Effi Briest (1896), Theodor Fontane


In front of the old manor house occupied by the
von Briest family since the days of Elector
George William, the bright sunshine was
pouring down upon the village road, at the
quiet hour of noon. The wing of the mansion
looking toward the garden and park cast its broad shadow
over a white and green checkered tile walk and extended out
over a large round bed, with a sundial in its centre and a
border of Indian shot and rhubarb. Some twenty paces
further, and parallel to the wing of the house, there ran
a churchyard wall, entirely covered with a small-leaved ivy,
except at the place where an opening had been made for a
little white iron gate. Behind this arose the shingled tower
of Hohen-Cremmen, whose weather vane glistened in the
sunshine, having only recently been regilded. The front
of the house, the wing, and the churchyard wall formed, so
to speak, a horseshoe, inclosing a small ornamental garden,
at the open side of which was seen a pond, with a small
footbridge and a tied-up boat. Close by was a swing, with
its crossboard hanging from two ropes at either end, and
its frame posts beginning to lean to one side. Between the
pond and the circular bed stood a clump of giant plane
trees, half hiding the swing.
The terrace in front of the manor house, with its tubbed
aloe plants and a few garden chairs, was an agreeable
place to sit on cloudy days, besides affording a variety of
things to attract the attention. But, on days when the hot
sun beat down there, the side of the house toward the
garden was given a decided preference, especially by the
mother and the daughter of the house. On this account
they were today sitting on the tile walk in the shade, with
their backs to the open windows, which were all overgrown
with wild grape-vines, and by the side of a little projecting
stairway, whose four stone steps led from the garden to
the ground floor of the wing of the mansion. Both mother
and daughter were busy at work, making an altar cloth out
of separate squares, which they were piecing together.
Skeins of woolen yarn of various colors, and an equal
variety of silk thread lay in confusion upon a large round
table, upon which were still standing the luncheon dessert
plates and a majolica dish filled with fine large goose-
Swiftly and deftly the wool-threaded needles were drawn
back and forth, and the mother seemed never to let her
eyes wander from the work. But the daughter, who bore
the Christian name of Effi, laid aside her needle from time
to time and arose from her seat to practice a course of
healthy home gymnastics, with every variety of bending
and stretching. It was apparent that she took particular
delight in these exercises, to which she gave a somewhat
comical turn, and whenever she stood there thus engaged,
slowly raising her arms and bringing the palms of her
hands together high above her head, her mother would
occasionally glance up from her needlework, though always
but for a moment and that, too, furtively, because she did
not wish to show how fascinating she considered her own
child, although in this feeling of motherly pride she was
fully justified. Effi wore a blue and white striped linen
dress, a sort of smock-frock, which would have shown no
waist line at all but for the bronze-colored leather belt
which she drew up tight. Her neck was bare and a broad
sailor collar fell over her shoulders and back. In every-
thing she did there was a union of haughtiness and grace-
fulness, and her laughing brown eyes betrayed great nat-
ural cleverness and abundant enjoyment of life and good-
ness of heart She was called the “little girl,” which she
had to suffer only because her beautiful slender mother was
a full hand’s breadth taller than she.
Effi had just stood up again to perform her calisthenic
exercises when her mother, who at the moment chanced
to be looking up from her embroidery, called to her: “Effi,
you really ought to have been an equestrienne, I‟m think-
ing. Always on the trapeze, always a daughter of the air.
I almost believe you would like something of the sort.”
“Perhaps, mama. But if it were so, whose fault would
it be? From whom do I get it? Why, from no one but
you. Or do you think, from papa? There, it makes you
laugh yourself. And then, why do you always dress me in
this rig, this boy‟s smock? Sometimes I fancy I shall be
put back in short clothes yet. Once I have them on again
I shall courtesy like a girl in her early teens, and when
our friends in Rathenow come over I shall sit in Colonel
Goetze‟s lap and ride a trot horse. Why not? He is three-
fourths an uncle and only one-fourth a suitor. You are to
blame. Why don‟t I have any party clothes! Why don‟t
you make a lady of me?”
