The Standard Bearer

Sample

Hurrah, I have moved back into the little North German university town. The waves of accident have carried me away from Silesia’s blessed fields, away from the blue shadows of the distant Sudeten Mountains, as far as the shores of the Baltic.

By accident?

No, that there was not, noble crowned son, future Ranke and Mommsen. What did our old high school principal say in farewell, he who fueled and maintained my affection for history through all the years, “Dear Vogt, ha — ha, it is the stupidest word sheltered by our glorious German language, that life-spraying and emotion-sculpting langauge: accident. It is not, ha — ha, ruled out. A sight defect of the half-blind, who trot dully and querulously down the streets of life without feeling ground under themselves. Everything that happens consists of the sum of barely noticed, chained events which unite and condense until they become the ultimate which God imparts to us, the deed. Believe me, dear Vogt, a midge, ha — ha, humming through the universe can become mother to earth-shattering revolutions.”

But whether by accident or by fate, that which drives me has led me in any case until now in a wonderful and benign way. I am very content.

When I arrived here in the grey of morning, no soul received me. Nobody in this unfamiliar coastal town is known to me. A milky fog lay over the railroad tracks, and nothing was visible of the new environment but the red and green signal lanterns which blinked through the impenetrable shrouds high above our heads.

But in what does the first worry of an out-of-town student consist? He must possess accommodation. He must call a room his own. To this goal, I held my little suitcase more firmly — dammit, it only contained old junk and, as my most precious piece of splendour, a somewhat rickety coffee machine — and soon the first streets of the strange mariners’ town engaged me. I wandered through the “fat gate”. Nomen et omen accipio*. I would have nothing against it if I were to find here a rich and blessed pasture. For everything, everything suits me. A good mood, the delight in knowledge, and a happy laughter, my best comrade in loneliness. But it is it appointed somewhat frugally with something. The golden ass of King Philip was never my mount. Even on the last evening walk at home, as we strode along across the splendour of our meadows sparkling with the evening dew, even on this solitary path, my mother had placed as the most important thing in my heart, “Get by, my good son, get by.” And because I thought of that, I wandered straight into the narrowest lane where the low single-storied houses cluster about the harbour until the lane becomes so narrow that you can comfortably touch the buildings opposite each other with outstretched arms. The cobblestones here call for firm soles indeed, but it is very solid, and allows space yet for strong tufts of grass which sprout through it everywhere without concern.

All very beautiful. Before a quite small building which is adorned with skyblue paint, whilst the roof is drawn down like a red cap low over its forehead, I pause as if spellbound. What shackles me thus is a bell pull. A proper old-fashioned cord hangs down, ending in a porcelain handle. And behind it on the green-ribbed front door is found a white sign on which a name stands inscribed. The name which does not give me any relief: Captain Düsterwald*.

Strange, the word sounds so mysterious. At that moment, the penetrating smell of tar which swells up from the river vanishes for me. Yes, even the masts of the little ships which lie moored below on the quay are swallowed up. Mountains and hills grow up, over which clambers the quite substantial alpine-forest which wants to storm the heights. But I stand under the rocking, creaking trunks, the swishing of the spring breeze surrounds me, the fir cones fall about me, and the spicy scent of outrageously colourful, alpine flowers strikes my senses from the depths.

The word Düsterwald is capable of all that. Home lies in it, comfort, well-being — here our huts can be built.

Already the old bell is ringing. It remarkably does not possess at all the rusty sound I expected. It rings quite brightly. Obviously it must be kept in order, and polished by a tidy hand. That is the first thing I notice at my entrance. Behind the green-ribbed door, a key is turned, and a young girl who astounds me steps to the threshold. She towers over me. She is a Viking’s daughter. The maidens of the north must once have been so resplendently white, rosy, and abounding in gorgeous limbs, strong, self-confident, and without timidity, when they welcomed the loot-laden mariners home. Certainly, my maiden did not seem, at first look anyway, ready for such a welcome. Her smoothly parted hair stretched rather somewhat indifferently over her stiffly towering neck. Her right hand did not release the door handle as, blocking the way, she tossed towards the newcomer short and sharp, “Who do you want?”

The call sounded so cool and inquiring that I dared not do anything further to begin with but stretch out towards her my pitiful little suitcase, as if this gear were capable of explaining all my wishes, yes, even my unbidden appearance. And only after some time did I force out under her estimating look a comprehensible answer.

“May I surely speak to Captain Düsterwald?”

“My father?” Again she measured me from head to toe, and after she had assessed me in-depth once more, the towering creature tossed out with renewed astonishment, “That surely. He is at home. But he goes aboard this evening.”

“So, so, aboard. I only wanted to ask —”.

