From the Journal of an Orange Tree
(Aus dem Tagebuche eines Orangen-baumes, Das Grauen 1914)
by Hanns Heinz Ewers
Translated by Joe Bandel
Translation copyright Joe Bandel 2010
“Oh, how many sorcerers, how many sorceresses, are there among us, of whom no one knows!”
Ariosto: Orlando Furioso. Ges. VIII, 1.
Isle of Porquerolles, June 1905
Dear Herr Medical Councilor, after careful consideration and with well thought out intent I will follow your wish and fill out the pages of this notebook that you have given me. It will deal only with the battle between the two of us, with you as the head doctor of this private lunatic asylum and me, the patient that was committed here three days ago. The complaint on which I was forcibly admitted here, excuse a student of law if he prefers to use a legal image!—Is that I “Suffer from the delusion of being an orange tree”.
Now Herr Medical Councilor, attempt to provide evidence that my delusion is false. If you succeed in convincing me that your opinion is correct I will be instantly “healed”. Isn’t that true? Prove to me that I am a man like all the others and merely suffering from a complete nerve collapse or pathological monomania like many thousands of sick people in all the sanitariums of the world. If you can prove this to me you will have given me back my life again, the neurosis will be blown away in an instant.
On the other hand, I, as the accused, have the right to prove the truth by presenting factual evidence myself. It is the purpose of these lines, dear Herr Medical Councilor, to convince you of the undisputable truth of my assertion. You see that I think very objectively, every word is calmly weighed. I heartily regret the scene I made the day before yesterday. It distresses me very much that I disturbed the tranquility of your house through my silly behavior.
Please consider though, that if someone like you, dear Medical Councilor, or some other healthy person was suddenly tricked and deceitfully brought into an insane asylum he would not behave much differently. Our hour-long conference yesterday evening has calmed me completely. I know that my relatives and fraternity brothers only wanted what was best for me when they brought me here. Now I also believe that it was the best thing.
If I succeed in convincing you, Herr Medical Councilor, a psychiatrist of world renown, of the correctness of my assertion, then even the greatest skeptics must bow before this so-called “miracle”. You ask me to write in this notebook as detailed an autobiography as possible, a curriculum vitae of the course of my life, as well as my thoughts about what you call my “delusion”. I understand quite well, that you, a true servant of science, want to get as true as possible a picture of the illness out of the patient himself. I wish to comply with even the smallest of your wishes, under the definite assumption that you, after recognizing your error, will offer me a helping hand as I from hour to hour take on the real form of a tree. When you look through my papers, Herr Medical Councilor, which have been in your possession for some time now, you will find the announcement of my doctoral exam and a detailed curriculum that contains the outward particulars of my life. Therefore I can be very brief here.
You will gather from the documents that I am the son of a Rheinish industrialist, took my final exam at 18 years, served my one-year term with a Berlin guard regiment, enjoyed my youth as a student of law at various universities, in between times made a series of greater and lesser travels and finally moved here to Bonn to prepare for my bar exam and doctoral exam. All of that has just as little interest for you, Herr Medical Counselor, as it does for me.
The history that we are interested in first began on 22 February of last year. On that day at a Fasching Ball I made the acquaintance of the—at the danger of appearing ridiculous I will write it down—sorceress who has transformed me into an orange tree. It is completely necessary to say a few words about this lady, to whom I was introduced at this celebration. Frau Emy Steenhop has a very striking appearance that irresistibly draws all eyes to her. I won’t try to describe her allure; you would just smile at it as an exaggeration of someone in love. Yet it is a fact, of all my friends and acquaintances, there was not one of us that was not captivated in a moment, that did not consider himself lucky for any glance, for any word that she might bestow upon him.
