FROM The Journey to the East by Hermann Hesse
AS I APPROACHED the house of which I now knew every crack and fissure in its grey-green plaster, I heard the tune whistled of a little song or dance, a popular tune, coming from the upper window. I did not know anything yet, but I listened. The tune stirred my memory and some dormant recollections came to the fore. The music was banal but the whistling was wonderfully sweet, with soft and pleasing notes, unusually pure, as happy and as natural as the songs of birds. I stood and listened, enchanted, and at the same time strangely moved without, however, having any kind of accompanying thoughts. Or if I did, it was perhaps that it must be a very happy and amiable man who could whistle like that. For several minutes I stood there rooted to the spot and listened. An old man with a sick, sunken face went by. He saw me standing and listened too, just for a moment, then smiled at me with understanding as he went on. His beautiful, far-seeing old man’s look seemed to say: “You stay there, one does not hear whistling like that every day.” The old man’s glance cheered me. I was sorry when he went past. At the same moment, however, I immediately realized that this whistling was the fulfillment of all my wishes, that the whistler must be Leo.
It was growing dark but there was still no light in any window. The tune, with its simple variations, was finished. There was silence. “He will now make a light up there,” I thought, but everything remained in darkness. Then I heard a door being opened upstairs and soon I also heard footsteps on the stairs. The door of the house was opened and someone came out, and his walk was like his whistling, light and jolly, but steady, healthy and youthful. It was a very slim, hatless man, not very tall, who walked there, and now my feelings was changed to certainty. It was Leo; not only the Leo from the directory, it was Leo himself, our dear traveling companion and servant Leo, whose disappearance ten or more years ago had brought us so much sadness and confusion. I nearly addressed him in the moment of my initial joy and surprise. Then I only just remembered that I had also often heard him whistling during the Journey to the East. They were the same strains of previous times, and yet how strangely different they sounded to me! A feeling of sadness came over me like a stab in the heart: oh, how different everything had become since then, the sky, the air, the seasons, dreams, sleep, day and night! How greatly and terribly everything had changed for me when, through memory of the past alone, a whistle and the rhythm of a known step could affect me so deeply and give me so much pleasure and pain!
The man went close by me, his bare head, supple and serene on his bare neck, appeared above his blue open-neck shirt. The figure moved easily and gaily along the darkening lane, hardly audible in thin sandals or gym shoes. I followed him without any particular intention. How could I help but follow him! He walked down the lane, and although his step was light, effortless and youthful, it was also in keeping with the evening; it was of the same quality as the twilight, it was friendly and at one with the hour, with the subdued sounds from the center of the town, with the half-light of the first lamps which were just beginning to appear.
He turned into the small park at St. Paul’s Gate, disappeared amongst the tall round bushes, and I hurried so that I should not lose him. There he was again; he was sauntering slowly alongside the lilac bushes and the acacia. The path divided into two through the little wood. There were a couple of benches at the edge of the sward. Here under the trees it was already dark. Leo went past the first bench; a pair of lovers were sitting on it. The next bench was empty. He sat down, leaned against the bench, pressed his head back and for a time looked up at the foliage and the clouds. Then he took a small round white metal box out of his coat pocket, put it by his side on the bench, unscrewed the lid and slowly began to take somediing out of the box which he put into his mouth and ate with enjoyment. Meantime I walked to and from the entrance to the wood; I then went up to his bench and sat down at the other end. He looked up, gazed at me with clear grey eyes and went on eating. He was eating dried fruits, a few prunes and half apricots. He took them one after the other between two fingers, pressed and fingered each one a little, put them in his mouth and chewed them for a long time with enjoyment. It took a long time before he came to the last one and ate it. He then closed the box again and put it away, leaned back and stretched out his legs. I now saw that his cloth shoes had soles of plaited rope.
“It will rain tonight,” he said suddenly, I knew not whether to me or to himself.
“Yes, it looks like it,” I said, somewhat embarrassed, for as he had not yet recognized my figure and walk, it was possible and I was almost certain that he would now recognize me by my voice.
But no, he did not recognize me at all, not even by my voice, and although that had been my first wish, it nevertheless gave me a feeling of great disappointment. He did not recognize me. While he had remained the same after ten years and had apparently not aged at all, it was quite different with me, sadly different.
“You whistle very well,” I said. “I heard you earlier on in Seilergraben. It gave me very much pleasure. I used to be a musician.”
“Oh, were you!” he said in a friendly manner. “It’s a great profession. Have you given it up?”
“Yes, for the time being. I have even sold my violin.”
“Have you? What a pity! Are you in difficulties — that is to say, are you hungry? There is still some food at my house. I also have a little money in my purse.”
“Oh, no,” I said quickly, “I did not mean that. I am in quite good circumstances. I have more than I need. But thank you very much; it was very kind of you to make the offer. One does not often meet such kind people.”
“Don’t you think so? Well, maybe! People are often very strange. You are a strange person, too.”
“Am I? Why?”
“Well, because you have enough money and yet you sell your violin. Don’t you like music any more?”
“Oh, yes, but sometimes a man no longer finds pleasure in something he previously loved. Sometimes a man sells his violin or throws it against the wall, or a painter burns all his pictures. Have you never heard of such a thing?”
“Oh, yes. That comes from despair. It does happen. I even knew two people who committed suicide. Such people are stupid and can be dangerous. One just cannot help some people. But what do you do now that you no longer have your violin?”
“Oh, this, that and the other. I do not really do much. I am no longer young and I am also often ill. But why do you keep on talking about this violin? It is not really so important.”
“The violin? It made me think of King David.”
“King David? What has he to do with it?”
“He was also a musician. When he was quite young he used to play for King Saul and sometimes dispelled his bad moods with music. Later he became a king himself, a great king full of cares, having all sorts of moods and vexations. He wore a crown and conducted wars and all that kind of thing, and he also did many really wicked things and became very famous. But when I think of his life, the most beautiful part of it all is about the young David with his harp playing music to poor Saul, and it seems a pity to me that he later became a king. He was a much happier and better person when he was a musician.”
“Of course he was!” I cried rather passionately. “Of course, he was younger then and more handsome and happier. But one does not always remain young; your David would in time have grown older and uglier and would have been full of cares even if he had remained a musician. So he became the great David, performed his deeds and composed his psalms. Life is not just a game!”
Leo then rose and bowed. “It is growing dark,” he said, “and it will rain soon. I do not know a great deal more about the deeds that David performed, and whether they were really great. To be quite frank, I do not know very much more about his psalms either, but I should not like to say anything against them. But no account of David can prove to me that life is not just a game. That is just what life is when it is beautiful and happy — a game! Naturally, one can also do all kinds of other things with it, make a duty of it, or a battleground, or a prison, but that does not make it any prettier. Good-bye, pleased to have met you!”