‘Twenty-four brown slaves rowed the splendid galley that would bring Prince Amgiad to the Caliph’s palace. But the Prince, wrapped in his purple cloak, lay alone on the deck beneath the deep blue, star-spangled night sky, and his gaze –’
Up to this point the little girl had been reading aloud; now, quite suddenly, her eyes closed. Her parents looked at each other with a smile, and Fridolin bent over her, kissed her flaxen hair, and snapped shut the book that was resting on the table, which had not as yet been cleared. The child looked up as if caught out.
‘Nine o’clock,’ said her father, ‘time for bed.’ And as Albertine too had now bent over the child, the parents’ hands touched as they fondly stroked her brow, and, with a tender smile that was no longer intended solely for the child, their eyes met. The maid came in and bade the little one say goodnight to her parents; obediently she got up, proffered her lips to her father and mother to be kissed, and let the maid escort her quietly from the room. Left alone under the reddish glow of the hanging lamp, Fridolin and Albertine suddenly felt impelled to resume the discussion of their experiences at yesterday’s masked ball, which they had begun before the evening meal.
It had been their first ball of the year, which they had decided to attend just before the close of the Carnival season. Immediately upon entering the ballroom, Fridolin had been greeted like an impatiently awaited friend by two dominoes dressed in red, whom he had not managed to identify, even though they were remarkably well informed about various episodes from his hospital and student days. They had left the box to which they had invited him with such auspicious friendliness, promising to return shortly unmasked, but then had stayed away so long that he became impatient and decided to descend to the ground floor, hoping to meet the two enigmatic creatures there again. He looked around intently, without, however, catching sight of them; instead, quite unexpectedly, another female reveller took him by the arm: it was his wife. She had just withdrawn rather abruptly from a stranger, whose blasé, melancholy air and foreign-sounding – evidently Polish – accent had at first intrigued her, but who had then suddenly let slip a surprisingly crude and insolent remark that had hurt and even frightened her. And so man and wife, glad at heart to have escaped a disappointingly banal charade, were soon sitting in the refreshment room over oysters and champagne, like two lovers among other amorous couples, and chatting amiably drew one another, as if they had just become acquainted, into a game of gallantry, seduction, resistance and fulfilment; and then, after a swift coach ride through the white winter’s night, they sank into one another’s arms with an ardour they had not experienced for quite some time. A grey morning awoke them all too soon. The husband’s profession summoned him to his patients’ bedsides at an early hour, and the duties of housekeeper and mother did not allow Albertine to rest much longer. And so the time had passed predictably and soberly enough in work and routine chores, and the events of the previous night from first to last had faded; and only now that both their day’s work was over, the child asleep and no further disturbance anticipated, did the shadowy figures from the masked ball, the melancholy stranger and the dominoes in red, revive; and those trivial encounters became magically and painfully interfused with the treacherous illusion of missed opportunities. Innocent yet ominous questions and vague ambiguous answers passed to and fro between them; and, as neither of them doubted the other’s absolute candour, both felt the need for mild revenge. They exaggerated the extent to which their masked partners had attracted them, made fun of the jealous stirrings the other revealed, and lied dismissively about their own. Yet this light banter about the trivial adventures of the previous night led to more serious discussion of those hidden, scarcely admitted desires which are apt to raise dark and perilous storms even in the purest, most transparent soul; and they talked about those secret regions for which they felt hardly any longing, yet towards which the irrational winds of fate might one day drive them, if only in their dreams. For however much they might belong to one another heart and soul, they knew last night was not the first time they had been stirred by a whiff of freedom, danger and adventure. With self-tormenting anxiety and sordid curiosity, each sought to coax admissions from the other; while drawing closer in their fear, each groped for any fact, however slight, any experience, however trivial, which might articulate the fundamentally inexpressible confession of a truth capable of releasing them from the tension and mistrust that were slowly starting to become intolerable. Whether it was because she was the more impetuous, the more honest or the more warm-hearted, Albertine was the first to find the courage to make a frank confession; and with a trembling voice she asked Fridolin if he remembered a young man the previous summer on the Danish coast who had been sitting with two officers at the table next to them one evening, and who, on receiving a telegram during the meal, had promptly taken a hasty leave of his two friends.
Fridolin nodded. ‘What about him?’ he asked.
‘That same morning I’d seen him once before,’ replied Albertine, ‘as he was hurrying up the hotel stairs with his yellow suitcase. He’d glanced at me as we passed, but a few steps further up he stopped and turned round towards me – our eyes couldn’t help meeting. He didn’t smile, indeed his face seemed to cloud over, and I must have reacted likewise, because I felt moved as never before. The whole day I lay on the beach, lost in dreams. Were he to summon me – or so I believed – I wouldn’t have been able to resist. I thought myself capable of doing anything; I felt I had as good as resolved to relinquish you, the child, my future, yet at the same time – will you believe this? – you were more dear to me than ever. It was that same afternoon, you remember, that we spoke so confidingly about a thousand things, discussing our future together, talking about the child as we hadn’t done for ages. Then at sunset, when we were sitting on the balcony, he walked past us on the beach below without looking up, and I was overjoyed to see him. But it was you whose brow I stroked and hair I kissed, and in my love for you there was also a good deal of distressing pity. That evening I wore a white rose in my belt, and you yourself said that I looked very beautiful. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the stranger was sitting near us with his friends. He didn’t look across at me, but I toyed with the idea of stepping over to his table and saying to him, “Here I am, my long-awaited one, my beloved – take me away.” At that moment they brought him the telegram: he read it, went pale, whispered a few words to the younger of the two officers, and with an enigmatic look in my direction left the room.’