At that time Frau Emy Steenhop had been living for some two months in a spacious garden villa on Koblenz Street, which she had furnished exceptionally tastefully. She kept an open house in which the officers of the King’s hussars and the members of the most respected fraternities gathered every evening. It is true that no ladies associated with her, yet I am convinced that is only because, as Frau Steenhop so frequently laughingly explained, “Even the dead could not endure such women’s chatter”. The lady associated even less with any other families in Bonn at that time. It is understandable that the gossip in the little town soon occupied itself with the conspicuous stranger who drove her snow white 64 hp Mercedes through the streets daily. Soon scandalous rumors went from mouth-to-mouth about the nightly orgies on Koblenz Street.
The clerics fought a vicious campaign and even brought out an absurd story entitled “A Modern Messalina”.—its beginning words were “Quousque tandem”—in any case, the highly refined gentleman should at least edit his document.
[Translator’s note: “Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra” is a Latin phrase from Marcus Tullius Cicero’s first speech against Catilina. It means “How long, Catiline, will you abuse our patience?”.]
I can assure you, and am convinced that all the gentlemen that ever had the honor of being received by Frau Emy Steenhop would agree that nothing ever happened in her house that would go against the strictest social forms in the least. A hand kiss—that was the only thing the lady permitted her worshipers—and that was all that ever happened, except once the little hussar colonel was permitted to press his military mustache on her white forearm. Frau Emy Steenhop had us all on such short strings that we were well behaved like pages and served our lady in a romantic, almost chivalrous fashion.
Nevertheless, it happened. Her house suddenly became desolate. On 16 May I had traveled back home for my mother’s birthday. When I returned, to my amazement, I discovered that further visits to the house of the beautiful Frau were forbidden. It was a command given by the ranking officer of the hussar regiment. The fraternities immediately followed this example for their members as well. I asked on what grounds; my fraternity brothers shared that a regimental order was binding on them as well. It was not possible for a house fraternity to reverse such an order. Indeed, both institutions had great respect for each other and many fraternity members served with the hussars or belonged to the regiment as reserve officers. Not even the officers themselves knew the basis of the colonel’s actions.
Yet they presumed that it had something to do with the sudden disappearance of Lieutenant Bohlen, though they didn’t have the slightest idea why. Harry von Bohlen was personally close to me, so that same evening I went to the hussar officers club in order to perhaps learn more particulars. The colonel received me very cordially, invited me to have a glass of champagne, but avoided speaking of the affair. When I finally asked right to his face, he curtly, but politely, refused to answer. I made one last attempt and said:
“Herr Colonel! Your orders and those of the fraternity are certainly binding for your officers and fraternity students, but they are not binding for me. I can still quit my association and then be master of my own affairs.”
“Do whatever you want!” the colonel answered carelessly.
“I beg you to patiently listen to me for a moment,” I continued. “Perhaps another would not miss the house on Koblenz Street that much. He might sigh at times with regret as he remembered the beautiful evenings and then finally forget them. But I—”
He interrupted me. “Young man,” he cried. “You are the fourth person that has given me this speech! Two of my lieutenants and one of your fraternity brothers were already here the day before yesterday. I have given both lieutenants furlough and they are now preparing to leave. I have given your fraternity brother the same advice. I can only tell you the same thing as well. You must forget, do you hear!—One sacrifice is enough!”
“At least explain a little of it to me, Herr Colonel!” I pressed. “I don’t know anything at all and there is nowhere else to find out. Does your order have anything to do with the disappearance of Bohlen?”
“Yes,” said the colonel.
“What happened to him?”
“I don’t know,” he answered. “And I fear I will never know.”
I grabbed onto both of his hands. “Tell me what you know,” I begged, and I felt that there was a tremor in my voice that must compel him to answer.
“For God’s sake, tell me what happened to Bohlen and why you gave that command.”
He pulled himself loose and said, “Thunderation, it really seems to be much worse with you than with the others!”
He poured both mugs full and pushed mine over to me.
“Drink, drink,” he cried.
I downed the champagne and bent forward.
“Tell me,” he continued and looked at me sharply, “weren’t you the one that recited the poem that time?”