Ernst Von Wildenbruch
Is it possible that there are people
quite free from curiosity? People who can pass
on behind any one they see gazing earnestly and intently
toward some unknown object without feeling an impulse
to stop, to follow the direction of the other’s
eyes, to discover what odd thing he may be looking
For my part, if I were asked whether
I counted myself among that class of cold natures,
I do not know that I could honestly answer “Yes.”
At any rate, there was once a moment in my life when
I was not only goaded by such an impulse, but when
I actually yielded to the temptation and fell into
the way of any mere curiosity seeker.
The place in which it happened was
in a wine-room in the old town where as Referendar . I was practising at court; the time was an afternoon
The wine-room, situated on the ground
floor of a house in the great square which from the
window one could look out upon in every direction,
was at this hour nearly empty. To me this was
all the more agreeable, for I have ever been a lover
There were three of us: the fat
waiter, who from a gray, dust-covered bottle was pouring
out the golden-yellow Muscatel into my glass; then
myself, who sat in a nook of the cozy, odd-cornered
room and smacked the fragrant wine; and still another
guest, who had taken his place at one of the two open
windows, a tumbler of red wine lying before him on
the window-sill, in his mouth a long brown, smoke-seasoned
meerschaum cigar-holder, out of which he wrapped himself
in a cloud of smoke.
This man, who had a long gray beard
framing a ruddy face tinged bluish in places, was
an old retired colonel, whom every one in town knew.
He belonged to that colony of the Superannuated who
had settled down in this pleasant place to wearily
drag out the end of their days.
Toward noon they could be seen strolling
deliberately in groups of twos or threes down the
street, shortly to disappear into the wine-room, where
between twelve and one they assembled at the round
table to gossip. On the table stood pint bottles
of sourish Moselle, over the table floated a thick
mist of cigar smoke, and through the mist came voices,
peevish, grating, discussing the latest event in the
The old colonel, too, was a regular
patron of the wine-room, but he never came at the
hour of general assembly, but later, in the afternoon.
He was a man of lonely disposition.
Rarely was he seen in the company of others; his lodging
was in the suburbs on the other side of the river,
and from the window of his room one could look out
over a wide stretch of meadow land which the river
regularly inundated every spring, when it overflowed
its banks. Many a time have I passed by his lodging
and seen him standing at the window, his bloodshot
eyes, rimmed with deep bags beneath, thoughtfully
gazing out toward the gray waste of water beyond the
And now he sits there at the window
of the wine-room and gazes out upon the square, over
whose surface the wind sweeps along in a whirl of dust.
But what is he looking at, I wonder?
The fat waiter, bored to death over
his two silent fees, had his attention already drawn
toward the colonel’s behavior; he stood in the
middle of the room, his hands clasped behind the tail
of his coat, and was gazing through the other window
out on to the square.
Something must surely be going on there.
Quietly as possible, so as not to
break the interest of the other two, I rose from my
seat. But there was really nothing to be seen.
The square was nearly empty; only in the center, under
the great street lamps, I noticed two schoolboys who
were facing each other in threatening attitude.
Could it be this, then, that so fixed
the attention of the old colonel?
But having once begun, such is the
nature of man, I could not withdraw my attention before
knowing whether this threat of a fight would really
swell to an outbreak. The boys had just come from
afternoon school session; they were still carrying
their portfolios under their arms. They may have
been of equal age, but one was a head taller than the
other. This bigger one, a tall, lank, overgrown
schoolboy, with an unpleasant look in his freckled
face, was blocking the way of the other, who was short
and plump and had an honest face with chubby, red cheeks.
The-bigger boy seemed to be nagging at the other with
taunting words, but by reason of the distance it was
impossible to understand what he said. After
this had been going on for a while, the quarrel suddenly
broke out. Both boys dropped their portfolios
to the ground; the little chubby boy lowered his head,
as though to ram his opponent in the stomach, and
then rushed at him.
“The big fellow there will soon
have him in a fix,” now said the colonel, who
was earnestly following the movements of the enemy,
and who seemed not to approve the tactics of the little
For whom he intended these words it
would be hard to say; he spoke them to himself without
addressing any one of us.
His prediction was at once justified.
The big fellow dodged the onset of
his enemy; the next moment he had his left arm squeezed
around the other’s neck, so that the head of
the latter was caught as in a noose; he had him, as
they say, “in chancery.” With his
right hand he gripped the right fist of his opponent,
who was trying to pummel him with it on the back,
and when he had regularly trapped him and brought
him completely under his power he dragged him again
and again round and about the lamp-post.
“Clumsy lad,” muttered
the old colonel, continuing his monologue, “always
to let himself get caught in that way.”
He was plainly disappointed in the little chubby boy,
and could not endure the long, lanky one.
“They fight that way every day,”
he explained, noticing the waiter, to whom he seemed
willing to account for his interest in the matter.
Then he turned his face again toward
the window. “Wonder if the little one will
Scarcely had he mumbled this to the
end when there came rushing from the city park that
adjoined the square a slender little slip of a lad.
“There he is,” said the
old colonel. He swallowed a mouthful of red wine
and stroked his beard.
The little fellow, who one felt sure
by the resemblance must be a brother of little Chubby
Cheeks, but a finer and improved edition, ran up,
lifted high his portfolio with both hands and gave
Long-Shanks a blow on the back that resounded away
over to where we sat.
“Bravo!” said the old colonel.
Long-Shanks kicked like a horse at
this new assailant. Little-Boy dodged, and the
same instant Long-Shanks got a second blow, this time
on the head, that sent his cap flying.
Nevertheless, he still kept his prisoner
held in the trap and fast by the right hand.
