Buddenbrooks Chapter Seven

Therese Weichbrodt was humpbacked. So humpbacked that she was not much higher than a table. She was forty-one years old. But as she had never put her faith in outward seeming, she dressed like an old lady of sixty or seventy. Upon her padded grey locks rested a cap the green ribbons of which fell down over shoulders narrow as a child’s. Nothing like an ornament ever graced her shabby black frock—only the large oval brooch with her mother’s miniature in it.

Little Miss Weichbrodt had shrewd, sharp brown eyes, a slightly hooked nose, and thin lips which she could compress with extraordinary firmness. In her whole insignificant figure, in her every movement, there indwelt a force which was, to be sure, somewhat comic, yet exacted respect. And her mode of speech helped to heighten the effect. She spoke with brisk, jerky motions of the lower jaw and quick, emphatic nods. She used no dialect, but enunciated clearly and with precision, stressing the consonants. Vowel-sounds, however, she exaggerated so much that she said, for instance, “botter” instead of “butter”—or even “batter!” Her little dog that was forever yelping she called Babby instead of Bobby. She would say to a pupil: “Don-n’t be so stu-upid, child,” and give two quick knocks on the table with her knuckle. It was very impressive—no doubt whatever about that! And when Mlle. Popinet, the Frenchwoman, took too much sugar to her coffee, Miss Weichbrodt had a way of gazing at the ceiling and drumming on the cloth with one hand while she said: “Why not take the who-ole sugar-basin? I would!” It always made Mlle. Popinet redden furiously.

As a child—heavens, what a tiny child she must have been!—Therese Weichbrodt had given herself the nickname of Sesemi, and she still kept it, even letting the best and most favoured of the day—as well as of the boarding-pupils use it. “Call me Sesemi, child,” she said on the first day to Tony Buddenbrook, kissing her briefly, with a sound as of a small explosion, on the forehead. “I like it.” Her elder sister, however, Madame Kethelsen, was called Nelly.

Madame Kethelsen was about forty-eight years old. She had been left penniless when her husband died, and now lived in a little upstairs bedroom in her sister’s house. She dressed like Sesemi, but by contrast was very tall. She wore woollen wristlets on her thin wrists. She was not a mistress, and knew nothing of discipline. A sort of inoffensive and placid cheerfulness was all her being. When one of the pupils played a prank, she would laugh so heartily that she nearly cried, and then Sesemi would rap on the table and call out “Nelly!” very sharply—it sounded like “Nally”—and Madame Kethelsen would shrink into herself and be mute.

Madame Kethelsen obeyed her younger sister, who scolded her as if she were a child. Sesemi, in fact, despised her warmly. Therese Weichbrodt was a well-read, almost a literary woman. She struggled endlessly to keep her childhood faith, her religious assurance that somewhere in the beyond she was to be recompensed for the hard, dull present. But Madame Kethelsen, innocent, uninstructed, was all simplicity of nature. “Dear, good Nelly, what a child she is! She never doubts or struggles, she is always happy.” In such remarks there was always as much contempt as envy. Contempt was a weakness of Sesemi’s—perhaps a pardonable one.

The small red-brick suburban house was surrounded by a neatly kept garden. Its lofty ground floor was entirely taken up by schoolrooms and dining-room; the bedrooms were in the upper story and the attic. Miss Weichbrodt did not have a large number of pupils. As boarders she received only older girls, while the day-school consisted of but three classes, the lowest ones. Sesemi took care to have only the daughters of irreproachably refined families in her house. Tony Buddenbrook, as we have seen, she welcomed most tenderly. She even made “bishop” for supper—a sort of sweet red punch to be taken cold, in the making of which she was a past mistress. “A little more beeshop,” she urged with a hearty nod. It sounded so tempting; nobody could resist!

Fräulein Weichbrodt sat on two sofa-cushions at the top of the table and presided over the meal with tact and discretion. She held her stunted figure stiffly erect, tapped vigilantly on the table, cried “Nally” or “Babby,” and subdued Mlle. Popinet with a glance whenever the latter seemed about to take unto herself all the cold veal jelly. Tony had been allotted a place between two other boarders, Armgard von Schilling, the strapping blond daughter of a Mecklenburg landowner, and Gerda Arnoldsen, whose home was in Amsterdam—an unusual, elegant figure, with dark red hair, brown eyes close together, and a lovely, pale, haughty face. Opposite her sat a chattering French girl who looked like a negress, with huge gold earrings. The lean English Miss Brown, with her sourish smile, sat at the bottom of the table. She was a boarder too.

It was not hard, with the help of Sesemi’s bishop, to get acquainted. Mlle. Popinet had had nightmares again last night—ah, quel horreur! She usually screamed “Help, thieves; help, thieves!” until everybody jumped out of bed. Next, it appeared that Gerda Arnoldsen did not take piano like the rest of them, but the violin, and that Papa—her Mother was dead—had promised her a real Stradivarius. Tony was not musical—hardly any of the Buddenbrooks and none of the Krögers were. She could not even recognize the chorals they played at St. Mary’s.—Oh, the organ in the new Church at Amsterdam had a vox humana—a human voice—that was just wonderful. Armgard von Schilling talked about the cows at home.

It was Armgard who from the earliest moment had made a great impression on Tony. She was the first person from a noble family whom Tony had ever known. What luck, to be called von Schilling! Her own parents had the most beautiful old house in the town, and her grandparents belonged to the best families; still, they were called plain Buddenbrook and Kröger—which was a pity, to be sure. The granddaughter of the proud Lebrecht Kröger glowed with reverence for Armgard’s noble birth. Privately, she sometimes thought that the splendid “von” went with her better than it did with Armgard; for Armgard did not appreciate her good luck, dear, no! She had a thick pigtail, good-natured blue eyes, and a broad Mecklenburg accent, and went about thinking just nothing at all on the subject. She made absolutely no pretensions to being aristocratic; in fact, she did not know what it was. But the word “aristocratic” stuck in Tony’s small head; and she emphatically applied it to Gerda Arnoldsen.

