Authors: Hermann Hesse
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EN YEARS AGO
when Johann Veraguth bought Rosshalde and moved in, it was an abandoned old manor with overgrown garden paths, moss-covered benches, cracked stone steps, and a tangled, neglected park. The only buildings on the property, which measured about eight acres, were the fine, slightly run-down manor house with its stable, and in the park a small temple-like summer house, its door hanging askew on bent hinges and its walls, formerly hung with blue silk, covered with moss and mold.
Immediately after purchasing the house, the new owner had torn down the decrepit temple, leaving only the ten old stone steps that descended from its threshold to the edge of the fish pond. In its place Veraguth's studio was built. Here for seven years he had painted and spent most of his time, but he had lived at the manor house until the increasing dissension in his family had led him to send his elder son away to boarding school, to leave the manor house to his wife and servants, and for his own use to add two rooms to the studio, where he had been living as a bachelor ever since. It was a pity about the fine manor house; Frau Veraguth and the seven-year-old Pierre used only the upper floor; she received visitors and guests but never very many of them, so that a number of the rooms were empty all year round.
Little Pierre was the darling of both parents, the only bond between father and mother; not only did he maintain a certain contact between the manor and the studio, in a sense he was the sole lord and master of Rosshalde. Herr Veraguth's domain was his studio, the lake shore, and the former game preserve, while his wife reigned over the house, the lawn, and the lime and chestnut groves. Seldom did either of them visit the other's territory, except at mealtimes, when the painter usually went to the manor house. Little Pierre alone did not recognize, indeed he was hardly aware of, this division of life and territories. He came and went as freely in the old house as in the new, he was as much at home in his father's studio and library as in the hallway and picture gallery of the manor house, or in his mother's rooms; he was lord over the strawberries in the chestnut grove, the flowers in the lime grove, the fish in the lake, the bathhouse and the gondola. In his dealings with his mother's maids and Robert, his father's servant, he felt himself to be both master and protÃ©gÃ©; in the eyes of his mother's visitors and guests he was the son of the lady of the house, and in the eyes of the gentlemen who sometimes came to Papa's studio and spoke French, he was the painter's son. Paintings and photographs of the boy hung in his father's bedroom and in the mother's rooms in the old house with their light-colored wallpaper. Pierre was very well off, better off indeed than children whose parents live in harmony; his upbringing was not regulated by any program, and when, as sometimes happened, he was in trouble in his mother's domain, the lakeside territory offered him a secure refuge.
He had gone to bed long before, and at eleven o'clock the last window in the manor house had darkened. Long after midnight, Johann Veraguth returned alone from town, where he had spent the evening with friends at a tavern. As he strode through the balmy, cloudy, early summer night, the atmosphere of wine and smoke, of red-faced laughter and outrageous jokes had fallen away from him; consciously breathing in the warm, damp, slightly tense night air as he walked alertly down the road between the dark fields of already well-grown grain, he approached Rosshalde with its massed treetops silent against the pale night sky.
Passing the entrance to the estate, he glanced at the manor house; its noble, luminous faÃ§ade shone alluringly against the black darkness of the trees, and for a few minutes he gazed at the lovely scene with the pleasure and strangeness of a passing traveler; then he continued on for a few hundred paces along the high hedge to the place where he had made an opening from which a secret path led through the woods to the studio. His senses keenly awake, the small powerful man walked through the somber, overgrown park toward his house; the dark treetops surmounting the lake seemed to open, a great sphere of dull-gray sky came into view, and suddenly the house was before him.
The little lake lay almost black in the total silence, the feeble light lay on the water like an infinitely thin membrane or a layer of fine dust. Veraguth looked at his watch, it was almost one. He opened a side door leading into his living room. Here he lighted a candle and quickly undressed; naked, he left the house and slowly descended the broad flat stone steps into the water, which for an instant glittered in soft little rings before his knees. He plunged, swam a little way out into the lake, suddenly felt the weariness of an evening spent in an unaccustomed way, turned back, and entered the house dripping. He threw a bathrobe over his shoulders, smoothed the water from his close-cropped hair, and barefoot climbed the few steps leading to his studio, an enormous, almost empty room, where with a few impatient movements he quickly turned on all the electric lights.
He hurried to an easel bearing a small canvas he had been working on in the last few days. Bending forward with his hands on his knees, he stood before the picture and stared at the surface, whose fresh colors reflected the harsh light. So he remained for two or three minutes, staring in silence until the entire picture, down to the last brush stroke, came alive in his eyes; in the last few years he had become accustomed on nights before working days to take no other image to bed and sleep with him than that of the painting he was working on. He put out the lights, picked up the candle, and went to his bedroom, on the door to which hung a small slate. He picked up the chalk, wrote in bold letters: “Wake at seven, coffee at nine,” closed the door behind him, and went to bed. He lay for a short while motionless with his eyes open, compelling the picture to take form on his retina. Saturated with it, he closed his clear gray eyes, heaved a gentle sigh, and soon fell asleep.
