Jean Ray: Mondschein-Dampfer

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Jean Ray (Belgian, 1887-1964) enjoys a limited but significant reputation among English language aficionados of uncanny fiction. Malpertuis, his chef-d’oeuvre, has been translated by Iain White and remains available from Atlas Press, and two of his more substantial stories are included in Anne and Jeff Vandermeer’s anthology, The Weird; a few further items can be read online. However, these aside, translations of his work aren’t easily or cheaply found. A considerable number of Ray’s stories (also his novel-length thriller, La cité de l’indicible peur – The Town of Unspeakable Fear) are set in England (albeit an England of the imagination) and reveal him to be something of an Anglophile, so it’s a shame we haven’t done more to reciprocate from this side of the channel.

          Ray’s writing voice is nothing if not distinctive; characteristic features include a Dickensian sense of the grotesque, a puckish sense of humour, and a fertile inventiveness. However he is hardly consistent. At his best, as in Malpertuis, he possesses a unique imaginative vision; at his worst he descends into slapdash triviality. Somewhere in the middle ground a number of his supernatural stories are humorously whimsical, particularly those with English characters and setting.

 ’Mondschein-Dampfer’ is one of an early three-story collection, La croisière des ombres (The Cruiser of Darkness), included in the Marabout edition of Les contes du whisky. Although Ray’s characteristic whimsy is evident here, the story is untypically sombre. The stylised narrative, assembled as a mosaic of subjective impressions, turns darkly expressionistic and  finishes as fragments shored against ruin.

 A couple of comments here, in lieu of footnotes.

 1. The place-name ‘Blockberg’ occurs in the Marabout edition (‘a refugee from Blockberg’). I’ve amended this to Blocksberg, which is how I believe it should read. Blocksberg is better known as the Brocken – the mountain that locates the Walpurgisnacht revels (and so of course alluding to Goethe’s Faust).

         2. Marie’s statement on ‘relative mathematics’ at the conclusion of the story is unhelpfully oblique: ‘human intelligence and a treatise on relative mathematics are enough to sever the foundations of knowledge acquired through thirty centuries of empiricism, of discoveries and experiments; enough to unsettle the Euclidean coping stone.’  The allusion is to Einstein; a sentence in La cité de l’indicible peur restates the point more directly: ‘Are the laws absolute? Einsteinian science gnaws like perverse acid at Euclid’s iron.’

 

 

Jean Ray

 

Mondschein-Dampfer

 

You’ll be taken aback and say that I’m insulting Paris, Vienna and even London: it’s Berlin that I love.

When, having transported me for the space of half a day from barracks-like stations to stations like barracks, the train turned me out at Anhalter-Bahnhof, my heart felt happy, in antithesis to the soul of that frantic city.

For Berlin’s rejoicing is a great racket behind a rampart, churning up the air and bumping up against the brow of the clouds. You hear all the motley, discordant gaiety, but you can’t see what’s causing it.

That, let me tell you, doesn’t bother me; I can enjoy the flames without seeing the hot bed of coals, can’t I?

And the noisy Berlin flames, dancing on their invisible log, gladden my heart.

And then… there’s Hellen Kranert.

Hellen Kranert!

She resembles Madamoiselle Spinelly, or rather, she’s her twin sister – a mirror would shatter in fury at not being able to better imitate her.

She’s astoundingly alike in her gestures: idealise, humanise a whip, a riding crop, a tropical creeper and your thought will summon the image of Spinelly.

But the latter is an artist who exerts an imperious hold on your memory and makes you forget anyone else who appeared on the scene before her; and Hellen Kranert, who is also called Frau Bohre, quietly manages the household of my friend Heinrich Bohre, and rents me a room in their pretty apartment on the Mendelsohnstrasse.

As for my friend Heinrich, I know that he prefers Frau Oberstleutenant Franzen and Frau Justizrat Wilz, who are grand wenches. For want of being able to move the secret fibres of their masses of rosy flesh, he extorts groans from the spring mattresses of the obliging hotels where he takes them, placid and guilty.

One morning when Hellen brought to my room the bizarre Frühstück that she freakishly embellished with Bismarck-Herringe and salted horse-radish I held her back by hem of her petticoat of embroidered Bulgarian lace. Sinking her adorable head in the soft pillow, she seemed to say: “Yes… after all, why not!…”

Since then, fanfares of happiness sound all through my body when I awaken; enchantment sprinkles its powder like the ray of sunlight that toasts the neglected Bismark-Herringe.

