PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Unresisting, I let Zwakh lead me down the stairs. The smell of the fog, which penetrated the house from the street, grew stronger and stronger. Prokop and Vrieslander had gone on a little way ahead, and we could hear them talking outside the entrance.
"It must have fallen right through the grating into the sewers, Devil take it." We came out into the street and I could see Prokop bending down, looking for the puppet-head.
"I'm glad you can't find the stupid thing", growled Vrieslander. He was leaning against the wall and at regular intervals his face shone brightly and then faded again as he sucked the hissing flame of a match into his short pipe.
Prokop waved his arm for silence and bent down even lower. He was almost kneeling on the cobbles. "Do be quiet! Can't you hear anything?"
We went over to where he was squatting. He pointed silently at the grating over the sewer and put his hand by his ear. We stood there for a while, listening for sounds from the drain.
"What was it you heard?" It was the old puppeteer who finally asked the question, but Prokop immediately grabbed him by the wrist.
For a brief moment, scarcely more than the length of a heartbeat, it had seemed to me as if somewhere down below a hand were knocking, almost inaudibly, on a sheet of iron. The next second, when I thought about it, it had disappeared, but in my breast there was an echo, like a memory of the sound, that gradually dissolved into a vague sense of terror. Steps coming down the street dispelled the feeling.
"Let's go. What are we hanging around for?", Vrieslander demanded.
We continued down the street, Prokop following reluctantly. "I'm willing to wager my last breath there was someone down there screaming for dear life."
None of us responded, but I felt it was an almost imperceptible fear rising within us that tied our tongues.
Soon we were looking at the red-curtained window of a tavern. A piece of cardboard announced:
Grande Conserte Tonight
The edges were decorated with faded photographs of women.
Before Zwakh could grasp the knob, the door opened inward and we were greeted with much bowing and scraping by a big burly fellow with black, brilliantined hair and no collar, but a green silk tie round his bare neck and the waistcoat of his dress suit adorned with a bunch of pig's teeth.
"Well, well well, what fine gentlemen", he said, and hurriedly twisted his head round to shout across the crowded tavern, "Quick, Pane Schaffranek, a fanfare." The response was a tinkling sound from the piano, as if a rat were running along the keys.
"Well, well well, what fine gentlemen, what fine gentlemen. Isn't that nice", the burly man kept muttering to himself as he helped us off with our coats. "Yes, we have the whole of the aristocracy of the land gathered here tonight", he said proudly, in response to Vrieslander's astonished expression at the appearance of a few elegant young men in evening dress on a kind of raised dais at the back of the tavern that was separated from the front part by a balustrade and a couple of steps.
Clouds of pungent tobacco smoke hung in drifts above the tables. Against the walls behind them, the benches were full of figures in rags and tatters: whores from the old ramparts, unkempt, grubby, barefoot, their firm breasts scarcely concealed beneath their discoloured shawls, beside them pimps with their blue soldiers' caps and cigarettes behind their ears; cattle-dealers with hairy hands and clumsy fingers whose every gesture was a mute statement of infamy; out-of-work waiters with insolent looks and pock-marked clerks in check trousers.
We heard the oily voice of the burly man say, "I'll bring you a screen so you won't be disturbed", and a wheeled partition with little pictures of dancing Chinamen all over it slowly rolled into position alongside the corner table where we had seated ourselves.
The babble of voices died down as the grating tones of a harp made themselves heard. At a brief rest in the tune there was deathly silence, as if everyone were holding their breath, and it was with a sudden shock we became aware of the hissing of the flat, heart-shaped flames from the iron gas-pipes; then, almost immediately, the music swelled up and swamped the noise.
As if they had simply materialised before my eyes, two strange figures appeared out of the clouds of tobacco smoke. One was an old man with the long, white beard of an Old Testament prophet, and a black silk skull-cap such as Jewish patriarchs wear on his bald head. He was blind, and his glassy, milky-blue eyes were fixed on the ceiling as his skinny, claw-like fingers tore at the strings of the harp, his lips moving in silent song. Beside him, the picture of hypocritical bourgeois respectability in her greasy black taffeta dress with a jet cross round her neck and jet bracelets on her arms, was a bloated female with a concertina on her lap.
