Yep, that's right... In the next segment of our story (Chapter 3) Oskar has a run-in with the postman!


Chapter 3. The Escape

Maurus had gone. But he had left his books behind. I immersed myself in them. Then he sent for them, and that joy was taken from me. Anna, or “Nanndl” as we called her, also read everything I gave her. The world of fiction had a strong hold over us. What to do?

We saw an advertisement in the newspaper for Bong Classics. It had a picture of the books, and they looked very impressive. We thought it over. After a few bread-rounds we arrived at a decision. We raked the money together, Nanndl her tips and I my weekly wages. Then we ordered – through the shoemaker again – Schiller’s works, then Lessing, Petöfi, Mörike, Lenau, and Grabbe.

The edition was bound in red with gilt edges. We found it very attractive. We were still afraid that Max would discover our secret, so for the time being we left the books at the shoemaker’s. But there his little children got a hold of them and smudged the pages. We racked our brains for another solution.

I thought of Leni. But Nanndl, who like everyone else in the household knew nothing of the tie between us, opposed the idea.

The wheels of invention were churning in me. What if we managed to make my wardrobe, which stood in the journeyman’s room, accessible only to us two?

The idea took hold of me and wouldn’t let go. It had to work. The only difficulty was to complete the work when no one was around.

On Sunday afternoons the journeyman was usually out. Max had to visit various innkeepers to handle their accounts. Mother usually sat in the summerhouse and knitted, and Leni went to church.

We set to work. We made an accurate drawing of the wardrobe door, cut out the shelf and split it down the middle, so that between the door and the shelf there was a fairly wide empty space – nearly half the depth of the wardrobe. Then we applied all our skill to making a new door for the inside, put a lock on it, and fixed it in its place. Afterwards we made a shelf for show, exactly like the original, and nailed it to the sham door, so that when the original door was opened everything inside looked the same as usual in spite of the hidden space behind. In front for show, we put everything back as it had been before; but in the back we stowed our books, arranging them in a neat row. There stood the mysterious wardrobe, just as before. The key was in the lock as it had always been; when one opened the door there was nothing but uninteresting clothes, collars on the shelf, several ties, and my hat.

The work had taken three Sunday afternoons – hours of danger and excitement. We leaped in triumph when we saw how perfectly it worked. Then we snuck around to the shoemaker’s, fetched our classics one after another, and arranged them in a row on our secret shelf with their gleaming gold bindings turned outwards.

Up to this point we usually looked glum when we were sent on an extra, unexpected bread-round, but now we were willing and even pleased. One of us would steal away quickly, quietly fetch a book upstairs, and hide it under our clothes; then we hurried away. Only after we were beyond the village and there was not a soul in sight would we begin reading. As a rule we read aloud if it was poetry. If it was prose, we separated and agreed on a place where we would meet again. It was quite immaterial whether we understood what we read. What mattered was that we had read it and were familiar with it all. It was total amount that counted.

We were enraptured. The sound of the words intoxicated us. In the end I knew many, many verses by heart. Schiller’s “Song of the Bell” flowed from my lips. And one day I read the first poem of my own to Nanndl. Of course, I recited it with so much feeling that all other poems seemed like lame attempts in comparison, and naturally that had its effect on Nanndl. She praised it highly. I compared it to Uhland and to Schiller and considered it just as beautiful.

Autumn came. We had to mind the cows out at pasture. The days were clear and warm, and the sky hung dreamily over us. We lay on our backs and gazed upwards. We were content. I composed ballads in those days, and Anna was always moved by them. I read eagerly about the varied careers of poets, and pictured my own future accordingly. As a rule, when I had finished a poem I introduced it with a romantic tale about a poet, and did not fail to draw comparisons. In so doing, I believe the figures became clearer in my mind than if someone else had depicted them for me. My stories sounded as if I had personally known Grabbe, Schiller, and all these great people. Some day, I thought, I will also rise up out of obscurity and astonish the whole world.

After a while those at home became aware of my poetry. Emma was living at home again, and I read something to her. She was always a patient listener and was the most optimistic among us. She laughed at me all the same, but found what I had written pleasing. One Sunday, when I couldn’t contain any longer and read a verse to Leni with tremendous pathos, she said, “You will be another Goethe yet.” Only Max couldn’t know about it. My mother was not interested; she read nothing but her prayer book and the church notices in the Starnberg Messenger.

