Max Simon Nordau: “Deliverance”
Excerpt, “Short Story Classics (Foreign): Volume Three, German. 1907. Edited by William Pattern. “Deliverance” translated by Euphemia Jones.
Max Simon Nordau (1849-1923), born in Pest, Hungary, was a Zionist leader, physician, author, and social critic. He was co-founder of the World Zionist Organization.
For an hour the first regiment of Dragoons of the Guard had been drawn up on level ground behind a screen of low bushes, waiting the order to engage. For some time the fighting appeared to have ceased around them. Only a shattered gun carriage and the ground pierced with deep holes, like newly dug graves heaped about with soft, yellowish earth, gave the land the appearance of a battlefield. But the conflict was evident enough to the ear. On all sides thundered the cannon, and from the right came also the rattling of musketry. The roar of battle rose and fell like the gamut of a great orchestra executing the “Storm Movement” of the Pastoral Symphony.
In the foreground, on a slight elevation, a group of officers attentively examined the French position. One of them, a Major, stood a little apart from the rest, smoking a cigarette and gazing into the distance. He might not, perhaps, have attracted a feminine observer, but a masculine eye would certainly have marked him as a man of striking intellect. About thirty, tall, slight, he had the coldest gray eyes; his face, pale, thin, the habitual cynical line of his lip just shadowed by a delicate auburn mustache. This silent, self-contained man had about him an air of strange listlessness and disenchantment — in every way a sharp contrast to the tanned, sunburnt young fellows who looked to him for command, and who now stood about him all on fire with eagerness for battle.
Removing his helmet, he passed his hand over his forehead. It was an aristocratic, well-kept hand, his fingers slender and bloodless. Even the uniform he wore could not disguise this individual of exceptional distinction: Prince Louis von Hockstein Falckenbourg Gerau, the head of what was once a family of reigning princes.
Early an orphan, the Prince came of age master of an almost unlimited fortune. From his mother, a musician of exquisite sensibility, he inherited an artistic temperament and keen appreciation of the beautiful; but like his father, a haughty and somewhat eccentric noble, he recognized no law but his own will.
No great effort is required to imagine how the world received the young prince. The Court distinguished him with special attentions; the ladies petted him; the men sought him out. In this hot house atmosphere of high life he came quickly to maturity, and, like most children brought up without companions of their own age, he was of a thoughtful, even suspicious, temperament. Critical, almost skeptical, by nature, he insisted on deciphering the finer points of every question. Yet unlike others in his position, he was not deceived. He recognized the attention paid him was merely homage to his title and fortune.
‘What do these people really know of me?’ Returning from another Court festival, he sought the solitude of his magnificent palace. ‘Nothing, and yet they scarcely wait for my mouth to open to applaud my speech! While any man of sense would judge me not exactly a fool, but certainly little over mediocrity. Still, the world persists in treating me with deference.
Yet it’s Prince von Hockstein who interests them.’
Others of rank and fortune might appreciate the attention, but not Louis. How he resented what others refused to see! To him, the princely masque was almost an enemy. ever thwarting and overshadowing the growth of the individual within.
Yet his noble ambition to prove himself was hampered; everywhere the Prince von Hockstein barred the way. When he enrolled at University, the most aristocratic set among the students hastened to pay him court. Even the professors, men whose genius until then he had revered, were overcome with joy when he appeared in their classrooms, and addressed their words markedly to him. He soon had enough of this, and tried the army. His colonel thanked him for the honor he did the regiment in joining it; his superiors paid him flattering attentions; his fellow officers bored him. Then, too, the pettiness of garrison life was not much to his taste, so he quitted active service, but not until he had been rapidly promoted to the rank of major.
Of course, all this time women had played some part in his life. There were a few trifling affairs with actresses and some passing flirtations with women of the world. These last he quickly found unbearable, for – except in being a thousand times more exacting – the great ladies amounted to no more than did the ballet girls.
One experience, however, came near being serious. The Prince, traveling incognito through the Black Forest to the watering place of Norderney, chanced to take a place in the coupe of the diligence next to a lady also going to Norderney. She was of striking beauty and fascination, and the Prince was completely bewitched. He exerted himself immensely, but his attentions were all received with courteous indifference. Perhaps it was this indifference – a new experience – which charmed him. Reaching Norderney, he continued to pay his court. He kept his incognito and simply called himself Herr von Gerau.