Then Little-Boy tore open his portfolio
with frantic haste; from the portfolio he drew out
a pen-case, from the pen-case a pen-holder, which
all at once he began jabbing into the hand of Long-Shanks
that held his brother prisoner.
“Clever lad!” said the
colonel to himself. “Fine lad!” His
red eyes fairly gleamed with delight.
The affair was now becoming too hot
for Long-Shanks. Stung with pain, he released
his first opponent to throw himself with furious blows
But the latter was now transformed
into a veritable little wild-cat. His hat had
flown from his head, his curly hair clung round his
fine, deathly pale face, out of which his eyes fairly
burned; the portfolio with all its contents was lying
on the ground over cap, portfolio and all
he went for the anatomy of Long-Shanks.
He threw himself on the enemy, and
with little, clenched, convulsive fists belabored
him so on stomach and body that Long-Shanks began to
retreat step by step.
In the mean while Chubby-Cheeks had
recovered himself, snatched up his portfolio, and
with blow after blow on the sides and back of his
oppressor, pushed into the fight again.
Long-Shanks at last threw off Little-Boy,
took two steps backward and picked up his cap from
the ground. The fight was drawing to a finish.
Panting and out of breath, the three stood looking
at one another. Long-Shanks showed an ugly grin,
behind which he tried to hide the shame of his defeat;
Little-Boy, with fists still doubled, followed every
one of his movements with blazing eyes, ready at a
moment to spring once more upon the enemy should the
latter renew the attack. But Long-Shanks did
not advance again; he had had enough. Sneering
and shrugging his shoulders, he kept drawing away
farther and farther until he had reached a safe distance,
when he began to call out names. The two brothers
now collected the belongings of Little-Boy that lay
scattered about, stuffed them into the portfolio,
picked up their caps, whipped the dust from them,
and turned home ward. On the way they passed the
windows of our wine-room. I could now plainly
see the brave little fellow; he was a thoroughbred,
every inch of him. Long-Shanks was again approaching
from behind and bawling after them through the length
of the square. Little-Boy shrugged his shoulders
with fine contempt. “You great, cowardly
bully,” said he, and stopping suddenly, turned
right about and faced the enemy. At once Long-Shanks
stopped too, and the two brothers broke out into derisive
They were now standing directly under
the window at which the old colonel was sitting.
He leaned out.
“Bravo, youngster!” said
he, “you are a plucky one here drink
this on the strength of it.” He had taken
up the tumbler and was holding it out of the window
toward Little-Boy. The boy looked up, surprised,
then whispered something to his older brother, gave
him his portfolio to hold, and gripped the big glass
in his two little hands.
When he had drunk all he wanted, with
one hand he held the glass by its stem, with the other
took back the portfolio from his brother, and without
asking by your leave, handed the glass over to him.
Chubby-Cheeks then took a long swallow.
“The blessed boy,” muttered
the colonel to himself. “I give him my
glass, and without further ado he makes his cher
frère drink out of it, too.”
But by the face of Little-Boy, who
now reached the glass up to the window again, one
could see that he had only been doing something which
seemed to him quite a matter of course.
“Do you like the bouquet?” asked the old
“Yes, thanks, very well,”
said the boy, who snatched at his cap politely, and
went on his way with his brother.
The colonel looked after them until
they had turned a corner of the street and disappeared
from his sight.
“With boys like that” then
said the colonel, returning to his soliloquizing “it
is often an odd thing about boys like that.”
“That they should fight so in
the public streets!” said the fat waiter with
disapproval, still standing at his post. “One
wonders how the teacher can allow it; and they seem
to belong to good family, too.”
“It isn’t that that does
the harm,” grunted the old colonel. “Young
people must have their liberty, teachers can’t
always be keeping an eye on them. Boys all fight must
He rose heavily from his place so
that the chair creaked beneath him, scraped the cigar
butt out of its holder into the ash-tray, and walked
stiffly over to the wall where his hat hung on a nail.
At the same time he continued his reverie.
“In young blood like that nature
will show itself everything, just as it
really is afterward, when older,
things look all much alike then one is
able to study more carefully young blood
The waiter had put his hat into his
hand; the colonel took up his tumbler again, in which
there were still a few drops of the red wine.
“God bless the youngsters,”
he murmured; “they have hardly left me a drop.”
He looked, almost sadly, into what remained of the
wine, then set the tumbler down again without drinking.
The fat waiter became suddenly alive.
“Will the colonel, perhaps, have another glass?”
The old man, standing at the table,
had opened the wine list and was mumbling to himself.
sort, maybe but one can’t buy it by
the glass only by the bottle somewhat
Slowly his gaze wandered over in my
direction; I read in his eyes the dumb inquiry a man
sometimes throws his neighbor when he wants to go
halves with him over a bottle of wine.
“If the colonel will allow me,”
I said, “it would give me great pleasure to
drink a bottle with him.”
He agreed, plainly not unwilling.
He pushed the wine list over to the waiter, lining
with his finger the sort he wanted, and said in a
commanding tone: “A bottle of that.”
“That is a brand I know well,”
he said, turning to me, while he threw his hat on
a chair and sat down at one of the tables “it’s
I had placed myself at a table with
him so that I could see his face in profile.
His look was again turned toward the window, and as
he gazed past me up into the heavens, the glow of
the sunset was reflected in his eyes.
It was the first time I had seen him
at such close quarters.