A wild jumble of notes came lurching out of the instrument which then, exhausted, confined itself to a feeble accompaniment. The old man snapped at the air a few times, then opened his mouth wide so that we could see the blackened stumps of his teeth. Slowly, amid all sorts of strange Hebrew gutterals, a wild bass voice forced its way up from his chest:
"Sta-haars both re-hed and bluuuue"
"Trallala" screeched the female, immediately snapping her spittle-flecked lips shut, as if she had said too much.
"Sta-ars both red and blue,
Crescent mo-hoons too."
All kinds of sta-hars,"
Couples stepped onto the floor and the dancing began.
"It's the song of the chomezig borchu, the blessing of the leavened bread", the old puppeteer explained with a smile as he softly beat out the rhythm on the table with the tin spoon that, oddly enough, was fixed to the table by a chain. "It must have been a hundred years ago or more that two bakers, Redbeard and Greenbeard, put poison into the bread rolls they were star-shaped and crescent
shaped on the eve of the first Sabbath in Passover, Shabbes Hagodel, to cause the wholesale murder of Jews in the Ghetto. But the beadle the meshores was warned in time by a divine revelation and managed to catch the two would-be murderers and hand them over to the authorities. To commemorate this miraculous deliverance from death, the learned scholars, the landomin and the bocherlech, composed this strange song which you can hear now being played as dance music in a brothel.
"Sta-hars both re-hed and bluuue," the old man's bawling was gradually turning into a hollow-sounding, fanatical howl.
Suddenly the tune became muddled and gradually adapted itself to the rhythm of the Bohemian Slapak, a shuffling pas de deux in which the partners danced closely entwined, cheek to sweaty cheek.
"That's the way. Bravo. Here you are. Catch. Giddy-up!" a slim young swell on the raised dais with a monocle in his eye called out to the harpist, putting his hand in his pocket and throwing a silver coin in the musician's direction. It didnt reach him. I saw it glitter as it flew over the crowded dance floor, then it suddenly disappeared. Some ruffian I seemed to know his face, I think it must have been the same one who was standing next to Charousek when we were sheltering from the rain recently had slipped his hand out of his partner's blouse, where it had been pretty firmly ensconced until then, and in one movement, slick as a monkey, without for a moment getting out of step with the music, had snatched the coin out of the air. The rogue's face remained as impassive as ever, only two or three couples dancing near him grinned slyly.
"Must be one of the 'Regiment', to judge by the quickness of the hand", said Zwakh with a laugh.
"I'm sure Pernath has never heard about the 'Regiment'", Vrieslander quickly interrupted, with a surreptitious wink to the old puppeteer that I was not supposed to see. I well understood what they were about; it was the same as earlier on in my room. They thought I was ill and wanted to cheer me up. The idea was that Zwakh should tell me some story, any old story. The look of pity the old man gave me pierced me to the heart and sent a hot flush spreading over my face. If only he knew how his pity wounded me.
I missed the old puppeteer's introduction to his story, I just felt as if I were slowly bleeding to death. I felt myself growing colder and colder, more and more rigid, just as when I had seen the wooden face lying on Vrieslander's lap. Then I suddenly found myself right in the middle of the story; I felt somehow alienated from it, as if it were a lifeless piece from a school anthology.
The story of the learned Dr. Hulbert and his Regiment
Well, how shall I start? His face was all covered in warts and his legs were as bandy as a dachshund's. Even as a boy all his time was spent at his studies, dry-as-dust studies that frayed his nerves. He made a meagre pittance by giving private lessons, and from that he had to support his sick mother. I think he probably only knew what green meadows looked like, or hedges and hills covered with flowers and trees, from books. You know yourself how little sunshine reaches Prague's dark streets and alleys.
