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THERE WAS A KNOCK on the door. The commissioner awoke, and in response to his absentminded "Come in," a waiter abruptly appeared at the door with his breakfast, which he had ordered as usual for eight o'clock. Robert's first thought was that he must have forgotten to lock the door again last night. But he hardly had time to indulge his irritation at this latest evidence of his absentmindedness-the morning mail stacked on the breakfast tray next to the teapot, butter, and honey caught his attention. Beneath the usual mail he found a letter from his brother expressing his pleasure in the anticipation of Robert's upcoming visit. And, after a report of trivial family matters, he reported with studied casualness his recent appointment to the rank of associate professor. Robert dashed off a telegram of hearty congratulations and had it rushed to the telegraph office. Even if professional duties and other circumstances often kept the two brothers apart for days and weeks at a time, something always came up which, precisely because of its relative insignificance, made them both feel the unquestionable and indissoluble nature of their bond. Such occasions made the younger Robert feel that all of his other past and present relationships were of lesser importance-even his early marriage to a charming woman, now long deceased. More and more he was starting to believe that the sibling relationship of brother to brother was not only the best and most precious prize of his own life, but was generally the only relationship that was by nature ultimately lasting-more lasting than the relationship of child to parent, which was destined all too soon to be lost to age and death, and more lasting than that of parents to children, which-though Robert, to be sure, had no experience of this himself-was destined to be lost, if not to others, then surely to youth itself. Most particularly, it remained at all times free from those ominous clouds which, rising unexpectedly from the dark depth of the soul, commonly threatened the relationship between husband and wife.
So Robert regarded his brother's letter, arriving as it did now, on the day of his departure, as a favorable omen. He felt wonderfully strengthened in his hopes for a future that would inaugurate a new epoch of his life after this period of unrest.
The sun was already high in the sky when Robert finished packing and left his room. At this hour most of the guests were either out swimming or taking a walk and therefore it was very quiet in the vicinity of the hotel. Robert walked out on the wide stone pier that stretched far into the water and had a bright little steamer taking its afternoon siesta tethered against it. He looked at the almost-motionless white, yellow, and red sails that glistened in the canal; finally he let his gaze wander northward, where the gradually widening straits hinted at the open sea. Baring his head to the direct rays of sun, he breathed in deeply with open mouth to taste the tang of salt on his tongue, and he luxuriated in the balmy air that brought this southern island a summer warmth even on such late October days. Gradually the feeling crept over him that the moment he was experiencing now was really a moment long past; that he himself, as he stood here on the landing, hat in hand and lips parted, was a blurry image of his own remembering. He wished he could hold on to this feeling, which came over him now and not for the first time, and which he experienced not as frightening but as liberating. But the feeling disappeared in the very act of his wishing it to continue. And suddenly he felt at odds with the world around him: sky, sea, and air had become alien, cold, and distant. The glorious moment had faded away into insignificance.
Robert left the pier and took one of the narrow, seldom-used trails that led to the interior of the island through tangled underbrush growing beneath pines and oaks. Yet this landscape too now seemed to him odorless and dry, stripped of its usual charm. Suddenly he was glad that the hour of his departure was drawing near, and lively visions of urban winter pleasures surfaced in his mind, pleasures he had long ago ceased to care about. He saw himself at the theatre, in a comfortable armchair in a loge, engrossed in a light comedy; he saw himself strolling along crowded, brightly illuminated streets, between tempting window displays of precious jewels and leather goods; and finally he saw his own figure, somewhat refreshed and rejuvenated, in the quiet corner of a comfortable, elegant cafi alongside a feminine creature to whom his imagination involuntarily gave the charming features of Alberta. For the first time since their parting he thought of her now with some regret. He asked himself if it had indeed been wise of him to step aside in favor of the young American whom she would certainly have forgotten in a few days once she left his dangerous presence. And he wondered if in that evening conversation in the woods by Lake Lucerne, it had not been his duty to warn her against, rather than advise her to accept, a proposal of marriage that, despite all the passion involved, had to be viewed with some suspicion since it resulted from an acquaintance of only a few days. But Robert did not fool himself-he knew that his momentary discomfort was due less to belated reproaches of conscience than to the reawakening of his senses. And he was grateful for this, however painful it was at the moment.
