Buddenbrooks Chapter Three

James Möllendorpf, the oldest of the merchant senators, died in a grotesque and horrible way. The instinct of self-preservation became very weak in this diabetic old man; and in the last years of his life he fell a victim to a passion for cakes and pastries. Dr. Grabow, as the Möllendorpf family physician, had protested energetically, and the distressed relatives employed gentle constraint to keep the head of the family from committing suicide with sweet bake-stuffs. But the old Senator, mental wreck as he was, rented a room somewhere, in some convenient street, like Little Groping Alley, or Angelswick, or Behind-the-Wall—a little hole of a room, whither he would secretly betake himself to consume sweets. And there they found his lifeless body, the mouth still full of half-masticated cake, the crumbs upon his coat and upon the wretched table. A mortal stroke had supervened, and put a stop to slow dissolution.

The horrid details of the death were kept as much as possible from the family, but they flew about the town, and were discussed at length on the Bourse, in the club, and at the Harmony, in all the business offices, in the Assembly of Burgesses—likewise at all the balls, dinners, and evening parties, for the death occurred in February of the year ’62, and the season was in full swing. Even the Frau Consul’s friends talked about it, on the Jerusalem evenings, in the pauses of Lea Gerhardt’s reading aloud; the little Sunday-school children discussed it in awesome whispers as they crossed the Buddenbrook entry; and Herr Stuht, in Bell-Founders’ Street, went into ample detail over it with his wife, who moved in the highest circles.

But interest could not long remain concentrated upon the past. And even with the first rumour of the old man’s death, the great question had at once sprung up: who was to succeed him?

What suspense, what subterranean activity! A stranger, intent on the sights of the mediaeval town, would have noticed nothing; but beneath the surface there was unimaginable bustle and commotion, as one firm and unassailable honest conviction after another was exploded; and slowly, slowly the while, divergent views approached each other! Passions are stirred, Ambition and Vanity wrestle together in silence. Dead and buried hopes spring once more to life—and again are blasted. Old Kurz, the merchant, in Bakers’ Alley, who gets three or four votes at every election, will sit quaking at home on the fatal day, and listen to the shouting, but he will not be elected this time either. He will continue to take his walks abroad, displaying outwardly his usual mingling of civic pride and self-satisfaction: but he will bear down with him into the grave the secret chagrin of never having been elected Senator.

James Möllendorpf’s death was discussed at the Buddenbrook Thursday dinner-table; and Frau Permaneder, after the proper expressions of sympathy, began to let her tongue play upon her upper lip and look across artfully at her brother. The Buddenbrook ladies marked the look. They exchanged piercing glances, and with one accord shut their eyes and their lips tightly together. The Consul had, for a second, responded to the sly smile his sister gave him, and then given the talk another turn. He knew that the thought which Tony hugged to her breast in secret was being spoken in the street.

Names were suggested and rejected, others came up and were sifted out. Henning Kurz in Bakers’ Alley was too old. They needed new blood. Consul Huneus, the lumber dealer, whose millions would have weighted the scale heavily in his favour, was constitutionally ineligible, as his brother already sat in the Senate. Consul Eduard Kistenmaker, the wine dealer, and Consul Hermann Hagenström were names that kept their places on the list. But from the very first was heard the name of Thomas Buddenbrook; and as election day approached, it grew constantly plainer that he and Hermann Hagenström were the favoured candidates.

Hermann Hagenström had his admirers and hangers-on—there was no doubt of that. His zeal in public affairs, the spectacular rise of the firm of Strunck and Hagenström, the showy house the Consul kept, the luxurious life he led, the pâtés-de-foie-gras he ate for breakfast—all these could not fail to make an impression. This large, rather over-stout man with the short, full, reddish beard and the snub nose coming down flat on his upper lip, this man whose grandfather nobody knew, not even himself, and whose father had made himself socially impossible by a rich but doubtful marriage; this man had become a brother-in-law of the Huneus’ and the Möllendorpfs, had ranged his name alongside those of the five or six reigning families in the town, and was undeniably a remarkable and a respected figure. The novel and therewith the attractive element in his personality—that which singled him out for a leading position in the eyes of many—was its liberal and tolerant strain. His light, large way of making money and spending it again differed fundamentally from the patient, persistent toil and the inherited principles of his fellow merchants. This man stood on his own feet, free from the fetters of tradition and ancestral piety; and all the old ways were foreign to him. His house was not one of the ancient patrician mansions, built with senseless waste of space, in tall white galleries mounting above a stone-paved ground floor. His home on Sand Street, the southern extension of Broad Street, was a modern dwelling, not conforming to any set style of architecture, with a simple painted façade, but furnished inside with every luxury and planned with the cleverest economy of space. Recently, on the occasion of one of his large evening parties, he had invited a prima donna from the government theatre, to sing after dinner to his guests—among them his witty, art-loving brother—and had paid her an enormous fee for her services. Hermann Hagenström was not the man to vote in the Assembly for the application of large sums of money to preserve and restore the town’s mediaeval monuments. But it was a fact that he was the first, absolutely the first man in town to light his house and his offices with gas. Yes, if Consul Hagenström could be said to represent any tradition whatever, it was the free, progressive, tolerant, unprejudiced habit of thought which he had inherited from his father, old Hinrich—and on this was based all the admiration people undoubtedly felt for him.