He was awarded his doctorate with distinction, as was expected, and in time became a celebrated lawyer. He was so famous that everybody, even judges and old attorneys, would come to him if there was anything they didn't know. And all the time he still lived in a wretched little attic looking out over the courtyard behind the Tyn Church where the Old Toll House Tavern is where we usually go for our drink.
The years passed, and Dr. Hulbert's reputation as a leading light of the legal profession spread throughout the country. No one would have thought that a man such as he, whom no one could remember ever having heard talk of anything other than law, would be susceptible to the tender passion, especially as his hair was already beginning to turn white. But it is in such people who keep their hearts locked tight that the fires of yearning burn brightest.
On the day when Dr. Hulbert achieved the goal which must have been his highest ambition since his student days, on the day, that is, when His Majesty the Emperor in Vienna appointed him Chancellor of our University, the news flew from mouth to mouth that he had become engaged to a beautiful young lady from a noble, though impoverished family.
It really seemed that happiness had come to stay for Dr. Hulbert. Even though the marriage remained childless, he doted on his young wife and his greatest pleasure was to fulfil her every wish before she could express it.
Amidst all this happiness he did not forget those less fortunate than himself. 'God has satisfied my longing', he is supposed to have said. 'He has allowed the vision that has been like a guiding star to me from my earliest childhood to become reality; He has given me the dearest creature the earth affords for my very own. And I want to see to it that, as far as it is in my power, a reflection of my happiness will fall on others.'
And so it came about that he took in a poor student as his own son. Presumably he was motivated by the memory of how much his own wretched youth would have been helped by such a kindness. But the earth we live on is such that many deeds that appear fine and noble have consequences one would expect from a despicable act, because we are unable to predict whether they bear harmful or wholesome seeds within them. Dr. Hulbert's act of charity was to be the source of the most bitter suffering for him.
His young wife was soon inflamed with secret passion for the young student, and fate at its most cruel decreed that it should be at the very moment when Dr. Hulbert, as a token of his love, came home unexpectedly with a bouquet of roses as a surprise birthday present, that he found her in the arms of the man on whom he had heaped kindness after kindness.
It is said that the blue spring gentian will lose its colour for good if the pale, sulphurous gleam of the lightning that announces a hailstorm should suddenly shine on it; what is certain is that old Dr. Hulbert's soul lost all its radiance from the day his happiness was shattered. That very same evening he, who until then had never known the meaning of intemperance, was still here at Loisitchek's at daybreak, dead-drunk on cheap brandy. And Loisitchek's became home to him for what was left of his ruined life. In the summer he would sleep among the rubble of some building site or other, in the winter here on the wooden benches.
By silent agreement, they did not take away his title of Professor and Doctor of Laws. No one had the heart to accuse him of conduct unbecoming a scholar and gentleman.
Gradually there gathered round him all the shifty riff-raff that haunted the Ghetto, until finally there was formed that strange community that even today is still known as the 'Regiment'. Dr. Hulbert's comprehensive knowledge of the law was deployed to shield those in whom the police took too close an interest. If there was a recently released jailbird close to starvation, Dr. Hulbert would send him out into the Old Town Square stark naked so that the Council was compelled to provide him with a suit. A homeless prostitute who was about to be drummed out of town would be quickly married off to some rogue who was registered in one of the city wards, thus giving her right of residence. Dr. Hulbert knew hundreds of such ploys that reduced the police to impotence.
For their part, these outcasts, the dregs of human society, faithfully contributed everything they 'earned', right down to the very last kreutzer, to the common purse, from which they supported themselves. In this regard, not one of them was guilty of the slightest dishonesty. Perhaps it was this iron discipline that led to them being called the 'Regiment'.
