Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Translation of Die Serapionsbrüder by E. T. A. Hoffmann. Part Four.

Episode Two

 

The clock struck seven.   Theodor was impatiently awaiting the arrival of his friends.  At length Ottmar entered the room.  “I was just,” he said, “talking to Leander; he detained me and that is why I am late.  I assured him that it grieved me enormously that a very pressing piece of business prevented me from spending a moment longer in his company.  He wanted very much to accompany me  to the place of my appointment; even in the gloom of night I had great difficulty slipping away from him.  He was very pleased to learn that I was going to your house; he was quite intent on coming here with me.”  “And yet,” broke in Theodor, “and yet you didn’t bring him along with you?  He would have been most welcome here.”  “No,” replied Ottmar, “no, my dear Theodor: that would have been totally unacceptable.  In the first place, I would hardly be so presumptuous as to introduce a stranger, or, at any rate (because Leander is not exactly a stranger) a fifth party, into our assembly without the unanimous consent of the remaining Serapionian Brethren.  Secondly, Leander has undergone a rather disagreeable change thanks to Lothar.  Lothar has spoken to him about our magnificent Serapionion Club in his usual enthusiastic vein. He has extolled that admirable propensity, the Serpapion Principle, in the most hyperbolic terms, and has maintained nothing less than that we four, in keeping our eyes unwaveringly fixed on that principle, exert a mutually formative influence on one another, and that we have thereby brought ourselves to the verge of enkindling one another to perform all sorts of sublime deeds.  Such that when I ran into him just now Leander immediately began talking about how being part of such a society of literary friends had been his most ardent desire for the longest time, and about he hoped against hope that we would not deny him admittance to our union and the opportunity to prove himself the worthiest of all Serapionian brethren. He said he had a great, great many things in store for us.  And as he said this he involuntarily reached for one of his coat pockets.  It bulged almost to the bursting point with its contents, and to my by no means negligible shock I noticed that the other pocket was just as full. Both of them were brimful of manuscripts, and indeed, even from within his breast pocket the ends of paper-sheaves menacingly protruded.”
Ottmar was interrupted by the noisy arrival of Lothar followed immediately by that of Cyprian.  “Just now,” said Theodor, “a small thundercloud was drawing towards the patch of sky above our Serapionian Club, but Ottmar has capably deflected it.  We were just on the point of being infested by Leander; he would not stop clinging to poor Ottmar, who had to steal away into the night like a fugitive in order to shake him off.”
“Why,” cried Lothar, “did Ottmar not bring my dear Leander here with him?  He is sensible, intelligent, witty; who could be a more suitable companion for us Serapionian Brethren?” “Now you’re just being Lothar,” snapped back Ottmar: “you never change in that you’re constantly changing your opinion, forever forming an opposition party of one.  If I had brought Leander with me, nobody would have reproached me more bitterly for having done so than you!   You have called Leander sensible, intelligent, witty; he is all of these—nay, more! Everything he produces has a certain rounded, finished quality that bespeaks a sound critical faculty and great sagacity of judgment!  Nevertheless!--in the first place, there is nobody to whom our Serapionian Principle is more alien than our friend Leander.  Everything he commits to paper is something he has mulled over very thoroughly, given mature consideration to, beforehand, but it is never anything he has actually beheld.  His faculty of the understanding does not govern his imagination; rather, it completely displaces it.  And so he revels in perpetually presenting the longest and broadest possible view of his subject; an approach which, though a reader may take it in his stride, a listener quickly finds positively unbearable.   The intellectual and spiritual merit of his works is absolutely indisputable, but they engender the most lethal boredom when he reads them aloud.”
“The truth is,” Cyprian interrupted his friend, “the truth is that there is something quite peculiar about the very act of reading aloud.  I mean specifically with regard to the sorts of texts that are well suited to it.  It seems as though apart from a certain hypervivid vivaciousness the only desideratum of a text that is to be read aloud is brevity.”
“This is owing to the fact,” said Theodor, “that the reader is strictly prohibited from declaiming in emphatic periods like an orator, for centuries of listeners’ experience have shown this to be unendurable; instead, he must merely hint in a normal conversational tone at the various passions that arise in the course of his narrative or disquisition, and such a tone over long stretches exerts an irresistibly narcotic effect.”
“It seems to me,” said Ottmar, “that the texts that are most effective when read aloud make a very near approach to the dramatic mode, or rather that they actually are dramatic in essence.  But such being the case, why is it that the great majority of comedies or tragedies cannot be read aloud without revolting the listener and boring him to tears?”
