Title: Burning Secret.
Author: Stefan Zweig.
Genre: Fiction, literature, foreign lit, novellas, parenthood.
Publication Date: 1913.
Summary: The suave Baron, bored on his holiday in an Austrian mountain resort, begins a flirtation with a beautiful married woman. When his advances are rejected, he seeks a new way to her heart—by befriending her twelve-year-old son. To the Baron all this is a game, but he cannot begin to imagine the effect he is having on the boy's life. A compelling tale of seduction, jealousy and betrayal.
My rating: 8/10.
♥ Although he was not without inner resources, he was very gregarious by nature, which made him popular. He was welcome everywhere he went, and was well aware of his inability to tolerate solitude. He felt no inclination to be alone and avoided it as far as possible; he didn't really want to become any better acquainted with himself. He knew that, if he was to show his talents to best advantage, he needed to strike sparks off other people to fan the flames of warmth and exuberance in his heart. On his own he was frosty, no use to himself at all, like a match left lying in its box.
♥ He was the kind of young man whose handsome face has brought him plenty of success in the past and is now ever-ready for a new encounter, a fresh experience, always eager to set off into the unknown territory of a little adventure, never taken by surprise because he has worked out everything in advance and in waiting to see what happens, a man who will never overlook any erotic opportunity, whose first glance probes every woman's sensuality and explores it, without discriminating between his friend's wife and the parlour-maid who opens the door to him. Such men are described with a certain facile contempt as lady-killers, but the term has a nugget of truthful observation in it, for in fact all the passionate instincts of the chase are present in their ceaseless vigilance: the stalking of the prey, the excitement and mental cruelty of the kill. They are constantly on the alert, always ready and willing to follow the trail of an adventure to the very edge of the abyss. They are full of passion all the time, but it is the passion of a gambler rather than a lover, cold, calculating and dangerous. Some are so persistent that their whole lives, long after their youth is spent, are made an eternal adventure by this expectation.
♥ Only sensuous attraction could stimulate his energy to its full force. The huntsman in him scented prey. Challengingly, his eyes now sought to meet hers, which sometimes briefly returned his gaze with sparkling indecision as she looked past him, but never gave a clear, outright answer. He thought he also detected the trace of a smile beginning to play around her mouth now and then, but none of that was certain, and its very uncertainty aroused him. The one thing that did strike him as promising was her constant refusal to look him in the eye, betraying both resistance and self-consciousness, and then there was the curiously painstaking way she talked to her child, which was clearly meant for an onlooker. Her persistent façade of calm, he felt, meant in itself that she was beginning to feel troubled. He too was excited; the game had begun.
♥ Children are always proud of an illness, knowing that danger makes them doubly important to the rest of their family.
♥ Edgar was very intelligent, as his conversation showed: rather precocious, like most sickly children who have spent a great deal of time with adults, and was clearly highly strung, inclined to be either fervently affectionate or hostile. He did not seem to adopt a moderate stance to anything, and spoke of everyone or everything either with enthusiasm or a dislike so violent it distorted his face, making him look almost vicious and ugly. Something wild and erratic, perhaps as a result of the illness from which he had only just recovered, gave fanatical fire to what he said, and it seemed that his awkwardness was merely fear, suppressed with difficulty, of his pwn passionate nature.
The Baron easily won his confidence. Just half-an-hour, and he had that hot and restless heart in his hands. It is so extraordinarily easy to deceive children, unsuspecting creatures whose affections are so seldom sought. ..And then his new friend waved as he walked away, just like a brother. That moment was, perhaps, the best of Edgar's life. It is so very easy to deceive children.
♥ He was certain that the talkative boy wouldn't rest until he had brought his friend and his mother together. He didn't have to life a finger to decrease the distance between himself and the fair unknown, he could dream happily now as he looked at the landscape, for he knew that a pair of hot, childish hands was building him a bridge to her heart.
