THE BRIDE OF DREAMS
BY FREDERIK VAN EEDEN
AUTHORIZED TRANSLATION BY MELLIE VON AUW
As one approaches my little city from the sea on a summer's day, one sees only the tall, round clump of trees on the ramparts and, overtopping it, the old bell-tower with its fantastically shaped and ornamented stories and dome-top of deep cobalt blue. The land to either side is barely visible, and the green foliage flooded with pale sunshine seems to drift in the sun-mist on the grayish yellow waters. It is a dreamy little town, that once in Holland's prime had a short-lived illusion of worldly grandeur. Then gaily-rigged vessels embellished with gilded carvings and flaunting flags entered the little harbor, fishing boats, merchant vessels and battleships. The inhabitants built fine houses with crow-stepped gables and sculptured faades and collected in them exotic treasures, furniture, plate and china. Cannon stood on the ramparts and the citizens were filled with a sense of their importance and power as people of some authority in the world. They bore an escutcheon and were proud of it, they had their portraits painted in gorgeous attire, they gave the things their terse and pretty names, and they spoke picturesquely and gallantly as befits people leading a flourishing elemental life.
Now all this is long past. The little city no longer lives a life of its own, but quietly follows in the wake of the great world-ship. In the harbor a few fishing smacks, a market ship, a couple of sailing yachts and the steamboat are still anchored. The fine houses are curiosities for the strangers, and the china, the furniture and paintings may be viewed in the museum for a fee.
There is order, and peace, and prosperity too; the streets and houses look clean and well kept. But it is no longer a vigorous personal life; the color and the bloom have faded, the splendor and pageant are gone. It still lives, but as an unimportant part of a greater life. Its charm lies only in the memory of former days. It is lovely through its dream life, through the unreal phantasy of its past. All that constitutes its charm - the dark shadowy canals reflecting the light drawbridges, the pretty quaintly-lighted streets with the red brick gables, bluish gray stoops, chains and palings, the harbor with the little old tar and rope shops, the tall sombre elm trees on the ramparts - it all possesses only the accidental beauty of the faded. It can no longer, like a young and blooming creature, will to be beautiful. It is beautiful involuntarily, no longer as a piece of human life, but as a piece of nature. And its loveliness is pathetic through the afterglow of a brief blazing up of individual vivid splendor of life.
In this quite sphere, where life now flows on but lazily and reflectively as in a small tributary stream of, the great river, - I live, an old man, for the accomplishment of my last task.
I live obscurely amid the obscure. I do my best to escape notice, and have no notoriety whatsoever, not even as an eccentric.
I associate with the doctor and the notary is expected of me, and I also go to the club. It is known that I have an income and, besides, earn some money from a small nursery on the outskirts of the town, and by giving Italian lessons.
The rumors regarding my past have all quieted down, and people have grown accustomed to my foreign name - Muralto. They see me regularly taking the same walk along the sea dike to my nursery, and my gray felt hat and my white coat in summery weather are known as peculiarities of the town. When you read this, reader, I shall be buried, respectably and simply, with twelve hired mourners and the coach with black plumes of the second class, and a wreath from the burgomaster's wife, to whom I gave lessons; from the notary, who occasionally earned something through me; and from the orphanage because, as treasurer, I always kept the accounts in order.
This is as I wish it to be. When you read this my living personality may no longer stand in your way. My individual being may no longer engage your attention. I know how this would veil the truth for you. Never has man accepted new and lucid ideas from a contemporary unless he were an avowed and venerated prophet, that is to say, a man corrupted and lost. I will not let myself be corrupted and give myself up as lost, and yet I know that my thoughts are too great to be accepted from free conviction without slavishness by my living fellow-men. Therefore have I peace in this petty world under the heavy burden of my tremendous life. I did not confer it on myself and I have no choice. Were I to speak my mind freely and honestly, I should be either locked up or worshipped. I deserve neither one nor the other; but such is the nature of the people of this age - they cannot reject without hatred nor accept without slavishness. Thus I live in self-restraint and peace among the lowly.
But these pages are the doors of the cap of my suppressed life. Only by these writings do I keep the peace within and master the tumult.
It is a hard struggle; I am weary from it not from arousing, but from restraining my thoughts. For what I write must be clear and orderly and concise. Readers nowadays are impatient and easily bored, and crave excitement. And they are dulled too, and no longer hear so clearly the true ring of sincere conviction. Yet I have peace, for this will be read. It will strike the summits, and the social system of today is still built so that everything slowly spreads from the summits and penetrates to the very lowest layers.
Do you disagree, reader? Do you accept nothing on higher authority, but judge everything independently for yourself?
Then it is just you I need. Then you are on the summit and all the rest of mankind in ranged about or beneath you. All the rest of mankind accepts and believes on authority - but you do not. Then have I also written this expressly and solely for you. How lucky that at last it has fallen into your hands. Allow me to embrace you in thought, dear, precious, freely-judging and independently-thinking reader. You are such a treasure to me, such a find, that for the world I would not let you go or lose you.
Listen then, dear reader, with a little patience and some painstaking on your part. Sweet spoils are not won without exertion! You are sensible enough not to want to judge without having given faithful attention.
I write this for you because you do not want to act without understanding; because you are restless and dissatisfied, a seeker and lover of the unknown; because at last you have turned on your way to look for what so long has gently pushed and driven you; because your eyes are opened wider and are more intent on the prospect toward which everything seems to lead.
I write this for you, the refractory and rebellious who are tired of all slavery.
I write this for you, who feel that you have reached maturity and no longer want to be treated as a child, not even by fate.
I write this for you, the proud and the evil; yes, for the wantonly wicked who despises the meek and the just. I write this also for you, the earnestly good who wants to love his enemy, but cannot.
The complaisant and contented, the adjusters and compromisers, the advocates and flatters of God, those who shun anxiety and stop their ears against too blatant a truth - they had better read something else; there are plenty of pleasant and entertaining books for amusement.
And the slaves of reason, who tread in a circle around their stake as far as the cord of their logic reaches, they too cannot be my readers.
Only he who has overcome the word, who has forsaken the idolatry of the "true word" - he can read me with profit and understanding.
Listen, then: I am an old man proclaiming the glory of a new era. I am lonely and forsaken, but nevertheless I have a share in the great human world and the life of the gods.
I sit here serenely in my sombre, cool, old house, with its musty odor of old wood and memories of past generations. I look out upon the harbor and I hear the continuous murmur of the sea-breeze in the tall elms on the dike, and the screams of the gulls speaking of the vast and briny life of the sea. And yet, in the solitude of this quiet, forgotten life, I feel that I am mightier than the mightiest, a match for fate. I rule life; it shall bow to my wishes. I wrestle with the gods, even to the Most High. Sometimes I tremble, when a careless glance, with some semblance of deeper import, from one of the persons about me makes me think that a spark of this seething life within me has been discovered. But no one sees it, happily, nor knows me!
Had I told you this, (is it not so, dear reader, though you be ever so wise?), and I came not in a fiery chariot with a halo of glory and in dazzling raiment, but in my citizen's clothes, then after all you would undoubtedly have shrugged your shoulders and taken me for a poor fool.
But now I am a rich sage, because I write and hold my peace.
You are still a person, dear reader, but I have gone a step beyond - I am dead and no longer a person. Now, now while you are reading this. In this now, that is also now for me. I am no person, but more than that, and therefore can say to you what, from any person, would annoy you.
For you there is left only a still, small book, that meekly submits to being closed up and laid aside - and then again, as patiently as ever, resumes its tranquil message, when opened.
My parents were Italian aristocrats and my childhood days in the paternal home in Milan and our country estate near Como loom up vaguely before me in pictures half memories, half dreams. I cannot clearly distinguish what is purely memory and what a dream, or dream-memory, of these olden days. Memory is like tradition; one does not remember the first impression, but only the memory of it, and who knows how much that was already distorted; and so the picture changes from year to year, like a vaguely-told tale.
