Cloud, Castle, Lake

It was a pure, blue lake, with an unusual expression of its water. In the middle, a large cloud was reflected in its entirety. On the other side, on a hill thickly covered with verdure (and the darker the verdure, the more poetic it is), towered, arising from dactyl to dactyl, an ancient black castle. Of course, there are plenty of such views in Central Europe, but just this one, in the inexpressible and unique harmoniousness of its three principal parts, in its smile, in some mysterious innocence it had,—my love! my obedient one!—was something so unique, and so familiar, and so long-promised, and it so understood the beholder, that Vasili Ivanovich even pressed his hand to his heart, as if to see whether his heart was there in order to give it away.

At some distance, Schramm, poking into the air with the leader's alpenstock, was calling the attention of the excursionists to something or other; they had settled themselves around on the grass in poses seen in amateur snapshots, while the leader sat on a stump, his behind to the lake, and was having a snack. Quietly, concealing himself behind his own back, Vasili Ivanovich followed the shore, and came to a kind of inn. A dog still quite young greeted him; it crept on its belly, its jaws laughing, its tail fervently beating the ground. Vasili Ivanovich accompanied the dog into the house, a piebald two-storied dwelling with a winking window beneath a convex tiled eyelid, and he found the owner, a tall old man vaguely resembling a Russian war veteran, who spoke German so poorly and with such a soft drawl that Vasili Ivanovich changed to his own tongue, but the man understood as in a dream, and continued in the language of his environment, his family.

Upstairs was a room for travelers. ‘You know, I shall take it for the rest of my life,’ Vasili Ivanovich is reported to have said as soon as he had entered it. The room itself had nothing remarkable about it. On the contrary, it was a most ordinary room, with a red floor, daisies daubed on the white walls, and a small mirror half filled with the yellow infusion of the reflected flowers—but from the window one could clearly see the lake with its cloud and its castle, in a motionless and perfect correlation of happiness. Without reasoning, without considering, only entirely surrendering to an attraction the truth of which consisted in its own strength, a strength which he had never experienced before, Vasili Ivanovich in one radiant second realized that here in this little room with that view, beautiful to the verge of tears, life would at last be what he had always wished it to be. What exactly it would be like, what would take place here, that of course he did not know, but all around him were help, promise, and consolation—so that there could not be any doubt that he must live here. In a moment he figured out how he would manage it so as not to have to return to Berlin again, how to get the few possessions that he had—books, the blue suit, her photograph. How simple it was turning out! As my representative, he was earning enough for the modest life of a refugee Russian.

‘My friends,’ he cried, having run down again to the meadow by the shore, ‘my friends, good-bye. I shall remain for good in that house over there. We can't travel together any longer. I shall go no farther. I am not going anywhere. Good-bye!’

‘How is that?’ said the leader in a queer voice, after a short pause, during which the smile on the lips of Vasili Ivanovich slowly faded, while the people who had been sitting on the grass half-rose and stared at him with stony eyes.

‘But why?’ he faltered. ‘It is here that ...’

‘Silence!’ the post-office clerk suddenly bellowed with extraordinary force. ‘Come to your senses, you drunken swine!’

‘Wait a moment, gentlemen,’ said the leader, and, having passed his tongue over his lips, he turned to Vasili Ivanovich.

‘You probably have been drinking,’ he said quietly. ‘Or have gone out of your mind. You are taking a pleasure trip with us. Tomorrow, according to the appointed itinerary,—look at your ticket,—we are all returning to Berlin. There can be no question of anyone—in this case you—refusing to continue this communal journey. We were singing today a certain song—try and remember what it said. That's enough now! Come, children, we are going on.’

‘There will be beer at Ewald,’ said Schramm in a caressing voice. ‘Five hours by train. Walks. A hunting lodge. Coal mines. Lots of interesting things.’

‘I shall complain,’ wailed Vasili Ivanovich. ‘Give me back my bag. I have the right to remain where I want. Oh, but this is nothing less than an invitation to a beheading’ —he told me he cried when they seized him by the arms.

‘If necessary we shall carry you,’ said the leader grimly, ‘but that is not likely to be pleasant for you. I am responsible for each of you, and shall bring back each of you, alive or dead.'

Swept along a forest road as in a hideous fairy tale, squeezed, twisted, Vasili Ivanovich could not even turn around, and only felt how the radiance behind his back receded, fractured by trees, and then it was no longer there, and all around the dark firs fretted but could not interfere. As soon as everyone had got into the car and the train had pulled off, they began to beat him—they beat him a long time, and with a good deal of inventiveness. It occurred to them, among other things, to use a corkscrew on his palms; then on his feet. The post-office clerk, who had been to Russia, fashioned a knout out of a stick and a belt, and began to use it with devilish dexterity. Atta boy! The other men relied more on their iron heels, whereas the women were satisfied to pinch and to slap. All had a wonderful time.

After returning to Berlin, he called on me; was much changed; sat down quietly, putting his hands on his knees; told his story; kept on repeating that he must resign his position, begged me to let him go, insisted that he could not continue, that he had not the strength to belong to mankind any longer. Of course, I let him go.

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