"Letter From an Unknown Woman" (1922) by Stefan Zweig

(actualisé le ) by Stefan Zweig

The great Viennese-Austrian author Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) was a prolific writer of short stories, novelettes, novellas, historical studies, essays, memoirs, and letters – as well as several plays, two books of poetry, an opera libretto and one full-length novel [1].

In this 14,400-word novelette [2], a well-known novelist returns home after a holiday in the mountains to find a long letter awaiting him there from a woman he had once known but quite forgotten. She on the other hand has never forgotten him, for good reasons as the letter explains.

A very intense, very moving reading experience. A true masterpiece, perhaps Stefan Zweig’’s finest work [3].

e-books of this story, with the original text in an annex, are available for downloading below.


When the well-known novelist R. came back to Vienna after a refreshing three-day stay in the mountains and bought a newspaper at the train station, he realized on glancing at the date that today was his birthday. The forty-first, he quickly thought, and this realisation made neither a good nor a bad impression on him. He rapidly scanned the rustling pages of the newspaper and then drove a rented car to his apartment building. The servant told him that there had been two visits during his absence as well as a few telephone calls, and put the letters that had arrived on a table. He looked casually at the pile, opened a couple of envelopes for which the name of the sender was interesting; he put aside one letter that bore an unfamiliar handwriting and that was too voluminous. In the meantime tea had been brought; he leaned comfortably back in his armchair, leafed through the newspaper again and a few circulars; then he lit a cigar and took up the letter that had been put aside.

It had some two dozen hastily written sheets in an unfamiliar, uneven woman’s handwriting, more a manuscript than a letter. He mechanically felt for the envelope, to see if an accompanying message had been left there. But the envelope was empty and no more than on the letter was there a sender’s address or a signature. Bizarre, he thought, and took the pages up again. “To you, who has never known me” stood at the top, as a salutation, as a signature. He paused for a moment, wondering: was it for him, was it for an imagined person? His curiosity was suddenly aroused. And he began to read:


My child died yesterday – for three days and three nights I fought with Death over this small, tender being, for forty hours I have sat beside his bed while the flu wracked his poor, hot body with fever. I put cool compresses on his burning forehead, I held his restless little hands day and night. In the third evening I collapsed. My eyes couldn’t stay open any longer, they closed without my being conscious of it. I slept for three or four hours on the hard chair, and meanwhile Death had taken him away. Now he is lying there, the sweet, poor little boy in his small child’s bed, exactly as he was when he died; just his eyes have been closed, his clever dark eyes, his hands have been folded over his white shirt, and four candles are burning at the four corners of his bed. I don’t dare to look away, I don’t dare to move, for when the candles flicker they send shadows flittering across his face and closed mouth, and then it’s as if his expression changes, and I can imagine that he wasn’t dead, that he would wake up again and with his clear voice say something childishly tender to me. But I know that he is dead; I no longer want to look there so as not to continue hoping, not to be disappointed once again. I know, I know, my child died yesterday – now I only have you left in the whole world, only you, the you who doesn’t know me, the you who in the meantime was unsuspectingly playing or trifling with things or with people. Only you, the you who never known me and whom I have always loved.

I have taken the fifth candle and put it on the table on which I am writing to you. For I cannot be alone with my dead child without crying out from my soul, and to whom could I turn in this atrocious moment if not you, the you who was all to me and is all to me! Perhaps I cannot speak to you quite clearly, perhaps you do not understand me – my head feels so dull, my temples are aching and pounding, my body feels so sore. I think I have a fever, perhaps even already the flu that is now creeping from door to door, and that would be good, for then I would go with my child and wouldn’t have to do harm to myself. At times everything is dark before my eyes; perhaps I won’t be able to write this letter through to the end – but I shall gather all my forces together to talk to you for once, only this one time. You my beloved, the one who has never recognized me.

To you alone will I speak, to tell you everything for the first time; you should know about my whole life, a life that has always been yours and about which you have never known anything. But you should only know my secret when I am dead, when you will no longer be obliged to reply, if what is now shaking my body with its chills and its fevers really is the end. If I have to survive, I shall tear up this letter and shall continue to remain silent, like I have always remained silent. But if you have it in your hands, then you know that here a dead woman recounted her life to you, her life that was yours from her first to her last awakened hour. Do not be afraid of my words: a dead woman wants nothing more, she wants neither love nor pity nor consolation. I just want this from you: that you believe everything about me that the sorrow escaping from my lips betrays to you. Believe everything I tell you, that is all I ask of you: one does not lie in the hour of death of one’s only child.

I shall reveal my whole life to you, this life that really began that day I first met you. Before that was just a troubled and confused period in which my memories no longer delve, a banal cellar filled with dusty, dull things and people, covered with cobwebs, of which my heart knows nothing any more. When you appeared I was thirteen years old and lived in the same building where you now live, in the same building where you are holding this letter, my last breath of life, in your hands; I lived on the same floor, just opposite the door of your apartment. You of course do not remember us, the rather poor widow of the government accountant (she was always living in a dream) and the half-grown, thin child – we were very quiet, plunged as we were in our petit-bourgeois penury – you have perhaps never heard our name, for we had no name-plate before our door and no one ever came, no one ever asked for us. It was such a long time ago, fifteen, sixteen years, no, you certainly don’t remember us any more, my beloved, but I, oh I remember every detail with passion, I still remember as if it were today, no, this very hour, when I heard of you for the first time, saw you for the first time, and how could it be otherwise, for then the world began for me. Forbear, beloved, while I recount everything to you from the beginning: do not tire of hearing about me for a quarter of an hour, I beg you, I who have not become tired of loving you during a whole lifetime.

Before you moved into our building there were hateful, mean, quarrelsome people living in your apartment. Poor as they were, they hated most the poverty of their neighbours, our poverty, as we didn’t want to have anything to do with their aggressive, proletarian rawness. The husband was a drunkard who beat his wife; we were often woken up in the night by the noise of chairs falling over and dishes being smashed; once she ran out onto the stairs, beaten and bloody with her hair torn and the drunken man right behind her, until people came out and menaced him with the police. My mother had from the beginning avoided any contact with them and forbade me to talk to the children, who sought their revenge on me on every occasion. When they met me on the street they called me dirty names, and once they hurt me so badly with snowballs that I had blood on my forehead. The whole building hated these people with a common instinct, and when at one point something suddenly happened – I think the man had been jailed for theft – and they had to be evicted with their meagre belongings, we all breathed a sigh of relief. A few days later the rental notice was hung up at the front entrance; then it was taken down and the house-master quickly spread the news that a writer, a calm bachelor, had taken the apartment. That was the first time I ever heard your name.

Only a few days later painters, wallpaper-layers, polishers, and carpet-layers arrived to clean up after the previous occupants – there was hammering, pounding, polishing and scraping, but Mother was quite satisfied; she said that now the dirty business over there had finally come to an end. I still hadn’t see you during the period when you were moving in; your servant was overseeing all those workers, that little, serious, grey-haired master-servant who supervised everything in an easy, competent manner. He impressed us all a lot, firstly because in our suburban building a master-servant was something new, and also because he was so uncommonly polite to everyone; without putting on airs with the other domestics he talked to them in a friendly way. He treated my mother respectfully, as a lady, from the first, and even with us children he was always serious and trusting. When he spoke your name, it was always with a certain reverence, with a special respect – one saw right away that he was far more devoted to you than an ordinary servant would have been. And how I loved him for that, the good, old Johann, although I envied him because he had the right to always be in your presence and to serve you.

