Buddenbrooks Chapter Six

In the autumn Dr. Langhals said, making play like a woman with his beautiful eyes: “It is the nerves, Senator; the nerves are to blame for everything. And once in a while the circulation is not what it should be. May I venture to make a suggestion? You need another little rest. These few Sundays by the sea, during the summer, haven’t amounted to much, of course. It’s the end of September, Travemünde is still open, there are still a few people there. Drive over, Senator, and sit on the beach a little. Two or three weeks will do you a great deal of good.”

And Thomas Buddenbrook said “yes” and “amen.” But when he told his family of the arrangement, Christian suggested going with him.

“I’ll go with you, Thomas,” he said, quite simply. “You don’t mind, I suppose.” And the Senator, though he did mind very much, said “yes” and “amen” to this arrangement as well.

Christian was now more than ever master of his own time. His fluctuating health had constrained him to give up his last undertaking, the champagne and spirit agency. The man who used to come and sit on his sofa and nod at him in the twilight had happily not recurred of late. But the misery in the side had, if anything, grown worse, and added to this was a whole list of other infirmities of which Christian kept the closest watch, and which he described in all companies, with his nose wrinkled up. He often suffered from that long-standing dread of paralysis of the tongue, throat, and esophagus, even of the extremities and of the brain—of which there were no actual symptoms, but the fear in itself was almost worse. He told in detail how, one day when he was making tea, he had held the lighted match not over the spirit-lamp, but over the open bottle of methylated spirit instead; so that not only himself, but the people in his own and the adjacent buildings, nearly went up in flames. And he dwelt in particular detail, straining every resource he had at his command to make himself perfectly clear, upon a certain ghastly anomaly which he had of late observed in himself. It was this: that on certain days, i.e., under certain weather conditions, and in certain states of mind, he could not see an open window without having a horrible and inexplicable impulse to jump out It was a mad and almost uncontrollable desire, a sort of desperate foolhardiness. The family were dining on Sunday in Fishers’ Lane, and he described how he had to summon all his powers, and crawl on hands and knees to the window to shut it. At this point everybody shrieked; his audience rebelled, and would listen no more.

He told these and similar things with a certain horrible satisfaction. But the thing about himself which he did not know, which he never studied and described, but which none the less grew worse and worse, was his singular lack of tact. He told in the family circle anecdotes of such a nature that the club was the only possible place for them. And even his sense of personal modesty seemed to be breaking down. He was on friendly terms with his sister-in-law, Gerda. But when he displayed to her the beautiful weave and texture of his English socks, he did not stop at that, but rolled up his wide, checkered trouser-leg to far above the knee: “Look,” he said, wrinkling his nose in distress: “Look how thin I’m getting. Isn’t it striking and unusual?” And there he sat, sadly gazing at his crooked, bony leg and the gaunt knee visible through his white woollen drawers.

His mercantile activity then, was a thing of the past. But such hours as he did not spend at the club he liked to fill in with one sort of occupation or another; and he would proudly point out that he had never actually ceased to work. He extended his knowledge of languages and embarked upon a study of Chinese—though this was for the sake of acquiring knowledge, simply, with no practical purpose in view. He worked at it industriously for two weeks. He was also, just at this time, occupied with a project of enlarging an English-German dictionary which he had found inadequate. But he really needed a little change, and it would be better too for the Senator to have somebody with him; so he did not allow his business to keep him in town.

The two brothers drove out together to the sea along the turnpike, which was nothing but a puddle. The rain drummed on the carriage-top, and they hardly spoke. Christian’s eyes roved hither and yon; he was as if listening to uncanny noises. Thomas sat muffled in his cloak, shivering, gazing with bloodshot eyes, his moustaches stiffly sticking out beyond his white cheeks. They drove up to the Kurhouse in the afternoon, their wheels grating in the wet gravel. Old Broker Gosch sat in the glass verandah, drinking rum punch. He stood up, whistling through his teeth, and they all sat down together to have a little something warm while the trunks were being carried up.

