Bright magic, p.16
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       Bright Magic, p.16

           Alfred Doblin
 
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  And then there was a rustling noise by the door—above the table—behind the sofa—in the opposite corner of the room.

  People recoiled in shock. They turned around. But they couldn’t make anything out from their seats and were not allowed to stand up.

  Then Wiscott groaned loudly, and they were afraid, because on top of everything the spiritualists’ hand-clapping and counting was heading in an orgiastic direction. So people sprang to their feet and hurried to turn on the lights and wake Wiscott out of his deep, too-deep trance.

  The first thing they noticed, though, when the light came on in the room, were . . . two pairs of pajamas thrown across the table and others by the wall, in the corner behind the sofa.

  The policeman took immediate action. He confiscated the retrieved objects, inspected them, and read, to the horror of everyone present, the initials monogrammed on them: “H.v.St.” Henrik van Steen! They were the murder victim’s stolen pajamas!

  No one had understood who would want his pajamas. But it was them. The spirits had taken them. Apparently they sometimes wore pajamas in the beyond, maybe at parties or festive occasions such as séances.

  The detective had already developed a feel for the other side in the first session; he did not have much of one for this side. He took all the retrieved items of clothing, bundled them together, and asked those present to maintain the strictest silence about the session. It was clear, the new initiate said, that they were on the right track. They now possessed conclusive evidence. He did not inform the laymen what this evidence was conclusive of. The case could now be completely solved without any further contribution from the beyond, he announced.

  With that he dragged Miss Eveline, wailing and lamenting, out of the room, to keep her under police supervision until the next session. He was convinced that she would try to escape the impending resolution of the case by running away, which would surely implicate her as accessory or conspirator.

  But the medium, Wiscott, was placed under police supervision as well, in his case obviously only so that they could be sure he was safe and that no one was trying to influence him.

  •

  As one might well imagine, all the society members arrived in a state of the greatest suspense the next evening, which was to be the last in connection with this case and in fact the society’s last altogether. Up until that point, the sensational events of the previous session had successfully been kept from the public.

  Wiscott and the co-mediums promptly fell into a trance. Eveline had been dragged in by the detective. She looked furious. Upon catching sight of Wiscott, the tender young thing wanted to pounce on him like a tiger and had to be restrained by the officer and pushed down into the chair next to him. She showed more and more clearly how afraid she was of the unmasking to come.

  To the irritation of everyone eager for a quick, dramatic denouement, the first to appear was the harmless man from Glasgow, the inevitable dog-biscuit manufacturer. He looked around quietly and politely asked what time it was. They told him, whereupon he left without further ado.

  In his wake came the fellow they all knew, of course, the one with the inheritance and the life insurance. But he wasn’t ready for the reception he met with this time. He had barely opened his mouth and been recognized and started cursing at his brother-in-law’s intrigues and betrayal when he was shouted down from all sides. Intimidated, he sullenly withdrew. After that reception one could be sure that he wouldn’t be showing his face again too soon.

  But anyone who thought that they were ready to get back to the case of van Steen was mistaken. It seemed as though the astral world had opened its floodgates (or maybe it was the garbage collectors?) and let loose its restless spirits upon the human world. A suicide showed up who wanted to be allowed back to life at any cost. He said he had killed himself by mistake. It turned out, he had heard, that the situation with his bride actually wasn’t what he’d thought at the time, based on what she’d told him. She still loved him, she was only playacting a little. The suicide was thus erroneous. What were they supposed to do about that?

  Before they could figure that out, someone else came forward to make a fuss and level a collective accusation against this side in its entirety. He said that twenty-five years ago, in Bosnia, in Sarajevo, after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, when everything went crazy, he had been run over. They had started a gigantic war over the archduke, but him they had simply tossed in a cart and dragged off to the side of the road.

  What did he want then? they asked him. Were people supposed to start a war for his sake too?

  “Why not?” he cried. “What’s justice for one is justice for another.” And he bellowed furiously. “The entire world of the living is unjust.”

  And then someone else appeared, and someone after that. No one could have dreamed of such a thing. It was like a reverse Resurrection, an homage to the much maligned earth here from those who had lost it.

