Buddenbrooks Chapter Three

Consul Buddenbrook came from the “Harmony”—a reading-club for men, where he had spent the hour after second breakfast—back into Meng Street. He crossed the yard from behind, entered the side of the garden by the passage which ran between vine-covered walls and connected the back and front courtyards, and called into the kitchen to ask if his brother were at home. They should let him know when he came in. Then he passed through the office (where the men at the desks bent more closely over their work) into the private room; he laid aside his hat and stick, put on his working coat, and sat down in his place by the window, opposite Herr Marcus. Between his pale eyebrows were two deep wrinkles. The yellow end of a Russian cigarette roamed from one corner of his mouth to the other. The movements with which he took up paper and writing materials were so short and jerky that Herr Marcus ran his two fingers up and down his beard and gave his colleague a long, scrutinizing look. The younger men glanced at him with raised eyebrows. The Head was angry.

After half an hour, during which nothing was heard but the scratching of pens and the sound of Herr Marcus discreetly clearing his throat, the Consul looked over the green half-blind and saw Christian coming down the street. He was smoking. He came from the club, where he had eaten and also played a bit. He wore his hat a little awry on his head, and swung his yellow stick, which had come from “over there” and had the bust of a nun for a handle. He was obviously in good health and the best of tempers. He came humming into the office, said “Good morning, gentlemen,” although it was a bright spring afternoon, and took his place to “do a bit of work.” But the Consul got up and, passing him, said without looking at him, “Oh, may I have a few words with you?” Christian followed him. They walked rather rapidly through the entry. Thomas held his hands behind his back, and Christian involuntarily did the same, turning his big bony hooked nose toward his brother. The red-blond moustache drooped, English fashion, over his mouth. While they went across the court, Thomas said: “We will walk a few steps up and down the garden, my friend.”

“Good,” answered Christian. Then there was a long silence again, while they turned to the left and walked, by the outside way, past the rococo “portal” right round the garden, where the buds were beginning to swell. Finally the Consul said in a loud voice, with a long breath, “I have just been very angry, on account of your behaviour.”


“Yes. I heard in the ‘Harmony’ about a remark of yours that you dropped in the club last evening. It was so obnoxious, so incredibly tactless, that I can find no words—the stupidity called down a sharp snub on you at once. Do you care to recall what it was?”

“I know now what you mean. Who told you that?”

“What has that to do with it? Döhlmann.—In a voice loud enough so that all the people who did not already know the story could laugh at the joke.”

“Well, Tom, I must say I was ashamed of Hagenström.”

“You were ashamed—you were—! Listen to me,” shouted the Consul, stretching out both hands in front of him and shaking them in excitement. “In a company consisting of business as well as professional men, you make the remark, for everybody to hear, that, when one really considers it, every business man is a swindler—you, a business man yourself, belonging to a firm that strains every nerve and muscle to preserve its perfect integrity and spotless reputation!”

“Good heavens, Thomas, it was a joke!—although, really—” Christian hesitated, wrinkling his nose and stooping a little. In this position he took a few steps.

“A joke!” shouted the Consul. “I think I can understand a joke, but you see how your joke was understood. ‘For my part, I have the greatest respect for my calling.’ That was what Hermann Hagenström answered you. And there you sat, a good-for-nothing, with no respect for yours—”

“Tom, you don’t know what you are talking about. I assure you he spoiled the whole joke. After everybody laughed, as if they agreed with me, there sat this Hagenström and brought out with ridiculous solemnity, ‘For my part—’ Stupid fool! I was really ashamed for him. I thought about it a long time in bed last night, and I had a quite remarkable feeling—you know how it feels—”

“Stop chattering, stop chattering, I beg you,” interrupted the Consul. He trembled with disgust in his whole body. “I agree—I agree with you that his answer was not in the right key, and that it was tasteless. But that is just the kind of people you pick out to say such things to!—if it is necessary to say them at all—and so you lay yourself open to an insolent snub like that. Hagenström took the opening to—give not only you but us a slap. Do you understand what ‘for my part’ meant? It meant: ‘You may have such ideas going about in your brother’s office, Herr Buddenbrook.’ That’s what it meant, you idiot.”

“Idiot—?” said Christian. He looked disturbed and embarrassed.

“And finally, you belong not to yourself alone; I’m supposed to be indifferent when you make yourself personally ridiculous—and when don’t you make yourself personally ridiculous?” Thomas cried. He was pale, and the blue veins stood out on his narrow temples, from which the hair went back in two bays. One of his light eyebrows was raised; even the long, stiff pointed ends of his moustache looked angry as he threw his words down at Christian’s feet on the gravel with quick sidewise gestures. “You make yourself a laughing-stock with your love affairs, your harlequinades, your diseases and your remedies.”

Christian shook his head vehemently and put up a warning finger. “As far as that goes, Tom, you don’t understand very well, you know. The thing is—every one must attend to his own conscience, so to speak. I don’t know if you understand that.—Grabow has ordered me a salve for the throat muscles. Well—if I don’t use it, if I neglect it, I am quite lost and helpless, I am restless and uncertain and worried and upset, and I can’t swallow. But if I have been using it, I feel that I have done my duty, I have a good conscience, I am quiet and calm and can swallow famously. The salve does not do it, you know, but the thing is that an idea like that, you understand, can only be destroyed by another idea, an opposite one. I don’t know whether you understand me—”

“Oh, yes—oh, yes!” cried the Consul, holding his head for a moment with both hands. “Do it, do it, but don’t talk about it—don’t gabble about it. Leave other people alone with your horrible nuances. You make yourself ridiculous with your absurd chatter from morning to night. I must tell you, and I repeat it, I am not interested in how much you make a fool of yourself personally. But I forbid your compromising the firm in the way you did yesterday evening.”

