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 THE HOUSE OF EULER The house was plunged1 in silence. Since Melchior's death everything seemed dead. Now that his loud voice was stilled, from morning to night nothing was heard but the wearisome murmuring of the river.
Christophe hurled4 himself into his work. He took a fiercely angry pleasure in self-castigation for having wished to be happy. To expressions of sympathy and kind words he made no reply, but was proud and stiff. Without a word he went about his daily task, and gave his lessons with icy politeness. His pupils who knew of his misfortune were shocked by his insensibility. But, those who were older and had some experience of sorrow knew that this apparent coldness might, in a child, be used only to conceal6 suffering: and they pitied him. He was not grateful for their sympathy. Even music could bring him no comfort. He played without pleasure, and as a duty. It was as though he found a cruel joy in no longer taking pleasure in anything, or in persuading himself that he did not: in depriving himself of every reason for living, and yet going on.
His two brothers, terrified by the silence of the house of death, ran away from it as quickly as possible. Rodolphe went into the office of his uncle Theodore, and lived with him, and Ernest, after trying two or three trades, found work on one of the Rhine steamers plying7 between Mainz and Cologne, and he used to come back only when he wanted money. Christophe was left alone with his mother in the house, which was too large for them; and the meagerness of their resources, and the payment of certain debts which had been discovered after his father's death, forced them, whatever pain it might cost, to seek another more lowly and less expensive dwelling8.
They found a little flat,—two or three rooms on the second floor of a house in the Market Street. It was a noisy district in the middle of the town, far from the river, far from the trees, far from the country and all the familiar places. But they had to consult reason, not sentiment, and Christophe found in it a fine opportunity for gratifying his bitter creed9 of self-mortification. Besides, the owner of the house, old registrar10 Euler, was a friend of his grandfather, and knew the family: that was enough for Louisa, who was lost in her empty house, and was irresistibly11 drawn12 towards those who had known the creatures whom she had loved.
They got ready to leave. They took long draughts13 of the bitter melancholy14 of the last days passed by the sad, beloved fireside that was to be left forever. They dared hardly tell their sorrow: they were ashamed of it, or afraid. Each thought that they ought not to show their weakness to the other. At table, sitting alone in a dark room with half-closed shutters15, they dared not raise their voices: they ate hurriedly and did not look at each other for fear of not being able to conceal their trouble. They parted as soon as they had finished. Christophe went back to his work; but as soon as he was free for a moment, he would come back, go stealthily home, and creep on tiptoe to his room or to the attic16. Then he would shut the door, sit down in a corner on an old trunk or on the window-ledge, or stay there without thinking, letting the indefinable buzzing and humming of the old house, which trembled with the lightest tread, thrill through him. His heart would tremble with it. He would listen anxiously for the faintest breath in or out of doors, for the creaking of floors, for all the imperceptible familiar noises: he knew them all. He would lose consciousness, his thoughts would be filled with the images of the past, and he would issue from his stupor17 only at the sound of St. Martin's clock, reminding him that it was time to go.
In the room below him he could hear Louisa's footsteps passing softly to and fro, then for hours she could not be heard; she made no noise. Christophe would listen intently. He would go down, a little uneasy, as one is for a long time after a great misfortune. He would push the door ajar; Louisa would turn her back on him; she would be sitting in front of a cupboard in the midst of a heap of things—rags, old belongings18, odd garments, treasures, which she had brought out intending to sort them. But she had no strength for it; everything reminded her of something; she would turn and turn it in her hands and begin to dream; it would drop from her hands; she would stay for hours together with her arms hanging down, lying back exhausted19 in a chair, given up to a stupor of sorrow.
Poor Louisa was now spending most of her life in the past—that sad past, which had been very niggardly20 of joy for her; but she was so used to suffering that she was still grateful for the least tenderness shown to her, and the pale lights which had shone here and there in the drab days of her life, were still enough to make them bright. All the evil that Melchior had done her was forgotten; she remembered only the good. Her marriage had been the great romance of her life. If Melchior had been drawn into it by a caprice, of which he had quickly repented21, she had given herself with her whole heart; she thought that she was loved as much as she had loved; and to Melchior she was ever most tenderly grateful. She did not try to understand what he had become in the sequel. Incapable22 of seeing reality as it is, she only knew how to bear it as it is, humbly23 and honestly, as a woman who has no need of understanding life in order to be able to live. What she could not explain, she left to God for explanation. In her singular piety24, she put upon God the responsibility for all the injustice25 that she had suffered at the hands of Melchior and the others, and only visited them with the good that they had given her. And so her life of misery26 had left her with no bitter memory. She only felt worn out—weak as she was—by those years of privation and fatigue27. And now that Melchior was no longer there, now that two of her sons were gone from their home, and the third seemed to be able to do without her, she had lost all heart for action; she was tired, sleepy; her will was stupefied. She was going through one of those crises of neurasthenia which often come upon active and industrious28 people in the decline of life, when some unforeseen event deprives them of every reason for living. She had not the heart even to finish the stocking she was knitting, to tidy the drawer in which she was looking, to get up to shut the window; she would sit there, without a thought, without strength—save for recollection. She was conscious of her collapse29, and was ashamed of it or blushed for it; she tried to hide it from her son; and Christophe, wrapped up in the egoism of his own grief, never noticed it. No doubt he was often secretly impatient with his mother's slowness in speaking, and acting30, and doing the smallest thing; but different though her ways were from her usual activity, he never gave a thought to the matter until then.
