Friedrich Spielhagen.

What the Swallow Sang: A Novel online

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played the undignified part of the third person, only to learn that she
still loved this man, and her unhappiness consisted in the knowledge
that she was not as much beloved by him as she desired to be. "On your
honor, Gotthold, did he tell you so?" In what a despairing tone she had
uttered the words! How the dread of hearing a "yes" had disfigured her
beautiful face! "Is this your boasted friendship?" Yes, his friendship,
with which he had been troublesome to her years before, with which he
was troublesome now, only that he could no longer hide himself behind
its mask as in those days, only that he no longer had the poor
consolation of being able to slip away unnoticed and unperceived, as he
had done that night.

He had lain here on the edge of the forest, under the great beech-tree,
in the darkness of the night, and plucked up the moss, and cursed
himself and the whole world because, by the pale light of the moon, he
had seen two happy lovers. Now the sun glared broadly upon his couch of
pain, as if it wished to show him how childish his grief had been, and
that he should have reserved his despair for this hour. She had been
happy! Gotthold tried to laugh, but the sound that came from his
tortured breast was a cry, a dull moaning cry like that of a wounded
animal. Even so had he wailed when he tottered along this very path
through the sultry woods that night, and the trees danced around him in
the dim moonlight like mocking spectres. Now they stood in brazen
sun-steeped ranks, and seemed to say: What do we care for your
self-created anguish, you fool!

And what do I care for your misery! said the sea, which, now as he
emerged from the forest upon the bluff, stretched before him in a
blackish-blue expanse, as if petrified in its unapproachable majesty.
He had seen it under this aspect once before, one afternoon when he had
been wandering along the rocky cliffs of Anacapri, and it had given him
the subject for one of his best paintings; but now he only bestowed a
passing thought upon it, as the memory of the cool forest shade and
murmuring fountain by which he sat a short time before, flits through
the burning brain of a sun-scorched wanderer on a dusty highway.

Below him in the little inlet, which had been toilsomely dug in the
rocky shore, were the boats which belonged to the estate. During the
last few days he had often used the smaller one to row to various
places along the coast, and had the key of the chain by which it was
fastened to the stake in his pocket.

Broader and broader grew the shadow which fell from the shore upon
the sea and overtook Gotthold, as with powerful strokes he began to
row across the wide bay, at whose extreme southern point stood the
beach-house, now brightly illumined by the sunlight. But the shadow did
not proceed from the shore, but a black wall of clouds which, of
perfectly uniform breadth, rose slowly in the heavens, and whose sharp
upper edge glowed and sparkled with a gloomy fire. It was a heavy
thunderstorm from the land. Well, let it come! Gotthold longed to escape
from the sultry atmosphere that brooded over his soul, and breathe
freely once more in the strife of the elements. A fiery shaft quivered
across the black wall of clouds, then a second, a third; and with
marvellous speed the dark curtain rose higher and higher, extinguishing
every gleam of light in sky and shore, and upon the sea, over which the
wind now whistled in gusts, furrowing its mirror-like surface and soon
lashing it into foaming surges.

Waves and wind turned Gotthold's little boat aside from its course and
drove it, as if in sport, towards the sea, though now, clearly
perceiving his danger, he tried to guide it to the shore. After a few
strokes he realized that his only hope of deliverance was that the
storm might pass as quickly as it had come.

But it seemed as if the fiends of darkness had heard his sacrilegious
words and were now determined to have their victim. The black shadow
spread farther and farther over the raging sea; only a few white sails
still gleamed in the distant horizon, and now they also disappeared in
the darkness; the waves dashed still higher, and the boat receded still
faster from the shore, where already, even to Gotthold's keen eye, the
white bluff and the dark forest that crowned it blended together in one
gray line. There was no longer any doubt that the skiff would be driven
into the open sea, unless, which might happen at any moment, some wave
upset it; nay, it seemed a miracle that this had not already occurred.

