Authors: Stefan Zweig
came down the stairs from her lover’s apartment, again that pointless fear suddenly overwhelmed her. All at once there was a shape like a black spinning top circling before her eyes, her knees froze in dreadful rigidity, and she had to catch hold of the banister rail in haste to keep herself from falling abruptly forwards. It was not the first time she had taken the risk of visiting him here, and this sudden fit of terror was by no means new to her. However much she steeled herself against it, every time she set off for home she was always subject, for no reason at all, to such attacks of senseless, ridiculous fear. The way to her rendezvous was infinitely easier. Then she told the cab driver to stop at the corner of the street, swiftly and without looking up she walked the few steps to the front door of the building where he lived, and
upstairs. After all, she knew he was waiting for her in the apartment, he would be quick to open the door, and her initial alarm, which had been mingled
with ardent impatience, dissolved in the heat of their embrace as they met. But then, when she left to go home, that mysterious shuddering fit came over her, vaguely mingled with a sense of guilt, and the
delusion that every stranger in the street could tell from her face where she had been, and might add to her confusion by giving her a bold smile. Even the last few minutes that she spent with her lover were
by rising uneasiness as she anticipated that
and when she prepared to leave her hands were trembling with nervous haste, her mind was distracted as she heard his parting words to her, and she was quick to fend off the last lingering signs of his passion. Everything in her was anxious to be gone, to get away from his apartment building, away from her adventure and back to her placid, bourgeois world. She scarcely dared to look in the mirror for fear of the distrust in her own eyes, yet it was necessary to check that no disorder in her clothing betrayed the passion of the hour they had just passed together. Then came his last words of reassurance, but in vain, for she hardly heard them in her agitation, and she spent the final moment listening behind the safety of his door to make sure no one was going either up or downstairs. Once she was outside the door, however, her fear was waiting, impatient to take her in its grasp, and so imperiously disturbing her heartbeat that she was already breathless as she went
down the first few steps, feeling the strength she had nervously summoned up fail her.
She stood there for a moment with her eyes closed, avidly breathing in the cool air in the dimly lit stairwell. Then a door slammed on an upper floor of the building, and she pulled herself together in alarm and hurried on downstairs, while her hands instinctively drew the thick veil she was wearing even closer. And now she faced the threat of that last, most dreadful moment, the terror of stepping out of the door of a building where she did not live into the street, perhaps meeting some acquaintance who happened to be passing and who might ask what she was doing here, thus forcing her, confused as she was, into the dangerous necessity of telling a lie. She lowered her head, like an athlete about to take off for a great leap, and walked fast and with sudden determination towards the half-open front door.
There she collided with a woman who was obviously on her way in. “I’m so sorry,” she said, trying to get past quickly. But the woman barred her way, staring at her angrily and at the same time with unconcealed scorn.
“Oh, so I catch you here for once, do I?” she said in a coarse voice, not at all discomposed. “That’s right, oh yes, what they call a real lady, ever so respectable! Not satisfied with her husband and all his money and that, no, not her, she has to go stealing a poor girl’s fellow too!”
“For God’s sake … what do you … You’re
…” stammered Irene, making a clumsy attempt to get past. But the sturdy figure of the woman stood four-square in the doorway, and she went on abusing Irene in penetrating tones.
“Not me, no, I ain’t mistaken, I know your sort! You been with my beau, my Eduard! Caught you at last, didn’t I? Now I know why he’s got so little time for me lately … all on account of you, you nasty, horrid …”
“For God’s sake!” Irene interrupted her in a fading voice. “Don’t shout so loud!” And she instinctively retreated into the front hall of the building. The woman looked at her with derision. She somehow seemed to be enjoying Irene’s fear and trembling, her obvious helplessness, for she now examined her victim with a confident smile of scornful satisfaction. Her voice took on a louder and almost weighty tone of malicious relish.