“Precisely,” replied Lothar, “because they are not dramatic in essence at all, or because the actor’s style of delivery has been formed with a view to a full theatrical staging and the text is so feeble and anemic that on its own it cannot put the listener in mind of a scene painted in the true colors of life and populated by living characters, a deficiency that is amply compensated for by a good actor during an actual staged performance.  But we’re getting away from our subject, from our friend Leander, who, as I brashly continue to maintain in the teeth of Ottmar’s opposition, really does deserve to be admitted into our circle.”
“Very well,” said Ottmar, “but please let me remind you, dearest Lothar, of all the misery you yourself have had to endure at the hands of Leander!  Remember when he kept hounding you with that big, fat verse play of his, and you kept avoiding him, until finally he invited both you and me over to his house and regaled us with the most exquisite dishes and delicious wine so that we would allow him inflict that horrible play on us?  Do you remember how I, having calmly and faithfully endured two acts, was bracing myself for the third, when you  impatiently flew into a passion, swore that the thing was making you ill and causing you physical pain, and stormed out of the room, leaving Leander sitting at the table amid all his fine food and wine?  Do you remember when he dropped in on you one time when some other of your friends were present?  Remember how on that occasion he would every now and then noisily rustle some papers in his pocket and slyly peer around the table in the hope that somebody would say, ‘Hey, Leander, old chum, what’s that you’ve brought along with you for us to take a look at?  I’m sure it’s something really wonderful’?  Remember how you once compared the worthy Leander, who constantly went around with a tragedy secreted in his breast pocket, to Melos slinking towards the tyrant with a dagger secreted in his bosom?  How on one occasion, when you had been unable to avoid inviting him to dinner, he walked into the room with one of his fat manuscripts in hand, and our good moods and high spirits instantly plummeted?  How he thereupon smiled ever so cloyingly and assured us that he could tarry in our company for only the briefest of moments, as he had earlier promised Madame to take tea with her and read her his latest heroic poem in twelve cantos?  How the moment he left we all drew a deep breath of enormous relief and unanimously exclaimed, ‘Ah, poor Madame!  Poor unfortunate Madame!’?”
“That’s enough,” cried Lothar, “that’s enough, Ottmar my friend; everything you just recounted has indeed taken place, but there is no reason to fear that anything like it will happen in the presence of us Serapionian brethren.  Do we not form a stout and impenetrable opposition to everything that goes against the grain of our fundamental principle?  I bet that Leander would defer unquestioningly to this principle from the outset.”    
“Don’t you dare count on it,” said Ottmar, “for Leander, you see, has this trait in common with many a poetaster and petty scribbler: he has no interest in listening to anybody else, and in virtue of this lack of interest he wants to have the floor entirely to himself; he wants to be the only person who gets to read or speak a word.  And towards achieving that end he would endeavor with main force to inundate our evenings with his interminable productions; any demurral he would take sorely amiss and thereby destroy every trace of the good-natured give-and-take that is the finest and fairest of the ties that bind us together.   Today he had the confounded check to talk about ‘the collaborative literary task we were jointly about to embark on’--as if this were anything but shorthand for his plans to plague us to utter, abject distraction with his own screeds!”
“In point of fact,” chimed in Cyprian, “the very notion of a ‘collaborative task’ is extremely problematic. Whenever several people unite in the attempt to produce a single, unified literary work they are bound to fail.  A uniform cast of soul, a profoundly penetrative insight into the subject-matter, a comprehension of the ideas as they successively beget one another, seems to be indispensable to such a production; from collaboration nothing will ever emerge but a confused baroque hodgepodge, even under the auspices of the best thought-out plan.   Why at this very moment I can call to mind an amusing example of such a misbegotten attempt.  Four years ago another group of friends of which I was a member decided to write a novel whose individual chapters were to be composed piecemeal by each of them in succession.  The initial contributor’s opening sally, the seed from which the remainder of the text was to shoot forth and blossom, went as follows: ‘A roofer falls from the top of a tower and breaks his neck.  The moment her husband hits the ground, the roofer’s wife in her fright gives birth to three boys.’ The rest of the novel was to treat of the fate of these three triplets who were exactly identical in height, demeanor, physical appearance, etc. Beyond this nothing in the way of a plot had been agreed to by the time the first contributor left off. Then the second contributor took up the thread of the narrative, and in the first chapter he had a troupe of traveling actors perform a play for one of the heroes, and in this play the author had very cleverly and with admirable resourcefulness outlined a complete prospective plot for the novel.  At this point they all should have reined themselves in; if they had, this first chapter could have been retained as an ingenious prologue to the novel proper.  Instead in the second chapter the first contributor (the deviser of the roofer) killed off the most important character--who had thus been introduced into the narrative to no effect by the second contributor--the third contributor sent the troupe of actors off to Poland, and the fourth brought in a crazy old witch with a soothsaying raven and thus aroused horror that was both unnecessary and inexplicable.  And that was as far as the whole thing got!”
