It was a Sunday morning in the very
height of spring. Georg Bendemann, a young merchant, was sitting in
his own room on the first floor of one of a long row of small,
ramshackle houses stretching beside the river which were scarcely
distinguishable from each other in height and coloring. He had just
finished a letter to an old friend of his who was now living abroad,
had put it into its envelope in a slow and dreamy fashion, and with
his elbows propped on the writing table was gazing out of the window
at the river, the bridge, and the hills on the farther bank with
their tender green.
He was thinking about his friend, who had actually run away to
Russia some years before, being dissatisfied with his prospects at
home. Now he was carrying on a business in St. Petersburg, which had
flourished to begin with but had long been going downhill, as he
always complained on his increasingly rare visits. So he was wearing
himself out to no purpose in a foreign country, the unfamiliar full
beard he wore did not quite conceal the face Georg had known so well
since childhood, and his skin was growing so yellow as to indicate
some latent disease. By his own account he had no regular connection
with the colony of his fellow countrymen out there and almost no
social intercourse with Russian families, so that he was resigning
himself to becoming a permanent bachelor.
What could one write to such a man, who had obviously run off the
rails, a man one could be sorry for but could not help. Should one
advise him to come home, to transplant himself and take up his old
friendships again - there was nothing to hinder him - and in general
to rely on the help of his friends? But that was as good as telling
him, and the more kindly the more offensively, that all his efforts
hitherto had miscarried, that he should finally give up, come back
home, and be gaped at by everyone as a returned prodigal, that only
his friends knew what was what and that he himself was just a big
child who should do what his successful and home-keeping friends
prescribed. And was it certain, besides, that all the pain one would
have to inflict on him would achieve its object? Perhaps it would
not even be possible to get him to come home at all - he said
himself that he was now out of touch with commerce in his native
country - and then he would still be left an alien in a foreign land
embittered by his friends' advice and more than ever estranged from
them. But if he did follow their advice and then didn't fit in at
home - not out of malice, of course, but through force of
circumstances - couldn't get on with his friends or without them,
felt humiliated, couldn't be said to have either friends or a
country of his own any longer, wouldn't it have been better for him
to stay abroad just as he was? Taking all this into account, how
could one be sure that he would make a success of life at home?
For such reasons, supposing one wanted to keep up correspondence
with him, one could not send him any real news such as could frankly
be told to the most distant acquaintance. It was more than three
years since his last visit, and for this he offered the lame excuse
that the political situation in Russia was too uncertain, which
apparently would not permit even the briefest absence of a small
businessman while it allowed hundreds of thousands of Russians to
travel peacefully abroad. But during these three years Georg's own
position in life had changed a lot. Two years ago his mother had
died, since when he and his father had shared the household
together, and his friend had of course been informed of that and had
expressed his sympathy in a letter phrased so dryly that the grief
caused by such an event, one had to conclude, could not be realized
in a distant country. Since that time, however, Georg had applied
himself with greater determination to the business as well as to
Perhaps during his mother's lifetime his father's insistence on
having everything his own way in the business had hindered him from
developing any real activity of his own, perhaps since her death his
father had become less aggressive, although he was still active in
the business, perhaps it was mostly due to an accidental run of good
fortune - which was very probable indeed - but at any rate during
those two years the business had developed in a most unexpected way,
the staff had had to be doubled, the turnover was five times as
great; no doubt about it, further progress lay just ahead.
But Georg's friend had no inkling of this improvement. In earlier
years, perhaps for the last time in that letter of condolence, he
had tried to persuade Georg to emigrate to Russia and had enlarged
upon the prospects of success for precisely Georg's branch of trade.
The figures quoted were microscopic by comparison with the range of
Georg's present operations. Yet he shrank from letting his friend
know about his business success, and if he were to do it now
retrospectively that certainly would look peculiar.