Without the triumphant Parisian twin being conceitedly called to mind…

All this, though, is only a parenthesis to this sorry tale, and that by way of begging your pardon.

When the faced by world doesn’t anyone who says he loves Berlin need an excuse, above all one woven from human frailty?

 *

Rather ashamed, I’m in control of myself again; Hellen became my raison d’être.

How is it that she’s read in my mind this sister image that drew me to her?

For she has been able to read it….

“Is it really me that you love? Do you love Berlin? No, it’s Paris that you love.”

No, it’s her that I love; the details tell the tale. On her vanity table there’s a tall, swan-necked flask: Frühlingsduft: her perfume.

When a lady passerby or the open door of a perfumery wafts a puff of it into my face I have to make a hasty return to the Mendelsohnstrasse to inhale it in the skirts and the flesh of my beloved.

When German women set out to be pretty they surpass all the women on earth; when a man starts to loving them, it’s as bad as loving an ugly woman; your love tends toward the incomprehensible, you love things beyond the veil of the absolute, madness flutters brilliantly around you.

A beautiful woman is a precious flower sprung up by chance in the lawn of life, but a beautiful German woman always seems to me to emerge furtively from a cruel and clever hothouse, where, in a corner thick with shadows, a mandrake is being cultivated.

No, I love Berlin because Hellen breathes the air there; I love Berlin for her and through her; I would love the devil and the dragon Fafnir were she their daughter.

But look, what drunken ramblings am I guilty of?

Basically I’m a poor devil whose heart and skin are squeezed and kneaded by a coquette.

 *

 One evening, the fragrance of honeysuckle and late-blossoming lilacs rose up from an invisible garden.

I hesitated to dispel the lovely twilight hour in my room with a click of a switch, when a muffled knocking stole through the air, like a child’s hand on a neck.

Hellen came in; her short robe of champagne crêpe de chine throbbed with the glimmering colours of dawn.

“Sweetheart,” she said, “my darling.” Her scent of Frühlingsduft, amber, young roses, crushed herbs, spread an intoxicating atmosphere around her.

“I’m yours all night tonight – Heinz is away on a journey – and you’re going to take me there.”

“Take you where, Hellen mine?”

“There’s a Mondschein-Dampfer this evening, on the Mögelsee.”

I knew about those bizarre nautical midnight suppers that the German soul takes such delight in.

A steamer, all its lights out, glides through the gloomy lake; behind the elm groves on the river banks three or four hundred passengers watch the moon rising.

The boat slows, and the hum of its engines is scarcely louder than the hum of happy hornets.

Sometimes a banjo strikes plaintive Hawaiian notes into the silence like cut glass vibrating on a sideboard, or a very old Italian barcarolle is born in the green night; but in general there’s silence, sighs, the pale flower of Sehnsucht, fishing for water lilies as they float by.

Only on arrival at Mügelwerder, a little island sleeping flat on the water, do the lights of the pleasure garden – porcelain lilies of the valley and Chinese lanterns – erupt with noise, like a drum-roll. Then all the dance hits from American cellars, all the Mundharmonicas and the reed pipe whistles, all unite to insult the moonlit night.

“Just us two, tonight, on the lake, under the moon,” Hellen murmured.

With a feeble smile I made a sacrifice to the melancholy god of the Germans.

Near midnight, a taxi took us to the pier where the big steamer puffed out smoke in the rosy brushstroke of a scenic lamp.

A faint bell rang in the stoke hole; the pier retreated backward toward the pale city.

The stage lights whirled, yellow, green, mauve, blood red, and went out. Clouds emerged from the elm-groves; there was no moon.

A silent Kellner, an electric pocket lamp fastened to his waistcoat, served glasses of warm grog. A mechanic in the engine room whistled several bars of a Parisian java; the pilot barked out abuse through the loudspeaker.

The man fell silent and, furious, sent red cinders flying in the night.

Neighbours rustled waxed paper; an odour of cooked meat was everywhere; mouths chewed in the shadows. There was no moon, – a cordon of Auer gasburners encircled an impoverished district – a Hütte glowed red.