“Should you like me to?”
“No.” With that she ran to her mother, embraced her
effusively and kissed her.
“Not so savagely, Effi, not so passionately. I am
always disturbed when I see you thus.”
At this point three young girls stepped into the garden
through the little iron gate in the churchyard wall and
started along the gravel walk toward the round bed and the
sundial. They all waved their umbrellas at Effi and then
ran up to Mrs. von Briest and kissed her hand. She hur-
riedly asked a few questions and then invited the girls to
stay and visit with them, or at least with Effi, for half an
hour. “Besides, I have something else that I must do
and young folks like best to be left to themselves. Fare ye
well.” With these words she went up the stone steps into
the house.
Two of the young girls, plump little creatures, whose
freckles and good nature well matched their curly red hair,
were daughters of Precentor Jahnke, who swore by the
Hanseatic League, Scandinavia, and Fritz Reuter, and fol-
lowing the example of his favorite writer and fellow country-
man, had named his twin daughters Bertha and Hertha, in
imitation of Mining and Lining. The third young lady was
Hulda Niemeyer, Pastor Niemeyer‟s only child. She was
more ladylike than the other two, but, on the other hand,
tedious and conceited, a lymphatic blonde, with slightly
protruding dim eyes, which, nevertheless, seemed always
to be seeking something, for which reason the Hussar
Klitzing once said: “Doesn‟t she look as though she were
every moment expecting the angel Gabriel?” Effi felt that
the rather captious Klitzing was only too right in his criti-
cism, yet she avoided making any distinction between the
three girl friends. Nothing could have been farther from
her mind at this moment. Resting her arms on the table,
she exclaimed: “Oh, this tedious embroidery! Thank
heaven, you are here.”
“But we have driven your mama away,” said Hulda.
“Oh no. She would have gone anyhow. She is expect-
ing a visitor, an old friend of her girlhood days. I must
tell you a story about him later, a love story with a real
hero and a real heroine, and ending with resignation. It
will make you open your eyes wide with amazement. More-
over, I saw mama‟s old friend over in Schwantikow. He is
a district councillor, a fine figure, and very manly.”
“Manly? That‟s a most important consideration,” said
“Certainly, it‟s the chief consideration. „Women
womanly, men manly,‟ is, you know, one of papa‟s favorite
maxims. And now help me put the table in order, or there
will be another scolding.”
It took but a moment to put the things in the basket and,
when the girls sat down again, Hulda said: “Now, Effi,
now we are ready, now for the love story with resignation.
“A story with resignation is never bad. But I can‟t
begin till Hertha has taken some gooseberries; she keeps
her eyes glued on them. Please take as many as you like,
we can pick some more afterward. But be sure to throw
the hulls far enough away, or, better still, lay them here
on this newspaper supplement, then we can wrap them up
in a bundle and dispose of everything at once. Mama can‟t
bear to see hulls lying about everywhere. She always says
that some one might slip on them and break a leg.”
“I don‟t believe it,” said Hertha, applying herself
closely to the berries.
“Nor I either,” replied Effi, confirming the opinion.
“Just think of it, I fall at least two or three times every
day and have never broken any bones yet. The right kind
of leg doesn‟t break so easily; certainly mine doesn‟t,
neither does yours, Hertha. What do you think, Hulda?”
“One ought not to tempt fate. Pride will have a fall.”
“Always the governess. You are just a born old maid.”
“And yet I still have hopes of finding a husband, perhaps
even before you do.”
“For aught I care. Do you think I shall wait for that?
The idea! Furthermore one has already been picked out
for me and perhaps I shall soon have him. Oh, I am not
worrying about that. Not long ago little Ventivegni from
over the way said to me : „Miss Effi, what will you bet we
shall not have a charivari and a wedding here this year
“And what did you say to that?”
“Quite possible, I said, quite possible; Hulda is the
oldest; she may be married any day. But he refused to
listen to that and said : „No, I mean at the home of an-
other young lady who is just as decided a brunette as Miss
Hulda is a blonde.‟ As he said this he looked at me quite
seriously — But I am wandering and am forgetting the
“Yes, you keep dropping it all the while; may be you
don‟t want to tell it, after all?”
