One Evening in May we accompanied the newlyweds, our friend and his young wife, to a steamboat as they were leaving on their honeymoon. He looked like a man to whom a great happiness had befallen, standing in quiet amazement of all those unsuspected glories and did not recognize himself in this new world; a bright peace lay upon his face, in his words and in his being. And she, – she was like a warm, sunny spring day, in which life overflows its banks in the distended, flaunting fullness of blossoming. As the ship slipped out of the harbor, it seemed to the two of us, who remained back on the shore, as if the sun stepped behind a cloud and as if in the far distance out on the ocean lay a fairyland in slumbering rest, one which we would never see; and we were seized with a great feeling of loneliness.
Three months later, on a moonlit night in August, they returned and came ashore at the same location where we met them. To us he seemed to be a restless person, one who was near to giving everything up; and there was a pulling around his mouth and an expression in his look, as if he were brooding over some painful puzzle that gave him no peace and from which he could neither become free nor for which he could find a solution.
They traveled back home and a year passed, then a second, and we heard nothing further from them. But one beautiful day a long letter came, addressed to only one of us, but certainly meant for both. It contained the following:
It is now years since we have last seen each other and I have barely responded with a couple of lines to your friendly letters; but don’t think badly of this, because it has not been easy for me these last two years. I go around with a great unrest in my blood, which consumes me and makes my soul sensitive like inflamed nerves. I once took up a quill thinking that I would write to you, yet threw it back down again right away, jumped up from my chair and thought that I had nothing to write. That I do so now, is because, in this moment, I feel so full of pain that I sit here like a man who has lost everything, and find myself sick and empty and lonesome.
We are not doing well together, my wife and I; but I also sense how difficult it is, so I give blessings for the hour in which I asked her to become mine. For together with her I have tasted the best in life, even if only for a few poor weeks, and I believe, that the man who has had this, even if only for such a short time, has in deed received what there is to get, and that is enough to last through an entire life of misery.
She came to me with a devotion which knew nothing of itself, a devotion without consideration, which took her entire being prisoner, body and soul. She divined my most secret desires before they came up, even when they were just a weak thought or a glance; all of my little desires, and she organized everything for me as if for a child. She laid herself open without any reservation and without even knowing. She would sit for a long time and just look at me, as if there were no words which could express her thoughts. And so I married her, without really loving her, as I could have loved many other women that had crossed my path, simply because I found her devotion so touching and because she loved me and I was so tired of youthful relationships.
I understood very well how cold my emotions and my feelings were in comparison to her love; but she knew how to find more in my tenderness then I placed into it, and I myself was happy because she was happy, – so peaceful and completely in balance as I have never been, just like a man can be on an early summer morning with the larks singing, the fresh dew and the newly rising sun.
It lasted two entire month’s as we traveled ever further into the South and all around us the southern spring rippled and bloomed. We traveled beyond the Rhine, rested upon the green shore of Genser Lake with the sun sparkling on it, rushed through Saint Gotthard and over the southern tip of the Alps with its foaming waterfalls which lay like white veils on the walls of the mountains, and then on out to the Lombardi plain, that unmanageable complex of gardens and villas which lay scattered over the city. In all this changing throng of human faces and natural landscapes, this fleeting and rushing of trains, of steamboat’s and catching tables in hotel restaurants, we became inwardly welded to one another. It was as if I sucked her blood into me; I went around with the Sunday mood of a child, in a happy peace, and something good came out in me, like when a rotten tree trunk brings forth a green shoot.
One fine morning at the end of June we went ashore at Bellagio, a small town that clung to the steep headland around which Lake Como wrapped its blue arms. After climbing to the top we sat down to rest, prowled around the heights, or rowed out from the beach letting the days come and go, without knowing where the time went. We cherished the afternoons sitting for a while beneath the trees near the lake across from the hotel; the heat hung heavy and thick in the air and you could feel the coolness doubly within the green gloom.
One day we found our accustomed place taken by a new couple whom I had noticed in the hotel dining room. He looked like an English soldier and the young lady was apparently his daughter. She had one of those women’s faces with downy soft curving lines that reminded me of my Cameen and the contrast between her large dark eyes and her light, pastel blonde lush hair gave the impression of an exquisite soulfulness, similar to an unusual nuance of color in a common flower. And next to this face, with a skin like the mealy flesh of a white Persian apple, I saw that of my wife, round and blossoming and puffy like that of a child.
