Gus Petersen, gifted with a facility for words, struggles to form a life commensurate with his abilities. But with no money, and more full of ideas than possessed of a practical nature, how can he achieve great things and win over the girl of his dreams?
“I have the topic of the examination essay to disclose to you,” Zeisig begins as, standing at the lectern, his eyes fly with one of their gleaming looks over his fourteen examinees. “Hmm —”, this clearing of the throat serves as a sign of disapproval. And soon it also becomes clear as to what has excited the displeasure of the lion so much.
He passes his hand vigorously through his short dark-brown goatee.
“Hmm — an historical topic has been chosen again, one you know from the reading of Cicero and which concerns the Catiline conspiracy. The question reads ‘To whom do we rightly give the name ‘Father of the Fatherland’?’ You are free to adhere narrowly to Roman affairs; for the others, however, who like to move more freely — hmm, hmm — I have left it so that you may stretch out the frame of your elaboration to your heart’s content over all of history. — So — you have three hours. I surely do not need to mention that none of my students are so dishonourable — but I would not like to shame you in these hours. Go joyfully to your work, write without commotion, entirely as if you wanted to share with me personally your views over the Roman insurrection. — Begin!”
Again an exhalation.
With a loud, creaking sound, Zeisig sits, opens a book, and tilts his lion’s mane as if he wished to read without concern and indifferently.
But only for a short moment.
Then his sombre eyes sought out immediately the pale, familiar faces of his students, and it seemed as if he studied each one with a certain anxiety as to whether he were up to the rigorous demand.
His eyes glided anxiously.
There — the middling Stark — the earnest Malte von Zingst — the unpredictable Gus Petersen.
Yes, yes, that is the most interesting of his students, but also his most unreliable one.
“Hmm — hmm,” Zeisig roared to vent himself a little.
Then it went still — quite, quite still.
The pages rustled, the pens scratched, sometimes a foot scraped on the stone floor.
The faces of the writers gradually reddened, the pages were flipped more vigorously, an eye was also occasionally directed fearfully and doubting at the teacher.
Then Zeisig sprang up, and strode powerfully to the pleading pair of eyes. As if he wanted to punish or bring help.
“Hmm — hmm — write in perfect calm.”
Gus Petersen sees and hears nothing of all that. Something like festive joy has settled in his soul.
What a beautiful, multi-coloured task. And how readily, how fervently, he lingers in the narrow lanes of ancient Rome.
With enthusiastic, fervently dreaming eyes, he stares down at his white pages, then he raises his bushy red head, chews on his pen, and listens for a moment to the buzzing of the flies playing on the white ceiling.
It is quite solemnly still today in the classroom. As if everybody felt the bitter seriousness of the hour.
The bitter seriousness?
What is that? A fierce pain is beginning to burrow through Gus’s heart. For quite unexpectedly, he must think of that family council at his home, of his mother’s sobbing, of Aunt Betti’s life plan, of the gentle bows of the old bachelor, and above all of the grey ghost of poverty, whose rustling train was on the verge of sweeping the steps of the old mariner’s house.
How strange that he had never heard the noise before.
He is startled.
Did that apply to him?
By God, Zeisig is staring straight at him. “Hmm, Petersen, don’t you want to start? What are you still waiting for? — You have already lost half an hour. Daydream, please, another time.”
Gus quickly dips his pen, and splashes it vigorously.
Yes, certainly, now means beginning. And it must become something great. Only not the usual brew, no, something which they will talk about at the high school for years.
Perhaps, “Look, boys, Gus Petersen wrote that.”
“Yes, he — he was, however, also a poet.”
Surely why the glowing eyes of Zeisig are still directed at him so glowing and rolling? How uneasily the lion with the white, bloodless hand strokes his short beard, and how predator-like the man now springs down again from the lectern —. Yes, great Zeus, so must Catiline have looked, that wonderful conspirator whom Gus secretly loved so much; he must have been quite like Zeisig to look at, exactly so. That is, of course, only outwardly. For emotionally, it is irrevocable, emotionally he is a relative of Gus. Gus is himself Catiline. Gus-Catiline resides in ancient Rome in terrible hardship and indebtedness. (Gus has only recently borrowed from Mr Winkelmann five marks. Thus that tallies.) And also a conspiracy, has not Gus likewise founded one? The schoolboys’ society, that secret assembly meeting in a loft, of such doggedly republican character, like that Karl Stark and the impoverished Malte von Zingst belong to? Truly, the similarity is striking. And now, now Gus also comprehends what Zeisig meant with the phrase that the talented ones might stretch out the frame of their investigation further. Zeisig himself by no means loves this vain striver Cicero to whom the corrupt senate imparted the title of a father of the fatherland. Zeisig himself lingers with his heart in the low, dilapidated temple in which Catiline assembles his mob, Zeisig himself listens with shivering delight for the first trumpet blasts which shall give the signal in the small Etruscan country town of Fiesole for the outbreak of the glorious revolt.
And even if a thousand times not; only parochialism can see in the trembling adherence of a rotting nobility the salvation of the state. No, Malte von Zingst might, himself a noble, writing over there in the second row so earnestly and confidently; he might calmly hand the laurels to the clever tongue thresher; he, Gus, knows and intuits, feels that the modern age is held in the conspirator Catiline, that his abettors are premature heralds of spring riding through the winter snow. Yes, and a thousand times it is so, only the subversive men have brought anything great into this world. Hence — a broom here — we want to sweep away, sweep away the snow from the path on which the steeds of the saviours trot. Sweep away so that they do not slip and fall, the coming men — sweep, sweep for the new age.
He writes. And his first sentence reads: The name of father of the fatherland belongs by rights to Catiline.