Suddenly on that day it came home to him for the first time when he surprised her in the midst of her rags, turned out on the floor, heaped up at her feet, in her arms, and in her lap. Her neck was drawn out, her head was bowed, her face was stiff and rigid31. When she heard him come in she started; her white cheeks were suffused32 with red; with an instinctive33 movement she tried to hide the things she was holding, and muttered with an awkward smile:
"You see, I was sorting…."
The sight of the poor soul stranded34 among the relics35 of the past cut to his heart, and he was filled with pity. But he spoke36 with a bitter asperity37 and seemed to scold, to drag her from her apathy38:
"Come, come, mother; you must not stay there, in the middle of all that dust, with the room all shut up! It is not good for you. You must pull yourself together, and have done with all this."
"Yes," said she meekly39.
She tried to get up to put the things back in the drawer. But she sat down again at once and listlessly let them fall from her hands.
"Oh! I can't … I can't," she moaned. "I shall never finish!"
He was frightened. He leaned over her. He caressed40 her forehead with his hands.
"Come, mother, what is it?" he said. "Shall I help you? Are you ill?"
She did not answer. She gave a sort of stifled41 sob42. He took her hands, and knelt down by her side, the better to see her in the dusky room.
"Mother!" he said anxiously.
Louisa laid her head on his shoulder and burst into tears.
"My boy, my boy," she cried, holding close to him. "My boy!… You will not leave me? Promise me that you will not leave me?"
His heart was torn with pity.
"No, mother, no. I will not leave you. What made you think of such a thing?"
"I am so unhappy! They have all left me, all…."
She pointed43 to the things all about her, and he did not know whether she was speaking of them or of her sons and the dead.
"You will stay with me? You will not leave me?… What should I do, if you went too?"
"I will not go, I tell you; we will stay together. Don't cry. I promise."
She went on weeping. She could not stop herself. He dried her eyes with his handkerchief.
"What is it, mother dear? Are you in pain?"
"I don't know; I don't know what it is." She tried to calm herself and to smile.
"I do try to be sensible. I do. But just nothing at all makes me cry…. You see, I'm doing it again…. Forgive me. I am so stupid. I am old. I have no strength left. I have no taste for anything any more. I am no good for anything. I wish I were buried with all the rest…."
He held her to him, close, like a child.
"Don't worry, mother; be calm; don't think about it…."
Gradually she grew quiet.
"It is foolish. I am ashamed…. But what is it? What is it?"
She who had always worked so hard could not understand why her strength had suddenly snapped, and she was humiliated44 to the very depths of her being. He pretended not to see it.
"A little weariness, mother," he said, trying to speak carelessly. "It is nothing; you will see; it is nothing."
But he too was anxious. From his childhood he had been accustomed to see her brave, resigned, in silence withstanding every test. And he was astonished to see her suddenly broken: he was afraid.
He helped her to sort the things scattered45 on the floor. Every now and then she would linger over something, but he would gently take it from her hands, and she suffered him.
From that time on he took pains to be more with her. As soon as he had finished his work, instead of shutting himself up in his room, as he loved to do, he would return to her. He felt her loneliness and that she was not strong enough to be left alone: there was danger in leaving her alone.
He would sit by her side in the evening near the open window looking on to the road. The view would slowly disappear. The people were returning home. Little lights appeared in the houses far off. They had seen it all a thousand times. But soon they would see it no more. They would talk disjointedly. They would point out to each other the smallest of the familiar incidents and expectations of the evening, always with fresh interest. They would have long intimate silences, or Louisa, for no apparent reason, would tell some reminiscence, some disconnected story that passed through her mind. Her tongue was loosed a little now that she felt that she was with one who loved her. She tried hard to talk. It was difficult for her, for she had grown used to living apart from her family; she looked upon her sons and her husband as too clever to talk to her, and she had never dared to join in their conversation. Christophe's tender care was a new thing to her and infinitely46 sweet, though it made her afraid. She deliberated over her words; she found it difficult to express herself; her sentences were left unfinished and obscure. Sometimes she was ashamed of what she was saying; she would look at her son, and stop in the middle of her narrative47. But he would press her hand, and she would be reassured48. He was filled with love and pity for the childish, motherly creature, to whom he had turned when he was a child, and now she turned to him for support. And he took a melancholy pleasure in her prattle49, that had no interest for anybody but himself, in her trivial memories of a life that had always been joyless and mediocre50, though it seemed to Louisa to be of infinite worth. Sometimes he would try to interrupt her; he was afraid that her memories would make her sadder than ever, and he would urge her to sleep. She would understand what he was at, and would say with gratitude51 in her eyes:
"No. I assure you, it does one good; let us stay a little longer."