Gotthold calmly did what he could to save himself; he carefully watched
the rise and fall of every approaching wave and kept the boat's head to
the wind, now with the right oar, now with the left, and anon making a
powerful stroke with both. If it upset, all depended upon whether it
sank immediately or floated on the surface. In the latter case his
situation was not utterly desperate; he might perhaps be able to cling
to it, and, if the wind veered, either be carried back to land, or
rescued by some passing ship; but if the boat sank, he was lost
according to all human calculation. He could not put down the oars a
moment to divest himself of his clothing, and not even so good a
swimmer as himself could hope, fully clad, to swim for many hours in
such a sea, especially as he already began to feel that his strength,
carefully as he had husbanded it, was gradually beginning to fail.

Gradually at first, and then faster and faster. Hitherto he had
executed the most complicated movements of the oars with perfect ease,
but now they grew heavier and heavier in the stiffened hands, the
benumbed arms. His breast grew more and more oppressed, his heart beat
more and more painfully, his breathing changed to gasping, his throat
seemed choked, his temples throbbed; come what would, he must rest a
moment, take in the oars, and let the boat drift.

The little skiff instantly began to ship water; Gotthold had expected
it. "It can't last much longer now," he said to himself, "and what does
it matter? If you could live for her, it would be worth the trouble;
but now - to whom do you die except yourself? Death cannot be so very
painful. True, she will think: 'He tried to lose his life, and he might
have spared me that.' It is very ungallant in me to drift ashore a
disfigured corpse, very ungallant and very stupid; but it is all of a
piece, and surely a man cannot pay for a folly more dearly than with
his life."

Thoughts crowded still more confusedly upon his bewildered brain as,
utterly exhausted, he sat bending forward, staring at the oars, which
he still clenched mechanically in his stiffened fingers, and the
reeling edge of the boat, which was now sharply relieved against the
grayish-black sky, and then buried a foot deep under the foaming crest
of a breaking wave. Then he saw all this only as a background, from
which her face appeared in perfect distinctness, no longer with the
mouth quivering with pain and the cold Medusa eyes, but transfigured by
a merry roguish smile, as it had always arisen before his memory from
the precious days of youth, and as he had seen it lately for one

Suddenly an infinite sorrow seized upon him that he must give up life
without having lived, without being loved by her; the life which, if he
was only permitted to go on loving her, was an inexpressible happiness;
the life which did not belong to him, which he owed to her, and for
which, for her sake, he would struggle till his latest breath.

The stiffened fingers again closed firmly around the handles of the
oars; the benumbed arms moved and parried with powerful strokes the
onset of the rushing waves; the wearied eyes gazed once more over the
foaming waters for some hope of deliverance, and a joyful shout escaped
his laboring breast when, as if summoned by some spell, a sail emerged
from the watery mist with which the air was filled. The next moment it
came shooting forward, a large vessel, with her larboard side so low in
the water, that Gotthold saw the whole keel from bow to stern, and
above the high bulwark nothing was visible except the head of the
steersman, whose snow-white hair fluttered in the wind, and the upper
part of the body of a young man on the bowsprit, who held a coil of
rope in his hand. And now, like a serpent, the line fell directly
across his boat. He seized it and wound it around him. Then came a
powerful jerk; his boat, filled almost to the water's edge, reeled to
and fro, and sank under his feet; but his hands were already clinging
to the side of the larger vessel; two strong arms seized him under the
shoulders, and the next moment he fell at the feet of Cousin Boslaf,
who held out his left hand to him, while with the right he turned his
helm by a powerful effort, to save his own boat from being swamped.