Our library grew and with it the danger of being discovered. But we were seized by a sheer fanaticism for book buying. Often we forgot all our precautions and then suffered hours of torment in fear of Max.

“If I’m found out this time, I’ll have to leave, otherwise Max will kill me,” I often said to Nanndl.

She nodded mechanically and complacently, “Yes, you’re right.”

But we didn’t think beyond that. In spite of all our precautions we were never free from fear, and I lost sleep over every slight indication of danger. I worried endlessly, and so did Nanndl.

Mother had once told me that when she was a young girl she prayed to the Virgin Mary to fulfill a particular wish of hers within a certain time. But she went on thinking about her wish, and so it was not fulfilled. But her sister Mary, she said, had once just a passing fancy, never thought about it again, and her wish was fulfilled.

That gave us a hint. Now we constantly thought about the danger and so hoped to charm it away.

One day Nanndl came to the woodshed to report nervously, “Oskar, the postman has been asking the shoemaker why he is always having things sent paid-on-delivery, and what is in the parcels...”

The postman! Our worst enemy! Known far and wide as a vain, gossiping storyteller! A man we never greeted in passing because his face reminded us of Max.

The postman! On account of his appearance and his smart, soldierly bearing, all the girls wanting to get married fluttered around him, and fully aware of this, he inflated his role as the great man everywhere, had his finger in every pie, and was, so to speak, the moral gauge of the times. This chit of a discharged officer whom we had taken prisoner, hanged, shot, run over, and quartered in hundreds of our stories?! He had said that? He was still alive?!

I ran to the shoemaker’s.

“What did the postman say?”

The old man tried to avoid me. I pressed him. At last he admitted, “The snoop! He did ask me why I was always sending for things. I was flustered and said I didn’t know what was in the parcels…“

Now I saw trouble ahead. I ran home again and told Nanndl. I thought it over: one way or another it’s going to come out. I have to leave! Leave!

So I have to flee – but how?

I turned it over and over in my mind.

As I already mentioned, we had a large grocery in addition to the bakery where we sold spirits, suspenders, peas and beans, ribbons, chocolate, cigars, cigarettes, etc. Basically all sorts of things that would be useful if I ran away.

I went to the lumber-room and looked for Eugene’s suitcase he had from the reserves. I put it in the hayloft, and slowly packed it. I stole several bars of soap from the shop, two bottles of spirits, candles, a heap of soup squares, tea, a pound of salt, a packet of sugar, collar-studs, writing paper, pens, and ink. One side of the suitcase was full. Then I fetched my shirts, got an old spirit-lamp from the kitchen cupboard, matches, a few towels, two tins of chocolate that vanished under my hands, and I packed the whole lot together with my shoes and some other clothes in the other side of the suitcase, shut it, and covered it with hay.

My mind was easier now. At any rate I was prepared to flee.

Yes – but you silly fool, I thought suddenly as I crept downstairs, you need money more than anything else if you are going to run away! Money! And once more I was seized by horrible fear.

Where could I get money?

As my thoughts spun around I suddenly remembered the savings bank account that my mother had last shown me on my birthday. I had three hundred marks already.

With such a sum, I am lord of the whole world, I thought. I crept right away to my mother’s room and poked around. There was nothing to be found. The coveted treasure was neither in the wardrobe nor in the chest of drawers.

But the cupboard on the wall with the Madonna above it was locked. That amounted to a silent confirmation. The savings books must be hidden there.

But where was the key? I searched everywhere, but found nothing. In despair I crept back to bed and waited till Mother came upstairs. Luckily the journeyman had gone to the local pub. No sooner had Mother shut her bedroom door than I went and peered through the keyhole. And I was right. She said her evening prayers, went to the wall, raised the Madonna a little to one side, and pulled out a small key. Then she opened the cupboard. I knew everything and was satisfied. I went back to bed at ease. And it was high time, too. I heard the journeyman coughing as he climbed the stairs.

The next day I had the savings book. Nothing came of it. The days passed. My nerves were on edge. I slept poorly. I plunged into my books again, but I couldn’t focus. Any day, any hour might bring catastrophe. Nothing happened.

It must have been about three in the afternoon. Finished with tidying up the bakery, I sat down on a bench and gradually nodded off to sleep. Suddenly the door opened and Max was standing in front of me and grabbed me.