“Yes, please, what do you want then?”

Now I noticed that in this mariner’s house all things were seen to without any introduction and without any digressions. It was, however, to you, yes, yes — and to you, no, no! With a visible effort, I pulled myself together. I was instinctively ashamed when I now thought of presenting my question to the self-confident creature. As I thus stood there, with my little green suitcase in hand, and the shabby light brown overcoat which shook creased about me, I seemed quite beggarly. Nevertheless, I burst out stammering, “Have you perhaps a room to rent? A student residence?”

The daughter of the house stepped back a little, and in her sharp, light-grey eyes which could certainly discern every mote of dust on the wall, a half amused, half contemptuous flicker arose. Later I found out that the sea can flicker in that way when it trembles in the sunshine under a swift wind.

“No,” the viking girl denied, “we have never rented out. My parents do not engage in such a thing.”

“Of course,” I murmured as if I considered that denial absolutely feeble and comprehensible, “I just wanted to take the liberty —”.

The girl towering on the threshold made an air to close the door.

“It just makes a nuisance,” she added confidently, and at the same time, she was already making a motion as if it were now at my discretion to continue my attempt somewhere else. I was already trying to slip away from there, murmuring an apology, when — oh miracle — destiny stretched its hand out to me, and held me fast.

Yes, it held me fast.

A single quick decision, a few long, lunging steps, they would have carried me from there, to other coasts, to other shores of life. But this strong will was not over me. Did I only hesitate because I could not part from this picture of Nordic maidenhood and harsh defiance? Or were my eyes steered back by the firm figure of the steady girl to past times which exercised their uncanny power on me constantly? I lingered for a second still, and gazed up at the blossoming mariner’s child.

Then it happened.

Down the stairs which tailed off at the end of the red hallway dark and steep into the dimness of the upper storey, massive steps came rumbling down. Two enormous figures emerged. A man in blue mariner’s garb ducked his herculean body carefully so that his turbid grey mane did not hit on the stair-landing above. But then he breathed out as if delighted over the success of this gymnastic experiment, and comfortably thundered closer to me. Behind him, so that she could peer over the shoulder of her husband, pressed another, no less heavily set figure, a woman who, despite her powerfully proportioned limbs, was completely wrapped in a blue and white polka-dot apron. Enormous quantities of material must have been lavished on this housekeeping item.

“Hoho,” the Captain called when he had reached the threshold, and at the same time, he raised his giant hand, and waved his finger trustingly at me. “I heard quite well what sort of request you have. Come in, young gentleman, it concurs. It concurs fittingly.”

And before I could recover from my astonishment over this sudden turn, the giant hand was already seizing me, grasping for my suitcase, and lifting it playfully, swinging it like a feather, away over our heads. I followed my possession hesitantly and anxiously. Only, I did not get very far. For now the giant woman, who bore an unmistakable similarity to her fierce girl, pushed herself next to the daughter, propped her arms on her hips, shook her blond head unwillingly, and finally burst out into the less welcoming words, “Düsterwald, what are you doing? That is only a caprice of yours!”

“Yes, mother, that I know,” the Captain persisted, as he let out a new laugh, before which the little house began to shake to its foundations, however. “But you shall see, this idea will reward itself. For I have been seeking an associate for a long time already.”

Now the mariner’s wife threw an estimating look at me, still more dissatisfied than the Viking maiden’s look before, and shook her head more vigorously.

“Why do we need an associate? What would we do with him?”

“Eh, mother, in wintertime, because of the lonely days. It is a man in the house. And then,” he appended as the most convincing reason, “such a young gentleman will also play the piano. Who else shall do it? For our Marie is not to be subdued into it.”

A pause occurred. It seemed to me infinitely strange as I thus lingered before the three persons in the hallway to wait in silence for how my fate was to be decided. Why in all the world did I actually subjugate myself to this test? Why did I not hurry away from those people into whose house I swept in so unexpectedly and so inconveniently? I do not know. But at the time I remained standing there as if something enormously important for me hinged on their final decision.

Then the giant woman stirred. She folded her hands over her body in deep thought, and stared at me with aquamarine eyes, serious and inquiring like the way she was certainly accustomed to judging a hare for the table on Sunday.

“Lord,” she uttered finally from her doubts, “and then the clutter. And the great demands!”

I bowed sheepishly, and wanted to assure my future landlady just then that the honour of inclusion appeared to me already in and of itself to be an extremely valuable good, when Captain Düsterwald preempted me. With both fists, he struck me on my shoulders, which he apparently considered to be a friendly greeting, and blared in my ear, “Listen, little doctor, what is your name? — Vogt? See now, I also had a Vogt on board once. An airy fellow whom I had to deliver to the Swedish Consul because of pilfering. But that is no matter — that is no matter at all. We will also arrange a rent. It does not in fact depend on that for us.”