By the look of his eyes he was lost
in dreams, and as his hand played mechanically through
his long beard, there seemed to rise before him out
of the flood of the years that had rushed behind, forms
that were once young when he was young, and which
were now who can say where? The bottle
which the waiter had brought and placed at a table
before us contained a rare wine. An old Bordeaux,
brown and oily, poured into our glasses. I recalled
the expression which the old man had used a short
“I must admit, colonel, that
this is indeed ‘good blood.’”
His flushed eyes came slowly back
from the far away, turned upon me, and remained fixed
there, as if he would say: “What do you
know about it?”
He took a deep draft, wiped his beard,
and gazed at his glass. “Strange,”
he said, “when a man grows old he
recalls the earliest days far easier than those that
I was silent; I felt that I ought
neither to speak nor question. When a man is
lost in recollections he is making poetry, and one
must not question a poet.
A long pause followed. “What
an assortment of people one has to meet with,”
he continued. “When one thinks of it many
who live on and on it were often better
they did not live at all and others have
to go so much too early.” He passed the
palm of his hand over the surface of the table.
“Beneath that lies much.”
It seemed as if the table had become
to him as the surface of the earth, and that he was
thinking of those lying beneath the ground.
“Had to keep thinking of this
a little while ago” his voice sounded
hollow “when I saw that little fellow.
With a boy like that nature comes right out, fairly
gushes out thick as your arm. You can
see blood in it. Pity, though, that good blood
flows so freely more freely than the other.
I once knew a little chap like that.”
And there it was.
The waiter had seated himself in a
back corner of the room; I kept perfectly quiet; the
heavy voice of the old colonel went laboring through
the stillness of the room like a gust of wind that
precedes a storm or some serious outbreak in nature.
His eyes turned toward me as if to
search me, whether I could bear to listen. He
did not ask, I did not speak, but I looked at him,
and my look eagerly replied: “Go on.”
But not yet did he begin; first he
drew from the breast pocket of his coat a large cigar-case
of hard, brown leather, took out a cigar and slowly
“You know Berlin, of course,”
said he, as he blew out the match and puffed the first
cloud of smoke over the table. “No doubt
you have traveled before this on the street railway
“Oh, yes; often.”
then, as you go along behind the New Friedrich Street
from Alexander Square to the Jannowiz Bridge, there
stands there on the right-hand side in new Friedrich
Street, a great ugly old building; it is the old military
“The new one over there in Lichterfelde
I do not know, but the old one, that I do know yes h’m was
even a cadet there in my time yes that
one I do know.”
This repetition of words gave me the
feeling that he knew not only the house, but probably
many an event that had taken place in it.
“As you come from Alexander
Square,” he continued, “there first comes
a court with trees. Now grass grows in the court;
in my time it was not so, for the drills took place
there and the cadets went walking there during the
hours of recreation. After that comes the great
main building that encloses a square court, which
is called the ‘Karreehof,’ and there,
too, the cadets used to walk. Passing by from
the outside, you can’t see into the court.”
I nodded again in confirmation.
“And then comes still a third
court; it is smaller, and on it stands a house.
Don’t know what it is used for now; at that time
it was the infirmary. You can still see there
the roof of the gymnasium as you pass by; then next
to the infirmary was the principal outdoor gymnasium.
In it was a jumping ditch and a climbing apparatus
and every other possible thing now it has
all gone. From the infirmary a door led out into
the gymnasium, but it was always kept locked.
When one wanted to go into the infirmary, one had
to cross the court and enter in front. The door
then, as I said, was always locked; that is, it was
opened only on some special occasion, and that, indeed,
was always a very mournful occasion. For behind
the door was the mortuary, and when a cadet died he
was laid therein, and the door remained open until
the other cadets had filed by, and looked at him once
more and he was then taken out yes h’m.”
A long pause followed.
“Concerning the new house over
there in Lichterfelde,” continued the old colonel
in a somewhat disparaging tone, “I know nothing,
as I said, but have heard that it is become a big
affair with a great number of cadets. Here in
New Friedrich Street there were not so many, only four
companies, and they divided themselves into two classes:
Sekundaner and Primaner, and to these two were
added the Selektaner, or special students, who afterward
entered the army as officers, and who were nicknamed
‘The Onions,’ because they had authority
over the others and were barely tolerated in consequence.
“Now in the company to which
I belonged it was the fourth there
were two brothers who sat together in the same class
with me, the Sekun-daner. Their name is of no
consequence but well, they were
called, then, von L; the older of the two was called
by the superiors L No. I, and the smaller, who
was a year and a half younger than the other, L No.
II. Among the cadets, however, they were called
Big and Little L. Little L, indeed h’m
He moved in his chair, his eyes gazed
out into vacancy. It appeared that he had reached
the subject of his reveries.
Such a contrast between brothers I have never seen, he
continued, blowing a thick cloud from his meerschaum pipe. Big L was a
strapping fellow, with clumsy arms and legs and a big fat head; Little L was like a willow
switch, so slender and supple. He had a small,
fine head, and light, wavy hair that curled of itself,
and a delicate nose like a young eagle’s, but
above all he was a lad
The old colonel drew a deep sigh.
“Now you must not think that all this was a
matter of indifference to the cadets; on the contrary.
The brothers had scarcely entered the Berlin Cadet.
School from the preparatory school (they came from
the one at Wahlstatt, I believe) when their status
was at once fixed: Big L was neglected, and Little
L was the universal favorite.
“Now with such boys it is an
odd thing: the big and the strong, they are the
leaders, and on whomsoever these bestow their favor,
with that boy all goes well. It also procures
for him respect from the others, and no one ventures
lightly to attack him. Such boys here
again nature stands right out much as it
is with the animals, before the biggest and strongest
all the rest must crouch.”
Fresh, vigorous puffs from the meerschaum
accompanied these words.
