“Phillis. I want none o’ thy friendship!
Lesbia. Then take my enmity!”
“When a number of ladies meet together to discuss matters of importance, we call it ‘Kaffeeklatsch,’” Courvoisier had said to me on that never-forgotten afternoon of my adventure at Köln.
It was my first kaffeeklatsch which, in a measure, decided my destiny. Hitherto, that is, up to the end of June, I had not been at any entertainment of this kind. At last there came an invitation to Frau Steinmann and to Anna Sartorius, to assist at a “coffee” of unusual magnitude, and Frau Steinmann suggested that I should go with them and see what it was like. Nothing loath, I consented.
“Bring some work,” said Anna Sartorius to me, “or you will find it langweilig—slow, I mean.”
“Shall we not have some music?”
“Music, yes, the sweetest of all—that of our own tongues. You shall hear every one’s candid opinion of every one else—present company always excepted, and you will see what the state of Elberthal society really is—present company still excepted. By a very strange chance the ladies who meet at a klatsch are always good, pious, virtuous, and, above all, charitable. It is wonderful how well we manage to keep the black sheep out, and have nothing but lambs immaculate.”
“Oh, bah! I know the Elberthal Klatscherei. It has picked me to pieces many a time. After you have partaken to-day of its coffee and its cakes, it will pick you to pieces.”
“But,” said I, arranging the ruffles of my very best frock, which I had been told it was de rigueur to wear, “I thought women never gossiped so much among men.”
Fräulein Sartorius laughed loud and long.
“The men! Du meine Güte! Men at a kaffeeklatsch! Show me the one that a man dare even look into, and I’ll crown you—and him too—with laurel, and bay, and the wild parsley. A man at a kaffee—mag Gott es bewahren!”
“Oh!” said I, half disappointed, and with a very poor, mean sense of dissatisfaction at having put on my pretty new dress for the first time only for the edification of a number of virulent gossips.
“Men!” she reiterated with a harsh laugh as we walked toward the Goldsternstrasse, our destination. “Men—no. We despise their company, you see. We only talk about them directly or indirectly from the moment of meeting to that of parting.”
“I’m sorry there are no gentlemen,” said I, and I was. I felt I looked well.
Arrived at the scene of the kaffee, we were conducted to a bedroom where we laid aside our hats and mantles. I was standing before the glass, drawing a comb through my upturned hair, and contemplating with irrepressible satisfaction the delicate lavender hue of my dress, when I suddenly saw reflected behind me the dark, harshly cut face of Anna Sartorius. She started slightly; then said, with a laugh which had in it something a little forced:
“We are a contrast, aren’t we? Beauty and the Beast, one might almost say. Na! ’s schad’t nix.”
I turned away in a little offended pride. Her familiarity annoyed me. What if she were a thousand times cleverer, wittier, better read than I? I did not like her. A shade crossed her face.
“Is it that you are thoroughly unamiable?” said she, in a voice which had reproach in it, “or are all English girls so touchy that they receive a compliment upon their good looks as if it were an offense?”
“I wish you would not talk of my ‘good looks’ as if I were a dog or a horse!” said I, angrily. “I hate to be flattered. I am no beauty, and do not wish to be treated as if I were.”
“Do you always hate it?” said she from the window, whither she had turned. “Ach! there goes Herr Courvoisier!”
The name startled me like a sudden report. I made an eager step forward before I had time to recollect myself—then stopped.
“He is not out of sight yet,” said she, with a curious look, “if you wish to see him.”
I sat down and made no answer. What prompted her to talk in such a manner? Was it a mere coincidence?
“He is a handsome fellow, nicht wahr?” she said, still watching me, while I thought Frau Steinmann never would manage to arrange her cap in the style that pleased her. “But a Taugenichts all the same,” pursued Anna as I did not speak. “Don’t you think so?” she added.
“A Taugenichts—I don’t know what that is.”
“What you call a good-for-nothing.”
“Nicht wahr?” she persisted.
“I know nothing about it.”
“I do. I will tell you all about him some time.”
“I don’t wish to know anything about him.”
“So!” said she, with a laugh.
Without further word or look I followed Frau Steinmann down-stairs.