My childhood days fell towards the middle of the nineteenth century. It was my time of luxury and state. Our home was a palace with a pillared courtyard, wide stairway of stone with statuary, and a marble dolphin spouting water. We had carriages and servants and I wore velvet suits with wide lace collars and colored silk ties. I remember my father at the time as a tall, dark, proud man, most fastidiously groomed and dressed. He had shiny black whiskers and long, thick, wavy and glossy hair that fell over his forehead with an artful curl. He wore tight trousers with gaiters and patent leather shoes that always creaked softly. He had a calm but very decided manner, and impressed me immensely by his gentle way of giving orders and the confidence with which he could make himself obeyed. Only my mother resisted him with a power equally unshakable and equally restrained. As a child I saw this conflict daily and, without appearing to do so or being myself quite conscious of it, gave it much thought.
My mother was a very fair blonde Northern woman whom I heard praised for her great beauty - a fact a child is unable to determine for himself about his own mother. I know that she had large, gray eyes with dark rings underneath, and that it often seemed as though she had wept. Her voice, her complexion, her expression, everything vividly suggested tears to me. And in the silent struggle with my father her resistance was that of an aggrieved, painful, sensitive nature: his was cool, more indifferent and gay, but none the less firm. I never heard them quarrel, but I saw the politely tempered tension in the dignified house, during the stately meals, even as the servants saw it. Yet my father would sometimes hum a tune from an opera and joke and laugh boisterously with his friends; but mother always went about silently and gravely, gliding over the thick carpets like a spectre and, at her best, showing but a wan smile.
We were wealthy and prominent people and my parents felt that very strongly. And when I think about it now, here in my little provincial town in Holland, where I shine my own boots, then after all I feel compassion for the two - for my cool, well-bred father, as well as for my pale, languishing, distinguished mother. For they considered their high position just and righteous, and complete, and did not see in how much it was wanting. My mother did not see how tasteless the fashion was, - her draped and be-ruffled gown in which she thought herself so elegant and stately, - her own physical beauty and natural grace barely saving her from becoming an object of absolute ridicule. And my father did not know how much his traditional power of heredity had already been undermined by the democratic ideas everywhere astir.
Our luxury too was strangely deficient in many respects. I have suffered bitter cold in the great chilly palace; at night one might break one's neck on the dark stone stairway; in some parts an ofttimes very foul and disgusting stench prevailed; the servants slept in stuffy hovels; there was a lavatory of which my father was very proud and which had cost enormous sums of money, but where in broad daylight one had to light a candle in order to wash ones hands.
I feel compassion for my proud father when I think of how he collected art treasures and bought paintings by distinguished artists of the time, which he would contemplate for hours through a monocle, and which formed the subject of long intricate critical speculations with his friends - paintings which after all were really only trifling daubs of no value whatever at the present time.
It was a dream of wholly successful social glory dreamed by my Italian parents as confidently as that other dream, dreamed by the Dutch merchants of this little seaport town. And this Italian dream I dreamed with them in perfect soberness. I can still become wholly absorbed in the illusion. I see the purple velvet with the white plume and the large diamond on my mother's hat, - a small, round bonnet, on the thick, blonde hair gathered into a net. I stand by her side in the carriage and feel myself the little prince, the little son of the Contessa - and see the people bowing with profound respect. I breathe the faint, fine perfume of frankincense and lavender exhaling from my mother's clothes. And I recollect my sensation of calm and pride at the meals with the heavy pretentious plate, the great bouquets of roses, the violet hose of the clergy who were our guests, the fragrance of the heavy wine.
And I am touched when I think of the self-delusion of so proud, arbitrary, critical and sceptical a man as my father, who was prejudiced so completely by this illusion of his greatness. He would have looked down scornfully upon the civic pomp of these seventeenth-century Hollanders and yet that was assuredly finer, even as was the older Italian civilization, which my father thought to surpass while he was really living in a state of sad decline.
It is quite comprehensible that in this family feud I sided with my mother, and that my sister, who was older than I, took my father's part. Also that my father would by no means submit to this, and that I very soon began to notice that I myself was the main subject of the strife, which fact did not tend to increase my modesty. It is strange how, as children, we take part in these conflicts, apparently wholly absorbed in our books and games and yet quite aware of the significant glances, the tears and passions hidden before us, the conversations suddenly arrested at our entrance, the artificial tone employed toward us children, the peculiar signs of dreary suspense, of momentous events beyond our ken imminent in the family circle and which we know we must pass without comment. Little as I was, I knew full well that the priests were on my mother's side and that my father fought against a coalition. But with my mother I felt a sense of warmth, gentleness and tenderness, and had already been won over to her side long before I knew what the contest was about. Her beauty, which I heard praised; the deference I saw her met with; her sanctity, which I recognized as a great power, which my father, otherwise yielding to nothing or no one, dared only resist with faltering mockery; the sphere of suffering and tears in which she lived - all this drew my chivalrous heart to her. I considered my father a great man, a giant who dared anything and could get whatever he pleased - but for this very reason would I defend my mother against him. I went to church with her faithfully, and strictly followed her admonitions to piety, and the frivolous jokes which my father sometimes made on that score I proudly and heroically met with profound gravity.
But this chivalrous conflict was speedily ended. The tension became aggravated so that the banquets ceased and my mother did not appear for days, and only summoned me to her side for a few moments when she would weep passionately and pray with me. Strange gentlemen came for long and secret conferences; and one bleak winter morning, very early, a large coach appeared in which my father and I departed.
Then there began for us two a restless life of wandering that continued for years. We travelled through northern Africa, Asia Minor, through all Europe, through America, and never did we remain in one place so long a time that I could grow fond of it, or feel myself at home there. As if by intentional design or driven by a constant unrest, my father would always break up whenever an abode began to feel homelike to me and I had found some friends in the vicinity, and it was wonderful with what strength of mind he persevered in this irksome, arduous and ofttimes even dangerous life.
We sometimes travelled through half barbarous countries with very primitive means of conveyance. My father had no permanent servant and would not suffer any woman to take charge of me. We were together constantly, night and day, and he did for me all that a mother could have done. He helped me to wash and dress, and even mended my clothes. He gave me lessons, taught me drawing, music, various languages, fencing, swimming and riding; but although I very much desired to, he never permitted me to attend school anywhere. His attention was never for a moment diverted from me, his care for me knew no weakening, and yet we never became really intimate. I felt that the old conflict was being carried on under conditions that were much harder for me. He had parted me from my mother and now that I stood alone, would vanquish me. He surely did not suspect that I would understand it thus and would consciously carry on the strife. But though I did not reason it out, my intuition clearly apprehended his tactics, and I held out more obstinately than ever with all the stubbornness of a child and the strength of mind which I had from himself inherited.
On three types of humanity my father was not to be approached. Firstly, the priests, the black ones, as he called them, whom he hated with all the fierce vehemence of his race; and, in spite of me, he so successfully inculcated into me his own aversion, that I cannot yet unexpectedly behold a priestly robe without a sensation of shuddering as at the sight of a snake. Secondly, the bourgeois, whom he called philistines, - the humbly living, contented, narrow-minded, timid, - whom he did not hate as much as he despised them with fervid scorn. And finally women, whom he neither hated nor despised, but whom he feared with a scoffing dread.
And now, looking back upon my youth from so great a distance, now I understand that it was not only healthy, natural tenderness that drove him to such exaggerated care for me, but bitter, impassioned feelings of opposition and revenge born of mortifying and painful experience. Priests, women and philistines had been too mighty or too cunning for him; now he would at least keep me, his successor in the world, out of their hands. That was the one great satisfaction he still sought in life, more from grudge against his enemies than for love of me.
Besides there were inconsistencies in his character that I am now quite able to explain, but which as a child, seemed very queer and shocking to me. He posed as a free-thinker and took pleasure in ridiculing my ingenuous piety. He called God a great joker, who made sport of men and amused himself at their expense. "But he won't fool me," he would say, "and I promise you that I'll tell him so straight to his face if I get the chance of speaking to him hereafter." Only of natural science and nature did he speak with respect. Nature, according to him, was always beautiful and good where man did not spoil her. He called natural science our only security in life, weapon and shield against priestly lies and religious hypocrisy.
And yet my father frequently went to church, also taking me with him. Wherever he went he never failed to visit the temples regardless of the faith they confessed. He was very musical and he would pretend to go chiefly for the sacred music. But in the Catholic churches I also saw him crossing himself with the holy water and even kneeling for hours in prayer before an image of the Blessed Virgin wreathed with flowers and illumined by candles.
