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At that time I was five-and-twenty, began N. N., — it was in days long past, as you perceive. I had only just gained my freedom and gone abroad, not to ‘finish my education,’ as the phrase was in those days; I simply wanted to have a look at God’s world. I was young, and in good health and spirits, and had plenty of money. Troubles had not yet had time to gather about me. I existed without thought, did as I liked, lived like the lilies of the field, in fact. It never occurred to me in those days that man is not a plant, and cannot go on living like one for long. Youth will eat gilt gingerbread and fancy it’s daily bread too; but the time comes when you’re in want of dry bread even. There’s no need to go into that, though.
I travelled without any sort of aim, without a plan; I stopped wherever I liked the place, and went on again directly I felt a desire to see new faces — faces, nothing else. I was interested in people exclusively; I hated famous monuments and museums of curiosities, the very sight of a guide produced in me a sense of weariness and anger; I was almost driven crazy in the Dresden ‘Grüne-Gewölbe.’ Nature affected me extremely, but I did not care for the so-called beauties of nature, extraordinary mountains, precipices, and waterfalls; I did not like nature to obtrude, to force itself upon me. But faces, living human faces — people’s talk, and gesture, and laughter — that was what was absolutely necessary to me. In a crowd I always had a special feeling of ease and comfort. I enjoyed going where others went, shouting when others shouted, and at the same time I liked to look at the others shouting. It amused me to watch people … though I didn’t even watch them — I simply stared at them with a sort of delighted, ever-eager curiosity. But I am diverging again.
And so twenty years ago I was staying in the little German town Z., on the left bank of the Rhine. I was seeking solitude; I had just been stabbed to the heart by a young widow, with whom I had made acquaintance at a watering-place. She was very pretty and clever, and flirted with every one — with me, too, poor sinner. At first she had positively encouraged me, but later on she cruelly wounded my feelings, sacrificing me for a red-faced Bavarian lieutenant. It must be owned, the wound to my heart was not a very deep one; but I thought it my duty to give myself up for a time to gloom and solitude — youth will find amusement in anything! — and so I settled at Z.
I liked the little town for its situation on the slope of two high hills, its ruined walls and towers, its ancient lime-trees, its steep bridge over the little clear stream that falls into the Rhine, and, most of all, for its excellent wine. In the evening, directly after sunset (it was June), very pretty flaxen-haired German girls used to walk about its narrow streets and articulate ‘Guten Abend’ in agreeable voices on meeting a stranger, — some of them did not go home even when the moon had risen behind the pointed roofs of the old houses, and the tiny stones that paved the street could be distinctly seen in its still beams. I liked wandering about the town at that time; the moon seemed to keep a steady watch on it from the clear sky; and the town was aware of this steady gaze, and stood quiet and attentive, bathed in the moonlight, that peaceful light which is yet softly exciting to the soul. The cock on the tall Gothic bell-tower gleamed a pale gold, the same gold sheen glimmered in waves over the black surface of the stream; slender candles (the German is a thrifty soul!) twinkled modestly in the narrow windows under the slate roofs; branches of vine thrust out their twining tendrils mysteriously from behind stone walls; something flitted into the shade by the old-fashioned well in the three-cornered market place; the drowsy whistle of the night watchman broke suddenly on the silence, a good-natured dog gave a subdued growl, while the air simply caressed the face, and the lime-trees smelt so sweet that unconsciously the lungs drew in deeper and deeper breaths of it, and the name ‘Gretchen’ hung, half exclamation, half question, on the lips.
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