You have to read this Hofmannsthal story – a story which draws on a story from Goethe’s Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten (‘Conversations of German Émigrés’) which in turn draws on the memoirs of Marshal Bassompierre – you have to read it to remind yourself that there is another way of orchestrating short stories, very different from what we’re used to today. The difference is like that between a rococo boudoir and an Ikea bedroom. It isn’t necessary to tell you which holds the greater seductive promise. Hofmannsthal’s story would be condemned by today’s literary critics as perfumed, overladen with symbols, precious, idealised and kitschy – because we believe that truth has to be unadorned, pared-down, concise, laconic and minimalist. There can, though, be something rather pitiful about this kind of truth. How different the tale Hofmannsthal tells around 1900 of Marshal Bassompierre’s encounter with a beautiful young grocer woman and the night of love that ensues! It is a cold winter’s night and in Paris the plague is raging, but in the procuress’s room another log is put in the grate and the fire flares up, casting a shadow of the united lovers on the wall. The sensual merges with the extrasensory, atmosphere with symbol. When the marshal returns to the apartment to meet his mistress again, he finds only the straw fires which are burnt to smoke out the plague bacteria. Out of ancien régime libertinage Hofmannsthal makes a fin de siècle scene of death transfigured.
At a certain point in my life, my services entailed crossing the little bridge across the Seine (for the Pont Neuf was not yet built at that time) at a certain hour several times a week, and I was usually recognized and greeted by tradesmen or other simple folk, but most conspicuously and most regularly by a very pretty grocer’s wife whose shop bore a sign with two angels, and who, every time I passed over those five or six months, bowed low and watched me walking on as far as she could. Her behaviour caught my eye; I returned her gaze and thanked her kindly. Riding from Fontainebleau to Paris late that winter, I came to the little bridge again and she stepped outside her shop’s door and hailed me as I rode by: ‘Sir, your servant!’ I returned her greeting and looking back from time to time I saw she had leaned far forward to watch me for as long as possible. I had a manservant and a postillion behind me, whom I intended to send back to Fontainebleau with letters to certain ladies that evening. At my command, the manservant dismounted and went to the young woman to tell her my name and that I had noticed her habit of seeing and greeting me; should she wish to make my acquaintance, I would pay her a visit wherever she chose.
She responded to the manservant: He could not have brought her a more welcome message, and she would come anywhere I suggested.
As we rode on I asked the manservant whether he knew of any place where I might come together with the woman. He answered that he would take her to a certain procuress; being a very concerned and conscientious man, however, this servant, Wilhelm from Courtral, added: As the plague was showing its face here and there, and had killed not only common and dirty folk, but also a doctor and a canon, he would advise me to take along mattresses, blankets, and linen from my own house. I accepted his suggestion and he promised to prepare a good bed for me. Before dismounting, I told him to take along a decent basin, a small bottle of sweet-smelling essence, and some pastries and apples; he was also to make sure the room was well heated, for it was so cold that my feet had frozen in their stirrups and the sky was full of snowflakes.
That evening I went along and found a very beautiful woman of about twenty years sitting on the bed and enduring a zealous lecture from the procuress, whose head and bent back were swaddled in a black cloak. The door was ajar and large fresh logs blazed loudly in the fireplace; they did not hear me coming and I stood outside the doorway for a moment. The young woman gazed calmly at the flames, large-eyed. With a single motion of her head, she had shifted miles away from the repulsive hag. As she did so, strands of her dark, heavy hair had spilled out from beneath her small night cap and now fell, curling into natural ringlets, across her chemise between shoulder and chest. She was also wearing a short petticoat made of green woollen fabric and had clogs on her feet. At that moment, I must have made some noise that gave me away, for she cast her head around and turned to me a face lent an almost wild expression by the extreme tension of her features, were it not for the radiant devotion flowing from her wide eyes and flickering from her unspeaking mouth like an invisible flame. I liked her extraordinarily well; quicker than a thought, the hag was out of the room and I was with my paramour. As I attempted to extract a few liberties in the first intoxication of this surprising possession, she eluded me with an indescribably lively vigour both in her eyes and in her enigmatic voice. The next instant, however, I felt myself in her embrace, and she was clinging even closer with her forthright and inexhaustible eyes than with her lips and arms; then it was once again as though she wanted to speak, but her lips could form no words as they fluttered with kisses, her trembling throat allowed no clearer sound than a fractured sob.