Every year on the first of December, the anniversary of the day of Dr. Hulbert's misfortune, a strange nocturnal celebration was held here at Loisitcheks. They would all be here, packed shoulder to shoulder: beggars and vagrants, pimps and whores, drunks and ragmen; and they would be as quiet as if it were a church service. Then Dr. Hulbert would stand in that corner there where those two musicians are sitting, right under the coronation portrait of His Majesty the Emperor and tell them the story of his life: how he had worked his way up by the sweat of his brow, had become Doctor of Laws and finally Chancellor of the University. And every time he reached the point where he entered his wife's room with a bunch of roses in his hand, to celebrate her birthday and at the same time in commemoration of the day when he had come to ask for her hand in marriage, the day when she had agreed to be his bride, at that point his voice would give way and he would collapse, sobbing, onto the table. And often it would happen that some brazen harlot would go up to him, shyly and in secret, so that no one would see, and place a half-withered flower in his hand.
For a long time not one of his audience would move. These types are too tough for tears, but they would stare at their boots and tug self-consciously at their fingers.
One morning old Dr. Hulbert was found dead on a bench down by the Moldau. I imagine he must have frozen to death. His funeral was something I'll never forget, the 'Regiment' almost bled itself white to make sure everything went off with as much pomp as possible. At the head of the procession came the University Beadle in full regalia, bearing on his hands outstretched before him the purple cushion with the gold chain on it, then, behind the hearse, the interminable file of the 'Regiment', barefoot, filthy, ragged and torn. One of them had sold his every last possession and trudged past with his body, legs and arms wrapped in layers of old newspaper.
Thus they paid him their last respects.
On his grave in the cemetery is a white stone with three figures carved on it: the Saviour on the cross between the two robbers. No one knows who had it put there. There is a rumour that it was Dr. Hulbert's wife who paid for it.
His will, however, contained a legacy that provides a free bowl of soup every day for each member of the 'Regiment' at Loisitchek's. That's why there are these spoons hanging from the chains, and the depressions hollowed out of the table-top are the soup-bowls. At midday the waitress comes along with a huge metal pump and squirts them full of gruel; and if there's anyone who can't prove they belong to the 'Regiment', she sucks the soup back into the pump.
"From this table, the story of this peculiar custom has gone all round the world."
It was the awareness of some disturbance in the tavern that roused me from my lethargy. Zwakh's last sentences were drifting away over the surface of my consciousness; I saw him moving his hands to demonstrate the piston of a large pump going in and out, then the scenes that were unfolding all around us suddenly started to flick past my vision as quickly as if they were part of a clockwork peep-show, and yet with spectral clarity, so that for a while I completely lost awareness of myself and felt like a cog-wheel in a living mechanism.
The room had become one seething mass of people. The raised platform was crowded with gentlemen in black tails, white cuffs and glittering rings, a dragoon's uniform with captain's epaulettes and, at the rear, a lady's hat with salmon-pink ostrich feathers.
Loisa was glowering up through the bars of the railings, so full of hatred that he was unsteady on his feet. Jaromir was there too, staring up fixedly and with his back tight, very tight, against the side wall, as if an invisible hand were pressing him against it.
The figures suddenly stopped dancing, the landlord must have shouted out something that had startled them. The music was still playing, but softly; it was unsure of itself, it was trembling, you could feel it distinctly. And yet the landlord was making no attempt to conceal the gloating expression on his face.
A police inspector in uniform suddenly appeared in the doorway. He spread his arms out so that no one could leave. Behind him was a detective constable.
"So, we're dancing are we? In spite of the ban? I'm closing the place down. Mine host, you're coming along with me, and all the rest of you, off to the Station."
He barked out the words, like a military command.
The hulk of a landlord said nothing, but the gloating grin did not disappear from his face.
It merely froze.
The concertina spluttered and died away in a whistle.
The harp changed its tune.
Suddenly all the faces were seen in profile, staring expectantly up at the platform.
And an elegant figure in black made its nonchalant way down the few steps and walked slowly up to the inspector.
The inspector's eyes were spellbound, fixed on the black patent-leather shoes strolling towards him.
The swell stopped one step in front of the policeman and his bored gaze travelled slowly from his helmet down to his boots and back again.
The other young aristocrats up on the platform were bent over the railing, stifling their laughter with grey silk handkerchiefs. The Captain of Dragoons stuck a gold coin in his eye like a monocle and spat his cigarette-end out into the hair of a girl leaning on a chair below.
