Protesting that I was unable to read riddles, though the heat of the one in hand made my frame glow, I entreated to have explicit words. He might be in Ottilia’s confidence, probing me—why not? Any question he chose to put to me, I said, I was ready to answer.
‘But it’s the questioner who unmasks,’ said he.
‘Are we masked, Herr Professor? I was not aware of it.’
‘Look within, and avoid lying.’
He stood up. ‘My nights,’ he remarked, ’are not commonly wasted in this manner. We Germans use the night for work.’
After a struggle to fling myself on his mercy and win his aid or counsel, I took his hand respectfully, and holding it, said, ’I am unable to speak out. I would if it involved myself alone.’
’Yes, yes, I comprehend; your country breeds honourable men, chivalrous youngsters,’ he replied. ’It ’s not enough—not enough. I want to see a mental force, energy of brain. If you had that, you might look as high as you liked for the match for it, with my consent. Do you hear? What I won’t have is, flat robbery! Mark me, Germany or England, it ’s one to me if I see vital powers in the field running to a grand career. It ’s a fine field over there. As well there as here, then! But better here than there if it ‘s to be a wasp’s life. Do you understand me?’
I replied, ‘I think I do, if I may dare to’; and catching breath: ’Herr Professor, dear friend, forgive my boldness; grant me time to try me; don’t judge of me at once; take me for your pupil—am I presumptuous in asking it?—make of me what you will, what you can; examine me; you may find there’s more in me than I or anybody may know. I have thoughts and aims, feeble at present—Good God! I see nothing for me but a choice of the two—“most unfortunate” seems likeliest. You read at a glance that I had no other choice. Rather the extremes!—I would rather grasp the limits of life and be swung to the pits below, be the most unfortunate of human beings, than never to have aimed at a star. You laugh at me? An Englishman must be horribly in earnest to talk as I do now. But it is a star!’ (The image of Ottilia sprang fountain-like into blue night heavens before my eyes memorably.) ‘She,’ was my next word. I swallowed it, and with a burning face, petitioned for help in my studies.
To such sight as I had at that instant he appeared laughing outrageously. It was a composed smile ‘Right,’ he said; ’you shall have help in a settled course. Certain Professors, friends of mine, at your University, will see you through it. Aim your head at a star—your head!—and even if you miss it you don’t fall. It’s that light dancer, that gambler, the heart in you, my good young man, which aims itself at inaccessible heights, and has the fall—somewhat icy to reflect on! Give that organ full play and you may make sure of a handful of dust. Do you hear? It’s a mind that wins a mind. That is why I warn you of being most unfortunate if you are a sensational whipster. Good-night Shut my door fast that I may not have the trouble to rise.’