The quest for the Wandering Jew in a fin-de-siecle Amsterdam. "Of the volumes available to the English public, The Green Face, first published in 1916, is the most enjoyable. In an Amsterdam that very much resembles the Prague of The Golem, a stranger, Hauberisser, enters by chance a magician's shop. The name on the shop, he believes, is Chidher Green; inside, among several strange customers, he hears an old man, who says his name is Green, explain that, like the Wandering Jew, he has been on earth 'ever since the moon has been circling the heaven.' When Hauberisser catches sight of the old man's face, it makes him sick with horror. The face haunts him. The rest of the novel chronicles Hauberisser's quest for the elusive and horrible old man." Alberto Manguel in The Observer
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The elegantly-dressed foreigner standing somewhat undecided on the pavement in the Jodenbreetstraat gazed at the strange inscription in remarkably ornate white letters on the black sign outside a shop diagonally opposite:
Out of curiosity, or merely in order to get away from the jostling of the crowd, who were commenting with typical Dutch frankness on his frock coat, his gleaming top hat and his gloves, all things which seemed to have rarity value in this quarter of Amsterdam, he crossed the road between two greengrocer’s carts drawn by dogs. He was followed by a couple of streeturchins with hunched shoulders, cavernous stomachs and low-slung backsides who slouched along behind him, their hands stuffed deep into the pockets of their incredibly baggy blue canvas trousers, thin clay pipes sticking out through their red neckerchiefs.
The building with Chidher Green’s shop occupied the space between two narrow streets and had a glassed-in veranda running right round the front and up the alleys on either side. From a glance through the dusty, lifeless windowpanes, it seemed to be some kind of warehouse which probably backed onto a Gracht, one of the many canals used for goods traffic. The squat cube of the edifice looked like the upper part of a dark, rectangular tower, which over the years had sunk into the soft, peaty soil right up to the glass veranda.
In the middle of the shop window a dark-yellow papier-maché skull sat on a pedestal covered with red cloth. It was a rather unnatural-looking skull: the upper jaw beneath the nose aperture was far too long and the eye-sockets and shadows at the temples had been painted in with black ink. Between its lips it held an ace of spades. Above it was written: “The Oracle of Delphi, or the voice from the spirit world.”
Large brass rings, interlocked like the links of a chain, hung down from the ceiling carrying garlands of gaudy postcards: there were warty-faced mothers-in-law with padlocks on their lips, or wives with a rolling pin raised threateningly; other cards were done in transparent coloured paper: well-endowed young ladies in negligées modestly clutched together over their breasts, with the instructions, “Hold up to the light to view. For the connoisseur.”
Handcuffs labelled “The Infamous Hamburg Figure-of-Eights” lay amid rows of Egyptian dream-books, imitation bed-bugs and cockroaches (“to be dropped into the glass of the man next to you at the bar”), rubber nostrils that could waggle, glass retorts filled with a reddish fluid (“The Love Thermometer – irresistible to the Ladies!”), dice-shakers, bowls full of tin coins, “The Terror of the Compartment (never fails to break the ice on a railway journey – essential for travelling salesmen!)” consisting of a set of wolf’s teeth that could be fixed below a moustache, and giving its blessing to all this splendid display was a wax female hand projecting from the matt black rear wall, a lacy paper frill around the wrist.
Less because he was interested in buying anything than to get away from the fishy smell emanating from the two young locals who insisted on remaining in close attendance, the stranger entered the shop.
A dark-skinned gentleman, close-shaven, purple-jowled and hair glistening with oil, was sitting in an armchair in the corner, one foot in an ornately-patterned patent leather shoe resting on his knee. The characteristically Balkan features looked up from the paper they were immersed in and shot the foreigner a razorsharp glance of appraisal. At the same time a window, not unlike those in railway carriages, clattered down in the head-high partition separating the customers from the interior of the shop, and in the opening there appeared the upper portion of a young lady in a low-cut dress with a blond page-boy hairstyle and provocative light-blue eyes.
It took her no time at all to realise from his accent and halting Dutch–“Buy, some thing, not matter what”–that she was dealing with an Austrian, a fellow-countryman, and she spoke in German as she began her explanation of a conjuring trick involving three corks which she had immediately produced. As she did so she brought the whole range of a practised feminine charm into play, from the breasts deliberately displayed to the male, to the discreet, almost telepathic scent given off by her skin which she intensified by occasionally lifting her arm to send a supplementary blast from the armpit.