They would stay until the night was far gone and the neighbors were abed. Then they would say good-night, she a little comforted by being rid of some of her trouble, he with a heavy heart under this new burden added to that which already he had to bear.
The day came for their departure. On the night before they stayed longer than usual in the unlighted room. They did not speak. Every now and then Louisa moaned: "Fear God! Fear God!" Christophe tried to keep her attention fixed52 on the thousand details of the morrow's removal. She would not go to bed until he gently compelled her. But he went up to his room and did not go to bed for a long time. When leaning out of the window he tried to gaze through the darkness to see for the last time the moving shadows of the river beneath the house. He heard the wind in the tall trees in Minna's garden. The sky was black. There was no one in the street. A cold rain was just falling. The weathercocks creaked. In a house near by a child was crying. The night weighed with an overwhelming heaviness upon the earth and upon his soul. The dull chiming of the hours, the cracked note of the halves and quarters, dropped one after another into the grim silence, broken only by the sound of the rain on the roofs and the cobbles.
When Christophe at last made up his mind to go to bed, chilled in body and soul, he heard the window below him shut. And, as he lay, he thought sadly that it is cruel for the poor to dwell on the past, for they have no right to have a past, like the rich: they have no home, no corner of the earth wherein to house their memories: their joys, their sorrows, all their days, are scattered in the wind.
Next day in beating rain they moved their scanty53 furniture to their new dwelling. Fischer, the old furniture dealer54, lent them a cart and a pony55; he came and helped them himself. But they could not take everything, for the rooms to which they were going were much smaller than the old. Christophe had to make his mother leave the oldest and most useless of their belongings. It was not altogether easy; the least thing had its worth for her: a shaky table, a broken chair, she wished to leave nothing behind. Fischer, fortified56 by the authority of his old friendship with Jean Michel, had to join Christophe in complaining, and, good-fellow that he was and understanding her grief, had even to promise to keep some of her precious rubbish for her against the day when she should want it again. Then she agreed to tear herself away.
The two brothers had been told of the removal, but Ernest came on the night before to say that he could not be there, and Rodolphe appeared for a moment about noon; he watched them load the furniture, gave some advice, and went away again looking mightily57 busy.
The procession set out through the muddy streets. Christophe led the horse, which slipped on the greasy58 cobbles. Louisa walked by her son's side, and tried to shelter him from the rain. And so they had a melancholy homecoming in the damp rooms, that were made darker than ever by the dull light coming from the lowering sky. They could not have fought against the depression that was upon them had it not been for the attentions of their landlord and his family. But, when the cart had driven away, as night fell, leaving the furniture heaped up in the room; and Christophe and Louisa were sitting, worn out, one on a box, the other on a sack; they heard a little dry cough on the staircase; there was a knock at the door. Old Euler came in. He begged pardon elaborately for disturbing his guests, and said that by way of celebrating their first evening he hoped that they would be kind enough to sup with himself and his family. Louisa, stunned59 by her sorrow, wished to refuse. Christophe was not much more tempted60 than she by this friendly gathering61, but the old man insisted and Christophe, thinking that it would be better for his mother not to spend their first evening in their new home alone with her thoughts, made her accept.
They went down to the floor below, where they found the whole family collected: the old man, his daughter, his son-in-law, Vogel, and his grandchildren, a boy and a girl, both a little younger than Christophe. They clustered around their guests, bade them welcome, asked if they were tired, if they were pleased with their rooms, if they needed anything; putting so many questions that Christophe in bewilderment could make nothing of them, for everybody spoke at once. The soup was placed on the table; they sat down. But the noise went on. Amalia, Euler's daughter, had set herself at once to acquaint Louisa with local details: with the topography of the district, the habits and advantages of the house, the time when the milkman called, the time when she got up, the various tradespeople and the prices that she paid. She did not stop until she had explained everything. Louisa, half-asleep, tried hard to take an interest in the information, but the remarks which she ventured showed that she had understood not a word, and provoked Amalia to indignant exclamations62 and repetition of every detail. Old Euler, a clerk, tried to explain to Christophe the difficulties of a musical career. Christophe's other neighbor, Rosa, Amalia's daughter, never stopped talking from the moment when they sat down,—so volubly that she had no time to breathe; she lost her breath in the middle of a sentence, but at once she was off again. Vogel was gloomy and complained of the food, and there were embittered63 arguments on the subject. Amalia, Euler, the girl, left off talking to take part in the discussion; and there were endless controversies64 as to whether there was too much salt in the stew65 or not enough; they called each other to witness, and, naturally, no two opinions were the same. Each despised his neighbor's taste, and thought only his own healthy and reasonable. They might have gone on arguing until the Last Judgment66.
