau Consul lay on her back, supported by a quantity of pillows. With both her blue-veined hands, once so beautiful, now so emaciated, she ceaselessly stroked the coverlet in trembling haste. Her head in the white nightcap moved from side to side with dreadful regularity. Her lips were drawn inward, and opened and closed with a snap at every tortured effort to breathe, while the sunken eyes roved back and forth or rested with an envious look on those who stood about her bed, up and dressed and able to breathe. They were alive, they belonged to life; but they could help her no more than this, to make the sacrifice that consisted in watching her die. … And the night wore on, without any change.

“How long can it go on, like this?” asked Thomas Buddenbrook, in a low tone, drawing Dr. Grabow away to the bottom of the room, while Dr. Langhals was undertaking some sort of injection to give relief to the patient. Frau Permaneder, her handkerchief in her hand, followed her brother.

“I can’t tell, my dear Senator,” answered Dr. Grabow. “Your dear mother may be released in the next few minutes, or she may live for hours. It is a process of strangulation: an edema—”

“I know,” said Frau Permaneder, and nodded while the tears ran down her cheeks. “It often happens in cases of inflammation of the lungs—a sort of watery fluid forms, and when it gets very bad the patient cannot breathe any more. Yes, I know.”

The Senator, his hands folded, looked over at the bed.

“How frightfully she must suffer,” he whispered.

“No,” Dr. Grabow said, just as softly, but in a tone of authority, while his long, mild countenance wrinkled more than ever. “That is a mistake, my dear friend, believe me. The consciousness is very clouded. These are largely reflex motions which you see; depend upon it.” And Thomas answered: “God grant it”—but a child could have seen from the Frau Consul’s eyes that she was entirely conscious and realized everything.

They took their places again. Consul Kröger came and sat bowed over his cane at the bedside, with reddened eyelids.

The movements of the patient increased. This body, delivered over to death, was possessed by a terrible unrest, an unspeakable craving, an abandonment of helplessness, from head to foot. The pathetic, imploring eyes now closed with the rustling movement of the head from side to side, now opened with a heart-breaking expression, so wide that the little veins of the eyeballs stood out blood-red. And she was still conscious!

A little after three, Christian got up. “I can’t stand it any more,” he said, and went out, limping, and supporting himself on the furniture on his way to the door. Erica Weinschenk and Mamsell Severin had fallen asleep to the monotonous sound of the raucous breathing, and sat rosy with slumber on their chairs.

About four it grew much worse. They lifted the patient and wiped the perspiration from her brow. Her breathing threatened to stop altogether. “Let me sleep,” she managed to say. “Give me a sleeping-draught.” Alas, they could give her nothing to make her sleep.

Suddenly she began again to reply to voices which the others could not hear. “Yes, Jean, not much longer now.” And then, “Yes, dear Clara, I am coming.”

The struggle began afresh. Was this a wrestling with death? Ah, no, for it had become a wrestling with life for death, on the part of the dying woman. “I want—,” she panted, “I want—I cannot—let me sleep! Have mercy, gentlemen—let me sleep!”

Frau Permaneder sobbed aloud as she listened, and Thomas groaned softly, clutching his head a moment with both hands. But the physicians knew their duty: they were obliged, under all circumstances, to preserve life just as long as possible; and a narcotic would have effected an unresisting and immediate giving-up of the ghost. Doctors were not made to bring death into the world, but to preserve life at any cost. There was a religious and moral basis for this law, which they had known once, though they did not have it in mind at the moment. So they strengthened the heart action by various devices, and even improved the breathing by causing the patient to retch.

By five the struggle was at its height. The Frau Consul, erect in convulsions, with staring eyes, thrust wildly about her with her arms as though trying to clutch after some support or to reach the hands which she felt stretching toward her. She was answering constantly in every direction to voices which she alone heard, and which evidently became more numerous and urgent. Not only her dead husband and daughter, but her parents, parents-in-law, and other relatives who had passed before her into death, seemed to summon her; and she called them all by name—though the names were some of them not familiar to her children. “Yes,” she cried, “yes, I am coming now—at once—a moment—I cannot—oh, let me sleep!”

At half-past five there was a moment of quiet. And then over her aged and distorted features there passed a look of ineffable joy, a profound and quivering tenderness; like lightning she stretched up her arms and cried out, with an immediate suddenness swift as a blow, so that one felt there was not a second’s space between what she heard and what she answered, with an expression of absolute submission and a boundless and fervid devotion: “Here I am!” and parted.

They were all amazed. What was it? Who had called her? To whose summons had she responded thus instantly?

Some one drew back the curtains and put out the candles, and Dr. Grabow gently closed the eyes of the dead.

They all shivered in the autumn dawn that filled the room with its sallow light. Sister Leandra covered the mirror of the toilet table with a cloth.