♥ Edgar slept badly that night, full of a mixture of happiness and childish desperation. Something new had come into his existence today. For the first time he had become a part of adult life. Half-asleep, he forgot his own childhood state and felt that he too was suddenly a grown-up. Until now, brought up as a lonely and often sickly child, he had had few friends. There had been no one to satisfy his need for affection but his parents, who took little notice of him, and the servants. And the strength of a love is always misjudged if we evaluate it only by its immediate cause and not the stress that went before it, the dark and hollow space full of disappointment and loneliness that precedes all the great events in the heart's history. A great, unused capacity for emotion had been lying in wait, and now it raced with outstretched arms towards the first person who seemed to deserve it. Edgar lay in the dark, happy and bewildered, he wanted to laugh and couldn't help crying. For he loved this man as he had never loved a friend, or his father and mother, or even God. The whole immature passion of his early years now clung to the image of a man even whose name he had not know two hours ago.
♥ It was very like that he would not pursue his quarry in vain. She was at that crucial age when a woman begins to regret having stayed faithful to a husband she never really loved, when the glowing sunset colours of her beauty offer her one last, urgent choice between maternal and feminine love. At such a moment a life that seemed to have chosen its course long ago is questioned once again, for the last time the magic compass needle of the will hovers between final resignation and the hope of erotic experience. Then a woman is confronted with a dangerous decision: does she live her own life or live for her children? And the Baron, who had a keen eye for these things, thought he saw in her just that dangerous hesitation between the fire of life and self-sacrifice. She kept forgetting to bring her husband into the conversation. He obviously appeared to satisfy only her outer needs, not the snobbish ambitions aroused in her by an elegant way of life, and deep inside her she really knew very little about her child. A trace of boredom, appearing as veiled melancholy in her dark eyes, lay over her life and muted her sensuality.
♥ Edgar turned pale with horror. Being sent to bed is a terrible command to all children, because it means the most public possible humiliation in front of adults, the confession that they bear the stigma of childhood, of being small and habing a child's need for sleep. But such shame was even more terrible at this fascinating moment, when it meant he must miss hearing such wonderful things.
♥ Like all gamblers, they forgot the time and lost themselves so entirely in ardent conversation that only when the lights in the lobby were dimmed at midnight did they come to their senses with a start.
She immediately jumped up, obeying her first impulse of alarm, and suddenly realized how daringly far she had ventured to go. She was not unaccustomed to playing with fire, but now her excited instincts felt how close this game was to becoming serious. With a shudder, she realized that she did not feel entirely sure of herself, that something in her was beginning to slide away, moving alarmingly close to the whirlpool. Her head was full of a bewildering mixture of fear, wine, and risqué talk, and a muted, mindless anxiety came over her, the anxiety she had felt several times in her life before at such dangerous moments, although never before had it been so vertiginous and violent.
♥ "Ah, stay a little longer," whispered the Baron. But she was already hurrying away, with awkward haste that made her fear and confusion very obvious. The excitement that her partner in conversation wanted to arouse filled her now, she felt that everything in her was topsy-turvy. She was driven by her ardent, cruel fear that the man behind her might pursue and catch her, but at the same time, even as she made her escape, she already felt some regret that he didn't. At that moment, what she had unconsciously been longing for over the years might have happened, the adventure that she voluptuously liked to imagine close, although so far she had always avoided it just in time: a real, dangerous relationship, not simply a light flirtation. But the Baron had too much pride to run after her and take advantage of the moment. He was certain of victory, and would not pounce on the woman now in a weak moment when she was tipsy; on the contrary, he played fair, and was excited only by the chase and the thought of her surrender to him in full awareness. She could not escape him. The burning venom, he could see, was already running through her veins.
♥ Only then did she understand. She had promised the child to tell him about them this very evening, all about the hunt and the adventures. And the boy had stolen into her room, naïve and childish as he was, waiting for her to come in perfect confidence, and had fallen asleep as he waited. His extravagant behaviour made her indignant—although it was really with herself that she felt angry. She heard a soft murmur of guilt and shame within her and wanted to shout it down. "Go back to bed, you naughty boy," she cried. Edgar stared at her in surprise. Why was she so angry with him when he'd done nothing wrong? But his surprise made the already agitated woman even angrier. "Go back to your room at once," she shouted—furiously, because she felt that she was being unjust. Edgar went without a word. He really was extremely tired, and was only vaguely aware, through the mists of sleep closing in, that his mother had not kept her promise, and wrong had been done to him in some way or other. But he did not rebel. Everything in him was muted by weariness, and then again, he was very angry with himself for going to sleep up here instead of staying awake. Just like a small child, he told himself indignantly before he fell asleep again.
