Buddenbrooks Chapter Four

It was not simply the weakness of age that made Madame Antoinette Buddenbrook take to her lofty bed in the bed-chamber of the entresol, one cold January day after they had dwelt some six years in Meng Street. The old lady had remained hale and active, and carried her head, with its clustering white side-curls, proudly erect to the very last. She had gone with her husband and children to most of the large dinners given in the town, and presided no whit less elegantly than her daughter-in-law when the Buddenbrooks themselves entertained. But one day an indefinable malady had suddenly made itself felt—at first in the form of a slight intestinal catarrh, for which Dr. Grabow prescribed a mild diet of pigeon and French bread. This had been followed by colic and vomiting, which reduced her strength so rapidly as to bring about an alarming decline.

Dr. Grabow held hurried speech with the Consul, outside on the landing, and another doctor was called in consultation—a stout, black-bearded, gloomy-looking man who began going in and out with Dr. Grabow. And now the whole atmosphere of the house changed. They went about on their tip-toes and spoke in whispers. The wagons were no longer allowed to roll through the great entry-way below. The family looked in each other’s eyes and saw there something strange. It was the idea of death that had entered, and was holding silent sway in the spacious rooms.

But there was no idle watching, for visitors came: old Senator Duchamps, the dying woman’s brother, from Hamburg, with his daughter; and a few days later, the Consul’s sister from Frankfort and her husband, who was a banker. The illness lasted fourteen or fifteen days, during which the guests lived in the house, and Ida Jungmann had her hands full attending to the bedrooms and providing heavy breakfasts, with shrimps and port wine. Much roasting and baking went on in the kitchen.

Upstairs, Johann Buddenbrook sat by the sick-bed, his old Netta’s limp hand in his, and stared into space with his brows knitted and his lower lip hanging. A clock hung on the wall and ticked dully, with long pauses between; not so long, however, as the pauses between the dying woman’s fluttering breaths. A black-robed sister of mercy busied herself about the beef-tea which they still sought to make the patient take. Now and then some member of the family would appear at the door and disappear again.

Perhaps the old man was thinking how he had sat at the death-bed of his first wife, forty-six years before. Perhaps he recalled his frenzy of despair and contrasted it with the gentle melancholy which he felt now, as an old man, gazing into the face of his old wife—a face so changed, so listless, so void of expression. She had never given him either a great joy or a great sorrow; but she had decorously played her part beside him for many a long year—and now her life was ebbing away.

He was not thinking a great deal. He was only looking with fixed gaze back into his own past life and at life in general. It all seemed to him now quite strange and far away, and he shook his head a little. That empty noise and bustle, in the midst of which he had once stood, had flowed away imperceptibly and left him standing there, listening in wonder to sounds that died upon his ear. “Strange, strange,” he murmured.

Madame Buddenbrook breathed her last brief, effortless sigh; and they prayed by her side in the dining-room, where the service was held; and the bearers lifted the flower-covered coffin to carry it away. But old Johann did not weep. He only gave the same gentle, bewildered head-shake, and said, with the same half-smiling look: “Strange, strange!” It became his most frequent expression. Plainly, the time for old Johann too was near at hand.

He would sit silent and absent in the family circle; sometimes with little Clara on his knee, to whom he would sing one of his droll catches, like

“The omnibus drives through the town”

or perhaps

“Look at the blue-fly a-buzzin’ on the wall.”

But he might suddenly stop in the middle, like one aroused out of a train of thought, put the child down on the floor, and move away, with his little head-shake and murmur: “Strange, strange!” One day he said: “Jean—it’s about time, eh?”

It was soon afterward that neatly printed notices signed by father and son were sent about through the town, in which Johann Buddenbrook senior respectfully begged leave to announce that his increasing years obliged him to give up his former business activities, and that in consequence the firm of Johann Buddenbrook, founded by his late father anno 1768, would as from that day be transferred, with its assets and liabilities, to his son and former partner Johann Buddenbrook as sole proprietor; for whom he solicited a continuance of the confidence so widely bestowed upon him. Signed, with deep respect, Johann Buddenbrook—who would from now on cease to append his signature to business papers.

