PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Translator: Mike Mitchell Cover design: Marie Lane Cover illustration: Alfred Kubin
My poor wife found it impossible to overcome these fits of anxiety. She grew visibly paler, her cheeks more and more sunken, and at every unexpected word I spoke she would give a nervous start. Things could not go on like this much longer, and it was only the fact that I had still not managed to see Patera that delayed our departure. Without his specific permission any thought of leaving the Dream Realm was futile. The Archive contained ten requests I had submitted, but the only replies they deigned to send were a few stilted excuses such as, 'The time in question falls within a period of feriation for the Audience Bureau', or 'The petitioner has repeatedly been advised that a respectable position in society is a sine qua non for the granting of an audience. He is recommended, therefore, to maintain an ordered way of life, the which he should . . .' etc., etc. I was seething, and determined to open my friend's eyes to the harm caused by this pernicious bureaucratic clique. 'They'll be sorry for it!'
There was another thing that weighed against our journey home: Our money was gone! Yes, simply gone! Not a single copper was left from the hundred thousand marks.
'Well, there we have it, I knew it would happen,' I said bitterly to my wife when I found out. It was not really her fault, poor thing, so I spared her any further wailing and gnashing of teeth. Theft or no theft, the money had disappeared and all we had to live on was what I could earn.
This was towards the end of our second year in the Dream Realm. Now my wife began to be tormented by fears during the daytime as well. The kitchen was at the back of our flat and looked out through a window onto the courtyard of the dairy; in the middle was a well-shaft, at the back a few stable doors.
'That well is haunted', she insisted. She claimed she had heard strange hissing and knocking noises. I had noticed nothing, but to keep her happy I decided I should have a look, and so I went. Under the pretence that I wanted to look round the dairy I knocked until a half-deaf dairyman came to the door. A juicy tip quickly cured his dull-wittedness. I could look at whatever I liked, he shouted in my ear, before returning to his cubbyhole. Left to myself, I had no difficulty in setting about my investigation. I quickly passed through a whole series of dimly lit rooms. The building was set quite deep in the ground and the faint light had to squeeze in through small barred windows. There were many flat, round containers on long wooden trestles and wooden tubs standing in the corners. They were all filled to the brim with milk. There was one vault which was entirely given over to the storage of various implements. The walls were covered with tin pots, wooden boards and platters. I was in a hurry to find the courtyard, but instead of a way out into it, all I could find were more dark cellars with huge cauldrons hanging over cold fires. A pungent smell of cheese stung my nose. There they lay, dripping and stinking, regular rows of all sizes in an unsavoury closet, long and narrow, the mouldy walls covered with spiders' webs. It couldn't be there, so I decided to retrace my steps, but found I had lost my bearings in this labyrinth of cheese, milk and butter. I took a wrong turn and ended up in part of the subterranean labyrinth that was clearly not used at all. The arched ceiling was low, and rusty chains hung down from massive hooks. I could hardly see at all, but the slimy floor seemed to slope downwards slightly. All at once I stumbled down a few slippery steps and found myself in complete darkness. Blackest night and icy cellar air; somewhere above I heard a door slam shut. Thank God I had a few matches with me. Then suddenly, from far away, I heard a noise. It sounded like distant hammering, but was becoming clearer with disturbing rapidity. In the light of a match I saw that I was in a passageway. I was seized with dread. 'Away from here, I must get away from here', was my only thought. I ran, several times knocking my head against the dripping walls. Still the rumbling behind me grew louder, an awful, rhythmical thunder, like galloping hooves. The light from my matches was getting weaker, the damp air stifled the flame. The sound came nearer, obviously I was being pursued. Now I could clearly distinguish a wheezing and groaning. It so chilled me to the marrow, I thought I would go mad. I plunged on as if there were a whip cracking behind me, but all at once the strength drained out of me and I fell to my knees, almost fainting. Helplessly I held my hands up against the onrushing danger, my last matches flickering on the ground. Then the wild charge was upon me. A cold wind tore at me and I was staring at a white, emaciated horse. Although I could not see it clearly, I could tell what a terrible state it was in. The huge nag was almost starved and flung its enormous hooves around with the vigour of desperation. Bony head stretched out in front, ears laid flat, it dashed past me. Its dull, cloudy eye met mine: it was blind. I could hear it grinding its teeth and as, with a shudder, I watched it disappear, I saw the gleam of blood on its flayed crupper. There was no stopping the wild gallop of this living skeleton. Tormented by the vision of those dreadful bones, I felt my way along the passage as the thundering died away. Soon I was rescued by the distant glow of a gas lamp. It blurred as I went into a state of shock. My tongue went rigid and my body seemed to turn into stone. When the fit had passed I dragged myself towards the light. A staircase appeared, then another light. I heard people talking and entered a familiar room. I was in the coffee house.