For since yesterday he had hated his own condition of childhood.
♥ The Baron had slept badly. It is always risky to go to bed after an adventure has been left unfinished; a restless night, full of sultry dreams, soon made him feel sorry he had no seized the moment after all.
♥ He was beginning to feel bored by the way the child was always lying in wait for him, but his silly questions and his unwanted passion in general. He was tired of going around with a twelve-year-old day in, day out, talking nonsense to him. All he wanted now was to strike while the iron was hot and get the mother alone, and here the child's unwelcome presence was a problem. For the first time he felt distaste for the affection he had incautiously aroused, because at the moment he saw no chance of shaking off his excessively devoted friend.
♥ Every passion leaves its mark on the delicate organisms of children, as if making an impression on soft wax.
♥ But Edgar did not smile at his joke, just scrutinized him with a longing but penetrating glance, as if trying to probe his soul. What was going on? Something had changed between them, and the child didn't know why. His eyes wandered restlessly, and in his heart a small, rapid hammer was at work, forging the first suspicion.
♥ What's changed them so much, wondered the child, sitting opposite them in the carriage as they drove along, why aren't they the same to me as before? Why does Mama keep avoiding my eyes when I look at her? Why is he always trying to make jokes and clown about kike that? They don't either of them talk to me the way they did yesterday and the day before, it's almost as if they had new faces. Mama has such red lips today, she must have painted them. I never saw her do that before. And he keeps frowning as if I'd hurt his feelings. But I haven't done anything to them, I haven't said a word that could annoy them, have I? No, I can't be the reason, because they're acting differently with each other too, they're not the same as before. It's as if they'd done something they don't like to talk about. They're not chattering away like yesterday, they're not laughing either, they're embarrassed, they're hiding something. They have a secret or some kind, and they don't want to share it with me. A secret, and I must find out what it is at any price. I know it must be the sort of thing that makes people send me out of the room, the sort of thing books are always going on about, and operas when men and women sing together with their arms spread wide, and hug and then push each other away. Somehow or other it must be the same as all that business about my French governess who behaved so badly with Papa, and then she was sent away. All those things are connected, I can feel that, it's just that I don't know how. Oh, I wish I knew the secret, I wish I understood it, I wish I had the key that opens all those doors, and I wasn't a child any more with people hiding things from me and pretending.
♥ Nothing whets the intelligence more than a passionate suspicion, nothing develops all the faculties of an immature mind more than a trail running away into the dark. Sometimes it is only a flimsy door that cuts children off from what we call the real world, and a chance gust of wind will blow it open for them.
Suddenly Edgar felt that the unknown, the great secret was closer than ever before, almost within reach, he felt it just before him—still locked away and unsolved, to be sure, but close, very close. That excited him and gave him a sudden, solemn gravity. For unconsciously he guessed that he was approaching the end of his childhood.
♥ The child seemed to her like a ghost, a guardian of her conscience, doubly intolerable here in the cramped carriage, sitting just opposite with his watchful eyes flowing darkly beneath his pale forehead. Then Edgar suddenly looked up, just for a second. Both of them lowered their eyes again at once; she felt, for the first tome in her life, that they were keeping watch on each other. Until now they had trusted one another blindly, but today something between the two of them, mother and child, was suddenly different. For the first time they began observing each other, separating their two lives, both already feeling a secret dislike that was still too new for them to dare to acknowledge it.
♥ He had a secret of his own now. Its name was hatred, boundless hatred for both of them.
♥ Edgar was now tormenting the defenseless couple with all the cruelty natural to children, which is still almost animal in nature.
♥ He knew that she was snapping at him in desperation, and felt proud that she was exposing herself like that. His glance was perfectly calm now, like a doctor's. Once he might perhaps have been naughty in order to annoy her, but you learn a lot when you hate, and you learn fast. Now he said nothing, he went on saying nothing, until the sheer pressure of his silence had her at screaming-point.
