During the course of conversation someone mentioned the name of E.T.A. Hoffmann and those musical tales. The Countess Beata, our young hostess, put down the orange she was about to peel and said to the young poet "Would you believe it - his stories -- and I only seldom read them -- can keep me awake all night long? My rational mind tells me it is fantasy, and yet . . ."
"Perhaps it is not mere fantasy, my dear countess."
The diplomat gave a good natured chuckle "You don't think such outlandish things actually happened to Hoffmann, do you?"
"But that is exactly what I do think," countered the poet. "They did happen to him. Of course I don't mean that he saw them with his own eyes. But because he was a poet, he experienced everything that he wrote psychically. Perhaps I should say that he only wrote of things that he had encountered in his soul. In fact I would say that this is what differentiates the poet from the writer. The poet's soul experiences the fantastic as its reality."
Silence fell over the beautiful countess's little empire style room.
"You are completely right," said the professor, a sensitive man of youthful appearance. "Will you allow me to tell you a story that I have carried with me for many years? To this day I am not certain if it actually happened to me or if I dreamed it. It won't take long."
"Please do tell us," said our hostess.
The professor began his tale:
"Toward the end of the last century, more than twenty years ago, I was studying in a very old town in southern Germany. I lived, as it pleased me, in a narrow street full of age-old houses. Not far from my rooms was a tavern -- one of the oddest I have ever seen. I went there often in late autumn afternoons when I could take a break from my work between daytime and nightfall.
"There was only one room, rather rickety with rafters sunk in gloom. Near the window facing the street stood two well scoured tables and a few rough-hewn chairs. Back in a dark corner where the tile stove stood there was a third little table and two remarkably colorful chintz armchairs. Over one of them was draped a black silk mantilla, the kind women wear in Spain on holy days. I never saw any other customers there except for myself & I still sometimes wonder if it really was a commercial establishment. Sometimes upon the stroke of seven the door would be locked and the shutters closed. I never asked about this, but my curiosity had already fastened itself on the proprietors of this odd establishment.
"Their names were Aloys and Anton Walzer and they gave an impression of great age. They were unusually tall and lanky. They were both bald but sported full scraggly reddish-grey beards. I never saw them wear anything but yellow britches and black jackets that hung loosely on them. They must have been twins for it was impossible to tell them apart, and it took quite awhile before I was able to distinguish Anton's slightly deeper voice.
"As soon as I entered the tavern a glass of marvelous sweet spanish wine would be placed on the table near the stove for me with a friendly grin. Aloys would take the easy chair next to me while Anton would stand leaning with his back to the window. They puffed away on their aromatic pipes, the kind you see in old Flemish pictures. Somehow I got the feeling that they were waiting for something.
"I would almost say that the impression they made on me was grotesque, but that wouldn't be quite the right word because the grotesque always has something of the comic about it. But the impression made on me by the Walzer brothers was inexpressibly sad and troubled -- almost tragic. There was no indication of a feminine presence in the place and I certainly never saw a woman there.
"As winter came on with its early dusks and long nights, I found my visits to the smoky tavern becoming almost a daily necessity. As the proprietors came to know me better, now and then they would talk a little with me. But they seemed to have lost their sense of time and always spoke of things that happened in times long past and their voices made the same dry, rattling sound.
"I told them of my travels and whenever I mentioned southern climes, a disturbing leery look would come into their eyes that were usually so sorrowful and expectant. They seemed almost to be living in a kind of memory. I could never leave without having the feeling that something dreadful was about to happen as soon as I left, but I forced myself to laugh at such thoughts.
"One evening I was passing by the place rather late and from behind the shuttered windows there came such a lovely sound of violin music that I stood there in the street entranced. The next day when I asked the brothers about it, they only smiled and nodded.
"Several weeks passed, and again I was passing by the tavern late at night, even later than the last time. From behind the shutters I heard a desolate cry and then such an extremity of quarreling and cursing that I was frightened out of my wits. There could be no doubt, the shouts that came from within the old tavern were not those of the two weak old men that I knew -- these voices were deep, young and bellowing with rage. It sounded like two strong young men who were having a dreadful row. The shouts became even louder until they reached a pitch of frenzy punctuated by the blows of a fist crashing on a table.
"Then I heard the silvery bright laugh of a woman's voice, and immediately the enraged voices swelled into an insane bawling. I stood frozen in my tracks. It never occurred to me to open the door and see what was going on.
"The woman's voice screamed, just a single cry, but in such fearful anguish, that I have never been able to forget it. Then everything was still.
"The next day when I went into the tavern, Anton placed my glass of wine on the table with his usual friendly grin, and everything was so unchanged that I began to wonder if the whole episode hadn't been a dream, and I was too ashamed to ask.
"One afternoon towards the end of Winter I told the brothers that I wouldn't be coming anymore as I was setting out for Spain on the following day.
"This news had a strange effect on Anton and Aloys, and their hard weathered faces blanched for a moment and two pairs of eyes sought the floor. They went out and I could hear them whispering together.