I had spent a large part of that day riding on frosty country roads, followed by a most annoying and intense appearance in the king’s antechamber, upon which I had first drunk and then fenced hard with my zweihänder to tame my bad mood, and so I was overcome, amidst this delightful and mysterious adventure, embraced by soft arms, and bestrewn with perfumed hair, by such sudden fatigue and nigh stupefaction that I no longer remembered even how I had come to be in that room, indeed for a moment confused the person whose heart beat so close to mine with quite a different woman from earlier days, whereupon I instantly fell fast asleep.
When I awoke it was still the dead of night but I felt straight away that my paramour was no longer by my side. I raised my head and saw by the weak light of the collapsing embers that she was standing at the window. She had cracked open one shutter and was spying through the gap. Then she turned around, noticed that I was awake, and called out (I see her now, running the palm of her left hand up her cheek and throwing her hair back over her shoulder): ‘It’s not day yet, not for a long time!’ Now I saw full well how tall and beautiful she was, and I could scarcely await the moment she would return to me with a few long, calm steps of her beautiful feet, the reddish glimmer rising to her ankles. First, though, she went to the fireplace, bent down to the ground, took the last heavy log not yet on the fire in her radiant bare arms, and threw it on the embers. Then she turned, her face glinting with flames and glee, grabbed an apple from the table in passing and was at my side, her limbs still touched by the fresh whiff of the fire and then instantly dissolved and shaken from within by stronger flames, her right hand gripping me, her left at once offering up to my mouth the cool, bitten fruit and her cheeks, lips, and eyes. The last log on the fire burned stronger than all the others. Casting sparks, it sucked up the flame and made it blaze powerfully once again, the fire’s light washing over us like a wave breaking on the wall and lifting our entangled shadows abruptly before they sank anew. Over and over the strong wood crackled, nourishing new flames from within which leapt up and chased off the heavy darkness with gushes and trusses of bright red. All at once, though, the flame subsided and a cold draught pushed at the window shutter quietly as a hand, baring the sallow unwanted dawn.
We sat up and knew that day had come. What was out there, though, was nothing like a day. It bore no resemblance to the world’s awakening. What was out there did not look like a street. There was no single thing to be made out: it was a colourless, characterless tangle of ageless writhing larvae. From somewhere, far away as though from the depths of memory, a church clock struck, and clammy air that belonged to no hour came streaming in, so cold that we pressed our bodies together with a shudder. She leaned back and fastened her eyes on my face with all her might; her throat trembling, something rose within her and spilled to the edge of her lips. No word became of it, no sigh, and no kiss, but some unborn thing resembling all three. The day grew lighter from moment to moment, and the manifold expressions on her trembling face grew ever more meaningful. All at once, shuffling steps and voices came so close outside the window that she ducked and turned her face to the wall. It was two men passing. For an instant the light of a small lantern one of them was carrying shone in; the other was pushing a cart with a wheel that grated and groaned. Once they had passed I got up, closed the shutter, and lit a candle. Half an apple was still there; we ate it together and then I asked whether I might not see her again, for I was not leaving until Sunday. This had been a Thursday night.
She answered that she no doubt yearned more fervently than I, but meeting again was impossible unless I stayed all of Sunday, because she could only see me again on the Sunday night.
At first, various hindrances came to my mind and I listed a number of difficulties, to which she responded not with words but with a prompting look that was exceedingly painful as her face grew almost uncannily hard and dark. At that I promised of course to stay through Sunday, and added that I would report once again to that place on Sunday evening. Hearing this, she looked at me firmly and said, with a rough and broken tone in her voice: ‘I know all too well that I have come to a house of shame for your sake, but I did so of my own free will because I wanted to be with you, because I would have agreed to any condition. Now, though, I would feel like the lowest harlot if I were to come here a second time. I did it for your sake, because for me you are the man you are, because you’re Bassompierre, because you’re the one person in the world who makes this house honourable through your presence!’ She said ‘house’, but for a moment it was as though she were uttering a more contemptible word; as she spoke the word she cast such a glance at those four walls, that bed, the blanket slipped onto the floor, a look so powerful that the burst of light shooting from her eyes made all those ugly, common things seem to flinch and edge away from her, as though the pitiful room really had grown larger for an instant.