Herr Gosch was a late guest at the cure, and there were a few other people as well: an English family, a Dutch maiden lady, and a Hamburg bachelor, all of them presumably taking their rest before table-d’hôte, for it was like the grave everywhere but for the sound of the rain. Let them sleep! As for Herr Gosch, he was not in the habit of sleeping in the daytime. He was glad enough to get a few hours’ sleep at night. He was far from well; he was taking a late cure for the benefit of this trembling which he suffered from in all his limbs. Hang it, he could hardly hold his glass of grog; and more often than not he could not write at all—so that the translation of Lope de Vega got on but slowly. He was in a very low mood indeed, and even his curses lacked relish. “Let it go hang!” was his constant phrase, which he repeated on every occasion and often on none at all.

And the Senator? How was he feeling? How long were the gentlemen thinking of stopping?

Oh, Dr. Langhals had sent him out on account of his nerves. He had obeyed orders, of course, despite the frightful weather—what doesn’t one do out of fear of one’s physician? He was really feeling more or less miserable, and they would probably remain till there was a little improvement.

“Yes, I’m pretty wretched too,” said Christian, irritated at Thomas’s speaking only of himself. He was about to fetch out his repertoire—the nodding man, the spirit-bottle, the open window—when the Senator interrupted him by going to engage the rooms.

The rain did not stop. It washed away the earth, it danced upon the sea, which was driven back by the southwest wind and left the beaches bare. Everything was shrouded in grey. The steamers went by like wraiths and vanished on the dim horizon.

They met the strange guests only at table. The Senator, in mackintosh and goloshes, went walking with Gosch; Christian drank Swedish punch with the barmaid in the pastry-shop.

Two or three times in the afternoon it looked as though the sun were coming out; and a few acquaintances from town appeared—people who enjoyed a holiday away from their families: Senator Dr. Gieseke, Christian’s friend, and Consul Peter Döhlmann, who looked very ill indeed, and was killing himself with Hunyadi-Janos water. The gentlemen sat together in their overcoats, under the awnings of the pastry-shop, opposite the empty bandstand, drinking their coffee, digesting their five courses, and talking desultorily as they gazed over the empty garden.

The news of the town—the last high water, which had gone into the cellars and been so deep that in the lower part of the town people had to go about in boats; a fire in the dockyard sheds; a senatorial election—these were the topics of conversation. Alfred Lauritzen, of the firm of Stürmann & Lauritzen, tea, coffee, and spice merchants, had been elected, and Senator Buddenbrook had not approved of the choice. He sat smoking cigarettes, wrapped in his cloak, almost silent except for a few remarks on this particular subject. One thing was certain, he said, and that was that he had not voted for Herr Lauritzen. Lauritzen was an honest fellow and a good man of business. There was no doubt of that; but he was middle-class, respectable middle-class. His father had fished herrings out of the barrel and handed them across the counter to servant-maids with his own hands—and now they had in the Senate the proprietor of a retail business. His, Thomas Buddenbrook’s grandfather had disowned his eldest son for “marrying a shop”; but that was in the good old days. “The standard is being lowered,” he said. “The social level is not so high as it was; the Senate is being democratized, my dear Gieseke, and that is no good. Business ability is one thing—but it is not everything. In my view we should demand something more. Alfred Lauritzen, with his big feet and his boatswain’s face—it is offensive to me to think of him in the Senate-house. It offends something in me, I don’t know what. It goes against my sense of form—it is a piece of bad taste, in short.”

Senator Gieseke demurred. He was rather piqued by this expression of opinion. After all, he himself was only the son of a Fire Commissioner. No, the labourer was worthy of his hire. That was what being a republican meant. “You ought not to smoke so much, Buddenbrook,” he ended. “You won’t get any sea air.”

“I’ll stop now,” said Thomas Buddenbrook, flung away the end of his cigarette, and closed his eyes.