I am telling all this to you, my beloved, all these little, almost laughable things, so that you understand how you could have right from the start gained such power over the shy, timid child that I was. Even before you entered my life in person there was already a halo around you, a sphere of richness, singularity and secrecy – all of us in the little suburban building (people who lead a narrow life are always curious about something new right before their door) were already waiting impatiently for you to move in. And how this curiosity about you first surged up within me when I was coming home from school one afternoon and the moving-van stood before the door. Most of the furniture, the heaviest pieces, had already been carried in; now they were bringing up a few of the smaller things; I stayed at the door, astonished to contemplate all your objects that were so different from everything else that I had ever seen; there were Indian gods, Italian sculptures, quite dazzling large paintings, and then at the end came books, so many and so beautiful, more so than I had ever thought possible. They were all piled up at the door, and then your servant took them up one by one and carefully dusted them with a whisk. Out of curiosity I went up to the steadily increasing pile; the servant did not send me away, but neither did he encourage me, so I dared not touch them, although I would have liked to feel the soft leather of many of them. I just looked shyly at their titles on the sides: there were some in French and in English, and others in languages that I didn’t recognize. I think that I could have looked at them all for hours: then my mother called me in.

I must have thought of you all that evening, even before I knew you. I myself owned only a dozen cheap books bound in torn cardboard, that I loved more than anything and continually reread. And so I wondered what the man must be like who owned and had read all those magnificent books, who knew all those languages, who was so rich and learned at the same time. A kind of other-worldly veneration was bound up in me with the idea of those ever-so-many books. I tried to imagine what you looked like: surely an old man with glasses and a long white beard like our geography teacher, only much nicer, handsomer and gentler – I don’t know why I was already sure that you must be handsome, when I still thought of you as an old man. Then that night, still without knowing you, I dreamed of you for the first time.

The next day you moved in, but in spite of all my spying I couldn’t see your face, which only increased my curiosity. Finally, on the third day I saw you - and the surprise was all the more overwhelming for me that you were so different, so completely unrelated to that childish God-the-Father image. I had dreamed of a nice, bespectacled old man and there you were – you, just as you still are today, you who are so unvarying, who are so unaffected by the passing of the years! You were wearing a light-brown, charming sports outfit and were mounting the stairs in your incomparably easy way, always taking two at a time. You had your hat in your hand, so I saw with a quite indescribable astonishment your clear, animated face with your youthful set of hair: really, I shrank back in astonishment at how young, how handsome, how lithe and slim you were. And is it not strange that in that first second I quite clearly perceived what I and all others always sense with a kind of astonishment what is unique about you: that you are a sort of double-sided person: a carefree, light-living youth dedicated to gambling and adventures, and at the same time in your own way an implacable, serious, conscientious, infinitely well-read and well-educated man. Unconsciously I felt what everyone senses in you, that you lead a double life, a life with one side openly turned towards the world, and quite another dark side that you alone know – I sensed this deep duality, this secret of your existence at thirteen years old, magically attracted as I was with my first glance.

Do you now understand, beloved, what a wonder, what an enticing mystery you must have been for me, that child! A person who was respected because he wrote books, because he was famous in that other great world, suddenly found to be a young, elegant, youthful, cheerful twenty-five-year old man! Do I also have to tell you that from that day on in our building, in my whole poor child’s world, nothing interested me as much as you, that with all the obstinacy, the insistent stubbornness of a thirteen-year-old I was only centred on your life, on your existence. I observed you, I observed your habits, observed the people who came to visit you, and all that just increased rather than diminished my curiosity about you, for the whole duality of your being was expressed in the diversity of those visits. Young people came, comrades of yours with whom you laughed and were high-spirited; ill-dressed students; and then again ladies who came by car; once the director of the Opera, the great orchestra conductor whom I had only seen from afar on his pulpit; then again young girls from commercial schools who shyly flitted through the door; and above all many, a great many women. I didn’t think anything special about that, nor was I surprised on leaving one morning for school when I saw a lady all covered in a veil leaving your apartment – I was only thirteen years old then, and did not in my childishness yet know that the passionate curiosity with which I spied on you and watched out for you was already love.

But I know well enough, my beloved, the day and the hour when I completely and forever fell in love with you. I had gone for a walk with a classmate, and we were standing chatting in front of the door. Then a car came up, stopped, and you sprang from the dashboard towards the door of the building with that impatient, supple manner that had already so much attracted me to you. Automatically I wanted to open the door for you and I got so much in your way so that we almost collided. You looked at me in that warm, soft, enveloping way of yours that was like a gesture of tenderness, you smiled at me – yes, I cannot say it otherwise as: you smiled at me tenderly and said in a quite low and almost confidential tone: “Many thanks, young lady.”

That was all, beloved, but from that second on, ever since I sensed that soft, tender glance upon me, I was yours. Certainly I later learned, soon afterwards, that you look at every woman that comes your way with that encompassing, magnetic glance, that glance that envelops and undresses at the same time, that glance of a born seducer that you cast on every woman that crosses your path, on every woman who serves you in a shop, on every parlour maid who opens the door for you; that that glance of yours is not consciously voluntary and curious, but rather that your tenderness towards women quite unconsciously has a soft, warm effect on the way you look at them. But I, that thirteen-year-old child, did not sense that: I was like plunged into fire. I thought that the tenderness was only meant for me, for me alone; and in that one second the woman in me, that adolescent, was awoken and that woman had fallen in love with you for ever.

„Who was that?” asked my friend. I couldn’t answer right away. I couldn’t say your name: already in that one, that unique second it was sacred for me, it had become my secret. “Ah, just a man who lives in this building”, I stammered awkwardly. “But why did you blush like that when he looked at you?” teased the friend with all the meanness of a curious child. And just because I felt that in joking she had touched on my secret, my cheeks became even redder. I became vulgar out of embarrassment. “Bloody goose!” I said savagely; I would have liked to strangle her. But she laughed even louder and more sarcastically, until I felt tears of helpless anger come into my eyes and I left her standing there and ran upstairs.

From that second on I have loved you. I know, women have often said that to you, you who have been so spoiled. But believe me, no one has ever so slavishly, so dog-like, so devotedly loved you as that being that I was and that I have always been for you, for nothing on earth is comparable to the unnoticed love of a child of the shadows, because it is so hopeless, so servile, so obsequious, so watchful and so passionate, nothing like the desiring and unconsciously demanding love of a grown woman. Only lonely children can completely concentrate their passion; the others dissipate their feelings in sociability, they smooth them over with familiarities, they have heard a lot and read a lot about love and know that it is a common destiny for all. They play with it like a toy, they parade with it like boys with their first cigarette. But I had no one in whom to confide, had no one to advise me and warn me, I was inexperienced and naive: I threw myself at my fate like as if I were plunging into an abyss. I could only confide everything that grew inside me and developed in me to you, my dreamed-of you: my father had long been dead, my mother was a stranger to me with her eternal, gloomy dejection and her anguish about being a widow; the half-spoiled schoolgirls repulsed me because they so light-heartedly played with what for me was a definitive passion – so I threw everything that is usually is parcelled out and shared, I threw the whole concentrated and impatiently-developing essence of myself towards you. You were to me – how can I express it? any single comparison is too slight – you were just everything, my whole life. Everything existed only insofar as it bore a relationship to you, everything in my existence had only meaning if it was related to you. You transformed my entire life. Until then indifferent and mediocre in school, I suddenly became the best in the class; I read a thousand books late into the night because I knew that you loved books; to the astonishment of my mother I suddenly started to quite stubbornly practice the piano, because I thought you loved music. I worked on my clothes, sewing them and scrubbing them only to seem nice and clean to you, and the fact that I had a horrible rectangular spot on the left side of my old school skirt (it was a cut-up house-dress of my mother’s) quite disgusted me. It worried me that you might notice it and be contemptuous of me, so I always pressed my school-bag against it when I went on the stairs, for fear that you would see it. But that was so foolish: you never, almost never looked at me again.