So Georg confined himself to giving his friend unimportant items of
gossip such as rise at random in the memory when one is idly
thinking things over on a quiet Sunday. All he desired was to leave
undisturbed the idea of the home town which his friend must have
built up to his own content during the long interval. And so it
happened to Georg that three times in three fairly widely separated
letters he had told his friend about the engagement of an
unimportant man to an equally unimportant girl, until indeed, quite
contrary to his intentions, his friend began to show some interest
in this notable event.
Yet Georg preferred to write about things like these rather than to
confess that he himself had got engaged a month ago to a Fraulein
Frieda Brandenfeld, a girl from a well-to-do family. He often
discussed this friend of his with his fiancee and the peculiar
relationship that had developed between them in their
correspondence. 'So he won't be coming to our wedding,' said she,
'and yet I have a right to get to know all your friends.' 'I don't
want to trouble him,' answered Georg, 'don't misunderstand me, he
would probably come, at least I think so, but he would feel that his
hand had been forced and he would be hurt, perhaps he would envy me
and certainly he'd be discontented and without being able to do
anything about his discontent he'd have to go away again alone.
Alone - do you know what that means?' 'Yes, but may he not hear
about our wedding in some other fashion?' 'I can't prevent that, of
course, but it's unlikely, considering the way he lives.' 'Since
your friends are like that, Georg, you shouldn't ever have got
engaged at all.' 'Well, we're both to blame for that; but I wouldn't
have it any other way now.' And when, breathing quickly under his
kisses, she still brought out: 'All the same, I do feel upset,' he
thought it could not really involve him in trouble were he to send
the news to his friend. 'That's the kind of man I am and he'll just
have to take me as I am,' he said to himself, 'I can't cut myself to
another pattern that might make a more suitable friend for him.'
And in fact he did inform his friend, in the long letter he had been
writing that Sunday morning, about his engagement, with these words:
'I have saved my best news to the end. I have got engaged to a
Fraulein Frieda Brandenfeld, a girl from a well-to-do family, who
only came to live here a long time after you went away, so that
you're hardly likely to know her. There will be time to tell you
more about her later, for today let me just say that I am very happy
and as between you and me the only difference in our relationship is
that instead of a quite ordinary kind of friend you will now have in
me a happy friend. Besides that, you will acquire in my fiancee, who
sends her warm greetings and will soon write you herself, a genuine
friend of the opposite sex, which is not without importance to a
bachelor. I know that there are many reasons why you can't come to
see us, but would not my wedding be precisely the right occasion for
giving all obstacles the go-by? Still, however that may be, do just
as seems good to you without regarding any interests but your own.'
With this letter in his hand Georg had been sitting a long time at
the writing table, his face turned toward the window. He had barely
acknowledged, with an absent smile, a greeting waved to him from the
street by a passing acquaintance.
At last he put the letter in his pocket and went out of his room
across a small lobby into his father's room, which he had not
entered for months. There was in fact no need for him to enter it,
since he saw his father daily at business and they took their midday
meal together at an eating house; in the evening, it was true, each
did as he pleased, yet even then, unless Georg - as mostly happened
- went out with friends or, more recently, visited his fiancee, they
always sat for a while, each with his newspaper, in their common
It surprised Georg how dark his father's room was even on this sunny
morning. So it was overshadowed as much as that by the high wall on
the other side of the narrow courtyard. His father was sitting by
the window in a corner hung with various mementoes of Georg's dead
mother, reading a newspaper which he held to one side before his
eyes in an attempt to overcome a defect of vision. On the table
stood the remains of his breakfast, not much of which seemed to have
'Ah, Georg,' said his father, rising at once to meet him. His heavy
dressing gown swung open as he walked and the skirts of it fluttered
around him. -'My father is still a giant of a man,' said Georg to
'It's unbearably dark here,' he said aloud.
'Yes, it's dark enough,' answered his father.
'And you've shut the window, too?'
'I prefer it like that.'
'Well, it's quite warm outside,' said Georg, as if continuing his
previous remark, and sat down.