The sea was still heaving after the thunder-storm of the afternoon, but
the sun had cast a trembling light over the dark waves before it set.
The stars now gradually appeared in the blackish-blue vault of the
heavens; Gotthold raised his eyes to them, and then gazed into the
quiet countenance of the old man, by whose side he was seated upon a
bench, sheltered by the thick walls of the beach-house. Through the
window beside them gleamed the light of the lamp, which, ever since
Cousin Boslaf had lived in the beach-house, had burned there night
after night, and would now continue to burn on, even after his eyes
were closed in death. It was for this object that he had taken the
journey to Sundin - the first since he returned from Sweden, sixty-five
years ago, and probably the last he would ever make in his life. It had
cost him an effort to give up his hermit habits for days, and mingle
with mankind once more. But it must be done; he dared not ask whether
the road would be hard or easy for him. So he had sailed away,
accompanied by young Carl Peters, the son of his old friend, and for
six long days presented himself at the Herr Präsident's every morning,
and was always sent away because the Herr Präsident was too busy to see
him, as the valet said, who finally roughly forbade him to come again,
just at the moment the former left his study, and, seeing the old man,
asked him kindly who he was, and what he wanted. Then Cousin Boslaf
told the friendly gentleman that his name was Bogislaf Wenhof, and he
had been very intimate with Malte von Krissowitz, whose portrait was
hanging on the wall, and who, if he was not mistaken, was the
Präsident's great-grandfather, and then told him his desire. Malte von
Krissowitz was one of the six young men who had officiated as judges
during the contest between Bogislaf and Adolf Wenhof; the Präsident,
when a very young man, had heard the famous story from his father, who
had it from his grandfather, to whom his great-grandfather had related
it; it seemed to him like a fairy tale that the hero of that story
should be still alive, and the very old man who was sitting on the sofa
beside him. He called his wife and daughter, introduced them to the old
man, and insisted that he should stay to dinner. Everybody was most
kind and friendly, and - what was most important - the Präsident, when he
bade him farewell, gave him his word of honor that the good cause for
which he pleaded should henceforth be his own.

"Within a few days," said Cousin Boslaf, "a beacon will be erected here
before the house, on a high foundation of stone, whose light can be
seen a mile farther than that of my lamp. Carl Peters is appointed
keeper, and will live with me in the beach-house, which for the present
will serve as a watch-house, and after my death is to become the
property of the government. So this great care is removed from my mind.
I need say no longer, when I extinguish the lamp at daybreak: Will you
be able to light it again this evening?"

The old man was silent; the Swedish banner flapped still more loudly
upon the roof of the beach-house; the waves broke more heavily upon the
rocky strand. Gotthold's eyes wandered with deep reverence over the
figure at his side, the tall form of the silver-haired old man of
ninety, whose heart still beat so warmly in his breast for all
mankind - for the poor sailors whom he did not know, and who did not
know him, of whom he knew nothing except that they were sailing yonder
in the night, invisible even to his keen eyes, and so long as they saw
the light kept away from the dangerous coast, as their fathers and
grandfathers had taught them to do. The old man who lived only for
others, whose whole existence was nothing but love for others, from
whom he neither asked nor expected love or gratitude, had to-day risked
his own life to save him, who scarcely desired to be saved, to whom
life seemed valueless because he loved and was not beloved in return.
What would the old man say to that? Would he, in the boundlessness of
his unselfish love, even be able to understand such a selfish,
egotistical passion?

"That was my one anxiety," Cousin Boslaf began again; "the government
has relieved me of it; I have one other which no one can remove."

"Does it concern her - Cecilia?" asked Gotthold with a beating heart.

"Yes," said the old man, "it does concern her, Ulrica's
great-grandchild, who looks so like her ancestress, but is probably
even more unhappy. She should never have been allowed to marry the man,
if I had had my way; but they threw my advice to the winds; they have
always done so."

A strange, terrible change had come over the old man. His tall form was
bent as if all strength had left it; his deep voice, so firm a few
moments before, quivered and trembled, when after a short pause, which
Gotthold did not venture to interrupt, he continued:

"They have always done so. And so they have lost their fields, one
after another, and their forests, one after another, and become tenants
where they were once masters, and gone to ruin, one after another. I
have let it pass, been forced to let it pass, and always thought: Now
matters can't be worse - but the worst was still in store for me. They
were all reckless and frivolous; but none were wicked, not one, and
after all they were men who, if need be, could live honestly by the
labor of their hands. Now, now, even the old name will die out with me;
only one poor helpless woman is left, who has exchanged her name for
that of a man who is a good-for-nothing fellow like his forefathers;
the worthless wretch will drag her down to shame with him - her shame
and mine!"

The old man's last words were scarcely audible; for he had buried his
wrinkled face in his knotty hands. Gotthold laid his hand on his knee.

"How can you talk so, Cousin Boslaf!" said he, "how can you accuse
yourself of a misfortune you have been unable to prevent; you, who have
always been the good genius of the house!"

"The good genius of the house - great God!"