“You see the three corks here, sir? I put one and then a second in my right hand, which I close. So. The third I put”–she smiled and blushed–“into my pocket. How many are there in my hand?”
Three it was.
“The trick is called ‘The Flying Corks’ and only costs two guilders, sir.”
“Fine. Show me how the trick is done.”
“Could I ask for the money first, please? It’s our normal practice.”
The foreigner handed over two guilders and was treated to a demonstration of the trick, which was merely a matter of sleight of hand, plus several further waves of feminine scent and, finally, given four corks, which he pocketed with admiration for the commercial acumen of the firm of Chidher Green and the absolute conviction that he would never be able to do the trick himself.
“Here you see three iron curtain rings, sir”, the young girl began again. “I put the first …”–her demonstration was interrupted by loud drunken bawling from the street mixed with shrill whistling; at the same time the shop door was violently opened and then flung to with a crash.
The foreigner started and, turning round, saw a figure whose bizarre attire astonished him.
It was a gigantic Zulu with thick lips and a dark, curly beard, dressed only in a check raincoat and a red ring around his neck. His hair dripped with mutton-fat and had been brushed up in an extravagant style, so that he looked as if he was carrying an ebony bowl on top of his head.
In his hand he held a spear.
Immediately the Balkan gentleman leapt up out of his armchair, gave the savage a deep bow and insisted on taking the spear from him and putting it in an umbrella-stand. Then, pulling aside a curtain with an obsequious gesture, he ushered him into an adjoining room with many polite How-goes-it-sir’s and If-you-please-Mijnheer’s.
“Perhaps you, too, would like to come in and sit down for a while?” The young lady turned back to the foreigner and opened the door in the partition. “At least until the crowd has quietened down a little.” She hurried to the glass door and, with a flood of Dutch oaths–“Stik, verreck, god verdomme, val dood, steek de moord”–pushed a burly fellow, who was standing in the doorway spitting in a broad arc into the shop, out into the street and bolted the door.
The interior, which the foreigner had entered meanwhile, was divided into sections by cupboards and bead curtains, with chairs and stools in the corners and a round table in the middle at which two portly old gentlemen, to all appearances merchants from Hamburg or Holland, were sitting by the light of an oriental lamp staring intently into peepshows, small cinematographic machines, by the humming sound that came from them.
Through a passage between shelves filled with goods one could see into a small office with windows of frosted glass giving onto the side street. There an old Jew, looking like an Old Testament prophet with his caftan, long white beard and ringlets, a round silk cap on his head and his face hidden in the shadows, was standing motionless at a high desk making entries in a ledger.
“Tell me, Fräulein, who was that strange negro just now?” asked the foreigner when the shop assistant returned to continue her demonstration of a trick with the three curtain rings.
“Him? Oh, he goes by the name of Mister Usibepu. He’s an artiste, one of the troupe of Zulus that’s appearing at the Carré Circus just now. A fine figure of a man”, she added, her eyes shining. “In his own country he’s a doctor of medicine.”
“Oh, I see, a medicine man.”
“Yes, a medicine man. And he’s over here to learn from us, so that when he returns home he will be able to impress his fellow-countrymen and maybe win himself a throne. Professor Arpád Zitter from Bratislava, Professor of Pneumatism, is teaching him at the moment”–with two fingers she pushed apart a slit in the curtain and let the foreigner look into a closet that was papered with playing cards.
With two daggers sticking crosswise through his throat, so that the points protruded at the back, and a blood-stained axe deep in a gaping wound in his head, the Balkan gentleman was just swallowing an egg whole, which he proceeded to take out of the ear of the astonished Zulu, who, having taken off his coat, was dressed only in a leopardskin.
The foreigner would have liked to have seen more, but the girl quickly let the curtain fall when the Professor shot her a reproachful glance. A shrill ringing sent her rushing to the telephone.
‘Strange how colourful life can be if you take the trouble to look at it from close to and turn your back on the so-called important things, which only bring vexation and suffering’, the foreigner mused to himself. From a shelf with all sorts of cheap toys he took down a little open box and gave it an absent-minded sniff. It was full of tiny carved cows and trees, whose foliage was made of green-painted wood shavings.
