Read Burning Secret Online

Authors: Stefan Zweig

Burning Secret





of the locomotive sounded; the train had reached Semmering. For a moment the black carriages stood still in the silvery light of the heights up here, allowing a motley assortment of
to get out and others to board the train. Voices were raised in altercation, then the engine uttered its hoarse cry again and carried the black chain of carriages away, rattling, into the cavernous tunnel. Once again the pure, clear view of the landscape lay spread out, a backdrop swept clean by rain carried on a wet wind.

One of the new arrivals, a young man who drew admiring glances with his good clothes and the natural ease of his gait, was quick to get ahead of the others by taking a cab to his hotel. The horses clip-clopped uphill along the road at their leisure. Spring was in the air. Those white clouds that are seen only in May and June sailed past in the sky, a company clad all in white, still young and flighty themselves, playfully chasing over the blue firmament, hiding suddenly behind high mountains, embracing and separating again, sometimes crumpling up like handkerchiefs, sometimes fraying
into shreds, and finally playing a practical joke on the mountains as they settled on their heads like white caps. Up here the wind too was restless as it shook the scanty trees, still wet with rain, so violently that they creaked slightly at the joints, while a thousand drops sprayed off them like sparks. And at times the cool scent of the snow seemed to drift down from the mountains, both sweet and sharp as you breathed it in. Everything in the air and on the earth was in movement, seething with impatience. Quietly snorting, the horses trotted on along the road, going downhill now, and the sound of their bells went far ahead of them.

The first thing the young man did on reaching the hotel was to look through the list of guests staying there. He was quickly disappointed. Why did I come? he began to ask himself restlessly. Staying up here in the mountains alone, without congenial companions, why, it’s worse than being at the office. I’m obviously either too early or too late in the season. I’m always out of luck with my holidays; I never find anyone I know among the other guests. It would be nice if there were at least a few ladies; then a little light-hearted flirtation might help me to while away a week here agreeably enough.

The young man, a baron from a not particularly illustrious noble family in the Austrian civil service, where he was employed himself, had taken this little holiday without feeling any real need for one, mainly because all his colleagues were away for the spring
break, and he didn’t feel like making the office a present of his week off. Although he was not without inner resources, he was very gregarious by nature, which made him popular. He was welcome everywhere he went, and was well aware of his inability to tolerate solitude. He felt no inclination to be alone and avoided it as far as possible; he didn’t really want to become any better acquainted with himself. He knew that, if he was to show his talents to best advantage, he needed to strike sparks off other people to fan the flames of warmth and exuberance in his heart. On his own he was frosty, no use to himself at all, like a match left lying in its box.

In downcast mood, he paced up and down the empty hotel lobby, now leafing casually through the newspapers, now picking out a waltz on the piano in the music-room, but he couldn’t get the rhythm of it right. Finally he sat down, feeling dejected, looking at the darkness as it slowly fell and the grey vapours of the mist drifting out of the spruce trees. He wasted an idle, nervous hour in this way, and then took refuge in the dining-room.

Only a few tables were occupied, and he cast a fleeting glance over them. Still no luck! No one he really knew, only—he casually returned a greeting—a racehorse trainer here, a face he’d seen in the Ringstrasse there, that was all. No ladies, nothing to suggest the chance of even a fleeting adventure. He felt increasingly
and impatient. He was the kind of young
man whose handsome face has brought him plenty of success in the past and is now ever-ready for a new encounter, a fresh experience, always eager to set off into the unknown territory of a little adventure, never taken by surprise because he has worked out everything in advance and is waiting to see what happens, a man who will never overlook any erotic opportunity, whose first glance probes every woman’s sensuality and explores it, without discriminating between his friend’s wife and the parlour-maid who opens the door to him. Such men are described with a certain facile contempt as lady-killers, but the term has a nugget of truthful observation in it, for in fact all the passionate instincts of the chase are present in their ceaseless vigilance: the stalking of the prey, the excitement and mental cruelty of the kill. They are constantly on the alert, always ready and willing to follow the trail of an adventure to the very edge of the abyss. They are full of passion all the time, but it is the passion of a gambler rather than a lover, cold, calculating and dangerous. Some are so persistent that their whole lives, long after their youth is spent, are made an eternal adventure by this expectation. Each of their days is resolved into hundreds of small sensual experiences—a look exchanged in passing, a fleeting smile, knees brushing together as a couple sit opposite each other—and the year, in its own turn, dissolves into hundreds of such days in which sensuous experience is the constantly flowing, nourishing, inspiring source of life.

