A Fellowe and his Wife
FROM THE COUNT TO THE COUNTESS VON JAROMAR.
Our Wild Horseman is, I am convinced, a greatly maligned spectre. He has committed no hideous crime; he is not doomed, in expiation for nameless sins, to dash frantically across country all night long, scaring beldames by the Lohme bog, nearly knocking down belated muddled peasants in the black Stubbenitz wood, and skimming the foam on the Prora shore. The perturbed spirit is simply a stupid fellow who has received tidings from Rome, a letter which for the life of him he can't understand, and which makes him feel that be cannot breathe within four walls.
It is one o'clock. Baldur and I have just come home ; he is very wet, but he doesn't mind. It is not the first time that he has helped me to think.
Ilse---friend, comrade, sister, love, and wife for whom I long, I cannot quibble and haggle with you. I cannot grovel and beg. I would not, if I could, undo the past. I claim the future, though it bring me sorrow worse than death. You are the woman of my choice, the one woman in the world to me. You are my fate for good or ill, our whole lives are inter-twined, we belong to each other, and ---I love you: therefore I surrender.
But when you return to me a miserable scrap of money, you are well aware that you put between us more than the distance from Jaromar to Rome, more than the interminable year of separation. You make something within me rise and howl like a wounded beast, then creep off, sullen and brooding, to its den. Never mind. I cannot dilate upon my emotions. I am not fluent and paradoxical, like your sculptor. I yield unconditionally. It seems fitting to you to carve little ivory figures and sell them for money. Good. I accept this also at your hands. If this is what you call "freedom," if it makes you happier, I can only fold my arms, bow my head, and wait.
One thing is certain: I shall fulfill my part of our compact. Because your father and I have had certain business relations, or rather, because it has happened to be in my power to do him a service, as it has often enough been in the power of an Ilsenstein to stand by a Jjaromar in need, not the faintest shadow of such transactions shall fall upon your path. Not a feather's weight of them shall impede your movements. Nothing of this shall touch you now or at any time. It would be ignominy. Knowing me so well, how was it then possible for you to ---but enough said.
You have wanted for years to go to Rome to study and work. I promised you that you should, whoever might disapprove. Even in losing you it was joy to realize that you had attained your dearest wish through me. This you take from me. It is parting from you again; it is seeing you go still farther from me. Let us not talk about it. But now you are really "free," are you not, Ilse? You have no other surprise in store for me ?
Down by the Jasmund cliffs I dismounted and walked up and down for a while, Baldur following close at my heels, his soft nose sniffing the palm of my hand, the wet salty night clearing my troubled brain. I weighed every-thing in the balance, all my chances _pro and con. But before I reached the heights of objective wisdom which I am about to reveal to you, I had a good tussle with the old Adam.
"Start for Rome to-morrow," he urged. "Be on the spot; snort, fight, and slay." To which the man up aloft, with the clearer vision, replied, "To what end? Can you even then force love ?" For what if I go down there and follow you about like a spaniel ---even if I attitudinize at church portals---you will not love me the more for it, Ilse ---no, not a whit. Besides, I cannot. I 'm not a carpet knight, and I have my work to do.
I have known men to marry with the flattering hope that habit, familiarity, and the irresistible charm of their daily presence would deepen the somewhat lukewarm affections of their brides; and I have observed that such experiments fail as often as they succeed, from causes not determinable by Mathematical calculations. For my part, I cherish no illusions. You and I do not begin like two strangers who meet at a court ball in Berlin and fall in love to the rhythm of a Waldteuffel waltz. The companionship, the free simple intercourse which either makes or mars lives, you and I have already had. Think of the hours on hours, the years on years, we have been together. More than to any other soul have I showed you my inner self. You know my ways, my weaknesses and idiosyncrasies, my silent moods, the things that irritate me, the things that give me peace. This may finally be in my favor, it may handicap me in the race, I do not know which; but I know it is a powerful factor always working for or against me. Nothing can I take our past from us; not Rome, not art, no devil, and no god. In the face of this phalanx of old associations, I am not so blatant a fool as complacently to impute to my personality, if but administered in still heavier doses, some invincible magic charm sufficient to totally transform a woman of your individuality and independence, revolutionize your theories and creeds, and deaden your long-cherished desires to lead not only an art-life, but your own life; for that too is strong within you, Ilse, a thirst for rich experience, for more intense emotion, for new, strange things, for uncurbed adventure.