For a moment he was overwhelmed by the evocative smell of resin and paint – Christmas! Childhood! Waiting breathlessly at a keyhole, sitting on a wobbly chair upholstered in red cotton rep with a greasy stain on it; the Pomeranian – Durudelbutt, yes, that was his name – was under the sofa growling and bit the mechanical sentry in the leg and then came crawling along to him, one eye half-closed and somewhat annoyed: the spring of the clockwork motor had come loose and smacked him in the face; the crunch of pine needles and the long drips of wax on the red candles burning on the tree …
There is nothing that can revive the past so quickly as the smell of paint on wooden Nuremberg toys. The foreigner shook himself free from the spell. ‘Nothing good comes from memory: Life starts sweetly enough, then suddenly one day it is looking at you over a headmaster’s spectacles and it ends up as a gargoyle dripping with blood … No, no, I refuse to be drawn back.’ He turned to the revolving bookcase next to him. ‘Nothing but books with gilt edging?’ With a shake of the head he deciphered the strange titles on the spines, not at all appropriate to the surroundings: Leidinger G. History of the Bonn University Choral Union, Aken F. An Outline of the Study of Tense and Mood in Greek, Neunauge R.W. The Treatment of Haemorrhoids in Classical Antiquity – ‘Well, at least there seems to be nothing on politics’ – and he took out Aalke Pott On the Growing Popularity of Cod Liver Oil, vol 3 and leafed through it.
The poor paper and wretched print were a bewildering contrast to the expensive binding. ‘I must be mistaken? It doesn’t look like a hymn to rancid oil?’ The foreigner found the title page and was amused to read:
Sodom and Gomorrha Series
A Collection for the Discerning Bachelor
Confessions of a Depraved Schoolgirl
Second part of the celebrated work The Purple Snail
‘Really, isn’t that just the twentieth century in a nutshell: all scientific mumbo-jumbo on the outside and inside: money and sex’, muttered the foreigner to himself in a gratified tone and then laughed out loud.
One of the two stout businessmen (not the Dutchman, he was unmoved) looked up apprehensively and, muttering a few embarrassed words about ‘marvellous views of historic cities’, tried to make his escape. He was endeavouring to bring his facial expression, which the visual delights he had just enjoyed had given a somewhat swinish look, back under control, and resume the demeanour of the solid businessman with nothing on his mind but the blameless pleasures of double-entry bookkeeping. But the demon who leads the sober-minded astray had not finished with him. It was just an unfortunate little accident, a chance occurrence, but it laid bare the soul of the respectable member of the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce and trumpeted abroad the dubious nature of the establishment he had allowed himself to be enticed into.
The worthy merchant was in such a hurry to put his coat on that he knocked against the pendulum of a large clock hanging on the wall, setting it in motion. Immediately the door, decorated with scenes of family life, flew open and instead of the expected cuckoo there appeared a scantily dressed woman with an extremely saucy expression on her wax face. As the chimes solemnly struck twelve she sang in a husky voice:
“John Cooper was boring
A great piece of timber.
He bored and he bored
But his tool was too limber –
Limber, limber, limber–” it suddenly repeated, changing to a croaking bass. Either the demon had relented or a hair was stuck in the gramophone mechanism.
Determined no longer to suffer the teasing of the impudent sprite, the captain of industry squawked, “Disgusting!” and fled.
Although he had come across the moral strictness of the Northern races before, the foreigner still found it difficult to explain the extreme embarrassment of the old gentleman until it began to dawn on him that he must have met him somewhere before and had probably been introduced to him in rather different company. A fleeting memory of an elderly lady with sad, delicate features and a beautiful young girl seemed to confirm his suspicion, but he could bring neither name nor place back to mind.
There was no help from the face of the Dutchman who stood up now, looked him over contemptuously from head to toe with his cold, watery blue eyes and then waddled slowly out. That cocksure, brutal face was completely unknown to him.
The assistant was still on the telephone. To go by her answers, it must be a large order for a stag night.
‘I could go now’, the foreigner thought to himself; ‘what am I waiting for?’