His father cleared away the breakfast dishes and set them on a
'I really only wanted to tell you,' went on Georg, who had been
vacantly following the old man's movements, 'that I am now sending
the news of my engagement to St. Petersburg.' He drew the letter a
little way from his pocket and let it drop back again.
'To St. Petersburg?' asked his father.
'To my friend there,' said Georg, trying to meet his father's eye. -
In business hours he's quite different, he was thinking, how solidly
he sits here with his arms crossed.
'Oh yes. To your friend,' said his father, with peculiar emphasis.
'Well, you know, Father, that I wanted not to tell him about my
engagement at first. Out of consideration for him, that was the only
reason. You know yourself he's a difficult man. I said to myself
that someone else might tell him about my engagement, although he's
such a solitary creature that that was hardly likely - I couldn't
prevent that - but I wasn't ever going to tell him myself.'
'And now you've changed your mind?' asked his father, laying his
enormous newspaper on the window sill and on top of it his
spectacles, which he covered with one hand.
'Yes, I've been thinking it over. If he's a good friend of mine, I
said to myself, my being happily engaged should make him happy too.
And so I wouldn't put off telling him any longer. But before I
posted the letter I wanted to let you know.'
'Georg,' said his father, lengthening his toothless mouth, 'listen
to me! You've come to me about this business, to talk it over with
me. No doubt that does you honor. But it's nothing, it's worse than
nothing, if you don't tell me the whole truth. I don't want to stir
up matters that shouldn't be mentioned here. Since the death of our
dear mother certain things have been done that aren't right. Maybe
the time will come for mentioning them, and maybe sooner than we
think. There's many a thing in the business I'm not aware of, maybe
it's not done behind my back - I'm not going to say that it's done
behind my back - I'm not equal to things any longer, my memory's
failing, I haven't an eye for so many things any longer. That's the
course of nature in the first place, and in the second place the
death of our dear mother hit me harder than it did you. - But since
we're talking about it, about this letter, I beg you, Georg, don't
deceive me. It's a trivial affair, it's hardly worth mentioning, so
don't deceive me. Do you really have this friend in St. Petersburg?'
Georg rose in embarrassment. 'Never mind my friends. A thousand
friends wouldn't make up to me for my father. Do you know what I
think? You're not taking enough care of yourself. But old age must
be taken care of. I can't do without you in the business, you know
that very well, but if the business is going to undermine your
health, I'm ready to close it down tomorrow forever. And that won't
do. We'll have to make a change in your way of living. But a radical
change. You sit here in the dark, and in the sitting room you would
have plenty of light. You just take a bite of breakfast instead of
properly keeping up your strength. You sit by a closed window, and
the air would be so good for you. No, Father! I'll get the doctor to
come, and we'll follow his orders. We'll change your room, you can
move into the front room and I'll move in here. You won't notice the
change, all your things will be moved with you. But there's time for
all that later, I'll put you to bed now for a little, I'm sure you
need to rest. Come, I'll help you to take off your things, you'll
see I can do it. Or if you would rather go into the front room at
once, you can lie down in my bed for the present. That would be the
most sensible thing.'
Georg stood close beside his father, who had let his head with its
unkempt white hair sink on his chest.
'Georg,' said his father in a low voice, without moving.
Georg knelt down at once beside his father, in the old man's weary
face he saw the pupils, overlarge, fixedly looking at him from the
corners of the eyes.
'You have no friend in St. Petersburg. You've always been a
leg-puller and you haven't even shrunk from pulling my leg. How
could you have a friend out there! I can't believe it.'