“I am familiar,” said Theodor, “I am familiar with a book that likewise was undertaken by a group of friends and likewise remained unfinished.  It quite undeservedly failed to attract much notice in the world, perhaps because its title promised nothing spectacular or because it lacked the necessary recommendations from celebrated pens.  I am referring to Carl’s Attempts and Obstacles.  The first part, which is the only part that has yet to see the light of day at all, is one of the wittiest, liveliest, and most ingenious books that I have ever stumbled upon.  A remarkable thing about it is that not only several famous authors, for example Jean Paul, but also several fictional characters, for example Wilhelm Meister and his little son, appear in it in all their idiosyncratic idiosyncrasy!”
“I am familiar,” said Cyprian, “I am familiar with the book you are talking about, and I can still recall a passage of it wherein a John Paul half blinded by sweat says to a fat man whom he comes upon plucking strawberries in a field, ‘Those strawberries must be very sweet indeed since they are making you so sour-faced!’  But as I said, the production of a literary work by committee is always a touch-and-go business. In contrast, what a truly splendid thing is genuine reciprocal stimulation, which certainly may be found within a circle of mutually sympathetic friends of a poetic cast of mind, and which is indeed capable of yielding an inspired, unified work of art!”  
“I owe just this sort stimulation,” said Ottmar, “to our friend Severin, who, should he ever show up here, as I expect he may yet do, will prove a much better Serapionian brother than Leander.  With Severin I sat in the Berlin zoological garden and witnessed a certain scene, a scene that provided the subject-matter of a tale that I wrote down and entitled ‘A Fragment from the Life of Three Friends’ and that I have brought along to read to you tonight.  The scene in question was that of a beautiful young woman with eyes brimming over with tears as she read something written on a small piece of paper that she was attempting to conceal from the sight of passersby, and as we were taking it in, Severin flashed me a look blazing with enthusiasm and whispered, ‘Here is something for you, Ottmar!  Your imagination cannot but take wing at the sight of it!  All you need do is explain in writing what the girl, the piece of paper, and the tears all have to do with one another!’  And I did just that!”
The friends sat down around the circular table; Ottmar produced a manuscript and began reading thus:

A Fragment from the Life of Three Friends

On the second day of Pentecost, the so-called Weber Tent, a public spot at the Berlin zoological garden, was so chock-full of human beings of every genus and species that it was only by dint of the most dogged hectoring and hounding that Alexander managed to detain the waiter, who was relentlessly bobbing and weaving his urgent way through the crowd, long enough to wrest from him a table, which he caused to be placed underneath the lovely trees in the square at the waterside behind and outside the tent, and at which he and his two friends, Severin and Marcellus, seated themselves as merrily as could be on chairs that they had meanwhile employed no small amount of strategy in poaching.  Each of the men had turned up in Berlin only a few days earlier--Alexander from a distant province in order to take possession of a legacy bequeathed to him by a recently deceased maiden aunt; Marcellus and Severin to resume their civilian existences, which they had given over long ago in order to participate in a military campaign that had just now concluded.   Today they intended to celebrate their reencounter and reunion with one another properly, and as is often the case on such occasions, the old friends’ first thoughts turned not to the past with its abundance of memories, but to the moment immediately at hand, to the activities and events underway in the living present.  “In truth,” said Alexander, as he filled his friends’ cups from the steaming coffeepot, “in truth, if you were to see me at my aunt’s isolated dwelling, if you were to see me in the morning wandering with great pathos and in gloomy silence through the high-ceilinged rooms wallpapered in somber earth tones; and were then to behold old Miss Anne, the deceased’s housekeeper, a spectral little creature, wheezing and gently coughing as she carries in my breakfast on a pewter serving-tray in her trembling arms, then placing the tray on to the table with a peculiar backwards curtseying motion, then sighing and wordlessly shuffling away in slippers that are too wide, like the beggar-woman of Locarno, cutting me mistrustful sidelong glances all the while, like a cat eyeing a pug dog, and finally leaving me on my own to be—get this—purred at by a melancholy old parrot, and smiled at by a lot of leaning pagodas, as I slurp up cup after cup of tea and hardly darie to desecrate with vile tobacco smoke this virginal apartment in which apart from virginity nothing but the sacrificial victims of amber and mastic gum seems to be valued—if, I say, you were to behold me thus, you would inevitably conclude that I had fallen under some witch’s spell, that I was some sort of Merlinesque figure.  I can assure you that nothing but the wearisome indolence for which you used to upbraid me so often is to blame for the fact that I never even considered looking for alternative lodgings and moved straight-away into my aunt’s empty house, which the pedantic conscientiousness of her executor has rendered a quite spookily unabidable abode.  You see, this strange person whom I barely knew decreed that until my arrival everything was to remain exactly as it had been at the moment of her death.  Beside the bed, resplendent in its covering of snow-white linen and sea-green silk, stands the tabouret, on which, as formerly, the honorable nightdress with its stately four-stringed nightcap is laid out; beneath the bed repose the grandiose embroidered slippers, and a resplendently polished silver siren—the handle of a certain indispensable article of crockery—gleams forth from under the counterpane festooned with alternately white and parti-colored flowers.  In the sitting room is to be found the needlework that the deceased was engaged in shortly before her passing, along with an open copy of Arndt’s True Christianity; but for me what really rounds out the spookiness and ghastliness of the house is the fact that in this same sitting room hangs a life-sized 35 to 40 year-old portrait of my aunt in all the finery of a bride dressed for her wedding and that, as Miss Anne told me amid much tearful sobbing, the old woman was buried in that same bridal ensemble.  “What a peculiar idea,” said Marcellus; “—which is nevertheless quite an obvious one,” broke in Severin, “because dead virgins are the brides of Christ, and I hope that nobody will be so profane as to sneer at the decorous, pious faith of this admittedly elderly virgin; albeit that I cannot work out why Alexander’s aunt had a portrait of herself as a bride painted when she was younger.” “I was told,” said Alexander, “that at one point my aunt actually had been engaged; indeed, that the wedding day had arrived and she was awaiting the bridegroom in her full bridal ensemble, but he never showed up, because on that very day he had thought it proper to leave town in the company of a girl whom he had been in love with earlier.  My aunt took this very much to heart, and although she was not in the least bit mentally disturbed, from that moment onwards she commemorated the day of her abortive nuptials in a most peculiar fashion.  To wit: each day she would rise before dawn, attire herself in her full bridal array, have the immaculately tidy dressing room supplied with the same collation she had served on the day itself—namely, chocolate, wine, and pastries for two on a small walnut table with gilded carvings—and pace up and down the room sighing and plaintively murmuring at the tardiness of the bridegroom until ten o’clock in the evening.  Then she would fervently say her prayers, have herself undressed, and silently, broodingly climb back into bed.  “I cannot but,” said Marcellus, “feel very deeply moved by this.  Woe betide the faithless scoundrel who brought such unassuageable heartache upon this poor woman.” “But still,” demurred Alexander, “there is another side to the story.  Although the man whom you have dubbed a faithless scoundrel and who remains one to this day may have had other reasons for acting as he did, in the end it was his guardian angel, or, if you prefer, common sense, that got the better of him.  You see, vile Mammon alone had made him covet my aunt as a prospective bride in the first place, for from the beginning he knew that she was domineering, quarrelsome, tight-fisted--in short, a cursed shrew.”
