Buddenbrooks Chapter Two

In the spring of 1868, one evening towards ten o’clock, Frau Permaneder entered the first story of her brother’s house. Senator Buddenbrook sat alone in the living-room, which was done in olive-green rep, with a large round centre-table and a great gas-lamp hanging down over it from the ceiling. He had the Berlin Financial Gazette spread out in front of him on the table, and was reading it, with a cigarette held between the first and second fingers of his left hand, and a gold pince-nez on his nose—he had now for some time been obliged to use glasses for reading. He heard his sister’s footsteps as she passed through the dining-room, took off his glasses, and peered into the darkness until Tony appeared between the portieres and in the circle of light from the lamp.

“Oh, it is you? How are you? Back from Pöppenrade? How are your friends?”

“Evening, Tom. Thanks, Armgard is very well. Are you here alone?”

“Yes; I’m glad you have come. I ate my dinner all alone to-night like the Pope. I don’t count Mamsell Jungmann, because she is always popping up to look after Hanno. Gerda is at the Casino. Christian fetched her, to hear Tamayo play the violin.”

“Bless and save us—as Mother says.—Yes, I’ve noticed lately that Gerda and Christian get on quite well together.”

“Yes, I have too. Since he came back for good, she seems to have taken to him. She sits and listens to him when he tells about his troubles—dear me, I suppose he entertains her. She said to me lately: ‘There is nothing of the burgher about Christian, Thomas—he is even less of a burgher than you are, yourself!’”

“Burgher, Tom? What did she mean? Why, it seems to me there is no better burgher on top of the earth than you are!”

“Oh, well—she didn’t mean it just in that sense. Take off your things and sit down a while, my child. How splendid you look! The country air did you good.”

“I’m in very good form,” she said, as she took off her mantle and the hood with lilac silk ribbons and sat down with dignity in an easy-chair by the table. “My sleep and my digestion both improved very much in this short time. The fresh milk, and the farm sausages and hams—one thrives like the cattle and the crops. And the honey, Tom, I have always considered honey one of the very best of foods. A pure nature product—one knows just what one’s eating. Yes, it was really very sweet of Armgard to remember an old boarding-school friendship and send me the invitation. Herr von Maiboom was very polite, too. They urged me to stay a couple of weeks longer, but I know Erica is rather helpless without me, especially now, with little Elisabeth—”

“How is the child?”

“Doing nicely, Tom. She is really not bad at all, for four months, even if Henriette and Friederike and Pfiffi did say she wouldn’t live.”

“And Weinschenk? How does he like being a father? I never see him except on Thursdays—”

“Oh, he is just the same. You know he is a very good, hard-working man, and in a way a model husband; he never stops in anywhere, but comes straight home from the office and spends all his free time with us. But—you see, Tom—we can speak quite openly, just between ourselves—he requires Erica to be always lively, always laughing and talking, because when he comes home tired and worried from the office, he needs cheering up, and his wife must amuse him and divert him.”

“Idiot!” murmured the Senator.

“What? Well, the bad thing about it is, that Erica is a little bit inclined to be melancholy. She must get it from me, Tom. Sometimes she is very serious and quiet and thoughtful; and then he scolds and grumbles and complains, and really, to tell the truth, is not at all sympathetic. You can’t help seeing that he is a man of no family, and never enjoyed what one would call a refined bringing-up. To be quite frank—a few days before I went to Pöppenrade, he threw the lid of the soup-tureen on the floor and broke it, because the soup was too salt.”

“How charming!”

“Oh, no, it wasn’t, not at all! But we must not judge. God knows, we are all weak creatures—and a good, capable, industrious man like that—Heaven forbid! No, Tom, a rough shell with a sound kernel inside is not the worst thing in this life. I’ve just come from something far sadder than that, I can tell you! Armgard wept bitterly, when she was alone with me—”

“You don’t say! Is Herr von Maiboom—?”

“Yes, Tom—that is what I wanted to tell you. We sit here gossiping, but I really came tonight on a serious and important errand.”

“Well, what is the trouble with Herr von Maiboom?”

“He is a very charming man, Ralf von Maiboom, Thomas; but he is very wild—a hail-fellow-well-met with everybody. He gambles in Rostock, and he gambles in Warnemünde, and his debts are like the sands of the sea. Nobody could believe it, just living; a couple of weeks at Pöppenrade. The house is lovely, everything looks flourishing, there is milk and sausage and ham and all that, in great abundance. So it is hard to measure the actual situation. But their affairs are in frightful disorder—Armgard confessed it to me, with heart-breaking sobs.”

“Very sad.”

“You may well say so. But, as I had already suspected, it turned out that I was not invited over there just for the sake of my beaux yeux.”

“How so?”