But, in the end, they all joined in crying out upon the bad weather. They all commiserated67 Louisa and Christophe upon their troubles, and in terms which moved him greatly they praised him for his courageous68 conduct. They took great pleasure in recalling not only the misfortunes of their guests, but also their own, and those of their friends and all their acquaintance, and they all agreed that the good are always unhappy, and that there is joy only for the selfish and dishonest. They decided69 that life is sad, that it is quite useless, and that they were all better dead, were it not the indubitable will of God that they should go on living so as to suffer. All these ideas came very near to Christophe's actual pessimism70, he thought the better of his landlord, and closed his eyes to their little oddities.
When he went upstairs again with his mother to the disordered rooms, they were weary and sad, but they felt a little less lonely; and while Christophe lay awake through the night, for he could not sleep because of his weariness and the noise of the neighborhood, and listened to the heavy carts shaking the walls, and the breathing of the family sleeping below, he tried to persuade himself that he would be, if not happy, at least less unhappy here, with these good people—a little tiresome71, if the truth be told—who suffered from like misfortunes, who seemed to understand him, and whom, he thought, he understood.
But when at last he did fall asleep, he was roused unpleasantly at dawn by the voices of his neighbors arguing, and the creaking of a pump worked furiously by some one who was in a hurry to swill72 the yard and the stairs.
Justus Euler was a little bent73 old man, with uneasy, gloomy eyes, a red face, all lines and pimples74, gap-toothed, with an unkempt beard, with which he was forever fidgeting with his hands. Very honest, quite able, profoundly moral, he had been on quite good terms with Christophe's grandfather. He was said to be like him. And, in truth, he was of the same generation and brought up with the same principles; but he lacked Jean Michel's strong physique, that is, while he was of the same opinion on many points, fundamentally he was hardly at all like him, for it is temperament75 far more than ideas that makes a man, and whatever the divisions, fictitious76 or real, marked between men by intellect, the great divisions between men and men are into those who are healthy and those who are not. Old Euler was not a healthy man. He talked morality, like Jean Michel, but his morals were not the same as Jean Michel's; he had not his sound stomach, his lungs, or his jovial77 strength. Everything in Euler and his family was built on a more parsimonious78 and niggardly plan. He had been an official for forty years, was now retired79, and suffered from that melancholy that comes from inactivity and weighs so heavily upon old men, who have not made provision in their inner life for their last years. All his habits, natural and acquired, all the habits of his trade had given him a meticulous80 and peevish81 quality, which was reproduced to a certain extent in each of his children.
His son-in-law, Vogel, a clerk at the Chancery Court, was fifty years old. Tall, strong, almost bald, with gold spectacles, fairly good-looking, he considered himself ill, and no doubt was so, although obviously he did not have the diseases which he thought he had, but only a mind soured by the stupidity of his calling and a body ruined to a certain extent by his sedentary life. Very industrious, not without merit, even cultured up to a point; he was a victim of our ridiculous modern life, or like so many clerks, locked up in their offices, he had succumbed82 to the demon83 of hypochondria. One of those unfortunates whom Goethe called "ein trauriger, ungriechischer Hypochondrist"—"a gloomy and un-Greek hypochondriac,"—and pitied, though he took good care to avoid them.
Amalia was neither the one nor the other. Strong, loud, and active, she wasted no sympathy on her husband's jeremiads; she used to shake him roughly. But no human strength can bear up against living together, and when in a household one or other is neurasthenic, the chances are that in time they will both be so. In vain did Amalia cry out upon Vogel, in vain did she go on protesting either from habit or because it was necessary; next moment she herself was lamenting84 her condition more loudly even than he, and, passing imperceptibly from scolding to lamentation85, she did him no good; she increased his ills tenfold by loudly singing chorus to his follies86. In the end not only did she crush the unhappy Vogel, terrified by the proportions assumed by his own outcries sent sounding back by this echo, but she crushed everybody, even herself. In her turn she caught the trick of unwarrantably bemoaning87 her health, and her father's, and her daughter's, and her son's. It became a mania88; by constant repetition she came to believe what she said. She took the least chill tragically89; she was uneasy and worried about everybody. More than that, when they were well, she still worried, because of the sickness that was bound to come. So life was passed in perpetual fear. Outside that they were all in fairly good health, and it seemed as though their state of continual moaning and groaning90 did serve to keep them well. They all ate and slept and worked as usual, and the life of this household was not relaxed for it all. Amalia's activity was not satisfied with working from morning to night up and down the house; they all had to toil91 with her, and there was forever a moving of furniture, a washing of floors, a polishing of wood, a sound of voices, footsteps, quivering, movement.