This was incomprehensible to me, having as yet no knowledge of the illogical workings of an artistically poetic and musical temperament. But I drew my own conclusions, and it was not surprising that I considered the devout father the true one, and the unbeliever perverted through evil influence. Thus, despite her absence, mother's influence prevailed. My memory had stripped her image of all that was trivial, commonplace and unlovely, and, little by little, with her suffering, her tears, her beauty, her tenderness, she began to shine for me in pure angelic holiness, the subject of my faithful and ardent devotion.
I shall not dwell on my long and arduous wanderings with my father. Indeed, I do not remember much about them. I must have seen many strange and beautiful sights, but they meant little to me. When the soul is young it does not take root in surroundings too vast and does not absorb the beautiful. I have a clearer recollection of certain picture books, of little cosy corners in the rooms we inhabited, of a small pewter can which I had found on the road and from which I would never be parted - not even when I went to bed than of the countries or cities we traversed.
True, I must have absorbed some of the wonderful things about me, for they undoubtedly furnished me with the material of which my dreams, about which I shall tell you further on, were woven. But as a boy I took no pleasure whatever in travelling. I longed for my mother, and for our country house, where I could play with my little sister under the airy open galleries in the rose garden or build dams in the brook. Only the journeying by rail, a novelty at that time, interested me the first few times, and above all the trip across the ocean to America, when Philadelphia and Chicago were only small places, and crossing the ocean by steamboat was still considered a perilous and risky undertaking.
Only of certain moments with lasting significance have I retained a sharper recollection. Thus I remember a miserable day somewhere in Asia Minor. We had both been ill from tainted food, my father and I, and had lain helpless in a most wretched tavern. Meanwhile thieves had stolen all our belongings, and when we wanted to journey on we could get no horses, for the inhabitants feared the thieves and their vengeance should we accuse them. Amidst a troop of dirty, eagerly debating Syrians in a scorching hot street I stood at my father's side peering into his wan face, sallow and drawn from the illness, with glistening streaks of perspiration and an expression of deadly fatigue and stubborn will.
He had a pistol in each hand and repeated a few words of command over and over again, while from the brown, gleaming heads about us came, in sometimes angry, sometimes mournful, sometimes mocking tones, loud, but to me unintelligible, replies. I saw the fierce, self-interested, indifferent faces, with the wild eyes, and I realized how narrow was the boundary separating our life from death.
Still the scorching wild beast odor of the place comes back to me and I hear the sound of a monotonous tune, with fiddling and beating of drums in the distance, and the papery rustling of the palm leaves above our heads. This disagreeable condition must have continued a long while. At that time all mankind, the whole world, seemed hostile and desolate to me.
I knew, indeed, that my father would conquer. He did not want to die, and I had a childlike faith in his tremendous will-power. And so it actually turned out, and I was neither surprised nor glad. The irksome life of wandering continued, and I had a bitter feeling that it was my father who shut me out from the world and made it hostile to me.
We did after all finally procure a guide that day and made a long march on foot along scorching sandy roads, weak and tired as we were, guided only by a half-witted boy, humming and chewing wisps of straw. Then I began to realize what suffering means. My father did not speak, nor would he endure any complaints from me. I bore up against it bravely, as bravely as I could, but I began to ponder much at that time. "How long would I be able to endure this?" I thought. "And why does he do it? If all this folly and hardship served no purpose, we did not have to bear it then. What could he purpose thereby? Will something very pleasant follow? Or will these hardships continue until we die? Is all this God plaguing us, as he says? Why does God do it, and should we let ourselves be tormented so?"
Then, after hours of silent wandering, I put a question:
"Is there justice, father?"
By this I meant, whether for all this footsoreness, this thirst and this exertion, I would be rewarded by proportional pleasure. My father did not reply. He evidently had need of all his energies to walk on.
But when we had finally reached the seaport and had washed ourselves with seawater, he said abruptly: "There is only power!"
That answer did not please me. It was pleasure I wanted. Power could not avail me.
Consider well, dear reader, the purpose of these writings. It is not to occupy ourselves with the recital and attendance of thrilling and glowing adventures, but to try to what extent my words can clear up and illumine for you the dark background of these adventures. Illusion is the all-powerful word of the philosophers, with which they seek to destroy the things happening about us. But I have already worn out that word. At times it is in my hands as a foul tattered rag, it has lost its old use for me. I can also say - there is no illusion - there are only known and unknown things, truths revealed and unrevealed, very rapidly moving and very slowly flowing vital realities. And all my life it has been my constant and passionate desire to penetrate from the known to the unknown, from the revealed to the unrevealed, from the fleeting to the lasting, from the swiftly moving to the more slowly flowing - like a swimmer who from the centre of a wild mountain stream struggles toward the quiet waters near the shore. And wherefore this hard struggle? Because the still waters also hold blessings of consolation, of joy, of happiness. There is the pleasure, the real pleasure, that I as a boy expected from justice, the fair wages for trouble and pain, the equivalent reward.
My father did not believe in justice, but he did believe in power. But thus he did exactly what he wished not to do, he let himself be deceived and tried also to deceive me. But even when only a small boy, I would not let myself be cheated by counterfeit coin. "Go along with your power!" I thought. "I want pleasure. What can power or might avail me without pleasure?" I wanted wares for my money, for I believed in justice.
The Dutch merchants, who built my pretty and substantial house, were not very far-sighted fellows and on their hunt for happiness sailed straight into the bog. But they demanded wares for their money, and that was right. Now I, as an old man, live on the beautiful ruins of their glory overgrown with the immature buds of a newer, grander splendor of life; but I have continued to believe in justice, so firmly, that I quite dare to assume the responsibility of expounding this faith to you, dear reader, with all my might. And this faith teaches that you must not let yourself be cheated, and must demand wares for your money. That is - good, righteous, solid wares. We will not let some inane gaieties, some paltry and miserable pleasures, some tinsel be passed off on us as the real golden happiness. This one tries to coax you with tempting food and drink, another with the pleasures of being rich and mighty, still others with the comfort of a good conscience or perhaps with the flattery of honors and the satisfaction of duty fulfilled - or finally with the promise of reward hereafter, a brief on eternity with the privilege for your ghost of making complaint to the magistracy in case the ruler of the universe does not honor them. Nothing in my old age affords me such melancholy amusement as the foolishness of these persons, who deem themselves so wise, especially those practical, rational, matter-of-fact and epicurean persons, who go to such a vast amount of trouble and suffer themselves to be put off with such hackneyed, transitory, unreal, hollow stuff.
And I know not what is worse, the deception of the priests or that of the philosophers, who scaling to a height upon a ladder of oratory write a big word upon a piece of paper, flaunting it before you as the legal tender for all your pains. With a beaming countenance the good citizens go home with their strip of paper on which is written, "pure reason," or "will for might," and are as contented as the so-styled freed peoples of Europe liberated by the hosts of the French revolution and honestly paid with worthless assignments.
What my father let me gain for my trouble did not seem to me a fair return, nor could he hold out to me any reasonable prospect of better reward. The diversity of life, the beauty of the world which he obtruded upon me so copiously would, as I approached maturity, have delighted and comforted me. As a lad it vexed and wearied me.
I was a tall lad, a replica of my proud, dark father, as everyone said. I remember the sally of an indignant Parisian street arab, who called after me: "Hey, boy, why so high and mighty?" And in my own country, where one turns more quickly to measures sharper than words, this loftiness brought upon me even fiercer attacks. A country lad imitated my proud bearing and pure Italian, getting for it a slap with a towel which I carried on my way to bathe in the sea. On my return the answer came - a stab in my back which for days forced me to assume a lowlier bearing.
I had early grown accustomed to the attention we attracted wherever we went. The father - always elegantly dressed, with his old-fashioned pompousness and melancholy eyes - and the son - nearly as tall and bearing a striking resemblance to him. Especially for women we were subjects of interest. But my father never seemed to pay any attention to this, nor did I ever see him come into closer contact with any woman.