Nevertheless, the whole day I did nothing but wait for you and watch out for you. There was a little brass spy-hole in our door through which one could look out upon your door. This spy-hole – no, do not smile, beloved, even today, even this very day I am not ashamed of those moments – my eye looked out onto the world; there during those months and years I sat timidly, wary of the suspicions of my mother, in the ice-cold hall for the whole afternoon on the look-out, with a book in my hands, as tense as a cord, a cord that vibrated to signal your presence. I was always around you, always tense and in movement, but you could sense it no more than the tenseness of the spring of the watch that you kept in your pocket that in the dark patiently counted out and measured your hours and accompanied you through life with its imperceptible heartbeats, and that not once in a million ticking seconds disappointed your hasty glance. I knew everything about you, knew every one of your habits, each of your ties, each of your suits, I knew and soon distinguished your acquaintances and separated them into those that I liked and those that displeased me: from thirteen to sixteen I lived every moment in you. Oh, what foolishness did I commit! I kissed the door handle that your hand had touched, I stole a cigar butt that you had thrown out at the entrance of the building, and it was sacred to me because your lips had graced it. A hundred times I ran out on the street in the evening at the slightest pretext to see in which of your rooms the light was burning and feel your presence, your invisible presence. And during the weeks when you were travelling – my heart always faltered in anguish when I saw the good Johann take out your travel bag –, in those weeks my life was dead and without meaning. I went around in anger, morose and bored, and just had to be careful that my mother didn’t notice the despair in my eyes.

I know that what I am telling you is all grotesque exaggeration, childish foolishness. I should be ashamed of it but I am not ashamed, for never was my love for you purer and more passionate than in those childish excesses. I could recount for hours, for days how I lived with you then, you who scarcely knew my face, for when I met you on the stairs and there was no avoiding it, out of fear of your burning gaze I kept my head down while passing you by like one who had jumped into water to escape from flames. I could talk to you for hours and days about those long-bygone years, I could roll out for you the whole agenda of your life then; but I won’t bore you, I don’t want to frighten you. I shall only tell you about the nicest event of my childhood, and I ask you not to smile at its insignificance, because to me, the child, it was immense. It must have been a Sunday, you were away travelling, and your servant was carrying the heavy carpet that he had been beating outside through the open front door of the building. The good man had difficulty in carrying it, and in an upsurge of boldness I went up to him and asked if I could help. He was astonished but let me help him, and so I saw – let me just say to you with what respectful, even devout veneration! – the interior of your apartment, your world, the writing-table at which you worked and on which there were a few flowers in a blue crystal vase, your wardrobes, your paintings, your books. It was only a fleeting, stolen glance into your life, for the faithful Johann stopped me looking longer, but I soaked up in that single glance the whole atmosphere, and had food for my endless dreams of you, awake and asleep.

That fleeting moment was the happiest of my childhood. I wanted to tell you about it so that you, who don’t know me, can finally begin to sense how a whole life hung on you and passed away hanging on you. I wanted to tell you about it, and also about another moment, the most horrible one, that was related to the first one. I had – as I have already told you – neglected everything for your sake; I paid no more attention to my mother and bothered about no one. I hadn’t noticed that an older man, a salesman from Innsbruck who was distantly related by marriage to my mother, often came to the apartment and lingered there; he was quite welcome, as far as I was concerned, because he sometimes took Mama to the theatre and I could be alone and think of you and watch out for you, which was the most important, the most sacred act of my existence. Then one day mother called me with a certain uneasiness to her room: she wanted to speak seriously with me. I became pale and could hear my heart beating: had she sensed something, discovered something? My first thought was of you, the secret that linked me to the world. But mother was embarrassed too, she kissed me (which she usually never did) tenderly and then again, took me to her side on the sofa and then began to explain hesitatingly and bashfully that her relative, a widower, had made a marriage proposal to her that she had decided to accept, mainly for my sake. My blood rose hotly to my head, only one thought rose up in me, the thought of you. “But we’ll still stay here?” I could only stammer. “No, we’re going to move to Innsbruck, where Ferdinand has a lovely villa.” I heard no more. Everything became black before my eyes. Later I learned that I had fallen unconscious; I had, I heard my mother say in a low voice to my stepfather, who had been waiting behind the door, suddenly stepped back with outspread hands and then fallen down like a lump of lead. What happened in the following days as I, a helpless child, was resisting their overpowering will, I cannot describe: even today my hand trembles when I think of it, writing to you. I could not betray my real secret so my opposition seemed to be pure stubbornness, maliciousness and defiance. No one spoke to me any more, everything happened behind my back. They used the time I was in school to proceed with the move: every time I came back to the house another piece of furniture had been sold or removed. I saw how the apartment was disintegrating and with it my life, and once when I came back for the noonday meal the furniture movers had been there and had taken everything away. The packed suitcases were standing in the empty rooms with two camp-beds for mother and me: we were to sleep there for one more night, the last one, and leave for Innsbruck in the morning.

On that last day I felt with sudden decisiveness that I couldn’t live without being near to you. I knew no other salvation than you. How I thought that and whether I was even able to think clearly in that moment of despair, I shall never be able to say, but suddenly – mother was out – I got up in my school uniform, as I was, and went over to you. No, I did not go: I was magnetically urged towards your door with my stiff legs and trembling body. I have already told you that I didn’t clearly know what I wanted: to fall to your feet and ask you to keep me as a maid, as a slave, and I am afraid that you will smile at this innocent fantasy of a fifteen-year-old, but – beloved, you would no longer smile if you knew how I then stood there in that cold corridor, frozen with anguish and yet pushed onwards by an inconceivable force, and how I raised my trembling arm that in a certain measure seemed torn from my body and – it was a struggle with eternity every second of time – pressed my finger on the doorbell. Even today the shrill sound of that bell still rings in my ear, and then the silence that followed, when my heart stood still, when all my blood held back and waited to see if you would come.

But you did not come. No one came. You obviously were away that afternoon and Johann was out on errands; so I groped my way back to our empty, demolished apartment with the dead tone of the bell resounding in my ear, and threw myself down on a blanket in exhaustion, as tired out by the four steps as if I had been tramping for hours through deep snow. But underneath this exhaustion still burned the unextinguished resolve to see you, to talk to you, before they tore me away. There were, I swear to you, no sensual thoughts involved; I was still innocent, even while I thought of nothing but you: I just wanted to see you, to see you one more time, to cling to you. Then I waited for you the whole night, the whole long, horrible night, my beloved. Scarcely had mother laid down on her bed and fallen asleep than I slipped into the entrance hall to be able to hear you when you came back. I waited the whole night there, and it was an icy January night. I was tired, my body ached and there were no chairs left on which to sit, so I lay down on the cold floor underneath the draught from the door. I had only my thin clothes on as I lay on the painfully cold floor, for I had no blanket: I didn’t want to be warm for fear that I would fall asleep and miss hearing your footsteps. It was painful, I constantly rubbed my feet together for warmth, my arms were trembling: I had to continually get up, it was so cold in the awful darkness. But I waited, waited, for you - waited for my destiny.

Finally – it must already have been two or three o’clock in the morning – I heard the entrance door down below open and then steps coming up the stairs. All of a sudden I no longer felt cold, heat raced through me, and I quietly opened the door to throw myself upon you, to fall to your feet . . . Ah, I really don’t know what that foolish child might have done then. The steps came nearer, candlelight flickered up towards me. Trembling I held onto the door handle. Was it you who was coming up?

Yes, it was you, beloved – but you were not alone. I heard a light, delicate laugh, the rustle of a silken dress and your soft voice – you were coming home with a woman . . .

How I survived that night I do not know. The next morning at eight o’clock they took me to Innsbruck; I had no force left to defend myself with.


My child died last night – now I shall be all alone again, if I really have to continue to live. Tomorrow they will come, strangers, uncouth men clothed in black with a coffin, who will lay him down inside it, my poor, my only child. Perhaps friends will also come with wreathes, but what are flowers on a coffin? They will console me and say some words to me, words, words; but how can that help me? I know that I shall have to be quite alone again. And there is nothing more horrible than to be alone in the world. I learned that then in those endless two years in Innsbruck, those years from sixteen to eighteen, where I lived like a prisoner, an exile in the middle of my family. My stepfather, a very calm, hard-working man, was good to me; my mother was ready to satisfy all my wishes, as if to atone for an unconscious injustice, and young people sought my company – but I rejected them all passionately, defiantly. I did not want to live happily and satisfied apart from you; I buried myself in a dim world of self-torment and loneliness. I did not wear the new, colourful clothes that they bought for me, I refused to go to concerts or the theatre or to go out on excursions with others. I scarcely went out on the street: would you believe it, my beloved, that I hardly knew ten streets in that little town where I lived for two years? I was in mourning and I wanted to mourn, I was intoxicated by each new deprivation that I added to being deprived of seeing you. And also: I didn’t want to let myself be distracted from my passion for only living through you. I sat alone in the house for hours, for days, doing nothing but thinking of you, renewing over and over again in my mind my hundred little memories of you, remembering every encounter, every word, reliving those little episodes like in a play. And as I repeated every one of those bygone seconds countless times, my whole childhood was burned into my memory, so that every minute of those past years felt as warm and full of life as if they had only happened yesterday.