Having come back to the hotel somewhat later than he had intended, he had his lunch alone in front of one of the wide bay windows in the dining room with a view of the sea, as was his custom. Afterward he made his polite farewells to some of his spa acquaintances and finally sat down for a few minutes at the table of the two Rolf ladies who were having their afternoon coffee on the beach terrace. Frdulein Paula, to whom Robert had paid no particular attention during his stay on the island (the society of unmarried ladies of good family having little attraction for him), regarded him today with an interest that made him thoughtful. When, as he took his leave, he kissed the hand not only of the still beautiful, somewhat haughty mother, but also-contrary to his usual custom-that of the daughter, he felt on his brow the warm glow of an intimate, friendly glance that intensified as it encountered his.
He went into the music room and struck a few chords on the badly out-of-tune piano, but soon, oppressed by the stuffiness of the room, whose drawn blinds trapped the heat of the sultry afternoon sun, he left the room. Walking back and forth on the gleaming white gravel beachfront, he felt painfully the unfathomable emptiness of the wasted hours before a scheduled departure. So he decided that instead of waiting around until evening for the regular steamer, he would make the short trip across the channel to the mainland train station now, while there was still full daylight, in one of the small motorboats. There, until just before the departure of the train, he strolled about the winding, hilly streets of the seaport whose notable sites he had meant to visit every day but had postponed just as often until now, the last hours of his stay. As he stood on the top step of the ruined Roman arena, surrounded by the fading light of day, the evening seemed to rise up to him from the depths of the immense bowl like a dark admonition.
As the train left the station, Robert tarried at the window of his compartment and took a last unemotional look at the island shrouded in a pale, reddish grey mist, and at the sea, where the violet afterglow of the setting sun floated in distant waves. The train coughed slowly upward between scraggly vineyards toward the limestone plateau near Trieste, then darted through a long tunnel into a twilight landscape of rocky bluffs where the horizon contained a suggestion, but no longer a view, of the sea. Only now did Robert stretch out on his bunk, exhausted by his wandering through the uneven and ill-paved streets of the old seaport. He sought to recapture the pleasant feeling of anticipation which, as recently as this morning during his walk, had moved and almost heartened him. What he found, however, was no longer delight but rather a strange anxiety, as though he were being carried toward a crisis involving a significant, serious decision. Was it the nearness of his homeland that made itself felt in such an undesirable way? Was he destined to return home just as disconsolate as he had left? Would he now, after the many restful and easy moments of the last few months, be overcome once more by that incomprehensible something that could hardly be captured in thought-let alone in words-and that seemed ominously to threaten something worse?
Had the doctors been mistaken or had they deliberately deceived him when they claimed that six months of distracting travel would completely cure him? True, Dr. Leinbach, his friend from boyhood, was always inclined to take his patients' symptoms lightly; and it was hardly reassuring that he claimed to have had them all himself. But it was out of the question that Otto would have taken on the responsibility of sending his only brother away all by himself for half a year if he had believed him to be seriously ill. At the same time, however, Robert had to ask himself-and not for the first time-whether he had really fully revealed himself to his brother; or whether he had, even in that last consultation with him, under the constraint of a peculiar inhibition, painted his condition as less dangerous than he really felt it to be, in the unconscious hope of getting a lighter judgment by doing so.