But to me, long before I could appreciate the beauties of art and of nature, a glance from the eyes of a woman was the most precious of all life had to offer. That I primarily accounted as unalloyed gold outweighing much anguish and trouble.
I will try to be exact and absolutely sincere. I may avail myself of that privilege - old while I write, and dead when I shall be read. I am of a very amorous nature and the thought of friend or sweetheart was always an oasis in the desert of my thoughts. Even amidst the most important cares and duties such thoughts were ever of unspeakably greater interest and importance to me. They were never dull or tedious, never bored me, and were my consolation in times of gloom and discouragement. The pain they brought was also dear to me, and never possessed the loathsome hatefulness of other barren vital pangs.
It is difficult for me to recall when the first beams of this great and chiefest joy of life began to shine more brightly for me, but I cannot have been much over five or six years old. I played the passive part at the time, and it was the girl who chose me as her friend and invited the attention which I right willingly bestowed. But when later I myself went out to seek the joys of love, I thought only of boy friends. And it was a boy, a tall pale Hollander and, as it now seems to me, certainly not a very attractive lad, whom I approached one bright summers eve wandering together in the starlight, with the proposition of eternal friendship. The pale lad possessed what is called common sense and replied that he had too vague a conception of eternity to dare accept this proposal. Later, among women I have seldom met with such conscientious scruples.
Our constant travelling made all these attachments very brief and transitory and, as a child in search of love cares nothing for caste prejudice, they were also very diverse, but therefore none the less intense. I loved a nice brown-eyed and barefooted Livornian fisher lad, because he was so strong and could row so well, and swim like a fish. And later, when I was bigger, it was a young German travelling salesman who taught me college songs and impressed me with his show of greater worldly wisdom, that won my heart. In these relations I was always the most ardent enthusiast, fervently pining, filled day and night with the subject of my love. And it can still make the blood rise to my wan cheeks when I think of the treasures of devotion that I squandered on these unresponsive beings. But now I know too that I may count myself lucky that they were so unresponsive. For through this wandering life at my father's side I had remained green as grass, and how easily one all too responsive might have turned the young tender instinct, with which the Genius of Humanity has endowed us, forever from its destined course to life-long torture. For we are all, man and woman alike, born with a twofold nature, and the pliant young shoot can so easily be contorted and its rightful growth permanently warped.
The maiden saw in me the lover long before I began to look on her with a lover's eyes. I had, indeed, found the unspeakable joy of intimacy surpassing and atoning for all, but not yet the peculiar higher joy of an intimacy, with greater disparity, between youth and maid. I thought all intimacy glorious if it was but very fervent, and even entertained some vague notion regarding the great joy of an intimacy and cordiality embracing all, man and woman, young and old. But these moments of revelation and insight were but very brief and buried forthwith under commonplaces.
It must have been between the age of ten and twelve, that looking into the bright eyes of a girl, I first experienced that peculiar and higher bliss, that boy friendship could not give me. This was an event that so engrossed me, that I was oblivious of everything else and walked about like one moving in a dream.
I know not whether it was due to the blood of my fair northern mother, but never could a southern, dark-eyed and black-haired lass fascinate and interest me so vehemently and intensely as a blue-eyed blonde. Especially the English type, the cool, self-possessed, as well as somewhat haughty and coy blonde maiden, slender and yet strong, with wavy hair, attracted my attention and interest with an irresistible power.
Have patience, dear reader, it is a delicate and difficult matter, and I must deliberate well and speak carefully if we would more deeply penetrate the meaning of these things.
When these feelings overtake us as a child, we think it is the personality, that it is Alice or Bertha who interests us so intensely, and that only Alice or only Bertha can inspire such strange and powerful emotions of bliss and desire. And above all that it is just Alice or just Bertha whose more intimate acquaintance is so eminently desirable.
But how is it possible that we retain this illusion, and even live and die in it - pleasant and enviable though it may be - when we know that each feels this same interest in some other and ofttimes even see it transferred from one to another?
Being in love is the desire to fathom a most interesting secret, indispensable to us all. The beloved maiden attracts us, as a ray of light attracts the wanderer in the dark. Yet we know that every creature of her kind can shed this radiance about her, and that it is simply our own accidental receptivity that, among so many thousands, gives to this one creature in particular her attractive power.
Thus I think I can positively say that it was not herself I sought in my beloved, but the reflection of one common light that also shines through other windows as well as through the eyes in which I discovered it. But though my reason must affirm it, my heart comprehends little of this. When I think of her whom I loved last, longest and most devotedly, then she herself, her own personality, is a certainty to me that I would not willingly relinquish for any higher certainty, many years though I have spent in anxious pondering on this subject.
The list of my boy friends is not worth recording. They were puppets wondrously decked out by my fertile imagination, worshipped as heroes for a while with all the ritual of German friendship cult - and later, when in their personal life they showed no resemblance to my ideal expectations, rudely dismantled and cast aside and hated. I can still see a photograph of one of them lying in my washbowl with pierced eyes, curling and charring under the avenging flame of a match.
The last of the series, the young commercial traveller, longest retained his glory. I saw him only about a week in a watering place, and subsequently he was able to maintain his position of hero-friend by a correspondence in which he answered my fervent ingenuousness stammered in poor German with fluent plagiarism from the classics of his romantic fatherland. All went well, until after a few years I met him again and noticed that it was not even a puppet but a skeleton that I had arrayed in a hero's armor. I was furious at him as though he had purposely deceived me - but my anger was unmerited. He had in perfect good faith tried his best to live up to the national traditions of friendship and to keep burning the smouldering fire of his own humble ideal of love.
A friend, who would have paid me in my own coin, who requited what I desired to give him, - as, faithful, as devoted, as passionate, as self-sacrificing, as attentive and solicitous as it was my nature to understand and prove friendship - such a one I never found. And I was unreasonable enough to retain a bitter and scornful feeling toward those who, seeming to give promise of such an exalted friendship, had disappointed me so sorely. I now understand how good it is that at this age such friendships do not exist. Is it not hard enough to extricate ourselves from the seemingly hopeless complications of sexual instincts and relations? Are we not still far from the adjustment of passions, arising much too early and continuing much too long? physical and mental desires, affections misplaced, extinguished and transferred to others? and children who must be fed? Should we desire to add to these problems the complications of strong friendships which might perhaps transform and divert our entire nature? Let each, who feels an honest, strong, profound, budding passion for a being of opposite sex sprouting within himself be grateful. The more so if he is not confronted by abysses all too deep, by doors all too closely barred and by deserts all too barren; if in this other soul he can detect feelings somewhat akin to his own. To expect, besides, exalted friendships between those of equal sex is imputing too much power and good will to the Deity in whose hand we live.
For me, then, it was not Alice or Bertha, - but Emmy, and more particularly Emmy Tenders, the daughter of an English-Scotch merchant, who of all human beings seemed to me the most interesting and worth knowing. I really cannot say whether she was pretty or whether others considered her so. She interested me in such strong and intense degree that it never occurred to me to look at her from an sthetically critical standpoint. I remember that I was interested and surprised when, after I had already known her over a year, I heard an old gentleman referring to her as "that lovely child." It flattered me like a personal compliment, but it sounded wholly new to me.
I know that she was lithe and yet quite robust, that she had light grayish-blue eyes and an abundance of thick blonde hair that framed her face in heavy waves. It is quite impossible for me to say or to give even an intimation of what it was that so attracted me in her. I saw her first in her own home in the company of her mother, a pleasant Scotch lady, and her brothers, sturdy, clever, staid and silent lads. And from the moment I saw her I was drawn to her by a mysterious feeling of attraction, which even now, after more than fifty years, is as inexplicable to me as it then was. She was affectionate toward her mother, treated her brothers like good comrades, and me in a somewhat arch and pleasantly ingenious manner. She said nothing particular, nor did I ever foster the illusion that she had anything very particular to say. But her nature concealed a secret for me that I felt I must approach and fathom at all costs, though I staked my greatest treasure, at the cost of my life would have seemed but a miserably feeble consideration to me.
And mingled with this, thus making it all the more inexplicable, was a feeling of mournfulness, of pity. When I said to myself: "how dear she is!" I pronounced the "dear" with a mingled feeling of tender pain and fervent pity.