The two children, crushed by such loud authority, leaving nobody alone, seemed to find it natural enough to submit to it. The boy, Leonard, was good looking, though insignificant92 of feature, and stiff in manner. The girl, Rosa, fair-haired, with pretty blue eyes, gentle and affectionate, would have been pleasing especially with the freshness of her delicate complexion93, and her kind manner, had her nose not been quite so large or so awkwardly placed; it made her face heavy and gave her a foolish expression. She was like a girl of Holbein, in the gallery at Basle—the daughter of burgomaster Meier—sitting, with eyes cast down, her hands on her knees, her fair hair falling down to her shoulders, looking embarrassed and ashamed of her uncomely nose. But so far Rosa had not been troubled by it, and it never had broken in upon her inexhaustible chatter94. Always her shrill95 voice was heard in the house telling stories, always breathless, as though she had no time to say everything, always excited and animated96, in spite of the protests which she drew from her mother, her father, and even her grandfather, exasperated97, not so much because she was forever talking as because she prevented them talking themselves. For these good people, kind, loyal, devoted—the very cream of good people—had almost all the virtues98, but they lacked one virtue99 which is capital, and is the charm of life: the virtue of silence.
Christophe was in tolerant mood. His sorrow had softened100 his intolerant and emphatic101 temper. His experience of the cruel indifference102 of the elegant made him more conscious of the worth of these honest folk, graceless and devilish tiresome, who had yet an austere103 conception of life, and because they lived joylessly, seemed to him to live without weakness. Having decided that they were excellent, and that he ought to like them, like the German that he was, he tried to persuade himself that he did in fact like them. But he did not succeed; he lacked that easy Germanic idealism, which does not wish to see, and does not see, what would be displeasing104 to its sight, for fear of disturbing the very proper tranquillity105 of its judgment and the pleasantness of its existence. On the contrary, he never was so conscious of the defects of these people as when he loved them, when he wanted to love them absolutely without reservation; it was a sort of unconscious loyalty106, and an inexorable demand for truth, which, in spite of himself, made him more clear-sighted, and more exacting107, with what was dearest to him. And it was not long before he began to be irritated by the oddities of the family. They made no attempt to conceal them. Contrary to the usual habit they displayed every intolerable quality they possessed108, and all the good in them was hidden. So Christophe told himself, for he judged himself to have been unjust, and tried to surmount109 his first impressions, and to discover in them the excellent qualities which they so carefully concealed111.
He tried to converse112 with old Justus Euler, who asked nothing better. He had a secret sympathy with him, remembering that his grandfather had liked to praise him. But good old Jean Michel had more of the pleasant faculty113 of deceiving himself about his friends than Christophe, and Christophe soon saw that. In vain did he try to accept Euler's memories of his grandfather. He could only get from him a discolored caricature of Jean Michel, and scraps114 of talk that were utterly115 uninteresting. Euler's stories used invariably to begin with: "As I used to say to your poor grandfather…" He could remember nothing else. He had heard only what he had said himself.
Perhaps Jean Michel used only to listen in the same way. Most friendships are little more than arrangements for mutual116 satisfaction, so that each party may talk about himself to the other. But at least Jean Michel, however naïvely he used to give himself up to the delight of talking, had sympathy which he was always ready to lavish117 on all sides. He was interested in everything; he always regretted that he was no longer fifteen, so as to be able to see the marvelous inventions of the new generations, and to share their thoughts. He had the quality, perhaps the most precious in life, a curiosity always fresh, sever118 changing with the years, born anew every morning. He had not the talent to turn this gift to account; but how many men of talent might envy him! Most men die at twenty or thirty; thereafter they are only reflections of themselves: for the rest of their lives they are aping themselves, repeating from day to day more and more mechanically and affectedly119 what they said and did and thought and loved when they were alive.
It was so long since old Euler had been alive, and he had been such a small thing then, that what was left of him now was very poor and rather ridiculous. Outside his former trade and his family life he knew nothing, and wished to know nothing. On every subject he had ideas ready-made, dating from his youth. He pretended to some knowledge of the arts, but he clung to certain hallowed names of men, about whom he was forever reiterating120 his emphatic formulæ: everything else was naught121 and had never been. When modern interests were mentioned he would not listen, and talked of something else. He declared that he loved music passionately123, and he would ask Christophe to play. But as soon as Christophe, who had been caught once or twice, began to play, the old fellow would begin to talk loudly to his daughter, as though the music only increased his interest in everything but music. Christophe would get up exasperated in the middle of his piece, so one would notice it. There were only a few old airs—three or four—some very beautiful, others very ugly, but all equally sacred, which were privileged to gain comparative silence and absolute approval. With the very first notes the old man would go into ecstasies124, tears would come to his eyes, not so much for the pleasure he was enjoying as for the pleasure which once he had enjoyed. In the end Christophe had a horror of these airs, though some of them, like the Adelaïde of Beethoven, were very dear to him; the old man was always humming the first bars of them, and never failed to declare, "There, that is music," contemptuously comparing it with "all the blessed modern music, in which there is no melody." Truth to tell, he knew nothing whatever about it.
