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The Red Countess

Hermynia Zur Mühlen

4. Feuilletons and Fairy Tales: A Sampling

Death of a Shade

Hermynia Zur Mühlen
Traduction de Lionel Gossman

Texte intégral

1“Have you heard,” I was asked by an acquaintance, “that Perdita W. shot herself?”

2I nodded. “I’ve been expecting it for months.”

3“You were expecting it? I don’t understand. She was so, so…”

4He looked for the right word. Revealingly, it did not come to him.

5“The truth is that she was not so…,” I replied. “And that’s why she shot herself.”

6“You don’t seem very upset.” My acquaintance was rather indignant. “I had always thought you and she were close friends.”

7“That’s exactly why. I know she had no other option. It was the only possible thing she could do.”

8He looked at me uncomprehendingly.

9“Let me explain. The Perdita you knew was not the real Perdita. The woman who was passionate about politics and ran to all the public meetings of her Party was not the same woman as the one who reached for a revolver the day before yesterday… Outwardly she had no reason to commit suicide. She was financially secure, she was in good health and, for a person of forty-three, she looked very good, which even today is still one of the most important things in life for a woman. And yet, there was simply no other way out for her.”

10“I really don’t understand you.”

11“We were school friends and I often spent the holidays with Perdita’s parents so as not to have to stay on at the convent. Perdita’s parents had a large villa in a health resort, a short way out of the little town itself. It was surrounded by a wonderful, beautifully tended garden. I can still remember the large beds of roses in front of the house. The garden was set back from the road, and the life Perdita’s parents led was set back a little from real life. I have never since come across anything quite so harmonious. No voice was ever raised in that house. The servants came and went without a sound. No door was ever slammed shut. On Sundays no one in the family ever left the garden. ‘There are so many people on the road on a Sunday,’ Perdita’s father used to say.

12“Perdita was an only child. Though she was not spoiled, everything revolved around her, and for her there was really nothing in this world except the two quiet, distinguished people she called Papa and Mami. Don’t imagine that Perdita’s parents were boring or uncultured. Her very name reveals her father’s love of Shakespeare. During the holidays, when it was raining, the old gentleman — he had married late in life and when I got to know him, his hair was already grey — would read to us from the works of classical German literature or, from time to time, from those of other writers — Stifter, Dickens, Bulwer Lytton. Those were lovely quiet hours that we spent in the large library. We sat up very straight in the high mahogany chairs — for ‘ladies do not sprawl on furniture.’ I sometimes had the feeling that the raindrops fell more gently here, around this house, than anywhere else.

13“Later, when we were grown up, we drifted apart, as often happens. Once Perdita wrote me about a rather vague love affair, of which nothing came, because Papa and Mami found the young man ‘loud and vulgar.’ Perdita appears not to have taken the matter very much to heart. She was happy enough with Papa and Mami. Being separated from them would have caused her much grief.

14“The years passed. The World War broke out, then came the Revolution. From time to time I paid a visit to Perdita and her parents. Here, nothing had changed. The same stillness, the same harmony: three people who loved each other and had shut themselves off from the world. No, that is not quite right: three people who had absolutely no idea that there is another world than theirs.

15“Five years ago Papa and Mami died, the one soon after the other. It turned out that Perdita still possessed a considerable fortune — not large enough, however, for her to hold on to the spacious villa and the numerous servants needed to maintain it. She sold the villa and moved into town. Here, in her pretty house, she lived as she had lived at home. Quiet, refined people came in the afternoon for tea or in the evening for dinner. She had kept on the cook, who had been with her parents for twenty years, and the food was always excellent. But Perdita did not feel right. She always went around a little lost. She missed Mami’s love and Papa’s kindly authority. At thirty-eight, she faced life like an eighteen-year old.

16“She had brought much of the old furniture with her as well as an enlarged photograph of the villa, showing, in front of the house, next to the large bed of roses, Papa, Mami, and Perdita at the age of ten.

17“I liked visiting her. The quiet did me good, even though I found it unnatural in our present day and age.

18“Then came the great experience that completely altered Perdita’s life and finally drove her into the arms of death. An acquaintance took her ‘for fun,’ wanting to see how she would react to something of that kind, to a political gathering. At first Perdita felt uncomfortable, because of the large numbers of people, the countless loud voices. She could not quite understand the speech but when it was followed by wild applause and shouts of ‘Heil’ from all present, she suddenly noticed that she too had raised her voice in loud, unconstrained yelling, as she had never done before in her entire life. For forty years, she had conducted herself quietly and with dignity, but now suddenly she could shout, scream, clap, stamp her feet. The primitive and the elemental broke loose in her and she experienced something she had never experienced before: an overwhelming feeling of being one with the screaming, yelling mass. Beside her stood an elderly little man with fanatical blue eyes: he gave Perdita a benevolent look and whispered: ‘Yes, indeed. The Führer gave a great speech.’

19“The Führer, the Leader, that was just the word Perdita needed to hear. She had found the authority that she substituted for Papa’s, she had found the man who gave orders and who had to be obeyed without one’s ever having to think for oneself.

