Two brothers of opposite natures find themselves entwined in the story of their uncle’s fateful love and its offspring, with fatal consequences.
The spell was broken. Amidst a fanfare that lasted a long time, the glasses clinked, most of the gentlemen joined in the call, and Werner even dared approaching Louise, and drinking to her in jubilation. When he returned to his place, the current of conversation was flowing along regularly again. One listened to the foreign baron, who explained curtly and disconnectedly all sorts of interesting details from his adventurous travels.
“So here in the country is your home?”, asked Mrs von Kirchdorf with a long look at the dark face of her neighbour. “Are the memories which seem to occasionally anchor you to this little clod of soil strong enough to hold the restless wanderer permanently?”
The stranger measured the pale woman with a strange smile.
“Memories, gracious lady.” He laughed loudly. “In fact, the German folk are the nation of emotion. The farmer here in the country would by no means remove a boulder from his field if the stone had already bothered his forefathers — by no means at all! The boulder has become his good friend on which his children and grandchildren will yet clamber up, and the people of Neuburg would become bloody revolutionaries if you wanted to take from them their bumpy cobblestone, only because this cobblestone gives arise to the sweet memories of their grandfather’s massive boots. Everywhere is bursting with emotion. I assure you, gracious lady, that I neither intend to kiss the sand on which I rolled around years ago, nor will I pluck the flowers of the field paths on which I first stole blushing after a beautiful girl. Despise me, for only a cool, smooth business leads me here, and I will finish it off without emotion, only with cool, gleaming gold!”
Clara von Kirchdorf did not answer. That was not the man whose proximity she believed she had just felt tremblingly; the beloved of her youth with the warm, stormy heart who rested deep under the waves of the sea. The man who sat next to her, with the mocking smile and the cold, dispassionate eyes, was a heartless, cynical egotist. She listened with only half an ear as the Baron turned to the wider circle and seemed to continue with relish, “The people on the other side of the sea are right when they smile at our sensitive feelings. Over there they are addicted to a rational philosophy of forgetting. They forget and are forgotten. When the moment is exploited, when the practical application is drawn, then they toss the memory over their shoulder and surge conquering after something new. The feeling that is perhaps left over is ballast and weakness. Reflection hinders action, and only the German gives something to memories and what has been.”
The Baron reclined in his chair casually after these words, and looked at his lady from the side.
“You see, gracious lady,” he concluded with a gentle bow, “thus I live, undisturbed by joyful and painful memories, only for the moment, yes, I can even credit myself with having obtained mastery in powerful, self-conscious forgetfulness.”
“Shall we ‘people of the high road’ also be capable of strolling on this rough path?”, Werner tossed in slyly, for he was burning to get behind the secret of the strange man.
“Hardly,” the Baron replied with great calm, “your home is the land of the high roads. Here each citizen of the world immediately receives at birth the money for the journey sewed into the coat, and then trots in the prescribed police step earnestly down the street. A stop is made at every barrier arm and the hat doffed, at every custom house the toll is reverently paid and the pass shown. Thus thousands move on the high road, each similarly exchangeable for the next, and they finally immigrate with their beautiful feelings into the temple of certainty so that they always hold to the middle of the street and are never diverted into the sidepaths before which there is a sign with ‘Stop’ and the forbidding ‘Private Way’.”
The Baron paused, and looked calmly at his taken aback audience, of whom a few individuals understood his biting irony distinctly.
“Thus only the great natures surely stroll on the sidepaths?”, Werner asked mockingly.
“Yes, gentleman,” Rassow answered proudly. “On the wrong tracks stride many great natures and many bad riff-raff. The one, in order to forget the dust of the high road and to breath fresh air, the other because their pass does not pass muster and they are not well placed for money for the journey, but most because something unrecognised, innate drives them irresistably to the side.”
He wanted to continue speaking, but suddenly his sharp eyes remained riveted on the features of Louise, who had been listening breathlessly from the lower end of the table, and their eyes bored flickering into one anothers.
For a second, then Mrs von Kirchdorf, who had been listening reluctantly the entire time to the sound of his powerful voice, asked, “So on your paths they should be able to forget the dust of the countryroad; should we women also be capable of this?”
The Baron straightened slowly, and said with a bitter smile, “I do not want to trouble you to come on our stony path, gracious lady; the government has built directly for the betrayed and betrayers of your sex precious hostels on the great high road.”
“Well?”, the colonel’s wife asked in suspense.
“The churches,” the stranger answered unctuously; “do you not know that the saintly women of all periods were usually good-time girls in their youth?”
There lay something in the strange man’s question which filled the agitated woman next to him with a shudder and consternation. Her heart was pounding stormily. Was he wanting to play on her piety? The cold frivolity with which he spoke suggested these thoughts.
Without knowing what she was doing, she rose powerlessly, and stared at the Baron with a face from which all the blood had drained. At this moment the conversation of those sitting around became louder, chairs were moved, they rose, the meal was at an end. A charming waltz rang out and enticed the young folk to dance.