It was a Sunday morning in the finest part of spring. Georg Bendemann, a young salesman, was sitting in his private quarters on the second floor of one of the low, lightweight houses that had cropped up along the river in an endless strip, distinct almost only in their height and color. He had just finished reading a letter from a childhood friend who was currently abroad. Folding up the letter in almost playful slowness and then bracing himself on the desk with his elbows, he looked out the window onto the river, the bridges and the banks on the other shore, all in a faded green. His thoughts circled around the image of this friend who had officially fled to Russia many years ago, unhappy with his progress at home. He now ran a business in St. Petersburg – initially, a very successful business – which for a while now had been faltering, as his friend complained during his increasingly sporadic visits. So he continued working abroad with no end in sight, unfruitfully, with a full beard that would have altered the appearance of many other persons, but which could hardly hide that face Georg had known since childhood, that yellowish skin which probably indicated an illness of some sort. His friend said that he didn't feel very connected to his fellow exiles from their homeland, nor did he have any interaction with local families, and had resigned himself at last to bachelorhood.
What was Georg to write to such a man, a man who had obviously gone astray, a man one pitied because there was no way to help him? Should he advise him to come back home, to shift his life back here, to take up with old friends and acquaintances once more – for which, it should be said, nothing stood in his way – and rely on the help of friends? Yet this only meant he would be telling him, offending him as much as sparing his feelings, that his attempts at making a life for himself hitherto had failed. He would be telling him that he should forsake all these efforts and return home, forever and ever to be ogled as a prodigal son who returned without a fortune. Perhaps this was something only his friends would understand; perhaps he was still just a child who was obligated to follow those successful friends still here at home. And then was he even certain that all the hurt he was about to inflict upon his friend had some kind of aim? Perhaps he wouldn't manage to convince him to return – after all, his friend said himself that he no longer understood what was going on at home – and so, despite everything, his friend would stay under foreign skies far away from him, embittered by such suggestions and even more alienated from his friends. And what if he were to heed Georg's advice and come here – not intentionally, of course, but as a matter of circumstance – feel crestfallen, not be able to get back in with his friends, and without those friends then endure shame? Now he would have no homeland or friends any more. Wouldn't it be better for him to stay where he was abroad? Could one really believe that he would get somewhere if he came back here?
These were the reasons for which Georg couldn't really give him any news; that is to say, in the event Georg wanted to maintain their correspondence. Were he to do so, he would have to do it without any fear, as if he were reporting to someone he barely knew. His friend hadn't been home now for more than three years and explained this by referring to the current political instability in Russia, where not even the briefest absence of an unimportant businessman could be tolerated, even as hundreds of thousands of Russians traveled freely throughout the world. Much had changed for Georg in these last three years. His mother had died about two years ago, causing Georg to move back in with his father. His friend had imparted his condolences once he learned of the death, but he had treated the matter very dryly in a letter, which could only be because the mourning associated with such an event was unimaginable when one was so far away. For a while now Georg, just like everyone else, had been concentrating on his business with great determination. Perhaps his father had hindered him somewhat in his actual activities when his mother was still alive on account of his father's valuing only his own opinion; perhaps his father had been a bit more reticent since his mother's death, despite the fact that his father was still working in the business; perhaps – and this was, in fact, very probable – felicitous coincidences had played a very important role. In any case, he had developed his business quite unexpectedly these last two years and had been obligated to double his staff; turnover was up fivefold and more progress was undoubtedly at hand.
But his friend had no inkling of this change in Georg's life. He had once wanted to persuade Georg to immigrate to Russia, most recently perhaps in the letter in which he sent Georg his condolences, and expatiated upon the prospects that existed for Georg's business branch office in St. Petersburg. The figures paled in comparison to the breadth which Georg's business had now assumed. But Georg had no desire to tell his friend of his business success; and had he done so now, after the fact, it would have seemed very odd indeed.
As a result, Georg confined himself to relating those meaningless incidents that pile up in one's memory when one sits around pensively on a quiet Sunday. He wanted at all costs to avoid disturbing the impression that his friend had retained of their home city in his long period away, an impression with which his friend had come to terms. And so it happened that Georg had made three references, in letters quite spread out from one another, to the engagement of an indifferent fellow to an equally indifferent young woman until, quite against Georg's intention, his friend had begun to show an interest in this curious detail.
Yet Georg preferred writing to him about those matters rather than admitting that he himself, about a month ago now, had gotten engaged to Miss Frieda Brandenfeld, a young woman from a prosperous family. He often spoke to his fiancée about his friend and their strange correspondence.
"Then he won't be coming to our wedding," she said, "and I do have the right to meet all of your friends."
"I don't want to bother him," Georg responded. "Don't get me wrong: he would probably come, at least I think he would come. But he would feel obliged and hurt; he might even envy me. And he would certainly feel unhappy and incapable of ever doing away with his unhappiness and going back alone. Alone, do you know what alone means?"