Then she added in an indescribably gentle and solemn tone: ‘May I die a miserable death if I have ever belonged to another apart from my husband and you, and if I ever yearn for another in all the world!’ Leaning forward with her half-open lips alive with her breath, she seemed to expect some kind of answer, some declaration of belief on my part, only she did not read what she wanted in my face, for her tense, searching eyes darkened, her lashes opened and closed, and all at once she was at the window with her back to me, her brow pressed with all her force to the shutter, her whole body so shaken by soundless but horridly intense weeping that the words died on my lips and I did not dare touch her. At last I cradled one of her hands, which were dangling as if lifeless, and, using the most urgent words that the moment inspired, was finally able to pacify her to such a point that she turned her tearstained face back to me, until suddenly a smile breaking out of her eyes and around her lips drained away all traces of her crying in an instant and flooded her whole face with light. As she began to speak once more, she started a most delightful game, playing endlessly with the following phrase: ‘You want to see me again? Then I’ll have you come to my aunt’s house!’ She spoke the first half ten times over, now with sweet intimacy, now with a childish pretence of mistrust. And then she at first whispered the second part into my ear as if it were the greatest secret, then said it with a shrug and pursed lips like the most normal arrangement in the world, casting it over her shoulder and at last repeated it, clutching me, laughing into my face, and embracing me. She described the house to me in detail, the way one gives a child directions the first time it is to cross the street to the bakery alone. Then she sat upright, grew earnest – the full force of her blazing eyes fastening upon me with such strength that it was as if they could draw even a dead creature to them – and continued: ‘I will await you from ten until midnight and later too and on and on, and the front door will always be open. First you’ll find a narrow passageway; don’t linger there, for that is where my aunt’s door is. Then you’ll come across a staircase that leads you to the first floor, and there I shall be!’ And closing her eyes as though dizzy, she threw back her head, spread out her arms, and embraced me, before slipping straight out of my arms and into her clothes, unfamiliar and earnest, and out of the room; for now full daylight had come.
I went about my appointments, sent a few of my people ahead with my things, and by the evening of the next day I felt such great impatience that soon after the evening bells I took my servant Wilhelm, whom I had instructed not to bring a light, and crossed the little bridge so as to at least see my paramour in her shop or the adjacent home and to give her a sign of my presence if need be, though I had no hope of anything more than exchanging a few words with her.
So as not to attract attention, I stayed on the bridge and sent my servant ahead to reconnoitre. He stayed away for some time and had on his return the downcast and brooding look with which I was familiar whenever he was unable to carry out my orders. ‘The shop is locked up,’ he said, ‘and no one seems to be inside. There is no one to be seen or heard in the rooms facing the road. The only way into the yard is over a high wall with a big dog growling behind it. One of the front rooms is lit up, though, and you can see in through a gap in the shutters, but unfortunately it’s empty.’
Discontented, I was about to turn back, when I did take one more slow stroll past the house, and my assiduous servant once again put his eye to the gap, through which a dim light shone, and whispered to me that, though there was no sign of the woman, her husband was now in the room. Curious to see the grocer, whom I could not remember ever spying in his shop, and whom I imagined in turn as a shapeless fat man and a thin, fragile dotard, I went to the window and was most astounded to see an unusually tall and well-built man walking around the well-appointed panelled room, a man a good head taller than me who, when he turned around, showed a very handsome and deeply earnest face, with a brown beard containing few silver threads and with a strangely lofty brow, so high that his temples enclosed a larger space than I had ever seen on a person before. Though he was all alone in the room his gaze wandered, his lips moving, and as he interrupted his pacing here and there he seemed to be holding an imaginary conversation: At one point he moved his arm as though to dismiss a contradiction with semi-indulgent superiority. Every one of his gestures was of great nonchalance and almost contemptuous pride, and as he paced alone I could not help but remember the image of a very noble prisoner I had guarded during his imprisonment in a chamber at Château de Blois while I was in the service of the king. This similarity seemed to grow even greater when the man raised his right hand and looked down at his curled fingers attentively, indeed, most sternly.
For it was with almost the same gesture that I had seen that noble prisoner looking at a ring he wore on the index finger of his right hand and would never part with. The man in the room then went to the table, moved the water basin towards the candle, and brought his hands into the circle of light, his fingers outstretched; he seemed to be inspecting his fingernails. Then he blew out the light and left the room, leaving me standing outside not without a dull, angry jealousy, as my yearning for his wife grew perpetually, nourished like a raging fire by everything I came across, and so was tortuously heightened by this unexpected sight, as it was by every snowflake now blown by a cold wind, each catching on my eyebrows and cheeks and melting.