 *

 At Mügelwerder, another Mondschein- Dampfer was already letting off steam; a noise of gaiety reached us and its echo thrilled through our passengers.

Above the still water, one song flew toward another. An invisible throng was swinging red and green lanterns; some roman candles sparked indistinctly in the misty air.

Wilkommen! Wilkommen!” Clamours came from the pleasure garden lit up by bright fires.

We saw then that a sizeable company of maskers was greeting us with cries of welcome, and, disregarding the poetry of the moment, they all shouted with the joy of uncaged animals.

A band of pierrots and mandarins pulled us toward the pleasure garden, where excessively pink, excessively foaming champagne bubbled like washing soda in goblets.

A cowboy grabbed Hellen by the waist and pulled her into a country dance that hammered on the thick floor. An individual dressed and made up as an operetta Mephistopheles bumped his cup against mine.

Prosit!”

Here my memory needs to exert itself in order to recall the exact sequence of hours that night.

At first Hellen came over from time to time to take a mouthful of champagne, and give me her fingers to kiss, then the dancing reclaimed her.

After the cowboy, a Highlander, a Corsican bandit and pot-bellied Buddha each in turn brought her to my table and dragged her away again.

Have I told you that I don’t dance? Memories of a ball. Then the dances became ever more disorderly, finally ending up as little more than swirls of colour.

“Let’s speed up the movement,” grinned a student at my back, and the thing turned white, like a Newton disc.

Then Mephistopheles was determined to make me drink and kept proposing silent toasts. From time to time he stopped a waiter and took a packet of Garbaty cigarettes from his tray.

Hellen didn’t come back.

I had the impression that it was very late.

Suddenly I saw that the dance had ended, that everyone found themselves heaped around tables, with pale, tired faces.

One of the steamers belched.

Hellen hadn’t come back

The throng slid toward the wide-open doors; acetylene lamps illuminated the gangways. I think I shouted for Hellen, and glimpsed people laughing.

My neighbor spoke to me

“She won’t come.”

I gave him an irritated look.

Fifty or so drinkers still lingered round the tables and kept demanding champagne, declaring that they still had all the time in the world.

Hellen wasn’t among them.

Uneasiness jammed a ball of felt into my gullet. Suddenly I saw a clock, and the early morning hour left me dumbfounded.

“She won’t be coming back,” said my masked companion.

“What do you know about it,” I replied, “and who are you to stick your nose in?”

I heard and spoke some more words, I think, but finally I listened in all seriousness as this refugee from Blocksberg proposed to find her, thanks to the “the magic inherent in his person.”

A remainder of commonsense caused me to say, “You’re absolutely verrückt.”

Then he turned nasty, and started shouting out loud to the people who were loitering round the tables, “Come and see the man who’s lost his woman! Come on, you don’t have to pay!”

I’m going to hit him, I said to myself, but did nothing.

Some drinkers and fly-by-nights came over, greedy for the night’s last drop of pleasure.

“And, since I’m the devil, I’ll give her back to him for the price of his soul.”

“A woman for a soul, that’s a bit dear,” someone said.

“Do you want mine for a Küpperbusch stove that always stays hot?” a drunk young man hiccuped.

“That’s old hat,” yawned a citizen draped in purple. “I’m off.”

The drunk young man wagered his soul against a fountain pen or a galalith pendulum.

Mephistopheles didn’t even look at him; he flourished the classic parchment.

“Sign,” he shouted, betraying all the signs of drunken stupidity. “Sign and I’ll give her back to you.”

“Sign, seeing as it makes him happy,” a woman said. “Mustn’t provoke him.”

People around us were livening up.

“I dare you! Don’t you dare! Dare!”

I pretended to laugh, though my flesh crept abominably.

“Well then,” I said, “we’ll soon see.”

The drunkard handed me a dainty lady’s pen, so abruptly that he scratched my hand.

My signature showed red.

“Deal closed,” he shouted.

At that moment a curtain was drawn aside at the back of the room; the silhouette of a Roman warrior sneaked off outside, and Hellen appeared, pink, her outfit in a rumpled state that spoke volumes about her long absence.

The bystanders left, smothering laughs; the young man shouted out loud his delight in the scandal.

“There she is, there she is,” grinned my diabolical neighbor.

Le chef de gare, il est… cocu,” the young drunkard sang in French.