What could be the meaning of this? She seemed entirely well and happy and led a pleasant life, with good parents, cordial family relations, luxuries, many outdoor pleasures, ball games, tea-parties, boat excursions, dances - everything that could make an English girl of our time happy.
And yet when I thought of her playful ways, her dear, young supple limbs, her thick, wavy, blonde hair, which she would push back now and then with both her hands, the tears welled up in my eyes from sheer compassion.
See, reader, after all it is just as well that for the beginning, nothing comes of these great friendships. They merely divert us. One would think that love meant the intellectual communion of spirits. But that is nonsense. What an intellectual giant one would have had to be to offer Goethe or Dante a worthy friendship. Yet Gemma Donati and Christiane Vulpius were their mates, their equals in power, before whom they willingly bowed and humbled themselves. Every sweet woman conceals a secret of life that outweighs the wisdom of the greatest man, and for which he would willingly barter all his treasures and yet count it too small a price.
Let us be patient, dear reader, and proceed carefully. My time of love is past and yet the matter is as much of a mystery to me as ever. But it is the work on which we are all employed, and I hold that first the love between man and woman must be better regulated and understood before we can proceed to friendship.
Now I turn the jewel of my love-life a point about and contemplate another facet as if to discover the hidden form of the crystal.
Emmy Tenders was the first woman who, when I had grown from youth to manhood, at once, absolutely, and completely won me without effort on her part. She was the first woman I eagerly sought, though it was with the deepest reverence and a shrinking fervor. But, as I said before, probably ten years previous to this girls had sought me, detecting the prospective man in me before I had myself become aware of him. This had indeed flattered me and, as I have confessed, I had also found in the glance from the eyes of some one of them promise of higher joy than my boy friendships could give me - but with a peculiar obstinacy inexplicable to myself, I had always repelled these approaches. Without acting in obedience to boyish tradition, to whose influence I was never subjected on account of my nomadic life, my own feeling made me see something childish and unworthy in the association with girls and women, while on the other hand I exalted my boy friendships as nobler and manlier.
But oh! the subtle and effective manner in which this avenged itself on me. When later my time of seeking had come, and I was assailed and driven by overwhelming passions, it then appeared that I had retained the memory of these little adventures of childhood days with irritating exactness, and there mingled with it a bitter feeling of regret for the lost opportunities. The kiss blown me from a window in Naples, the extraordinary, more than motherly cares of the hotel chambermaid in Vienna, the roses pressed into my hands on the street by a young Spanish girl somewhere in the south of France, the embrace and the kiss on my cheek which I once suddenly felt in a dark garden where I stood listening to some music and which I - oh, obstinate simpleton that I was! - scornfully and indignantly repelled - how often and with what teasing tenacity have they haunted me in my dreamy days and sleepless nights, when the icy crust of boyish pride had long been melted, but the girls had also grown proportionally more chary of their favors. And even now with half a century intervening, I cannot watch this subtle game of mutual hide-and-seek without a smile, and I recognize some truth in my father's opinion that many a time it must indeed also afford amusement to the Unseen One who secretly directs the figures of this graceful dance.
Remember, dear reader, that up to the time I met Emmy Tenders, I was green as grass. It had never occurred to me to seek for any connection between the wondrously blissful emotions of intimacy that continually occupied me - and certain physical sensations which only alarmed me because I thought them unhealthy. And yet I consider this very connection well-nigh the most mysterious and interesting of all the enigmas of life. And perhaps, as I, you too have always felt when reading the writings of the great and distinguished lovers among mankind, a certain want of exactness, which led me to exclaim: "But how did you deal with that question?"
My father fared in this matter like the man who dropped his glasses in a dark room and when, after much hesitation and deliberation he very carefully set down his foot, stepped precisely on the glass. He had tried to bring me up with such extraordinary care and wisdom, and now failed for that very reason. He encouraged my boyish scorn of girls and courting and did not oppose my partiality for boy friendships. The terrible risk I thereby ran of warping my sound and natural instinct and thus making myself unhappy for life, he did not seem to see, and when the time came to enlighten me in this regard he neglected to do so. My very sensitive prudishness concerning everything pertaining to my body he, rightly and to my gratitude, respected as long as possible.
But when it became clear to him that I was seized with a glowing passion for Emmy Tenders - and he must indeed have been very deaf and blind not to notice my very apparent confusion and perplexity, my air of abstraction, my brightening at everything that suggested her, my pallor, my nocturnal wanderings abroad and my agonies of weeping in bed - he considered the time for my final enlightenment come.
Between two sensitive, proud and refined natures like my father and myself, this was a most painful and most difficult task. But he performed it with his customary undaunted determination. I have never spent a more uncomfortable hour in my life. My father had brought books and prints for better demonstration; he dared not look at me and mumbled a good deal under his breath in a hollow voice. Beads of perspiration stood on his brow.
When he had left the room, nervous and embarrassed as a child who has done wrong, my first thought was: a revolver. I was crushed and wanted to end my life. But the secret, - the secret itself bound me to life. The strange, attractive, mysterious, repulsive secret fascinated me too much to leave it.
Insensible with pain and humiliation, I went to my room. And there, before I could help it, the name "Emmy" rose to my lips. I shivered, crying out the name once more, now like a despairing shriek of distress. Then I fell down upon my bed and wept as though I would weep out my very heart.
The type of men which my father called philistines has this common characteristic, that for all wonders and mysteries they forthwith find a convenient explanation. Does the truth not fit it exactly? Then they do as did the Kaffir, who receiving as a present a much too narrow pair of shoes, solved the difficulty by undauntedly chopping off his toes and then, greatly delighted, went out walking in the precious gift.
This time it was my father himself who pretended to see nothing strange or mysterious in my deeply agitated state of mind. The substance of the matter he had now explained to me scientifically, biologically, physiologically and anatomically; to this nothing need be added nor did it leave anything unexplained.
My disgust, my profound horror and dejection at this simple increase of knowledge which, as every new acquisition of knowledge, should have delighted and edified me - Yes! for that there was no room in his explanation, as little as for his own embarrassment while imparting it. And therefore, without any sentimentality, these toes must be lopped off so that the boot would fit.
Reader, do not imagine that I demand of you deep regard and veneration for the great foolish boy who lay helplessly weeping because of that strange difference between men and flowers that with the former carries so much discord into their most important vital function.
I myself now softly laugh at my self of fifty years ago, not scornfully, but with gentle irony - sympathetically. I pat the boy on the shoulder and admonish him kindly: "Quiet, laddie, be not so dismayed. We are a strange mingling of ape and angel. But try, as quickly as possible, to reconcile yourself to this, then everything becomes quite bearable. Do you think this same thing would have caused like consternation to Emmy Tenders, if the knowledge but came to her in the right way, that is to say the way of reverent love, and deep devotion? She is indeed wiser. And had you learned it as a poet and lover and not as a philistine then you too would not have found it so appalling."
But all this, dear reader, does not alter the mysterious and distressing truth, and one cannot make disharmony bearable by denying it. So much is certain that my father's assertion, declaring my horror wholly unreasonable, affected me like an attempt at lopping off my toes to make the boot fit. I resisted passionately, maintaining an inexorable separation between my noble and lofty sentiments for Emmy and the low and vile things my father had disclosed to me, and thus wandered hastily and eagerly on the dangerous path whose course branches out but once - one road leading to fanaticism and the other to dissolute cynicism.
This was my father's work. But I have never reproached him for it with feelings of bitter resentment. Why not? Can we pronounce sentence, reader, in a suit whereof the most important facts still lie in impenetrable darkness?
From my unimpassioned tribunal here in the dreamy and forgotten little town, I hold acquittal for all who have strayed and gone to ruin in Cupid's flowery and thorny labyrinth. For assuredly it is not of human designing.
That there is guilt I cannot deny. Every ill has a father and a mother, and for once and all, we are accustomed to calling these parents sin and guilt. But I follow the genealogical tree of these strange and tender woes beyond Adam and Eve or the Pithecantropus Erectus, even should I then have to launch my accusations at Powers which from generation to generation have imprinted in us the belief in their inviolability.
