I scarcely dared to breathe, because I felt Jonas Barg next to me, and just then, as Dittrich crouched down for a short rest in the middle of the rope, he said into my ear:
“You are too cautious, my dear friend, to be a member of the club of reckless and daring. Do you expect me to believe that you have wounded your foot, as well?”
He knew it . . . he knew it, that I was playing a comedy, by God, a miserable, pitiful comedy, in order not to go up on the tight rope, that I had left my friend in the lurch like a coward, because I was afraid of death, because I was afraid of him, Jonas Barg. He laughed right next to me, and then, without even looking back, I believed I could feel that he was gone. Stretched out next to the fawning Fatme, I sought to support my friend high above us with my eyes, and involuntarily moved my feet with his.
Suddenly I saw a shadow, a long stretched out shadow with angular movements, with an inorganic agility, that was climbing up the suspended rope ladder. This shadow . . . this ghastly spidery shadow—it was him. No one saw him. No one screamed. I didn’t scream either. I could only beat with my arms around me and jump up, during which I saw, that the shadow had reached the rope, stood upright and in the brightness of the electrical light looked exactly like a pillar of fog as it slid forward.
Dittrich was almost at the end of the rope and preparing to turn around when the shadow reached him. I still see it before me, how the end of the balance beam began to swing wildly, how Dittrich stood still, trying to regain his equilibrium. At that moment the shadow sprang onto the back of my friend, and as Dittrich’s pale face suddenly turned around towards us, I believed for the space of a heart beat that I could see the grin of Jonas Barg. Dittrich cried out, entirely different from before, not in jubilation, but in deathly fear. He let the balancing beam fall and brought both hands to his throat, as if he wanted to become free of choking fists. The battle above was very short, a wrestling with the relentless power of the earth, which pulled his body out and threw it down with tangled limbs. He fell down so close to the feet of Miss Ellida, that her glittering, snake like body recoiled backwards.
I did not press through to the shattered body. I had no other thought during this incident than to seek out Jonas Barg. As I turned around, he stood next to me, and his eyes, which lay like glowing irons in dark caves, held me, even though I wanted to throw myself at him. I still had no power over him; still had to find the words that would free me from him.
The silence after the death of Dittrich was more unbearable than a bodily pain, and most unbearable for me, because I thought I had seen something so strange, that I almost violated the strict protocols. It urged me to break the laws of the club, and often, in the dusk of evenings, when our tiresome jocularity lost its glow; I was almost ready to speak out about it, what everyone was thinking about. The dislike of the club members against Jonas Barg had grown even greater and become entirely obvious, as if they suspected the same thing that made me uneasy, without being able to put a name to it.
Only Jonas Barg himself appeared to notice nothing. He came and went like before, without any of us being able to discover the mystery of his regular life. Despite my efforts, I discovered nothing either. Only one thing was very clear to me, he did not live in the city. He was absolutely immaterial, like a force of nature.
We wanted to tear down the old performance room and begin our new games that first week. Professor Hannak, who in the breaks between our escapades pursued historical studies, brought up the idea of an historical masquerade, in which we would distance ourselves from the present, and give ourselves over to the spirits of a forgotten time. In our efforts to quickly seize upon something new, and to completely forget our two friends, in whose silent memories two empty glasses were set; we turned to anything at that time, whose merriment was whipped to a fever pitch, until it became a fearful whirlwind.
The wantonness with which we celebrated our orgies in the style of the Persian kings, the time of decadent Rome, and the French Rococo period almost achieved on a small scale the luxuries of those times themselves. In the entire city, whose murmur we in our strongly closed company had learned to despise, they spoke of our impulses. They regarded us as lost, and the more they pressed us, the louder we laughed and our greatest lunatic escapades became increasingly intemperate.
Something drove us onward, something that we were trying to escape, because we hated it, and it appeared to me, as if there was some connection between this impulse and Jonas Barg, who always participated unmoving as a post. It was no longer an escalating quest for life, but something else, perhaps its exact opposite; as I admitted in the gray days after our raging nights. It was not recklessness any more, but lunacy, that tore us through all the labyrinths of pleasure, and none of us were for a moment in doubt, that it was only a coincidence that the police had not yet turned against us.
One day Jonas bark stood up in our midst and his eyes stared straight at me, as he invited us to a feast with him.
“I see you are very surprised, gentlemen,” he said, “that I invite you to me, because until now I have not led any of you to my place. But my often very troublesome restraint has always been stronger than my desire to invite you over. But now, because your interests touch my own, I dare to invite you to come. Namely, I am also a historian, self understandably an amateur, and for years have lived for several weeks during these beautiful autumn days in the ruins of castle Neufels.”
“Neufels is in ruin,” cried the lieutenant.