The lady was surrounded by a crowd of admirers, and accepted Louis’ daily bouquets just as she did those of the others. She treated all her admirers with indifference, possibly to the Prince her manner was a shade colder than to the rest. At this critical moment, a certain great personage, an acquaintance of Louis, arrived at Norderney, and etiquette required the Prince to pay him a visit of ceremony in full dress uniform. His name and rank could be concealed no longer. The fair lady beheld her admirer in his magnificent blue uniform. Henceforth, she had eyes for no other, by smiles and glances offering encouragement to ask pardon for her former neglect.
In response, the Prince sent her a package containing his uniform and jeweled pin in the shape of a crown. These were accompanied by a cryptic note: “I give to you in perpetuity and in sole proprietorship the only things you have ever cared about me.”
He was contemplating hunting reindeer in Norway when the war of 1870 broke out. His request to rejoin his regiment was, of course, quickly granted. Patriotism and enthusiasm played little part in his action. He merely felt it was the correct thing to do and, possibly, he hoped that war might offer his existence new sensation.
Was he again disappointed? He was inclined to think so. Two weeks had passed in the enemy’s country, and he had had no extraordinary experiences. With two good servants and unlimited monitory resources, even in a campaign there are few hardships, especially in a victorious army. As for heroic deeds, there had simply been no occasion. Now, standing before his regiment, smoking a cigarette, he felt the old weariness of life claiming him.
But the French artillery was advancing upon the ditch. Creating great havoc, their balls struck the German batteries that it defended. To support the batteries, two regiments of infantry were ordered forward.
Marching first came the Third Westphalians. They passed so near the group of officers Prince Louis could distinguish each face, each expression. The poor fellows had marched fourteen hours under the burning August sun. They were covered with dust and sweat. and their uniforms soiled with mud. But no fatigue did these heroes betray. Their eyes, reddened by the heat, flamed with the enthusiasm of war; their dry throats found strength to shout “Hurrah!” The whole regiment forgot their fatigue, and seemed, as they marched under fire, like men refreshed and stimulated by a generous draft.
‘Poor devils,’ considered the Prince, ‘they are running to death as if it were a kermess dance. What are their thoughts? Or are they are driven on by a blind desire of conquest. What good will victory do them? How will it better their lot – if they have the fortune to escape death? Glory for Germany? Perhaps for me that might be of value; hardly for them. Victory might add to the splendor of my uniform. Yet I wear it so seldom. Perhaps if I go to Japan next year, the Mikado will receive me better if I belong to a victorious nation. But whether we beat the French or they beat us, I suspect I will always be received with welcome at the Jockey Club in Paris and the Mediterranean Club in Nice.
But for the common men over there, what will their glorious and victorious country do for them? They won’t get much of it in their village. All they know of the Fatherland are the tax gatherers and the police, and they will be what they have always been. And yet here these soldiers are instilled with such enthusiasm! I cannot deny it – it moves even me. Are we to thank the poets who sing so grandly of patriotism and military glory? Or the schoolmasters who teach the people’s heart the poets’ words? How marvelous the power of a word … that can lead a prosaic poet to give his life for an abstraction … an imagination!’
Such lightning thoughts! ‘And what feelings plague me? Is that confusion … or shame?’ It seemed as if he had been speaking his thoughts; as if a group of grave and noble figures had listened to his words, and now judged him in silent pity … yes, even shame. In the depth of his soul, where the mocking light of his skeptical spirit failed to penetrate, he seemed to hear an imperial voice rebuking him and silencing his doubt.
‘I am right!’
‘Your are wrong!’ the voice declared.
‘Well, no matter. I shall deceive myself no longer with romantic dreams,’ cried Reason; yet already it seemed to the Prince a stranger spoke; he shrank from them indignantly.
By now, the Third Westphalians had covered the entire slope of the ditch, the sharpshooters already at the top. A moment’s hesitation; the first heads appearing above the ditch called forth the enemy’s deadly fire. Men fell; those behind pressed on and, in spite of their terrible fatigue, strove with hands and feet to achieve the ascent: a simple feat for men in good condition. On they marched, each on fire with noble ardor.