He suddenly felt weary, yawned and collapsed in an armchair. A thought wormed its way into his mind, ‘With all the mad things destiny leaves lying around, it’s a surprise your head doesn’t sometimes explode, or something like that! And why should you feel sick in the pit of your stomach when your eyes devour something ugly?! What has that to do with the digestive system, for God’s sake? – No, it’s not the ugliness that does it’, he span out the thread of his thought, ‘you can get a sudden attack of nausea by staying too long in an art gallery as well. It must be some kind of illness – museumitis – unknown to medical science. Or could it be the air of death surrounding all things man-made, whether beautiful or ugly? There must be something in it; I cannot remember ever having been made to feel sick by the sight of even the most desolate landscape. Everything that bears the sign ‘man-made’ has a taste of tinned food: it gives you scurvy.’ He gave an involuntary laugh at the sudden memory of a rather baroque reflection of his friend, Baron Pfeill, who had invited him that afternoon to the café ‘The Gilded Turk’, and had a deep hatred of anything to do with perspective in painting: “The Fall did not begin with eating the apple, that is base superstition. It was hanging pictures in houses that did it! Scarcely has the plasterer made the wall sheer and smooth than the Devil appears in the guise of an “artist” and paints you a “hole” in it with a view into the distance. From there it’s only one step to the bottomless pit where you’re hanging in full fish and soup on the dining-room wall yourself next to Isidor the Handsome or some other crowned idiot with a pear-shaped head and a Cro-Magnon jaw, watching yourself eat.”–‘Well, yes’, the foreigner continued his musing, ‘you have to be able to laugh at anything and everything. The statues of the Buddha all smile, and not without reason, whilst the Christian saints are all bathed in tears. If people would smile more often, there would probably be fewer wars. I’ve been wandering round Amsterdam for three weeks now, deliberately ignoring all the street names, never asking what this or that building is, where this or that ship is coming from or heading for; I’ve not read any newspapers: there’s no point in having the same thing served up as the latest news as has been going on for donkey’s years; I’m living in a house where every single object is foreign to me – I’ll soon be the only ‘private’ person left that I know; whenever I come across something new I no longer ask what it does, nothing does anything any more, everything has something done to it! And why am I doing all this? Because I am fed up with playing my part in the old game of civilisation: first peace to prepare for war and then war to win back peace etc., etc.; because I want to see a fresh, unknown world, I want a new sense of wonder such as must strike an infant if he were to become a grown man over-night; because I want to be a full-stop rather than eternally a comma in the punctuation of time. I’d quite happily relinquish the ‘tradition’ of my ancestors which subjected them to the state; I want to learn to see old forms with new eyes rather than, as up to now, seeing new forms with old eyes – perhaps it will give them eternal youth! I have started well; now all I have to do is to learn to smile at everything instead of gawping in astonishment.’
Nothing is so soporific as the sound of whispering voices when you cannot make out what is being said. The soft and hurried conversation between the Balkan gentleman and the Zulu behind the curtain hypnotised the foreigner with its unceasing monotony so that for a moment he fell into a deep sleep.
When, a second later, he jerked back awake he had the feeling that he had been granted an amazing number of insights, but all that remained lodged in his consciousness was one meagre sentence, a fantastic hodgepodge of recent impressions and the continued thread of his philosophising, ‘It is more difficult to master the eternal smile than to find the skull that one bore on one’s neck in a previous existence from among the millions of graves on earth; we will have to cry the eyes out of our heads before we can look on the world with new eyes and a smile.’
‘However difficult it is, I will seek out that skull!’ The foreigner continued to worry at the idea that had come to him in his dream, firmly convinced that he was wide awake, whilst in fact he had dropped off again. ‘I will force things to speak clearly to me and reveal their true meaning, I will force them to speak in a new language instead of whispering in my ear old chestnuts such as: Look, a medicament! Take this to make you well again when you have overindulged; or: See! a delicacy; now you can overindulge and take your medicine again. – I have just seen the point of my old friend Pfeill’s saying that everything chases its own tail, and if life has nothing better to teach me, I will go into the desert to eat locusts and clothe myself in wild honey.’
“You want to go into the desert and learn higher magic, nebbich, when you are stupid enough to pay good silver for a silly trick with corks, cannot distinguish a Hall of Riddles from the real world and do not even suspect that the books of life contain something other than what is written on the spine? It is you that should be called ‘Green’, not me.”–The foreigner suddenly heard a deep, tremulous voice answering his reflections and, on looking up, he saw before him the old Jew, the owner of the shop, standing there and staring at him.