And now observe what makes the matter still more strange and illogical. I am not only of a very amorous but also of a very sensual nature. Together with my strong susceptibility to the joys of soul communion there went the mighty overpowering impulse of propagation. Before the contact of these two currents had been brought about in such a painful manner the low, dark, physical instinct had filled me with a continual though not very distressing restlessness and with doubt concerning my health. The splendid equilibrium of my other functions, that has maintained itself to this day, always outweighed this doubt.
But when the secret was half explained it became all the more absorbing and enticing and so occupied my thoughts that, even now an old man, I wonder again and again that a human brain can ponder over such comparatively simple facts ad infinitum, without having them lose their interest, and without really arriving at any conclusion.
Physicians would speak of pathological conditions and of libido sexualis. But I would point out to you, dear reader, that though there may be very good and noble men among physicians, every physician of our day without exception, in so much as he would be called a physician, is at the same time also a philistine. With their explanations and their fine words for things that are beyond their comprehension because their science is still unpoetical and unphilosophical, they do not serve us in the least.
And how could one of these present-day sages reasonably explain to me that in a noble and lofty human type such as I, certainly not without some right, dared call myself, the very strong working of an impulse common to all animals was coupled with an exaggerated sensitiveness for its ignoble character? Were this impulse good and beautiful and in no part ignoble, whence then my aversion? - were it really low and unworthy, whence its presence, so impertinent and overpowering, in a refined and highly cultured member of the human race?
And if any would speak here of exceptions and strange freaks of nature, should we not immediately bar his lips with a series of names all shining in the history of mankind? Are we not acquainted with Sophocles' very significant sigh of relief at being delivered from this plague by his years? Is it without a deeper meaning that Dante on the summit of the mount of redemption lets his dearest and most honored poets do penance for this very weakness - Arnaut de Verigord, Guittons of Arezzo and also Guido Guinicello his father and the father of all those -
rime d'amore usar dolci e leggiadre.
Did it stand differently with Dante himself, with Shelley, Byron, Heine, Goethe?
My father's deed arose from an imagined sense of duty, but had wholly different consequences than he probably expected. He must surely have thought that now, knowing what it implied, I would either steer straight for matrimony or renounce my boyish love. He had satisfactorily torn to pieces the veil of illusion that something loftier and more mysterious than common propagation was concerned here - woman's witchery which he knew and from which he wished to shield me. He also expected my confidence and my appeal for advice in difficulties and dangers of a kindred nature.
But behold, I remained as ardently devoted and valiantly true to Emmy as ever. I felt a desire to shield her with my life against the baseness of this world and let my body serve her as a bridge across the earthly pool of mire. And higher than ever, I held her image above every profaning thought. I considered it a sacrilege to think of her as one of the thousand females about me and to confound my love with the wooing and wedding of the rest of the world.
But with that, the passions suddenly awakened by my father, fed by a vivid imagination and now craving recognition and liberty, were not stilled. The slumbering hounds were aroused and clamored for food. And as I had not the slightest intention of granting them what my father pointed out as their natural and lawful portion, but what, as something sacred and holy, I was determined to keep from their devouring jaws cost what it would, they sought other food and threatened to destroy me.
"But what would you do about it, old hermit?" the young reader will ask; "what do you consider a model solution of the question?"
I would do nothing about it, young reader!
The old Muralto is not called to draw up for you a scheme of life. He only shoves his little lamp ahead as far as he can reach into the darkness. For the confusion and the rubbish thus brought to light he is not responsible and each must see for himself how he finds his way through.
The hounds want food, that is certain. And, whether intentionally or not, some day they will be awakened; from that, too, there is no escaping. Blessed is he who can forthwith offer them their proper prey. And woe to him who thinks that, without danger to himself, he can let them starve to death or seek for booty unbridled!
And would you retain the confidence of your children do not threaten to mutilate the feet of their sensibilities for the sake of a narrow theory. I myself at least, after what I had experienced, would sooner have gone to the nearest police agent for intimate advice, than back to my father.
Emmy's home was situated in London on the Thames. The smooth emerald-green, well-trimmed lawn with the multi-colored flower-borders, and the blue porcelain vases, extended to the water, and there on summer afternoons the family sat on the cane chairs partaking of tea, feeding the swans swimming by, and watching the gay traffic, - the multitude of graceful little crafts with fashionably dressed men and women in softly blending tones of green, violet, pink and white, the muscular gig-rowers in training, shooting by with a regular swish of oars and followed by shouting friends on horseback; the competitors in a swimming match making their way amidst all this tumult cheered on every side; the luxuriant houseboats floating by, full of flowers and happy people, from which echoed strains of music and a flood of light emanated at night.
I lived in the suburbs with my father, and when I mingled with the bright, merry, fair and innocent human world, then all my father had told me seemed but an ugly fairy-tale.
But London is a strange and, for a person of my temperament, a most dangerous city. The glamour of angelic human purity is so successfully assumed there that it makes itself all the more glaringly and horribly manifest, and exercises a more exciting influence, when the black demon suddenly leers at us from behind the veil.
Not only Emmy Tenders, but every woman of her type and race, every cultured English woman, possessed for me something lofty, something holy and irreproachable. The women of other countries still bore some resemblance to the female animal; there I could still conceive and imagine this fatal humiliation; but an English woman seemed so pure, so noble, so chaste and yet so candidly innocent that her mere presence sufficed to drive away all impure thoughts. And of all English women, Emmy Tenders was indeed the sweetest and purest. When I saw her again all anxiety and horror vanished. I was completely happy and also thankful that no revolver had been within my reach in that dark moment following the revelation. That summer's afternoon by the Thames amid the merry family group some vague conception dawned in me that Emmy's wondrous power would have made pure all that appeared ugly and vile to me, if only the revelation had come to me through her.
But it seems indeed that the English rely too much upon the cleansing power of innocence in their woman. And it is curious how public opinion among this prudish nation will permit exhibitions of unabashed flirtation which would be publicly tolerated in probably no other part of Europe and certainly not in Asia or Africa. In the light, graceful little boat I glided over the sparkling river amid the tender summer's bloom which clothed everything with a charm of fairyland and facing me, on the silken cushions, sat my beloved, in her white dress, holding the cords of the rudder. And to the left and right, under the shadowing branches of the drooping willows, my now wide-opened eyes saw pairs of lovers, each in their own boat, in affectionate attitudes that greatly embarrassed and distressed me. Emmy did not seem to see them or appeared to be wholly undisturbed thereby. Then it occurred to me that I myself must be to blame here and that a peculiar inborn depravity made the natural appear so hideous to me and obtrude itself so plainly on my view. And all the more I honored and admired the pure creature the bright mirror of whose soul the impure breath of the world could not dim, and to whom the human love-life seemed as natural, common and unexciting as to the naturalist or ancient philosopher.
The old hermit and philosopher Muralto would here remark, that the young poetic lover Muralto was a long distance from the sage. It has indeed occurred to the old man, though seldom, thank heaven, despite his many years, that he could regard the human love-life like a naturalist or an old satiated philosopher without the pleasing distress, the sweet excitement of former days - yet he did not feel better and wiser at such times, but deeply mourned a precious loss. I may err, reader, but consider the words of experience!
And in these same ardent days of first true love the giant city exposed herself to my now enlightened eyes in all her disharmony. And I, who in wanton Paris had passed as an innocent child through a hotbed of sensuality and a hailstorm of seduction, on a single twilight eve in London had four or five encounters the particulars of which remained in my memory as barbed arrows remain imbedded in the flesh, smarting and itching and burning like the thorny fibres of cactus or sweetbriar seed with which one has come into too close contact.
When the women of my country, of a Latin race, cast away their pride and, from need or indifference, make the game of love their profession, they still retain a natural and charming glamour and play the sorry game with a certain grace and conviction as a poor homage to the lofty secret which they must needs desecrate.
But the English or German woman who lays aside her chastity - God be gracious to these bunglers! - casts off her modesty as downrightly as though she were glad that she need not carry it longer - no! let us say as though the greater depth of her fall resulted also in a more absolute hopelessness of ever arising again. Cold, businesslike and practical, they carry on their profession and regard the human love-life as unmoved and unexcited as a naturalist or an old philosopher.