The two steamers simultaneously emitted final calls for departure; the Kellner, tired to death, put out the chandelier lights.

We left for the boat, Hellen and I, without linking arms.

Turning back one last time to the pleasure garden, still barely lit up, I had the frightful sight of Mephistopheles stabbing the eyes of the young man with blows of a fountain pen.

 *

 “Leave me alone,” said Hellen. “You’re drunk.”

A thick fog spread over the lake; for several minutes we sailed in an atmosphere of ashes.

The passengers descended to the between-decks salons where warm drinks were being served; sleepers snored on stairway steps.

We were alone on the deck.

“Drunk,” said Hellen, “you disgust me.”

“I saw you,” I stammered, my heart wrung with jealousy.

She it was who flew into a fury; I never would have believed that a mouth as wonderful as hers could spit out such venomous language.

Her fingers, theirs nails flashing like little blades, went for my face.

It was then I made the fatal gesture.

We were in front of the gangway port, where the guard-chain dangled down.

She went back; her big eyes opened wide, like a child’s, so mild in their fear; one of her arms beat the empty air like a prayer for pardon.

The black water took her, without a sound, without a cry, without a ripple… She fled, slither of jet, quick as greased leather.

“Woman overboard!” I yelled. The pilot gave an automatic twist to the rudder and let his head fall down on a cup that shattered like an ampoule.

“Someone overboard… overboard…”

In the salon everyone snored, in louche postures.

Two women were naked; a cigarette still smouldered in the hair of one of them; a foul, bitter odour wafted up.

“Someone overboard… overboard… stoke hole.”

A face with smouldering eyes stared at me for a moment through a grill.

“…mir im Aars,” a voice groaned, “bist besoffen!”

I tumbled down again toward the salon.

“Help! A woman!”

A Kellner finally approached.

“But don’t shout like that sir, here’s your Sekt.”

He poured the hideous pink froth.

“No, don’t shout. Haven’t you got any trust? You can’t lose her again!

I saw the Mephistopheles in front of me.

“You can’t lose her any more,” he repeated. “It’s signed and sealed.”

It was still the Mügelwerder mask, but now unpleasantly real.

A sombre horror emanated from all his being.

It suddenly seemed to me that the man was made up to an “extreme ugliness” and that, slowly, he sloughed off more prepossessing make-up.

His hand seemed to me truly crooked, and it was longer a grimace that deformed his face, but a nameless stigmata.

He raised eyes of liquid sulphur to me, full of sombre fury, then, upsetting his chair on a sleeping body, he walked backward to the stairs.

“Relax. It’s signed and sealed.”

A deformed hand waved a parchment, like a handkerchief, in farewell.

Dawn rose on the Mügelsee.

A heavy rain was now falling.

A slimy quay received us, a waitress in a green aegyrian waterproof went round with tumblers of schnapps on a tray.

A distant artillery range contributed muffled salvos to the town’s awakening.

 *

 I didn’t return to the Mendelsohnstrasse

I wandered.

Three times I went to see the dead in the morgue, sleeping behind glass.

Hellen wasn’t there; the Mügelsee hadn’t surrendered her.

Three times too I stood in front of the Anhalt station ready to leave, and each time I returned with heavy steps to the heart of Berlin.

I came across bizarre streets, with high featureless buildings, where countless pale heads seemed to be always looking out for something in the far distance.

There were others that lined up in the rank shadow of interminable empty Schüppes, where, here and there, solitary shadows worked away.

Once, in the middle of those immense hangars, full of twilight, that arched at great height above two acres of bare tiled floor, I saw a little man squatting on a single pallet. I went up to him, and saw that he was dead, suffocated by plug of packing that was stuck halfway out of his mouth, giving him the appearance of breathing out a perpetual ochre smoke.

This suicide, or this murder victim, in the middle of that enclosed solitude, seemed to my soul to be the quintessence of all that was horrible, an aphorism of abjection.

I formulated it stupidly; like my life it was lacking in sense, “Berlin is death.”

These words took root in my brain -:”Berlin is death” and that evening I was barely able to stop myself saying them to the waitress from whom I ordered Kartofelsalat and Leberwurst.