“Oh, I want to, but I have interrupted the story a good
many times, chiefly because it is a little bit strange, indeed,
almost romantic.”
“Why, you said he was a district councillor.”
“Certainly, a district councillor, and his name is Geert
von Innstetten, Baron von Innstetten.”
All three laughed.
“Why do you laugh?” said Effi, nettled. “What does
this mean?”
“Ah, Effi, we don‟t mean to offend you, nor the Baron
either. Innstetten did you say? And Geert? Why, there is
nobody by that name about here. And then you know the
names of noblemen are often a bit comical.”
“Yes, my dear, they are. But people do not belong to the
nobility for nothing. They can endure such things, and the
farther back their nobility goes, I mean in point of time,
the better they are able to endure them. But you don‟t
know anything about this and you must not take offense
at me for saying so. We shall continue to be good friends
just the same. So it is Geert von Innstetten and he is a
Baron. He is just as old as mama, to the day.”
“And how old, pray, is your mama?”
“A fine age.”
“Indeed it is, especially when one still looks as well as
mama. I consider her truly a beautiful woman, don‟t you,
too? And how accomplished she is in everything, always
so sure and at the same time so ladylike, and never uncon-
ventional, like papa. If I were a young lieutenant I should
fall in love with mama.”
“Oh, Effi, how can you ever say such a thing?” said
Hulda. “Why, that is contrary to the fourth com-
“Nonsense. How can it be? I think it would please
mama if she knew I said such a thing.”
“That may be,” interrupted Hertha. “But are you
ever going to tell the story?”
“Yes, compose yourself and I‟ll begin. We were speak-
ing of Baron von Innstetten. Before he had reached the
age of twenty he was living over in Rathenow, but spent
much of his time on the seignioral estates of this region,
and liked best of all to visit in Schwantikow, at my grand-
father Belling‟s. Of course, it was not on account of my
grandfather that he was so often there, and when mama
tells about it one can easily see on whose account it really
was, I think it was mutual, too.”
“And what came of it?”
“The thing that was bound to come and always does
come. He was still much too young and when my papa
appeared on the scene, who had already attained the title
of baronial councillor and the proprietorship of Hohen-
Cremmen, there was no need of further time for considera-
tion. She accepted him and became Mrs. von Briest.”
“What did Innstetten do?” said Bertha, “what became
of him? He didn‟t commit suicide, otherwise you could
not be expecting him today.”
“No, he didn‟t commit suicide, but it was something of
that nature.”
“Did he make an unsuccessful attempt? “
“No, not that But he didn‟t care to remain here in
the neighborhood any longer, and he must have lost all
taste for the soldier‟s career, generally speaking. Besides,
it was an era of peace, you know. In short, he asked for
his discharge and took up the study of the law, as papa
would say, with a „true beer zeal.‟ But when the war of
seventy broke out he returned to the army, with the Perle-
berg troops, instead of his old regiment, and he now wears
the cross. Naturally, for he is a smart fellow. Right after
the war he returned to his documents, and it is said that
Bismarck thinks very highly of him, and so does the
Emperor. Thus it came about that he was made district
councillor in the district of Kessin.”
“What is Kessin? I don‟t know of any Kessin here.”
“No, it is not situated here in our region; it is a long
distance away from here, in Pomerania, in Further Pome-
rania, in fact, which signifies nothing, however, for it is a
watering place (every place about there is a summer resort),
and the vacation journey that Baron Innstetten is now
enjoying is in reality a tour of his cousins, or something
of the sort. He wishes to visit his old friends and relatives
“Has he relatives here?”
“Yes and no, depending on how you look at it. There
are no Innstettens here, there are none anywhere any more,
I believe. But he has here distant cousins on his mother‟s
side, and he doubtless wished above all to see Schwantikow
once more and the Belling house, to which he was attached
by so many memories. So he was over there the day
before yesterday and today he plans to be here in Hohen-
“And what does your father say about it?”