“When the cadets came down at
recreation time those who were good friends together
met and would go walking arm in arm around the ’Karreehof
and toward the court where the trees stood, and so
it was always until the trumpet sounded for return
“Big L well he
attached himself just wherever he could find attachment,
and stalked sullenly ahead by himself Little
L, on the contrary, almost before he could reach the
court was seized under the arm by two or three big
fellows and compelled to walk with them. And
they were Primaners at that. For ordinarily, you
must know, it never occurred to a Primaner to
go with a ‘Knapsack,’ or Plebe, from the
Sekunda; it was far beneath his dignity; but with Little
L it was different, there an exception was made.
And yet he was no less loved by the Sekundaner than
by the Primaner. One could see that in class,
where we Sekundaner boys, you know, were by ourselves.
In class we were ranged according to alphabet, so
that the two L’s sat together very nearly in
“In their lessons they stood
pretty nearly even. Big L had a good head for
mathematics; in other things he was not of much account,
but in mathematics he was, as you might say, a “shark,”
and Little L, who was not strong in mathematics, used
to “crib” from his brother. In all
other respects Little L was ahead of his older brother,
and in fact one of the best in his class. And
right here appeared the difference between the brothers;
Big L kept his knowledge to himself, and never prompted;
Little L, he prompted, he fairly shouted yes,
to be sure he did
A tender smile passed over the face of the old man.
“If any one on the front form
was called upon and did not know the answer Little
L hissed right across all the forms what he ought to
say: when it came the turn of the back benches
little L spoke the answer half-aloud to himself.
“There was there an old professor
from whom we took Latin. During nearly every
lesson he would stop short in the middle of the class;
’L No. II,’ he would say, ’you
are prompting again! And that, too, in a most
shameless fashion. Have a care, L No. II,
next time I will make an example of you. I say
it to you now for the last time!”
The old colonel laughed to himself.
“But it always remained the next to last time,
and the example was never made. For though Little
L was no model boy, more often quite the contrary,
he was loved by both teachers and officers as well but
how indeed could it have been otherwise? He was
always in high spirits, as if receiving a new present
every day, yet nothing ever got sent to him, for the
father of the two was in desperately poor circumstances,
a major in some infantry regiment or other, and the
boys received hardly a groschen (2.4 cents) for pocket
money. And always as if just peeled out of the
egg, so fresh, without and within eh,
Here the colonel paused, as if searching
for an expression that would contain the whole of
his love for this former little comrade.
“As if Nature had been for once
in a proudly good-humor,” he said, “and
had stood that little follow upright on his feet and
cried: ’There you have him!’
“Now this was to be observed,”
he continued, “that just so much as the brothers
differed, one from the other, the more they seemed
to cling to each other. In Big L, indeed, one
did not notice it so much; he was always sullen and
displayed no feeling; but Little L could never conceal
anything. And because Little L felt conscious
of this, how much better he himself was treated by
the other cadets, it made him sorry for his brother.
When we took our walks around the courtyard, then one
could see how Little L would look at his brother from
time to time, to see if he, too, had some one to walk
with. That he prompted his brother in class and
allowed him to copy from himself when sight-exercises
were dictated was all a matter of course; but he also
took care that no one teased his brother, and when
he observed him quietly from the side, as he often
did, without drawing his brother’s attention
to it, then his little face was quite noticeably sad,
almost as if he were a great care to him
The old man pulled hard at his pipe.
“All that I put together for myself afterward,”
said he, “when everything happened that was to
happen; he knew at the time much better than we did
how matters stood with Big L, and what was his brother’s
“This was, of course, understood
among the cadets, and it helped Big L none the more,
for he remained disliked after it as before, yet it
made Little L all the more popular, and he was generally
called ’Brother Love.’
“Now the two lived together
in one room, and Little L, as I said, was very clean
and neat; the big one, on the contrary, was very slovenly.
And so Little L fairly made himself servant to his
brother, and it turned out that he even cleaned the
brass buttons on his uniform for him, and just before
the ranks formed for roll-call would place himself,
with clothes-brush in hand, in front of his brother,
and once more regularly brush and scrub him especially
on those days when the ’cross lieutenant’
was on duty and received roll-call.
“Well, in the morning the cadets
had to go down into the court for roll-call, and there
the officer on duty went up and down between the lines
and inspected their uniforms to see if they were in
“And when the ‘cross lieutenant’
attended to this, then there reigned the most woful
anxiety throughout the company, for he always found
something. He would go behind the cadets and flip
at their coats with his finger to make the dust fly,
and if none came, then he would lift their coat-pockets
and snap at them, and so, beat our coats as much as
we would, there was sure to be left some dust lying
on them, and as soon as the ‘cross lieutenant’
saw it, he would sing out in a voice like that of
an old bleating ram: ‘Write him down for
Sunday report,’ and then Sunday’s day
off might go to the devil, and then that got to be
a very serious matter.”
The old colonel paused, took a vigorous
swallow of wine, and with the palm of his hand squeezed
the beard from his upper lip into his mouth and sucked
off the wine drops that sparkled on the hair.
Recollection of the “cross lieutenant”
made him plainly furious.
“When one considers what sort
of meanness it takes to so deprive a poor little fellow
of the Sunday holiday he has been hugging for a whole
week, and all for a trifle bah! it’s
downright whenever I have seen any one
annoying my men in later days that sort
of thing didn’t happen in my regiment; they
knew this, that I was there and would not tolerate
it. To be rough at times, ay, even to the
extreme if necessary, to throw one into the guard-house,
that does no harm : but to nag for
that it takes a mean skunk!”