But just this class distinction, this sharp and dreadful contrast between the pure English woman, so nobly represented in my queenly love, and the creatures who, fifty years ago and probably to the present day, toward twilight haunted the fine London parks and in the most unabashed manner reminded me of the recently received fatherly disclosures - just this stirred the newly aroused passions within me to an untamable uproar. The tormented hungry dogs raged blindly.
Was the noble creature that filled my heart too good for them - well: they would then procure for themselves other food. Eat they would, though it were hideous carrion! The tormented dogs became wolves, became hyenas.
Let this not arouse your indignation, dear reader. I gladly believe that your beasties never caused you much trouble, that they were willingly satisfied with lettuce leaves, or would probably also fast at will, or submit contentedly to the matrimonial leash. Possibly they were marmots. But did you yourself rear this tractable race? Then count not yours the honor nor mine the shame, but accord both to that unknown Breeder who followed the genealogical tables and selected the mothers and fathers, uniting them with delicate discernment and hidden design. The pasturing of docile cattle involves no honor or glory, and I choose to render account of my pasturage to him alone who knew, better than I, what he did when he entrusted me with the savage drove.
Neither let it surprise you that my love for Emmy could not drive away the impure images and destroy their power of attraction. The reconciliation of ape and angel that our human nature demands had, thanks to my father's bungling match-making, gone fatally wrong. A hopeless separation had arisen, the angel seemed inaccessible and the beast sought his own wild paths. My thoughts would suffer no desecration of Emmy's sacredness. But the fatherly lesson had startled up in me a seething swarm of thoughts as difficult to direct or drive away as a roomful of flies. I could scarcely keep them off the one white lily in my chamber, what wonder then that the stinking carrion brought from the nocturnal London parks was black with them?
Emmy was nineteen years old when I made her acquaintance, and I was sixteen, but fully developed at that age, as is not unusual in my country. For three years I courted her, steadfastly, but in a curiously capricious and inconsistent way, with all the changes of an all-daring and naught-fearing devotion, wildly-blazing happiness, sudden shyness and trembling shrinking, violent dismay, self-reproach, deep self-contempt - all this being caused by the confusion and the strife in the intimate household of my soul.
Emmy was, as I can now say without partiality, a good, dear, natural and simple child, born to make an excellent and loving housewife and consort.
How often I imagine that I, the patriarch of to-day, with my present knowledge, would have stepped between the two and easily steered the two little boats into safe currents on a joint and prosperous journey. So little would have been needed, a little hint, a loving word of direction, a gentle stay - and everything would have been well. But these are idle and tormenting after-thoughts, perhaps quite erroneous too.
I was not so undesirable a suitor, even though I was three years her junior. Emmy's parents were liberal-minded, like most English people not insensible to rank and title, and would surely not have precluded the young noble Italian from their family, even though he had been brought up in the Catholic faith.
Thus the amiable child complacently bore with my stormy adoration, less hidden by me than is customary among the English, schooled in self-restraint; she waited patiently; gently, almost imperceptibly, encouraging me the while until I should be old enough to dare press my suit more urgently. It sometimes seemed to me as though a girl was much less curious and surprised, and, from out a hidden well, much sooner and better informed concerning the course of the coming mysteries than a boy. She does not think about it and would not be able to express it, and yet she knows everything at the right time, as though the body had thought for her.
Though our travelling life continued still, my father stopped oftener and longer in London than in any other place, as though yielding to the unpronounced pressure of his son. Perhaps this time he purposely wished to submit me to the flames, my reserve hiding from him the true state of my heart and my thoughts.
And when, after our first meeting, we were again on our way, it was Emmy who gave the first timid sign to enter into correspondence. On St. Valentine's day, the significance of which I knew full well, a colored scrap-picture arrived, representing a rosy woman's hand with elegantly curved finger tips offering a bouquet of blue forget-me-nots. The source from whence it came was evident enough to me, and I, awkward churl, was rude enough to send her a rapturous letter of thanks for it, which of course met with a very cool rejection and denial.
At long as I was away from London I had comparative peace. I thought about my beloved, wrote to her and of her in my diary and studied the subjects which my father, who wished to make a diplomat of me, appointed. I spent the winter with him in Berlin, but there I noticed nothing of the London scandal, though I fully realized that something of the sort could not well be missing in the big city. All my thoughts of love, the pure and beautiful as well as its base desecration, swarmed about the great, gray, smoke-darkened and fog-bound city across the sea.
Just as the elements of our sensually visible being, the cells of the body, manifest a peculiar life and independent nature, so the elements of our invisible being - the desires and passions - seem to be beings with a peculiar nature. They are like animals and children, hearkening to the voice that first called them, following the habits first taught them, curiously stubborn in the errors grown habitual to them in youth, and with a strange tendency toward the lower, as though falling through the influence of a gravitation.
I had my "low" and my "lofty" times, as I called them. Sometimes for weeks and months my thoughts would be pure and tranquil: then they would be again suddenly aroused by some trifling cause - sometimes mental: a newspaper article, a conversation overheard - sometimes physical: a little fte, carrying on their harassing and tormenting game, constantly repeating and circling around the same facts and words, throughout entire sleepless nights, gnawing and picking at these never satiating subjects, so offensive and yet so attractive, as a dog gnaws at an old whitened bone.
Especially in a time of dejection and gloom, when the world offered me no flower of outward beauty, the imagination immediately sought comfort in that which was always exciting, always charming and intriguing, and never satiated or vexed me. Neither study nor physical exercise had the power to restrain the arbitrary course of the thoughts; the mind possessed no weapons against them.
A feverish suspense beset me when it became certain that I was to see Emmy again. A clear apprehension had already been born in me that only her presence, her encouragement, her devotion could redeem me. And when I saw her cordially bowing from the carriage that awaited us at the suburban station on a bright, sunny May day, and went to meet her trembling and dizzy with emotion, and seeing nothing of the great world about me save her hair, golden in the sunlight, the white dress, the broad-brimmed straw hat and the shining eyes - I really believed that I was saved, and I no longer wavered in my heart and was positively determined that I actually wanted her for my wife, no matter what a saint she might be and how unworthy I.
Thus everything might have come out right, but things do not run so smoothly in this world. I was seventeen and Emmy twenty. There still followed weeks, long months - melancholy moods returned again, discouragements - there were also walks through the dusky parks. And the hungry dogs continued to whine and to howl and the thought-flies continued to buzz and to defile themselves. Man may be reasonable and patient; he has natures to control, apparently for his own good, that are neither reasonable nor patient; that themselves never rest and demand guidance from a spirit, that does need rest; that always want to have their own way, and yet sink fatally downward if the government of the mind leaves them unguarded. And these are given us by nature, as we are told, the same nature which according to my father is always good if man does not spoil her.
So as not to disturb you by exciting your imagination, dear reader, which might make the driving of your own team more troublesome to you, I shall mention no particulars of my struggle and my defeat. This precaution of an old man need not hurt you.
I fell under the joint influence of the following things: the fatally arisen rupture between corporal and spiritual desires, - the sharp contrast between English purity and English lewdness that, with its incomprehensible contradiction, has as exciting an effect as the dog in the duck-yard, who decoys the inquisitive ducks into the mouth of the strangler, - and finally the accursed self-contempt that makes one say: "There's nothing lost with me anyway."
With his attention so steadily fixed upon me, my father could not remain without suspicion. He came to my room one morning, installed himself there, and said:
"I hope, Vico mio, that you have remained and will remain a nobleman in all things."
When we Italians perceive that someone would enter upon a friendly conversation with us, we look upon it as an invitation to set up together and complete a small work of art, and we gladly give it an attentive hearing and zealously assist with careful application, so that something good and fine be brought forth. When I hear two Hollanders carrying on a conversation, it sounds more like children of a village school repeating their penal task, careless, slipshod, unwilling and embarrassed - if only they get it over with.
"My father," I answered, "I believe I know quite well how you wish a nobleman to be, but perhaps I do not know how he should comport himself in everything. Do you refer to any particular circumstance, or are you speaking generally?"
"If you recognize generally that a nobleman must avoid all intimate intercourse with ignoble persons, Vico, - the particular instances that I have in mind are therein included."