The lady of the house was seated in the midst of a large concourse of old and young ladies, holding her own with a well-seasoned hardihood in the midst of the awful Babel of tongues. What a noise! It smote upon and stunned my confounded ear. Our hostess advanced and led me with a wave of the hand into the center of the room, when she introduced me to about a dozen ladies: and every one in the room stopped talking and working, and stared at me intently and unwinkingly until my name had been pronounced, after which some continued still to stare at me, and commenting openly upon it. Meanwhile I was conducted to a sofa at the end of the room, and requested in a set phrase, “Bitte, Fräulein, nehmen sie platz auf dem sofa,” with which long custom has since made me familiar, to take my seat upon it. I humbly tried to decline the honor, but Anna Sartorius, behind me, whispered:
“Sit down directly, unless you want to be thought an utter barbarian. The place has been kept for you.”
Deeply impressed, and very uncomfortable, I sat down. First one and then another came and spoke and talked to me. Their questions and remarks were much in this style:
“Do you like Elberthal? What is your Christian name? How old are you? Have you been or are you engaged to be married? They break off engagements in England for a mere trifle, don’t they? Schrecklich! Did you get your dress in Elberthal? What did it cost the elle? Young English ladies wear silk much more than young German ladies. You never go to the theater on Sunday in England—you are all pietistisch. How beautifully you speak our language! Really no foreign accent!” (This repeatedly and unblushingly, in spite of my most flagrant mistakes, and in the face of my most feeble, halting, and stammering efforts to make myself understood.) “Do you learn music? singing? From whom? Herr von Francius? Ach, so!” (Pause, while they all look impressively at me. The very name of von Francius calls up emotions of no common order.) “I believe I have seen you at the proben to the ‘Paradise Lost.’ Perhaps you are the lady who is to take the solos? Yes! Du lieber Himmel! What do you think of Herr von Francius? Is he not nice?” (Nett, though, signifies something feminine and finikin.) “No? How odd! There is no accounting for the tastes of English women. Do you know many people in Elberthal? No? Schade! No officers? not Hauptmann Sachse?” (with voice growing gradually shriller), “nor Lieutenant Pieper? Not know Lieutenant Pieper! Um Gotteswillen! What do you mean? He is so handsome! such eyes! such a mustache! Herrgott! And you do not know him? I will tell you something. When he went off to the autumn maneuvers at Frankfort (I have it on good authority), twenty young ladies went to see him off.”
“Disgusting!” I exclaimed, unable to control my feelings any longer. I saw Anna Sartorius malignantly smiling as she rocked herself in an American rocking-chair.
“How! disgusting? You are joking. He had dozens of bouquets. All the girls are in love with him. They compelled the photographer to sell them his photograph, and they all believe he is in love with them. I believe Luise Breidenstein will die if he doesn’t propose to her.”
“They ought to be ashamed of themselves.”
“But he is so handsome, so delightful. He dances divinely, and knows such good riddles, and acts—ach, himmlisch!”
“But how absurd to make such a fuss of him!” I cried, hot and indignant. “The idea of going on so about a man!”
A chorus, a shriek, a Babel of expostulations.
“Listen, Thekla! Fräulein Wedderburn does not know Lieutenant Pieper, and does not think it right to schwärm for him.”
“The darling! No one can help it who knows him!” said another.
“Let her wait till she does know him,” said Thekla, a sentimental young woman, pretty in a certain sentimental way, and graceful too—also sentimentally—with the sentiment that lingers about young ladies’ albums with leaves of smooth, various-hued note-paper, and about the sonnets which nestle within the same. There was a sudden shriek:
“There he goes! There is the Herr Lieutenant riding by. Just come here, mein Fräulein! See him! Judge for yourself!”
A strong hand dragged me, whether I would or not, to the window, and pointed out to me the Herr Lieutenant riding by. An adorable creature in a Hussar uniform; he had pink cheeks and a straight nose, and the loveliest little model of a mustache ever seen; tightly curling black hair, and the dearest little feet and hands imaginable.
“Oh, the dear, handsome, delightful follow!” cried one enthusiastic young creature, who had scrambled upon a chair in the background and was gazing after him while another, behind me, murmured in tones of emotion:
“Look how he salutes—divine, isn’t it?”