“Very true!” observed
the waiter from the back part of the room, and thus
made it known that he was following the colonel’s
The old man calmed himself and went on with his story.
“Things went on this way for
a year, and then came the time for examinations, always
a very special occasion.
“The Primaners took their ensign’s
examination, and the Selektaners, who, as I have said,
Were called ‘Onions,’ the officer’s
examination, and as fast as any had passed the examination,
they were dismissed from the cadet corps and sent
home, and it came about that the second classmen,
or Sekundaner, who were to be promoted to first class,
still remained Sekundaner for a time.
“Well, this state of affairs
lasted until the new Sekundaner entered from the preparatory
school and the newly dubbed ‘Onions’ returned,
and then once more the wheelbarrow trudged along its
accustomed way. But in the meantime a kind of
disorder prevailed, more especially just after the
last of the Primaners had left they were
examined in sections, you know, and then despatched,
after which everything went pretty much at sixes and
“There was now in the dormitory
where the two brothers lived a certain Primaner,
a ‘swell,’ as he was called by the cadets,
and because he had made up his mind, as soon as he
should pass the examination and breathe the fresh
air again, to conduct himself like a fine gentleman,
he had had made for himself, instead of a sword-belt
like those the cadets procured from the institution
and wore, a special patent-leather belt of his own,
thinner and apparently finer than the ordinary regulation
belt. He was able to afford this much, you see,
for he had money sent to him from home. He had
displayed this belt about everywhere, for he was inordinately
proud of it, and the other cadets admired it.
“Now as the day arrived for
the Primaner to pack together his scattered belongings
in order to go home, he looked to buckle on his fine
belt and all at once the thing was missing.
“A great to-do followed; search
was made everywhere; the belt was not to be found.
The Primaner had not locked it in his wardrobe,
but had put it with his helmet in the dormitory behind
the curtain where the helmets of the other cadets
lay openly and from there it had disappeared.
“It could not possibly have
disappeared in any other way; some one must
have taken it.
“First they thought of the old
servant who was accustomed to blacken the boots of
the cadets, and keep the dormitory in order but
he was an old trusty non-commissioned officer, who
had never during the course of his long life allowed
himself to be guilty of the least irregularity.
“It surely could not be one
of the cadets? But who could possibly think such
a thing? So the matter remained a mystery, and
truly an unpleasant one. The Primaner swore
and scolded because he must now leave wearing the
ordinary institution belt; the other cadets in the
room were altogether silent and depressed; they had
at once unlocked all their wardrobes and offered to
let the Primaner search them, but he had merely
replied: ‘That’s nonsense, of course;
who could think of such a thing?’
“And now something remarkable
happened, and caused more sensation than all that
went before; all at once the Primaner got back
“He had just left his room with
his portmanteau in his hand, and had reached the stairs,
when he was hastily called from behind, and as he
turned about, Little L came running up, holding something
in his hand it was the Primaner’s
“Two others happened to be passing
at the time, and they afterward told how deathly pale
Little L was, and how every member of his body was
literally shaking. He had whispered something
into the ear of the Primaner, and the two had
exchanged all quietly a couple of words, and then
the Primaner affectionately stroked the other’s
head, took off his regulation belt, buckled on the
fine one and was gone; he had handed the regulation
belt over to Little L to carry back. Naturally
the story could now no longer be concealed, and it
all came out accordingly.
“A new assignment of rooms was
ordered; Big L was transferred; and just at the time
all this was taking place, he had completed his removal
to the new quarters.
“Afterward it occurred to the
cadets that he had kept strangely quiet about the
whole affair but one always hears the grass
growing after it has grown. So much, however,
was certain; he had allowed no one to help him, and
when Big L put his hands to the work, he became quite
rough toward his little brother. But Little L,
ready to help as he always was, did not allow himself
to be deterred by this, and as he was taking out of
his brother’s locker the gymnasium drill jacket
that was lying neatly folded together, he felt all
at once something hard within and it was
the belt of the Primaner.
“What the brothers said to each
other at the moment, or whether they spoke at all,
no one has ever learned; for Little L had still so
much presence of mind that he went noiselessly from
“But hardly was he out of the
door and in the corridor, when he threw the jacket
on the ground, and without once thinking of what might
be made out of the affair, he ran up behind the Primaner
with the belt.
“But now, of course, it could
no longer be helped; in five minutes the story was
the property of the whole company.
“Big L had allowed himself to
be driven by the devil and had become light-fingered.
Half an hour later it was whispered softly from room
to room: ’To-night, when the lamps are
turned out, general consultation in the company hall!’
“In every company quarters,
you must know, there was a larger room, where marks
were given out, and certain public actions proceeded
with, in what was called the company hall.
“So that evening, when the lamps
were out, and everything was quite dark, there was
a general movement from all the rooms, through the
corridor; not a door ventured to slam, all were in
stocking feet, for the captain and the officers still
knew nothing and were allowed to know nothing of the
meeting, else we would have brought a storm about our
“As we came to the door of the
company hall, there stood near the door against the
wall one as white as the plaster on the wall it
was Little L. At the same moment a couple took him
by the hands. ’Little L can come in with
us,’ they said; ‘he is not to blame.’
Only one of them all wished to oppose this; he was
a long, big fellow he was called name
of no consequence well, then, he was called
K. But he was overruled at once; Little L was taken
in with us, a couple of tallow candles were lit and
placed on the table, and now the consultation began.”