In the morning Robert awakened him at the appointed hour; he rose at once, washed in cold running water, slipped into a faded suit of coarse gray linen, and went to the studio; the servant had pulled up the heavy shutters. On a small table stood a dish of fruit, a carafe of water, and a piece of rye bread. He thoughtfully picked up the bread and bit into it while standing at the easel looking at his picture. Pacing back and forth, he took a few bites of bread, fished a few cherries out of the glass bowl, and noticed that some letters and newspapers had been laid on the table but ignored them. A moment later he was sitting on his camp chair looking tensely at his work.
The little picture in horizontal format represented an early morning scene which the painter had witnessed and done several sketches of in the course of a trip. He had stopped at a little country inn on the upper Rhine. The friend he had come to see was nowhere to be found. He had spent an unpleasant rainy evening in the smoky taproom and a bad night in a damp bedroom smelling of whitewash and mold. Before sunrise, he had waked hot and disgruntled from a light sleep. Finding the house door still locked, he had climbed out of the taproom window, untied a boat on the nearby bank of the Rhine, and rowed out into the sluggish, barely dawning river. From the far shore, just as he was about to turn back, he saw a fisherman rowing toward him. Its dark outline bathed in the cold, faintly quivering light of the milky rainy daybreak, the skiff seemed unnaturally large. Instantly captivated by the scene and by the strange light, he had pulled in his oars while the man came closer, stopped at a floating marker, and raised a fish trap from the cool water. Two broad, dull-silvery fishes appeared, glistened wet for a moment over the gray river, and then fell with a smack into the fisherman's boat. Bidding the man to wait, Veraguth had fetched a rudimentary paintbox, and had done a small water-color sketch. He had spent the day in the village, sketching and reading; the next morning he had painted again in the open, and had then resumed his travels. Since then he had turned the picture over and over in his mind, suffering torments until it took shape. Now he had been working on it for days and it was almost finished.
As a rule he painted in the bright sun or in the warm, broken light of the park or forest, so that the flowing silvery coolness of the picture had given him a good deal of trouble. But it had shown him a new tone, he had found a satisfactory solution the day before, and now he felt that this was good, unusual work, something more than a commendable likeness, that in it a moment out of nature's mysterious flow burst through the glassy surface, giving an intimation of the wild, full breath of reality.
The painter studied the picture with attentive eyes and weighed the tones on his palette, which, having lost nearly all its reds and yellows, bore little resemblance to his usual palette. The water and the air were finished, the surface was bathed in a chill, unfriendly light, the bushes and stakes on the shore floated like shadows in the moist, livid half light; the crude skiff in the water was disembodied and unreal, the fisherman's face was speechless and undefined, only his hand reaching out calmly for the fish was alive with uncompromising reality. One of the fishes sprang glistening over the gunwale of the boat; the other lay flat and still, its round open mouth and rigid frightened eye full of creature suffering. The whole was cold and almost cruelly sad, but irreproachably quiet, free from symbolism except of the simple kind without which there can be no work of art, which permits us not only to feel the oppressive incomprehensibility of all nature but also to love it with a kind of sweet astonishment.
When the painter had been sitting at his work for about two hours, the servant knocked and in response to his master's absent call brought breakfast in. He quietly set down the pitchers, cup, and plate, moved up a chair, waited awhile in silence, and then announced diffidently: “Breakfast is served, Herr Veraguth.”
“Coming,” said the painter, rubbing out with his thumb a brush stroke he had just made on the tail of the leaping fish. “Is there hot water?”
He washed his hands and sat down to his coffee.
“You can stuff a pipe for me, Robert,” he said cheerfully. “The little one without a cover, it must be in the bedroom.”
The servant went. Veraguth drank the strong coffee with fervor, and the faint suggestion of dizziness and exhaustion, which had been coming over him lately after strenuous effort, lifted like morning mist.
He took the pipe from the servant, let him light it, and greedily breathed in the aromatic smoke, which intensified and refined the effect of the coffee. He pointed at his picture and said: “You went fishing as a boy, Robert, I believe?”
“Yes, Herr Veraguth.”
“Take a look at that fish, not the one in the air, the other with its mouth open. Is the mouth right?”
“It's right,” said Robert distrustfully. “But you know better than I do,” he added in a tone of reproach, as though sensing mockery in the question.
“No, my friend, that is not true. It's only in early youth, up to the age of thirteen or fourteen, that a man perceives things in all their sharpness and freshness; all the rest of his life he feeds on that experience. I had nothing to do with fish as a boy, that's why I ask. So tell me, is the nose right?”