My two old gentlemen sat half in the shadow of the green lampshade, moldering ruins both, from long past days, bowed and trembling, gazing before them with the dull glance of the dimming eyes of age. One, the host, is evidently an old officer, as you would recognize at once from his carefully wound cravat, his pointed, sharply cut mustache, and his martial eyebrows. He sits holding the handle of his roller chair like a crutch tightly clasped in both hands. He is motionless except for his jaws, which move up and down ceaselessly with the motion of chewing.
The other, who sits near him on the sofa, a tall, spare figure, his narrow shoulders crowned by the high domed head of a thinker, draws occasional thin puffs of smoke from a long pipe which is just about to go out. Among the myriad wrinkles of his smooth shaven, dried up face, framed in a wreath of snow white curls, there lurked a quiet, gentle smile, a smile which the peace of resignation alone can bring to the face of age.
The two were silent. In the perfect stillness of the room the soft bubbling of the burning oil mingled with the soft bubbling of the tobacco juice. Then, from the darkness of the background, the hanging clock began to announce hoarsely the eleven hour. “This is the hour when she would begin to make the punch,” said the man with the domed forehead. His voice soft, with a slight vibration.
“Yes, this is the time,” repeated the other. The sound of his speech was hard, as if the rattle of command still lingered in it.
“I did not think it would be so desolate without her,” said the first speaker again.
The host nodded, his jaws moving.
“She made the New Year’s punch for us four and forty times,” continued his friend.
“Yes, it’s as long as that since we moved to Berlin, and you became our friend,” said the old soldier.
“Last year at this time we were all so jolly together,” said the other.
“She sat in the armchair there, knitting socks for Paul’s eldest. She worked busily, saying she must finish it by twelve o’clock. And she did finish it. Then we drank our punch and spoke quite calmly of death. And two months later they carried her away. As you know, I have written a fat book on the ‘Immortality of the Idea.’ You never cared much about it—I don’t care for it myself now that your wife is dead. The entire Idea of the Universe means nothing to me now.”
Husband of Dead Woman
“Yes, she was a good wife,” said the husband of the dead woman; “she cared for me well. When I had to go out for service at five o’clock in the morning, she was always up before me to look after my coffee. Of course she had her faults. When she got into philosophizing with you—him.”
“You never understood her,” murmured the other, the corners of his mouth trembling in controlled resentment. But the glance that rested long on his friend’s face was gentle and sad, as if a secret guilt pressed upon his soul.
After a renewed pause, he began:
“Franz, there is something I want to tell you, something that has long troubled me, something that I do not want to carry with me to my grave.”
“Well, fire away,” said the host, taking up the long pipe that stood beside his chair.
“There was once—something—between your wife and me.”
The host let his pipe fall back again, and stared at his friend with wide opened eyes.
“No jokes, please, doctor,” he said finally.
“It is bitter earnest, Franz,” replied the other. “I have carried it about with me these forty years, but now it is high time to have It out with you.”
“Do you mean to say that the dead woman was untrue to me?” cried the husband angrily.
“For shame, Franz,” said his friend with a soft, sad smile.