Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 934
The building superintendent’s wife is sweeping and polishing brass while the Old Man, Director Hummel, sits in a wheelchair reading a newspaper. As a Milkmaid comes in and drinks from the fountain in front of the apartment building, a Student, “sleepless and unshaven,” approaches and asks for the dipper. The Milkmaid reacts in terror, for she is an apparition and unaccustomed to being seen, and the Old Man stares at the Student in amazement because he cannot see the Milkmaid. Neither of them knows that the Student is a child born on a Sunday, which gives him special perceptions.
This puzzling tableau yields to a conversation between the Old Man and the Student. The Student, Arkenholz, is exhausted from having treated people who have been injured that night in a collapsing house. The Old Man’s questions disclose that the Student is the son of a man who—so the Old Man says—had swindled him out of his life savings many years before. The Old Man, whose behavior and casual remarks suggest some mythic, timeless quality, has apparently contrived the Student’s occasion for heroism as a ruse to meet him so that he can manipulate the Student into friendship and ultimately marriage with the daughter of the Colonel, who is actually the Old Man’s daughter. To this end, the Old Man instructs the Student to attend a performance of Richard Wagner’s opera Die Walküre(1856; The Valkyrie, 1877) that evening and to sit in a certain seat.
The Student agrees to these arrangements, all of which seem like the manipulations of an eighty-year-old man who admits that “I take an interest in people’s destinies.” The Old Man takes the Student by the hand, claims exhaustion from an “infinitely long life,” and proclaims that their destinies are “intertwined through your father.” The Student, repulsed by this intimacy, withdraws his hand and protests, “You’re draining my strength, you’re freezing me. What do you want of me?” What the Old Man wants is to perpetuate himself through the Student, who is young, vital, and a fit mate for the Old Man’s daughter. The Student worries about these arrangements, wondering if they mean “some kind of pact,” but the Old Man assures him that his motive is simply that all his life he has taken and that now, poised for an uncertain eternity, he wants to give.
The Old Man rather gleefully recites several bits of gossip. He reveals that a mysterious lady in black standing on the steps is the daughter of the superintendent’s wife by a dead man, a former consul, whose body lay upstairs; this adulterous liaison is explained as the occasion by which the superintendent had been given his job. Furthermore, divulges the Old Man, the lady in black is having an affair with an aristocrat whose wife is not only giving him a divorce but throwing in an estate to be rid of him. The Old Man concludes by noting that the aristocrat pursuing the lady in black is a son-in-law of the dead man upstairs. After the Old Man’s servant, Johansson, pushes him around the corner in his wheelchair, the Student learns from Johansson that the Old Man always wanted power and is afraid of only one thing: the Milkmaid.
Bengtsson, the Colonel’s footman, gives Johansson his orders for the evening as they enter the Round Room on the ground floor. They are to serve the Colonel and his wife, the Mummy, a “ghost supper,” so called because they have looked like ghosts for years. The Mummy, secluded in a closet, speaks childish parrot talk to Bengtsson when he opens her door. Bengtsson then points out to Johansson the “death screen” put up around a dying person. At this point, the Old Man arrives and the Mummy emerges to speak to him of their daughter, who sits next door in the Hyacinth Room, reading.
In the conversation that follows, the Old Man humiliates the Colonel by exposing all the pretensions in his life and revealing that he has bought up the Colonel’s promissory notes. However, the Old Man is humiliated in turn by Bengtsson, who declares that years before in Hamburg the Old Man had “lured a girl out onto the ice to drown her, because she had witnessed a crime he was afraid would be discovered.” At this disclosure, the Mummy demands all the notes and by stroking him on the back transforms Hummel into a parrot-speaker; she switches places with him in the closet and places the death screen before the closet door.
In the Hyacinth Room, the Student elaborates to the Young Lady on his love for hyacinths, finding in this flower “a replica of the universe” as its star flowers shoot up to become a veritable “globe of heaven.” The Young Lady responds by criticizing her cook, a vampire like Hummel, and her maid, whose carelessness demands the Young Lady’s regular attention. When the Young Man recounts an episode when his father had criticized all of his friends at the dinner table, “strip[ping] everybody naked, one after another, exposing all their falseness,” he harangues the Young Lady with his own devotion to perfection and ends with the plea, “Alas! Alas for us all! Savior of the world, save us, we are perishing!” This unexpected verbal assault destroys the Young Lady, who crumples and dies as harp music accompanies the Student’s tender elegy for her. The room then disappears and Arnold Böcklin’s painting “The Island of the Dead” emerged in the background.