20“I met Perdita a few weeks after this political gathering. She had already joined the Party. I hardly recognized her. She seemed a good few years younger, she moved freely and gracefully, her eyes had a sparkle in them, she was a different person. In an earlier time, when people were still romantic, young girls in love looked like that. And the comparison is apt: Perdita was in love with the Party. Perdita gave the Party all the overflowing love she had stored up within herself for years. She could speak of nothing else. She could think of nothing else.

21“As you know, I am on the opposite side politically and it came to an argument between us. ‘You have no notion of what is at stake here,’ I said to her. ‘Do you have any idea what your program is?’ ‘Program?’ She stared at me. ‘When we come to power, everything will be right again.’

22“Despite my irritation with her, I felt that for Perdita what really counted was the ‘we’ and not the ‘power.’ She had been lonely for so long, and now she belonged to a great Party which took the place for her of everything she had lost or had never possessed. ‘Read your pamphlets,’ I said impatiently. ‘I’d like to know what you think of their tone.’ She smiled. ‘I will do that.’

23“As I said, we parted at odds with each other and for a long time I did not see Perdita again.

24“Then one day I ran into her in the street. She had become quite white and went about just as lost and alone as before her ‘conversion.’ She greeted me shyly, as if she feared I might not return her greeting. That sent an arrow through my heart. ‘May I stop by and pay you a visit?’ I asked. Her mouth formed into a smile, which truly was not one. ‘Yes, do. I would like that very much.’

25“The house had not changed a bit: the elegant Empire style chair still stood in front of the tiny, un-practical ladies’ writing desk, the same silk cushions still lay on the Empire chaise longue, albeit somewhat faded and worn, and the enlarged photograph of Perdita’s parents’ house still hung on the wall, above the chaise longue. But it had faded; it was almost impossible now to discern the individual figures on it.

26“Conversation was somewhat strained at first. It wasn’t until Perdita made us tea in the old silver teapot I had known as a child at her parents’ house that we began to unbend. ‘Are you still in the Party?’ I asked her. ‘No.’ Her soft voice sounded even softer than usual. ‘I couldn’t take it. All the noise, the shouting and bawling, and the newspapers. They shout too, just like the people. I had to have quiet about me again.’ ‘Have you found it?’ Her pale face became sad. ‘No. There is no quiet any more. Even when I don’t actually hear the shouting, it rings in my ears. The whole world is shouting…’

27“A car passed in the street, honking its horn; Perdita twitched nervously. ‘On Sundays,’ she said, half dreaming, ‘we never left the garden, because of the crowds of people. I don’t go out on Sundays now either, but the noise comes right through my windows… I can’t get away from it.’ I felt sorry for her. ‘You live too much on your own. You have to spend some time with friends, as you used to do.’ She smiled. ‘I don’t live altogether on my own,’ she said. ‘You see, when I can’t stand this whole world any more, I gaze on the picture of our villa and I can feel the deep peace and the quiet happiness of those times. You remember, don’t you? — my bedroom was here, and here, under it, was the verandah and the main drawing-room, and over there you can see the window of the library where Papa used so often to read to us. But’ — here her voice became filled with sadness — ‘the picture is fading. The house looks a bit like a house of ghosts now. The figures of Papa and Mami are almost impossible to make out. Only mine is still really there. When it too fades…’

28“She fell silent, and something in the expression of her face frightened me. ‘Don’t be childish, Perdita. The picture is old and the photographer used matt paper. Matt paper doesn’t hold the image well.’ She again smiled. ‘Matt paper that doesn’t hold the image well. A down-to-earth explanation. You’re probably right. But we are like the photograph. We have turned out matt too. We couldn’t tolerate the real sun, real life, and we faded as soon as we came into contact with them.’ She looked over at the picture: ‘I’ m curious to know how long I will still be recognizable in it.’

29“My visit to Perdita took place on a cool day in February. I had planned to go back and see her again soon, but something always came up — work, sickness, something. In May — it was an especially hot, sunny May — I drove off to the country for a month. I came back a week ago and resolved to visit Perdita the following day.

30“On that next day, I received a registered letter. When I opened it, the photograph of Perdita’s parents’ house fell out. Undoubtedly the maid had forgotten to close the shutters on one of the hot days, for shadowy outlines were all you could now make out in the photograph. The three figures had totally vanished. I am a down-to earth person, a realist, but a cold shiver ran down my spine as I looked at that picture: I knew what it meant.

31“Perdita saw herself fading away and vanishing from this life; she watched herself growing more and more shadowy and unreal with each passing day… On that same day I was informed that she had shot herself the night before.”

32“It really was the photographer’s fault,” my acquaintance suggested. “If only he had used glossy paper…”

33“He couldn’t use glossy paper if he was to get the right tone for this house and these people. He was a good photographer with genuine artistic sensitivity. You really shouldn’t blame him.”

34I took the picture from the writing desk and showed it to my acquaintance.

35“You can still make out the bed of roses,” he said.

36“Yes, but that’s all. Everything else has vanished, as if it had never been. And when I look at that picture, I wonder whether Perdita W.’s world was ever real, whether everything in it was not a shadow, everything — except for the roses.”


“Tod eines Schattens,” Der Wiener Tag, 8 December 1932, reprinted in Fahrt ins Licht. Sechsundsechzig Stationen. Erzählungen (Vienna: Verlag Ludwig Nath, 1936; reprint Klagenfurt: Sisyphus Verlag, 1999), pp. 167–173.


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