“I will tell you, Tom. Herr von Maiboom needs a large sum of money immediately. He knew the old friendship between his wife and me, and he knew that I am your sister. So, in his extremity, he put his wife up to it, and she put me up to it.—You understand?”

The Senator passed his finger-tips across his hair and screwed up his face a little.

“I think so,” he said. “Your serious and important business evidently concerns an advance on the Pöppenrade harvest—if I am not mistaken. But you have come to the wrong man, I think, you and your friends. In the first place, I have never done any business with Herr von Maiboom, and this would be a rather strange way to begin. In the second place—though, in the past, Grandfather, Father, and I myself have made advances on occasion to the landed gentry, it was always when they offered a certain security, either personally or through their connections. But to judge from the way you have just characterized Herr von Maiboom and his prospects, I should say there can be no security in his case.”

“You are mistaken, Tom. I have let you have your say, but you are mistaken. It is not a question of an advance, at all. Maiboom has to have thirty-five thousand marks current—”

“Heavens and earth!”

“—five-and-thirty thousand marks current, to be paid within two weeks. The knife is at his throat—to be plain, he has to sell at once, immediately.”

“In the blade—oh, the poor chap!” The Senator shook his head as he stood, playing with his pince-nez on the tablecloth. “That is a rather unheard-of thing for our sort of business,” he went on. “I have heard of such things, mostly in Hesse, where a few of the landed gentry are in the hands of the Jews. Who knows what sort of cut-throat it is that has poor Herr von Maiboom in his clutches?”

“Jews? Cut-throats?” cried Frau Permaneder, astonished beyond measure. “But it’s you we are talking about, Tom!”

Thomas Buddenbrook suddenly threw down his pince-nez on the table so that it slid along on top of the newspaper, and turned toward his sister with a jerk.

“Me?” he said, but only with his lips, for he made no sound. Then he added aloud: “Go to bed, Tony. You are tired out.”

“Why, Tom, that is what Ida Jungmann used to say to us, when we were just beginning to have a good time. But I assure you I was never wider awake in my life than now, coming over here in the dead of night to make Armgard’s offer to you—or rather, indirectly, Ralf von Maiboom’s—”

“And I will forgive you for making a proposal which is the product of your naïveté and the Maibooms’ helplessness.”

“Helplessness? Naïveté, Thomas? I don’t understand you—I am very far from understanding you. You are offered an opportunity to do a good deed, and at the same time the best stroke of business you ever did in your life—”

“Oh, my darling child, you are talking the sheerest nonsense,” cried the Senator, throwing himself back impatiently in his chair. “I beg your pardon, but you make me angry with your ridiculous innocence. Can’t you understand that you are asking me to do something discreditable, to engage in underhand maneuvers? Why should I go fishing in troubled waters? Why should I fleece this poor land-owner? Why should I take advantage of his necessity to do him out of a year’s harvest at a usurious profit to myself?”

“Oh, is that the way you look at it!” said Frau Permaneder, quite taken aback and thoughtful. But she recovered in a moment and went on: “But it is not at all necessary to look at it like that, Tom. How are you forcing him, when it is he who comes to you? He needs the money, and would like the matter arranged in a friendly way, and under the rose. That is why he traced out the connection between us, and invited me to visit.”

“In short, he has made a mistake in his calculations about me and the character of my firm. I have my own traditions. We have been in business a hundred years without touching that sort of transaction, and I have no idea of beginning at this late day.”

“Certainly, Tom, you have your traditions, and nobody respects them more than I do. And I know Father would not have done it—God forbid! Who says he would? But, silly as I am, I know enough to know that you are quite a different sort of man from Father, and since you took over the business it has been different from what it was before. That is because you were young and had enterprise and brains. But lately I am afraid you have let yourself get discouraged by this or that piece of bad luck. And if you are no longer having the same success you once did, it is because you have been too cautious and conscientious, and let slip your chances for good coups when you had them—”

“Oh, my dear child, stop, please; you irritate me!” said the Senator sharply, and turned away. “Let us change the subject.”

“Yes, you are vexed, Tom, I can see it. You were from the beginning, and I have kept on, on purpose, to show you you are wrong to feel yourself insulted. But I know the real reason why you are vexed: it is because you are not so firmly decided not to touch the business. I know I am silly; but I have noticed about myself—and about other people too—that we are most likely to get angry and excited in our opposition to some idea when we ourselves are not quite certain of our own position, and are inwardly tempted to take the other side.”

“Very fine,” said the Senator, bit his cigarette-holder, and was silent.