The old man started up and strode hastily to the shore, where he stood
with his face turned towards the sea; his white hair fluttered in the
wind; he raised his arms towards the dark waters, and then let them
fall again, muttering unintelligible words. Gotthold still kept by his
side; had the old man become childish, or had he gone mad?

"What is the matter, Cousin Boslaf?" he asked.

"Cousin Boslaf!" shrieked the old man, "ay, Cousin Boslaf! He called me
so, and she too, and all the rest with them and after them, my
children, and children's children!"

"Cousin Boslaf!"

"Always Cousin Boslaf! Yes, it is quite right, and will be placed on my
gravestone. I have sworn that no human being should ever hear the tale,
but I can bear it no longer. One man shall learn the crime we committed
against mankind, that he may forgive us our sin in the name of mankind.
I have always loved you, and to-day I saved your life, so you shall be
the man."

He led Gotthold back to the bench.

"You have probably heard of the contest I had with my Cousin Adolf
about Dollan?"

"Yes," replied Gotthold, "and have thought of it all very recently as I
came to visit you, and in the depths of my heart praised the rare
magnanimity with which you resigned the rich estate and beloved maiden
to your cousin, after you learned that he was preferred by her. Emma
von Dahlitz, Ulrica's confidante, brought you this message the evening
before the decisive day; was it not so?"

"Yes," said Cousin Boslaf, "only the message was false, and she who
brought it lied, out of love - as she afterwards wrote me on her
death - bed a few years after, when I was in Sweden - out of love for me,
whom she hoped to win herself. The unhappy girl had also confessed this
to Ulrica, who, like me, had believed her lies, and that I had mocked
and jeered at her, and said I would rather have a Lapland woman for my
wife. Well, I had wooed no Laplander; but the unfortunate maiden had
become Adolf's wife, and so, as Adolf's wife and the mother of two
children, I found her when I returned. A third child - also a boy - was
born a year after. The two older ones died in early youth; the third
lived and remained the only child, and this boy was - my son!"

"Poor, poor man," murmured Gotthold.

"Ay indeed, poor man!" said old Boslaf, "for who is poorer than a man
who cannot rejoice over his own child, dares not call his before all
the world, what is his if anything in the world is. I dared not. Ulrica
was proud; she would rather have died ten deaths than taken upon
herself the shame of the violation of her marriage vow; and I was
cowardly, cowardly out of love for her and him - my poor, good,
unsuspicious Adolf, whom from childhood I had loved like a brother, who
believed in me wholly and entirely, who would have asserted against the
whole world that I was his best, most faithful friend. So a few
terrible years passed away; Ulrica, exhausted by the fearful conflict
between duty and love she dared not acknowledge, died; holding her cold
hands, I was forced to swear that I would keep the secret. So I have
been and still remain Cousin Boslaf to my child and grandchildren. They
have given me a little higher place in their affections than an old
servant whom people will not dismiss, tiresome as he often is; they
have also let me talk when they were in a good humor; and if a child
was born, old Cousin Boslaf was allowed to sit at the lower end of the
table at the christening festival, or when one of them was borne to the
churchyard in Rammin he was suffered to ride in the last coach, if
there was a vacant seat. I have borne it all: bitternesses without
number or measure; I have believed that by humility, by love towards
others, I might atone for the crime I had committed against my own
flesh and blood; but the curse has not been removed from me: 'I have
never yet seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging their
bread.' I have been no righteous man; my seed will be forced to beg
their bread; I have grown so old only that I might live to see it."

"Never, never!" exclaimed Gotthold starting up; "never!"

"What will you do?" said the old man, "lend him money! What becomes of
the water you take in your hand? What becomes of the money loaned to a
gambler? I brought him one evening the savings of sixty years; it was
no inconsiderable sum, the farm-rent of my few fields and meadows at
interest and compound interest; the next morning he had not a shilling
of it left. You told me just now that you were a rich man, perhaps
you can give him more. He will take as much as he can get, and the
moment he can obtain no more, show you the door and forbid you his
house, as he did me. He knew very well I would not accuse him, that I
could not; I had not required a written proof that I had given my
great-granddaughter what I had."

"And Cecilia?"

