Authors: Hermann Hesse
At that hour I have been speaking of, this sense of dread once again struck me as I drew nearer to the glass door at the top of the stairs, where the light grew brighter and brighter. The feeling began with a tightness in my stomach that rose to my throat and there became a choking or gagging sensation. Along with this at such moments, and now also, I felt a painful sense of embarrassment, a distrust of all observers, an urge to be alone and to hide.
With this repulsive feeling, truly the feeling of a criminal, I entered the hall and then the living room. I sensed that the devil was afoot today, that something was going to happen. I sensed it as the barometer senses a change in the pressure of the air, with utterly helpless passivity. Ah, here it was again, the inexpressible horror. The demon was skulking through the house. Original sin gnawed at my heart. Vast and invisible, a ghost stood behind every wall, a father and judge.
As yet I knew nothing. It was all mere foreboding, a gnawing, anticipatory uneasiness. In such situations it was often best to fall ill, to throw up and go to bed. Then the dangerous time sometimes passed harmlessly; Mother or Sister came in, I would be given tea and felt surrounded by loving solicitude. I could cry or sleep, and afterwards waken sound and cheerful in a wholly transformed, relaxed, and bright world.
My mother was not in the living room, and only the maid was in the kitchen. I decided to go up to Father's study at the top of a narrow flight of stairs. Although I was also afraid of him, it was sometimes good to turn to him whom I had to ask forgiveness for so many things. With Mother it was easier and simpler to find comfort; but Father's comfort was more valuable. It meant peace with the judging conscience, reconciliation and a new covenant with the good powers. After nasty scenes, interrogations, confessions, and punishments I had often emerged good and pure from Father's room, punished and reproved, to be sure, but full of fresh resolutions, strengthened by the pact with power against the evil enemy. I decided to visit Father and tell him that I was feeling ill.
And so I climbed the short flight of stairs that led to the study. These stairs, with their own special wallpaper smell and the dry sound of the light, hollow wooden treads, were infinitely more fraught with significance and fatefulness than even the entrance hall. Many important causes had led me up these steps; a hundred times I had dragged dread and a tormented conscience up them, or defiance and wild anger, and quite often I had returned down them with absolution and new security. In the dwelling below, mother and child were at home; the atmosphere was mild there. Up here power and spirit dwelt; up here were the courthouse and temple and the “realm of the father.”
Rather timidly, as always, I pressed down the old-fashioned latch and opened the door halfway. The smell of the paternal study flowed toward me, the familiar smell of books and ink, attenuated by blue air from half-open windows, by white, clean curtains, a faint dash of cologne water, and an apple on the desk. But the room was empty.
With a sensation half of disappointment and half of relief, I entered. I checked my thumping footsteps, walked on tiptoe, as we often had to up here when Father was napping or had a headache. And as soon as I became aware of how quietly I was moving, my heart began to pound and I again felt, intensified, the anxious pressure in my stomach and my throat. I moved on, skulking and frightened, took a step and another step, and already I had ceased to be a harmless visitor and petitioner and had become an intruder. More than once I had secretly crept into Father's two rooms during his absence, had explored his secret realm, and twice I had filched something from it.
The memory of these thefts came at once and filled me, and I knew at once that disaster was upon me. Now something was going to happen, now I was doing something forbidden and evil. I had no thought of flight! Rather, I did think of it, thought fervently and longingly of running away, down the stairs and into my own room or into the gardenâbut I knew that I was not going to, that I could not. How I wished that my father might stir in the adjacent room and come in and break the terrible spell that held me in its grip. If only he would come! If only he could come, scolding for all I cared, but come before it was too late!
I coughed to announce my presence, and when there was no answer I called softly: “Papa!” All remained still; the many books on the walls gave no answer. A pane of the casement window moved in the wind, casting a glint of sunlight on the floor. No one redeemed me, and inside myself I had no freedom to do anything but the demon's bidding. A feeling of criminality contracted my stomach and made my fingertips cold; my heart fluttered with dread. As yet I had no idea what I would do. I knew only that it would be something naughty.