“Nothing at all. It is not his way. Besides, he knows
mama, you see. He only teases her.”
At this moment the clock struck twelve and before it had
ceased striking, Wilke, the old factotum of the Briest
family, came on the scene to give a message to Miss Effi:
“’Your Ladyship‟s mother sends the request that your
Ladyship make her toilet in good season; the Baron will
presumably drive up immediately after one o‟clock.” While
Wilke was still delivering this message he began to put the
ladies‟ work-table in order and reached first for the sheet
of newspaper, on which the gooseberry hulls lay.
“No, Wilke, don‟t bother with that It is our affair to
dispose of the hulls — Hertha, you must now wrap up the
bundle and put a stone in it, so that it will sink better.
Then we will march out in a long funeral procession and
bury the bundle at sea.”
Wilke smiled with satisfaction. “Oh, Miss Effi, she‟s a
trump,” was about what he was thinking. But Effi laid
the paper bundle in the centre of the quickly gathered up
tablecloth and said: “Now let all four of us take hold,
each by a corner, and sing something sorrowful.”
“Yes, Effi, that is easy enough to say, but what, pray,
shall we sing?”
“Just anything. It is quite immaterial, only it most
have a rime in „oo;‟ „oo‟ is always a sad vowel. Let us
sing, say:

“Flood, flood,
Make it all good.”

While Effi was solemnly intoning this litany, all four
marched out upon the landing pier, stepped into the boat
tied there, and from the further end of it slowly lowered
into the pond the pebble-weighted paper bundle.
“Hertha, now your guilt is sunk out of sight,” said Effi,
“in which connection it occurs to me, by the way, that in
former times poor unfortunate women are said to have
been thrown overboard thus from a boat, of course for
“But not here, certainly.”
“No, not here,” laughed Effi, “such things do not take
place here. But they do in Constantinople and it just
occurs to me that you must know about it, for you
were present in the geography class when the teacher told
about it.”
“Yes,” said Hulda, “he was always telling us about
such things. But one naturally forgets them in the course
of time.”
“Not I, I remember things like that.”


THE conversation ran on thus for some time, the girls
recalling with mingled disgust and delight the school lessons
they had had in common, and a great many of the teacher‟s
uncalled-for remarks. Suddenly Hulda said: “But you
must make haste, Effi; why, you look — why, what shall I
say — why, you look as though you had just come from a
cherry picking, all rumpled and crumpled. Linen always
gets so badly creased, and that large white turned down
collar — oh, yes, I have it now; you look like a cabin boy.”
“Midshipman, if you please. I must derive some advan-
tage from my nobility. But midshipman or cabin boy, only
recently papa again promised me a mast, here close by
the swing, with yards and a rope ladder. Most assuredly
I should like one and I should not allow anybody to inter-
fere with my fastening the pennant at the top. And you,
Hulda, would climb up then on the other side and high
in the air we would shout: „Hurrah!‟ and give each other
a kiss. By Jingo, that would be a sweet one.”
“„By Jingo.‟ Now just listen to that. You really talk
like a midshipman. However, I shall take care not to
climb up after you, I am not such a dare-devil. Jahnke
is quite right when he says, as he always does, that you
have too much Billing in you, from your mother. I am
only a preacher‟s daughter.”
“Ah, go along. Still waters run deep — But come, let
us swing, two on a side; I don‟t believe it will break. Or
if you don‟t care to, for you are drawing long faces again,
then we will play hide-and-seek. I still have a quarter of
an hour. I don‟t want to go in, yet, and anyhow it is
merely to say: „How do you do?‟ to a district councillor,
and a district councillor from Further Pomerania to boot.
He is elderly, too. Why he might almost be my father;
and if he actually lives in a seaport, for, you know, that
is what Kessin is said to be, I really ought to make the
best impression upon him in this sailor costume, and he
ought almost to consider it a delicate attention. When
princes receive anybody, I know from what papa has told
me, they always put on the uniform of the country of their
guest. So don‟t worry — Quick, quick, I am going to hide
and here by the bench is the base.”
