Buddenbrooks Chapter Two

In the beginning of February, 1856, after eight years’ absence, Christian Buddenbrook returned to the home of his fathers. He arrived in the post-coach from Hamburg, wearing a yellow suit with a pattern of large checks, that had a distinctly exotic look. He brought the bill of a swordfish and a great sugar-cane, and received the embraces of his mother with a half-embarrassed, half-absent air.

He wore the same air when, on the next afternoon after his arrival, the family went to the cemetery outside the Castle Gate to lay a wreath on the grave. They stood together on the snowy path in front of the large tablet on which were the names of those resting there, surrounding the family arms cut in the stone. Before them was the upright marble cross that stood at the edge of the bare little churchyard grove. They were all there except Clothilde, who was at Thankless, nursing her ailing father.

Tony laid the wreath on the tablet, where her father’s name stood on the stone in fresh gold letters: then, despite the snow, she knelt down by the grave to pray. Her black veil played about her, and her full skirt lay spread out in picturesque folds. God alone knew how much grief and religious emotion—and, on the other hand, how much of a pretty woman’s self-conscious pleasure—there was in the bowed attitude. Thomas was not in the mood to think about it. But Christian looked sidewise at his sister with a mixture of mockery and misgiving, as if to say: “Can you really carry that off? Shan’t you feel silly when you get up? How uncomfortable!” Tony caught this look as she rose, but she was not in the least put out. She tossed her head back, arranged her veil and skirt, and turned with dignified assurance to go; whereupon Christian was obviously relieved.

The deceased Consul’s fanatical love of God and of the Saviour had been an emotion foreign to his forebears, who never cherished other than the normal, every-day sentiments proper to good citizens. The two living Buddenbrooks had in their turn their own idiosyncrasies. One of these appeared to be a nervous distaste for the expression of feeling. Thomas had certainly felt the death of his father with painful acuteness, much as his grandfather had felt the loss of his. But he could not sink on his knees by his grave. He had never, like his sister Tony, flung himself across the table sobbing like a child; and he shrank from hearing the heart-broken words in which Madame Grünlich, from roast to dessert, loved to celebrate the character and person of her dead father. Such outbursts he met with composed silence or a reserved nod. And yet, when nobody had mentioned or was thinking of the dead, it would be just then that his eyes would fill with slow tears, although his facial expression remained unchanged.

It was different with Christian. He unfortunately did not succeed in preserving his composure at the naïve and childish outpourings of his sister. He bent over his plate, turned his head away, and looked as though he wanted to sink through the floor; and several times he interrupted her with a low, tormented “Good God, Tony!” his large nose screwed into countless tiny wrinkles.

In fact, he showed disquiet and embarrassment whenever the conversation turned to the dead. It seemed as though he feared and avoided not only the indelicate expression of deep and solemn feeling, but even the feeling itself.

No one had seen him shed a tear over the death of his father; and his long absence alone hardly explained this fact. A more remarkable thing, however, was that he took his sister Tony aside again and again to hear in vivid detail the events of that fatal afternoon; for Madame Grünlich had a gift of lively narration.

“He looked yellow?” he asked for the fifth time. “What was it the girl shrieked when she came running in to you? He looked quite yellow, and died without saying another word? What did the girl say? What sort of sound was it he made?” Then he would be silent—silent a long time—while his small deep-set eyes travelled round the room in thought.

“Horrible,” he said suddenly, and a visible shudder ran over him as he got up. He would walk up and down with the same unquiet and brooding eyes. Madame Grünlich felt astonished to see that Christian, who for some unknown reason was so embarrassed when she bewailed her father aloud, liked to reproduce with a sort of dreadful relish the dying efforts to speak which he had inquired about in detail of Line the maid-servant.

Christian had certainly not grown better looking. He was lean and pallid. The skin was stretched over his skull very tightly; his large nose, with a distinct hump, stuck out fleshless and sharp between his cheek-bones, and his hair was already noticeably scantier. His neck was too thin and lone and his lean legs decidedly bowed. His London period seemed to have made a lasting impression upon him. In Valparaiso, too, he had mostly associated with Englishmen; and his whole appearance had something English about it which somehow seemed rather appropriate. It was partly the comfortable cut and durable wool material of his clothing, the broad, solid elegance of his boots, his crotchety expression, and the way in which his red-blond moustache drooped over his mouth. Even his hands had an English look: they were a dull porous white from the hot climate, with round, clean, short-trimmed nails.

“Tell me,” he said, abruptly, “do you know that feeling—it is hard to describe—when you swallow something hard, the wrong way, and it hurts all the way down your spine?” His whole nose wrinkled as he spoke.

“Yes,” said Tony; “that is quite common. You take a drink of water—”

“Oh,” he said in a dissatisfied tone. “No, I don’t think we mean the same thing.” And a restless look floated across his face.

He was the first one in the house to shake off his mourning and re-assume a natural attitude. He had not lost the art of imitating the deceased Marcellus Stengel, and he often spoke for hours in his voice. At the table he asked about the theatre—if there were a good company and what they were giving.

“I don’t know,” said Tom, with a tone that was exaggeratedly indifferent, in order not to seem irritated. “I haven’t noticed lately.”