I spent the next day in the most useless manner, had no concentration for any of my business, bought a horse I did not even like, attended the Duke of Nemours after dinner, and spent some time there with games and the most ridiculous, repulsive conversations. There was no other subject than the plague now spreading more and more around the city, and all the noblemen could speak of nothing but such stories of the hasty burial of corpses, of the straw that was to be burned in the rooms of the dead to consume the toxic fumes, and so on. The most ridiculous, however, appeared to be the Canon of Chandieu, who, although just as rotund and healthy as ever, could not refrain from peering constantly at his fingernails for signs of the suspicious blue taint with which the disease tends to announce itself.
All this nonsense disgusted me; I left early and retired to bed, but I could not find sleep, dressed again impatiently with the intention to go and see my paramour come what may, even if I had to force my way in with my men. I went to the window to wake my men, but the icy night air brought me to my senses, and I realized that was a sure-fire way to ruin everything. Still in my clothes, I collapsed onto my bed and at last fell asleep.
I spent that Sunday in a similar fashion until the evening, reaching the designated street far too early but forcing myself to walk up and down a side road until the clock struck ten. Then I immediately found the house and the door she had described, the door was open too, and behind it the passage and the staircase. At the top of stairs, however, the second door was locked, though a thin strip of light shone beneath it. She was inside, then, perhaps listening at the door, as I was outside it. I scratched at the door with my nails and then heard footsteps inside: they sounded like the hesitant, uncertain steps of bare feet. I stood unbreathing for a moment and then began to knock; yet I heard a man’s voice asking who was there. I pressed myself into the shadow of the doorpost and made not a sound; the door remained closed and I descended the stairs one by one in the greatest silence, crept along the passage into the open air, and paced a few streets, glowing with impatience, my temples pulsing and my teeth clenched. Finally I was drawn back to the house, though I did not yet want to enter; I felt, I knew, she would get rid of the man, she must manage it and I’d be able to join her shortly. The road was narrow; on the other side were no houses but the wall of a monastery garden. I pressed myself to it and sought to guess the window from across the street. In one, an open window on the top floor, a light flared and settled again, like the glow of a flame. Now I thought I saw it all before me: she had put a large log on the fire like last time, like last time she was standing in the middle of the room, her limbs glinting from the flame, or sitting on the bed, listening and waiting. From the door, I would see her and the shadow of her neck, her shoulders, rising and falling transparent on the wall. I was instantly in the passage, on the stairs; the door was no longer locked now; ajar, it let the swaying light through obliquely. As I reached out a hand to open it I thought I heard several people’s footsteps and voices. I refused to believe it, though; I took it for my blood pulsing in my temples, at my throat, and for the blazing of the fire inside. The fire had blazed loudly last time too. I had already gripped the door handle when I was forced to admit there were people in there, several people. But it was no matter to me now, for I felt that she was inside too, and as soon as I opened the door I would see her, grasp her, be it from the hands of other men, pull her to me with one arm, even if I had to use my sword, my dagger to carve out space for her and me from a jumble of screaming bodies! The only thing that seemed utterly unbearable was waiting any longer.
I pushed the door open and saw: a few people burning bed straw in the middle of the empty room, entirely lit up by the flames, scraped walls, their plaster covering the floor, and against one wall a table on which lay two naked bodies, one very tall with its head covered, the other smaller, stretched out along the wall, and alongside it the black shadow of subtle shapes, rising and falling again.
I stumbled back down the stairs and came upon two gravediggers outside the house. One held his small lantern to my face and asked what I was looking for, while the other pushed his groaning, grating cart to the front door. I pulled out my dagger to keep them away, and made my way home. I immediately drank three or four large glasses of heavy wine, and after taking my rest I set off for Lorraine the next day.
Upon my return, all my efforts to find out anything about the woman were in vain. I even went to the shop with its two angels; but the people now running it did not know who had had it before them.
Based on M. de Bassompierre, Journal de ma vie, Cologne, 1663 and Goethe, Conversations of German Refugees.
*The translation of this story was supported by the Goethe-Institute.