“That is precisely why I love the castle so much, because as you know, I search out decay. By the way, I can reassure you that, with me you will be able to find your old, strong instinct for life.”—the empty eyes burned—commanded.
“Let it be my concern to make your visit with me so entertaining, that all of your desires will die away, to receive from out of my pockets. You shall be in need of nothing, or better said, shall desire nothing, which you now consider indispensable.”
Despite Jonas Barg’s attempt to transform his creaking and screeching voice into a cordial hiss, I sensed a hidden threat, a sense of secret malice in his words. And it was that way for the others as well, as their consent barely concealed a boundless hatred against this man, who seemed to force out our own decision according to his own will. We all growled like wild beasts against the tamer, and I strove in vain to free myself from out of the commotion, in order to win back any safety; because Jonas Barg had made a strong and certain victory against me. It was a struggle for my “I”, whose better part, whose courage and confidence seemed to have been banished through an enchantment.
It was in such a condition that the most important transformations were nursed in an almost imperceptible way, moving forward without conscious control.
Some imperceptible reason; the color of the air, a lost and again found word, the fragment of a melody from afar, the cry of a bird, the chortling of the waves on the edge of the beach, worked like a heavy blow, and released an entire multitude of connections; a sudden frenzy tore down all the laws of psychology and logic, swung out over all possibilities and worked the most miraculous transformations within me. Of the strange things that I still have to tell, this is the strangest, which I experienced the evening before the feast. I stood on the bridge over the river, looked at the dirty water, in which the pollution of the factories floated and felt, as if I was gently sliding against the current. The whistles and foghorns of the surrounding factories howled out the end of the work day. Two girls went behind me laughing on the other side. Someone pushed me. On the other side a policeman stood next to a man with Turkish honey and sugar figs, spinning the threads of a peaceful conversation.
In that moment I spoke entirely calmly and softly to myself.
“If you reverse the name Barg it reads . . . G . . .r . . .a . .b. . . or said out loud “Grab” [translator’s note: grab means grave in the German language].
I was frightened and trembled over my entire body, so that I had to hold onto the hand railing of the bridge. But then with the return of my strength I felt an immense joy, because I knew, that I had found the word of power over my enemy.
According to the proposal of professor Hannak we had conjured up the time of Velasquez in Spain for the banquet and in a little railway station the next evening transformed ourselves into Spanish Grandees, monks, painters and soldiers; and then went up to the ruins on foot. Our procession surprised and astonished several farmers that we encountered on the steep path coming down from the ruins, because we maintained an apprehensive seriousness that kept all thoughts of a masquerade away from us. I was the last one of all, with a full consciousness of the fearful experience that awaited, and was determined to defend us with all means possible.
In the courtyard, between dilapidated stairs, Jonas Barg crouched on a stone in the garments of a fool and after a short greeting, skipped on ahead as our leader. The cracked walls closed in on us from all sides and pressed us into a tiny passage, whose walls bore acetylene lamps at certain intervals. They jumped out of the damp walls like blooming tulips and illuminated the path, upon which Jonas Barg, with the strangest contortions, skipped ahead. From time to time he turned his pale face toward us, in order to convince himself that we were all following him. The passage was endless and from whose brightness side passages crawled off into darkness; and it seemed to me, as if Barg was intentionally leading us in a circle. The gigantic pharmacist was undaunted enough to dare tell jokes, even here, while the others had all been overwhelmed by paralysis. His laborious encouragements were not heeded by anyone, and only when they stood in the great vaulted banquet hall did the others find the courage to speak. Here the host had happily created the sense of a fanatical and closeted time. One such luxury this banquet appeared to have established, as an example, was cruelty which served also as a duty, a piety that bound itself to lechery without shame.
In this vault under the rubble of an old castle all the treasures of an Indian princely court were showcased and arranged with a gloomy ostentation, as if they could incite the aroma and spirit of religious ecstasy even more than the refinement of Spain.
Nearby the banquet table was set with various things, from the most out of the way places that with shameless skill held their indecencies. There stood drinking cups that in their masterful craftsmanship rendered nothing less than the suffering of Christ. The bread lay on the plate with despicable scorn, and imprinted as if consecrated with the holy letters, I. N. R. I. and the napkins of the finest fabric were replicas of the sweat cloth of Veronica.
[Translator’s note: the sixth station of the cross in the passion play of Christ where Veronica wipes the sweat from the face of Jesus]
The pelts of silver gray rabbits were used as coasters, but with these animals, the pelts had been pulled off their living bodies and they lay covered with blood and still twitching under a glass dome in front of the plate of every participant at this meal. In the middle of the table rose a cross with a life sized marble Christ, whose eyes were lit from the inside and glowed out so that the entire table was illuminated. Besides this light, every guest also had special little lamps at each place, in which strange candles burned. They looked like dried flesh and smelled of spices and resin.