It was the nurse's fault. In vain Frau Consul Friedemann, when the matter was first suspected, had solemnly urged her to relinquish so heinous a vice; in vain she had dispensed to her daily a glass of red wine in addition to her nourishing stout. It suddenly came to light that the girl had actually sunk so low as to drink the methylated spirits intended for the coffee machine; and before a replacement for her had arrived, before she could be sent away, the accident had happened. One day, when little Johannes was about a month old, his mother and three adolescent sisters returned from a walk to find that he had fallen from the swaddling table and was lying on the floor making a horribly faint whimpering noise, with the nurse standing by looking stupidly down at him.
The doctor's face, as he carefully but firmly probed the limbs of the crooked, twitching little creature, wore an exceedingly serious expression; the three girls stood in a corner sobbing, and Frau Friedemann prayed aloud in her mortal anguish.
Even before the baby was born it had been the poor woman's lot to see her husband, the consul for the Netherlands, reft from her by an illness both sudden and acute, and she was still too broken in spirit to be even capable of hoping that the life of her little Johannes might be spared. Two days later, however, the doctor squeezed her hand encouragingly and pronounced that there was now absolutely no question of any immediate danger; above all, the slight concussion of the brain had completely cleared up. This, he explained, was obvious if one looked at the child's eyes; there had been a vacant stare in them at first which had now quite disappeared . . . "Of course," he added, "we must wait and see how things go on—and we must hope for the best, you know, hope for the best . . ."
The gray gabled house in which Johannes Friedemann grew up was near the north gate of the old, scarcely middle-sized merchant city. Its front door opened onto a spacious stone-paved hall, from which a stair with white wooden banisters led to the upper floors. On the first was the living room with its walls papered in a faded landscape pattern, and its heavy mahogany table draped in crimson plush, with high-backed chairs and settees standing stiffly round it.
Here, as a child, he would often sit by the window, where there was always a fine display of flowers; he would sit on a little stool at his mother's feet, listening perhaps as she told him some wonderful story, gazing at her smooth gray hair and her kind gentle face, and breathing in the slight fragrance of scent that always hung about her. Or perhaps he would get her to show him the portrait of his father, an amiable gentleman with gray side-whiskers. He was (said his mother) now living in heaven, waiting for them all to join him there.
Behind the house was a little garden, and during the summer they would spend a good deal of time in it, notwithstanding the almost perpetual sickly sweet exhalations from a nearby sugar refinery. In the garden stood an old gnarled walnut tree, and in its shade little Johannes would often sit on a low wooden stool cracking nuts, while Frau Friedemann and her three daughters, now grown up, sat together in a gray canvas tent. But Frau Friedemann would often raise her eyes from her needlework and glance tenderly and sadly across at her son.
Little Johannes was no beauty, with his pigeon chest, his steeply humped back and his disproportionately long skinny arms, and as he squatted there on his stool, nimbly and eagerly cracking his nuts, he was certainly a strange sight. But his hands and feet were small and neatly shaped, and he had great liquid brown eyes, a sensitive mouth and soft light brown hair. In fact, although his face sat so pitifully low down between his shoulders, it could nevertheless almost have been called beautiful.
When he was seven he was sent to school, and now the years passed uniformly and rapidly. Every day, walking past the gabled houses and shops with the quaintly solemn gait that deformed people often have, he made his way to the old schoolhouse with its Gothic vaulting; and at home, when he had done his homework, he would perhaps read some of his beautiful books with their brightly colored illustrations, or potter about in the garden, while his sisters kept house for their ailing mother. The girls also went to parties, for the Friedemanns moved in the best local society; but unfortunately none of the three had yet married, for their family fortune was by no means large and they were distinctly plain.
Johannes, too, occasionally got an invitation from one or other of his contemporaries, but it was no great pleasure for him to associate with them. He was unable to join in their games, and since they always treated him with embarrassed reserve, it was impossible for any real companionship to develop.
Later there came a time when he would often hear them discuss certain matters in the school yard; wide-eyed and attentive, he would listen in silence as they talked of their passions for this little girl or that. Such experiences, he decided, obviously engrossing though they were for the others, belonged like gymnastics and ball games to the category of things for which he was not suited. This was at times a rather saddening thought; but after all, he had long been accustomed to going his own way and not sharing the interests of other people.
