Buddenbrooks Chapter Seven

In the morning at eight o’clock Consul Buddenbrook, so soon as he had left his bed, stolen through the little door and down the winding stair into the bathroom, taken a bath, and put on his night-shirt again—Consul Buddenbrook, we say, began to busy himself with public affairs. For then Herr Wenzel, barber and member of the Assembly, appeared, with his intelligent face and his red hands, his razors and other tools, and the basin of warm water which he had fetched from the kitchen; and the Consul sat in a reclining-chair and leaned his head back, and Herr Wenzel began to make a lather; and there ensued almost always a conversation that began with the weather and how you had slept the night before, went on to politics and the great world, thence to domestic affairs in the city itself, and closed in an intimate and familiar key on business and family matters. All this prolonged very much the process in hand, for every time the Consul said anything Herr Wenzel had to stop shaving.

“Hope you slept well, Herr Consul?”

“Yes, thanks, Wenzel. Is it fine to-day?”

“Frost and a bit of snow, Herr Consul. In front of St. James’s the boys have made another slide, more than ten yards long—I nearly sat down, when I came from the Burgomaster’s. The young wretches!”

“Seen the papers?”

“The Advertiser and the Hamburg News—yes. Nothing in them but the Orsini bombs. Horrible. It happened on the way to the opera. Oh, they must be a fine lot over there.”

“Oh, it doesn’t signify much, I should think. It has nothing to do with the people, and the only effect will be that the police will be doubled and there will be twice as much interference with the press. He is on his guard. Yes, it must be a perpetual strain, for he has to introduce new projects all the time, to Keep himself in power. But I respect him, all the same. At all events, he can’t be a fool, with his traditions, and I was very much impressed with the cheap bread affair. There is no doubt he does a great deal for the people.”

“Yes, Herr Kistenmaker says so too.”

“Stephan? We were talking about it yesterday.”

“It looks bad for Frederick William of Prussia. Things won’t last much longer as they are. They say already that the prince will be made Regent in time.”

“It will be interesting to see what happens then. He has already shown that he has liberal ideas and does not feel his brother’s secret disgust for the Constitution. It is just the chagrin that upsets him, poor man. What is the news from Copenhagen?”

“Nothing new, Herr Consul. They simply won’t. The Confederation has declared that a united government for Holstein and Lauenburg is illegal—they won’t have it at any price.”

“Yes, it is unheard-of, Wenzel. They dare the Bundestag to put it into operation—and if it were a little more lively—oh, these Danes!—Careful with that chapped place, Wenzel.—There’s our direct-line Hamburg railway, too. That has cost some diplomatic battles, and will cost more before they get the concession from Copenhagen.”

“Yes, Herr Consul. The stupid thing is that the Altona-Kiel Railway Company is against it—and, in fact, all Holstein is. Dr. Överdieck, the Burgomaster, was saying so just now. They are dreadfully afraid of Kiel prospering much.”

“Of course, Wenzel. A new connection between the North Sea and the Baltic.—You’ll see, the Kiel-Altona line will keep on intriguing. They are in a position to build a rival railway: East Holstein, Neuminster, Neustadt—yes, that is quite on the cards. But we must not let ourselves be bullied, and we must have a direct route to Hamburg.”

“Herr Consul must take the matter up himself.”

“Certainly, so far as my powers go, and wherever I have any influence. I am interested in the development of our railways—it is a tradition with us from 1851 on. My Father was a director of the Buchen line, which is probably the reason why I was elected so young. I am only thirty-three years old, and my services so far have been very inconsiderable.”

“Oh, Herr Consul! How can the Herr Consul say that after his speech in the Assembly—?”

“Yes, that made an impression, and I’ve certainly shown my good will, at least. I can only be grateful that my Father, Grandfather, and great-Grandfather prepared the way for me, and that I inherited so much of the respect and confidence they received from the town; for without it I could not move as I am now able to. For instance, after ’48 and the beginning of this decade, what did my Father not do towards the reform of our postal service? Think how he urged in the Assembly the union of the Hamburg diligences with the postal service; and how in 1850 he forced the Senate by continuous pressure to join the German-Austrian Postal Union! If we have cheap letter postage now, and stamps and book post, and letter-boxes, and telegraphic connection with Hamburg and Travemünde, he is not the last one to be grateful to. Why, if he and a few other people had not kept at the Senate continually, we should most likely still be behind the Danish and the Thurn-and-Taxis postal service! So when I have an opinion nowadays on these subjects, people listen to me.”

“The Herr Consul is speaking God’s truth. About the Hamburg line, Doctor Överdieck was saying to me only three days ago: ‘When we get where we can buy a suitable site for the station in Hamburg, we will send Consul Buddenbrook to help transact the business, for in such dealings he is better than most lawyers.’ Those were his very words.”