"She is the true child of her ancestors; too proud to do anything but
shed secret tears over the misery which has come upon her. I know those
tears of old; they give the eyes which shed them at night upon lonely
pillows, the fixed sad expression with which she has looked at me,
whenever I have met her since - it has not been often. Where are you
going so fast?"

Gotthold had started up.

"I have been here a long time already - too long."

"Is she expecting you, Gotthold?"

The old man had laid his hand upon his shoulder; Gotthold noticed how
steadily the keen eyes rested upon him.

"No," he said, "I do not think she is."

"And it is better so," replied the old man. "It is enough for one to
experience what I have done. When, shall I see you again?"

"I intended to go away early to-morrow morning, but I will come here
from Prora."

"That's right; my child is unhappy enough now; the sooner you go the
better it will be."


"The better it will be," repeated Gotthold, as he strode through the
dark forest. For whom - for me? My fate is decided. For her? What is it
to her whether I come or go? For him? If he only wanted my money and
not me, why didn't he say so long ago? I have offered it to him often
enough - perhaps not plainly enough; I could not make up my mind to
speak more distinctly; it seemed like trying to buy the husband's
permission to remain near the wife. Why has he not wanted it? Doesn't
he believe in my sincerity? Is he too proud to take it from _me_? And
yet who should give to him more willingly than I? It is the only thing
I can do for her. Perhaps that is all they need to make them perfectly
happy; perhaps his love is of the kind that only thrives in the
sunlight of prosperity, and languishes sadly in the mists of care. We
will succor this feeble love. That will bring the roses back to her
cheeks, and she will laugh happily again as she used to do in the old

I play no very brilliant part in the family drama; but when was the
rôle of third person conspicuous or grateful? Poor, poor old man! What
must he not have suffered! What must he not suffer still! But he was
not guiltless, no, not guiltless! Only falsehood is sin, not truth. The
marriage bond between Adolf Wenhof and Ulrica von Dahlitz, as it was
brought about by a lie, was and remained a lie. She loved another, and
this other came; she saw that he loved her still as he had always loved
her; in an hour of intoxication, after so many years of torture, she
became his; she was his wife before her own conscience; she ought also
to have become so in the sight of man. It was a twofold, threefold,
thousandfold lie that she did not do so, that she did not break off the
old life and suffer a new one to begin that very hour! In consequence
of this lie, she, the proud, beautiful woman, sank into an early grave!
He has vainly sought through all these endless years to atone for his
crime - the crime of having thrust truth from his threshold and
permitted falsehood to cross it! Holy genius of mankind, thou who
livest in the light of truth, save me from the greatest of all sins;
save me from falsehood!

A dark figure came hastily across the glade near the edge of the
forest, through which the path ran. When it approached a little nearer,
Gotthold recognized old Statthalter Möller, who now raised both arms,

"Thank God, here you are! You've given us a fine fright!"

"I? Whom? How?"

"You, to be sure, you! And whom? All of us, up to our mistress, who is
perfectly beside herself! How? Well, that's a pretty question! When a
man rows out to sea in such a nutshell of a boat, with a horrible
thunderstorm rising, and that old blockhead of a Christian sees it, and
thinks: Well, I'm curious to see how he gets back; but isn't at all
curious, goes into the forest, and waits till the storm is over, and
then about half an hour ago sends his boy to say: the boat hasn't come
back yet, and may not some accident have happened to the gentleman?
Lord, there was a pretty piece of business then! And our mistress must
have been very much frightened, for she came running out at once, and
started us off. The mistress is not to be trifled with when she is in
earnest, kind as she is; and we all got frightened too, and some have
gone down to Ralow, thinking you might have been driven in there; and
some to Neuhof, and I was just going to the beach-house to ask the old
gentleman, who has probably come back to-day, what we should do next.
The mistress wanted to go herself, but I wouldn't let her."

"Where is the mistress?"

"She is probably still in the field," said Möller, pointing to the
left; "I have just left her."

"And how long have the others been gone?"

"As long as I have; if I hurry, I shall probably overtake them."

Statthalter Möller struck into the forest on the right, shouting the

Online LibraryFriedrich SpielhagenWhat the Swallow Sang: A Novel → online text (page 9 of 24)