“So that’s what them married ladies look like, them fine ladies as go stealing other girls’ fellows! Veiled, of course, ho yes, so they can carry on acting all respectable arterwards …”
“What … what do you want from me? I don’t know you at all … I have to go …”
“Yes, that’s right, go back to your fine husband, acting the lady, nice warm room to sit in, maid to undress you and all. It don’t bother your sort what the likes of us
do. We could die of hunger for all you care, ain’t that a fact? The likes of you respectable ladies—you’d take every last thing we got!”
Pulling herself together and obeying a sudden if vague inspiration, Irene put her hand into her purse and took out whatever she found in the way of banknotes. “Here … here you are, take this, but now let me go. I’ll never come back here again … I swear it.”
With an unpleasant expression on her face, the woman took the money, muttering, “Bitch!” Irene flinched at the word, but she saw that the woman was standing aside to let her through the doorway, and she hurried out, a sombre, breathless figure running like a suicide about to jump off a tower. She saw faces like distorted masks passing her as she hurried on, making her way with difficulty, her vision clouded, towards a cab, a motor car standing at the street corner. She flung herself down on its upholstery, and then everything in her seemed to freeze rigid and motionless. When the driver finally, and in some surprise, asked his
fare where she wanted to go, she simply stared blankly at him for a moment until her confused mind finally succeeded in understanding what he meant. “Oh, to the railway station, the Südbahnhof,” she uttered hastily, and then, as it suddenly occurred to her that the woman might follow, she added, “Quick, quick, please drive fast!”
Only during the drive did she realise how badly the encounter with the woman had shaken her. She felt her hands hanging at her sides, cold and stiff like dead things, and suddenly began trembling so hard that she shook all over. A bitter taste rose in her throat, she felt nausea and at the same time a dull, unfocused fury trying to break convulsively out of her. She would have liked to scream, or lash out with her fists, free herself from the horror of the memory, which was firmly fixed in her mind like a fish hook—that coarse face and scornful laughter, the unpleasant odour of the vulgar woman’s bad breath, the coarse mouth spitting hatred and vile abuse at her, the raised red fist that the creature had shaken menacingly. Her nausea grew stronger and stronger, her gorge rose more and more. In addition, the rapid movement of the car was throwing her back and forth, and she was about to ask the driver to slow down when it occurred to her, just in time, that after giving all her banknotes to her tormentor she might not have enough money left to pay him. She quickly signed to him to stop and suddenly, to the driver’s further surprise, got out. Fortunately she had just enough money to pay what she owed. But now she found herself in a part of town that was strange to her, full of busy people pushing past, their every word and glance physically hurting her. Her knees were weak with fear, her legs unwilling to carry her on,
but she had to get home, and summoning up all her energy she made a superhuman effort to walk on from street to street. It was like wading through a swamp, or walking up to the knees in snow. At last she reached her own building, and with nervous haste—although she immediately moderated it so that her uneasiness would not attract attention—she hurried upstairs.
Only now, as the maidservant took her coat, as she heard her little boy playing with his younger sister in the next room, and her glance, reassured, saw her own things all around her, her property and her security, did she recover an outward appearance of calm, although under the surface a wave of agitation was still painfully rolling through her tense breast. She took off her veil, made a strong effort of will and composed her face into a carefree expression, and then went into the dining room, where her husband was sitting at the table laid for supper and reading the newspaper.
“You’re late, my dear Irene, you’re late,” he greeted her in a tone of gentle reproof, and he stood up and kissed her cheek, arousing an instinctive and painful sense of shame in her. They sat down at the table, and as soon as he had put his newspaper aside he asked casually, “Where have you been all this time?”
“Oh … oh, I went to see Amélie … she had some shopping to do, and I went with her,” she told him, angry with her own thoughtlessness for telling her lie
so badly. Usually she prepared herself in advance with a carefully invented story that could not be disproved, but in her fear today she had forgotten to devise one, and was forced into this clumsy improvisation. Suppose, she thought, her husband telephoned her friend—there had been a situation like that in the play they had seen at the theatre recently—and asked Amélie whether …
“What’s the matter? You seem so nervous … and why haven’t you taken your hat off?” her husband asked. She jumped with alarm, feeling caught out yet again in her embarrassment, stood up quickly and went to her room to take her hat off. As she did so, she stared at her restless eyes in the mirror until her glance seemed to be steady again. Then she went back to the dining room.