Well, there were no partners for a game here; the hunter could see that at once. And there is no worse frustration for a player of games than to sit at the green baize table with his cards in his hand, conscious of his superior skill, waiting in vain for a partner. The Baron called for a newspaper. Gloomily, he ran his eye over the newsprint, but his thoughts were sluggish, stumbling clumsily after the words like a drunk.

Then he heard the rustle of a dress behind him, and a voice, slightly irritated and with an affected accent, saying,
“Mais tais-toi donc, Edgar!”
A silk gown whispered in passing his table, a tall, voluptuous figure moved by like a shadow, and behind that figure came a pale little boy in a black velvet suit, who looked at him curiously. The couple sat down at their reserved table opposite him, the child visibly trying hard to behave correctly, an effort apparently belied by the dark restlessness in his eyes. The lady, on whom alone the young Baron’s attention was bent, was very
, dressed with obvious good taste, and what was more, she was a type he liked very much, one of those rather voluptuous Jewish women just before the age of over-maturity, and obviously passionate, but with enough experience to conceal her temperament behind a façade of elegant melancholy. At first he avoided looking into her eyes, and merely admired the beautifully traced line of their brows, a pure curve above a delicate nose that did in fact betray her race, but was so finely shaped that it made her profile keen and interesting. Her hair, like all
the other feminine features of her generous body, was strikingly luxuriant, her beauty seemed to have become ostentatiously complacent in the self-assured certainty that she was widely admired. She gave her order in a very low voice, reproved the boy for playing with his fork—all of this with apparent indifference to the cautiously insinuating glances cast at her by the Baron, whom she did not seem to notice at all, although it was only his alert watchfulness that obliged her to exercise such careful control.

The Baron’s gloomy face had suddenly brightened. Deep down, his nerves were at work invigorating it, smoothing out lines, tensing muscles, while he sat up very straight and a sparkle came into his eyes. He himself was not unlike those women who need the presence of a man if they are to exert their whole power. Only sensuous attraction could stimulate his energy to its full force. The huntsman in him scented prey. Challengingly, his eyes now sought to meet hers, which sometimes briefly returned his gaze with sparkling indecision as she looked past him, but never gave a clear, outright answer. He thought he also detected the trace of a smile beginning to play around her mouth now and then, but none of that was certain, and its very uncertainty aroused him. The one thing that did strike him as promising was her constant refusal to look him in the eye, betraying both resistance and self-consciousness, and then there was the curiously painstaking way she talked to her child, which was
clearly meant for an onlooker. Her persistent façade of calm, he felt, meant in itself that she was beginning to feel troubled. He too was excited; the game had begun. He lingered over his dinner, kept his eyes on the woman almost constantly for half-an-hour, until he had traced every contour of her face, invisibly touching every part of her opulent body. Outside, oppressive darkness was falling, the forests sighed as if in childish alarm as huge rain clouds now reached grey hands out for them, darker and darker shadows made their way into the room, and its occupants seemed ever more closely drawn together by the silence. The mother’s conversation with her child, he noticed, was becoming increasingly forced and artificial under the menace of that silence, and soon, he felt, it would dry up entirely. He decided to try testing the waters a little. He was the first to rise and, looking past her and at the landscape outside, went slowly to the door. Once there he quickly turned his head as if he had forgotten something—and caught her interested glance bent on him.

It attracted him. He waited in the lobby. She soon came out too, holding the boy’s hand, leafed through the journals as she was passing and pointed out some pictures to the child. But when the Baron, as if by chance, came up to the table, apparently to choose a journal for himself but really to look more deeply into the moist brightness of her eyes, perhaps even strike up a conversation, she turned away, tapping her son lightly on the shoulder.
“Viens, Edgar! Au lit!”
She passed him
coolly, skirts rustling. A little disappointed, the Baron watched her go. He had really expected to get to know her better this evening, and her brusque manner was a setback. But after all, her resistance was intriguing, and his very uncertainty inflamed his desire. In any case, he had found his partner, and the game could begin.

into the lobby the next morning he saw the son of his fair unknown engaged in earnest conversation with the two lift-boys, showing them the illustrations in a Wild West book by Karl May. His mama was not there; she must still be busy dressing. Only now did the Baron really look at the child. He was a shy, awkward, nervous boy of about twelve with fidgety movements and dark, darting eyes. Like many children of that age, he gave the impression of being alarmed, as if he had just been abruptly woken from sleep and suddenly put down in strange
. His face was not unattractive, but still unformed; the struggle between man and boy seemed only just about to begin, and his features were not yet kneaded into shape, no distinct lines had emerged, it was merely a face of mingled pallor and uncertainty. In addition, he was at just that awkward age when children never fit into their clothes properly, sleeves and trousers hang loose around their thin arms and legs, and vanity has not yet shown them the wisdom of making the best of their appearance.