I turned away, smiling an irrepressible smile. My musician, with his ample traits and clear, bold eyes, would have looked a wild, rough, untamable creature by the side of that wax-doll beauty—that pretty little being who had just ridden by. I thought I saw them side by side—Herr Lieutenant Pieper and Eugen Courvoisier. The latter would have been as much more imposing than the former as an oak is more imposing than a spruce fir—as Gluck than Lortzing. And could these enthusiastic young ladies have viewed the two they would have been true to their lieutenant; so much was certain. They would have said that the other was a wild man, who did not cut his hair often enough, who had large hands, whose collar was perhaps chosen more with a view to ease and the free movement of the throat than to the smallest number of inches within which it was possible to confine that throat; who did not wear polished kid boots, and was not seen off from the station by twenty devoted admirers of the opposite sex, was not deluged with bouquets. With a feeling as of something singing at my heart I went back to my place, smiling still.
“See! she is quite charmed with the Herr Lieutenant! Is he not delightful?”
“Oh, very; so is a Dresden china shepherd, but if you let him fall he breaks.”
“Wie komisch! how odd!” was the universal comment upon my eccentricity. The conversation had wandered off to other military stars, all of whom were reizend, hübsch, or nett. So it went on until I got heartily tired of it, and then the ladies discussed their female neighbors, but I leave that branch of the subject to the intelligent reader. It was the old tune with the old variations, which were rattled over in the accustomed manner. I listened, half curious, half appalled, and thought of various speeches made by Anna Sartorius. Whether she were amiable or not, she had certainly a keen insight into the hearts and motives of her fellow-creatures. Perhaps the gift had soured her.
Anna and I walked home alone. Frau Steinmann was, with other elderly ladies of the company, to spend the evening there. As we walked down the Königsallée—how well to this day do I remember it! the chestnuts were beginning to fade, the road was dusty, the sun setting gloriously, the people thronging in crowds—she said suddenly, quietly, and in a tone of the utmost composure:
“So you don’t admire Lieutenant Pieper so much as Herr Courvoisier?”
“What do you mean?” I cried, astonished, alarmed, and wondering what unlucky chance led her to talk to me of Eugen.
“I mean what I say; and for my part I agree with you—partly. Courvoisier, bad though he may be, is a man; the other a mixture of doll and puppy.”
She spoke in a friendly tone; discursive, as if inviting confidence and comment on my part. I was not inclined to give either. I shrunk with morbid nervousness from owning to any knowledge of Eugen. My pride, nay, my very self-esteem, bled whenever I thought of him or heard him mentioned. Above all, I shrunk from the idea of discussing him, or anything pertaining to him, with Anna Sartorius.
“It will be time for you to agree with me when I give you anything to agree about,” said I, coldly. “I know nothing of either of the gentlemen, and wish to know nothing.”
There was a pause. Looking up, I found Anna’s eyes fixed upon my face, amazed, reproachful. I felt myself blushing fierily. My tongue had led me astray; I had lied to her: I knew it.
“Do not say you know nothing of either of the gentlemen. Herr Courvoisier was your first acquaintance in Elberthal.”
“What?” I cried, with a great leap of the heart, for I felt as if a veil had suddenly been rent away from before my eyes and I shown a precipice.
“I saw you arrive with Herr Courvoisier,” said Anna, calmly; “at least, I saw you come from the platform with him, and he put you into a drosky. And I saw you cut him at the opera; and I saw you go into his house after the general probe. Will you tell me again that you know nothing of him? I should have thought you too proud to tell lies.”
“I wish you would mind your own business,” said I, heartily wishing that Anna Sartorius were at the antipodes.
“Listen!” said she, very earnestly, and, I remember it now, though I did not heed it then, with wistful kindness. “I do not bear malice—you are so young and inexperienced. I wish you were more friendly, but I care for you too much to be rebuffed by a trifle. I will tell you about Courvoisier.”
“Thank you,” said I, hastily, “I beg you will do no such thing.”
“I know his story. I can tell you the truth about him.”
“I decline to discuss the subject,” said I, thinking of Eugen, and passionately refusing the idea of discussing him, gossiping about him, with any one.
Anna looked surprised; then a look of anger crossed her face.
“You can not be in earnest,” said she.
“I assure you I am. I wish you would leave me alone,” I said, exasperated beyond endurance.
“You don’t wish to know what I can tell you about him?”
“No, I don’t. What is more, if you begin talking to me about him, I will put my fingers in my ears, and leave you.”
“Then you may learn it for yourself,” said she, suddenly, in a voice little more than a whisper. “You shall rue your treatment of me. And when you know the lesson by heart, then you will be sorry.”
“You are officious and impertinent,” said I, white with ire. “I don’t wish for your society, and I will say good-evening to you.”
With that I turned down a side street leading into the Alléestrasse, and left her.