"That is plain, father. But yet I have something more to ask. First this: do you call it intimate intercourse where the spirit on either side remains at an infinite distance? And then this: can a nobleman have ignoble desires?"
I saw my father start painfully. Slowly and eyeing me sharply, he said:
"I fear, Vico, that I must speak plainly here, too. To the first I make this reply: It is certain that we have a body, but of a spirit that can separate itself from this body we know nothing and have no single proof. And as concerns the second question: natural desires are never ignoble as long as they remain in the natural channels."
"Without agreeing to the first," I replied, "I shall let it rest, because our natures are too different, and we do not understand each other anyway. But your answer to the second gives me much to ask. If a desire in me is natural and thus not ignoble, how then can it drive me to ignoble things? Are all natural desires good in all men? And how do I distinguish between natural and noble desires and unnatural and ignoble desires?"
"Have you no power of discrimination for that, Vico?" my father asked.
"If I use my discrimination, father, I call ignoble what my father calls natural."
My father arrested the conversation a moment to reflect. Then he realized that in order not to lose more ground, he must turn from the general to the particular.
"Let us beware, son, lest we become entangled in words. I have happily established that we both have an aversion from the vile and low. Take care then, that is all I wished to say, that you do not come into contact with it."
"But the vile and low in me desires contact with the vile and low in others," said I, bitterly.
My father grew impatient and said:
"I don't believe in this baseness and vileness in you. The popes surely talked you into that when you were a child. I understand that you have to deal with desires and passions that are absolutely not unnatural or bad, but very common at your age. But do not seek relief from them with unworthy, licentious persons. Of the great danger I have already warned you, have I not? Do not forget that in a few moments you can, through defilement, devastate your entire life."
"I do not forget that, father."
"Very well, but you should also be too proud to trouble yourself about such low-graded creatures."
"I would gladly have reason to be proud. But what is passing on in me is well suited to keep me humble. Can you deliver me from all this lowness and ugliness? You yourself have aroused it in me."
"I?" my father called, frowning angrily.
"By your scientific explanations. Before that time I had comparative peace. Now I am desperate, like a captive and tormented cat. It will end badly with me, father, that is certain. I foresee it, and can do nothing to prevent it. I can put out my eyes and chop off my hands, but I cannot control my thoughts and drive away these visions. That is beyond human power. I shall go to the bad, that is certain, and then the sooner the better. There's not so much lost with me."
With an anxious, painful eagerness my father listened to these first outspoken words. Then he said with a little laugh, half pitying, half scornful:
"One thing is plain to me now, my boy, that you must get married soon. Well, happily you need not seek long or fear a refusal. You can get of the very finest that wears a petticoat. Don't be bashful, Vico! You have a noble name, pure blood, a handsome face, and a fine, strong, healthy body. I shall supply the money. Be calm, my boy, you can have what you want for the asking."
I got up, deeply indignant. I believe that I laughed a theatrical laugh.
"Most decidedly your meaning is that I should make use of a pure and holy being, whose name I am not worthy to pronounce, as a safety valve, a preservative, a drain for my own foul and low passions. I assure you that, had it not been my father who had spoken such words to me, I would have challenged the man."
My father attempted a pitying smile, but it was artificial and painful:
"Good heavens, Vico! what exaggerated, impossible, fanatical nonsense! Then were all mothers who bore children drains for their husbands? Do be calm and reasonable, lad! You are not unworthy, your passions are not foul and low, whoever got that into your head? Your mother, surely, and her black friends. It's terrible how a mother can early poison the thoughts of her child."
"If one of my parents poisoned my thoughts, then it was not my mother. I realize my unworthiness through my own consciousness, not through outside persuasion. But my father cannot understand that, because he is a stranger to my deepest and most sacred feelings. Even though your advice had been good, father, your manner of expressing it would already have repelled me. But, moreover, your advice is idle. An English girl of twenty does not marry a young man of seventeen, and in three years from now I'll be lost anyway, hopelessly lost. I foresee that positively. And oh! what does it matter? It's only I, after all!" Scornfully shrugging my shoulders, I ran about the room. My father lifted both hands to his forehead and stared into vacancy with a look full of gloom, long-nurtured wrath and desperation. I still remember that look and wonder that I was not more painfully struck by it at the time. After a while he got up, sighed, and with the words, "We shall see!" he walked out of the room.
Again the poor man had brought about the contrary of what he wished to attain. One impression, above all, I retained from the conversation - it was that my mother would surely understand me and perhaps save me. I knew that she still lived and I also knew the name of our country seat. For the first time since our departure from home the thought of writing to her entered my mind. Amid many tears I composed a long, passionate letter to her that night, in which I told of all my tortures, my raptures, my struggles, my wondrous love and my deep self-degradation and self-contempt. I gave no facts, for young, sensitive, passionate letter writers seldom do, but prefer keeping to general terms. Nor did I employ a single religious expression, because I had really completely forgotten the brief maternal education, and simply translated elemental feeling of the heart into language most current to me.
"Help me, dearest mother," I wrote. "Help me. I know that you alone can do it. I have never forgotten you, and every day and night have thought of you. I still see you as distinctly as though I had left you only yesterday. I am a strange and terrible riddle to myself, and father, alas! cannot understand me. He speaks of nature that is always good, and says that my desires are natural and therefore good. But to me these desires seem ugly and despicable and the nature that drives me to them not at all good. He cannot understand this. Nature torments and tortures me. And no matter how I battle I see no deliverance. And at the same time, I adore a wondrous being, an angel of purity. And my father says that I must transfer the desires which I consider despicable to this sacred beloved. And that is a terrible thought to me. I love her with a passionate, boundless love, but I tremble to touch her with my impure lips. I harbor thoughts that would make me die of shame in her presence. And with my sordid depravities I am fit only for the low creatures, just as unhappy as I, whom I see running about here and who address me occasionally. Tell me, dearest mother, is there still help for me, is there still redemption? What is that nature of which my father speaks? Is it a thing or a thinking being, and how can it be good, always good, and bring me into such terrible straits and make me so unhappy?"
In this strain I wrote many pages and sent them off at a venture without much hope. And for two weeks I vainly went to the post-office every day, toward the last without the least hope.
But the answer came after all and I hid myself with it in my room, securely bolted, and with trembling hands I tore the envelope and kissed the paper and for a long time could not read for the tears that streamed from my eyes.
And when the contents, like a warm flood of tender benediction, seemed to pour itself out over my benumbed and tormented heart, of course I cried and kissed all the more and with greater fervor. We Italians are always a little, what here in my small town would be called, theatrical and affected, even though we be wholly without witnesses.
I am proud of it that so many years ago I already addressed to my mother the question which, as far as I know, the best philosophers have never put to themselves with sufficient stress. Even those who by preference call themselves natural philosophers, thus those who have offered their lives to the service of Nature, who have sacrificed everything to understand her, who never speak of her without reverence and admiration and never cease praising her beauty, her bounty and the peace she bestows upon her scholars and admirers - even they, with amazing carelessness, forget to apprise us whether they consider her dead or living, a being or a thing, a thinking, feeling, clearly conscious and responsible Deity, or a blind, senseless force; and finally to teach us how we can persist in our praise and homage in the face of so much torture, so many monstrous faults, so much relentless cruelty.
Nature worship is the religion which unobserved makes the most proselytes nowadays. Even the druggist of my little town, who is a clever botanist, has gradually renounced his slack Protestantism for an ardent and devout nature worship. When he accompanies me to my nursery occasionally, on his search for plants, he can be stirred to truly southern enthusiasm at the sight of insects, birds, plants, trees, meadows, - all the wonders of his adored "Nature." His Bible had to make place for a periodical entitled "Living Nature," but dead nature - the clouds, the sea and the stars - inspires in him no slighter enthusiasm. This is all very lovable, but I often find it quite difficult not to cause the good man embarrassment by asking him where he considers that his beloved Nature ends and something else begins. Whether he counts man and their products also as a part of nature, and if so, why his admiration should make a sudden turn before the slums of Amsterdam; and if not, or only partly, what peculiar something it then is that has created so curious a product as man, and yet should be the opponent and enemy of, and debarred from, the great good and beautiful unity of all other things.