Wandering around down here in a state of indecision, the boy made a pitiful impression. He was getting in everyone’s way. At one moment the receptionist, whom he seemed to be bothering with all kinds of questions, pushed him aside; at the next he was making a nuisance of himself at the hotel entrance. Obviously he wasn’t on friendly terms with anyone here. In his childish need for chatter he was trying to ingratiate himself with the hotel staff, who talked to him if they happened to have time, but broke off the conversation at once when an adult appeared or there was real work to be done. Smiling and interested, the Baron watched the unfortunate boy looking curiously at everyone, although they all avoided him. Once he himself received one of those curious glances, but the boy’s black eyes immediately veiled their alarmed gaze as soon as he caught them in the act of looking, and retreated behind lowered lids. This amused the Baron. The boy began to intrigue him, and he wondered if this child, who was obviously shy out of mere timidity, might not be a good go-between, offering the quickest way of access to his mother. It was worth trying, anyway. Unobtrusively, he followed the boy, who was loitering just outside the door again, caressing a white horse’s pink nostrils in his childish need for affection, until yet again—he really did have back luck—the driver of the carriage told him rather brusquely to get out of the way. Now he was standing around once more, bored, his feelings hurt, with his vacant and rather sad gaze. The Baron spoke to him.

“Well, young man, and how do you like it here?” he began suddenly, taking care to keep his tone of voice as jovial as possible.

The boy went red as beetroot and looked up in alarm. He took the proffered hand almost fearfully, squirming with embarrassment. It was the first time a strange gentleman had ever struck up a conversation with him.

“It’s very nice, thank you,” he managed to stammer. The last two words were choked out rather than spoken.

“I’m surprised to hear that,” said the Baron, laughing. “This is really a dull sort of place, particularly for a young man like you. What do you do with yourself all day?”

The boy was still too confused to answer quickly. Was it really possible that this elegant stranger wanted to talk, when no one else bothered about him? The idea made him both shy and proud. Making an effort, he pulled himself together.

“Oh, I read books, and we go for a lot of walks. And sometimes Mama and I go for a drive in the carriage. I’m supposed to be convalescing here, you see, I’ve been ill. So I have to sit in the sun a lot too, that’s what the doctor said.”

He uttered the last words with a fair degree of confidence. Children are always proud of an illness, knowing that danger makes them doubly important to the rest of their family.

“Yes, the sunlight’s good for young men like you, it’ll soon have you tanned and brown. All the same, you don’t want to be sitting around all day. A young fellow like you should be going around in high spirits, kicking up a few larks. It looks to me as if you’re too well-behaved—something of a bookworm, eh, with that big fat book under your arm? When I think what a young rascal I was at your age, coming home every evening with my trousers torn! You don’t want to be
good, you know!”

Involuntarily, the child had to smile, and that did away with his fears. He would have liked to say something, but anything that occurred to him seemed too bold and confident in front of this amiable stranger who addressed him in such friendly tones. He had never been a forward boy, he was always rather diffident, and so his pleasure and shame now had him terribly bewildered. He longed to continue the conversation, but he couldn’t think of anything to say. Fortunately the hotel’s big, tawny St Bernard dog came along just then, sniffed them both, and was happy to be patted.

“Do you like dogs?” asked the Baron,

“Oh, yes, my grandmama has one at her villa in Baden, and when we’re staying there he always spends all day with me. But that’s just in summer, when we’re visiting.”

“We must have a couple of dozen dogs at home on our estate. I’ll tell you what, if you’re good while you’re here I’ll give you one of them. He’s a brown dog with white ears, a young one. Would you like that?”

The child flushed red with delight. “Oh yes!” It burst out of him, warm and enthusiastic. Next moment, however, second thoughts set in. Now he sounded anxious and almost alarmed.