I lived then only through you. I bought all of your books; it was a festive day for me when your name was in the newspaper. Would you believe that I know every line of your books by heart, I read them so often? If I were woken up in the middle of the night and a single line of yours were said to me, I could even today, thirteen years later, continue on with the citation as if in a dream, every word of yours was such a sacred text to me. The whole world existed only in relation to you: I read about the concerts and the first nights in the Viennese newspapers only to be able to imagine which ones would interest you; and in the evening I accompanied you there from afar: now he is entering the concert hall, now he is sitting down. I dreamed of that a thousand times, because I had seen you once in a concert hall.

But why recount all this, all of these maddening, these self-inflicted, these so tragically hopeless fanaticisms of an abandoned child, why recount them to someone who has never suspected, who has never known? But was I then really still a child? I became sixteen, then eighteen years old – young men on the street began to notice me, although they only irritated me. Because love, or even only playing a game of love in my thoughts with anyone other than you was to me so incomprehensible, so unthinkably foreign that being tempted would have seemed like a crime to me. My passion for you remained the same but it was otherwise with my body, with my awakened, burning, corporal, womanly senses. And what that child with her dulled, innocent will, what that child who had pressed the bell-button on your door could not feel then, was now my one single thought: to give myself to you, to give myself over to you.

People around me thought me shy and called me timid – I had kept my secret well hidden. But an iron ill developed inside me. All my thoughts and impulses were straining in just one direction: back to Vienna, back to you. And I kept my intentions secret as they would have seemed so unreasonable, so incomprehensible to the others. My stepfather was well-off and treated me like his own child, but I bitterly resisted; I wanted to earn my own money and finally did manage to come to a relative in Vienna as an employee of a big clothing concern.

Do I need to tell you where my first steps led me on a cloudy autumn evening when I – finally! finally! - came to Vienna? I left my suitcase at the station, dashed into a streetcar – how slowly it seemed to be going, every stop was a torture for me – and rushed over to your building. My heart beat when I saw light shining from your windows. Only now was the city alive, the city that had rushed by me so meaninglessly, only now did I live again, now that I could sense you near to me, you, my eternal dream. Certainly, I did not realize that in reality I would have been just as far from your consciousness separated from you by valleys, mountains and rivers as I was then, when only the thin glowing panes of glass stood between you and my searching gaze. I looked up again and again: light was there, the building was there, you were there, you were my whole world. I had dreamed of this moment for two years, and now it had been granted to me. I stayed there the whole, soft, overcast evening below your windows until the lights went out. Only then did I go home.

Every evening I stood like that before your building. I worked until 6 o’clock in the evening; it was hard, tiring work but I liked it because the agitation enabled me to feel my own agitation somewhat less. And right away, as soon as the iron bars had rolled down behind me, I hurried over to my beloved destination. To see you just once, just to cross your path once, that was my single aim – just to see your face once more from afar. Then, after perhaps a week it happened – I met you just when I hadn’t expected to: while I was looking up at your window, you crossed over the street. And suddenly I was the child again, that thirteen-year-old; I felt the blood rush into my cheeks, I involuntarily put my head down, contrary to my innermost impulsion that longed to feel your gaze, and went past you in a flash as if in a spell. Afterwards I was ashamed of myself for this timid, schoolgirlish flight, for now my objective was clear: I really wanted to meet you, I was looking for you, I wanted you to know me after all these drawn-out years of longing, I wanted to be noticed by you, I wanted to be loved by you.

But you didn’t notice me for a long time, although I stood in your street every evening, even during snowstorms and in the sharp, biting winter wind of Vienna. Often I waited for hours in vain, often you finally came out of the building in the company of acquaintances, twice I also saw you with women, and then I sensed my adulthood, sensed what was new, what was different in my feelings about you at the sudden pulsing of my heart that tore across my soul as I observed a strange woman so firmly arm in arm with you. I was not surprised, I had known of your eternal female visitors since my childhood, but now, somehow, that hurt me physically, something tensed in me, hostile and at the same time joined in longing for that open, that physical familiarity with another person. One day I stayed away from your residence, childishly proud as I was and perhaps have still remained; but how horrible that empty evening of defiance and revolt was! The next evening I was humbly standing there again waiting in front of your building, waiting, waiting, as my whole life has been spent standing in front of your inaccessible life.

And finally one evening you noticed me. I had seen you coming from afar and gathered up my determination not to avoid you. By chance, the street had been narrowed by a truck being unloaded, and you had to pass close by me. Instinctively you glanced at me distractedly as you crossed my path, and right away, as your eyes met mine that were looking so attentively at you – the memory of that moment comes back with such force to me! – that way of yours of looking at women, that tender glance that envelops that undresses at the same time, that all-embracing glance on the verge of becoming an embrace, that glance awoke the child that I was to womanhood and to life for the first time. For one, for two seconds that gaze met mine, that couldn’t avoid it and didn’t want to – then you had gone by. My heart beat: involuntarily my footsteps must have slowed down, and out of an irrepressible curiosity I turned around and saw that you had remained standing and were looking at me. And by the way you were looking at me with interest and curiosity, I knew right away that you hadn’t recognized me.

You hadn’t recognized me, not then, never, never have you recognized me. How can I describe to you my deception in that instant, my beloved – that was the first time that I suffered from that destiny of mine, not to be recognized by you, that I have lived with all my life and that I shall die with, unrecognised, always still unrecognised by you. How can I describe my disappointment to you! For during those two years in Innsbruck I thought of you all the time and did nothing but imagine our first encounter again in Vienna; there I had imagined the wildest as well as the most blissful possibilities, depending on my humour. Everything was, if I may say so, dreamed thoroughly through; I had in the darkest moments imagined that you would reject me, would look down on me because I was too insignificant, too unattractive, too intrusive. I had turned over in my mind all variants of your disdain, of your coldness, of your indifference – but this, in the darkest moments of doubt, in the most intense consciousness of my unworthiness, I had not dared to consider this: that you simply hadn’t noticed my existence. Now I do understand – ah, you have taught me to understand! – that the face of a girl, of a woman, must be something extremely changing for a man, because it is mostly only a mirror, soon a passion, soon a childishness, soon something tiresome, and as easily done away with as an image in the mirror; that a man can thus more easily forget the face of a woman, because the age varies with shadows and light, because the clothes vary the form from one moment to another. Those who are resigned to that are certainly truly the wisest. But I, the young girl from the past, couldn’t understand your forgetfulness; because of my immoderate, ceaseless concentration on you I had imagined that you too must have often thought of me and been waiting for me; how could I even have even been able to breathe knowing that I was nothing to you, that no recollection of me had ever stirred in you! And this awakening because of your glance showed me that nothing in you knew of me, that not a thread of memory reached out from you to me; that was a first jolt into reality, a first indication of my destiny.

You didn’t recognize me then. And two days later when your gaze enveloped me with a certain familiarity on our next encounter, again you didn’t recognize in me the one who loved you and whom you had awoken, just an attractive eighteen-year-old girl that you had passed by in the same place two days previously. You looked at me in a friendly, surprised way and a light smile played over your mouth. You passed by me again, and again right away slowed down your pace: I trembled, I rejoiced, I prayed that you would speak to me. I felt that for the first time I existed for you; I too slowed down my steps and did not shrink from you. And suddenly I sensed you behind me; without turning around I knew that now for the first time I would hear your beloved voice talking to me. Waiting, I felt paralysed; already I thought I would have to stop walking, my heart was pounding so much – then you were at my side. You spoke to me in your light, relaxed way as if we had long been friends – ah, you didn’t sense who I was at all, you have never sensed anything about my life! – you spoke to me in such a magically simple way that I was even able to answer you. We walked together along the whole street. Then you asked me if we could dine together. I said yes. What could I have dared to refuse you?