Now I was at the desk. I picked up a book and read a title in English which I did not understand. I hated Englishâmy father always spoke it with Mother when we children were not supposed to understand, and also when they were quarreling. In a bowl lay all sorts of small objects, toothpicks, pen points, tacks. I took two of the pen points and pocketed them. God knows why; I did not need them, had no lack of pens. I did it only to obey the compulsion that was almost choking me, the compulsion to do something bad, to harm myself, to load myself with guilt. I leafed through my father's papers, saw a letter he had begun, read the words, “We and the children are very well, thank God,” and the Latin letters of his handwriting looked at me like so many eyes.
Then I stole softly into the bedroom. There stood Father's iron army bed, his brown house slippers under it, a handkerchief on the night table. I inhaled the paternal air in the cool, bright room, and the image of my father rose plainly before my eyes, while reverence and rebellion contested in my overladen heart. For moments I hated him, remembering with spite and malice how he sometimes, on headache days, lay still and flat on his low cot, stretched out at great length, a wet towel on his forehead, sometimes sighing. Certainly I had an inkling that he too, for all his power, had no easy life; that he, of whom I stood in such awe, also experienced timidity and doubts of himself. In a moment my strange hatred evaporated and was followed by pity and sentiment. But in the meanwhile I had opened one of the drawers of his chest. There his linens lay in neat layers, and a bottle of cologne water, which he was fond of. I wanted to sniff it, but the bottle was still unopened and firmly capped; I put it back. Next to it I found a small round box of lozenges which had a licorice taste. I popped a few of them into my mouth. A sense of disappointment overcame me, and at the same time I was glad not to have found and taken anything more.
Already renouncing and preparing to leave, I playfully pulled at one more drawer, my heart somewhat lightened, so that I could promise myself to replace the two stolen pen points. Perhaps a return to grace was possible. Perhaps all could be made good again and I would be saved. God's hand above me might be stronger than all temptation.â¦
I peeped into the crack of the barely opened drawer. Oh, if only socks or shirts or old newspapers had been in it. But there was the temptation, and instantly the tension and the spell of fear returned; my hands trembled and my heart pounded madly. I was looking into a wicker basket, of Indian or some other exotic origin, and there I saw something surprising, alluring: a whole round of pale, sugar-coated dried figs!
I picked it up. It was wonderfully heavy. Then I took two or three figs, put one into my mouth, the others in my pocket. All my fear and excitement had in the end not been in vain. I could no longer leave here feeling redeemed and assuaged; so at least I did not want to leave empty-handed. I took another two or three figs from the ring, which was scarcely lightened, and then a few more, and when my pockets were filled and more than half the round had disappeared, I arranged the remaining figs more loosely on the somewhat sticky rope so that fewer seemed to be missing. Then, in sudden panic, I banged the drawer shut and ran away, through both rooms, down the small staircase and into my room, where I stood still, leaning against my little desk, my knees weak and my lungs gasping for breath.
Soon afterwards our dinner bell rang. With my head empty, filled with depression and disgust, I stuffed the figs into my bookshelf, hiding them behind books, and went to table. At the dining-room door I noticed that my hands were sticky. I washed them in the kitchen. In the dining room I found everyone already at table. I quickly said Good day, Father said grace, and I bent over my soup. I was not hungry; every spoonful was hard to swallow. And beside me sat my sisters, my parents opposite me, all of them bright and cheerful and honorable. I alone, the only criminal, sat wretchedly among them, alone and unworthy, fearing every friendly look, the taste of the figs still in my mouth. Had I closed the bedroom door upstairs? And the drawer?
Now the misery was upon me. I would have let my hand be chopped off if that could have restored my figs to the drawer. I decided to throw the figs away, to take them to school and give them away. If only I were rid of them, if only I never had to see them again!
“You're not looking well today,” my father said across the table. I stared at my plate, feeling his eyes on my face. Now he would see it. He saw everything, always. Why was he torturing me beforehand? He might as well lead me away right then and there and beat me to death for all I cared.
“Is something the matter with you?” I heard his voice again. I lied; I said I had a headache.
“You must lie down for a little after eating,” he said. “How many more hours of school do you have this afternoon?”
“Well, gym will do you no harm. But eat something; force yourself a little. It will pass.”
I squinted across the table. My mother said nothing, but I knew that she was looking at me. I ate my soup, fought with the meat and vegetables, poured myself two glasses of water. Nothing more happened. I was left alone. When my father spoke the closing grace at the end of the meal, “Lord, we thank thee, for thou art kindly and thy goodness lasteth eternally,” something severed me from the bright, holy, confident words and from all who sat at table with me. My folding my hands was a lie, my pious posture a blasphemy.