And when his towering daughter wanted hereupon to raise an objection, he prodded her paternally in the side and shouted somewhat louder, presumably to drown out the dissonant voices of his family, “Don’t be like that, Marie. The main thing is decency. And the young gentleman looks like he has it. Vogt, not so? You are perhaps a son of the pharmacist Vogt in Stralsund? No? Well, that is no matter either, I suggest. As I said, the main thing remains decency, and paying attention, and the society. For, look, with us mariners it is also all the same. I am in fact going to Russia now. Into Holy Russia, to Archangel. A madcap place, doctor. Where the fellows run about in red and blue shirts. Well, why not, everyone has their traditions. But the worst thing with that is I will remain away for five months, and then my women will be here alone. And I would have wished long ago — well, yes, we understand each other. And now, doctor, be so good and look into your room. It looks out directly over the water, which signifies a great merit. For the smell of tar has a healthy effect. That you can see in me. And now, Marie, lead the gentleman up.”

***

Oh youthful dream of independence, strength, and striving forward, oh you secret hopes of power, fame, and eminence, how you rise up before me when I recall the time which I spent in that strung-out low room from where I could gaze out over the narrow river with its many masts and water lilies drifting past, away across to the other shore, right to where the green meadows and fields tailed off quite distantly into a blue stand of pines. But you also emerged from the mist, you sacred admiration for the beauty of privileged men. You also returned unfathomable yearning to unite and to lose yourself in a pure and strong emotion which was blossoming next to us. They also tremble up again, fear and hope, fury and calm, all the delighting and tormenting puzzles of your first love ensconcing itself.

How was that though?

Often I feel it still today, although the buds of those blessed days have long since fallen, the intoxicating scent of that time which was surely woven out of foreboding and twilight. Often still, in the midst of the sorrow and humbling of everyday life, those happy voices sometimes sound to me which wanted to awaken me at the time to a higher being.

But how was that?

In the first days after the departure of the Captain, I was not often to be found in my little room. The visits to colleagues had to be announced, a modest regular table sought for my lunches, and primarily a connection had to be made with the great library from whose treasures I soon built up towers of books in my new home. Thus it happened that the two beings who shall have been entrusted to my protection according to the vague intimations of the Captain, were only visible to me in scurrying past. Beneficently, however, and unchanged, I sensed the painful cleanliness which was enforced everywhere in my narrowest surrounds. I always stared anew at the shimmering whiteness of my bedding. I admired the gleam of the polish which radiated from all the furniture, and every evening I asked myself what industrious hand surely kept such an exemplary order amongst my books and tomes so that they lay constantly layered on top of each other according to their size. So infinitely accurately did this strange sense of order reign that I usually had to undertake long investigations as to where I could have placed this or that little note. And see there, such a rummaging carried out in impatience and haste, it provided me the first rapprochement with my two wards. I recall it still quite clearly.

It was on a monday. From the tower of venerable St Marie’s, the old clock announced just then in drowsy blows the eighth hour of the morning. There I stood behind the oval table, which was covered so prettily by a green rep cover with heavy tassels, and passed my hands back and forth in restless movement. Lord, I was missing a note. Truly, the little slip with the bulls of Pope Gregory VII. And that prince of the Church had promulgated such edicts no less to the misfortune of the submissively listening Christianity. Yes, where then would the paper be found actually? I had placed it down in the middle of the table the previous day, Sunday, and now it was hidden again certainly swept away and slipped under other sheets, only owing to the not properly manifest cause that they exhibited the same size as my painfully missed strip. My impatience grew. In earnest, no time remained to me anymore. Professor Kruse, who held the lectures over papal history, had the fatal habit of looking at stragglers who hindered the flow of his talk in such an insistent way. I had to go. Where was the scrap hidden?

Here — there — there!

Suddenly a cry of shock. The fingers groping about had pushed heftily against the glass ink pot — a swaying and — horrors — a black stream rolled melancholically over the rep cover as if the Cocytus* had arrived at the thought of leaving the grey desolation of the underworld to overflow green fields with its ghostly deluge. In dull ruination, I stared down at the catastrophe. The first thought which crept up on me was the consideration: away — away, you will be driven out from this blessed calm and comfort. What? — For a trifling sum, they have taken you in here, to an extent as a guest acting as sentinel, and you, unfortunate one, repay this classical friendliness by strewing horror and destruction about you? Completely out of myself, I followed the advance of the black liquid.

Footnotes:

*Latin: I take in the name and omen.

*Düsterwald = gloomy forest.

*Cocytus = a river in the underworld.

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