Christian did not answer, except to run his hand slowly over his sparse red-brown locks, while his eyes roamed unsteadily and absently, and unrest sat upon his face. Undoubtedly he was still busy with the idea which he had just been expressing.

There was a pause. Thomas stalked along with the calmness of despair. “All business men are swindlers, you say,” he began afresh. “Good. Are you tired of it? Are you sorry you are a business man? You once got permission from Father—”

“Why, Tom,” said Christian reflectively, “I would really rather study. It must be nice to be in the university. One attends when one likes, at one’s own free will, sits down and listens, as in the theatre—”

“As in the theatre! Yes, I think your right place is that of a comedian in a café chantant. I am not joking. I am perfectly convinced that is your secret ideal.” Christian did not deny it; he merely gazed aimlessly about. “And you have the cheek to make such a remark—when you haven’t the slightest notion of work, and spend your days storing up a lot of feelings and sensations and episodes you hear in the theatre and when you are loafing about, God knows where; you take these and pet them and study them and chatter about them shamelessly!”

“Yes, Tom,” said Christian. He was a little depressed, and rubbed his hand again over his head. “That is true: you have expressed it quite correctly. That is the difference between us. You enjoy the theatre yourself; and you had your little affairs too, once on a time, between ourselves! And there was a time when you preferred novels and poetry and all that. But you have always known how to reconcile it with regular work and a serious life. I haven’t that. I am quite used up with the other; I have nothing left over for the regular life—I don’t know whether you understand—”

“Oh, so you see that?” cried Thomas, standing still and folding his arms on his breast. “You humbly admit that, and still you go on the same old way? Are you a dog, Christian? A man has some pride, by God! One doesn’t live a life that one may not know how to defend oneself. But so you are. That is your character. If you can only see a thing and understand and describe it—. No, my patience is at an end, Christian.” And the Consul took a quick backward step and made a gesture with his arms straight out. “It is at an end, I tell you.—You draw your pay, and stay away from the office. That isn’t what irritates me. Go and trifle your life away, as you have been doing, if you choose. But you compromise us, all of us, wherever you are. You are a growth, a fester, on the body of our family. You are a disgrace to us here in this town, and if this house were mine, I’d show you the door!” he screamed, making a wild sweeping gesture over the garden, the court, and the whole property. He had no more control of himself. A long-stored-up well of hatred poured itself out.

“What is the matter with you, Thomas?” said Christian. He was seized with unaccustomed anger, standing there in a position common to bow-legged people, like a questionmark, with head, stomach, and knees all prominent. His little deep eyes were wide open and surrounded by red rims down to the cheek-bones, as his Father’s used to be in anger. “How are you speaking to me? What have I done to you? I’ll go, without being thrown out. Shame on you!” he added with downright reproach, accompanying the word with a short, snapping motion in front of him, as if he were catching a fly.

Strange to say, Thomas did not meet this outburst by more anger. He bent his head and slowly took his way around the garden. It seemed to quiet him, actually to do him good to have made his brother angry at last—to have pushed him finally to the energy of a protest.

“Believe me,” he said quietly, putting his hands behind his back again, “this conversation is truly painful to me. But it had to take place. Such scenes in the family are frightful, but we must speak out once for all. Let us talk the thing over quietly, young one. You do not like your present position, it seems?”

“No, Tom; you are right about that. You see, at first I was very well satisfied. I know I’m better off here than in a stranger’s business. But what I want is the independence, I think. I have always envied you when I saw you sit there and work, for it is really no work at all for you. You work not because you must, but as master and head, and let others work for you, and you have the control, make your calculations, and are free. It is quite different.”

“Good, Christian. Why couldn’t you have said that before? You can make yourself free, or freer, if you like. You know Father left you as well as me an immediate inheritance of fifty thousand marks current; and I am ready at any moment to pay out this sum for a reasonable and sound purpose. In Hamburg, or anywhere else you like, there are plenty of safe but limited firms where they could use an increase of capital, and where you could enter as a partner. Let us think the matter over quietly, each by himself, and also speak to Mother at a good opportunity. I must get to work, and you could for the present go on with the English correspondence.” As they crossed the entry, he added, “What do you say, for instance, to H. C. F. Burmeester and Company in Hamburg? Import and export. I know the man. I am certain he would snap at it.”

That was in the end of May of the year 1857. At the beginning of June Christian travelled via Buchen to Hamburg—a heavy loss to the club, the theatre, the Tivoli, and the liberal livers of the town. All the “good fellows,” among them Dr. Gieseke and Peter Döhlmann, took leave of him at the station, and brought him flowers and cigars, and laughed to split their sides—recalling, no doubt, all the stories Christian had told them. And Lawyer Gieseke, amidst general applause, fastened to Christian’s overcoat a great favour made out of gold paper. This favour came from a sort of inn in the neighbourhood of the port, a place of free and easy resort where a red lantern burned above the door at night, and it was always very lively. The favour was awarded to the departing Chris Buddenbrook for his distinguished services.