♥ He emphasized the word "Papa," having noticed already that it had a certain inhibiting effect on them both. So somehow or other his father too must be a part of that burning secret. Papa must have some kind of secret power over the couple, something that he himself didn't know about, for even the mention of his name seemed to cause them alarm and discomfiture. Once again they did not reply. They had laid down their arms. His mother went ahead, the Baron with her. After them came Edgar, but not humbly like a servant, instead he was harsh, stern, implacable as a jailer. Invisibly, he clinked their chains—they were rattling those chains, but they couldn't break them. Hatred has steeled his childish power; he, who didn't know the secret, was stronger than the two whose hands were bound by it.
♥ What kind of terrible secret was it that drove grown-up people so far as to lie to him, a child, stealing away from him like thieves? In the books that he had read, people murdered and deceived each other to get their hands on money, or power, or kingdoms. But what was the reason here, what did those two want, why were they hiding from him, what were they trying to hide behind all their lies? He racked his brains. Dimply he felt that the secret was the bolt on the door of childhood, and once he had shot back the bolt and conquered the secret it would mean he was grown up, a man at long last. Oh, if he only knew the secret! But he couldn't think clearly anymore. His burning, corrosive anger at knowing they had got away from him blurred the clarity of his vision.
..His rage and impatience, his anger, curiosity, helplessness, and the betrayal of the last few days, all repressed in his childish struggle to live up to his delusion of being an adult, now burst out and found relief in floods of weeping. It was the last fit of weeping in his childhood, the last and wildest, the last time he weakly gave himself up, like a girl, to the luxury of tears. In that hour of bafflement and rage he wept everything out of him: trust, love, belief, respect—his entire childhood.
♥ He went gently to his mother, hugged her, and his voice was emotional and cajoling.
"Mama," he said, "you must have noticed that he doesn't have anything good in mind. He's made you quite different. You're the one who's changed, not me. He's turned you against me just so as to have you all to himself. I'm sure he'll let you down. I don't know what promise he's given you, I only know he won't keep it. You ought to beware if him. Anyone who tells lies to one person will tell lies to another too. He's a bad man, he's not to be trusted."
That voice, low and almost tearful, could have come from her own heart. Since yesterday she had had an uncomfortable feeling telling her the same, more and more urgently. But she was ashamed to admit that her own child was in the right. Like many people in such a situation, she extricated herself from the awkwardness of an overwhelming emotion by speaking roughly. She straightened her back.
"Children don't understand these things. You have no business meddling in them. You must behave better, and that's all there is to it."
Edgar's face froze again. "Just as you like," he said harshly. "I've warned you."
"So you refuse to apologize?"
They were standing close together, face to face. She felt that her authority was at stake.
"Then you will eat your meals up here. By yourself. And don't come down to our table again until you've apologized. I'll teach you good manners yet. You will not leave this room until I let you, is that understood?"
Edgar smiled. That sly smile seemed to have become a part of his lips. Privately, he was angry with himself. How foolish of him to have let his heart run away with him again trying to warn her when she was a liar herself!
♥ Where could he go? For her, in the middle of the woods so close to the hotel where he was staying, only fifteen minutes' walk away, he was overcome by a sense of desolation. Everything seemed different, more hostile, more dreadful now that he was alone with no one to help him. The trees that had rustled in such a friendly way around him yesterday suddenly looked dense and dark as a threat. And how much stranger and more unfamiliar must all that lay ahead of him be! This isolation, alone against the great, unknown world, made the child dizzy. No, he couldn't bear it yet, he couldn't yet bear to be on his own. But where could he go?
♥ All the same, he felt once more that money was something you didn't always have, something that had to be gained by some means or other. For the first time, he now realized that he took an atmosphere of comfort for granted, he was used to it, while to right and left of his existence there gaped abysses on which his eyes had never looked, going deep into the darkness. All of a sudden he understood that there were professions, there was purpose, that secrets clustered close around his life, near enough to touch, and yet they had gone ignored. Edgar learned a great deal from that single hour when he was all alone, he began to see through the windows of this cramped railway compartment and out into the open air. And quietly, in his dim apprehensions, something began to flower; it was not happiness yet, but a sense of amazement at the variety of life. He had fled out of fear and cowardice, he understood that now, but for the first time he had acted independently, had experienced something of the reality that had previously eluded him. For the first time, perhaps, he himself had become a secret to his mother and his father, just as the world had been a secret to him until now. He looked out of the window with new eyes. And he felt as if, for the first time, he was seeing reality, as if a veil had fallen away from what he saw and now showed him everything, the essence of its intentions, the secret nerve centre of its activity. Houses flew past as if blown away by the wind, and he found himself thinking of the people who lived in them, were they rich or poor, were they happy or unhappy, did they have his own longing to know everything, and were there perhaps children in there who, like himself, had only played games so far? The railwaymen standing by the tracks, waving their flags, seemed to him for the first time not, as before, just dolls and inanimate toys, placed there by indifferent chance; he understood that it was their fate, their own struggle with life. The wheels went round faster and faster, the rounded curves of the track now allowed the train to go down into the valley, the mountains looked gentler and more distant all the time, and then they reached the plain. He looked back once, to the place where they were still blue and full of shadows, distant an unattainable, and he felt as if his own childhood lay there, back in the place where the mountains slowly dissolved into the hazy sky.