The conversation dragged on; the rain set in again and veiled the prospect. They began to talk about the latest town scandal—about P. Philipp Kassbaum, who had been falsifying bills of exchange and now sat behind locks and bars. No one felt outraged over the dishonesty: they spoke of it as an act of folly, laughed a bit, and shrugged their shoulders. Senator Dr. Gieseke said that the convicted man had not lost his spirits. He had asked for a mirror, it seemed, there being none in his cell. “I’ll need a looking-glass,” he was reported to have said: “I shall be here for some time.” He had been, like Christian and Dr. Gieseke, a pupil of the lamented Marcellus Stengel.

They all laughed again at this, through their noses, without a sign of feeling. Siegismund Gosch ordered another grog in a tone or voice that was as good as saying, “What’s the use of living?” Consul Döhlmann sent for a bottle of brandy. Christian felt inclined to more Swedish punch, so Dr. Gieseke ordered some for both of them. Before long Thomas Buddenbrook began to smoke again.

And the idle, cynical, indifferent talk went on, heavy with the food they had eaten, the wine they drank, and the damp that depressed their spirits. They talked about business, the business of each one of those present; but even this subject roused no great enthusiasm.

“Oh, there’s nothing very good about mine,” said Thomas Buddenbrook heavily, and leaned his head against the back of his chair with an air of disgust.

“Well, and you, Döhlmann,” asked Senator Gieseke, and yawned. “You’ve been devoting yourself entirely to brandy, eh?”

“The chimney can’t smoke, unless there’s a fire,” the Consul retorted. “I look into the office every few days. Short hairs are soon combed.”

“And Strunck and Hagenström have all the business in their hands anyhow,” the broker said morosely, with his elbows sprawled out on the table and his wicked old grey head in his hands.

“Oh, nothing can compete with a dung-heap, for smell,” Döhlmann said, with a deliberately coarse pronunciation, which must have depressed everybody’s spirits the more by its hopeless cynicism. “Well, and you, Buddenbrook—what are you doing now? Nothing, eh?”

“No,” answered Christian, “I can’t, any more.” And without more ado, having perceived the mood of the hour, he proceeded to accentuate it. He began, his hat on one side, to talk about his Valparaiso office and Johnny Thunderstorm. “Well, in that heat—‘Good God! Work, Sir? No, Sir. As you see, Sir.’ And they puffed their cigarette-smoke right in his face. Good God!” It was, as always, an incomparable expression of dissolute, impudent, lazy good-nature. His brother sat motionless.

Herr Gosch tried to lift his glass to his thin lips, put it back on the table again, cursing through his shut teeth, and struck the offending arm with his fist. Then he lifted the glass once more, and spilled half its contents, draining the remainder furiously at a gulp.

“Oh, you and your shaking, Gosch!” Peter Döhlmann exclaimed. “Why don’t you just let yourself go, like me? I’ll croak if I don’t drink my bottle every day—I’ve got as far as that; and I’ll croak if I do. How would you feel if you couldn’t get rid of your dinner, not a single day—I mean, after you’ve got it in your stomach?” And he favoured them with some repulsive details of his condition, to which Christian listened with dreadful interest, wrinkling his nose as far as it could go and countering with a brief and forcible account of his “misery.”

It rained harder than ever. It came straight down in sheets and filled the silence of the Kurgarten with its ceaseless, forlorn, and desolate murmur.

“Yes, life’s pretty rotten,” said Senator Gieseke. He had been drinking heavily.

“I’d just as lief quit,” said Christian.

“Let it go hang,” said Herr Gosch.

“There comes Fike Dahlbeck,” said Senator Gieseke. The proprietress of the cow-stalls, a heavy, bold-faced woman in the forties, came by with a pail of milk and smiled at the gentlemen.

Senator Gieseke let his eyes rove after her.

“What a bosom,” he said. Consul Döhlmann added a lewd witticism, with the result that all the gentlemen laughed once more, through their noses.

The waiter was summoned.

“I’ve finished the bottle, Schröder,” Said Consul Döhlmann. “May as well pay—we have to some time or other. You, Christian? Gieseke pays for you, eh?”