The colonel’s glass was empty
again. I filled it for him, and he took a long
swallow. “Over all this,” he went
on, “one can laugh now if one wills; but this
much I can say for us, we were not in a laughing mood,
but altogether dismal. A cadet a rascal to
us that was something incomprehensible. All faces
were pale, all speaking was but half aloud. Ordinarily
it was considered the most despicable piece of meanness
if one cadet reported another to the authorities but
when a cadet had done such a thing as to steal, then
he was for us no longer a cadet, and it was for this
reason that the consultation was being held, whether
we ought to report to the captain what Big L had done.
“Long K was the first to speak.
He declared that we ought to go at once to the captain
and tell him everything, for at such meanness all
consideration ceases. Now Long K was the biggest
and strongest boy in the company; his words, therefore,
made a marked impression, and besides, we were all
of his opinion at bottom.
“No one knew anything to object
to this, and so there fell a general silence.
All at once, however, the circle that had formed around
the table opened and Little L, who had till now been
flattening himself against the farthest corner of
the room, came forward into the centre. His arms
hung limp at the side of his body, and his face he
kept lowered to the ground; one saw that he wished
to say something, but could not find the courage.
“Long K was again laying down
the law. ‘L No. II,’ said he,
’has no right to speak here.’
“But this time he was not so
fortunate. He had always been hostile to the
two, no one quite knew why, especially Little L. Moreover,
he was not a bit popular, for as such youngsters have
once and for all a tremendously fine instinct, they
may have felt that in this long gawk lay hidden a
perfectly mean, cowardly, wretched spirit. He
was one of those who never venture to attack their
equals in size, but bully the smaller and weaker ones.
“At that broke out a whispering
on all sides: ’Little L shall speak!
All the more reason for him to speak.’
“As the little fellow, who was
still standing there, ever motionless and rigid, heard
how his comrades were taking his part, suddenly the
big tears rolled down his cheeks; he doubled his two
little fists and screwed them into his eyes and sobbed
so heart-breakingly that his whole body shook from
top to bottom and he could not utter a word.
“One of them went up to him and patted him on
“‘Take it easy,’ said he; ‘what
is it you wish to say?’
“Little L still kept on sobbing.
“‘If he is
shown up ’ he then broke out at long
intervals ’he will be dismissed from
the corps and then what will become of him?’
“There was silence everywhere;
we knew that the young one was perfectly right, and
that such would be the consequence if we reported him.
Added to this we also knew that the father was poor,
and involuntarily each thought of what his own father
would say if he should learn the same of his son.
“’But you must see yourself/
continued the cadet to Little L, ’that your
brother has done a very contemptible thing and deserves
punishment for it.’
“Little L nodded silently; his
feelings were entirely with those who were censuring
his brother. The cadet reflected a moment, then
he turned to the others.
“‘I make a proposition,’
said he; ’and if it be accepted we will not
disgrace L No. I for life. We will prove
on his body whether he has any honorable feelings
left. L No. I. himself shall choose whether
he wishes us to report him or whether we shall keep
the matter to ourselves cudgel him thoroughly for
it, and then let the affair be buried.’
“That was an admirable way out. All agreed
“The cadet laid his hand on
Little L’s shoulder. ‘Go along, then,’
said he, ‘and call your brother here.’
“Little L dried his tears and
nodded his head quickly then he was out
of the door and a moment after was back again, bringing
his brother with him.
“Big L ventured to look at no
one; like an ox that has been felled on the forehead,
he stood before his comrades. Little L stood behind
him, and never once did his eyes leave his brother’s
“The cadet who had made the
foregoing proposition began the trial of L No.
“‘Does he admit that he took the belt?’
“‘He admits it.’
“’Does he feel that he
has done something that has made him absolutely unworthy
of being a cadet any longer?’
“‘He feels it.’
“’Does he choose that
we report him to the captain or that we thrash him
soundly and that the matter shall then be buried?’
“‘He prefers to be soundly thrashed.’
“A sigh of relief went through the whole hall.
“It was determined to finish the matter at once
then and there.
“One of the boys was sent out
to fetch a rattan, such as we used for beating our
“While he was gone we tried
to induce Little L to leave the hall, so that he should
not be present at the execution.
“But he shook his head silently; he wished to
remain on hand.
“As soon as the rattan came,
Big L was made to lie face down on the table, two
cadets seized his hands and drew him forward, two others
took him by the feet so that his body lay stretched
out lengthwise. The tallow candles were taken
from the table and lifted up high, and the whole affair
had an absolutely gruesome look.
“Long K, because he was the
strongest, was to perform the execution; he took the
rattan in his hand, stepped to one side, and with the
force of his whole body let the cane come whistling
down on to Big L, who was clothed only in drill jacket
“The young fellow fairly rose
under the fearful blow and would have cried out; but
in a second Little L rushed up to him, took his head
in both hands and smothered it against himself.
he whispered to him; ’don’t scream, else
the whole affair will get out!’
“Big L swallowed down the cry
and choked and groaned to himself.
“Long K again lifted up the
cane, and a second swish resounded through the hall.
“The body of the culprit actually
writhed on the table, so that the cadets were scarcely
able to hold him down by his hands and feet. Little
L had wrapped both arms around the head of his brother,
and was crushing it with convulsive force against
himself. His eyes were wide open, his face like
the plaster on the wall, his whole body was quivering.
“Throughout the hall was a stillness
like death, so that one could only hear the wheezing
and puffing of the victim whom the little brother was
smothering against his breast.
“All eyes were hanging on the
little fellow; we all had a feeling that we could
not look on at it any longer.
“When, therefore, the third
blow had fallen and the whole performance repeated
itself just as before, a general excited whisper followed:
‘Now, it is enough strike no more!’
“Long K, who had become quite
red from the exertion, was raising his arm again for
the fourth blow, but with one accord, three or four
threw themselves between him and Big L, tore the rattan
from his grasp, and thrust him back.