We ate together in a small restaurant – do you still remember where it was? Oh no, you certainly can’t distinguish that evening from other such evenings any longer, for who was I to you? One among hundreds, an adventure in an eternally extending chain. What could you remember of me: I spoke little because I was so immensely happy to have you near me, to hear you talking to me. I didn’t want to spoil any instant of that moment by a question, by a silly word. I would never forget to be thankful to you for that moment, how you completely corresponded to my passionate veneration, how tender, how simple, how tactful you were, quite without insistence, quite without all those hastily caressing little remarks; and from the first instant you were of such a friendly familiarity with me that you would also have won me had I not already long been yours with my whole will and being. Oh, you certainly don’t realize what an enormous satisfaction it was for me that my five years of childish expectations hadn’t been disappointed! It became late and we finished our dinner. At the door of the restaurant you asked me if I was in a hurry or still had time. How was I able to prevent myself from telling you that I was ready for you? I told you that I still had time. Then you asked, overcoming a slight hesitation, if I didn’t want to come to your apartment to chatter a while longer. “Willingly”, I replied impulsively and right away noticed that you were either somewhat pained by how quickly I agreed to come or were just happy about it, in any case that you were evidently surprised. Today I quite understand your surprise: I know that normally, even when their desire to give in is burning, women hide their willingness with pretences of indignation and shock that can only be overcome with lies, vows and promises. I know that perhaps only professionals of love, prostitutes, accept those invitations in a such a willing manner – or quite naïve, quite half-grown children. For me however it was – and how could you have imagined it – just literally the will, the repressed longing of a thousand different days. But, in any case you were impressed; I began to interest you. I sensed that while we were on the way you were evaluating me from aside as we were talking. Your perceptions, those so magically sure perceptions about people, flared something unusual there, a secret in this pretty, accessible girl. Your curiosity had been awakened, and I noticed by the indirect, probing nature of your questions how you were prying for the secret. But I evaded them: I preferred to appear foolish rather than betray my secret to you.

We went up to your apartment. Allow me, beloved, to say to you that you cannot understand what that passageway, those stairs were to me, what dizziness, what confusion, what a raging, nagging, almost deadly happiness they were to me. Even today I cannot think back on it without tears in my eyes, and I have none left. But just try to imagine that every object there was equally penetrated with my passion, each one a symbol of my childhood, of my longing: the front door, where I had waited for you a thousand times; the stairs on which I always listened for your steps and where I saw you for the first time; the peephole, through which my soul spied on you; the mat on which I once kneeled in front of your door; the noise of the key in the lock that always made me spring up from my look-out post. My whole childhood, all my passion, were nestled there in these few square meters, here was my whole life, and now I felt, descending on me like a storm, that everything, just everything was coming true and that I was going with you, me with you, in your, in our building. Just think of it – it certainly sounds banal, but I cannot say it otherwise – that up to your door all had been reality, the dull daily world that has been there for a lifetime; and there began the magic realm of the child, the kingdom of Aladdin; just think, that I had stared a thousand times with burning eyes at this doorway that now I passed through with faltering steps, and you would sense – but only sense, never completely know, my beloved! – to what extent my whole life was contained in that overwhelming moment.

I stayed the whole night with you. You hadn’t sensed that beforehand no man had touched me, that until then no body had felt mine or seen it. But how could you have sensed that, for I offered no resistance, I repressed every shameful hesitation so as to not betray the secret of my life to you, which would certainly have shocked you – for you love only the light side of life, the playful, the frivolous; you were afraid of getting involved in a destiny. You want to lavish yourself, you yourself, on everything, on the world, and don’t want any sacrifices. When I say to you now, beloved, that I gave up my maidenhood to you, I implore you: do not misunderstand me! I am not complaining to you, you had not lured me, not lied to me, not seduced me – I, I alone pushed myself upon you, threw myself upon your breast, threw myself into my destiny. Never, never shall I complain to you, no, only always thank you, for how rich that night was for me, how I was sparking with pleasure, how I was floating in bliss! When I opened my eyes in the darkness and felt you beside me, I wondered that there weren’t stars above me, I felt so strongly the presence of heaven – no, I have never regretted, my beloved, never resented those hours. I also know that as you slept, as I heard your breath, felt your body and mine so near, that then I cried in the dark out of happiness.

The next morning I left early. I had to be at my work and also wanted to go before your servant arrived; I didn’t want him to see me. As I stood all dressed before you, you took me in your arms, looked at me for a long time – was it a memory, dark and distant, that surged up in you, or did I only seem pretty and happy, which I was? Then you kissed me on the mouth. I gently pulled free and wanted to go. You asked: “Will you not take a few flowers with you?” I said yes. You took four white roses out of the blue crystal vase on the writing-table (oh, I recognized it from that stolen glance of my childhood) and gave them to me. I kissed them for days on end.

We had agreed to meet again another evening. I came, and again it was wonderful. You granted me a third night. Then you told me that you had to leave on a trip – oh, how I have hated those trips ever since my childhood! – and promised to get in touch with me as soon as you came back. I gave you my postal-box address – I didn’t want to tell you my name. You gave me some roses again on leaving – on leaving.

Every day for two months I asked myself . . . but no, how can I describe to you the hellish torment of that waiting, that despair? I am not complaining to you, I love you as the man you are, warm and forgetful, generous and untrue; I love you like that, only like that, like you have always been and like you still are. You had been back for a long time, I knew that by the light in your window, and you hadn’t written to me. I have not had a line from you in my final hours, not a line from you to whom I have given my life. I waited, I waited in despair. But you didn’t call me, you didn’t write a line to me . . . not a line . . .


My child died yesterday – he was also your child. He was your child, my beloved, the child of those three nights, I swear to you, and one doesn’t lie in the shadow of death. It was our child, I swear to you, for no man had touched me since those moments when I gave myself to you until that other being was wrought out of my body. I cherished myself because of your having touched me: how could I have shared myself with you who was everything to me, and then with others who would just casually caress my body? It was our child, my beloved, the child of my conscious love and your carefree, wasteful, almost unconscious tenderness; our child, our son, our only child. But, you are now asking – perhaps shocked, perhaps just astonished – you are now asking, beloved, why I have kept quiet about this child all these long years, why I only talk to you about him now when he is sleeping here in the dark, sleeping for ever, lying there, soon to be taken away never to come back, never again! But what could I have said to you? Never would you have believed me, that stranger, that all-too willing partner of three nights, who had given herself unresistingly, passionately to you, never would you have believed that that nameless woman of a fleeting encounter would have remained faithful to you. To you, to the unfaithful you – you never would have completely accepted the child as your own! Never would you have been able, even if I had seemed credible, to avoid the secret suspicion that I was trying to foist the child of another on you, a wealthy man. You would have been suspicious of me, a shadow would have remained, a suppressed shadow of mistrust between you and me. I did not want that. And then, I know you: I know you as well as you know yourself, I know how painful it would have been for you, the carefree you, the light-hearted you, who played so playfully with love, suddenly to become a father, suddenly to become responsible for a destiny. You, who can only breathe in the atmosphere of freedom, would have felt somehow enchained to me. You would have – yes, I know that you would have, against your own conscious will – hated me for being bound like that. Perhaps only for a while, perhaps only for fleeting moments would I have become a burden to you, would I have become hateful to you – but in my pride I wanted you to think light-heartedly of me all your life long. I preferred to take everything upon myself rather than to become a burden to you, and to be the only one of all your women whom you always thought of with love and thankfulness. But in fact, you have never thought about me, you have forgotten me.