The foreigner stared back in horror; the face before him was like nothing he had ever seen before. It was smooth, with a black strip of cloth tied over its forehead, and yet it was deeply furrowed, like the sea, that can have tall waves but not a wrinkle on its surface. The eyes were like dark chasms and yet they were the eyes of a human being and not empty sockets. The skin was a greenish olive colour and looked as if it were made of bronze, such as the races of ancient times may have had of whom it is said they were like dark-green gold.
“I have been on earth”, continued the old Jew, “ever since the moon, the wanderer of the skies, has been circling the heavens. I have seen men who looked like apes and carried stone axes in their hands; they came from wood and”–he hesitated for a second–“returned to wood, from the cradle to the coffin. They are still like apes, and they still carry axes in their hands. Their eyes are cast downwards; they want to fathom the infinity that lies concealed in small things.
They have discovered that in the stomachs of worms there are millions of tiny creatures living and further billions within these, but they still have not realised that there is no end in that direction. I cast my eyes downwards, but I also cast them upwards; I have forgotten how to cry, but I have not yet learnt how to smile. My feet were soaked by the waters of the flood, but I have still not met anyone who had reason to smile. Perhaps I did not notice him and went by on the other side.
Now my feet are threatened by a sea of blood and someone appears who thinks he might smile? I doubt it. I shall probably have to wait until the sea turns to fire.”
The foreigner pulled his top hat down over his eyes, so as to blot out the sight of the awful face that was etching itself onto his senses and making him catch his breath, and so he did not see that the Jew had returned to his accounts and the salesgirl had tiptoed to his place, taken a papier-maché skull, similar to the one in the window, out of the cupboard and put it on a stool.
When the foreigner’s hat suddenly slipped off his head and fell to the floor, she scooped it up like lightning, before its owner could put out a hand for it, and began her patter:
“Here, sir, you can see the so-called Oracle of Delphi. Through it we can at any time see into the future and even receive answers to questions that lie deep in our hearts;”–for some reason she squinted down into her cleavage–“please think of a question, sir.”
“Yes, yes, all right”, grunted the foreigner, still quite confused.
“You see, the skull is already moving.”
Slowly the skull opened its jaws, chewed a few times and then spat out a roll of paper which the young lady quickly snatched up and unrolled, then blew out a sigh of relief.
Will thy heart’s longing
be fulfilled? Take a firm
grip on your life and do
instead of merely desiring.
was written on it in red ink – or was it blood?
‘Pity I can’t remember what the question was’, thought the foreigner. “It costs?”
“Twenty guilders, sir.”
“All right. Please will …”, the foreigner was wondering whether to take the skull with him. ‘No, impossible, they would take me for Hamlet out in the streets’, he said to himself. “Send it to my apartment, please; here is the money.”
He glanced involuntarily at the office by the window. The old Jew was standing at his desk, motionless, suspiciously motionless, as if he had spent the whole time doing nothing but write entries in his ledger. Then the foreigner wrote his name and address on the piece of paper the girl handed to him:
and, still somewhat dazed, left the Hall of Riddles.
For months now Holland had been flooded with people of all nations. Since the war had ended, giving way to growing inner political conflicts, they had left their homes, some to seek permanent refuge in the Netherlands, others to stay there temporarily whilst they made up their minds about which corner of the earth to choose for their future home.
The common forecast that the end of the European war would produce a stream of refugees from the poorer sections of the population of the worst-hit areas had proved completely mistaken. Even if all available ships to Brazil and other parts of the earth considered fertile were full to overflowing with steerage passengers, the outflow of those who earned their living by the sweat of their brow was infinitesimal compared to the number of wealthy people who were tired of seeing their fortunes squeezed by the pressure of higher and higher taxes: the so-called materialists. They were joined by members of the intelligentsia, whose professions, since the enormous rises in the cost of living, no longer brought in enough to keep body and soul together.
Even in the far-off days of the horrors of peace, the income of a master chimney-sweeper or a pork-butcher had far out-stripped that of a university professor. Now, however, European society had reached that glorious stage where the old curse, ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread’ was to be understood literally and not just metaphorically. Those whose sweat appeared behind, rather than on their brows fell into penury and starved to death.
Muscle-power reached for the crown, whilst the products of the human brain were trodden underfoot. Mammon still sat on his throne, but with a look of uncertainty on his ugly face: the piles of dirty money building up around him offended his aesthetic sense.