His son-in-law was better educated and kept in touch with artistic125 movements; but that was even worse, for in his judgment there was always a disparaging126 tinge127. He was lacking neither in taste nor intelligence; but he could not bring himself to admire anything modern. He would have disparaged128 Mozart and Beethoven, if they had been contemporary, just as he would have acknowledged the merits of Wagner and Richard Strauss had they been dead for a century. His discontented temper refused to allow that there might be great men living during his own lifetime; the idea was distasteful to him. He was so embittered by his wasted life that he insisted on pretending that every life was wasted, that it could not be otherwise, and that those who thought the opposite, or pretended to think so, were one of two things: fools or humbugs129.
And so he never spoke of any new celebrity130 except in a tone of bitter irony131, and as he was not stupid he never failed to discover at the first glance the weak or ridiculous sides of them. Any new name roused him to distrust; before he knew anything about the man he was inclined to criticise132 him—because he knew nothing about him. If he was sympathetic towards Christophe it was because he thought that the misanthropic133 boy found life as evil as he did himself, and that he was not a genius. Nothing so unites the small of soul in their suffering and discontent as the statement of their common impotence. Nothing so much restores the desire for health or life to those who are healthy and made for the joy of life as contact with the stupid pessimism of the mediocre and the sick, who, because they are not happy, deny the happiness of others. Christophe felt this. And yet these gloomy thoughts were familiar to him; but he was surprised to find them on Vogel's lips, where they were unrecognizable; more than that, they were repugnant to him; they offended him.
He was even more in revolt against Amalia's ways. The good creature did no more than practise Christophe's theories of duty. The word was upon her lips at every turn. She worked unceasingly, and wanted everybody to work as she did. Her work was never directed towards making herself and others happier; on the contrary. It almost seemed as though it Was mainly intended to incommode everybody and to make life as disagreeable as possible so as to sanctify it. Nothing would induce her for a moment to relinquish134 her holy duties in the household, that sacro-sanct institution which in so many women takes the place of all other duties, social and moral. She would have thought herself lost had she not on the same day, at the same time, polished the wooden floors, washed the tiles, cleaned the door-handles, beaten the carpets, moved the chairs, the cupboards, the tables. She was ostentatious about it. It was as though it was a point of honor with her. And after all, is it not in much the same spirit that many women conceive and defend their honor? It is a sort of piece of furniture which they have to keep polished, a well waxed floor, cold, hard—and slippery.
The accomplishment135 of her task did not make Frau Vogel more amicable136. She sacrificed herself to the trivialities of the household, as to a duty imposed by God. And she despised those who did not do as she did, those who rested, and were able to enjoy life a little in the intervals137 of work. She would go and rouse Louisa in her room when from time to time she sat down in the middle of her work to dream. Louisa would sigh, but she submitted to it with a half-shamed smile. Fortunately, Christophe knew nothing about it; Amalia used to wait until he had gone out before she made these irruptions into their rooms, and so far she had not directly attacked him; he would not have put up with it. When he was with her he was conscious of a latent hostility138 within himself. What he could least forgive her was the noise she made. He was maddened by it. When he was locked in his room—a little low room looking out on the yard—with the window hermetically sealed, in spite of the want of air, so as not to hear the clatter139 in the house, he could not escape from it. Involuntarily he was forced to listen attentively140 for the least sound coming up from below, and when the terrible voice which penetrated141 all the walls broke out again after a moment of silence he was filled with rage; he would shout, stamp with his foot, and roar insults at her through the wall. In the general uproars142 no one ever noticed it; they thought he was composing. He would consign143 Frau Vogel to the depths of hell. He had no respect for her, nor esteem144 to check him. At such times it seemed to him that he would have preferred the loosest and most stupid of women, if only she did not talk, to cleverness, honesty, all the virtues, when they make too much noise.
His hatred145 of noise brought him in touch with Leonard. In the midst of the general excitement the boy was the only one to keep calm, and never to raise his voice more at one moment than another. He always expressed himself correctly and deliberately146, choosing his words, and never hurrying. Amalia, simmering, never had patience to wait until he had finished; the whole family cried out upon his slowness. He did not worry about it. Nothing could upset his calm, respectful deference147. Christophe was the more attracted to him when he learned that Leonard intended to devote his life to the Church, and his curiosity was roused.