All I heard was, “You – !” and something about the postman, and payment on delivery, and the shoemaker. Then his iron blows rained down on me. Max dragged me up to the wardrobe, turned my pockets inside out for the key, opened first the wardrobe and then the secret door, and hurled the books out. All the while he never stopped beating me. Blood was flowing from my head. I clenched my teeth and shut my eyes. I was covered in sweat, then turned ice-cold, and still the blows rained down. Suddenly I fell to the ground and lay there out cold. When I came to and looked round, all was quiet. The clock showed it was a quarter past four. I got up, carefully dusted myself off, crept down into the stable, let the cold water run over my throbbing head, and washed till I felt refreshed. Back in the journeyman’s room I put on my Sunday clothes, pulled my savings-book out from under the mattress of the journeyman’s bed, and set out towards Aufkirchen where the savings bank was.

I had made up my mind: I would run away.

But first I had to get the money. All the way there I racked my brains as to how I should speak to the cashier so as to make matters appear natural and innocent. It was striking five already. I hurried. By six she might be gone. Perhaps she had already closed the bank and gone for a walk. Again I was seized with terror. I hurled my feet forward and ran panting up the hill. From the top there was a wide view over the fields. It was a clear late autumn day. Manure wagons were standing in the stubble-fields. Ploughs wound over the brown fields, drawn by slow-moving oxen. A peaceful quiet was all around.

What if she won’t give me the money? The thought darted suddenly through my head. I was already considering whether I shouldn’t sleep in the woods and set out the next day. Nevertheless, I trudged along more resolutely than ever.

I actually did find the cashier still at the savings bank. She looked at me with aged, watery eyes through her spectacles, asked what I wanted, and sniffed. The cashier was namely an old maid of sixty with all the allure of a kind schoolmaster’s wife. I played the part of a well-behaved, shy schoolboy and said politely, “Good day, Miss Waschmitzius. Mother sends her kind regards, and I am to fetch the money to get a new suit.”

Miss Waschmitzius looked at me somewhat suspiciously, but because I gazed at her so very innocently, her wrinkled face brightened.

“Well, well – Oh, yes – You come from Graf, the baker. You are Oskar? Oh, yes, but you must sign for it,” she said, and her eyes questioned me.

“Oh, yes,” I said all the more sanctimoniously. “I know, Mother told me – nobody else had time to come – I am old enough to sign.”

She pattered across the room to the safe with the book that I handed to her, counted out the money, and I signed.

“Count it again,” she said.

I did so. Three hundred marks. Ten twenty-mark bills and a hundred- mark banknote.

Yes, that’s exactly right, Miss Waschmitzius,” I repeated very politely and even tried to smile. Then I put the money in my pocket, said, “Thank you,” and left. Out on the street I was overwhelmed by a feeling of triumph. I hurried out of the village and suddenly began to laugh out loud. A heat ran through me, upwards and down again. I was already looking forward to the railway journey, for now everything was settled and firm in my mind.

When I got home I crept to my room through the barn and listened for a while. Nobody made a sound. I had brought down my suitcase from the hayloft, and when I was ready I came downstairs quite noisily, for I knew that Max was driving a cart of manure out to the field. Mother came out of the kitchen. She stood there and looked at me helplessly, “What are you doing?”

“I am leaving,” I shouted at her and was on the verge of crying. I slipped hastily out the back door. There was a lump in my throat and I could hardly breathe.

Leni was loading the cart with manure. When I passed her she just looked at me. I wanted to speak, but I was ashamed of myself and looked in the other direction, and then I ran on quickly.

I went down into the Etz Valley to where the steamers stopped. On the road I met Nanndl. She said, “Are you off now?”

I only nodded and looked at her sorrowfully. She stood and waved after me for a long time. In a rush I had told her to send the books to me secretly, and occasionally something to eat, too. I would write to her through the shoemaker.

It was not till I had seen the last of them that I felt more at ease. It seemed to be finally clear to me that I only had myself to rely upon now.

I looked out over the meadow at the bottom of the valley where the horses grazed, and everything came back to me – playing Indians, the shooting, our destructive pranks, and the horse chasing – and my feelings turned nostalgic and sad. But these thoughts were interwoven with others about the city and the future. It was all a confused tangle. I gulped down my tears and went resolutely on my way.


1 comment

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