“Fine? No, it’s very simple—one of the simplest things life has taught me. But let it go, Tom. I won’t urge you. Don’t imagine that I think I could persuade you—I know I don’t know enough. I’m only a silly female. It’s a pity. Well, never mind.—It interested me very much. On the one hand I was shocked and upset about the Maibooms, but on the other I was pleased for you. I said to myself: ‘Tom has been going about lately feeling very down in the mouth. He used to complain, but now he does not even complain any more. He has been losing money, and times are poor—and all that just now, when God has been good to me, and I am feeling happier than I have for a long time.’ So I thought, ‘This would be something for him: a stroke of luck, a good coup. It would offset a good deal of misfortune, and show people that luck is still on the side of the firm of Johann Buddenbrook.’ And if you had undertaken it, I should have been so proud to have been the means—for you know it has always been my dream and my one desire, to be of some good to the family name.—Well, never mind. It is settled now. What I feel vexed about is that Maiboom has to sell, in any case, and if he looks around in the town here, he will find a purchaser—and it will be that rascal Hermann Hagenström!”

“Oh, yes—he probably would not refuse it,” the Senator said bitterly; and Frau Permaneder answered, three times, one after the other: “You see, you see, you see!”

Thomas Buddenbrook suddenly began to shake his head and laugh angrily.

“We are silly. We sit here and work ourselves up—at least, you do—over something that is neither here nor there. So far as I know, I have not even asked what the thing is about—what Herr von Maiboom actually has to sell. I do not Know Pöppenrade.”

“Oh, you would have had to go there,” she said eagerly. “It’s not far from here to Rostock—and from there it is no distance at all. And as for what he has to sell—Pöppenrade is a large estate, I know for a fact that it grows more than a thousand sacks of wheat. But I don’t know details. About rye, oats, or barley, there might be five hundred sacks of them, more or less. Everything is of the best, I can say that. But I can’t give you any figures, I am such a goose, Tom. You would have to go over.”

A pause ensued.

“No, it is not worth wasting words over,” the Senator said decidedly. He folded his pince-nez and put it into his pocket, buttoned up his coat, and began to walk up and down the room with firm and rapid strides, which studiously betrayed no sign that he was giving the subject any further consideration.

He paused by the table and turned toward his sister, drumming lightly on the surface with his bent forefinger as he said: “I’ll tell you a little story, my dear Tony, which will illustrate my attitude toward this affair. I know your weakness for the nobility, and the Mecklenburg nobility in particular—please don’t mind if one of these gentry gets rapped a bit. You know, there is now and then one among them who doesn’t treat the merchant classes with any great respect, though perfectly aware that he can’t do without them. Such a man is too much inclined to lay stress on the superiority—to a certain extent undeniable—of the producer over the middleman. In short, he sometimes acts as if the merchant were like a peddling Jew to whom one sells old clothes, quite conscious that one is being overreached. I flatter myself that in my dealings with these gentry I have not usually made the impression of a morally inferior exploiter; to tell the truth, the boot has sometimes been on the other foot—I’ve run across men who were far less scrupulous than I am! But in one case, it only needed a single bold stroke to bring me into social relations. The man was the lord of Gross-Poggendorf, of whom you have surely heard. I had considerable dealings with him some while back: Count Strelitz, a very smart-appearing man, with a square eye-glass (I could never make out why he did not cut himself), patent-leather top-boots, and a riding-whip with a gold handle. He had a way of looking down at me from a great height, with his eyes half shut and his mouth half open. My first visit to him was very telling. We had had some correspondence. I drove over, and was ushered by a servant into the study, where Count Strelitz was sitting at his writing-table. He returns my bow, half gets up, finishes the last lines of a letter; then he turns to me and begins to talk business, looking over the top of my head. I lean on the sofa-table, cross my arms and my legs, and enjoy myself. I stand five minutes talking. After another five minutes, I sit down on the table and swing my leg. We get on with our business, and at the end of fifteen minutes he says to me, very graciously, ‘won’t you sit down?’ ‘Beg pardon?’ I say. ‘Oh, don’t mention it—I’ve been sitting for some time!’”

“Did you say that? Really?” cried Frau Permaneder, enchanted. She had straightway forgotten all that had gone before, and lived for the moment entirety in the anecdote.

“‘I’ve been sitting for some tune’—oh, that is too good!”

“Well, and I assure you that the Count altered his tune at once. He shook hands when I came, and asked me to sit down—in the course of time we became very friendly. But I have told you this in order to ask you if you think I should have the right, or the courage, or the inner self-confidence to behave in the same way to Herr von Maiboom if, when we met to discuss the bargain, he were to forget to offer me a chair?”

Frau Permaneder was silent. “Good,” she said then, and got up. “You may be right; and, as I said, I’m not going to press you. You know what you must do and what leave undone, and that’s an end of it. If you only feel that I spoke in good part—you do, don’t you? All right. Good night, Tom. Or—no, wait—I must go and say ‘How do you do’ to the good Ida and give Hanno a little kiss. I’ll look in again on my way out.” With that she went.