  Finally, the main entourage from the day before came dancing up. These astral beings were still in the most cheerful mood. Due to the time difference, the hilarity of the previous day continued there.

  They might possibly have also been imbibing more air.

  Nulpe, the elder, once again directed his obscenities and double entendres to Eveline from the mouth of Schnüffel the haberdasher, himself a dashing fellow. But when the lusty caveman once again proposed she pay a visit with him to the beyond, she answered, furious, with a scornful remark that naturally made perfect sense for human beings: “The beyond? You numskulls! Leave me alone with your beyond. I’ll end up there soon enough.”

  “It can never be soon enough,” whispered the seducer, the deeply mendacious Nulpe, painting a picture for her of the idyllic life on the other side, especially the universally practiced nudism, which was probably his main focus.

  She was not in the mood for jokes though. She pounded the table. “What do you mean by that? What do you all think is going on here? The liberties you’re taking! Won’t someone finally get this pig off my back please?”

  The detective next to her liked this new tone. He wanted to go for broke, and whispered to her, “Ask him: Why do you wear pajamas when you dance? Are you aware that these are stolen pajamas, initialed H.v.St.? Nice spirit world. Where did you steal them?”

  Eveline took the bait. She asked, “Why are you pestering me? You’re dancing, hogwash, you just want to attack me. If you really are a spirit, how old are you? Aren’t you ashamed to act so rude in front of strangers? And throw stolen pajamas around? Where did you get those pajamas? Who gave you the keys to van Steen’s mansion?”

  Eveline—to the extent that she was offended at all that the astral beings were dancing in pajamas—didn’t know that they had no choice but to dress in light clothing: shirts, pajamas, table napkins, or, when they could find any, paper towels, best of all tissue paper, which obviously has the disadvantage that it makes a loud crackling noise, which offends those on this side.

  What an oppressive silence Eveline’s questions produced. What contrast to the merry hullaballoo of the day before. The spirits, rejected as men and on top of that accused of burglary, sulked. They wanted to give the human they had propositioned another chance. That was why Nulpe, after a short consultation, came forward for one last push. He petted Eveline, as it were—called her a beauty, a wonderful, full-bosomed creature currently putting her charms on show on earth to the delight of many. Why would she want to deny them to astral beings who only wanted to bring her into the astral climate where she would flourish and thrive like a woolly mammoth, a wild boar, an ichthyosaurus.

  But the little soubrette had their number. She was done playing games. The day in custody, when she had had to call in sick to the theater, had ruined her whole mood. She shouted across the table, “You don’t know who you’re dealing with! But you’ll find out. If you’re playing with me I can play too.” —A strange thing to say. Who was playing with her? The spirits were serious. Anyway, those on the other
side understood the harsh tone she had adopted and reacted accordingly.

  All the mediums sprang into action. They shook their heads, whispered, murmured. They murmured darkly, frightfully darkly. It sounded dangerous. They croaked and quacked. One medium cackled, seemingly possessed by a prehistoric chicken. The Stone Agers’ feelings had cooled down to Ice Age levels. In a flash, the other side had formed a united front, led by the vengeful Nulpe, who suggested that they would be happy to return to the item of business on the program, if that’s what the lady really wanted: investigating van Steen’s murder.

  Depp, from Upper Egypt, delivered a statement along with another astral being manifesting herself for the first time only now: a certain Mrs. Nebbich, the mother-in-law of one Omai-Omi, a Damascus donkey driver known for his sense of humor. Heaven knows what she was doing here. She’d been dead only a few centuries and stuck her nose in everywhere. In any case, the two of them, in the name of many of their peers, stated the following: One of their number, during a visit to the world of human beings—that is, a traveler under the protection of hospitality—had been the victim of a shameful, murderous deed. They were speaking of their venerable compatriot Süffel, alias Schnurzel, who among human beings, to stay incognito, had called himself van Steen. Someone had smashed in his skull with a blunt instrument in a hotel room on this side—a criminal act with which the high-bosomed lady before them was connected. That was their accusation.

  With that, the spirits sat down or fell silent.