“That is as may be,” said Severin, laying his pipe on the table, crossing his arms over his chest, and gazing straight ahead very seriously and contemplatively, “that is as may be, but could that silent, stirring funeral ceremony, that heartrending protest against her mistreatment by her faithless fiancé, have issued from any but the deepest and tenderest of souls, to whom nothing could have been more alien than those petty earthly shortcomings with which you tax your poor aunt?   Ah! How ever often that misshapen creature, that bitterness that none of us is really a match for, may have barged into the old woman’s life and discomposed everything around her, if I had been her, the final recurrence of that sacred day would have made up for a yearlong plague at the very least.”  “I think you are right, Severin,” said Marcellus: “any old woman to whom the Lord vouchsafes such a blissful return to our prelapsarian state can hardly be as wicked as Alexander maintains his aunt was—and this according only to hearsay. At the same time, on the whole I would really rather have as little as possible to do with people who have been embittered by and in the course of their lives; and it is far better for our friend Alexander to edify himself with the story of the jilted old lady’s wedding-cum-funeral and ransack her chests and coffers and ogle the extensive inventory of her estate now that she is dead, than for him to have beheld her decked out in her fiancé-furnished bridal ensemble and circling round her chocolate-table in lugubrious expectation while she was alive.” At this moment Alexander, having brought his coffee cup to his lips, slammed it down on to the table without taking a sip from it beforehand, and, clapping his hands together, exclaimed: “Good Lord above!  I must be getting carried away by all these strange notions and images, for here in the broad light of this sunny day I genuinely feel as though my old aunt in her bridal ensemble is going to peep forth from that group of young girls any second now, just like a ghost.” “This ghastly foreboding,”said Severin with a smile as he puffed out little blue clouds of smoke from the pipe that was now back in his mouth, “this ghastly foreboding is the just penalty of the sacrilege you have committed in speaking ill of the deceased woman who is rendering you a kindness from beyond the grave.”  “Would you believe,” resumed Alexander, “would you believe that it seems to me as though the air in my abode is so heavily impregnated with the spirit and character of the old maid that one may oneself acquire something of that spirit and that character merely by spending a couple of complete twenty-four hour days in the house?”  At that moment Marcellus and Severin pushed their empty cups across the table to Alexander, who with great dexterity and circumspection divvied up the sugar into appropriate portions, then did the same with the coffee and milk, and finally resumed speaking thus: “You must find it peculiar and puzzling enough that I have suddenly acquired this talent that is utterly foreign to my style and manner, namely, the talent for pouring coffee; you must find it strange that I wield the pot as if in pursuit of my true calling, that I am a mighty adept of the arcane ratios of sweetness and bitterness, that I never spill so much as the tiniest droplet; but you will be even more flabbergasted when I tell you that I have developed a peculiar passion for spotlessly scoured tin and copper, for linen, for silverware, for porcelain cups and crystal glasses, in short for the accoutrements of a well-appointed household such as the one already in place at my aunt’s estate. I gaze upon all these objects with a certain sense of contentment, and I have suddenly started feeling that it is really quite nice to have more to my name than a bed, a table, a footstool, a candlestick, and an inkstand! My esteemed friend the executor smiles and opines that barring the selection of the bride and the priest I am now all set to get married.  At bottom he really means much more than that, namely that the bride is none too far to seek. For you see he himself has a little daughter, an adorable little thing with huge eyes who is still childlike and childish in everything she does; she is forever bandying about the most naïve turns of speech like a would-be Gurli, and scampering about like a veritable wagtail. This comportment may have been quite fetching sixteen years ago in a girl of her elfin physique, but now that she is thirty-two it gives a man the creeps and the jitters.”  “Ah!” cried Severin: “and yet this pernicious and peculiar mystification is entirely natural!  At what precise point is a certain kind of girl—a girl who owing to some quirk of fate has never been compelled to give over her girlish way of life—to be expected suddenly to say to herself, ‘I am no longer what I once was; the colors with which I used to adorn myself have remained fresh and youthful, but my countenance is sadly faded!’? Such a girl, a girl in thrall to a delusion that is fundamentally harmless, instills in me nothing but feelings of the deepest, tenderest melancholy, and for this reason alone I could consolingly cling to her.” “You will have observed, Alexander,” said Marcellus, “that our friend Severin is in his forbearing mood today.  First he took your old aunt under his wing, and now the daughter of your friend the executor—a man who is by the way none other than Falter the military councilor–now, I say, Falter’s little thirty-two-year-old she-mandrake, whom I am well acquainted with, has instilled in him feelings of tender melancholy, and he is just on the point of advising you to take her as your wife, and thereby to snatch her away from her creepy native environment, as you will certainly do, if only for your own sake, the very moment she says yes. But don’t you dare marry her, for experience has shown that little ingénues like her are occasionally or even quite often of a rather catty disposition, and that though they will lovingly caress you with their velvety smooth paws before the priest gives his blessing, after the wedding they pounce on every strategically useful opportunity to flourish their all-too-sharp claws.”  “Good Lord above!” Alexander interrupted his friend, “Good Lord above! What a load of twaddle!  Neither Falter’s ingenuous thirty-two-year-old daughter nor any other sort of trinket, be it ten times as young and pretty and charming as her, can tempt me wantonly to squander my golden years of youthful freedom, which I intend to exploit to the fullest now that I have come into a little money and property. In point of fact, my old bridal aunt has had such a spooky effect on me that I involuntarily associate the very word bride with a creepy, detestable killjoy.” “I feel sorry for you,” said Marcellus: “for my part, whenever I think of a girl adorned in her bridal finery, I am shaken from head to toe by sweet and mysterious shivers, and I feel as though my spirit cannot but enfold her with a higher love that has nothing whatsoever in common with its terrestrial namesake.” “Oh I know full well,” rejoined Alexander, “that as a rule you will fall in love with any bride you set eyes on, and that more often than not the woman standing at the imaginary altar you have constructed in your own mind is another man’s sweetheart.”  “He loves with the loving,” said Severin, “and that is why I love him so sincerely.” “I,” cried Alexander with a laugh, “am quite on the point of sicking my old aunt on him, and thereby ridding myself of a phantom that I have come to find a very tiresome burden.  Do I detect an inquiring expression on your faces?  Very well, I might as well fess up; the old spinster’s timorous disposition seems to have taken me over, for I am now suffering from a downright unbearable fear of ghosts, and when I am at home I behave just like a little boy whose nurse has frightened him half to death with stories about the bogeyman.   You see, I have several times experienced nothing less than a sighting of the old woman, my aunt, in broad daylight, most often specifically at noon: as I am inspecting the contents of the chests and coffers, I will suddenly glimpse her skinny nose out of the corner of my eye as she rummages through the laundry, through her old clothes, with her long, skinny fingers.  Or say I am complacently taking a kettle or frying pan out of the cupboard: all the other pieces of kitchenware in the cupboard will start shaking, and I will think to myself, ‘Now that spectral hand is about to present me with quite a different sort of kettle or frying pan.’  Then I throw everything aside, and keeping my eyes pointed straight ahead all the while, I race back to my chamber and sing or whistle out at the street through the open window, which visibly annoys Miss Anne. Nevertheless, it is a firm and demonstrable fact that my aunt wanders about the house on each and every night at twelve midnight on the dot.”  Marcellus burst out laughing; Severin retained his serious expression and exclaimed, “Do tell on; the whole tale is bound to end in some excruciatingly tasteless punchline, for I don’t see how you of all people, with your awful enlightened views, could ever have become a genuine communicant with the great beyond.” “Now both you, Severin,” resumed Alexander, “and you, Marcellus, know very well that nobody has opposed the belief in ghosts more strongly than I. Never in my life until now have I come into contact with anything ever so slightly out of the ordinary, and even that mentally and corporeally debilitating form of nervous anxiety that is said to be occasioned by the immanent propinquity of the otherworldly principle, has always been a complete stranger to me. Nevertheless, you must believe me when I tell you of what happened to me that first night, the very night on which I arrived to take possession of the house.” “Tell us softly,” said Marcellus, “because I get the impression that our neighbors here are fairly straining their ears trying to hear and comprehend what you are saying.” “They are bound,” rejoined Alexander, “to hear and comprehend it all the less in that I really would prefer to keep my ghost story a secret even from you two.  But never mind that: now that I have said I am going to tell it, I will tell it!  So, then: Miss Anne was utterly awash with tears and sorrow as she greeted me in the front doorway.  With the silver candelabrum in her trembling hand, she moaned and panted her way ahead of me through the empty rooms, all the way to the bedchamber.  Here the porter from the post coach was obliged to deposit my luggage. As the fellow was saying  ‘Much obliged’ and splaying the broad skirts of his overcoat asunder and shoving my generous tip into one of his trouser pockets at a leisurely pace, he took a smilingly complacent look around the chamber; and eventually his gaze alighted upon the aforementioned towering bed with its sea-green curtains. ‘My word, my word,” he now exclaimed: “the gentleman will sleep a thousand times more soundly here than in the post coach; and what’s more he’s got a lovely dressing-gown and a nice little cap all laid out for him!’  