‘And then?’ asked Fridolin drily, as she fell silent.
‘Nothing more. All I know is that next morning I awoke feeling nervous and distressed. What I was anxious about – whether it was that he had left, or that he might still be there – I don’t know, and even then I didn’t know. Yet when at noon he still hadn’t appeared, I heaved a sigh of relief. Don’t question me further, Fridolin, I’ve told you the whole truth. – You too had some sort of experience on that beach – of that I’m certain.’
Fridolin got up, paced up and down the room a few times, then said, ‘You’re right.’ He stood at the window, his face in darkness. ‘In the morning,’ he began in a restrained, somewhat resentful tone, ‘often very early before you got up, I would wander along the shore out past the resort; yet, early as it was, the sun would always be shining brightly over the sea. Out there along the shore, as you know, there were little houses, each a small world unto its own, some with fenced-off gardens, some just surrounded by woods, and the bathing huts were separated from the houses by the road and by a stretch of sand. I seldom encountered anybody, and there were never any bathers at that hour. One morning, however, I suddenly became aware of a female figure, not visible before, who was gingerly advancing along the narrow gangplank of one of those bathing huts on stilts, putting one foot in front of the other and stretching her arms behind as she groped along the wooden wall. She was a young girl of no more than fifteen, her loose, blonde hair falling over her shoulders and on one side across her tender breast. Gazing down into the water, she slowly inched her way with lowered eyes along the wall towards the near corner of the hut, and suddenly emerged directly opposite where I was standing; she reached behind her even further with her arms, as if to gain a firmer hold, looked up and suddenly caught sight of me. Her whole body began to tremble, as though she were about to either fall or to run away. But, as she could only have proceeded very slowly along the narrow plank, she decided not to move – and so she just stood there, looking at first frightened, then angry and finally embarrassed. But all at once she smiled, a ravishing smile; indeed there was a welcoming twinkle in her eye – and at the same time a gentle mockery about the way she lightly skimmed the water between us with her foot. Then she stretched her young, slender body, as though exulting in her beauty, and evidently proud and sweetly aroused at feeling my ardent gaze upon her. We stood opposite each other like this for perhaps ten seconds, with lips half open and eyes aflame. Involuntarily I stretched out my arms towards her: there was joy and abandon in her gaze. But all at once she shook her head vigorously, let go of the side of the hut with one hand, and peremptorily signalled that I should withdraw; and, when I could not bring myself to obey at once, such a pleading, such a beseeching look came into her child’s eyes that I had no alternative but to turn away. I hastily resumed my walk without once turning round – not out of consideration, obedience or chivalry, but because I’d felt so profoundly moved by her parting look, far transcending anything I’d experienced before, that I was on the point of swooning.’ And with that he ended.
‘And how often,’ asked Albertine flatly, looking straight ahead, ‘did you later follow the same path?’
‘All I’ve told you,’ replied Fridolin, ‘just happened to occur on the last day of our stay in Denmark. Even I don’t know how things might have developed under other circumstances. And you too, Albertine, shouldn’t inquire any further.’
He was still standing at the window, motionless. Albertine got up and went over to him, her eyes dark and moist, her brow slightly creased. ‘In future we should always tell each other things like this at once,’ she said.
He nodded silently.
He drew her to him. ‘Do you really doubt that?’ he asked; but his voice still sounded harsh.
She took his hands, fondled them and looked up at him with tearful eyes, in the depths of which he tried to read her thoughts. She was now thinking about the other, more real experiences of his youth, some of which she was privy to, since during the first years of their marriage he had given way to her jealous curiosity rather too eagerly and revealed, or, as it often seemed to him, surrendered many things he should perhaps have kept to himself. He could tell that various memories were now resurfacing within her with some urgency, and so he was hardly surprised when, as if in a dream, she mentioned the half-forgotten name of one of his youthful loves. Yet to him it came across as a reproach, even as a quiet threat.
He drew her hands to his lips.
‘In every woman – believe me, even though it may sound trite – in every woman with whom I thought I was in love, it was always you that I was searching for. I feel this more deeply, Albertine, than you can ever understand.’
She smiled sadly. ‘And what if I too had chosen to go exploring first?’ she said. Her expression changed, becoming inscrutable and cold. He let go her hands, as if he had caught her out in a lie or infidelity; but she continued, ‘Ah, if only you all knew,’ and again fell silent.
‘If we only knew – What do you mean by that?’
Rather harshly she replied, ‘More or less, my dear, what you imagine.’
‘Albertine – is there something you’ve never told me?’
She nodded with a strange smile and looked straight ahead. Vague, irrational doubts began to stir within him.
‘I don’t quite understand,’ he said. ‘You were scarcely seventeen when we became engaged.’
‘Yes, Fridolin, a little over sixteen. And yet’ – she looked him straight in the eye – ‘it was not my fault if I was still a virgin when I became your wife.’
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