With regard to religion, Christophe was in a queer position; he did not know himself how he stood towards it. He had never had time to think seriously about it. He was not well enough educated, and he was too much absorbed by the difficulties of existence to be able to analyze148 himself and to set his ideas in order. His violence led him from one extreme to the other, from absolute facts to complete negation149, without troubling to find out whether in either case he agreed with himself. When he was happy he hardly thought of God at all, but he was quite ready to believe in Him. When he was unhappy he thought of Him, but did not believe; it seemed to him impossible that a God could authorize150 unhappiness and, injustice. But these difficulties did not greatly exercise him. He was too fundamentally religious to think much about God. He lived in God; he had no need to believe in Him. That is well enough for the weak and worn, for those whose lives are anæmic. They aspire151 to God, as a plant does to the sun. The dying cling to life. But he who bears in his soul the sun and life, what need has he to seek them outside himself?
Christophe would probably never have bothered about these questions had he lived alone. But the obligations of social life forced him to bring his thoughts to bear on these puerile152 and useless problems, which occupy a place out of all proportion in the world; it is impossible not to take them into account since at every step they are in the way. As if a healthy, generous creature, overflowing153 with strength and love, had not a thousand more worthy154 things to do than to worry as to whether God exists or no!… If it were only a question of believing in God! But it is needful to believe in a God, of whatever shape or size and color and race. So far Christophe never gave a thought to the matter. Jesus hardly occupied his thoughts at all. It was not that he did not love him: he loved him when he thought of him: but he never thought of him. Sometimes he reproached himself for it, was angry with himself, could not understand why he did not take more interest in him. And yet he professed155, all his family professed; his grandfather was forever reading the Bible; he went regularly to Mass; he served it in a sort of way, for he was an organist; and he set about his task conscientiously157 and in an exemplary manner. But when he left the church he would have been hard put to it to say what he had been thinking about. He set himself to read the Holy Books in order to fix his ideas, and he found amusement and even pleasure in them, just as in any beautiful strange books, not essentially158 different from other books, which no one ever thinks of calling sacred. In truth, if Jesus appealed to him, Beethoven did no less. And at his organ in Saint Florian's Church, where he accompanied on Sundays, he was more taken up with his organ than with Mass, and he was more religious when he played Bach than when he played Mendelssohn, Some of the ritual brought him to a fervor159 of exaltation. But did he then love God, or was it only the music, as an impudent160 priest said to him one day in jest, without thinking of the unhappiness which his quip might cause in him? Anybody else would not have paid any attention to it, and would not have changed his mode of living—(so many people put up with not knowing what they think!) But Christophe was cursed with an awkward need for sincerity161, which filled him with scruples162 at every turn. And when scruples came to him they possessed him forever. He tortured himself; he thought that he had acted with duplicity. Did he believe or did he not?… He had no means, material or intellectual—(knowledge and leisure are necessary)—of solving the problem by himself. And yet it had to be solved, or he was either indifferent or a hypocrite. Now, he was incapable of being either one or the other.
He tried timidly to sound those about him. They all seemed to be sure of themselves. Christophe burned to know their reasons. He could not discover them. Hardly did he receive a definite answer; they always talked obliquely163. Some thought him arrogant164, and said that there is no arguing these things, that thousands of men cleverer and better than himself had believed without argument, and that he needed only to do as they had done. There were some who were a little hurt, as though it were a personal affront165 to ask them such a question, and yet they were of all perhaps the least certain of their facts. Others shrugged166 their shoulders and said with a smile: "Bah! it can't do any harm." And their smile said: "And it is so useful!…" Christophe despised them with all his heart.
He had tried to lay his uncertainties167 before a priest, but he was discouraged by the experiment. He could not discuss the matter seriously with him. Though his interlocution was quite pleasant, he made Christophe feel, quite politely, that there was no real equality between them; he seemed to assume in advance that his superiority was beyond dispute, and that the discussion could not exceed the limits which he laid down for it, without a kind of impropriety; it was just a fencing bout5, and was quite inoffensive. When Christophe wished to exceed the limits and to ask questions which the worthy man was pleased not to answer, he stepped back with a patronizing smile, and a few Latin quotations168, and a fatherly objurgation to pray, pray that God would enlighten him. Christophe issued from the interview humiliated and wounded by his love of polite superiority. Wrong or right, he would never again for anything in the world have recourse to a priest. He admitted that these men were his superiors in intelligence or by reason of their sacred calling; but in argument there is neither superiority, nor inferiority, nor title, nor age, nor name; nothing is of worth but truth, before which all men are equal.
So he was glad to find a boy of his own age who believed. He asked no more than belief, and he hoped that Leonard would give him good reason for believing. He made advances to him. Leonard replied with his usual gentleness, but without eagerness; he was never eager about anything. As they could not carry on a long conversation in the house without being interrupted every moment by Amalia or the old man, Christophe proposed that they should go for a walk one evening after dinner. Leonard was too polite to refuse, although he would gladly have got out of it, for his indolent nature disliked walking, talking, and anything that cost him an effort.
Christophe had some difficulty in opening up the conversation. After two or three awkward sentences about trivialities he plunged with a brusqueness that was almost brutal169. He asked Leonard if he were really going to be a priest, and if he liked the idea. Leonard was nonplussed170, and looked at him uneasily, but when he saw that Christophe was not hostilely disposed he was reassured.
