The Friendly One
By Laura Riding, 1935
In a little village in a foreign country a boyish-looking German, about forty years old, settled down to live for the rest of his life. His name was Hermann Vogel, but the villagers called him the Friendly One because he made friends with them, and with other foreigners who came to the village to live, faster than people usually make friends. He wandered into their houses absent-mindedly (as it seemed) and passed the time of day with them when they had time of day to pass; so there was nothing to do but make the best of him and call him the Friendly One. He said that he was a writer of books for children, yet he took no interest in children, nor had any one ever seen him at work. But there was certainly something childish in the way he took their favours for granted without ever thinking to return them. He walked with a light step, his thin hair was always brushed carefully back over his round head, so that no baldness showed, his features were small, his voice sometimes very high.
With foreigners, of course, he had to exert himself more. His way with them was to ask their opinion on every possible subject with his head turned towards them, then to turn his head away to reflect on their answers, then to turn his head towards them again, saying quietly, “Yes, you are right.” No one was very fond of him, no one disliked him. He was merely the Friendly One—though it could not actually be said of him that he was a friendly fellow.
There came to this village from abroad an American family consisting of a stout young wife, a tall joking husband, a bad- tempered, unfriendly elder brother of the wife, and three dogs. The Friendly One introduced himself to them as a writer of books for children, and the wife and the husband confided to him that they had three dogs because they had no children. They were fine lively dogs, and during the first fortnight they did much damage to hens, goats, cats and other dogs—before they began to feel themselves accepted as official members of the village population, in spite of their faults.
“They always behave like this when we come to a new place,” the wife and husband said. “It makes people treat us as natives instead of as strangers. They come and complain to us, and we tell them that the dogs will soon settle down, and they and we together wait for the dogs to settle down.” The Friendly One turned his head from one side to the other and laughed along with them, while the bad-tempered brother sat apart with a book in his lap that he never really read, snorting at the dogs, at his sister, at her husband, and at the Friendly One most of all.
“My brother,” his sister apologized for him, “once fell in love with a Finnish lady who turned out to be mad, and ever since he has been cross as a cook.”
“Yes,” joked her husband, “Helen’s brother is our household background. We take him everywhere with us, like the dogs, and he makes the shabbiest furnished houses seem like home. His gloominess absorbs all the cups without handles, and the uncomfortable chairs, and the useless rooms.”
“Ha, ha ha,” tittered Hermann, “so it is.”
Hermann lodged with a village household, the eldest girl of which went as a servant to the American family. She was sixteen, and strong and pretty, and she liked to make eyes at men and then play angry when they came near her. The three dogs adored her, and long after they had settled down she kept putting them up to tricks. Most of all she liked teasing Hermann. “At him!” she would say to the dogs whenever he came, and they would run at him and growl round him throughout his visit. This gave the bad-tempered brother much pleasure, and the wife and husband thought her a jolly girl. The Friendly One had to take it all in fun, but it made him unhappy.
On Sunday afternoons, when the girl was at home, he would timidly tease her before the father and mother, saying, “Ah, she won’t leave me in peace, that girl.” So one Sunday afternoon the father said, “Good! Then marry her!” The Friendly One could not tell whether the father was fooling or not. He smiled nervously and asked, “Seriously, seriously?” At this everyone present laughed noisily, except the girl herself, who looked angry. He could not tell one way or the other, so he went on smiling until they stopped noticing him. Then he slipped away and paid several visits, but the incident worried him. He wanted to marry, but someone rich and someone who would respect him. Whenever he met a rich, unattached American lady he would give her a copy of a book he had written long ago called The Army of Children. It was a story about how an army of children conquered the world, and what they did to it. He only gave his book to women who, he thought, might possibly marry him, or to people who could not read German: he did not want his idea to be stolen. Already several writers had stolen his idea, though originally not many copies of his book had been printed, nor had many been sold.
The girl had never seen his book. She did not even think of him as a writer. And she was a poor girl, though she would have her grandmother’s house when she married. All the rest of that day his mind was in disorder. Suppose they expected him to marry the girl? He did not want to seem unfriendly. What a pity the bad-tempered brother was not a woman. At any rate he must make an effort to be nicer to him. He would give him a copy of his book, to-morrow. He would go to bed early. But he slept badly.
The next day he visited the American family, his book under his arm. The girl did not set the dogs on him. He noticed that she was making eyes furiously at the bad-tempered brother and that the bad-tempered brother was not so bad-tempered as usual. An unpleasant feeling of rivalry with the girl over the brother started up in him. He gave the brother his book, the brother accepted it not at all unamicably, the three dogs kept bringing him things to toss to them, and the wife and husband treated him like a fourth dog. But the girl glared at him. He felt very excited and went away with flushed cheeks.
The following afternoon the brother took a long walk with him and told him the story of the mad Finnish lady. “But that is all over now,” he said triumphantly. “I am going to marry the girl, though my sister and her husband don’t know it.”