Senator Buddenbrook roused himself at this. He had been sitting there, hardly speaking, wrapped in his cloak, his hands in his lap and his cigarette in the corner of his mouth. Now he suddenly started up and said sharply, “Have you no money with you, Christian? Then I’ll end it to you.”

They put up their umbrellas and emerged from their shelter to take a little stroll.

Frau Permaneder came out once in a while to see her brother. They would walk as far as Sea-Gull Rock or the little Ocean Temple; and here Tony Buddenbrook, for some reason or other, was always seized by a mood of vague excitement and rebellion. She would repeatedly emphasize the independence and equality of all human beings, summarily repudiate all distinctions of rank or class, use some very strong language on the subject or privilege and arbitrary power, and demand in set terms that merit should receive its just reward. And then she talked about her own life. She talked well, she entertained her brother capitally. This child of fortune, so long as she walked upon this earth, had never once needed to suppress an emotion, to choke down or swallow anything she felt. She had never received in silence either the blows or the caresses of fate. And whatever she had received, of joy or sorrow, she had straightway given forth again, in a flow of childish, self-important trivialities. Her digestion was not perfect, it is true. But her heart—ah, her heart was light, her spirit was free; freer than she herself comprehended. She was not consumed by the inexpressible. No sorrow weighed her down, or strove to speak but could not. And thus it was that her past left no mark upon her. She knew that she had led a troubled life—she knew it, that is, but at bottom she never believed in it herself. She recognized it as a fact, since everybody else believed it—and she utilized it to her own advantage, talking of it and making herself great with it in her own eyes and those of others. With outraged virtue and dignity she would call by name all those persons who had played havoc with her life and, in consequence, with the prestige of the Buddenbrook family; the list had grown long with time: Teary Trietschke! Grünlich! Permaneder! Tiburtius! Weinschenk! the Hagenströms! the State Attorney! Severin!—“What filoux, all of them, Thomas! God will punish them—that is my firm belief.”

Twilight was falling as they came up to the Ocean Temple, for the autumn was far advanced. They stood on one of the little chambers facing the bay—it smelled of wood, like the bathing cabins at the Kur, and its walls were scribbled over with mottoes, initials, hearts and rhymes. They stood and looked out over the dripping slope across the narrow, stony strip of beach, out to the turbid, restless sea.

“Great waves,” said Thomas Buddenbrook. “How they come on and break, come on and break, one after another, endlessly, idly, empty and vast! And yet, like all the simple, inevitable things, they soothe, they console, after all. I have learned to love the sea more and more. Once, I think, I cared more for the mountains—because they lay farther off. Now I do not long for them. They would only frighten and abash me. They are too capricious, too manifold, too anomalous—I know I should feel myself vanquished in their presence. What sort of men prefer the monotony of the sea? Those, I think, who have looked so long and deeply into the complexities of the spirit, that they ask of outward things merely that they should possess one quality above all: simplicity. It is true that in the mountains one clambers briskly about, while beside the sea one sits quietly on the shore. This is a difference, but a superficial one. The real difference is in the look with which one pays homage to the one and to the other. It is a strong, challenging gaze, full of enterprise, that can soar from peak to peak; but the eyes that rest on the wide ocean and are soothed by the sight of its waves rolling on forever, mystically, relentlessly, are those that are already wearied by looking too deep into the solemn perplexities of life.—Health and illness, that is the difference. The man whose strength is unexhausted climbs boldly up into the lofty multiplicity of the mountain heights. But it is when one is worn out with turning one’s eyes inward upon the bewildering complexity of the human heart, that one finds peace in resting them on the wideness of the sea.”

Frau Permaneder was silent and uncomfortable,—as simple people are when a profound truth is suddenly expressed in the middle of a conventional conversation. People don’t say such things, she thought to herself; and looked out to sea so as not to show her feeling by meeting his eyes. Then, in the silence, to make amends for an embarrassment which she could not help, she drew his arm through hers.