As for eating, I took refuge in impossible Kneipe; at the bottom of blind alleys there were gaps that opened up in the walls. One had to squeeze through, feeling one’s way, sticky scales from the bricks coating both shoulders at the same time. I’ve known some that smelled of warm varnish from the nearby potteries, blood from clandestine little abattoirs where overly pink delikatessen were manufactured, and the coal tar of cities.

Ha! I’ve eaten Berlin Gulasch that smelled of the nearby gasometer!

The odour of coal-tar wedded to the sea breeze that is swallowed in long draughts like a liquor chilled with snow is notorious in the closed precincts of cities. It blackens the atmosphere, it’s thick like the blood of cadavers. Nevertheless it was the fresh, strong sap of trees that died a thousand millennia ago…

But it’s only at home in seaside locations where it spices the air; a pinch of salt in a sauce adds nicely to the flavor; coating the tongue it makes you vomit and so it is that the smell of coal-tar in inland towns makes me sick to the pit of my stomach.

 *

 A sheet of glacial air had arrived from the Baltic. Are you acquainted with the sudden Berlin cold snaps that strike the great city in the midst of sunshine?

They last for an hour, sometimes two or three, rarely for an entire day, in short just the time needed to fill three hospitals with cases of galloping consumption. It’s odd to think that some ice floes that depart in drifts from the gulf of Bothnia, after having sunk one or two barges on the Aland, are the capricious cause of mortal fits of coughing in oarsmen on the Mügelsee, and of transforming these fine lads into woeful spectres spitting up their lungs.

In a dusty park where a fine rain of soot was falling from the top of factory smokestacks, we occupied a bench decorated with cast-iron serpent heads, her, a Polish student, and me.

She was leafing through a mathematical exercise book.

The cold was so savage that under her beige havelock, she shrivelled up like a little beaten animal. Behind the spindle-trees the crude lights of a Zillerthal were lit up; they signalled like harbour lights.

“Come and drink a hot coffee,” I said, and she simply followed me with the look of a grateful dog. In the establishment two enormous stoves with mica windows were hastily loaded with dry logs and coke; violet flames already roared, fed with paraffin oil.

Other people came in, chased by the arctic air. Noisily they sat down at tables near the sources of heat.

A piano turned the tap on a gush of arpeggios, plucked strings lamented, shrill singing emerged from the wings of a tiny stage of multicoloured batik.

Checkered ceramic tables were covered with burning hot coffee, fiery punch, oily yellow and pink Schnittchen.

My companion emptied the steaming cup, randomly swallowed slices of scarlet salmon, pale shrimps, salads laden with golden sauce – then opened her copybook of figures and pointed to algebraic signs.

In the wings a Tyrolean air was replaced by a cantinière; amidst the sobbing strains of the violins I caught some words that mercilessly pummeled my heart: “Mondschein – Stille See – Finsteren Wellen, Weisser Kahn”.

The student focused the luminous force of her pale gaze on a string of integrals; distractedly, she picked up an egg sandwich and consumed it in great mouthfuls, the fantasmagoria of the power of firsts monopolizing her thoughts.

“-Mondschein – im kühlen Grab,” the chanteuse wept.

New arrivals opened the door on a loud noise of running water.

The cold had resolved into an intense downpour.

I had a vision of black water flecked with pale fire. “Mondschein – Grab,” the repeated refrain from the wings.

Steam and moisture from damp clothes stagnated overhead in the room on a mattress of burning air. Already faces took shape, misty heads sticking up over a netting of fog, gazing fixedly into the distance.

The pale heads, come in from the street of high buildings, waited for something improbable; but instead of looking for a way round an impasse they fixed a phantom bowsprit pointed toward the Unknown.

Suddenly my shoulder tilted sideways; a heavy hand pressed down on it.

I saw that it was well cared for, a bit fat, decorated with a thick ring, workmanship of the Argonne trenches; my eyes desperately sought my companion. She was furiously scribbling logarithmical mantissas in the margin of the drawings in her exercise book.

The hand belonged to Heinrich Bohre, Hellen’s husband.

‘Ha! You little joker,” his voice said. “I knew full well that there was a woman involved. Here’s six weeks that his friends haven’t seen a trace of him! Six weeks! I was beginning to think there’d been an accident, but Hellen told me…’

“Hellen, Hellen,” I cried.

“Yes, of course, Hellen, my wife, she may be a bit reserved but she’s no prude; she told me that your disappearance was bound to involve a woman and an elopement, and that there was no need to worry.”