“But Mama would never let me. She says she won’t have a dog at home because they make too much trouble.”

The Baron smiled. At last the conversation had come around to Mama.

“Is your Mama so strict?”

The boy thought about it, looked up at him for a second as if wondering whether this strange gentleman was really to be trusted. He answered cautiously.

“No, Mama isn’t strict. Just now she lets me do anything I like because I’ve been ill. Maybe she’ll even let me have a dog.”

“Shall I ask her?”

“Oh yes, please do,” cried the boy happily. “Then I’m sure Mama will let me have him. What does he look like? You said white ears, didn’t you? Can he fetch?”

“Yes, he can do all sorts of things.” The Baron had to smile at the light he had kindled so quickly in the child’s eyes. All of a sudden the boy’s initial self-consciousness was gone, and he was bubbling over with the passionate enthusiasm that his timidity had held in check. It was an instant transformation: the shy, anxious child of a moment ago was now a cheerful boy. If only the mother were the same, the
Baron couldn’t help thinking, so passionate behind her show of diffidence! But the boy was already firing off questions at him.

“What’s the dog’s name?”


“Diamond,” the child said, crowing with delight. He was impelled to laugh and crow at every word that was spoken, intoxicated by the unexpected experience of having someone make friends with him. The Baron himself was surprised by his swift success, and decided to strike while the iron was hot. He invited the boy to go for a walk with him, and the poor child, starved of any convivial company for weeks, was enchanted by the idea. He chattered away, innocently providing all the information his new friend wanted and enticed out of him by means of small, apparently casual questions. Soon the Baron knew all about the family, more particularly that Edgar was the only son of a Viennese lawyer, obviously a member of the prosperous Jewish middle class. And through further skilful questioning he quickly discovered that the child’s mother had expressed herself far from happy with their stay in Semmering, and had complained of the lack of congenial company. He even thought he could detect, from Edgar’s evasive answer to the question of whether Mama was very fond of Papa, that all was not entirely well in that quarter. He was almost ashamed of the ease with which he elicited all these little family secrets from the unsuspecting boy, for Edgar, very proud to think that what he said could
interest a grown-up, positively pressed his confidences on his new friend. His childish heart throbbed with pride to be seen publicly on such close terms of friendship with a grown man—for as they walked along the Baron had laid an arm around his shoulders—and gradually forgot his own childhood, talking as freely as he would to a boy of his own age. Edgar was very intelligent, as his conversation showed: rather precocious, like most sickly children who have spent a great deal of time with adults, and was clearly highly strung, inclined to be either fervently affectionate or hostile. He did not seem to adopt a moderate stance to anything, and spoke of everyone or everything either with enthusiasm or a dislike so violent that it distorted his face, making him look almost vicious and ugly. Something wild and erratic, perhaps as a result of the illness from which he had only just recovered, gave fanatical fire to what he said, and it seemed that his awkwardness was merely fear, suppressed with difficulty, of his own passionate nature.

The Baron easily won his confidence. Just half-
, and he had that hot and restless heart in his hands. It is so extraordinarily easy to deceive children, unsuspecting creatures whose affections are so seldom sought. He had only to lose himself in the past, and childish talk came to him so naturally and easily that the boy himself soon thought of him as one of his own kind. After only a few minutes, any sense of distance between them was gone. Edgar was blissfully happy to
have found a friend so suddenly in this isolated place, and what a friend! All his companions in Vienna were forgotten, the little boys with their reedy voices and artless chatter, those images had been swept away by this one hour in his life! His entire passionate enthusiasm was now devoted to his new, his great friend, and his heart swelled with pride when, as the Baron said goodbye, he suggested meeting again tomorrow morning. And then his new friend waved as he walked away, just like a brother. That moment was, perhaps, the best of Edgar’s life. It is so very easy to deceive children.

The Baron smiled as the boy stormed away. He had found his go-between. Now, he knew, the child would pester his mother to the point of exhaustion with his stories, repeating every single word—and he remembered, complacently, how cleverly he had woven a few compliments intended for her into the conversation, always speaking of Edgar’s “beautiful Mama”. He was certain that the talkative boy wouldn’t rest until he had brought his friend and his mother together. He didn’t have to life a finger to decrease the distance between himself and the fair unknown, he could dream happily now as he looked at the landscape, for he knew that a pair of hot, childish hands was building him a bridge to her heart.

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