Thomas Buddenbrook’s prestige was of a different kind. People honoured in him not only his own personality, but the personalities of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather as well: quite apart from his own business and public achievement, he was the representative of a hundred years of honourable tradition. And the easy, charming way, indeed, with which he carried the family standard made no small part of his success. What distinguished him, even among his professional fellow citizens, was an unusual degree of formal culture, which, wherever he went, aroused both wonder and respect in about equal degrees.

On Thursdays at the Buddenbrooks’, the coming election received only brief and passing comment in the presence of the Consul. Whenever it was mentioned, the old Frau Consul discreetly averted her light eyes. But Frau Permaneder, now and then, could not refrain from displaying her astonishing knowledge of the Constitution. She had gone very thoroughly into the decrees touching the election of a member of the Senate, precisely as once she thoroughly informed herself on the laws governing divorce. She talked about voting chambers, ballots, and electors, she weighed all the possible eventualities, she could recite verbatim and glibly the oath taken by the voters. She spoke of the “free and frank discussion” which the Constitution ordains must be held over each name upon the list of candidates, and vivaciously wished she might be present when Hermann Hagenström’s character was being pulled to pieces! A moment later she leaned over and began to count the prune-pits on her brother’s dessert-plate: tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor—finishing triumphantly with “senator” when she came to the last pit. But after dinner she could not hold in any longer. She took her brother’s arm and drew him into the bow-window.

“Oh, Tom! Tom! Suppose you are really elected—if our coat-of-arms is put up in the Senate-chamber at the Town Hall I shall just die of joy, I know I shall. I shall fall dead at the news—you’ll see!”

“Now, Tony dear! Have a little self-control, a little dignity, I beg of you. You are not usually lacking in dignity. Am I going around like Henning Kurz? We amount to something even without the ‘Senator.’ And I hope you won’t die, whichever way it turns out!”

And the agitations, the consultations, the struggles of opinion took their course. Consul Peter Döhlman, the rake with a business now entirely ruined, which existed only in name, and the twenty-seven-year-old daughter whose inheritance he was eating up, played his part by attending two dinners, one given by Thomas Buddenbrook and the other by Hermann Hagenström, and both times addressing his host, in his loud, resounding voice, as “Senator.” But Siegismund Gosch, old Gosch the broker, went about like a raging lion, and engaged to throttle anybody, out of hand, who wasn’t minded to vote for Consul Buddenbrook.

“Consul Buddenbrook, gentlemen—ah, there’s a man for you! I stood at his father’s side in the ’48, when, with a word, he tamed the unleashed fury of the mob. His father, and his father’s father before him, would have been Senator were there any justice on this earth!”

But at bottom it was not so much Consul Buddenbrook himself whose personality fired Gosch’s soul to its innermost depths. It was rather the young Frau Consul, Gerda Arnoldsen. Not that the broker had ever exchanged a word with her. He did not belong to her circle of wealthy merchant families, nor sit at their tables, nor pay visits to them. But, as we have seen, Gerda Buddenbrook had but to arrive in the town to be singled out by the roving fancy of the sinister broker, ever on the look-out for the unusual. With unerring instinct he divined that this figure was calculated to add content to his unsatisfied existence, and he made himself the slave of one who had scarcely ever heard his name. Since then he encompassed in his reveries this nervous, exceedingly reserved lady, to whom he had not even been presented: he lifted his Jesuit hat to her, on the street, to her great surprise, and treated her to a pantomime of cringing treachery, gloating over her the while in his thoughts as a tiger might over his trainer. This dull existence would afford him no chance of committing atrocities for this woman’s sake—ah, if it only would, with what devilish indifference would he answer for them! Its stupid conventions prevented him from raising her, by deeds of blood and horror, to an imperial throne!—And thus, nothing was left but for him to go to the Town Hall and cast his vote in favour of her furiously respected husband—and, perhaps, one day, to dedicate to her his forthcoming transition of Lope de Vega.