"Yes," he replied. "How could it be otherwise?"
"Ah!" said Christophe. "You are very happy." Leonard was conscious of a shade of envy in Christophe's voice and was agreeably flattered by it. He altered his manner, became expansive, his face brightened.
"Yes," he said, "I am happy." He beamed.
"What do you do to be so?" asked Christophe.
Before replying Leonard proposed that they should sit down, on a quiet seat in the cloisters171 of St. Martin's. From there they could see a corner of the little square, planted with acacias, and beyond it the town, the country, bathed in the evening mists. The Rhine flowed at the foot of the hill. An old deserted172 cemetery173, with graves lost under the rich grass, lay in slumber174 beside them behind the closed gates.
Leonard began to talk. He said, with his eyes shining with contentment, how happy he was to escape from life, to have found a refuge, where a man is, and forever will be, in shelter. Christophe, still sore from his wounds, felt passionately the desire for rest and forgetfulness; but it was mingled175 with regret. He asked with a sigh:
"And yet, does it cost you nothing to renounce176 life altogether?"
"Oh!" said Leonard quietly. "What is there to regret? Isn't life sad and ugly?"
"There are lovely things too," said Christophe, looking at the beautiful evening.
"There are some beautiful things, but very few."
"The few that there are are yet many to me."
"Oh, well! it is simply a matter of common sense. On the one hand a little good and much evil; on the other neither good nor evil on earth, and after, infinite happiness—how can one hesitate?"
Christophe was not very pleased with this sort of arithmetic. So economic a life seemed to him very poor. But he tried to persuade himself that it was wisdom.
"So," he asked a little ironically, "there is no risk of your being seduced177 by an hour's pleasure?"
"How foolish! When you know that it is only an hour, and that after it there is all eternity178!"
"You are quite certain of eternity?"
"Of course."
Christophe questioned him. He was thrilled with hope and desire. Perhaps Leonard would at last give him impregnable reasons for believing. With what a passion he would himself renounce all the world to follow him to God.
At first Leonard, proud of his rôle of apostle, and convinced that Christophe's doubts were only a matter of form, and that they would of course give way before his first arguments, relied upon the Holy Books, the authority of the Gospel, the miracles, and traditions. But he began to grow gloomy when, after Christophe had listened for a few minutes, he stopped him and said that he was answering questions with questions, and that he had not asked him to tell exactly what it was that he was doubting, but to give some means of resolving his doubts. Leonard then had to realize that Christophe was much more ill than he seemed, and that he would only allow himself to be convinced by the light of reason. But he still thought that Christophe was playing the free thinker—(it never occurred to him that he might be so sincerely).—He was not discouraged, and, strong in his recently acquired knowledge, he turned back to his school learning: he unfolded higgledy, piggledy, with more authority than order, his metaphysical proofs of the existence of God and the immortality179 of the soul. Christophe, with his mind at stretch, and his brow knit in the effort, labored180 in silence, and made him say it all over again; tried hard to gather the meaning, and to take it to himself, and to follow the reasoning. Then suddenly he burst out, vowed181 that Leonard was laughing at him, that it was all tricks, jests of the fine talkers who forged words and then amused themselves with pretending that these words were things. Leonard was nettled182, and guaranteed the good faith of his authors. Christophe shrugged his shoulders, and said with an oath that they were only humbugs, infernal writers; and he demanded fresh proof.
Leonard perceived to his horror that Christophe was incurably183 attainted, and took no more interest in him. He remembered that he had been told not to waste his time in arguing with skeptics,—at least when they stubbornly refuse to believe. There was the risk of being shaken himself, without profiting the other. It was better to leave the unfortunate fellow to the will of God, who, if He so designs, would see to it that the skeptic184 was enlightened: or if not, who would dare to go against the will of God? Leonard did not insist then on carrying on the discussion. He only said gently that for the time being there was nothing to be done, that no reasoning could show the way to a man who was determined185 not to see it, and that Jean-Christophe must pray and appeal to Grace: nothing is possible without that: he must desire grace and the will to believe.
"The will," thought Christophe bitterly. "So then, God will exist because I will Him to exist? So then, death will not exist, because it pleases me to deny it!… Alas186! How easy life is to those who have no need to see the truth, to those who can see what they wish to see, and are forever forging pleasant dreams in which softly to sleep!" In such a bed, Christophe knew well that be would never sleep….
Leonard went on talking. He had fallen back on his favorite subject, the sweets of the contemplative life, and once on this neutral ground, he was inexhaustible. In his monotonous187 voice, that shook with the pleasure in him, he told of the joys of the life in God, outside, above the world, far from noise, of which he spoke in a sudden tone of hatred (he detested188 it almost as much as Christophe), far from violence, far from frivolity189, far from the little miseries190 that one has to suffer every day, in the warm, secure nest of faith, from which you can contemplate
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