The maid brought in supper, and it turned into an evening like any other, perhaps rather more silent and less companionable than usual, an evening when their conversation was sporadic, listless, often stumbling. Her thoughts kept going back, and always, with a jolt of horror, came up against that moment when she was so terribly close to the woman who had threatened her. Whenever she reached that point she looked up so that she could feel safe, tenderly touching things close to her—a pleasant proximity, this time—each with its own place in the room determined by memory and
significance, and she began to feel a little calmer again. And the clock on the wall, its steely pace proceeding in a leisurely manner through the silence, imperceptibly restored to her heart something of its own regular, carefree and secure rhythm.
Next morning, when her husband had gone to his chambers and the children were out for a walk, leaving her alone at last, that dreadful encounter lost much of its terror when seen in retrospect and in the cold light of day. Irene reminded herself, first, that her veil had been very thick, so that the woman could not possibly have seen her features in detail, and would never be able to recognise her again. She reflected calmly on all the measures she could take to safeguard herself. She would not on any account visit her lover in his apartment again—which surely meant that there was no imminent possibility of another such attack. There remained only the danger of meeting that woman again by chance, but that too was unlikely, for since she had made her escape in a car her assailant could not have followed her. The woman could not know Irene’s name, or where she lived, and as she would have gained only an indistinct idea of her features Irene need not fear any other kind of reliable identification. But she
was armed even against such an extremely improbable case. Freed from the grip of fear, she decided at once that she would simply keep calm, deny everything, coolly claim that there was some mistake and, as no evidence of her visit to her lover could be produced except on the spot, if necessary charge the woman with blackmail. Not for nothing was Irene the wife of one of the best-known defence lawyers in the capital city; she knew enough from his conversations with professional colleagues to be aware that attempted blackmail had to be nipped in the bud immediately and in the most ruthless way, because any hesitation on the part of the intended victim, any appearance of being ill at ease, would only increase the blackmailer’s sense of superiority.
Her first precaution was to write her lover a brief letter telling him that she could not come at the agreed time tomorrow, or indeed for the next few days. On reading through her note, in which she disguised her handwriting for the first time, it struck her as rather frosty in tone, and she was about to replace the offending terms with something more intimate when the memory of yesterday’s encounter suddenly showed her that the coolness expressed in her lines was the unconscious result of lively if subliminal animosity. Her pride was injured by the embarrassing discovery that she had replaced such a base, unworthy predecessor in
her lover’s affections, and reading her letter again in a more resentful mood, she felt vengeful satisfaction in the cold clarity with which it showed that her visits to him depended, so to speak, on her own good humour.
She had met the young man, a pianist of some renown in what was admittedly still a small circle, at an evening entertainment, and soon, without really meaning to and almost without realising it, she had become his lover. Nothing in her blood had really responded to him, nothing sensual, let alone intellectual, had brought her body together with his; she had given herself to him without needing or really even desiring him very much, out of a certain apathetic lack of resistance to his will, and a kind of restless curiosity. Nothing in her had made taking a lover a necessity to her—neither her desires, which were perfectly well satisfied by marital life, nor the feeling so frequently found in women that their intellectual interests are withering away. She was perfectly happy with a prosperous husband whose intellect was superior to hers, two children, contentedly and even lazily at ease in her comfortable, calm, middle-class existence. But a kind of languor in the air may arouse sensuality just as sultry or stormy weather can, a sense of temperate happiness can be more provocative than outright unhappiness, and for many women their contentment itself proves more disastrous than enduring dissatisfaction in a hopeless
situation. Satiety can be as much of an incitement as hunger, and it was the very safety and security of Irene’s existence that made her feel curious and ready for an adventure. There was no opposition anywhere in her life. She met with soft acceptance in all quarters, concern for her well-being, affection, mild love and domestic respect, and without understanding that such moderation of feeling did not arise from anything outside her, but reflected an absence of deeply felt relationships, in some vague way she felt cheated of real life by her own comfort.