And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep, only the spirit of the travelling salesman could no longer move on the face of the waters as it had done before.
And so it came to pass that the great mass of European intellectuals were on the move, crowding the harbours of those countries that had been more or less spared by the war, gazing westwards, like Tom Thumb climbing a tall tree to spy out the fire from a hearth far away.
In Amsterdam and Rotterdam the old hotels were full to the very last attic, and every day new ones were being built; the streets of the more respectable districts resounded to a pot pourri of languages. Special trains were arriving hourly at the Hague, filled with stony-broke or stony-hearted politicians of all races who were determined to say their immortal piece at the permanent peace conference which was discussing the securest way to bar the stable door now that the horse had bolted for good.
In the better restaurants and chocolate houses people sat shoulder to shoulder reading overseas newspapers – the local ones were still wallowing in officially-prescribed enthusiasm for the current situation – but even the overseas ones contained nothing that did not boil down to the old adage, ‘I know that I know nothing, and I’m not even sure of that’.
“Baron Pfeill still not here?”, the middle-aged lady snapped furiously at the waiter in ‘The Gilded Turk’, a dark, smoky café, full of odd little nooks and crannies, hidden away from the traffic in the Kruiskade. With her sharp features, wet hair, pinched lips and pale, nervous eyes she was a perfect example of a certain kind of woman you find without a man; at forty-five they start to resemble their bad-tempered pugs and at fifty they are already yapping at the rest of humanity. “A scandal for a lady to have to sit all by herself in a filthy tavern like this, exposed to the stares of all these men.”
“Baron Pfeill? I’m afraid I don’t know the name. What does he look like, Mevrouw?” asked the waiter, unmoved.
“Clean-shaven, naturally. Forty to forty-five. Or forty-eight. Not sure. Didn’t ask to see his birth certificate. Tall. Slim. Aquiline nose. Straw hat. Brown hair.”
“But he’s been sitting outside for ages, Mevrouw”, the waiter extended a languid arm towards the open door, through which one could see out onto the terrace between the street and the café with its ivied trellis and sooty oleanders.
“Prawns, lovely prawns”, droned the bass of a crab-seller passing the window; “Bananas, ripe bananas” screeched a female descant.
“Nonsense. He’s blond. And a moustache. Top hat, too. Nonsense.” The lady became angrier and angrier.
“I mean the gentleman next to him, Mevrouw; you can’t see him from here.”
The lady descended on the two gentlemen like a vulture, loosing a storm of reproaches at Baron Pfeill, who stood up with an embarrassed look and introduced his friend Fortunatus Hauberrisser. She insisted she had rung him up at least a dozen times and had eventually had to go round to his apartment, without finding him in, and all this trouble because–“a scandal”–he had, of course, been out once again. “I would have thought that at a time when everyone has his hands full consolidating the peace, advising President Taft, persuading refugees to return to their places of work, trying to get rid of international prostitution and put a stop to the white slave trade, giving the weak in spirit some moral support and organising a collection of bottle tops for the war-wounded of all nations”–in her indignation she tore open her reticule and then throttled it with its silken string–“I would have thought one would stay at home instead of … instead of drinking spirits.” She shot a venomous glance at the two slim glass tubes on the table full of a rainbow mixture of liqueurs.
“Madame Germaine Rukstinat, widow of Consul Rukstinat, is interested in doing … good”, explained Baron Pfeill to his friend, concealing the ambiguity of his words behind an apparently clumsy manner of expression, “and the good that she does shall live after her … as Shakespeare has it.”
“How can she not notice?” wondered Hauberrisser, shooting a covert glance at the Fury, but to his surprise she was giving a mollified smile. “My friend Pfeill is all too right. The plebs revere Shakespeare but do not truly know him. The more he is misquoted, the more they feel they understand him.”
“I’m afraid, Mevrouw”, Pfeill turned to the lady again, “that in your circles my alltootruism is exaggerated. My supply of bottle tops, which the war-wounded so urgently need, is considerably smaller than would appear. Even if I did once – unknowingly, I assure you – affiliate to a charitable association which brought me the odium of public Samaritanism, yet I fear my moral backbone is insufficiently steely to cut off international prostitution from its source of revenue; perhaps I might remind you of the well-known saying, Yoni soit qui maly pense. And as for putting a stop to the white slave trade, I’m afraid I have no contacts at all with the captains of this industry, nor have I had the opportunity to become intimately acquainted with senior officers of foreign vice squads.”