Thus did the impertinent scamp refer to my aunt’s eminently respectable nightwear. Miss Anne, who seemed to be on the verge of fainting, almost dropped the silver candlestick; I caught hold of it just in time and used it to show the porter the out of the house; the fellow cut a roguish look at the old woman as we moved away from her. On my returning to Miss Anne’s side, I found her trembling and quaking from head to toe; she believed that something truly horrifying was about to happen; namely that I was going to send her packing and unceremoniously take possession of the virginal bed. She recovered her composure when I politely and unassumingly explained to her that I was not accustomed to sleeping in such plush four-poster affairs and that it would suit me perfectly fine if she were to set up a modest camp-bed for me in the sitting room. Then something truly horrifying did take place, something unheard of, namely: Miss Anne’s sorrow-wizened face brightened into a charmingly gracious smile, as it has never done again since; she then plunged to the floor with her long, skeletal arms extended, nimbly hiked the downtrodden rear-uppers of her slippers up around her pointy heels, and tripped out of the room while emitting a soft, half-timorous, half-gladsome, ‘As you wish, young Sir.’"  ‘As I am planning to enjoy a long slumber, please don’t bring me my morning coffee until nine.’  With this near-exact quotation of Wallenstein [1], I dismissed her for the night.  Dead-tired as I was, I thought I would be overcome by sleep straight-away, but no sooner had I lain down than sleep was resisted by numerous and various thoughts and ideas that were beginning to circle in my mind.  For the first time, I was vividly struck by the significance of this sudden change in my situation.  For the first time, now that I had taken possession of this possession, this house, and was residing in it, it became clear to me that I had been decisively snatched from the importunate clutches of dire necessity, and that life was beginning to vouchsafe me some salutary degree of comfort and security.  I heard the repellent crowing of the night watchman’s whistle—eleven—twelve—I was in such a merry mood that I fancied the soft pips of my pocket-watch were the chirps of a cricket that had to be nesting somewhere nearby.  But with the muffled sounding of the twelfth stroke from a distant church-tower clock, I began to hear soft, measured steps pacing up and down the chamber, and with every step there was an apprehensive combination of a sigh and a moan, which grew louder and louder until it began to assume the heartrending proportions of a death-agony.  At the same time I heard something sniffing and scratching at the door of the neighboring room, along with the whimpering and whining of a dog in uncannily human-sounding tones.  I had noted the presence of my aunt’s darling old pug dog earlier that night, and now its plaint was unmistakable.  I leapt from my bed; I peered with wide-open eyes into the semi-darkness of the room faintly lit by the nocturnal luster; I could make out every object quite distinctly; among these I emphatically did not espy anything like some spectral figure fluttering this way and that, and yet I could still plainly hear the sighing and the moaning and the footfalls passing within inches of my bed.  At this point I was suddenly seized for the first time ever by that nervous anxiety, that dread, that I spoke of earlier, the dread caused by the proximity of otherworldly spirits; I felt cold drops of sweat forming on my forehead and the individual frozen strands of my hair standing on end like impaling icicles.  Powerless to actuate the movement of a single muscle, to give vent to my pent-up cry of horror by parting my lips, the blood raced ever-faster through my veins and kept awake my consciousness, my inner self, which despite its intense alertness was utterly incapable of commanding my external organs, now frozen completely stiff as in rigor mortis.  Suddenly the footsteps fell silent, as did the moaning, which was replaced by muffled coughing; the door of a cupboard creaked open; there was a metallic clattering sound like that of silver spoons, then it sounded as though somebody was opening a bottle and placing it in the cupboard, as if just before and after drinking from it—then, finally, came a queer and disagreeable succession of ‘ahem!’s, and a long, drawn-out sigh.  The very next moment a tall white figure emerged from the wall and tottered towards me; by now I was fairly drowning in a veritable freezing river of unsurpassable horror; at last, my senses failed me.      
I awoke with a start, like somebody who has just fallen from a great height; all of you will be quite familiar with this common phenomenon associated with the conclusions of dreams, but I can scarcely describe to you the peculiar feeling that seized me after I woke up.  I first had to take stock of where I was; then I started feeling as though something truly appalling had happened to me, but that all memory of this event had been wiped away by a long, deathlike slumber.  At length, albeit very gradually, everything came back to me, whereupon in my memory’s eye it looked as though I had merely been twitted by some harmless if very spooky dream.  As I then rose from my bed, my eye alighted for the first time on that life-sized knee-piece, the portrait of my aunt in her bridal finery, and chills ran up and down my spine, for I was now sure that I had seen this very figure with all its vividly recognizable features striding up and down the room in the night—and yet my near-simultaneous realization that the room contained not a single cupboard seemed to confirm me in my impression that I had merely dreamt the whole thing. Miss Anna brought in the coffee; she stared at my face for a long, long time, and then said, “Ah, good Lord, why ever do you look so pale and peaky—did something not happen to you?”  Far from betraying to her the slightest hint of discomposure by my recent ghostly visitation, I pretended to her that I had been kept awake by a violent constriction of my chest. “Ah,” murmured the old woman, “ah, that’s heartburn; we know just the thing for it!”  And with that the old woman slippered over to the wall and opened a secret door that I had failed to notice, and I now found myself looking into a cupboard containing some glasses, some small bottles, and a pair of silver spoons.  