The inspector went pale and in his embarrassment kept staring at the pearl in the aristocrat's shirt-front. The flat, indifferent gaze from the unmoving, clean-shaven face with the Roman nose was too much for him. It made him uneasy. Crushed him.
He was stretched on the rack of the deathly hush in the tavern.
"Just like those effigies of knights lying with their hands crossed on stone coffins in Gothic cathedrals", whispered the painter, Vrieslander, as he looked at the aristocrat.
Finally the young swell broke the silence. "Errr . . . Hmmm", he went, imitating the landlord's voice, "Well, well, well, what fine gentlemen; isn't that nice." The pub exploded in a howling gale that made the glasses rattle. The toughs fell about laughing. A bottle hit the wall and smashed to pieces. The hulking landlord brayed obsequiously as he let us in on the joke, "His Highness Prince Ferri Athenstädt."
The Prince handed the inspector his visiting-card. The poor policeman took it and saluted several times, clicking his heels.
Silence returned. The crowd listened breathlessly for what would come next.
Prince Athenstädt spoke again,
"The ladies and gentlemen whom you see gathered here are . . . er . . . are all guests of mine." With a nonchalant gesture His Highness indicated the down-and-outs. "Perhaps, inspector, you would like me to . . . er . . . introduce you?"
The inspector shook his head with a forced smile, muttered a few embarrassed words about 'only doing his duty' and finally managed to come out with, "I can see that this is an orderly establishment."
That put life back into the Captain of Dragoons: he rushed over to the lady's hat with the ostrich feathers at the rear of the dais and, to the cheers of the young aristocrats, dragged Rosina down onto the dance-floor.
She was so drunk she staggered round with her eyes shut. The large, expensive hat was all askew and she was wearing nothing over her naked body but long pink stockings and a tail-coat.
A signal, and the wild music started up again - 'Trallala, trallala' sweeping away the gurgling cry the deaf-and-dumb Jaromir emitted when he saw Rosina.
We decided to leave. Zwakh called the waitress, his words swallowed up in the general noise.
The scenes I saw were as fantastic as any opium hallucination:
The Captain has his arms round the half-naked Rosina as they slowly revolve to the music, the deferential crowd making room for them.
Then a murmur starts up round the benches, "Loisitchek, Loisitchek", and people crane their necks as an even stranger couple joins the other on the dance-floor. An effeminate-looking young lad in pink leotard and tights, with long blond hair down to his shoulders, his cheeks and lips made up like a whore's and his eyes cast down in provocative modesty, is clinging, lovesick, to the chest of Prince Athenstädt.
The harp is oozing a sickly waltz.
A sharp disgust with life rose in my throat. I took a quick, fearful glance at the door: the inspector was standing there with his back to the dance-floor, making sure he did not have to see anything, in hasty, whispered conversation with the detective constable, who was putting something back in his pocket. There was a clink of handcuffs.
Then the pair of them squinted over at the pock-marked face of Loisa, who at first tried to hide and then stood as if paralysed, his face chalk-white and twisted in terror.
A picture flashed before my mind's eye and immediately faded: the picture of Prokop, as I had seen him only an hour ago, leaning over the bars of the drain cover listening, and a piercing cry of mortal anguish coming from below the ground.
I try to shout out, but can't.
Cold fingers have been thrust into my mouth, forcing my tongue up against my front teeth, filling my mouth like a lump that makes it impossible for me to bring out a single word.
I can't see the fingers, I know they are invisible, and yet I can feel them as if they were a physical presence.
It is perfectly clear to me that they belong to the spectral hands that brought the Book of Ibbur to me in my room in Hahnpassgasse.
"Water! water!" shouts Zwakh, who is sitting beside me. They are holding my head and shining a candle into my eyes.
There is a whispered conference, "Take him to his flat, fetch the doctor Hillel, the archivist, knows about this kind of thing take him there."
Then I am lying on a stretcher, stiff as a corpse, and Prokop and Vrieslander are carrying me out.