When the Friendly One heard this something happened to him. He did not want the brother to marry the girl. The brother seemed to stand for the rich American lady that he had always wanted to marry but had never found. Then there was the girl. He would have liked to marry her, she was young and strong and pretty. But she had only her grandmother’s house, and besides he did not see how he could offer her a copy of his book. He tried to explain these things to the brother, but the words chattered between his teeth. He wanted to say something that the brother would understand without being offended, but it frightened him to have a point of view of his own. And, after all, what was his point of view? He stood still and trembled. English was a cruel language.
“Are you cold?” asked the brother kindly. The sun had indeed sunk behind the mountain already, it being still only late winter—yes, he was cold.
“Yes, I am cold,” he almost shouted. He was cold. He began to run. The brother would not run after him, he was not a leggy man. The Friendly One was not a leggy man, but he thought of himself now as a child who was cold, or caught in a situation beyond his age. There was something he didn’t like. Could it be that he didn’t like being himself? He ran harder. He reached the schoolhouse. The children had just been dismissed. They saw him approach and shrieked round him as he tried to run past them. He was not himself any more. They ran after him.
“The Friendly One is making sport,” the villagers cried to one another, and a few of them joined the children behind him to discover what he was about. Where should he take them? The girl! The dogs! He was not himself any more. He was an army of children conquering the world. The world was the girl and the dogs. The girl! The dogs!
His army stormed the house of the American family. The wife and husband were not at home. The girl was in the kitchen with the dogs. The fire was low, she must make it up for supper. One day the postman had found her fanning away at the fire and had said, “You must not be afraid to use spirit, foreigners can pay for spirit.” Since then she had always used spirit. It was true that foreigners could pay. And now she was using spirit, and it would have been like any other fire that she made with spirit, had not the dogs been aroused by the children shouting at the door, had she not tripped over the shovelful of charcoal between her and the fire, had she not tumbled on top of the fire with the spirit-can a-pour and been blown to death, and the dogs along with her.
The wife and her brother and her husband left the village as fast as they could get away. “We must find three other dogs,” they said.
The girl’s parents asked them for money, since she had died in their service. They got the money. “It was her fault for using spirit,” they said, “but foreigners can pay.” As for the brother, he sincerely mourned her death and went away no longer brooding over the mad Finnish lady.
The Friendly One suffered from stomach-spasms for some time after the catastrophe and had to lie very still in bed. He lay and pined. The dead girl’s mother nursed him. Everyone tried to feel sorry for him, but they were more irritated than sorry. Though they still called him the Friendly One, they said it more in mockery than in sympathy. He talked too much about that day. He had gone for a walk with the brother, and on their way back to the village he had begun to feel cold. He was wearing only his grey pullover. The brother suggested to him that he should run home. He was in a merry mood and started running home, leaving the brother behind. When he reached the schoolhouse the children were just coming out and joined in his merry mood. They ran along with him, and he got the idea of taking them to the house of the American family. The American wife and husband loved children—that was why they had the dogs. They had often talked of giving a party for the village children, but were afraid that the children might be made stiff and embarrassed by it. But a spontaneous party would be different. They had a gramophone and always many good things to eat in the house in tins and boxes. How pleased they would be. They liked things done in a carefree way. Then that happened.
“I feel it much,” he would say, “I feel it much.” Then he would have to vomit and the dead girl’s mother would bring him a basin.
He no longer paid visits to the villagers or the foreigners, all paid visits to him, wondering how long it would go on.
“He feels it much,” they said, shrugging their shoulders, “he feels it much.”
While the Friendly One lay ill, a rich American lady came to the village and decided to settle down there for the rest of her life. This made him very uneasy. “I must get up and pay her a visit,” he said.
He dressed himself and went off with a copy of his book under his arm. She was sympathetic and had a pleasing appearance. She had learned German at school and remembered a little. All her classmates had chosen French, but she had chosen German—she did not know why. She was a serious woman and it was plain that she wanted to marry in an honourable, serious way. Yet the Friendly One had no heart for his old gallantries. He came back with his book under his arm and got into bed again. He was not himself any more. The dead girl’s sister was only twelve. She would have her grandmother’s house now when she married, but in a few years he would be an old man.
“Good-bye, dear friends,” he said, “I feel it much.”
“He felt it much,” they said of him when he had gone, shrugging their shoulders.
In Germany he opened a toy-shop. In a few years he was an old man. Every morning he wound up all the automatic toys and watched them slow down again. When people came in to buy he would keep them waiting a little at the front of the shop and then come out from his room at the back saying, “Excuse me for keeping you waiting, I am an author, you know.” Outside, over his shop, the sign read: Hermann Vogel —Poet and Writer—Toys. The paper in which he wrapped purchases had a picture on it of a girl playing with three dogs, and under it the rhyme:
Why is the child’s heart so light?
It plays by day and sleeps by night.
The world is but a spinning toy
And sorrow but a broken joy.
What shall we do to-morrow then?
To Hermann Vogel’s we’ll go again.