"After a while Anton returned and asked me in some excitement if by chance I would be going to Alicante and when I said yes, he turned and almost skipped back to his brother. Later they both returned, behaving as if nothing had happened.
"While I was packing I forgot about the brothers, but that night I had a confused and complicated dream that had something to do with a crooked little salmon-colored house in a derelict street in the harbor of Alicante.
"On my way to the train station the next day, I was surprised to see that in bright daylight Anton and Aloys had their shutters closed up tight.
"During the trip I soon forgot all about my studies and little adventures in southern Germany. Traveling makes it easy to forget.
"I spent several days in Paris to visit a few friends and see the Louvre. One evening I returned tired from a cabaret in the Latin Quarter, where I went to hear a remarkable poet, who one of my friends had heard of. He turned out to be an ancient blind bard who sang beautifully with a simple, sorrowful voice. He had a lovely daughter who accompanied him skillfully on the violin.
"Later she played a solo piece, and I immediately recognized the melody as the one that I had heard coming from the Walzer brothers' house. I later determined it was a gavotte by Lully, from the time of Louis XIV.
"Some days later I traveled on toward Lisbon and in early February I passed through Madrid on my way to Alicante.
"I have always had a weak spot in my heart for the South in general, and for Spain first and foremost. You feel almost powerful there, and every experience seems heightened. The sun makes life hot and unfettered. The people, like their wine, are strong, fiery and sweet, but excitable and dangerous when aroused. Then, too, I believed that the Southerners had a little of Don Quixote in their blood.
"Actually, I didn't have anything in particular to do in Alicante, but I passed several of those inexpressibly sweet nights there, when the moon rises over the castle of Santa Barbara and throws the harbor into an uncanny chiaroscura. On such nights the German heart beats with a lyrical romanticism.
"My first sight of the town brought memories of the Walzer brothers and their strange establishment flooding back to me. I know it might be hindsight or imagination, but it does seem to me that my mule turned very unwillingly at the Algorfe Palace as I drove down toward the harbor. In one of the old streets where mostly sailors live I found the place I sought.
"Severo Ancosta's inn was a crooked little building with large balconies, stuck in between other similar establishments. The innkeeper, friendly and chatty, gave me a room with a wonderful view of the sea, and I looked forward to enjoying a week of undisturbed beauty. That is until the next day when I saw Severo's daughter, Lolita.
"By our northern standards she was terribly young, with veiled southern eyes and hair of an unusual reddish gold. Her body was boyishly slim and supple and her voice was full and dark. But there was something more than her beauty that attracted me -- there was a strange mystery about her that troubled me often on those moonlit nights.
"Sometimes when she came into my room to tidy up, she would pause in her work, her red laughing smile compressed into a narrow line, and she would stare with fear into the sunlight. Her bearing was that of a great tragedienne's Iphigenia. I would take the child in my arms and feel an imperative need to protect her from some unknown danger.
"There were days when Lolita's big shy eyes regarded me with an unspoken question, and there were evenings when I saw her break into sudden uncontrollable sobs.
"I had ceased to think of travelling on. I was entranced by the South -- and Lolita.
"Golden hot days and silvery melancholy nights.
"And then, one time, the unforgettable reality and dreamlike unreality as Lolita sat on my balcony, and sang softly, as she often did. But this time she came to me with halting steps on the landing, the guitar discarded precipitously on the floor. And while her eyes sought out the image of the flickering moon in the water, like a pleading child she flung her trembling little arms around my neck, leaned her head on my chest, and began sobbing. There were tears in her eyes, but her sweet mouth was laughing.
"Then the miracle happened. 'You are so strong,' she whispered.
"Days and nights came and went . . . my beauty kept her secret in a song of imperturbable serenity.
"The days turned into weeks and I realized that it was time to continue my travels. Not that any duty called me, but Lolita's immense and dangerous love had begun to frighten me. When I told her this she gave me an indescribable look and nodded silently. Suddenly she seized my hand and bit me as hard as she could. Twenty-five years have not erased the marks of love she left on my hand.
"By the time I was able to speak Lolita had disappeared into the house. I only saw her one more time.
"That evening I spoke seriously with Severo about his daughter. 'Come, sir,' he said, 'I have something to show you that will explain everything.' He lead me into a room that was separated from my own by a door. I stood in amazement.
"In that plain room stood only a small table and three armchairs. But they were the same, or nearly the same, as the chairs in the Walzer brothers' tavern. And I realized instantly that it had been Severo Ancosta's house that I had dreamed of on the eve of my trip.
"There was a drawing of Lolita on the wall, which was so perfect that I went up to examine it more closely.
" 'You think that's a picture of Lolita,' laughed Severo, 'but that is Lola, the grandmother of Lolita's great-grandmother. It's a hundred years since she was strangled during a fight between her two lovers.'
"We sat down and Severo in his genial manner told this story. He told me of Lola, who was the most beautiful woman of her time in the town, so beautiful that men died for love of her. Shortly after giving birth to a daughter, she was murdered by two of her lovers, whom she had driven to madness.