  Omai-Omi’s mother-in-law added one more screech, from one of the female co-mediums: The beyond knew everything, Eveline shouldn’t try anything, she couldn’t fool the beyond.

  Incidentally, Madame Nebbich kept repeating the name “Nebeltrine,” which was what Eveline would apparently be called in the beyond when her time came.

  Then the rest of the hangers-on appended their own threats: Justice would be done, compensation would be demanded, Süffel had incurred enormous costs for the trip. In the future, they declared, they would protect their travelers so that the other side would lose any desire to lay hands on them.

  The chairman respectfully interjected that such peaceful and law-abiding collaboration was just what the society wanted as well.

  Eveline, seeing herself as Nebeltrine already, seemed to be on the verge of a breakdown. She cried and begged to be left in peace at last, she had nothing to do with the case. But the detective who had cunningly tricked her into asking her question took his handcuffs out of his bag and gave them an enterprising jangle.

  “No handcuffs, no handcuffs,” she shrieked, aghast.

  The detective: “Then confess, you.” He always spoke rudely to suspects. He was a substitute officer and her confession could help get him a permanent position.

  At this point, the president of the society felt moved to proceed himself to a direct questioning of the brewer’s spirit: “Schnurzel, Süffel, remember: On the occasion of your visit to this side, on the night of your murder, which we most deeply regret, were you in the company of this lady, Nebeltrine?” (She screamed that she was being turned into spirit form right out in the open.) “Did you also visit her hotel room, once, often, specifically on the day in question?”

  “What do you mean, what question?” Mrs. Nebbich rose up from the background. She had difficulty understanding what was happening and was also hard of hearing; the president had to shout to explain it to her. Then he added one last question: “Who was responsible for decorating the hotel room like that, and what does it mean?”

  The spirit, via Wiscott, seemed reluctant to answer. Finally he came out with an answer as clear and unambiguous as one might hope for. He had wanted to protect Nebeltrine, who had wronged him bitterly, he said. But now he would let all consideration fall by the wayside. She should pay. She should be punished for her scandalous deeds.

  “Yes, I was with her on the night of my last day visiting you. I was in a good, in fact, a downright giddy mood.”

  Now this was clear testimony, an actual fact. She had denied it.

  “Shh,” snarled the substitute policeman, who now felt very sure of his future. He pulled her closer and closer.

  At this there was a pause. The spirits, as though overwhelmed by the statement that had just been made, snored very loudly via the four assistant mediums. Maybe the spirits too were resting and readying themselves for a new attack.

  But Eveline screamed into the suspenseful pause, “That villain, that liar, it’s not true! I don’t know what he’s trying to do and what he’ll say next! I’m innocent! I have an alibi and I can prove it.” (But she couldn’t just then.)

  Schnurzel/Süffel/van Steen: “Oh can you? You dare to say so? What haven’t you dared to say in your life? The lies you’ve told to my face, the wool you’ve pulled over my eyes, the people you’ve run around with, and you could always prove an alibi.”

  He was in a furious state. A strange, grinding, this-worldly sound came from Wiscott. You could feel that this spirit had been torn from life very prematurely, before he had settled the score with this lady—and who knows, maybe she had beat him to it by killing him, alone or with an accomplice.

  It was a relief when someone from the oldest cohort in the beyond spoke up, in a deep, sonorous voice, to suggest in a conciliatory tone that the hearing should proceed more calmly. They should let the full-bosomed lady speak without hindrance. Force was not one of the other side’s methods.

  From the secondary mediums, from the peanut gallery as it were, the spirits grunted their approval.

  Now Wiscott, in the name of the insulted beyond (unclear on behalf of which being), invited the lady, whom he stubbornly insisted on calling “full-bosomed,” to say what she wanted to say, without fear or shame, about the events of that fateful night. Perhaps, during her intimate time with van Steen (since revealed to be Schnurzel/Süffel), a third and entirely unexpected, unwelcome person had forced his way in and surprised them? Perhaps a male person? Who had then taken part in the murder? Someone who, perhaps, still found himself here in this city, perhaps even in this very room? “Out with it, Nebeltrine,” he hissed.