“But you must have some useless articles for the war orphans, mustn’t you, my dear Baron?”
“Is there such a great demand for useless articles among the war orphans, madame?”
Madame did not notice the ironic question, or ignored it. “But my dear Baron, you must take a few tickets for the grand charity ball we are organising in the autumn. The net proceeds, which will be distributed in the spring, will go to support all those who have suffered through the war. It will be a sensation: the ladies will all be masked and any gentleman who has bought more than five tickets will be decorated with the Order of Charity of the Duchesse de Lusignan.”
“Such a grand ball has many attractions indeed”, admitted Baron Pfeill reflectively, “especially as at such charitable functions the commandment to love thy neighbour is often interpreted in such a liberal manner that thy left hand knows not what thy right hand doeth. And it must give the rich great pleasure to know that the poor will benefit from the great distribution – eventually. On the other hand, I am not enough of an exhibitionist to go round with the evidence of my quintuple charity hanging from my buttonhole. Of course, if you insist, madame -”
“So I can put you down for five tickets?”
“Only four, if you please, Mevrouw.”
“Sir, sir, Baron, sir”, breathed a voice, and a grubby little hand tugged shyly at Pfeill’s sleeve. When he turned round he saw a shabbily-dressed girl with sunken cheeks and white lips that had squeezed her way between the oleander tubs to us and held out a letter to him. He immediately fumbled in his pocket for a coin.
“Grandfather says to tell you -”
“Who are you, my child?” asked Pfeill in a low voice.
“Grandfather, Klinkherbogk the cobbler, says to tell you I am his little girl”–the girl was mixing up her answer and the message she was to deliver–“that you made a mistake, Baron, sir. Instead of the ten guilders for the last pair of shoes there were a thousand -”
Pfeill turned bright red, tapped somewhat violently on the table with his silver cigarette case to drown the girl’s words and said in a loud, brusque voice, “There you are, there’s twenty cents for your trouble”, and added in softer tones that it was all in order, she should go home and not lose the letter on the way.
As if to explain that the girl had not come alone, but for safety’s sake had been accompanied by her grandfather so that she would not lose the envelope with the banknote on her way to the coffee house, for a second between the ivy bushes there appeared the face of an old man. It was deathly pale, for he had obviously heard what Pfeill had just said and was so moved that he was incapable of saying a word; his tongue was paralysed and his jaw trembling, and all that came out was a babbling wheeze.
Without paying any attention at all to the little scene, the charitable lady noted down the four tickets in her little book and took her leave with a few polite words of farewell.
For a while the two men sat in silence, avoiding each other’s eyes and drumming with their fingers on the arms of their chairs now and then.
Hauberrisser knew his friend only too well not to sense that to ask what the story with the shoemaker was would have so embarrassed Pfeill that he would have let his imagination run riot to invent some story, any story, to allay the suspicion that he had helped a poor cobbler in great need. He was therefore racking his brain to find some topic of conversation that – naturally – would have nothing to do with charity or a shoemaker, but on the other hand, did not sound too far-fetched.
It seemed an easy enough task, but as the minutes passed, it became more and more difficult.
‘Coming up with an idea is a confounded thing’, he thought to himself. ‘We think our brain produces them, but in reality they do what they like with our brain and are more unbiddable than any living creature.’ He pulled himself together. “Tell me Pfeill”, (the face he had seen in his dream in the Hall of Riddles had suddenly come back to mind) “tell me, you spend so much time reading, doesn’t the legend of the Wandering Jew have its origin in Holland?”
Pfeill gave him a suspicious look, “You mean because he was a cobbler?”
“Cobbler? What do you mean?”