“The execution was at an end.
“The cadet aforesaid raised his voice once more,
but only half aloud.
“‘Now, the affair is over
with and buried,’ said he, ’let each one
give his hand to L No. I., and let him that breathes
even a word of the matter be accounted a rascal.’
“A general ‘Yes, yes,’
showed that he had spoken entirely in accord with
the mind of the others. They stepped up to Big
L and stretched out their hands to him, but then,
as at a word of command, they threw themselves upon
Little L. There formed a regular knot about the lad,
first one and then another wished to grasp him by
the hand and shake it. Those standing at the
back stretched out their hands ’way across those
in front, some even climbed on to the table to get
at him; they stroked his head, patted him on the shoulder,
and with it all was a general whispering: ‘Little
L, you glorious rascal, you superb Little L.’”
The old colonel lifted his glass to
his mouth it was as if he were forcing
something down behind it. When he set it down
again, he drew a deep sigh from the bottom of his
“Boys like that,” said
he, “they have instinct instinct and
“The lights were turned out,
all stole hushed through the corridor back to their
rooms. Five minutes later every boy was lying
in his bed, and the affair was ended.
“The captain and the other officers
had heard not a sound of the whole matter.
“The affair was ended” the
voice of the speaker grew thick; he had buried both
hands in his trousers’ pockets and was gazing
before him through the fumes of the smoking cigar.
“So we thought that night, as
we lay in bed. Did Little L sleep that
night? In the days following, when we assembled
in class, it did not seem so. Before, it had
been as if an imp were sitting in the place where
the lad sat, and, like a rooster, had crowed it over
the whole class now it was as if there
were a void in the place so still and pale
he sat in his place.
“As when a man flicks the dust
from the wings of a butterfly so was it
with the little lad I can not describe it
“On afternoons one always saw
him now walking with his brother. He may have
felt that Big L would now find less companionship than
ever among the others so he provided company
for him. And there the two went, then, arm in
arm, always around about the Karreehof and across the
court with the trees in it, one as well as the other
with head bent to the ground, so that one scarcely
saw that they ever spoke a word.”
Again there came a pause in the narrative,
again I had to fill the empty glass of the colonel,
who smoked his cigar faster and faster.
“But all this,” he continued,
“would perhaps have worn itself out in course
of time and everything have gone on as before but
He laid his clenched fist on the table.
“There are people,” said
he, scowling, “who are like the poisonous weed
in the field, at which beasts nibble themselves to
death. With such people the rest poison themselves!
“So, then, one day we were having
lessons in physics. The teacher was showing us
experiments on the electric machine, and an electric
shock was to be passed through the whole class.
“To this end each one of us
had to give his hand to his neighbor, so as to complete
“As now Big L, who was sitting
next to Long K, held out his hand to him, the lubber
made a grimace as if he were about to touch a toad
and drew back his hand.
“Big L quietly shrank into himself
and sat there as if covered with shame. But at
the same instant Little L is up and out of his place,
over to his brother’s side, at whose place,
next to Long K, he seats himself, whose hand he grips
and smashes with all the force of his body against
the wooden form, so that the long gawk cries out with
“Then he grabbed Little L by
the neck and the two now began regularly to fight
in the middle of class.
“The teacher, who had been tinkering
all this time at his machine, now rushed up with coat-tails
“‘Now! Now! Now!’ he cried.
“He was, you must know, an old
man for whom we had not exactly a great respect.
“The two were so interlocked
that they did not break away, even though the professor
was standing directly in front of them.
“‘What disgraceful conduct!’
cried the professor. ’What disgraceful
conduct! Will you separate at once!’
“Long K made a face as if he were about to cry.
“‘L No. II began
it,’ he said, ’though I did nothing at
all to provoke him.’
“Little L stood straight up
in his place for we always had to stand
when a professor spoke to us big drops of
perspiration coursed slowly down either cheek; he
said not a word; he had bitten his teeth together
so hard that one could see the muscles of his jaw through
the thin cheeks. And as he heard what Long K
said a smile passed over his face I have
never seen anything like it.
“The old professor expatiated
at some length in beautiful set phrases over such
disgraceful behavior, spoke of the ’utter depths
of abysmal bestiality, which such conduct betrayed’ we
let him talk on; our thoughts were with Little L and
“And scarcely was the lesson
at an end and the professor out of the door, when
from the back a book came flying through the air the
whole length of the class straight at the skull of
Long K. And as he turned angrily toward the aggressor,
from the other side he received another book on his
head, and now there broke out a general howling:
’Knock him down! Knock him down!’
The whole class sprang up over tables and benches
and there was a rush for Long K, whose hide was now
so thoroughly tanned that it fairly smoked.”
The old colonel, pleased, smiled grimly
to himself and contemplated his hand as it still lay
with fist doubled on the table.
“I helped,” said he, “and
with hearty good-will I can tell you.”
It was as if his hand had forgotten
that it had grown fifty years older; as the fingers
closed convulsively one could see that it was in spirit
once again pummeling Long K.
“But as people must belong once
and forever to their own kind,” he continued
his narrative, “so this Long K had to be naturally
a revengeful, spiteful, malicious, canaille.
He would much rather have gone to the captain and
resentfully told him everything, but in our presence
he did not dare; for that he was too cowardly.
“But that he had received a
thrashing before the whole class, and that Little
L was to blame for it, for that he did not forgive
“One afternoon, then, as recreation
hour came round again, the cadets went walking in
the courts; the two brothers, as usual, by themselves;
Long K linked arm in arm with two others.