You want your prancings and caracolings; take them. You want Rome; you have it. Enjoy them all, and whatever else you crave. What should I do with an unwilling wife? Marriage by capture is obsolete, and any compulsion of a woman's person or spirit brutal and barbarous. If my friend thinks Africa necessary to his pleasure, mental growth, or financial success, I have no business to try to keep him at home merely because I enjoy his companionship. By what right shall I then say to a woman, "Thus far and no farther." Shall my passion constitute itself a law to direct her steps ? Theoretically, then, I am vastly pleased with everything. Ah, Ilse!
Yet whatever be my pain and perplexity, believe me, --- and forgive my bluntness, ---I do not want you unless you want me. That is, I want you with every atom of my being, and shall live and die wanting you---not alone the sweetness of your presence and your beauty which I adore, but also your free glad allegiance, which you cannot yet give me.
Down by the Jasmund cliffs tonight the sea brought counsel. There, where you and I, through the years, have chatted, laughed, and sung, have had our rages and reconciliations, our deep-laid plans and conspiracies, have discussed friends, books, ourselves, our dogs and horses, our theories of life and the beyond, I listened to the voices of the past, of the inexorable ocean, and of my own heart. At length into my unrest came quiet, with the conviction that it is useless for a man to war with fate, and that I cannot honestly act otherwise. The truth is, though I've not yet sighted land ahead, I 've cut adrift for-ever from the old lines.
I have seen a man's unconscious dominance completely extinguish all the light and gladness of a woman's nature, and this with no brutal selfishness, no visible tyranny. You know as well as I how things were with us, how strong and upright my father was, how large and wholesome his views, how useful his life, and how from first to last his all-pervading, all-absorbing, masterful personality totally submerged my mother's sensitive spirit. I could not help seeing it, for I loved her, but I should scarcely have got at the heart of things without Boris Subienkow. Dear old Boris, you never liked him much. He wasn't beautiful, I admit, with his Don Quixote profile and gaunt body. He had more brains than lungs, more soul than muscle, more irony than patience, and was altogether so out of tune with life, that death must have been a glad release to him.
When he would mount his hobbies one after another, and charge furiously in every direction, attacking nearly all existing institutions, I used to stare and chuckle, and smoke no end of cigarettes, and not understand very well what he was raving about, although I vastly enjoyed his diatribes, and thought him the most amusing tutor in the world. So far as the real burden of his song went, I listened somewhat as a child listens, mechanically and without interest, to guarded, veiled hints of elders discussing family secrets and conscious of his presence. Yet somewhere within him he involuntarily stores it all away, until years after, one chance spark suddenly sets a thousand lights ablaze along the receding vista of his past life, his memory begins to search forgotten ways, and all that has been concealed, every unsuspected nook and cranny, is revealed.
What was then remote, foreign to my nature, in Boris' views has become in these last years near to me, my own. What I heard with the incredulous, good-humored smile of a comfortable young puppy who has no fault to find with existing institutions, because they have never interfered with his pleasures, confronts me now, seems sound, true, incontrovertible. His ghost haunts me, in the one way, I take it, that ghosts haunt us all relentlessly. On the woman-question he was invincible. He out-Ibsened Ibsen. I was at that stage of existence when a boy's vague dream is always preposterously sentimental. A pretty little ringlet, a pretty little ear, a melting eye ---these were the things of paramount importance, ringlet, ear, and eye, all quivering, of course, in helpless ecstasy before me.
One day he lured me on to unwonted confidences, cruelly extracted from its secret shrine in my heart that foolish, boyish, ineffable vision, as bodiless as St. Cecilia's floating cherubs, held it up in the light of pure reason, where it made but a sorry figure, being only ringlet, ear, and eye, ---I had formulated nothing beyond except the atmosphere of adoration for me, -jeered and derided her until tears of impotent rage stood in my eyes, and I longed to choke him. But he was merciless. He never forgot, never let me forget her. At unexpected moments he would conjure up that spineless, brainless, organless, transcendental maid, and ridicule her and me without quarter. I was hurt, angry, ashamed, but doggedly unconvinced, and continued to secretly worship her. I have worshiped her fleeting prototype many times since, when, in my calf-days, for brief periods I romantically sighed for a Legion of girls, ---one at a time, of course ; I never was in any respect a Turk, --and generously invested their charming little silly pates with halos and wings.