" 'And since that time a curse lies on the family. The women all give birth to a daughter, and winthin weeks of giving birth, they always go mad. And they were all beautiful -- as beautiful as Lolita.'
" 'My wife died that way,' he whispered, serious now, 'and my daughter will die the same way.'
"I could hardly think of anything to say to comfort him, as I myself was overcome with fear for my little Lolita.
"That evening when I went to my room I found a small red flower that I could not identify on my pillow. Lolita's farewell present, I thought and picked it up. Only then did I see that the flower was white, the red was Lolita's blood. Such was her love.
"That night I couldn't sleep. A thousand dreams pursued me. Then suddenly, it must have been close to midnight, I saw something frightful. The door to the next room was open, and sitting at the table in the middle of the room were three people. To the right and left were two strong young blond fellows and between them sat Lolita. No, probably not Lolita but Lola -- or maybe it really was Lolita?
"On the table were glasses of dark red wine. The girl laughed out loud, uninhibitedly, and there was an insolence around her mouth. The two men picked up violins and began to play. I felt the blood in my veins pulse faster -- I recognized the melody -- the gavotte from the days of the Sun King. As the tune ended, the woman drank down her glass to the bottom and let out another bright silvery laugh.
"The young man who sat facing me lay down his violin on the table. 'Now, tell us, which of us will you choose?'
"She laughed, 'the handsomest -- but you are both so handsome. You have a cold foreign beauty that we are not used to here.'
"Then the other one shouted even louder, 'Him or me, tell us, woman, or by God . . .'
" 'You both love me,' she said . 'If your love is so great, then fight for me and I will ask the blessed Virgin to send me a sign to show which of you loves me most. Are you willing?'
" 'Yes,' agreed the men and glared at each other.
" 'I will love the one who is strongest.'
" 'So they took off their jackets and their muscles swelled. But they were realized they were equally strong.
" 'I will love whoever is tallest.' Their eyes flashed.
"And the men seemed to grow taller and taller, their necks lengthened and thickened, and their sleeves burst right down to the elbows. Their faces became so ugly and distorted, that I feared their bones would break. But not by so much as a hair was one larger than the other.
"Their fists came crashing down onto the table, and the violins jumped and then came a godforsaken cursing.
" 'I will love the eldest.'
"The hair fell from their heads, deep furrows spread across their faces, their hands trembled with weakness and their knees shook as they tried with great fatigue to raise themselves to their full height. Their poisonous glances became feeble and the roaring cries of rage turned to croaking.
" 'By God, woman,' howled one of them, 'speak once more or you will go to hell, you and your thrice-accursed beauty.'
"She fell forward laughing onto the table, and cried with streaming eyes, 'I will love, yes, I will love the one who has the longest and ugliest beard!'
"Long red hair shot out of the men's faces, and they emitted insane animal cries of rage and despair. With upraised fists they faced each other. Then the woman tried to run away.
'But in a moment the two of them fell on her and she was strangled between their long, bony fingers.
"I was unable to move a muscle, my spine turned to ice and I forced my eyes shut. When I opened them again I saw that the two men in the next room, gazing down on the result of their rage were Anton and Aloys Walzer. I fainted dead away.
"When I came to the sun was already streaming into my room, and the door to the next room was shut. I rushed to opened it and found everything just as it had been before. But I remember thinking that the fine layer of dust I had seen before on the furniture was gone. And I could smell the faintest hint of wine in the air.
"A few hours later I went outside into the street and found Severo pale and in distress coming toward me. There were tears in his eyes.
" 'Lolita died last night,' he said softly.
"I don't know how to explain what those words did to me, but if I could it would be a sacrilege to speak of it. My beloved little Lolita lay in her narrow bed, her eyes wide open. Her tears had collected on her lower lip and her fragrant blond hair lay in confusion.
"I don't know the manner of her death. In my fathomless dismay I forgot to ask. There was a little cut on the brown left arm -- but that surely did not kill her. She did that to turn a white flower red -- for me.
"I shut her tender eyes and hid my head in her cool hand -- I don't know for how long.
"Eventually Severo came in and reminded me that the steamship that was to take me to Marseilles would be leaving in an hour. So I left.
"When the ship was far from shore I recognized the outline of Santa Barbara, and it occurred to me that this angular castle could now be looking down on a small beloved body being laid in the earth. My heart had never felt such a yearning and I beseeched the towers 'Send her my love, send her my love before she is gone -- and forever, forever.'
"But I took Lolita's soul with me.
"Some years later I returned to the old south German town. In the Walzer's old tavern, there now lived an ugly woman who dealt in seed. I asked after the brothers and found out that they were both found dead in their easychairs by the stove on the morning that followed Lolita's death. They were smiling."
The professor, whose gaze blindly strayed on his dish as he spoke, looked up. The Countess Beata opened her eyes. "You are a poet,'" she said and the bracelet on her delicate wrist clinked as she gave him her hand.
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