Off to Eternity
Herr Leporello’s first name was Emil.
He was slender, lanky, and supple, two mighty eyeteeth, flashing eyes, and a hoarse bass eloquently manifesting his personality. Distinguishing feature: the stiff, shuffling walk of circus people with bones once broken in a daredevil stunt. And the vest he wore was of the kind that is only worn at the circus: tapestry pattern in gold with a motley array of curlicues and tassels.
This Leporello Emil, artiste, born March 17, 1883, received his marching orders on the very same day as his aunt’s birthday.
“Emil!” Lydia wailed, “Oh, Emil! Your orders!”
Her agony knew no bounds. And although it was unmistakably sincere, it was in such conspicuous contrast to Lydia’s earlier conduct, her hatred, her contempt, a taste of which she had on one particular occasion revealed in Basel during a nocturnal scene involving Herr Schnepfe’s prize-winning wolfhound, that even Lydia herself noticed.
“Oh, I just don’t know,” she sighed, her hands flopping into her lap, “I don’t want to hear or see anything anymore since I’ve learned that my Emil has to go to war. Oh, Emil, where will it all end!”
But Emil was in good spirits.
“Ho ho!” he laughed subdued, without showing his eyeteeth, “We’ll see! No skin off m’back. Fatherland calls. Ain’t no point in makin’ trouble.”
And then, one day, he took his valise, overcoat, umbrella, and leave.
Lydia’ s eyes clung to him like empty, rain-drenched sunflowers in the fall.
“Oh, my dear friends! My dear beloved Emil! Now he is departing and who knows if he shall ever come back.”
And she stood on tiptoe, embraced and kissed him, putting her own little handbag on the floor each time because she was accompanying him to the border.
But Emil was in good spirits and said:
“Lordy be. You’d think we was off to eternity!”
He’d find comrades out there, he hoped. There were jolly fellows enough. And they’d surely play tarok there. Being a front-bending frog contortionist, it would be easier for him to adapt to the gymnastics of war. And besides, pictures in the ‘illustrateds’ demonstrated that there was more to life out there than exploding grenades.
And so he departed.
The Crocodile was back on the agenda again. Basel had not been the bees’ knees after all. They had returned to the Fuchsweide. And why not? The police had finally been paid. The Fuchsweide was home territory. Besides, home is where the heart is—and the food.
Of course, things had changed in the meantime. It was no longer the Fuchsweide of old. A new police detachment had arrived. A different inspector. Icier winds.
Facilities at the Crocodile were the same as always. Piano superb. Heating brilliant. Brands of beer aplenty.
But the police had ripped great breaches in the audience. Gone was the sophisticated glamour. Gone was the cheer. No more habitués. No more Death’ s Head and his sister. No more Fräulein Amalie. No more Herr Pips. No more Crematorium Sahib, who had squandered all his money and whose relationship with the lady in field gray had been registered by the police with a slightly jaundiced eye.
On the other hand, the Fuchsweide now had a medium, The Fuse, to voice opinions against police aggression and capitalism, edited by Herr Dr. Asfalg, former friend and classmate of the current chief of police.
Herr Dr. Asfalg was an enthusiast and a utopian. He took the interests of the Fuchsweide residents to heart.
When the new chief of police, Herr Adalbert Schumm, appeared in person at the Crocodile one day to ensure that all was as it should be, entirely private altercations and a boxing of ears ensued between him and his former fraternity mate, an affair that came to an abrupt end when Chief of Police Schumm—he was there incognito—was compelled to depart in loud disgrace in order to escape being pulverized by Dr. Asfalg’s heavy artillery, a crew of slaughterhouse hands.
And though Herr Dr. Asfalg subsequently underscored the ideological nature of the dispute, such heated skirmishes were not propitious for the Muses.
Chief of Police Schumm decreed:
“I hereby prohibit the display of wild animals, trained lions, bears, and monkeys, bear wrestling, singing jackals, so-called mermaids, etc. in all concert halls and places of amusement in the Fuchsweide as of December 1. Likewise I prohibit the use of percussion, bass drum, kettledrums, cymbals, and bass fiddle until further notice. Violations will be prosecuted by the police with fines of up to 300 francs.”
And in The Fuse, Herr Dr. Asfalg retorted:
“We are familiar with the wild animals, tigers, foxes, and monkeys of the police. No evidence required. We shall make every effort to do away with them.
“We are also familiar with the bass fiddle of the police. It is an instrument that rattles when it is thumped on the floor. We shall endeavor to effect the disappearance of that instrument as well.
“We stand firmly on the floor of naked reality. We shall sing the national anthem in our underpants. We shall perform our ensembles wearing mustache binders instead of makeup. Our bellies and our parted hair shall follow the august example of Herr Adalbert Schumm and we shall thus appear more Hottentotic than all the—as the police will have it—wild animals and drums taken together.” (The Fuse, Number 3, December 18).