Not only did Boris mock, he would frequently wax stern as a Hebrew prophet, and denounce my ideal as an unholy thing, the root of nameless evil, the mother of infinite lies, herself a lie and an abomination, the product of the inequality of the sexes : she at one end of the social scale, the household drudge at the other; between them, every grade of sweetheart, from the haughty patrician beauty down to the doll of the harem, all sisters in falsehood, and direct results of woman's bondage to man, and man's to his senses. If man should once emerge from his dense barbarism, and recognize woman as the comple-ment of his own soul, no more, no less, he could not before marriage be a maudlin fool, and afterwards an egotist or a brute. Then would come Boris' refrain, "Free the woman and you free the world." He had never known a marriage worthy of the name, never one companionship between man and woman that possessed as much inherent dignity as an ordinary friendship between men. If apparent harmony prevailed, it was due to the sacrifice of self-respect, and the habitual hypocrisy and cowardice of the woman. The most liberal man had one code of honor for men, another for women. Whatever his general theories, his practice presupposed devotion, submission, abnegation of opinions and individuality on the part of the special woman allied with him, whereas with his man friend be easily left a certain margin for divergence of views. It was all wrong, and it was steeped in his heart's blood. No sane man denied the tremendous empire of the senses. No thoughtful man ought to deny the supremacy of the soul. He was no ascetic, he had no feud with nature, but passion was a momentary exaltation or abasement according to circumstances, sublimated on the heights, or degraded in the depths, while along the predominating level plains of existence man and woman should walk together in mutual deference and courtesy, in trust and truth and tenderness. Then only would life be worth living. But men, however polished, were savages still at heart. Man had not yet realized that woman was the companion of his highest endeavor, not merely his plaything in relaxation, or his slave.
When I ventured, in adolescent remonstrance, to uphold the dignity of my sex, and inquired if the woman could never be the cause of wretchedness, Boris would thunder, "No! and if she is, it is of no consequence. She's been a slave from the beginning. She has never had a chance to be herself. Let her have her swing. Never mind if she swings too far. Her future excesses can never cancel her past record of privations. Let her go as far as she will. She will swing back in due season, and then for the first time will the world find its equilibrium."
When he was at a white heat I could not answer him. He had a certain fiery eloquence, and I was but a crude youth. Still I clung to my ringlet. I thought the realization of his theories would destroy all poetry and all passion.
As if one could! As if we need fear that more enlightenment can ever enfeeble the strong warm pulsations of our human hearts. As if the great primeval force that shapes planets out of nebulous matter, and animates all realms of earth and air and sea, and works with mighty silent strength in the growth of the oak as in the perfume of the rose, in the eagle's flight and the nightingale's rapturous song, in the slumbering soul of the sea-foam as in the loftiest dream of the human intellect, will abandon us, will move us and thrill us no longer when we shall have learned a little more justice, pity, and some clearness of vision towards ourselves, towards our brothers and our sisters alike, towards all classes, all races, all humanity.
Boris died, leaving me still unconverted to his creed. I went my way, confident of happiness as every healthy boy is. I plunged into life. Everything was attractive to me, good things and bad. I tried all that came in my way, much, perhaps chiefly, through curiosity. I descended into the Venusberg. I didn't stay long. I don't think most men stay there as long as poor Tannhäuser, although the most of us want to know from experience what there is down there. The world was kind to me. I made my bow in many salons. At first it was all delectable, and I was as little inclined to find fault as a dragon-fly darting about in August sunshine. But after the first intoxication, I opened my eyes and began to observe, with a vague discontent, marriage in dissolving views, as it appears in society, and all the ponderous machinery which is set in motion to arrive at this debatable good: elderly couples restive at heart under the yoke, but smirking together in public for motives of self-aggrandizement; mothers blandly offering their daughters on the public mart; everywhere a tacit agreement to be deaf and dumb and blind to truth, to prophesy smooth things; above all, adiabolical, widespread conspiracy to prevent girls and boys from having the faintest perception of each other's characters. I began to ask myself a few simple questions. Why should girls marry, whether or no? Why should society demand that they be educated for this sole end and aim, and at the same time keep them in dense ignorance of what marriage really means? Is it virtue for a girl to be tossed into matrimony like a blind kitten into a pond? Is this sort of thing conducive to her happiness, or to that of the man she marries?