'Just think back a bit, Father,' said Georg, lifting his father from
the chair and slipping off his dressing gown as he stood feebly
enough, 'it'll soon be three years since my friend came to see us
last. I remember that you used not to like him very much. At least
twice I kept you from seeing him, although he was actually sitting
with me in my room. I could quite well understand your dislike of
him, my friend has his peculiarities. But then, later, you got on
with him very well. I was proud because you listened to him and
nodded and asked him questions. If you think back you're bound to
remember. He used to tell us the most incredible stories of the
Russian Revolution. For instance, when he was on a business trip to
Kiev, and ran into a riot, and saw a priest on a balcony who cut a
broad cross in blood on the palm of his hand and held the hand up
and appealed to the mob. You've told that story yourself once or
Meanwhile Georg had succeeded in lowering his father down again and
carefully taking off the woolen drawers he wore over his linen
underpants and his socks. The not particularly clean appearance of
his underwear made him reproach himself for having been neglectful.
It should have certainly been his duty to see that his father had
clean changes of underwear. He had not yet explicitly discussed with
his bride-to-be what arrangements should be made for his father in
the future, for they had both of them silently taken it for granted
that the old man would go on living alone in the old house. But now
he made a quick, firm decision to take him into his own future
establishment. It almost looked, on closer inspection, as if the
care he meant to lavish there on his father might come too late.
He carried his father to bed in his arms. It gave him a dreadful
feeling to notice that while he took the few steps toward the bed
the old man on his breast was playing with his watch chain. He could
not lay him down on the bed for a moment, so firmly did he hang on
to the watch chain.
But as soon as he was laid in bed, all seemed well. He covered
himself up and even drew the blankets farther than usual over his
shoulders. He looked up at Georg with a not unfriendly eye.
'You begin to remember my friend, don't you?' asked Georg, giving
him an encouraging nod.
'Am I well covered up now?' asked his father, as if he were not able
to see whether his feet were properly tucked in or not.
'So you find it snug in bed already,' said Georg, and tucked the
blankets more closely around him.
'Am I well covered up?' asked the father once more, seeming to be
strangely intent upon the answer.
'Don't worry, you're well covered up.'
'No!' cried his father, cutting short the answer, threw the blankets
off with a strength that sent them all flying in a moment and sprang
erect in bed. Only one hand lightly touched the ceiling to steady
'You wanted to cover me up, I know, my young sprig, but I'm far from
being covered up yet. And even if this is the last strength I have,
it's enough for you, too much for you. Of course I know your friend.
He would have been a son after my own heart. That's why you've been
playing him false all these years. Why else? Do you think I haven't
been sorry for him? And that's why you had to lock yourself up in
your office - the Chief is busy, mustn't be disturbed - just so that
you could write your lying little letters to Russia. But thank
goodness a father doesn't need to be taught how to see through his
son. And now that you thought you'd got him down, so far down that
you could set your bottom on him and sit on him and he wouldn't
move, then my fine son makes up his mind to get married!'
Georg stared at the bogey conjured up by his father. His friend in
St. Petersburg, whom his father suddenly knew too well, touched his
imagination as never before. Lost in the vastness of Russia he saw
him. At the door of an empty, plundered warehouse he saw him. Among
the wreckage of his showcases, the slashed remnants of his wares,
the falling gas brackets, he was just standing up. Why did he have
to go so far away!
'But attend to me!' cried his father, and Georg, almost distracted,
ran toward the bed to take everything in, yet came to a stop
'Because she lifted up her skirts,' his father began to flute,
'because she lifted her skirts like this, the nasty creature,' and
mimicking her he lifted his shirt so high that one could see the
scar on his thigh from his war wound, 'because she lifted her skirts
like this and this you made up to her, and in order to make free
with her undisturbed you have disgraced your mother's memory,
betrayed your friend, and stuck your father into bed so that he
can't move. But he can move, or can't he?'
And he stood up quite unsupported and kicked his legs out. His
insight made him radiant.
Georg shrank into a corner, as far away from his father as possible.
A long time ago he had firmly made up his mind to watch closely
every least movement so that he should not be surprised by any
indirect attack, a pounce from behind or above. At this moment he
recalled this long-forgotten resolve and forgot it again, like a man
drawing a short thread through the eye of a needle.