Judgment. That was the word that forced itself upon his mind, and it was the appropriate one. Because from childhood on he had, in spite of his superficially more brilliant qualities, felt himself to be of less value than his brother; and he could not conceal from himself the fact that Otto viewed his way of life with indulgence, perhaps, but also with impatience and disapproval. And Robert understood completely. Otto's heavy responsibilities, the seriousness of his profession, in which matters of life and death were at stake, his steady and almost self-denying, quiet family life-all of this so exalted him in Robert's eyes that his own existence, by contrast, even though confined by the obligations of his office, often appeared to him to be without real honor or deeper meaning.
To be wholeheartedly welcomed by his brother as cured, perhaps even as healthier than before, seemed to him the best welcome that home could offer. That this eager anticipation of a happy reunion had transformed itself gradually into an ever-more-restless anxiety had to have hidden causes-causes that Robert found himself unable to resist exploring. He felt a memory dully yet irresistibly rising from the depths of his soul, as though it were no longer content to remain in its deceptive sleep of many years; and a word began to resound in him that at first did not dare reveal its meaning. He deliberately whispered the word once, twice, then fifty times over, as if in this way he could rob it of its meaning and its power. And indeed it gradually became more and more empty and meaningless, until in the end it was nothing more than a random sequence of letters, arbitrarily strung together and no more meaningful than the rumble of the wheels beneath the homeward-rushing train where the sound of it mingled and was finally lost completely as he sank gradually into sleep.
When Robert climbed into a carriage at the train station in pouring rain, he first gave the coachman the address of his former apartment, which he had given up before leaving on his trip. Only then, remembering, did he name the old hotel where he had reserved a room. Hidden behind a church in the city center, between tall, gloomy buildings, it didn't have the friendly and festive appearance with which the newer hotels greeted the traveler. But Robert had chosen this hotel not only because his means, though still sufficient for necessities, didn't permit a lengthy stay in one of the modern hotels, but also because it was here, in a room on the fourth floor, where he had long ago spent many happy hours in the company of a long-dead friend whose mistress had lived here. His memory, strangely enough, had preserved an image of this hotel as a small, antique palais; but now he looked in vain for traces of the faded splendor that would have induced (or at least favored) such an illusion back then. He found neither the artistic decorations on the iron banisters nor the baroque reliefs he expected to find on the corridor ceilings; and the stair carpet, thin and tattered, now shimmered a faded and shabby purple red. But the room he was shown, with its high vaulted ceiling and its two wide windows, comfortably furnished, with a view of the green, patina-covered cupola of the church directly opposite, compensated for his first bleak impression. He had his luggage brought up and at once set about giving the hotel room a little touch of horniness with the help of a few trifles he always carried with him on trips-a briefcase, a letter holder, a paper knife, an ashtray, and the like. Afterward he went into the bathroom, which betrayed all too obviously that it had been converted to its present purpose only as a reluctant concession to the demands of a new age. A yellowish lamp attached to the ceiling spread a wan light in the windowless room, and the oval mirror that hung on the wall in a polished, gilded frame had a crack running from top to bottom. As was his custom, Robert remained in the bathtub for a rather long time; then, with the rough white robe slung over his shoulders, he walked over to the mirror and found his beardless, narrow face quite refreshed, even young looking for his forty-three years. He was just about to turn away satisfied when an alien eye seemed to regard him enigmatically from the cloudy glass. He bent over and thought he noticed that his left eyelid drooped lower than his right. He was a little shocked; he examined it with his fingers; he blinked, pressed his eyelids tightly shut, and opened them again. But the difference between the two eyes remained. He hastily dressed himself, walked up to the larger mirror on the wall between the two windows, opened his eyelids as wide as he could, and was forced to admit that his left eyelid didn't obey his will as quickly as his right. But there was nothing wrong with the eye itself, and the pupil responded to light; and since Robert then remembered that he had slept the entire night on his left side, he felt he had found a sufficient reason for the weakness of his eyelid. Nevertheless he decided to consult Dr. Leinbach or Otto tomorrow.
Excerpted from Desire and Delusion by Arthur Schniztler Copyright © 2004 by Arthur Schniztler. Excerpted by permission.
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