“Oh!” I said, “So Hellen…”

“Hey, You don’t hold that against Hellen do you? It’s only natural. As far as I’m concerned…”

He sat down beside me, laughing and contented, looking inquisitively at the Polish girl, who continued to scrawl battalions of digits, and as the Kellnerin didn’t arrive soon enough for him, he emptied my glass.

*

All this seemed madness to me,

Heinrich wanted to celebrate his newly recovered friend and he ordered Hochleimer, piping hot sausages and morsels of Spickgans.

Savoury meat smells made the student forget her exercise book for several minutes.

Heinrich alluded to our love affair, and joked about the Polish girl’s hard little breasts, jutting out under her havelock.

She received this insulting homage with a pained grimace that Bohre didn’t notice and that, in any other circumstances would have made me go for his throat. But I could only think of this magnificent thing; Hellen was alive, she had survived the sheer black water of the Mügelsee. She was waiting for me, once more I would enjoy the golden awakenings of the Mendelsohnstrasse, the capricious Frühstück and the supple vigour of Hellen’s limbs.

“We’ll see you soon, yes? I’ll let Hellen know that you’re back,” Heinrich cried, emphasizing his farewells with vigorous thumps of his paw on my shoulder.

It was now warm, horribly warm. The cold spell had dissipated and went off to die on the distant villas of the Gebirge in the midst of good breezes still tinged by sea air.

People were now going back out onto a street bathed in amber twilight where new beer blossomed on café tables set out on the pavement.

“Madamoiselle,” I said to the student, “You’ll have to forgive me for lots of things this evening; I’m a happy man. You’ll even have to forgive me for this…”

I held out a banknote to her.

Once more her mouth twitched disagreeably, but her eyes shone…

She slipped the note into her precious mathematical textbook, then, after a solemn nod, disappeared into the lonely park where each drop of rainwater contained a little sunset and seemed to be a teardrop of some gigantic and delicious Heller-Bier Quelle.

In the words of the good old folks and the good old books, I hadn’t heard the sound of her voice.

 *

 When Frida, the maid, opened the dining room door to me, it was Hellen I saw first; with ceremonial gestures she was solemnly serving a copious macaroni to our good Heinrich.

“It’s him! It’s him! The ghost, das Gespenst,” he sang in a lugubrious minor key.

Hellen pointed me to a seat beside herself and filled my plate with a golden liquid.

Nothing had changed.

We didn’t talk about women or running away, but about Lufthansa shares and a brilliant business transaction of Ersatz Wolle involving the English as sleeping partners, and in which Heinz had a substantial stake.

A Rebhünerpaste liberally seasoned with paprika along with numerous glasses of a very drinkable German Küpferberggold champagne whipped up my blood sufficiently for me to yearn for a short night and prompt arousal, with Bismarck-Herringe silvered by the rising sun, and the peignoir of embroidered Bulgarian lace slipping through the open door.

 *

 Having awakened in the dark I lay waiting to hear the stir of others around me.

At the first iron grey coating of dawn on the facades the electric streetlights had gone out; yawning loudly, Frida stirred a lavish vessel; the companionable smell of coffee wafted up from the dim kitchen in a congenial cloud. Heinrich’s big hands laid loud smacks on the maid’s bare arms. Then a silence unfolding in obscure undulations involved, I guessed, hasty and preliminary caresses, terminating in the man’s departure, happy and satisfied.

Hellen! I was waiting for Hellen…

A distant sound of fresh water splashing in a bath and an indefinite fragrance of Frühlingsduft declared her to me.

An American song was hummed, full of nostalgia for the prairies and the insatiable horizons.

Hellen! The door opened soundlessly, a tray was put down with a light tinkling of porcelain.

“Hellen,” I murmured, “tell me,quick, tell me how come you’re here? You know, I’d given up hope. How were you able to escape from that black water?”

She looked at the luminous window; all I could see was her svelte silhouette, dark against the sunlit screen.

“The sky…” I went on.

Her shoulders shook in an enormous silent laugh.

“You’re laughing,” I said, disgruntled, “while I died a little with every hour that passed.”

Her laugh, peculiar, made itself heard. An unknown torment wrenched my heart.

“Hellen,” I cried, anxious and petulant at the same time.