"Very well, but can't he find out about our wedding by other means?"
"I can't do anything about that, but given his way of life I would say it's unlikely."
"If you have friends like that, Georg, you shouldn't have gotten engaged in the first place."
"Yes, that's both our faults. But I wouldn't have it any other way."
And then when, breathing heavily under his kisses, she added, "Actually, I'm still bothered by it," he truly understood that it would be harmless to tell his friend everything.
"This is how I am and he has to accept me as I am," he said to himself. "I couldn't make a person out of me who might be a better friend to him than I am now." And indeed, he wrote a long letter to his friend that Sunday morning. He spoke of his engagement to Frieda with the following words: "And I've saved the best news for last. I have gotten engaged to Miss Frieda Brandenfeld, a young woman from a prosperous family who moved here long after you had left, so you could hardly know her at all. There will be plenty of time to tell you more about my fiancée; today it is enough to inform you that I am very happy and that the only thing that has changed about our relationship is that instead of a very ordinary friend, you now have a happy friend. Moreover, in my fiancée, who sends her warmest regards and will soon write to you herself, you will find a real friend, which is no small prize for a bachelor. I know many things are preventing you from visiting us, but wouldn't my wedding be the right occasion to put these obstacles behind us once and for all? However you choose, do what is best for you and what you see fit."
With this letter in hand Georg sat for a long time at his desk, his face turned to the window. An acquaintance who greeted him walking through the street was answered with only an absent smile.
Finally he put the letter in his pocket and crossed out of his room through a small passage into his father's room. He had not been in there for months. There had also been no need for him to be there since he had constant interaction with his father in their business. They would take lunch at the same time in a small eatery, but in the evening each would see to his own meal. They would still normally sit together when Georg wasn't with his friends or, as was the case lately, with his fiancée – and, as it were, Georg was not with his father that often. When he was, however, he would spend some time reading his paper, his father next to him with his own paper in their common living room.
Georg was astounded at how dark his father's room was, even now on this sunny morning. The high walls cast equally long shadows which rose beyond the narrow courtyard. His father was sitting in a corner by the window. This corner was decorated with numerous mementos to Georg's deceased mother, and his father sat reading his newspaper which he held sideways in front of his eyes trying to compensate for his poor vision. The remains of his breakfast were on the table; he didn't seem to have eaten much.
"Ah, Georg!" said his father and came right up to him, his heavy nightgown flapping open at the ends as he walked. "My father is still a giant," said Georg to himself. He then added:
"It's really unbearably dark in here."
"Yes, quite dark," his father answered.
"Did you close the window as well?"
"I prefer it that way."
"It's quite warm outside," said Georg, tacking that statement on to his previous remarks, and sat down.
His father cleaned up the dishes from breakfast and put them all on the cupboard.
"Actually, I only came to tell you something," continued Georg as he followed the movements of the old man with a somewhat lost look. "I have just sent news of my engagement all the way to Petersburg," he pulled the letter ever so slightly out of his pocket and then let it drop back in.
"Why Petersburg?" his father asked.
"Because of my friend there," said Georg and sought out his father's gaze. "He's so different at work," thought Georg. "Here he just spreads himself out and crosses his arms over his chest."
"Oh yes, your friend," his father repeated with emphasis.
"You know, father, that I initially wanted to keep my engagement a secret from him. Out of consideration, and for no other reason. You yourself know he is a difficult person to deal with. I said to myself that he might learn of my engagement from other parties, even if that is unlikely given his lonely habits – I can't do anything about that – but he shouldn't learn of it from me."
"And now you've changed your mind?" asked his father, putting down the large newspaper on the window sill and then his glasses atop the newspaper. He covered his glasses with his hand.
"Yes, now I've thought it through and changed my mind. If he's a good friend, I said to myself, then my happy engagement also means happiness for him. And for that reason I could no longer hesitate to make my announcement to him. Before I sent the letter, however, I just wanted to let you know."
"Georg," said his father and spread his toothless mouth wide. "Now listen to me. You came to me so that I could advise you on this matter. That is doubtless to your credit. But it is nothing, it is worse than nothing, when you don't tell me the whole truth. I want nothing to do with things that don't belong here. Since the death of your dear mother some unpleasant things have taken priority. Perhaps there will be a time for them as well, and perhaps that time will come sooner than we think. At work many things escape me, perhaps these things are not being hidden from me – and I won't entertain the assumption that they are being hidden from me – and I am no longer strong enough, my memory is failing me, I no longer have an eye for all those old things. In the first place, this is the normal course of nature, and in the second place, the death of your mom has hit me much harder than you. But since we're dealing with the matter right now, with this letter, I beg you, George, don't try to deceive me. We're talking about a trivial matter, barely worth my breath, but don't try to deceive me. Do you really have this friend in Petersburg?"