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The Red Countess

Hermynia Zur Mühlen

4. Feuilletons and Fairy Tales: A Sampling

A Secondary Happiness

Hermynia Zur Mühlen
Traduction de Lionel Gossman

Texte intégral

1Christine was fourteen years old when the World War broke out — a quiet, well brought up, shy girl with long brown braids and large, grey, somewhat startled eyes.

2“She won’t be as pretty as her mother,” people said in the little provincial town where her father was the Mayor. “But there is something very sweet about her, and she is so touchingly unselfish.”

3Christine owed her selflessness to her upbringing by her mother. From earliest childhood, it had been impressed on her that she herself was completely unimportant, whereas everybody else was enormously important. One should not think about oneself but only take a keen interest in the lives of others.

4Little Christine was constantly being asked the same question: Aren’t you pleased that Mama can go to the beach? Aren’t you thrilled that your dear Papa has received a decoration? Isn’t it wonderful that your friend has won first prize in school?

5At first Christine would dutifully answer yes. She would never have dared to contradict her attractive, strong-willed mother. Then gradually this automatic yes turned into a yes that expressed conviction. She had no pleasures of her own, but as she was nonetheless eager, being young, for a little happiness, she participated in the pleasures of others the way a smoker, whose doctor has ordered him to give up smoking, sits beside cigar and cigarette-puffing strangers so as to get a whiff, at least, of the smoke. She took pleasure in her girlfriends’ new clothes. She herself wore her mother’s cast-offs which were altered to fit her, for Madam Mayor needed the family money for her own purposes. She took pleasure in the good marks of her school friends. That she too had all A’s in her report card was simply a matter of course; she had her dear parents, who had done so much for her, to thank for it. And as she grew older, she took pleasure in the engagements and marriages of the other girls and then, later, in the babies and the maternal joy of her former school friends. Everything came to her second hand, as her clothes had done. She knew no happiness of her own, only a secondary happiness; no joy, only the joy she got from the joy of others; no pain, only the pain she felt at the pain of others. And when the thought did strike her that she too could have a personal life, she was alarmed by it and rejected it brusquely, feeling that she had committed a sin. To everyone in her small circle she was “dear, good Christine,” to whom one came when one was in trouble or had some overflowing happiness that one simply had to tell someone about.

6She lived many lives; the life of her best friend Myra, that of her parents, that of her brother and his young wife. She fell in love along with others and lay awake at night thinking of the tender words some male friend had whispered to some female friend, she experienced the feelings of the bride standing at the altar, she watched, full of joy, as the young couple set off on their honeymoon. She was a bride, a wife, a mother, and a widow through others. But at no time, not for a single hour was she ever Christine, a person, a pretty girl with a right to her own experiences and her own happiness.

7She grew older, yet she looked younger than all the others. She walked dreamily through the narrow streets of the little town — no, not she herself, but Myra or Trudy or Sylvia. Her father died, her mother re-married and Christine took pleasure in her mother’s new happiness, in the proximity of which she was given the privilege of living. Later she took pleasure in a little step-sister and as the latter learned to speak and to walk, she took pleasure in the pleasure this gave the little one. Without ever having had a life of her own, Christine was happy. Was so, until happiness of her own approached in the shape of the new pharmacist. The tender words addressed to her, the kisses that seemed almost brutal to her and a lot less blissful than those her friends had told her about, filled her with alarm. Her mother, to whom Christine had begun to be burdensome, insisted that her daughter marry the pharmacist. Christine, who as a bridesmaid, smiling happily, had so often accompanied her friends to the altar, wept bitterly as she herself stood in the church in her bridal veil. Everything was so alien and yet so close, so unbearably close. The honeymoon trip to Venice was a nightmare. She had the feeling that she was a shade forced into becoming a living human being. She remembered her friends and the happy times when she had followed them, in her thoughts, on their honeymoon trips. She remembered the daydreams in which she had imagined for herself the happiness of the young couple. How different that had been. Her own happiness strutted around prosaically in his slippers in the evening, drank rather more beer than he could hold, snored loudly next to her in bed, woke up unexpectedly in the middle of the night and pulled her into his arms. In vain Christine told herself: He is a good man, he loves me, I have to be happy. She had grown too used to a secondary happiness to be able to bear her own. Little by little she was assailed by tormenting doubts: Had it been the same with the others too? Had they been lying to me when they said: It was heavenly.

8She had been thrilled by the picture postcards of Italian cities that she had received from her girlfriends. Now that she could view the churches and palaces with her own eyes, she saw only lifeless stone; the sea struck her as a desolate watery waste; and she became homesick for the little grey town where she had lived for thirty years. But she was also fearful of returning to a home of her own. She who had so willingly helped others set up house, felt only exhaustion and a leaden sadness when she thought of furniture of her own, a household of her own — and of the life, the life of her own, that she would now have to lead as Frau Grunder. She will no longer be “dear, good Christine,” she will no longer be the person people come to so that she can take part in their joy or their sorrow; she will no longer be absorbed completely in the lives of others and thus escape from her own. The thought of all this was unbearable, and with each passing day it grew still more unbearable, until one evening, when the pharmacist was asleep, she packed her little travel bag and took the next train to Florence.

9From here she wrote to her husband, asking for a divorce. The pharmacist would not agree to it. He could not understand what Christine had against him and he was fond of her.

10But Christine knew that if she wanted to go on living, she had to get free, at all costs. With the help of an impoverished young Italian, who was ready to do anything for a little money, she set up an adulterous affair that was no more real than all of Christine’s earlier life.

11The marriage was dissolved. For a month the little town had a topic of conversation that mostly began with “Who would have thought it of that well brought up girl? That’s the way it is, that’s the way it is. Still waters run deep.”

12Christine, who had been left a small inheritance by her father, did not return to her home town. She settled down in a different part of the country. Within a few months people here also spoke of “dear, good Christine,” and came to her to tell her of their joys and sorrows.

13After a year Christine had almost completely forgotten the dreadful episode of her marriage. She went on living the lives of others and once more enjoyed the secondary happiness that is without a dark side.

14She was happy again.


“Nebenglück,” Neues Wiener Tagblatt, 28 November 1933, p. 2ff.


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