“Well, the story goes that the Wandering Jew was originally a cobbler called Ahashverosh from Jerusalem who, when Jesus wanted to rest by his workshop on his road to Golgotha – the Place of a Skull – drove him away in anger. Since then he has had to wander the face of the earth and cannot die till Christ should return.” When Pfeill saw the surprised look on Hauberrisser’s face, he hastily continued his explanation so as to get away from the theme of the cobbler as quickly as possible, “In the thirteenth century an English bishop claimed to have met a Jew called Cartaphilus in Armenia who told him that at certain phases of the moon his body rejuvenated itself, and that for a while he had been John the Evangelist, of whom it was well known that Christ had said he should not taste of death till he saw the Son of Man coming into his kingdom. In Holland the Wandering Jew is called Isaac Laquedem. There was a man of that name who was presumed to be Ahasuerus because he stood looking at a head of Christ in stone and then cried out, “That is he, that is he, that is what he looked like!” The museums of Basle and Berne even exhibit a shoe – one right and one left – strange things, made up of various pieces of leather, three feet long and weighing a stone, which were found in different places in the mountain passes of the frontier between Italy and Switzerland and, because they are so inexplicable, were connected with the Wandering Jew. As a matter of fact -”
Pfeill lit a cigarette.
“As a matter of fact, it’s odd you should think of asking me about the Wandering Jew just at this moment. Only a few minutes ago I was most vividly reminded of a picture that I once saw many years ago in a private collection in Leyden. It is by an unknown master and represents Ahasuerus: an extremely frightening face of an olive bronze colour, a black cloth round its forehead and the eyes without whites and without pupils, like – how shall I put it? – like chasms almost. For a long time it haunted my dreams.”
Hauberrisser started, but Pfeill did not notice and continued,
“The black cloth round his forehead: I read somewhere later on that in the Near East that is considered a sure sign of the Wandering Jew. It is said he uses it to conceal a blazing cross which etches itself on his forehead: every time the skin grows back the cross eats it away again. Scholars maintain these things are merely references to cosmic events involving the moon and for that reason the Wandering Jew is also referred to as Chidher, that is, the Green One – but to my mind that’s all nonsense.
This mania of interpreting anything inexplicable from antiquity in terms of the Signs of the Zodiac is becoming widespread again today. It’s spread was halted for a while after a witty Frenchman wrote a satire on it: Napoleon never actually existed, he too was an astral myth; in reality he was the Sun God Apollo and his twelve generals represented the twelve signs of the Zodiac.
I believe that the old mysteries conceal much more dangerous things than knowledge of phases of the moon and eclipses of the sun, things that really had to be concealed – but which do not need to be concealed nowadays because the foolish throng would not believe them anyway, only laugh at them – things that obey the same laws of harmony as the stars and which are therefore similar to them. Well, be that as it may, for the moment scholars have thrown away the kernel and kept the husk.”
Hauberrisser was deep in thought.
“What do you think of Jews as a whole?” he asked after a long silence.
“Hm. What do I think of them? On the whole they are like ravens without wings: incredibly cunning, black, hooked beaks and can’t fly. But sometimes they throw up an eagle, no question of that. Spinoza, for example.”
“You’re not antisemitic, then?”
“Wouldn’t dream of it. For one thing, because I have no very high opinion of Christians. The Jews are accused of having no ideals. If that is true, then the Christians have only false ones. The Jews take everything to extremes: obeying laws and breaking laws, piety and impiety, working and idling; the only things they don’t take to extremes are mountain climbing and rowing, what they call ‘Goyim naches’ – and bombast, they’re not very keen on that. Christians, on the other hand, overdo the bombast and underdo just about everything else. As far as religion is concerned, the Jews study their sacred books too closely, the Christians not closely enough.”
“Do you think the Jews have a mission?”
“Of course! The mission of overcoming themselves. All people have the mission of overcoming themselves. Anyone who is overcome by others has failed in his mission; anyone who fails in his mission will be overcome by others. If one overcomes oneself, other people don’t notice; if, however, one overcomes others, then the sky turns red and the man in the street calls the phenomenon progress. The feeble-minded think the flash is the important part of an explosion. – But you must excuse me, I’d better stop now.” Pfeill looked at his watch, “Firstly I must get home as quickly as possible, and secondly I don’t think I could live up to all this clever talk in the long run. So, your servant sir – as people say when they mean the opposite – and if you feel like it, come and see me in Hilversum soon.”
He put a coin on the table for the waiter, gave his friend a friendly wave and left.
Hauberrisser tried to get his thoughts back in order.
‘Am I still dreaming?’ he asked himself in astonishment. ‘What was that? Is there a thread of remarkable coincidences running through everyone’s life or am I the only person these things happen to? Are events like rings which only link to form a chain when they are not disturbed by people making plans and then charging after them and tearing destiny to tatters, when if they hadn’t, they could have woven themselves miraculously into a continuous chain?’