A young woman from a noble family fallen on hard times, Leonore Griebel marries an older businessman. Brought up on the romantic stories of her ancestors, Leonore must find a way to reconcile herself to the marriage, her new son … and the house.
There are strong families whose lives play out in the same shape through centuries. Their ancestors’ principles oblige and constrain wordlessly just like the blind laws of matter build up the soundness of the body.
The cloth maker Joseph Griebel of Altenrode was descended from such a family.
The large house on Walkergasse in which he lived had been there as long as anyone could remember. The same people were always going in and out through the double front doors. Portly men, with peculiarly short, fat legs, slow and dignified — and their large hands caressing their fat cheeks from time to time as their blue eyes gazed mildly and tenderly.
The mothers and daughters were tall and wide hipped, suited to activity, with tough, direct faces over which a stern trait laid itself over time.
But it was strange. The house experienced the family’s history vicariously. Not so that it entirely merged into it, no, in mysterious ways it lowered the force of its established existence into the plastic souls of the people who came lastingly into the forbidding circle of its foundations.
Every time an old man had gone to the graveyard, the young wife filled its wide, high-ceilinged rooms with laughter. She adorned the high windows with white curtains and wrung a jovial tone out of the stiff, cold walls with her zest for life.
Then the great doors would move swinging gently. The front doors would break open and the light would drive away the cold humidity with its sunny breath. In the same way, the treads of the stairs themselves creaked teasingly when fleet little children’s feet hurried over them, and the curves of the bronzed banister purred with pleasure as a result. Even the old lion’s head at the end of the stairs, which roared at the street so grimly with throat wide open, would blink archly with rigid eyes in whose corners was laid the crust of its great age.
Yes, the old building was even becoming gossipy. It enticed the children into the darkness of its contorted garrets. They were filled with many dusty chests and drawers in which faded garments lay: mobcaps with flowery ribbons and dull gold trim, corsets, hooped skirts, long, blue, severe cloth coats with dignified, wide lapels.
Then it would tell the children faded stories, sweet, ornate fairytales. It would take groaning breathes with its wide chimneys so as to then mutter away again in the humming, warm silence. But the little ones would sit before the colourful things and listen with bright eyes.
The old life danced across the floor of the garrets in high heels with fluttering skirts and flying ribbons. It strode in in breeches and beat the rattan cane slowly. Only when it met a limb, it would sound shrilly and the entire presence suddenly disappear.
In the rooms below, which were not so cold and dismal anymore now either, the young wife of easy gait walked about and the young master smiled a quiet, peaceful smile.
The sun raised its bright joy over the ancient, large house and painted its glistening rings on its cold grey with happily trembling golden fingers so that the house quaked in restrained bliss, and it encouraged the trees of the spacious garden from their deep absorption. The old pear tree, under which the arbour stood, was laughing once more with its pitiful branches and adorning itself with a sparse posy of white blossoms. The young saplings though were swaying in the dance of a soft breeze and throwing the exuberance of their red-blossoming youth in handfuls onto the grass.
The people of Altenrode were shaking their heads because they could not grasp the change which had taken place before their eyes with the old house on Walkergasse.
Not a soul, even including the occupants, knew that it had its relapses into its innate, stiff, weighty seriousness.
It was never completely cast off, not even with the sweetest smile of the youngest child. For in the most hidden depths of its inner being, it lay undamped in its cellars. It dwelt there captive, but suddenly, often on the most joyous days, when the heel of a striding foot stamped too hard on the marble of the hall, it flared up and lumbered turbidly up the stairs into all the rooms. Then a secret grumble awoke in such corners where it had hidden away resting, and it stretched into low hard sounds.
And when the little lamp in the child’s room, that vigilant mother’s eye, was then extinguished because it had no cradle anymore to repulse the terror from, the house’s grim soul recovered its old might more and more.
It ventured with monotonous, hard contours into every night as it had always done formerly, and even the moon was not in a position to wipe the air of proud acerbity from its grey brow. And every hard, rough thought awoke in its rooms. With the tall, deep shadows of its high-ceilinged rooms, it stooped over the beds of the sleeping and whispered murky dreams into their souls. The adults only stirred sighing in their beds; the children started frightened and stared fearfully into the night. But they heard nothing but the solitary clock in the hall ticking away and they fell asleep without fear again.
In the morning everyone was depressed and said that they had a bad night.
That’s why they became accustomed to a soft, gliding gait and communicated in whispers, often only by hand gestures or the countenance of their eyes. The homecoming children did well to scare up the house from its lonely chill so that it answered their young voices with cheerful, soulful sounds.
But these cheerful hours became less and less frequent.
The laughing spirits were leaving the house by and by. In the end, in all the souls and rooms, an earthy sobriety reigned, an earnest dutifulness, a strict usefulness and a hard conventionality, the unsophisticated spirit of that long forgotten progenitor who had erected the house.
The white curtains disappeared from the windows which now looked indifferently into the distance again with their black glass. The rooms became unadorned and drab. The stairs lay there taciturnly. The lion’s head at their end lost all good-natured expression. Only occasionally did the double doors open. In the lower hall, the old, damp stuffiness lay again.
Self-confident, in snobbish pride, the large house towered over the tiny little houses to the left and right. And while they were arduously blowing thin threads of smoke from narrow chimneys, their large neighbour was puffing mighty clouds. The breaths of its draughts were travelling heavily through its massive chimney.