♥ Edgar shuddered. The blood was pulsing back into his veins again, hotter and more turbulent than before. Suddenly he was unbearably lonely in this bewildering darkness, and he felt a strong, primeval need for a friendly voice, an embrace, a bright room, people whom he loved. It was as if the whole baffled darkness of this confusing night had sunk into him and was wrenching him apart.
He jumped up. He must get home, home, be at home somewhere in a lighted room, whatever it was like, in some kind of human relationship. What could happen to him, after all? If they beat him and scolded him, he wasn't afraid of anything now, not since he had felt that darkness and the fear of being alone.
♥ "..You must have had a reason for running away! Did someone harm you in any way?" Edgar hesitated. The memory of it made him angry again, and he was about to voice his accusations. Then he saw—and it made his heart stand still—his mother make a strange movement behind his father's back. A movement that he didn't understand at first. But now that he looked at her there was a plea in her eyes. Very, very gently she raised her finer to her lips in the sign that requested silence.
At that, the child felt something warm, an enormous, wild delight spread through his entire body. He understood that she was giving him the secret to keep, that the fate of another human being lay on his small, childish lips. And wild, jubilant pride filled him to think that she trusted him, he was overcome by a readiness to make the sacrifice, he was willing to exaggerate his own guilt in order to show how much of a man he was. He pulled himself together.
"No, no... there wasn't any reason. Mama was very kind to me, but I was naughty, I behaved badly... and then... then I ran away because I was scared."
♥ He was sent to bed now, but he didn't mind being left alone. He had so much to think of, so much that was vivid and full of promise. All the pain of the last few days vanished in the powerful sensation of this first real experience; he felt happy in the mysterious anticipation of future events. Outside, the trees rustled under cover of dark night, but he was not afraid any more. He had lost all his impatience with life now that he knew how full of promise it was. He felt as if, for the first time, he had seen it as it was, no longer enveloped in the thousand lies of childhood, but naked in its own dangerous beauty. He had never thought that days could be so full of alternating pain and pleasure, and he liked the idea that many such days lay ahead of him, that a whole life was waiting to reveal its secret to him. A first premonition of the rich variety of life had come to him; for the first time he thought he had understood the nature of human beings—they needed each other even when they appeared hostile, and it was very sweet to be loved by them. He was unable to think of anything or anyone with hatred, he did not regret anything, and found a new sense of gratitude even to the Baron, the seducer, his bitterest enemy, because he had opened the door to this world of his first true emotions to him.
♥ Then he sensed a soft face breathing close to his, caressing his own with mild warmth, and knew it was his mother kissing him and stroking his hair. He felt the kisses and her tears, gently responding to the caress, and took it only as reconciliation, as gratitude for his silence. Only later, many years later, did he recognize those silent tears as a vow from a woman past her youth that from now on she would belong only to him, her child. It was a renunciation of adventure, a farewell to all her own desires. He did not know that she was also grateful to him for rescuing her from an adventure that would have led nowhere, and that with her embrace she was handing on to him, like a legacy, the bitter-sweet burden of love for his future life. The child of that time understood none of this, but he felt that it was very delightful to be loved so much, and that through this love he was already drawn into the great secret of the world.
♥ Once again all the images of the last few hours passed vividly though his mind, once again the book of his youth opened enticingly. Then the child fell asleep and began to dream the deeper dream of his own life.