Now amid much clinking and clanging the old woman picked up a spoon; then she opened a bottle, poured a few drops of its liquid contents into the spoon, placed the bottle back inside the cupboard, and finally came tottering back to me.  This near-letter-perfect flesh-and-blood reenactment of the phantasmal events of the preceding night was enough to make me cry out in horror.  “Now, now,” rasped the old woman while smirking at me in the most peculiar manner; “now, now, my dear young sir!  Here is some good strong medicine for you; the late mistress, bless her soul, used to suffer from the heartburn too, and she often took this stuff for it!” I pulled myself together and gulped down the searing stomach tonic.  At that moment my gaze was fixed on the bridal portrait, which hung directly above the cupboard.  “Of whom is that a picture?” I asked the old woman. “Ah, good Lord above! Of course it’s a picture of the mistress, your aunt, bless her soul!,” replied the old woman as tears gushed from her eyes. The pug dog began whimpering as it had done during the night, and I, after effortfully mastering my inner shudders, after effortfully gaining hold of my composure, said, “Miss Anna, I really do believe that my aunt, bless her soul, was here in this room, at the stroke of midnight last night, and that she opened that cupboard, and took some drops of medicine from that bottle.”  The old woman seemed not in the least bit surprised, but said very softly, as a strange corpse-like pallor erased the last traces of life from her wizened countenance, “Is it really the Feast of the Invention of the True Cross again?  After all, the third of May came and went a long time ago!”  I found it impossible to ask a single further question; leaving my breakfast untouched, I hastily got dressed and dashed outside into the open air for the mere sake of freeing myself from the horrible dreamlike state that was threatening to overpower me all over again. When I went to turn in that evening I found that quite of her own initiative the old woman had moved my bed into a cozy little room overlooking the street.  I have not since spoken another word about the specter to the old woman, let alone told the war councilor about it; she for her part does me the favor of keeping mum about it as well, for plainly nothing could come of talking about it but a lot of annoying gossip, an endless and pointless round of questions and queries, and, worst of all, investigations by amateur ghost-hunters. Even in my new bedchamber, the little room, I still fancy that I can hear the footfalls and the moaning at twelve midnight sharp every night, but I think I will weather the horror for a few more days and then try to figure out how I can quit the house for other lodgings without stirring up too many rumors.” «
With these words, Alexander fell silent, and the conversation was resumed only several seconds later, by Marcellus, thus: “This business with the ghost of your old aunt is marvelous and horrifying enough, but as I am already quite firmly convinced that a spiritual principle can manifest itself to us in any number of fashions, your story strikes me as being quite humdrum and run-of-the-mill; the footfalls, the sighing and moaning--I accept all that—but that the deceased should, as in life, imbibe drops of stomach tonic, why that reminds me of that ridiculous story of the woman who after death went rattling about at shut windows like a kitten.” “This,” said Severin, “is quite a peculiarly mystifying occurrence: to think that we of this world, having received a possible herald of this alien spiritual principle thanks to its at- minimum-apparent influence on our external senses, should now presume to give it an education in good manners and lecture it on what it ought and ought not to do in our sphere! According to your theory—my dear Marcellus!—a ghost is permitted to shuffle about in slippers and sigh and groan, but not to open bottles, or even to take the tiniest swallow of any liquid.  In connection with this one may observe that in dreams our mind has a propensity to deck out that higher existence whose shape we can but dimly surmise in the banal bric-a-brac of our terrestrial lives, but that this existence is expert at making bitterly ironic sport of our de facto picture of it. May not this irony, which lies deep within nature--a nature ever conscious of its own degeneration--be a sort of quirk of the postmortem psyche--a psyche now released from its corporeal cocoon and withdrawn from the world of dreams--a quirk this psyche exhibits whenever it is vouchsafed a retrospective view of the body it has forsaken? If so, then the animate will and hypnotic power of that alien spiritual principle that leads the waking man into the world of dreams must be the ultimate determinant of every one of those apparitions that the dreamer believes to be real on the evidence of his sense organs, and indeed it would be quite comically presumptuous in us to dictate any moral standard of terrestrial origin to these apparitions.  It is remarkable how often sleepwalkers, somnambulists, are stuck re-performing the most mundane activities of their waking lives: one has only to think of that man who in the light of a nocturnal full moon led his horse out of its stall, saddled it, unsaddled it, led it back into the stall, and finally headed back to bed.


[1]Gut Nacht, Gordon! / Ich denke einen langen Schlaf zu tun, / Denn dieser letzten Tage Qual war groß. Sorgt, daß sie nicht zu zeitig mich erwecken.”  “Good night, Gordon! / I plan to enjoy a lengthy slumber, / for great has been these last days’ agony  / Take care not to awaken me too early” (Friedrich Schiller, Wallenstein, Act V, Scene V).  

Translation Copyright ©2015 by Douglas Robertson