These announcements were no sooner sent out than the old man refused to set foot in the office; and his apathy so increased that it took only the most trifling cold to send him to bed, one March day two months after the death of his wife. One night more—then came the hour when the family gathered round his bed and he spoke to them: first to the Consul: “Good luck, Jean, and keep your courage up!” And then to Thomas: “Be a help to your Father, Tom!” And to Christian: “Be something worth while!” Then he was silent, gazing at them all; and finally, with a last murmured “Strange!” he turned his face to the wall. …

To the very end, he did not speak of Gotthold, and the latter encountered with silence the Consul’s written summons to his father’s death-bed. But early the next morning, before the announcements were sent out, as the Consul was about to go into the office to attend to some necessary business, Gotthold Buddenbrook, proprietor of the linen firm of Siegmund Stüwing and Company, came with rapid steps through the entry. He was forty-six years old, broad and stocky, and had thick ash-blond whiskers streaked with grey. His short legs were cased in baggy trousers of rough checked material. On the steps he met the Consul, and his eyebrows went up under the brim of his grey hat.

He did not put out his hand. “Johann,” he said, in a high-pitched, rather agreeable voice, “how is he?”

“He passed away last night,” the Consul said, with deep emotion, grasping his brother’s hand, which held an umbrella. “The best of fathers!”

Gotthold drew down his brows now, so low that the lids nearly closed. After a silence, he said pointedly: “Nothing was changed up to the end?”

The Consul let his hand drop and stepped back. His round, deep-set blue eyes flashed as he answered, “Nothing.”

Gotthold’s eyebrows went up again under his hat, and his eyes fixed themselves on his brother with an expression of suspense.

“And what have I to expect from your sense of justice?” he asked in a lower voice.

It was the Consul’s turn to look away. Then, without lifting his eyes, he made that downward gesture with his hand that always betokened decision; and in a quiet voice, but firmly, he answered:

“In this sad and solemn moment I have offered you my brotherly hand. But if it is your intention to speak of business matters, then I can only reply in my capacity as head of the honourable firm whose sole proprietor I have to-day become. You can expect from me nothing that runs counter to the duties I have to-day assumed; all other feelings must be silent.”

Gotthold went away. But he came to the funeral, among the host of relatives, friends, business associates, deputies, clerks, porters, and labourers that filled the house, the stairs, and the corridors to overflowing and assembled all the hired coaches in town in a long row all the way down the Mengstrasse. Gotthold came, to the sincere joy of the Consul. He even brought his wife, born Stüwing, and his three grown daughters: Friederike and Henriette, who were too tall and thin, and Pfiffi, who was eighteen, and too short and fat.

Pastor Kölling of St Mary’s, a heavy man with a bullet head and a rough manner of speaking, held the service at the grave, in the Buddenbrook family burying-ground, outside the Castle Gate, at the edge of the cemetery grove. He extolled the godly, temperate life of the deceased and compared it with that of “gluttons, drunkards, and profligates”—over which strong language some of the congregation shook their heads, thinking of the tact and moderation of their old Pastor Wunderlich, who had lately died. When the service and the burial were over, and the seventy or eighty hired coaches began to roll back to town, Gotthold Buddenbrook asked the Consul’s permission to go with him, that they might speak together in private. He sat with his brother on the back seat of the high, ungainly old coach, one short leg crossed over the other—and, wonderful to relate, he was gentle and conciliatory. He realized more and more, he said, that the Consul was bound to act as he was doing; and he was determined to cherish no bitter memories of his father. He renounced the claims he had put forward, the more readily that he had decided to retire from business and live upon his inheritance and what capital he had left; for he had no joy of the linen business, and it was going so indifferently that he could not bring himself to put any more money into it. … “His spite against our Father brought him no blessing,” the Consul thought piously. Probably Gotthold thought so too.

When they got back, he went with his brother up to the breakfast-room; and as both gentlemen felt rather chilly, after standing so long in their dress-coats in the early spring air, they drank a glass of old cognac together. Then Gotthold exchanged a few courteous words with his sister-in-law, stroked the children’s heads, and went away. But he appeared at the next “children’s day,” which took place at the Krögers’, outside the Castle Gate. And he began to wind up his business at once.