Hulda was about to fix a few boundaries, but Effi had
already run up the first gravel walk, turning to the left,
then to the right, and suddenly vanishing from sight.
“Effi, that does not count; where are you? We are not
playing run away; we are playing hide-and-seek.” With
these and similar reproaches the girls ran to search for
her, far beyond the circular bed and the two plane trees
standing by the side of the path. She first let them get
much farther than she was from the base and then, rush-
ing suddenly from her hiding place, reached the bench,
without any special exertion, before there was time to say:
“one, two, three.”
“Where were you?”
“Behind the rhubarb plants; they have such large
leaves, larger even than a fig leaf.”
“Shame on you.”
“No, shame on you, because you didn‟t catch me.
Hulda, with her big eyes, again failed to see anything.
She is always slow.” Hereupon Effi again flew away
across the circle toward the pond, probably because she
planned to hide at first behind a dense-growing hazelnut
hedge over there, and then from that point to take a long
roundabout way past the churchyard and the front house
and thence back to the wing and the base. Everything was
well calculated, but before she was half way round the pond
she heard some one at the house calling her name and, as
she turned around, saw her mother waving a handkerchief
from the stone steps. In a moment Effi was standing by
“Now you see that I knew what I was talking about.
You still have that smock-frock on and the caller has
arrived. You are never on time.”
“I shall be on time, easily, but the caller has not kept
his appointment. It is not yet one o‟clock, not by a good
deal,” she said, and turning to the twins, who had been
lagging behind, called to them: “Just go on playing; I
shall be back right away.”
The next moment Effi and her mama entered the spacious
drawing-room, which occupied almost the whole ground
floor of the side wing.
“Mama, you daren‟t scold me. It is really only half
past. Why does he come so early? Cavaliers never arrive
too late, much less too early.”
Mrs. von Briest was evidently embarrassed. But Effi
cuddled up to her fondly and said: “Forgive me, I will
hurry now. You know I can be quick, too, and in five
minutes Cinderella will be transformed into a princess.
Meanwhile he can wait or chat with papa.”
Bowing to her mother, she was about to trip lightly up
the little iron stairway leading from the drawing-room to
the story above. But Mrs. von Briest, who could be uncon-
ventional on occasion, if she took a notion to, suddenly held
Effi back, cast a glance at the charming young creature,
still all in a heat from the excitement of the game, a per-
fect picture of youthful freshness, and said in an almost
confidential tone: “After all, the best thing for you to
do is to remain as you are. Yes, don‟t change. You look
very well indeed. And even if you didn‟t, you look so
unprepared, you show absolutely no signs of being dressed
for the occasion, and that is the most important considera-
tion at this moment. For I must tell you, my sweet Effi —”
and she clasped her daughter‟s hands — “for I must tell
you —”
“Why, mama, what in the world is the matter with you?
You frighten me terribly.”
“I must tell you, Effi, that Baron Innstetten has just
asked me for your hand.”
“Asked for my hand? In earnest?”
“That is not a matter to make a jest of. You saw him
the day before yesterday and I think you liked him. To
be sure, he is older than you, which, all things considered,
is a fortunate circumstance. Besides, he is a man of char-
acter, position, and good breeding, and if you do not say
„no,‟ which I could hardly expect of my shrewd Effi, you
will be standing at the age of twenty where others stand
at forty. You will surpass your mama by far.”
Effi remained silent, seeking a suitable answer. Before
she could find one she heard her father‟s voice in the
adjoining room. The next moment Councillor von Briest,
a well preserved man in the fifties, and of pronounced
entered the drawing-room, and with him Baron
Innstetten, a man of slender figure, dark complexion, and
military bearing.
When Effi caught sight of him she fell into a nervous
tremble, but only for an instant, as almost at the very
moment when he was approaching her with a friendly bow
there appeared at one of the wide open vine-covered
windows the sandy heads of the Jahnke twins, and Hertha,
the more hoidenish, called into the room: “Come, Effi.”
Then she ducked from sight and the two sprang from the
back of the bench, upon which they had been standing,
down into the garden and nothing more was heard from
them except their giggling and laughing.