Slowly her silhouette shifted, as though a platform under her had been set into motion, the sluggish and odious rotation of an overweight mechanism. I had an immediate and atrocious intuition of imminent catastrophe; the desire that one feels to flee in front of a door that’s opening on a foul mystery and, simultaneously, to know the worst.

It happened suddenly.

This time, Hellen showed me her face, her eyes closed on the incomprehensible, then she came close, leaned over me and opened them.

God! Lord of this world of things, where were Hellen’s grey eyes? Her eyelids opened on terrifying nocturnal pupils, split with sulphur.

“The mask!… The eyes of the man with the mask of shadow…”

Retreating backward, she reached the door – the walk of the nameless being in the steamer’s salon – his gaze of damnation burning my face.

In the shadow-filled antechamber her silhouette mutated into a monstrosity; that of the accursed night.

“You can’t lose me. It’s signed and sealed!”

I heard the dry sound of someone crumpling parchment paper.

 *

 I haven’t left Berlin.

I’m looking for something, obscurely, without knowing what. I’ve returned to the Mendelsohnstrasse several times, trying to convince myself that that hour of morning belonged to a nocturnal nightmare.

But each time, on raising my eyes to Hellen’s apartment, before leaving the pavement opposite, a curtain is briskly raised and the double glow of a terrifying gaze blinks.

One evening in the Fröbelstrasse, the most miserable of all the distressed streets in the world, alongside the pitiable queue of paupers who were awaiting a night’s shelter at the Städtischer Obdach, I suddenly broke into laughter.

“So,” I said out loud, “Heinrich Bohre is going to bed with the… Ha! ha! ha! ha!”

My god, what a laugh.

These people who were awaiting their fetid hours in the sewer that was the Obdach as though for a nighttime celebration; these people who had heard the cries of every kind of anguish, the gasp of the fiercest agonies, the laughter of every manner of insanity; all these people turned their haggard eyes toward me, and my laugh must have been so terrible that the women shouted hysterically and a man, leaping out of the queue, hit me hard in the face.

 *

 Searching.

I’ve returned to Paris.

Spinelly…

Hellen…

The soul has shattered the resemblance.

In front of the Eldorado and the Café Nemour, a tangle of motor cars blocked my taxi, just in sight of the Gare de l’Est.

I leapt onto the pavement. Beyond the din of the barrier, I found another little local train.

The Berlin-Warsaw express.

“You haven’t booked a seat.”

“I’ll stay in the corridor, or else on the coal wagon.”

There follow hours of soot and hard rain, lifeless hours.

At last, German is spoken.

Berlin.

“And then?”

 *

 I’m searching,” I say.

In the deserted square where the cold front surprised me on a day of mindless happiness. I look at the tall chimneys preparing nocturnal eiderdowns in the sky for spectral lusts.

 *

 Marie Lavrenska, now become the partner of my life at the cost of an hour of warmth, of satisfied hunger, of fraternal pity, tell me that this is a nightmare and, with your books, show me that, terrible though they are, these are nothing but clouds of smoke floating by.

Let me seek in your eyes the reflection of the wisdom left there by integers and giant equations; that the old booklearning will, for me, be transformed into a fresh breeze that will soothe my feverish soul, corroded by fear.

Marie Lavrenska, the phantoms and demons flee from your textbook of technical drawings more readily than from the most frenzied exorcisms of monks and saints in their solitary monasteries.

“The spirit of the shadows,” you say.

Oh! Your marvellous voice that I didn’t hear on that icy evening, but which, ever since, resounds like eternal music in my life.

“The spirit of the shadows and the legend of damnation, these are not conceivable.”

“But,” I said, “I’ve seen his eyes. The gaze of the Darkest Night of the Other.”

“You’ve seen,” you reply, you, Marie Lavrenska. “And the stars, those extraordinary worlds, are millions of leagues from the dark orbit where you think you see them winking in and out. You’ve seen – and a human intelligence and a treatise on relative mathematics are enough to sever the foundations of knowledge acquired through thirty centuries of empiricism, of discoveries and experiments; enough to unsettle the Euclidean coping stone.”

I raise my eyes to the heaven of your gaze, the only heaven in which I’m still allowed to hope, through the years that separate me from the abyss.

24 thoughts on “Jean Ray: Mondschein-Dampfer

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