  The thrill-seeking astral public applauded. “Nebeltrine should speak, let Nebeltrine speak!” Above all, naturally, the lusty caveman.

  The president turned to Süffel and urged him not to be afraid either, and to say everything that had happened that night, and with whom—clearly, he now recalled more details than he had before.

  “I sure do,” snarled Schnurzel/Süffel, and he barked out a contented laugh. He remained discreet.

  She waited a moment at first, to see if he would say more, then let fly and shouted: Go ahead, let him try it, she would hear his accusations out. She still said she could prove her alibi—but what about him? How about the pajamas? She pounded on the table. “Who dropped van Steen’s pajamas here? You think it was me? Who stole the pajamas?”

  With van Steen addressed so directly, van Steen/Schnurzel/Süffel’s reaction made Wiscott flinch and twitch. This could wake Wiscott from his trance. The society twitched en masse. What was going on? What were Eveline’s mysterious words getting at? Could the spirits themselves really have committed the murder, with a blunt instrument that had naturally then disappeared—in anger, maybe in envy of their traveling compatriot (the curtain torn at the top, the broken window, spoke in favor), the whole thing merely an internal affair of the astral realm? Then, after the murder, the spirits had absconded with the laundry for their dances. It all made sense.

  Eveline shouted across the table, “And the shirts? You think I wear men’s clothing? And that I decked out van Steen too, all by myself? Tell us, let’s hear it. If others can make threats, I can too.”

  Now this, addressed to the spirits, was certainly sensational. The beyond fell into a worried silence. They did not make a sound. The spiritualists’ hair stood on end. Who was lying? Spirits were tricky, but this, such treachery.

  The sonorous voice of Depp, from Upper Egypt, spoke up: The other side a
cknowledged, with indignation, the charges leveled by the full-bosomed lady against John Doe of the astral realm. They had already wanted, simply for the sake of justice, a rapid clarification of the murder of a harmless traveler. Now they had to press for the resolution of the case without regard to all the formalities. The beyond, accused of active or passive participation in the crime, requested that Schnurzel/Süffel, known while traveling as van Steen, now face Nebeltrine directly.

  What followed next happened fast.

  One being, calling itself the Supervisory Board, came forward to demand that the proceedings be closed to the public, as endangering public morality (a harsh blow for the gleeful old men from the Stone Age, the Ice Age, etc.). The Supervisory Committee moved that everyone except Wiscott, the interpreter, and the two parties, Schnurzel/Süffel and Nebeltrine, leave the room and await the result of the tête-à-tête between the murderess and her victim. The president, after a short discussion with the man next to him, a huckster named Weisskäse, decided that the group should stay in the room and the confrontation take place without witnesses (or a judge) in the side room. The judge had to be excluded too—he was part of the public, and they wanted to make sure not to soften the confrontation between the two parties in any way.

  At once, Eveline jumped up, not to be held back. The triumphant substitute detective, gripping her arms tight, brought her to the side room. The spiritualist leaders, Valley and Weisskäse, carefully led Wiscott, in a deep trance. Exhaling deeply once everything had been accomplished, they returned to the meeting room. The man from the police shut the door with an energetic slam behind the dead man and his cunning murderess.

  The society members sat gray-faced around the table, facing the medium’s empty divan. So, now van Steen had her. As long as it remained nothing more than a confrontation between the two. As long as no one took revenge. It had gotten quite late, it was almost midnight. The substitute detective expressed his satisfaction by frequently clinking the handcuffs. The gray-bearded Valley had been unusually dejected and jumpy all evening. When Eveline had attacked the spirits, he had shown signs of outrage. Then, when the spirits via Wiscott had made their request to exclude the public, he seemed no longer to understand anything, and he raised his arms helplessly before giving in. Now he sat there sunk in thought, visibly worried, for what had become of his magnificent railway project, with an incident like this and the reciprocal accusations of the two sides? He looked anxiously at the closed door—and every member of the society was thinking the same thing as him: Eveline, the pretty, risqué little thing, assaulted by the raging spirits, done in, jerked into the Nebeltrine state by force. Who could keep watch over the spirits now, who could close off the room to that public?

 
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