Gerda was rather exclusive, and had something foreign and queer about her. She liked to do up her splendid red hair in striking ways, despite Sesemi’s protests. Some of the girls thought it was “silly” of her to play the violin instead of the piano—and, be it known, “silly” was a term of very severe condemnation. Still, the girls mostly agreed with Tony that Gerda was aristocratic—in her figure, well-developed for her years; in her ways, her small possessions, everything. There was the ivory toilet set from Paris, for instance; that Tony could appreciate, for her own parents and grandparents also had treasures which had been brought from Paris.

The three girls soon made friends. They were in the same class and slept together in the same large room at the top of the house. What delightful, cosy times they had going to bed! They gossiped while they undressed—in undertones, however, for it was ten o’clock and next door Mlle. Popinet had gone to bed to dream of burglars. Eva Ewers slept with her. Eva was a little Hamburger, whose father, an amateur painter and collector, had settled in Munich.

The striped brown blinds were down, the low, red-shaded lamp burned on the table, there was a faint smell of violets and fresh wash, and a delicious atmosphere of laziness and dreams.

“Heavens,” said Armgard, half undressed, sitting on her bed, “how Dr. Newmann can talk! He comes into the class and stands by the table and tells about Racine—”

“He has a lovely high forehead,” remarked Gerda, standing before the mirror between the windows and combing her hair by the light of two candles.

“Oh, yes, hasn’t he?” Armgard said eagerly.

“And you are taking the course just on his account, Armgard; you gaze at him all the time with your blue eyes, as if—”

“Are you in love with him?” asked Tony. “I can’t undo my shoe-lace; please, Gerda. Thanks. Why don’t you marry him? He is a good match—he will get to be a High School Professor.”

“I think you are both horrid. I’m not in love with him, and I would not marry a teacher, anyhow. I shall marry a country gentleman.”

“A nobleman?” Tony dropped her stocking and looked thoughtfully into Armgard’s face.

“I don’t know, yet. But he must have a large estate. Oh, girls, I just love that sort of thing! I shall get up at five o’clock every morning, and attend to everything. …” She pulled up the bedcovers and stared dreamily at the ceiling.

“Five hundred cows are before your mind’s eye,” said Gerda, looking at her in the mirror.

Tony was not ready yet; but she let her head fall on the pillow, tucked her hands behind her neck, and gazed dreamily at the ceiling in her turn.

“Of course,” she said, “I shall marry a business man. He must have a lot of money, so we can furnish elegantly. I owe that to my family and the firm,” she added earnestly. “Yes, you’ll see, that’s what I shall do.”

Gerda had finished her hair for the night and was brushing her big white teeth, using the ivory-backed hand-mirror to see them better.

“I shall probably not marry at all,” she said, speaking with some difficulty on account of the tooth-powder. “I don’t see why I should. I am not anxious. I’ll go back to Amsterdam and play duets with Daddy and afterwards live with my married sister.”

“What a pity,” Tony said briskly. “What a pity! You ought to marry here and stay here for always. Listen: you could marry one of my brothers—”

“The one with the big nose?” asked Gerda, and gave a dainty little yawn, holding the hand-mirror before her face.

“Or the other; it doesn’t matter. You could furnish beautifully. Jacobs could do it—the upholsterer in Fish Street. He has lovely taste. I’d come to see you every day—”

But then there came the voice of Mlle. Popinet. It said: “Oh, mademoiselles! Please go to bed. It is too late to get married any more this evening!”

Sundays and holidays Tony spent in Meng Street or outside the town with her grandparents. How lovely, when it was fine on Easter Sunday, hunting for eggs and marzipan hares in the enormous Kröger garden! Then there were the summer holidays at the seashore; they lived in the Kurhaus, ate at the table-d’hôte, bathed, and went donkey-riding. Some seasons when the Consul had business, there were long journeys. But Christmases were best of all. There were three present-givings: at home, at the grandparents’, and at Sesemi’s, where bishop flowed in streams. The one at home was the grandest, for the Consul believed in keeping the holy feast with pomp and ceremony. They gathered in the landscape-room with due solemnity. The servants and the crowd of poor people thronged into the pillared hall, where the Consul went about shaking their purple hands. Then outside rose the voices of the choir-boys from St. Mary’s in a quartette, and one’s heart beat loudly with awe and expectation. The smell of the Christmas tree was already coming through the crack in the great white folding doors; and the Frau Consul took the old family Bible with the funny big letters, and slowly read aloud the Christmas chapter; and after the choir-boys had sung another carol, everybody joined in “O Tannenbaum” and went in solemn procession through the hall into the great salon, hung with tapestries that had statuary woven into them. There the tree rose to the ceiling, decorated with white lilies, twinkling and sparkling and pouring out light and fragrance; and the table with the presents on it stretched from the windows to the door. Outside, the Italians with the barrel-organ were making music in the frozen, snowy streets, and a great hubbub came over from the Christmas market in Market Square. All the children except little Clara stopped up to late supper in the salon, and there were mountains of carp and stuffed turkey.

In these years Tony Buddenbrook visited two Mecklenburg estates. She stopped for two weeks one summer with her friend Armgard, on Herr von Schilling’s property, which lay on the coast across the bay from Travemünde. And another time she went with Cousin Tilda to a place where Bernard Buddenbrook was inspector. This estate was called “Thankless,” because it did not bring in a penny’s income; but for a summer holiday it was not to be despised.

Thus the years went on. It was, take it all in all, a happy youth for Tony.