'But your friend hasn't been betrayed after all!' cried his father,
emphasizing the point with stabs of his forefinger. 'I've been
representing him here on the spot.'
'You comedian!' Georg could not resist the retort, realized at once
the harm done and, his eyes starting in his head, bit his tongue
back, only too late, till the pain made his knees give.
'Yes, of course I've been playing a comedy! A comedy! That's a good
expression! What other comfort was left to a poor old widower? Tell
me - and while you're answering me be you still my living son - what
else was left to me, in my back room, plagued by a disloyal staff,
old to the marrow of my bones? And my son strutting through the
world, finishing off deals that I had prepared for him, bursting
with triumphant glee, and stalking away from his father with the
closed face of a respectable businessman! Do you think I didn't love
you, I, from whom you are sprung?'
Now he'll lean forward, thought Georg, what if he topples and
smashes himself! These words went hissing through his mind.
His father leaned forward but did not topple. Since Georg did not
come any nearer, as he had expected, he straightened himself again.
'Stay where you are, I don't need you! You think you have strength
enough to come over here and that you're only hanging back of your
own accord. Don't be too sure! I am still much the stronger of us
two. All by myself I might have had to give way, but your mother has
given me so much of her strength that I've established a fine
connection with your friend and I have your customers here in my
'He has pockets even in his shirt!' said Georg to himself, and
believed that with this remark he could make him an impossible
figure for all the world. Only for a moment did he think so, since
he kept on forgetting everything.
'Just take your bride on your arm and try getting in my way! I'll
sweep her from your very side, you don't know how!'
Georg made a grimace of disbelief. His father only nodded,
confirming the truth of his words, toward Georg's corner.
'How you amused me today, coming to ask me if you should tell your
friend about your engagement. He knows it already, you stupid boy,
he knows it all! I've been writing to him, for you forgot to take my
writing things away from me. That's why he hasn't been here for
years, he knows everything a hundred times better than you do
yourself, in his left hand he crumples your letters unopened while
in his right hand he holds up my letters to read through!'
In his enthusiasm he waved his arm over his head. 'He knows
everything a thousand times better!' he cried.
'Ten thousand times!' said Georg, to make fun of his father, but in
his very mouth the words turned into deadly earnest.
'For years I've been waiting for you to come with some such
question! Do you think I concern myself with anything else? Do you
think I read my newspapers? Look!' and he threw Georg a newspaper
sheet which he had somehow taken to bed with him. An old newspaper,
with a name entirely unknown to Georg.
'How long a time you've taken to grow up! Your mother had to die,
she couldn't see the happy day, your friend is going to pieces in
Russia, even three years ago he was yellow enough to be thrown away,
and as for me, you see what condition I'm in. You have eyes in your
head for that!'
'So you've been lying in wait for me!' cried Georg.
His father said pityingly, in an offhand manner: 'I suppose you
wanted to say that sooner. But now it doesn't matter.' And in a
louder voice: 'So now you know what else there was in the world
besides yourself, till now you've known only about yourself! An
innocent child, yes, that you were, truly, but still more truly have
you been a devilish human being! - And therefore take note: I
sentence you now to death by drowning!'
Georg felt himself urged from the room, the crash with which his
father fell on the bed behind him was still in his ears as he fled.
On the staircase, which he rushed down as if its steps were an
inclined plane, he ran into his charwoman on her way up to do the
morning cleaning of the room. 'Jesus!' she cried, and covered her
face with her apron, but he was already gone. Out of the front door
he rushed, across the roadway, driven toward the water. Already he
was grasping at the railings as a starving man clutches food. He
swung himself over, like the distinguished gymnast he had once been
in his youth, to his parents' pride. With weakening grip he was
still holding on when he spied between the railings a motor-bus
coming which would easily cover the noise of his fall, called in a
low voice: 'Dear parents, I have always loved you, all the same,'
and let himself drop.
At this moment an unending stream of traffic was just going over the
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