It nevertheless came to pass—he was sixteen years old at the time—that he found himself suddenly enamored of a girl of his own age. She was the sister of one of his classmates, a blond, exuberant creature whom he had met at her brother's house. He felt a strange uneasiness in her company, and the studied self-conscious cordiality with which she too treated him saddened him profoundly.
One summer afternoon when he was taking a solitary walk along the promenade outside the old city wall, he heard whispered words being exchanged behind a jasmine bush. He cautiously peeped through the branches, and there on a seat sat this girl and a tall red-haired boy whom he knew very well by sight; the boy's arm was round her and he was pressing a kiss on her lips, which with much giggling she reciprocated. When Johannes had seen this he turned on his heel and walked softly away.
His head had sunk lower than ever between his shoulders, his hands were trembling and a sharp, biting pain rose from his chest and seemed to choke him. But he swallowed it down, and resolutely drew himself up as straight as he could. "Very well," he said to himself, "that is over. I will never again concern myself with such things. To the others they mean joy and happiness, but to me they can only bring grief and suffering. I am done with it all. It is finished for me. Never again."
The decision was a relief to him. He had made a renunciation, a renunciation forever. He went home and took up a book or played the violin, which he had learned to do despite his deformity.
At seventeen he left school to go into business, like everyone else of his social standing, and he became an apprentice in Herr Schlievogt's big timber firm down by the river. They treated him with special consideration, he for his part was amiable and cooperative, and the years passed by in a peaceful and well-ordered manner. But in his twenty-first year his mother died after a long illness.
This was a great sorrow for Johannes Friedemann, and one that he long cherished. He savored this sorrow, he surrendered himself to it as one surrenders oneself to a great happiness, he nourished it with innumerable memories from his childhood and made the most of it, as his first major experience.
Is not life in itself a thing of goodness, irrespective of whether the course it takes for us can be called a "happy" one? Johannes Friedemann felt that this was so, and he loved life. He had renounced the greatest happiness it has to offer, but who shall say with what passionate care he cultivated those pleasures that were accessible to him? A walk in springtime through the parks outside the town, the scent of a flower, the song of a bird—surely these were things to be thankful for?
He also well understood that a capacity for the enjoyment of life presupposes education, indeed that education always adds at once to that capacity, and he took pains to educate himself. He loved music and attended any concerts that were given in the town. And although it was uncommonly odd to watch him play, he did himself become not a bad violinist and took pleasure in every beautiful and tender note he was able to draw from his instrument. And by dint of much reading he had in the course of time acquired a degree of literary taste which in that town was probably unique. He was versed in all the latest publications both in Germany and abroad, he knew how to savor the exquisite rhythms of a poem, he could appreciate the subtle atmosphere of a finely written short story . . . One might indeed almost say that he was an epicurean.
He came to see that there is nothing that cannot be enjoyed and that it is almost absurd to distinguish between happy and unhappy experiences. He accepted all his sensations and moods as they came to him, he welcomed and cultivated them, whether they were sad or glad: even his unfulfilled wishes, even his heart's longing. It was precious to him for its own sake, and he would tell himself that if it ever came to fulfillment the best part of the pleasure would be over. Is not the sweet pain of vague desires and hopes on a still spring evening richer in delight than any fulfillment the summer could bring? Ah yes, little Herr Friedemann was an epicurean and no mistake.
This was something of which the people who passed him in the street, greeting him with that mixture of cordiality and pity to which he had so long been accustomed, were doubtless unaware. They did not know that this unfortunate cripple, strutting so quaintly and solemnly along in his light gray overcoat and his shiny top hat (for oddly enough he was a little vain of his appearance) was a man to whom life was very sweet, this life of his that flowed so gently by, unmarked by any strong emotions but filled with a quiet and delicate happiness of which he had taught himself the secret.
But Herr Friedemann's chief and most absorbing passion was for the theater. He had an uncommonly strong sense of drama and at moments of high theatrical effect or tragic catastrophe the whole of his little body would quiver with emotion. At the principal theater of the town he had a seat permanently reserved for him in the front row, and he would go there regularly, sometimes accompanied by his three sisters. Since their mother's death they had lived on in the big house which they and their brother jointly owned, and did all the housekeeping for themselves and him.