“To get from the Karreehof to
the other court where the trees were, one had to pass
under one of the wings of the main building, and it
was a rule that the cadets must not pass through arm
in arm, so as not to obstruct the passageway.
“On this particular afternoon,
as ill-luck would have it, Long K, as he was about
to pass through with his two chums from the Karreehof
to the other court, met the two brothers at the corridor,
and they, deep in their thoughts, had forgotten to
let go of one another.
“Long K, although the affair
was no concern of his, when he saw this stood still,
opened his eyes wide and his mouth still wider, and
called out to the two: ‘What does this
mean,’ said he, ’that you go through here
arm in arm? Do you intend to block the way for
honest people, you set of thieves?’”
Here the colonel interrupted himself.
“That is now fifty years ago,”
said he, “and more but I remember
it as if it had happened yesterday.
“I was just going with two others
from the Karreehof, and suddenly we heard a scream
come from the corridor I can not describe
at all how it sounded when a tiger or other
wild beast breaks loose from his cage and throws himself
on some one, then, I think, one would hear something
“It was so horrible that we
three let our arms drop and stood there quite paralyzed.
And not only we, but everything in the Karreehof stopped
and suddenly grew quiet. And then everything that
had two legs to run with kept rushing up at full speed
toward the corridor, so that it fairly swarmed and
thickened black around the corridor. I, naturally,
with the rest and what I saw there
“Little L had climbed on to
Long K like a wildcat nothing else and
with his left hand hanging on by the latter’s
collar so that the tall gawk was half-choked, with
his right fist he kept up a crack crack and
crack right in the middle of Long K’s face, wherever
it happened to strike, so that the blood was pouring
from Long K’s nose like a waterfall.
“Now from the other court came
the officer who was on duty and broke his way through
the cadets. ‘L No. II, will you leave
off at once!’ he thundered for he
was a man tall as a tree and had a voice that could
be heard from one end of the Academy to the other,
and we had a wholesome respect for him.
“But Little L neither heard
nor saw, but kept on belaboring Long K in the face
still more, and with it came again and again that fearful
uncanny shriek that thrilled through us all, marrow
“When the officer saw that he-took
hold himself, gripped the little fellow by both shoulders,
and by main force tore him away from Long K.
“As soon as he stood upon his
feet, however, Little L rolled up the whites of his
eyes, fell his full length to the earth, and writhed
on the ground in a convulsion.
“We had never yet seen anything
like it, and were shocked and, stared at it in absolute
“But the officer, who had been
bending down over him, now straightened himself:
‘The lad certainly has a most serious convulsion,’
said he. ’Forward, two take hold of his
feet’ he himself lifted him under
the arms ’over to the infirmary!’
“And so they bore Little L over to the infirmary.
“While they were carrying him
there we went up to Big L to learn just what had happened,
and from Big L and the other two who had been with
Long K we then heard the whole story.
“Long K was standing there like
a whipped dog and wiping the blood from his nose,
and had it not been for this nothing would have saved
him from receiving another murderous thrashing.
But now all turned silently away from him, no one
ever spoke another word to him; he made himself a
The top of the table resounded as
the old colonel struck it with his fist.
“How long the others kept him
in Coventry,” said he, “I know not.
I sat in class with him for a whole year longer and
spoke never a single word more to him. We entered
the army at the same time as ensigns; I did not give
him my hand at parting; do not know whether he has
become an officer; have never looked for his name
in the army register; don’t know whether he
has fallen in one of the wars, whether he still lives
or is dead for me he was no more, is no
more the only thing I regret is that the
person ever came into my life at all and that I can
not root out the remembrance of him forever, like
a weed one flings into the oven!
“The next morning came bad news
from the infirmary: Little L was lying unconscious
in a burning, nervous fever. In the afternoon
his older brother was called in, but the little fellow
no longer recognized him.
“And in the evening, as we all
sat at supper in the big common dining-hall, a rumor
came like a great black bird with muffled
beat of wings it passed through the hall that
Little L was dead.
“As we came back from the dining-hall
into company quarters, our captain was standing at
the door of the company hall; we were made to go in,
and there the captain announced to us that our little
comrade, L No. II, had fallen asleep that night,
never to wake again.
“The captain was a very good
man he fell in 1866, a brave hero he
loved his cadets, and as he gave us the news, he had
to wipe the tears from his beard. Then he ordered
us all to fold our hands; one of us had to step forward
and before all say ‘Our Father’ out loud
The colonel bowed his head.
“Then for the first time,”
said he, “I felt how really beautiful is the
“And so, the next afternoon,
the door that led from the infirmary to the outdoor
gymnasium opened, the hateful, ominous door.
“We were made to step down into
the court of the infirmary; we were to see once more
our dead comrade.
“Our steps shuffled with a dull
and heavy sound as we were marched over there; no
one spoke a word; one heard only a heavy breathing.
“And there lay little L, poor little L!
“In his white little shirt he
lay there, his hands folded on his breast, his golden
locks curled about his forehead, which was white like
wax; the cheeks so sunken that the beautiful, delicate
little nose projected quite far and in
his face the expression
The old colonel was silent, the breath
came choking from his bosom.
“I have grown to be an old man,”
he went on falteringly “I have seen
men lying on the field of battle men on
whose faces stood written distress and despair such
heart sorrow as I saw in the face of this child I
have never seen before or since never never
A deep stillness took possession of
the wine-room where we were sitting. As the old
colonel became silent and spoke no word more, the waiter
rose softly from his corner and lit the gas-jet that
hung over our heads; it had grown quite dark.
I took up the wine bottle once more,
but it was now almost empty just one tear
still crept slowly out one last drop of
the good blood.