A few days later I went out. New Year was just around the corner, but that did not mean much in this winterless land. I stole past the well-known façades. Here in Pearl everyone adopted a particular gait: quiet, hesitant, uncertain, prepared for misfortune to strike at any moment. A few lonely street-lamps guided my path. Real Dream-Realm lighting! Out of the general gloom, which blurred everything and enlarged it to gigantic proportions, there emerged unnatural physical details: a post, a shop sign, a gate.
I was coming out of the old, Gothic convent, one wing of which contained a children's hospital, where I had collected two bottles of medicinal wine as a tonic for my wife. As I passed the church which was attached to it I noticed a black bundle in the shadow of the doorway. I heard a few indistinct words and the bare stump of an arm was raised in pleading. Unthinking, I threw a few coins into the dark corner, but the next moment I stopped as if rooted to the spot. What a strange old woman's face it was in those filthy rags! I had to look at it more closely, there was some mysterious force compelling me. Reluctantly and with a feeling of disgust, I bent down to the old beggar-woman. It was not her stinking breath or toothless mouth that held me, but her two horrible, bright eyes; like the fangs of a viper they lodged in my brain. I arrived home half-dead with the shock. Was it real or the fearful product of an overstimulated imagination? I felt as if I had looked into a bottomless pit.
Such fits were too much for my nerves. I decided I would go to see Patera the very next day. If necessary, I was determined to scream, to force my way into his presence. He was my friend, he had invited me, it was up to him whether we went to rack and ruin or not. The mindless inhabitants of the Dream city certainly had a wrong impression of him. Why were they so timorous, so shrinking and evasive whenever I mentioned the man? My friend did not deserve that.
That day was particularly ill-starred. My wife had a migraine and was groaning; I made a few cold compresses for her and then collapsed on my bed, exhausted. Then, it must have been about one o'clock in the morning, there was a ringing and knocking at the door of our apartment. 'It's that drunkard from next door', I thought angrily. Soon I heard him bawling my name as well, time after time. I was furious at his lack of consideration, leapt out of bed, slipped on my dressing-gown and took my walking stick from the corner of the room. I was going to teach the fellow a lesson he wouldn't forget! I opened the door onto the landing and there he stood, breathing beer fumes right into my face. Did I have a few cigars? just as a loan why didn't I pop across to his flat my wife was invited too he was going to make a hot toddy.
I could hardly control my fury. 'This is outrageous! I think you might spare other people your scandalous behaviour! You'd better be off quickly before I throw you down the stairs, you bounder!' I yelled at him as loud as I could. I was boiling over with rage. With a vacant, drunken laugh, he stammered, 'Come on, just pop over.' As he spoke, he grabbed me by the arm and tried to drag me. I lost my self-control. As quick as lightning I kicked him in the stomach so that he tumbled to the ground. The insolence of the fellow! An avalanche of thoughts poured through my mind.
'Now I really am going to complain, I won't put it off any more, I will get justice or else. I can't stand this confounded hole a moment longer!' You can understand my situation. For weeks I had been prey to the most horrible experiences, I was worried about my sick wife, our money had gone, and all around me I found nothing but hostility and scorn. A violent hatred of the whole of the Dream Realm made me lose my head. Quivering with fury I tore down the stairs and rushed straight off to the Palace, just as I was. I was going to demand satisfaction for the humiliations I felt I was being subjected to the whole time. I would do it, even if I had to drag Patera from his bed. I raced up Long Street towards the Great Square. Thick fog had descended and the flames of the gas-lamps appeared as glowing patches of yellow. I did not see a single passer-by, only the wet, filthy flagstones. I was almost raving, my mind had no room for anything other than how I was going to describe all these infamies to Patera. I just poured out my accusations aloud, eloquent phrases came to me without effort and I found touching words for my misfortune. Then I began to feel the cold. When I looked down, I had to admit that I was hardly correctly dressed to visit a gentleman. My whole costume consisted of an old dressing-gown with a floral pattern, a nightshirt under it and one slipper the other must have fallen off while I was running. In the Great Square the fog was a little thinner. There was the Palace, towering up to the heavens like a gigantic cube. The bright disc on the clock-tower looked like a moon. The damp and cold brought me back to my senses; I recognised the foolishness of my plan. No, it was not the right moment, nor the right dress, to lodge a complaint. What did I look like, bare-headed, in my dressing-gown and with a walking stick at one o'clock in the morning? It brought me back to earth, and I turned round to make my way home. I took a short cut down a narrow side-street, the cold was becoming decidedly uncomfortable and my wife would worry until I returned. But tomorrow, tomorrow would be the day of reckoning! To warm myself up, I fell into a gentle trot. A brightly lit window appeared and I ran towards it. Music, a tinkling piano, hoarse voices, singing! There was a strip of light across the street. My God! I mustn't let people see me like this! But I had already been spotted.