The Prince remembered Heinrich Heine’s words: “How I love the dear, good Westphalians! They are so sure, so firm, so faithful. It is magnificent to see them on the field of battle, those heroes, with their lion hearts.”
Empowered by their “lion hearts,” the Westphalians continued to scramble up the slope, expending their last breath in the effort to achieve their goal. But the French, maddened by this outburst, forced them, after a terrible combat man to man, to recoil to the depth of the ditch, which filled all too quickly with dead and wounded. The survivors sought retreat up the other slope, yet what a terrible sight! So exhausted were these good men, they could not escape. Muskets fell from their hands, and the French claimed many prisoners.
Above there was a great excitement. The Eighth Wesphalians arrived, commanded by the General; the reinforcements rushed to their aid; freeing their comrades and forcing the French to retreat. The French infantry was massing again. In the distance, their cavalry were approaching.
With heightened emotion, Prince Louis followed the combat; his heart beating first with joy, then with fear. The moment was critical; a consensus shared by the other officers. Calling his orderly, the Colonel sprang into his saddle. Trumpets blared, and a sudden movement passed through the regimen. Quickly mounted, sabres clanked, spurs flashed, horses neighed. Again the trumpets: boldly, the cavalry moved forward.
Half-past six in the evening. At the head of the first squadron, a short distance from the Colonel and adjutants, Prince Louis rode … seized by a new sensation. The madness, the feverish impatience of a moment before had melted away with the consciousness of acting for a given purpose. The knowledge of activity, of seeking a definite end, brought him rest. He no longer sought his worth in another’s reflection; he thought no more of criticizing. The spirit of doubt was driven from him. He obeyed with ardor, belief, obedience, the irresistible command which propelled his being forward.
This man, who had always sought happiness by the unlimited activity of his personal will, now found that will bound by means scarcely perceptible. A Power, call it Natural Law, call it the Divine Will, ever manifesting itself by the course of history, now possessed him. No longer was he master of his destiny. He was taken out of himself by a stranger — was it a supernatural vision, a great genius, a Delivering Christ? Louis felt himself only a screw, a rivet in the machinery of the world’s history, and strange to say this dissolving of his individuality in a great whole caused him neither sorrow nor regret.
A strange pleasure penetrated his heart, causing him to tremble with joy. How small he felt, even while something great transcended the limit of his own personality. At last, he had found that sensation always desired. He was delivered from himself, at large among greater generalities.
The regimen now descended the slope, avoiding the heaps of dead and dying. The horses quickly ascended the opposite side. Trumpets sounded; the regiment separated into two lines and advanced.
What followed mimicked the conflict of the gods of Valhalla. French cuirassiers, riding toward the sun, were illuminated by unearthly light, their shining sabres like tongues of flame, their cuirasses and helmets shining like white-hot steel. The German dragoons had their backs to the sun. Long black shadows of horseman galloping ahead along the ground appeared sombre ghosts leading the living to the attack. With terrible shock, the opposing forces impacted! The sublime vision of the moment before was gone, and in its stead was a horrible, confused melee. Men fought hand to hand, plunging their sabres into the bodies of their enemies. Fighting still, the French were forced to retreat. Hurrahing, the Germans gave chase, their mounts dripping with blood.
The pursuit halted near a small brook. As if awaking from a dream, the Prince caressed his noble horse and surveyed the scene around him. The enemy’s artillery was drawing off; the surviving cuirassiers followed the artillery. In the distance, columns of infantry also retreated, all the while maintaining irregular and ineffectual fire.
“It is strange,” observed a young lieutenant raising his bloody sabre; the events of combat lost to him in the frenzy of battle.
But the Prince felt a terrible blow, as if struck by a ghostly giant, or gored by an angry bull. Hand clasped to breast, he tried to stanch the blood.
Darkness consumed him.
On the trampled ground, he awoke; his head resting against the smooth leather of a worn saddle. His tunic was unfastened. Through blurry eyes, he recognized the colonel kneeling by his side; other comrades standing around him. He felt no pain, only a sensation of great fatigue.
“How do you feel, Prince?” His commander’s harsh countenance softened by compassion.
“Long live the King,” Louis murmured, a slight broken smile touching his lips. “Long live the Fatherland.”