I am not complaining to you, my beloved, no, I am not complaining to you. Forgive me if sometimes a drop of bitterness flows from my pen, forgive me for that – my child, our child is lying there dead under the flickering candles; I have clenched my fist at God and charged him with murder, my senses are troubled and confused. Forgive me the complaint, forgive me! I know that you are good and helpful in the depths of your heart, you help everyone, you even help complete strangers who ask you for help. But your goodness is so special, it is openly there for everyone who can take it up with both hands, your goodness is large, endlessly large, but it is – forgive me – it is indolent. It needs to be exhorted, needs to be grasped. You help when one calls for you, when one asks for help, you help out of shame, out of weakness and not out of the goodness of your heart. You do not – let me say it openly to you – prefer people in need and distress to those as lucky as you. And to those like you, even the best of them, people find it difficult to ask for help. Once when I was still a child I saw through the peephole how you gave something to a beggar who had rung your doorbell. You gave it to him right away, a lot, even before he asked for it – but you stretched your hand out to him with a certain fear and haste so that he could only just go away; it was as if you were afraid to look him in the eye. I have never forgotten that uneasy, timid way of yours of avoiding thanks for your help. And that is why I have never turned to you for help. Certainly, I know that then you would have stood by my side even without the certainty that it was your child, you would have consoled me, given me money, much money, but always only with the secret impatience to be rid of the annoyance; I do believe that you would even have talked to me of getting rid of the child. And I was afraid of that above all – for what would I not have done that you desired, how could I ever have refused you anything? But this child was everything for me, it was certainly of you, it was another you, but it was now no longer you, the happy, carefree man from whom I could keep nothing back, but you who had been given to me for ever – as I thought – imprisoned in my body, integrated into my life. Now I had definitively captured you, I could feel your life grow in my body, could feed you, could nourish you, could cuddle you and kiss you when my soul was longing for you. Do you see, beloved, why I was so blissful when I knew that I had a child of yours that I kept hidden from you: for now you could no longer flee from me.

Honestly, beloved, those months were not as blissful as I had imagined they would be; they were also months of terror and torment, full of disgust for the baseness of people. It was not easy for me. I could no longer go to work during the last months, so that my condition would not become apparent to my relatives, who would have sent reports of it to my family. I did not want to ask my mother for money – so I managed with the sale of the few pieces of jewellery that I possessed until the moment of birth. A week beforehand my last few kroners were stolen from my wardrobe by a washerwoman, so I had to go to the maternity clinic. There, where only the utterly poor went, where the rejected and the forgotten crept in their distress, there, in the middle of that pit of misery, was your child born. It was horrible there; everything was foreign, foreign, we were foreign to each other, for we lay there, alone and full of hate for one another, only because of our misery, because of the same torment that we suffered, packed into that cramped, airless room full of chloroform and blood, of cries and moans. I suffered there from the debasement, from the spiritual and physical ignominy that go with poverty and, together with the prostitutes and the sick whose common fate we all shared there, from the cynicism of the young doctors who with an ironic smile stripped the bed-coverings off the defenceless women and groped them with falsely scientific gestures, and from the greed of the attendants – ah, there a person’s shame was crucified with glances and flagellated with words. The plaque with one’s name on it was all that was there of yourself, since what lay in the bed was just a twitching morsel of flesh, fingered by the curious, an object of exhibition and examination – ah, women whose husband is tenderly waiting for them to give birth at home do not know what it is like to give birth like that on the operating table, alone and defenceless! And when I read today in a book the word “hell”, I suddenly think involuntarily of that teeming, dreary room full of moans, cries, blood and screams in which I suffered, of that slaughterhouse of shame.

Forgive me, do forgive me for having spoken of that. But only this one time do I speak of it, never again, never more. For eleven years I have remained silent about it and shall soon be completely silent for all eternity: I just had to cry it out, to cry out just once how dearly I paid for this child who was my bliss and who is now lying there lifelessly. I had already forgotten them, those hours, long forgotten them in the smile, in the voice of the child, in my blissfulness; but now that he is dead the torment has come alive again, and I must shriek it out from my soul this one, this single time. But I am not complaining of you, only of God, only of God, who made that torment meaningless. I am not complaining of you, I swear to you, and I have never risen up in anger against you. Even that time, when my body was wracked with pain, when my body burned from shame under the groping fingers of the students, even in the instant when the pain was tearing at my soul, I did not complain of you before God; never have I regretted those nights, never cursed my love for you, I have always loved you, always blessed the moment when you first met me. And if I had to go through the hell of those hours again and knew in advance what was waiting for me, I would do it again, my beloved, once more and a thousand times again!


Our child died yesterday – you never knew him. Never, not even in a fleeting chance encounter did your glance touch on this blooming little being, your being. I kept myself away from you for a long time after I had this child; my longing for you had become less painful, I even believe that I loved you less passionately or at least I suffered less from it since he had been sent to me. I didn’t want to be divided between him and you; so I gave myself not to you, the happy one who lived elsewhere, but to the child that needed me, that I had to nourish, that I could kiss and hold in my arms. I seemed rescued from my constant state of unrest for you, my destiny, saved by this other you, who was really mine – rarely again, quite rarely did my feelings drive me humbly back there to your building. I just did one thing: I always sent you a bouquet of white roses on your birthday, exactly the same as those you gave me that time after our first night of love. Did you ever wonder in those ten, those eleven years who had sent those roses? Did you ever remember her to whom you once gave roses like that? I don’’t know the answer and will never know it. Just to reach out to you out of the dark, once a year to let the memory of that moment bloom – that was enough for me.

You never knew our poor child – today I blame myself for having hidden him from you, for you would have loved him. You never knew him, the poor boy, never saw him smile when he softly opened his eyelids and then with his clever dark eyes – your eyes! – cast a clear happy light on me, on the whole world. Ah, he was so gay, so loveable; the whole delicacy of your being was renewed in this child, your quick, active fantasy was renewed in him: he could play intensely for hours with things the way you play with life, and then, serious again, sit down with wide-open eyes to his books. He gradually became ever more you; already he began to manifest that duality of seriousness and playfulness that is characteristic of you; he began to develop visibly, and the more he became like you the more I loved him. He learned fast, he chatted in French like a little magpie, his notebooks were the best in the class, and with that, how handsome he was, how elegant in his black velvet suit or the white little sailor’s jacket! He was always the most elegant of them all wherever he went; when I walked with him on the beach in Grado women got up to caress his long blond hair; when he went skating on the Semmering people turned to look admiringly at him. He was so lovely, so tender, so helpful: when he entered the Theresianum Institute last year , he wore his uniform with his little sword like a page of the eighteenth century – now the poor boy lying there with pale lips and folded hands has nothing on but his little shirt.

But you are perhaps wondering how the child could have been brought up in such luxury, how I could have managed to give him that easy, that carefree life of the upper world. My love, I am speaking to you from the dark, I have no shame, I shall tell you, but do not be shocked, my beloved – I sold myself. I wasn’t exactly what one calls a street girl, a prostitute, but I sold myself. I had rich friends, rich lovers; first I looked for them, then they sought me out, for I was – did you notice? – very beautiful. Each of those to whom I gave myself became fond of me, all were grateful to me, all were attached to me, all loved me – all except you, only not you, my beloved!

Do you despise me now, because I have revealed that I sold myself? No, I know that you don’t despise me, I know that you understand everything and will also understand that I only did it for you, for your other you, for your child. Once I had been plunged into the horror of poverty in the operating room of that maternity clinic, I knew that in this world the poor are always the downtrodden, the debased, the victims; and I didn’t want at any price my child, your shining, beautiful child to be brought up down there in the dregs, in the dankness, in the commonness of the street, in the foul air of the back rooms. His tender mouth should never know the language of the gutter, his white body the musty crumpled clothing of the poor – your child should have everything, all the riches, all the facilities on earth, he should grow up as you again, in your sphere of life.