And I felt that this countryside with its deep, sky blue water and white sunlight like molten silver and its blue quiet with villas of lush dark green, was a landscape of opposites, so light and bright like a morning slumber, while the sun shines through the curtains – I felt, that one of these two women could be enjoyed as the quintessence of lissomness, the refinement of intelligence and emotions; her delicate scent , her fleeting bouquet, could be enjoyed like a rare perfume or an old wine, while the other was like a hungry child that throws down what remains after she has greedily eaten and is sated.
I sensed something like a great disappointment that descended heavily upon me, dug itself into me, and it seemed to me as if restraining bands broke away that allowed myself to come back from out of the strange being which I had become. I felt like my old self again, had my old gaze back. Everything became renewed around me, a radiance surrounded me and was inside of me, and to me it was like when a number in the concert hall is finished, one which everyone has been listening to in darkness and silence, and it suddenly becomes bright and noisy. But above all, I had the sensation as if something to which I had been bound together, which had been around me, was now released. It seemed to me as if I were released from a fearful physical embrace and I felt ashamed, ridiculous, and full of disgust, as if after spending an intimate night with a strange woman.
We traveled back and forth and she became ever more of an unknown woman to me, one whom I had made my travel companion and whose board and lodging I paid for. Her loud enthusiasm for everything which we encountered rang discordant to my refined moods, it embarrassed me and I found her childish. Her childish, expressive devotion appeared unrefined and grotesque to me and I treated it like a cheap thing which you receive, because you don’t really want to say no to it. I became ever more irritable, and ironically became incapable of any more goodwill toward her then you would give toward any other female you encounter for the first time on your path through the world.
Naturally she could not help but notice that I felt differently toward her then I had before. In the beginning she braced herself against this with her entire unsuspecting, unrestrained nature and looked at everything as if these were trivial and coincidental outbursts of a bad mood, and it didn’t occur to her to take them as very important. Later, she found that her expressions of love and tender advances were always rejected by my coolness, which wounded her blood and were thrown away like worthless garbage. I noticed in my bad conscience, how she began to wonder and watch me with the long, astounded gaze of a child, to whom I had caused pain.
As she became more certain that it was serious and as I dragged her around like a superficial travel bag, coldly, mechanically and unwanted, like an annoying duty that one doesn’t want to do; I often saw her staring in front of her with a helpless brooding expression in her eyes, as if she had encountered a painful surprise and couldn’t find the solution. Finally – it was after we were back home, out here in the country, when my irritability and irony once more expressed itself more hurtfully and clumsily than ever before – she, at the same time, in just a few seconds, made a quick reversal in her thinking along with a completely sudden and violent reversal in her innermost emotional life. It seemed to me, as if she gathered her entire strong nature into herself and directed a proud resolute gaze of contempt at me, which she has since then maintained and which I feel like a stab, half in malicious defiance and half in painful pity.
That was when it became really painful, when we at last sensed it. The continuous changing of people and scenery had always given something new to offer, had diverted our gaze and our thoughts, and because of which we had been able to live, each in our own world, without being forced into an intimate existence, face-to-face, under the gaze of four watchful eyes. But it has become intolerable for us here in the country as we grow lonely and more apart from each other.
What good would an explanation be? She would not understand me, sometimes I don’t even understand myself. What I now know of this process that has been going on inside of me, what it consists of and how it works; is that it is nothing other than a natural calling forth of some shapeless substance from my physical vessel and cellular substance; a disposition, which is an involuntary reaction to some cause, one which cannot be seen and cannot be described and which cannot be stopped. But I can see that she expects something of me and I suffer because of it; I have searched with wide-awake, greedy thoughts for a way out and find none. Our future life stands before me like a mysterious smile and I must close my eyes in order not to see it; – but I still see it.
Life has now gone off track for both of us, and where it is now going is trivial and nonsensical. I cannot hate life or despise it. My scorn has become silent and my laughter frozen upon my lips. As I sit at the center of existence I feel merely horror, because it seems to me that I continue to encounter the sinister, leering gaze of the fool, which we must all follow blindly and involuntarily like sleepwalkers.