They were, alas, still unmarried; but they had long reached an age at which one sets aside all such expectations, for the eldest of them, Friederike, was seventeen years older than Herr Friedemann. She and her sister Henriette were rather too tall and thin, whereas Pfiffi, the youngest, was regrettably short and plump. This youngest girl moreover had an odd habit of wriggling herself and wetting the corners of her mouth whenever she spoke.
Little Herr Friedmann did not pay much attention to the three girls, but they stuck loyally together and were always of the same opinion. In particular, whenever any engagement between persons of their acquaintance was announced, they would unanimously declare that this was very gratifying news.
Their brother went on living with them even after he had left Herr Schlievogt's timber firm and set up on his own by taking over some small business, some sort of agency which did not demand much exertion. He lived in a couple of rooms on the ground floor of the house, in order not to have to climb the stairs except at mealtimes, for he occasionally suffered from asthma.
On his thirtieth birthday, a fine warm June day, he was sitting after lunch in the gray tent in the garden, leaning against a new soft neck rest which Henriette had made for him, with a good cigar in his mouth and a good book in his hand. Now and then he would put the book aside, listen to the contented twittering of the sparrows in the old walnut tree and look at the neat gravel drive that led up to the house and at the lawn with its bright flower beds.
Little Herr Friedemann was clean-shaven, and his face had scarcely changed at all except for a slight sharpening of his features. He wore his soft light brown hair smoothly parted on one side.
Once, lowering the book right onto his lap, he gazed up at the clear blue sky and said to himself: "Well, that's thirty years gone. And now I suppose there will be another ten or perhaps another twenty, God knows. They will come upon me silently and pass by without any commotion, as the others have done, and I look forward to them with peace of mind."
It was in July of that year that the new military commandant for the district was appointed, a change of office that caused a considerable stir. The stout and jovial gentleman who had held the post for many years had been a great favorite with local society, and his departure was regretted. And now, for God knows what reason, it must needs be Herr von Rinnlingen who was sent from the capital to replace him.
It seemed, in fact, to be not a bad exchange, for the new lieutenant colonel, who was married but had no children, rented a very spacious villa in the southern suburbs, from which it was concluded that he intended to keep house in some style. At all events the rumor that he was quite exceptionally rich found further confirmation in the fact that he brought with him four servants, five riding and carriage horses, a landau and a light hunting brake.
Shortly after their arrival he and his wife had been to pay calls on all the best families, and everyone was talking about them; the chief object of interest however was definitely not Herr von Rinnlingen himself, but his wife. The men were dumbfounded by her and did not at first know what to think; but the ladies most decidedly did not approve of Gerda von Rinnlingen's character and ways.
"Of course, one can tell at once that she comes from the capital," observed Frau Hagenstrom, the lawyer's wife, in the course of conversation with Henriette Friedemann. "One doesn't mind that, one doesn't mind her smoking and riding—naturally not! But her behavior isn't merely free and easy, its unrefined, and even that isn't quite the right word . . . She's by no means ugly, you know, some might even think her pretty—and yet she totally lacks feminine charm, her eyes and her laugh and her movements are simply not at all calculated to appeal to men. She is no flirt, and far be it from me to find fault with her for that, goodness knows—but can it be right for so young a woman, a woman of twenty-four, to show absolutely no sign of . . . a certain natural grace and attractiveness? My dear, I am not very good at expressing myself, but I know what I mean. The men still seem to be quite stunned, poor dears: mark my words, they will all be sick to death of her in a few weeks' time."
"Well," said Fraulein Friedemann, "she has made a very good marriage, anyway."
"Oh, as to her husband!" exclaimed Frau Hagenstrom. "You should see how she treats him! You will see it soon enough! I am the last person to deny that up to a point a married woman should act toward the opposite sex with a certain reserve. But how does she behave to her own husband? She has a way of freezing him with her eyes and calling him 'mon cher ami' in pitying tones, which I find quite outrageous! You have only to look at him—a fine upstanding first-class officer and gentleman of forty, well behaved and well mannered and very well preserved! They've been married for four years . . . My dear . . ."
Excerpted from Death in Venice and Other Stories by Thomas Mann. Copyright © 1988 by Thomas Mann. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Classics, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.