When I stood up, Mother brushed her hand over my hair and let her palm rest on my forehead for a moment to see whether it was hot. How bitter all that was!
In my room I stood before the bookshelf. The morning had not deceived me; all the signs had been correct. This had become a day of misfortune, the worst I had ever experienced; no human being could endure anything worse. If anything worse ever came upon a person, he would have to take his life. Poison was the best way, or hanging. It was better anyhow to be dead than alive. Everything was so wrong and ugly. I stood there thinking these thoughts, and abstractedly reached out for one of the hidden figs and ate it, and then several more, without really knowing that I was doing it.
I noticed our savings bank, standing on the shelf beneath the books. It was a cigar box that I had nailed closed. With my penknife I had nicked out a crude slit in the lid for the coins. The slit was crudely cut; splinters of wood bristled from it. Even that I could not do properly. I had playmates who could do that sort of thing laboriously and patiently and properly, so that it looked like a cabinetmaker's work. But I always botched such things; I was in a hurry and never finished anything neatly. I was like that with my woodworking, like that with my handwriting and my drawing, like that with my butterfly collection and everything. I was hopeless. And now I stood here and had stolen again, worse than ever before. I still had the pen points in my pocket. What for? Why had I taken themâbeen compelled to take them? Why did I have to do something I did not want to do at all?
A single coin rattled in the cigar box, Oskar Weber's ten-pfennig piece. Since then nothing had been added. This savings-bank business was another one of my typical undertakings! Everything came to nothing, everything went wrong; whatever I began bogged down at the start. The devil take this idiotic savings bank! I wanted to have nothing more to do with it.
This period between lunch and the afternoon session of school was always wretched and hard to get through on days like today. On good days, on peaceful, sensible, pleasant days, these two hours were lovely and longed for. Then I would either read an Indian book in my room or run back to the schoolyard immediately after eating. There I would always find a few enterprising classmates and we would play, shouting and running and getting hot, until the ringing of the bell called us back to a completely forgotten “reality.” But on days like today I did not want to play with anyone, and how could I silence the devil in my heart? I saw what was coming ânot yet, not today, but soon, perhaps the next time. One day my fate would descend fully upon me. All that was lacking was a trifle, a mere trifle more of dread and suffering and perplexity, and then it would overflow, then all would end in horror. One day, on just such a day as today, I would be wholly drowned in evil; in defiance and rage and because of the senseless unbearableness of this life I would do something ghastly and decisive, something ghastly but liberating which would forever make an end of the dread and torment. I did not know what it would be; but fantasies and preliminary obsessions about it had more than once run confusingly through my head, notions of crimes with which I would take revenge upon the world and at the same time abandon and destroy myself. Sometimes I thought I would set fire to our house. I saw monstrous flames beating their wings into the night, consuming houses and streets; the whole city would flare gigantically against the black sky. Or at other times the crime was revenge against my father, murder, a cruel killing. But I would then behave like that criminal, that one real criminal, whom I had once seen being led through the streets of our town. It was a burglar who had been caught and was being led to court, handcuffed, a stiff bowler askew on his head, a policeman in front of him and behind him. This man who was being driven through the streets and through a huge crowd who shouted a thousand curses, nasty jokes, and malignant wishes at him, this man in no way resembled those timorous wretches I sometimes saw being accompanied across the street by a patrolman. Most of them were only poor journeymen who had been caught begging. But this man was no journeyman and did not look foolish, timid, and weepy, nor was he taking refuge in a sheepish stupid grin, such as I had also seen. This man was a real criminal and wore his somewhat crushed hat boldly on a defiant and unbowed head. He was pale and smiling with quiet contempt; alongside such a man the populace reviling him became a rabble. At the time I myself had shouted with the rest, “They've caught him, he ought to be hanged!” But then I saw his upright, proud posture, the way he held his fettered hands in front of him, and the way he wore that bowler hat like a fantastic crown on his head, and the way he smiledâand I fell silent. But I too would smile like this criminal and hold my head stiffly when they led me into court and to the scaffold and when all the people around me crowded forward and shouted insultsâI would say neither yes nor no but would simply hold my tongue and despise them.