“Well, that is very flattering to me, Wenzel.—Just put a little more lather on my chin, will you? It wants a bit more cleaning up.—Yes, the truth is, we mustn’t let the grass grow under our feet. I am saying nothing against Överdieck, but he is getting on. If I were Burgomaster I’d make things move a little faster. I can’t tell you how pleased I am that they are installing gas for the street-lighting, and the miserable old oil-lamps are disappearing—I admit I had a little something to do with that change. Oh, how much there is to do! Times are changing, Wenzel, and we have many responsibilities toward the new age. When I think back to my boyhood—you know better than I do what the town looked like then: the streets without sidewalks, grass growing a foot high between the paving-stones, and the houses with porticos and benches sticking out into the streets—and our buildings from the time of the Middle Ages spoilt with clumsy additions, and all tumbling down because, while individuals had money and nobody went hungry, the town had none at all and just muddled along, as my brother-in-law calls it, without ever thinking of repairs. That was a happy and comfortable generation, when my grandfather’s crony, the good Jean Jacques Hoffstede, strolled about the town and translated improper little French poems. They had to end, those good old times; they have changed, and they will have to change still more. Then the population was thirty-seven thousand: now it is fifty, you know, and the whole character of the place is altering. There is so much building, and the suburbs are spreading out, and we are able to have good streets and restore the old monuments out of our great period. Yet even all that is merely superficial. The most important matter is still outstanding, my dear Wenzel. I mean, of course, the ceterum censeo of my dear Father: the customs union. We must join, Wenzel; there should be no longer any question about it, and you must all help me fight for it. As a business man, believe me, I am better informed than the diplomats, and the fear that we should lose independence and freedom of action is simply laughable in this case. The Mecklenburg and Schleswig-Holstein Inland would take us in, which is the more desirable for the reason that we do not control the northern trade quite to the extent that we once did.—That’s enough. Please give me the towel, Wenzel,” concluded the Consul.

Then the market price of rye, which stood at fifty-five thaler and showed disquieting signs of falling still further, was talked about, and perhaps there was a mention of some event or other in the town; and then Herr Wenzel vanished by the basement route and emptied the lather out of his shiny basin on to the pavement in the street. And the Consul mounted the winding stair into the bedroom, and found Gerda awake, and kissed her on the forehead. Then he dressed.

These little morning sessions with the lively barber formed the introduction to busy days, full to running over with thinking, talking, writing, reckoning, doing business, going about in the town. Thanks to his travel, his interests, and his knowledge of affairs, Thomas Buddenbrook’s mind was the least provincial in the district; and he was certainly the first to realize the limitations of his lot. The lively interest in public affairs which the years of the Revolution had brought in, was suffering throughout the whole country from a period of prostration and arrest, and that field was too sterile to occupy a vigorous talent; but Thomas Buddenbrook possessed the spirit to take to himself that wise old saying that all human achievement is of a merely symbolic value, and thus to devote all that he had of capacity, enthusiasm, energy, and strength of will to the service of the community as well as to the service of his own name and firm. He stood in the front rank of his small society and was seriously ambitious to give his city greatness and power within her sphere—though he had the intellect, too, to smile at himself for the ambition even while he cherished it.

He ate his breakfast, served by Anton, and went to the office in Meng Street, where he remained about an hour, writing two or three pressing letters and telegrams, giving this or that instruction, imparting to the wheels of industry a small push, and then leaving them to revolve under the cautious eye of Herr Marcus.

He went to assemblies and committee meetings, visited the Bourse, which was held under the Gothic arcades in the Market Square, inspected dockyards and warehouses, talked with the captains of the ships he owned, and transacted much and various business all day long until evening, interrupted only by the hasty luncheon with his Mother and dinner with Gerda; after which he took a half-hour’s rest on the sofa with his cigarette and the newspaper. Customs, rates, construction, railways, posts, almonry—all this as well as his own business occupied him; and even in matters commonly left to professionals he acquired insight and judgment, especially in finance, where he early showed himself extremely gifted.

He was careful not to neglect the social side. True, he was not always punctual, and usually appeared at the very last minute, when the carriage waited below and his wife sat in full toilette. “I’m sorry, Gerda,” he would say; “I was detained”; and he would dash upstairs to don his evening clothes. But when he arrived at a dinner, a ball, or an evening company, he showed lively interest and ranked as a charming causeur. And in entertaining he and his wife were not behind the other rich houses. In kitchen and cellar everything was “tip-top,” and he himself was considered a most courteous and tactful host, whose toasts were wittier than the common run. His quiet evenings he spent at home with Gerda alone, smoking, listening to her music, or reading with her some book of her selection.

Thus his labours enforced success, his consequence grew in the town, and the firm had excellent years, despite the sums drawn out to settle Christian and to pay Tony’s second dowry. And yet there were troubles which had, at times, the power to lame his courage for hours, weaken his elasticity, and depress his mood.

There was Christian in Hamburg. His partner, Herr Burmeester, had died quite suddenly of an apoplectic stroke, in the spring of the year 1858. His heirs drew their money out of the business, and the Consul strongly advised Christian against trying to continue it with his own means, for he knew how difficult it is to carry on a business already established on definite lines if the working capital be suddenly diminished. But Christian insisted upon the continuation of his independence. He took over the assets and the liabilities of H. C. F. Burmeester and Company, and trouble was to be looked for.

Then there was the Consul’s sister Clara in Riga. Her marriage with Pastor Tiburtius had remained unblest with children—but then, as Clara Buddenbrook she had never wanted children, and probably had very little talent for motherhood. Now her husband wrote that her health left much to be desired. The severe headaches from which she had suffered even as a girl were now recurring periodically, to an almost unbearable extent.

That was disquieting. And even here at home there was another source of worry—for, as yet, there was no certainty whatever that the family name would live. Gerda treated the subject with sovereign indifference which came very near to being repugnance. Thomas concealed his anxiety. But the old Frau Consul took the matter in hand and consulted Grabow.

“Doctor—just between ourselves—something is bound to happen sometime, isn’t it? A little mountain air at Kreuth, a little seashore at Glucksberg or Travemünde—but they don’t seem to work. What do you advise?” Dr. Grabow’s pleasant old prescription: “a nourishing diet, a little pigeon, a slice of French bread,” didn’t seem strong enough, either, to fit the case. He ordered Pyrmont and Schlangenbad.

Those were three worries. And Tony? Poor Tony!