'Hey, you there! Step this way.' Some suspicious figures approached. Now I knew that I had taken a wrong turning. I was in the French Quarter.
Things were still pretty lively there, and I was soon the centre of attraction. I was annoyed and embarrassed; they were laughing at my strange get-up. With an oath, I hurried on, more and more people following me. They were making coarse jokes, and I could see how it was going to end. It was all very embarrassing; I would never find my way in these unsavoury alleys and culs-de-sac. Castringius would have had no problem. If only I had known where the police station was, but all I could see on either side were grubby dives and dens of vice; the gutters gave off reeking fumes. I strode out as fast as I could. A fellow with make-up on grabbed the tip of my dressing-gown and pulled it down. Smack! There was a slap across the face for his pains. But it would have been better if I hadn't bothered, for now the hubbub really started. With shouts and screams the hunt for me was really up. A gigantic, bloated woman stepped into my path and tried to trip me up. I easily jumped over her and lost my walking stick as I did so. She rolled around in the mud, clutching my nightshirt as a trophy. That gave me a slight lead, but now I knew it was a matter of life and death. I lengthened my stride like a demented greyhound. Never before had I been so sure in my strength. But behind me the wild uproar was increasing, half the French Quarter was on my heels. Piercing whistles rang out, the ground became slimier and slimier, I had to be careful I didn't slip. 'I'll soon be exhausted, I'm not going to escape', I thought, fear pounding at my temples. They threw bottles and knives at me as I ran to and fro through the alleys, crying as loud as I could at every corner, 'Help! Police!' But no one came to help me, and from behind I could hear the scornful laughter of the wild mob. Mouth gaping, naked and despairing, I literally flew along. No safety, no hope anywhere to be seen! Finally, I was already quite weary, I saw a tall narrow house. It blocked off the end of the alley, all the windows were lit and there was a red paper lantern over the entrance. The door was open; I rushed up the brightly lit stairs. The walls were painted in vivid colours and decorated with palm-trees. On the first floor there was a woman coming towards me, a sublime vision, superb in a long, glistening silver chemise with her hair loose and magnificent arms. She was not particularly surprised to see me in the state I was in, and said with a smile, 'Not to me! You must have made a mistake, sir. That's room five.'
Delighted and embarrassed at her friendliness, I stammered breathless apologies, covering my nakedness with my hand. Then I opened the door she had indicated. Damn it all, there were two people in there already, also stark-naked! I slammed the door shut again. The rabble was now surging up the stairs. At the front was a policeman now he came roaring, 'Where is the fellow? I'll report this. And the house will have to be closed down.' Then the mob. My fair rescuer had disappeared and my bleeding feet seemed to weigh a ton. Taking a deep breath, I climbed up a few more steps and saw, written in large letters like a command, the words I had been waiting for, Here. Once more providence had come to my aid! With my remaining strength I opened the door and pushed home the bolt behind me. For the moment I was safe, but the horde was already rattling the lock. 'Open up! Open up!' came the piercing cry from a thousand throats.
I looked around like a hunted beast, then a sudden, desperate decision came to me like a flash of lightning. At the risk of falling to my death, I squeezed through a narrow window and felt round for something to hold on to. Yes! There was a wire, a lighting conductor. And with a miraculous confidence which I found incredible, I climbed down it. Silence and darkness all round. I collapsed to the ground, my legs could carry me no farther.
I was lying on a rubbish tip. The driver of a dung-cart on his nightly rounds lifted me up and took me home in his evil-smelling vehicle. My wife saw me arrive from the window. She had had a worrying quarter of an hour, I had not been away for more than that.
A few days later I saw some dogs in the street playing with a bundle of coloured rags from which hung braid and tassels. In that piece of lost property floating round the streets of the Dream city I recognised my old dressing-gown. My enthusiasm for Patera's creation was definitely a thing of the past.
No. of pages: 252
Publication date: 01.08.2014
Re-print date: 12.11.2020
978 1 91021303 2
978 1 907650 26 0