Why should the only preparation for a companionship of, say, thirty or forty years be at best a period of glamour, at worst a system of lies, hypocrisy, And low and greedy motives? Was it not monstrous? Was Berlin in reality much superior to Peking or Constantinople? Why should not a woman's moral dignity depend wholly upon herself and not upon any masculine background whatever, be it father, brother, or husband? Why --- but I spare you. My Whys were many and bitter, and my chaste ringlet vanished forever from my dreams.
Some of my comrades married young; why, I didn't know. One never has much sympathy with one's friend's motives for marrying. But I observed that their disenchantment was not tardy. Slightly more blasés than before, they drifted back to sport and the club, yet they too had languished for a ringlet. I remember it occurred to me one night at the theatre that Shakespeare's genius never struck a truer stroke than when he killed Romeo and Juliet. One shudders, picturing into what they otherwise would have developed, when, like other elderly grumbling Capulets and Montagues, they would have ears neither for the lark nor for the nightingale. It was no doubt my faithful Boris, who, working still upon me from the shades, set me pondering upon these things.
I had meanwhile no grievous shock, but various experiences, some of which you know, some you do not. But before I loved you nothing was lasting. I began with good reason to doubt the stability of my affections. Perhaps it was all my faulty nature could attain to see a face in a crowd, follow it, dream of it, long to follow and dream of it forever, then suddenly forget it, seeing another of surpassing loveliness. And always Boris' ghost haunted me, with his slighted, forgotten warnings, his fierce denunciations of conventional lies, his passionate prayer for fearlessness and freedom in marriage as between men friends, and he was right. In my soul I know it. At first, when I loved you, I forgot. It is so easy to forget ; so easy to follow the old traditions. urged you unremittingly: All men urge mightily when they want their will. I urged too much, I see tonight. I thought if you bore my name, all would be well. Men are always fools enough to think that, but why? Tonight I renounce such delusions. If I am to be wretched, I will establish my wretchedness on broader lines. We will have truth between us. If, by my urging, I did you wrong, I will make what reparation is in my power. Ilse Jaromar shall in every respect be as free as Ilse Ilsenstein. For you do not love me, Ilse. Sometimes I have been weak enough to persuade myself that you feel more than the simple old affection for me; but I see clearly tonight. You trust me. In need you would turn to your old comrade, but as to loving, you are an infant babbling in the dark. The legal functionary and the Church have mumbled and written something, and pronounced us man and wife. How does that help me, when I know that you remain in your heart the little girl you were ten years ago ? For your Undine you cannot have a better model than yourself. You too have not yet found the soul, which is only born through love.
Queer irrelevant phantoms of the past race through my head as I write. It was down by the Jasmund cliffs, when you were seven and I thirteen, that I taught you to swim, holding you in my arms, and counting, "One -two," for your strokes. I had to smile in all my distress down there tonight, remembering it, and how you wriggled, and how little you were, and how awfully frightened, although you were and think, and see, and know. If you should need me I would come swiftly ; otherwise I remain here at my post, where my duties hold me. Good-night ! I hear the fall of the breakers. It may be superstition, it may be folly, but I believe that you will come back to Jaromar, and, safe in my arms, listen to the surf and the winds ---content to stay, loving our home best, seeking no more problems, finding all you need here, even your art.
Have I not always said your eyes contradict your mouth? The eyes are restless, thoughtful, unsatisfied --- ages old. But the mouth is fresh, young, happy---prophetic of love, and joy, and warmth. The mouth is my friend. It is the mouth that I trust. I stake everything on the mouth. And the eyes---they are sweet eyes all the same let them wander and seek. They will grow tired. They will come back. See, I show my hand frankly. There is nothing mysterious, fascinating, inscrutable in me, as in your Roman friends.
Here I remain, and remember, and wait, and hope.