For that, only for that, did I sell myself, my beloved. It wasn’t a sacrifice for me, for what people usually mean by honour and shame was inexistent for me: you didn’t love me, you, the only one to whom my body belonged, so I was indifferent about what else happened to my body. The caresses of men, even their innermost passion, did not affect me deep down, although I had to be careful with many of them and my compassion with their unrequited love often affected me because of my own fate. All those whom I knew were good to me, they all spoiled me, they all paid a lot of attention to me. There was above all one, an older, widowed, noble Count, the one who moved heaven and earth to enable the fatherless child, your child, to go to the Theresianum School – he loved me like a daughter. He proposed marriage to me three times, four times – I could have become a Countess, mistress of a wonderful castle in the Tyrol, could have been without worries, for your child would have had a tender father who adored him and I would have had a calm, distinguished, good man at my side – I didn’t do it no matter how forcefully, how often he insisted, no matter how much I wounded him with my refusals. Perhaps it was foolish, for then I would have lived tranquilly and securely, and this beloved child with me, but – why should I not confess it to you – I didn’t want to commit myself, I wanted to be free for you at any moment. Deep down in the unconsciousness of my being I was still living the old dream of my childhood, that you would perhaps still once more call me to you, be it only for an hour. And for that possible hour I threw everything away, just to be available at your first call. What else had my whole life been since awakening out of childhood but waiting, waiting upon your wishes!

And that moment really happened. But you don’t know it, you don’t suspect it, my beloved! Even then you didn’t recognize me – never, never have you recognized me! I had often encountered you in the theatre, in concerts, in the Prater, on the street – every time my heart gave a leap, but you looked past me: I was certainly externally a quite different person, the timid child had become a woman, said to be lovely, clothed expensively, surrounded by admirers: how could you have detected in me that shy maiden in the dim light of your bedroom? Sometimes one of the men with me greeted you, you replied and looked at me; but your glance was polite aloofness, acknowledging but never recognizing, external, horribly external. Once, I still remember it, that lack of recognition, that I was already accustomed to, became a burning torment: I was sitting in a lodge in the Opera with a friend and you were in the neighbouring lodge. The lights went down at the overture, I could no longer see your face but I felt your breath as close to me as in that night, and your hand, your fine, tender hand, lay on the velvet railing between our lodges. And finally the urge came over me to bend down and humbly kiss that beloved hand whose tender caresses I had once felt. The stirring music surged over me, the urge became ever more passionate, I had to bend over in a cramp, to take hold of myself with all my might, so forcefully did your hand exercise its attraction on my lips. After the first act I asked my friend to take me away. I could no longer stand having you so close to me in the dark, so distant and so near.

But the time came, it came once more, for the last time in my shattered life. Almost exactly one year ago it happened, on the day after your birthday. It’s strange: I had been thinking of you for hours, because your birthdays were always a special occasion for me. Early in the morning of your birthday I had gone out to buy the white roses that I send to you every year in memory of a moment that you had forgotten. In the afternoon I went out with the boy, took him to Demel’s pastry store and then in the evening to the theatre; I wanted this to be a special kind of day for him too, an enigmatic day of celebration, without knowing its full significance. I spent the next day with my latest friend, a young, rich manufacturer from Brünn with whom I had been living for two years, who worshipped me and wanted to marry me as much as the other one and whom I had refused in the same incomprehensible way, in spite of the fact that he showered me and the boy with presents and himself was most likeable in his somewhat dull, servile way. We went to a concert together where we met a lively group of acquaintances, dined In a restaurant on the Ring, and there, in the middle of laughter and chatting I proposed to go out to the Tabarin, a dance hall. I normally didn’t like that place with its systematic and alcohol-driven gaiety so typical of nightclubs, and I was usually opposed to such proposals, but this time – it was as if an incomprehensible magical power in me had suddenly unconsciously thrown out the proposal into the middle of that joyful group – I suddenly had had an inexplicable urge as if something special was waiting there for me. Accustomed to letting me have my way, everyone quickly got up and we went over there, drank champagne, and all at once a raging, almost painful gaiety came over me like I had never known before. I drank and drank, sang silly songs along with them and wanted to dance and be joyful. But suddenly – it was as if something cold or something burning had abruptly descended on my heart – I was overwhelmed: you were sitting at the next table with some friends and were looking at me in an admiring and desiring way, with that look that had always created such an inner turmoil in me. For the first time in ten years you looked at me again with the whole unconscious, passionate power of your being. I trembled. I almost dropped the glass that I held in my hand. Fortunately none of my table companions noticed my confusion: they were lost in the uproar of laughter and music.

Your gaze became ever more insistent and set me completely on fire. I didn’t know if you had recognized me, at last, or whether you desired me anew, as another, as a stranger. Blood flew into my cheeks, I replied distractedly to my table companions; you must have noticed how confused I became because of your looking at me. You made a sign with your head to me, imperceptible to the others, to come out for a moment into the entranceway. Then you ostentatiously paid the bill, took leave of your friends and went out, not without having again made a sign to me that you would wait for me out there. I trembled like in a frost, like in a fever, I couldn’t talk any more or master the blood that rushed into my face. By chance, at that moment a pair of negro dancers began a remarkable new number with clacking heels and shrill cries; everyone was staring at them and I took advantage of those seconds. I stood up, told my friends that I would come back right away, and went out to you.

You were standing there in the entrance hall, waiting for me: your glance was warm as I came along. You hurried over to me, smiling; I saw right away that you didn’t recognize me, neither the child from long ago nor the young woman, once again you approached me like someone new, a stranger. “Can I see you some time?” you asked me familiarly – I knew from the sureness of your manner that you took me for one of those women that can be bought for an evening. I replied “Yes”, the same hesitating and obviously willing “Yes” that the young woman had said to you more than a decade before on that dimly-lit street. “And when can we see each other?” you asked. “Whenever you want” I replied – I had no shame in front of you. You looked at me with some surprise, the same mistrustful and curious surprise as that other time, when I had similarly astonished you replying so quickly. “Can you come now?” you asked, hesitating somewhat. “Yes” I said, “Let’s go.”

I wanted to go to the wardrobe, to fetch my coat.

Then I remembered that my friend had the wardrobe ticket for all the coats of our group. To go back and ask him for it without explanation would have been impossible; on the other hand I didn’t want to forego being with you, a moment that I had longed for for so many years. So without a second’s hesitation I just put my shawl over my evening dress and went out into the moist, foggy night without bothering about my coat, without bothering about my good, tender friend with whom I had lived for years, of whom I was making an object of ridicule to his friends, a man whose mistress of several years had left him on a whim for a stranger. Oh, I was aware of the lowness, the thanklessness, the shamefulness of what I was doing to an honourable friend, I felt intensely aware that I was behaving ridiculously and was terribly hurting for ever a good man with my delusions, that I was tearing my life apart – but what was friendship to me, what was my existence against the impatience to once again feel your lips, to hear your soft words spoken to me? That is how I loved you, I can tell you now, now that everything is over and done with. And I believe that if you called me from my deathbed, the strength would come to me to be able to get up and go to you.

There was a car in front of the entrance, and we went to your apartment. Again I heard your voice, I felt you tenderly close to me and was just as enchanted, as childishly delighted as before. How I went up those stairs for the first time in more than ten years – no, no I just cannot describe to you how I felt everything doubled in those seconds, in the past and in the present, and how I was only aware of you. Your room was a little different: there were a few more paintings, and more books, here and there different pieces of furniture, but everything seemed familiar to me. And on the writing-table was the vase with the roses – with my roses, the ones I had sent you the day before on your birthday in memory of someone whom you couldn’t remember, whom you had never recognized, the same person that was next to you now, hand in hand and lip on lip. But nevertheless: I was pleased that you had taken care of them: there was thus a hint of me there, a wisp of my love for you.

You took me in your arms. Again I stayed with you for an entire magnificent night. But you didn’t recognize me in nakedness either. Blissfully I suffered your knowing tenderness and saw that your passion made no difference between a lover and a bought woman, that you gave over to your desire with the same thoughtless, wasteful fullness of your being. You were so tender and gentle to me, whom you had picked up in a night-club, so distinguished and so splendidly attentive and at the same time so passionate in taking your pleasure with the woman; again, overwhelmed with the old happiness, I felt that unique duality of your nature: the lucid, cerebral passion in parallel with the sensual that had already captivated the child. Never have I known such tenderness in a man in the abandon of that moment, such outpouring and revealing of the innermost personality – to relapse afterwards in such a bottomless, almost inhuman forgetfulness. But I also forgot myself: who was I there in the dark beside you? Was I the avid child of the past, was I the mother of your child, was I a stranger? Everything was so intimate, everything was so intensely experienced, and everything again went by so quickly in that passionate night. And I prayed that it would never come to an end.