But Christian missed this altogether and went on to talk about the theatre. “I am too happy for words in the theatre. Even the word ‘theatre’ makes me feel happy. I don’t know whether any of you have that feeling. I could sit for hours and just look at the curtain. I feel as I used to when I was a child and we went in to the Christmas party here. Even the sound of the orchestra beforehand! I would go if only to hear that and nothing more. I like the love scenes best. Some of the heroines have such a fetching way of taking their lovers’ heads between their hands. But the actors—in London and Valparaiso I have known a lot of actors. At first I was very proud to get to know them in ordinary life. In the theatre I watched their every movement. It is fascinating. One of them says his last speech and turns around quietly and goes deliberately, without the least embarrassment, to the door, although he knows that the eyes of the whole audience are on his back. How can he do that? I used to be continually thinking about going behind the scenes. But now I am pretty much at home there, I must say. Imagine: once, in an operetta—it was in London—the curtain went up one evening when I was on the stage! I was talking with Miss Waterhouse, a very pretty girl. Well, suddenly there was the whole audience! Good Lord, I don’t know how I got off the stage.”

Madame Grünlich was the only one who laughed, to speak of, in the circle round the table. But Christian went on, his eyes wandering back and forth. He talked about English café-chantant singers; about an actress who came on in powdered wig, and knocked with a long cane on the ground and sang a song called: “That’s Maria.” “Maria, you know—Maria is the most scandalous of the lot. When somebody does something perfectly shocking, why—‘that’s Maria’—the bad lot, you know—utterly depraved!” He said this last with a frightful expression and raised his right hand with the fingers formed into a ring.

“Assez, Christian,” said the Frau Consul. “That does not interest us in the least.”

But Christian’s gaze flickered absently over her head; he would probably have stopped without her suggestion, for he seemed to be sunk in a profound, disquieting dream of Maria and her depravity, while his little round deep eyes wandered back and forth.

Suddenly he said: “Strange—sometimes I can’t swallow. Oh, it’s no joke. I find it very serious. It enters my head that perhaps I can’t swallow, and then all of a sudden I can’t. The food is already swallowed, but the muscles—right here—they simply refuse. It isn’t a question of will-power. Or rather, the thing is, I don’t dare really will it.”

Tony cried out, quite beside herself: “Christian! Good Lord, what nonsense! You don’t dare to make up your mind to swallow! What are you talking about? You are absurd!”

Thomas was silent. But the Frau Consul said: “That is nerves, Christian. Yes, it was high time you came home; the climate over there would have killed you in the end.”

After the meal Christian sat down at the little harmonium that stood in the dining-room and imitated a piano virtuoso. He pretended to toss back his hair, rubbed his hands, and looked around the room; then, without a sound, without touching the bellows—for he could not play in the least, and was entirely unmusical, like all the Buddenbrooks—he bent quite over and began to belabour the bass, played unbelievable passages, threw himself back, looked in ecstasy at the ceiling, and banged the key-board in a triumphant finale. Even Clara burst out laughing. The illusion was convincing; full of assurance and charlatanry and irresistible comicality of the burlesque, eccentric English-American kind; so certain of its own effect that the result was not in the least unpleasant.

“I have gone a great deal to concerts,” he said. “I like to watch how the people behave with their instruments. It is really beautiful to be an artist.”

Then he began to play again, but broke off suddenly and became serious, as though a mask had fallen over his features. He got up, ran his hand through his scanty hair, moved away, and stood silent, obviously fallen into a bad mood, with unquiet eyes and an expression as though he were listening to some kind of uncanny noise.

“Sometimes I find Christian a little strange,” said Madame Grünlich to her brother Thomas, one evening, when they were alone. “He talks so, somehow. He goes so unnaturally into detail, seems to me—or what shall I say? He looks at things in such a strange way; don’t you think so?”

“Yes,” said Tom, “I understand what you mean very well, Tony. Christian is very incautious—undignified—it is difficult to express what I mean. Something is lacking in him—what people call equilibrium, mental poise. On the one hand, he does not know how to keep his countenance when other people make naïve or tactless remarks—he does not understand how to cover it up, and he just loses his self-possession altogether. But the same thing happens when he begins to be garrulous himself, in the unpleasant way he has, and tells his most intimate thoughts. It gives one such an uncanny feeling—it is just the way people speak in a fever, isn’t it? Self-control and personal reserve are both lacking in the same way. Oh, the thing is quite simple: Christian busies himself too much with himself, with what goes on in his own insides. Sometimes he has a regular mania for bringing out the deepest and the pettiest of these experiences—things a reasonable man does not trouble himself about or even want to know about, for the simple reason that he would not like to tell them to any one else. There is such a lack of modesty in so much communicativeness. You see, Tony, anybody, except Christian, may say that he loves the theatre. But he would say it in a different tone, more en passant, more modestly, in short. Christian says it in a tone that says: ‘Is not my passion for the stage something very marvellous and interesting?’ He struggles, he behaves as if he were really wrestling to express something supremely delicate and difficult.

“I’ll tell you,” he went on after a pause, throwing his cigarette through the wrought-iron lattice into the stove: “I have thought a great deal about this curious and useless self-preoccupation, because I had once an inclination to it myself. But I observed that it made me unsteady, hare-brained, and incapable—and control, equilibrium, is, at least for me, the important thing. There will always be men who are justified in this interest in themselves, this detailed observation of their own emotions; poets who can express with clarity and beauty their privileged inner life, and thereby enrich the emotional world of other people. But the likes of us are simple merchants, my child; our self-observations are decidedly inconsiderable. We can sometimes go so far as to say that the sound of orchestra instruments gives us unspeakable pleasure, and that we sometimes do not dare try to swallow—but it would be much better, deuce take it, if we sat down and accomplished something, as our fathers did before us.”

“Yes, Tom, you express my views exactly. When I think of the airs those Hagenströms put on—oh, Heavens, what truck! Mother doesn’t like the words I use, but I find they are the only right ones. Do you suppose they think they are the only good family in town? I have to laugh, you know; I really do.”