But the morning came; we got up late and you invited me to stay to have breakfast with you. We had tea together, that an unseen serving-hand had discretely placed in the dining-room, and we chatted. You talked to me again with that completely open, heartfelt familiarity of yours and again without any indiscrete questions, without any curiosity about what kind of person I was. You didn’t ask me my name, nor where I lived: I was just another adventure for you, a nameless person, a passionate moment that was dissolved without trace in the haze of your forgetfulness. You told me that you had to go on a long trip, to North Africa for two or three months; I trembled in the middle of my happiness, for it was already hammering in my ears: gone, gone and forgotten! I would have liked to throw myself down at your knees crying out: “Take me with you, so that you can finally get to know me, finally, after all these years!” But I was so shy, so cowardly, so slavish, so weak in face of you. I could only say “What a shame.” You answered me with a smile: “Are you really sorry?”

Then I was seized by a sudden fury. I stood up and looked at you, steadily and for a long time. Then I said: “The man I love is also always going away.” I looked at you, in the deep of your eyes. “Now, now he will recognize me!” the thought trembled, dominating my whole being. But you looked at me with a smile and said consolingly: “One always comes back.” “Yes,” I answered, “one comes back, but then one has forgotten.”

There must have been something special, something passionate in the way I said that. For then you stood up and looked at me, surprised and full of goodwill. You took me by the shoulder: “What is good, don’t forget, is that I won’t forget you” you said, sinking your eyes deep into mine, as if they wanted to register my image. And as I felt this look penetrating deep into me, searching, investigating, taking me all in, then I thought that at last, at last the spell of blindness had been broken. He will recognize me, he will recognize me! My whole soul was shaken by that thought.

But you didn’t recognize me. No, you didn’t recognize me, never was I more of a stranger to you than in that second – otherwise you could never have done what you did a few minutes later. You had kissed me, kissed me passionately once again. I had to redo my hair that had been disordered, and while I was standing before the mirror I saw there – and I thought that I would collapse from shame and horror – that you were discretely putting some large banknotes into my purse. How was I able not to scream out loud, not to hit you in the face in that second – me, who had loved you from my childhood, the mother of your child, you were paying me for that night! I was a whore from the nightclub to you, nothing more – paid, you had paid me! It was not enough to have forgotten me, I also had to be degraded.

I reached for my things. I wanted to leave as quickly as possible. I was too hurt. I took up my hat, that was lying on the writing-table, beside the vase with the white roses, my roses. Then it took hold of me, powerfully, irresistibly, once again I wanted to see if you could remember me. “Could you possibly give me you one of your white roses?” “Certainly”, you replied and took one out right away. “But they have perhaps been given to you by a woman, a woman who loves you?” I said. “Perhaps” you said, “I don’t know. They were given to me but I don’t know by whom; and I do love them so.” I looked at him. “Perhaps they were given to you by a woman whom you have forgotten!”

You blinked in astonishment. I looked at you steadily. “Recognize me, finally recognize me!” cried my look. But your eyes smiled friendly and unknowingly. You kissed me once again. But you didn’t recognize me.

I quickly went to the door, for I felt tears coming into my eyes and didn’t want you to see them. In the entrance hall – so quickly had I rushed out – I quite ran into Johann, your servant. He sprang shyly and abruptly to the side, opened the door of the apartment to let me out, and there – in that one, do you hear? in that one second that I looked at that aged man with tears in my eyes, a light suddenly flashed in his eyes. In that one second, do you hear? in that one second the old man had recognized me, he who had not seen me since my childhood! I could have kneeled down before him for this recognition and kissed his hands out of gratitude. So I tore the banknotes that you had inflicted on me out of my purse and thrust them on him. He hesitated, looked at me quite shocked – in that second he had perhaps divined more about me than you in your whole life. Everyone, all have spoiled me, all have been good to me – you only, only you have forgotten me; you only, only you have never recognized me!


My child is dead, our child – now I have no one left in the world in whom I can continue to love him, but you. But who are you to me, you who never, never recognized me, who passes by me like passing by a stretch of water, who treads on me like on a stone, who always goes on your way and leaves me eternally waiting? Before, I thought I could hold on to you, you who are so evasive, in the other you, the child. But it was your child: during the night he has cruelly left me, he has gone away, he has forgotten me and will never come back. I am alone again, more alone than ever, I have nothing, nothing from you – no child any more, no word, not a line, not a thought, and if someone mentioned my name in front of you it would be utterly foreign to you. Why should I not die, since I am dead for you, why not go away, since you have gone away from me? No, beloved, I am not complaining about you, I do not want to cast my misery into your happy home. Do not worry that I shall further bother you – excuse me, I must cry out my soul now that my child is lying there dead and neglected. Just this one time I had to speak to you – then I shall return back into the dark, mutely, as I have always been mute beside you. But you will not hear that cry, as long as I live – only when I am dead will you receive this legacy from me, from one who loved you more than anyone and whom you have never recognized, from one who always waited for you and whom you have never called. Perhaps, perhaps you will call me then, and I shall be untrue to you for the first time, in my death I shall hear you no more; I am leaving you no picture of me and no memento, as you have left none for me: never would you recognize me, never. That was my destiny in life, as it is in my death. I shall not call for you in my last hour, I am going away without you knowing my name and my face. It is easy for me to die, for you do not sense it where you are. If you suffered by knowing that I was dying, then I couldn’t die.

I can’t write any more . . . my head feels so dull . . . I have pains in my body, I have a fever . . . I think I must lie down right away now. Perhaps it will soon be over, perhaps fate will be good to me for once, and I won’t have to see them take away the child . . . I can no longer write. Good-bye, beloved, good-bye, I thank you . . . it was good, the way it was, in spite of everything . . . I shall thank you for that until my last breath. I am content: I have told you everything, you now know, no, you just vaguely sense, how much I have loved you, and that love has been no burden to you. I shall not fail you – that consoles me. Nothing will be different in your lovely, fine life . . . my death does no harm you . . . that consoles me, my loved one.

But who . . . who will now still send you white roses on your birthday? The vase will be empty, that little breath, the little scent of my life that I sent to you once every year, that too will fade away! My beloved, listen, I beg of you . . . this is my first and last request to you . . . do it for me, on that birthday – it is one day when one thinks of oneself – take roses there and put them in the vase. Do it, my beloved, do it like that, in the way that others once a year let a mass be read for someone they have loved who is no more. I no longer however believe in God and do not want a mass, I only believe in you, I only love you and only want to still live in you . . . ah, just one day in the year, just quite, quite calmly, the way I lived at your side . . . I beg you, do it, my beloved . . . . that is my first request to you and the last . . . I thank you . . . I love you, I love you . . . good-bye . . .


He put the letter down with trembling hands. Then he thought about it for a long time. Confusedly, vague memories surged up about a neighbour’s child, about a young girl, about a woman in a nightclub, but a confused and unclear memory, like a stone that glints and shapelessly trembles under water flowing by. Shadows flowed here and there but there wasn’t a clear image. He felt memories of sensations and still could not remember. It was as if all those forms had been dreamt of, often and deeply dreamed of, but only dreamed of. Then his glance fell on the blue vase before him on his writing-table. It was empty, for the first time in years on his birthday. He shrank back: it was as if suddenly a door had spring open somewhere and a cold fraught from another world had flowed into his calm dwelling. He sensed a death and he sensed imperishable love: something flowered out of the depths of his soul and he remembered the invisible and passionate being like one remembers music from long ago.

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[1Stefan Zweig’s first and only full-length novel, “The Heart’s Impatience” (Ungeduld des Herzens), aka “Beware of Pity”, was first published in 1939, in Stockholm.

[2original title: Brief einer Unbekannten.

[3this is a new translation, done specially for this site.