And on another occasion (Number 4, page 3): “May the people be permitted their harmless joys. As the Poet says: ‘Joy, oh wondrous spark divine, Daughter of Elysium.’
“But those traitors to mankind and the call of nature have but one ambition: to rob life of its fair luster, its plumy down.”
And on the occasion of yet another raid, The Fuse, Number six, Volume 1, had this to say:
“Friends! ! Comrades! Countrymen!
“Lend me your ears! Your greatest asset, your spirit, is dubious. All spirit is dubious before the law. Spirit is the term applied by our executioners to those whose suffering and humiliation is of suspicious origins. To them spirit is opposition and conspiracy. Spirit is the trait of people who are, were, or will be recalcitrant. To them, spirit is conceit and menace. People of spirit should be detained. The law is successfully investigating their criminal acts. Abjure your spirit!”
In the wake of such outpourings, business understandably languished and habitués evaporated.
The latter item in particular was the subject of undisguised directorial condemnation. The ironic tone was easily misunderstood.
‘Abjure your spirit!’ might also be read as an injunction to stay shy of the performances! Give them no opportunity to nab you!
That couldn’ t help but put the fear of God in spectators, couldn’ t help but stop them from coming.
Dr. Asfalg and his fanaticism had definitely gone too far; it was becoming harmful to the cause. And it would certainly have no influence on the police. They had the power. Their ‘cleansing’ was sanctioned by the state. And if you acknowledge cleanliness, order, and the law, you necessarily acknowledge the police.
Only the united rhetorical efforts of the directors managed to effect a slight increase in attendance.
Next to crisply ironed farm wives, doing their errands in town, sat a French invalid whose crutches fell down when he stood up. Next to the soap boiler sat a jobless cook, lured by announcements in The Fuse and thoroughly determined to become indecent and get her foot in the door via vaudeville.
On top of that, Herr Schnepfe had sent two skyhigh bills from Basel for extra schnitzels, capons, and snails consumed by mesdames Raffaëla und Lydia, who had skipped out without footing the bill.
At the Crocodile, the company now appeared in Jenny’s new orange costumes.
They made a sensation.
In the sailor’ s costume Jenny looked like a butterball on vacation. Rosa’s moderate mutton legs stood next to her, stolid and straight, as if turned out of a single piece with neither joints nor ankles. The soubrette’ s sparrow legs gave the lineup of the three chanteuses a harmonious finish, at least in perspective.
The sight piqued greater interest when the three ladies presented themselves in profile.
Smartly turning on his heel, Herr Meyer worked the piano:
“That’s where the girls go out,
That’s what it’ s all about,
That’s where the boys all congregate.”
Three right legs rose in unison. The rear seams of the ladies’ sailor suits, filled to bursting with underwear, wriggled and jiggled and jerked.
Off they marched, all three, with heads inclined toward the audience and winsome elegance.
But success was not forthcoming—for reasons less aesthetic than moral.
After Leporello had been called up, mesdames Raffaëla and Lydia struggled ineffectually to defend their reputation. It atrophied. And the esteem of the Apache party suffered a setback. The refinement of the circus artistes proved to be posturing pure and simple.
Defamatory facts followed hard on each other’ s heels. It seems that in earlier circus engagements they had absconded with aprons’ full of small change. Down by the lake, where the circuses had been, eager seekers and random strollers found copper and silver coins dropped by the culprits while making off with the monies.
It was also discovered that Lydia and Raffaëla had not been born with a circus spoon in their mouths; they had not, as it were, learned to do the split at their mother’s breasts. On the contrary: Frau Scheideisen had been a midwife before she joined the circus and chose to adopt the sobriquet Donna Maria Josefa.
Nor did Raffaëla and Lydia lay excessive store by the drudgery of keeping up appearances.
Raffaëla had her hands full with her child. Lydia wallowed in longing for her absent spouse.
“Oh, my Emil! Oh, my Emil!” she wailed, eyes glistening with tears.
The yearning made inroads on her tiny brain. Her eyes streamed out of her head.
“Oh, Emil! Oh, Emil! Who would’ ve thought …!”
Up she hastened to her room to drag down the photograph stand and show it to the guests during the performance.
“That’ s what he looked like. That’ s him. Oh, my dear Emil! I’ m sure they’ve already shot him dead!”
And then, when she looked at the photographs—there he stood, Emil Leporello, with a friendly smile and the eyes of an animal tamer, one elbow akimbo, legs crossed—and envisioned him lying mangled and mutilated on a grassy bank in Siberia as fodder for ravens, crying out to her,“Here Lydia, here, come to me!“ , it broke her heart. Her jaw drooped; her eyelids, her arms drooped. A droplet formed on her pointed nose and she would burst out wailing, loudly and inconsolably.
In vain were all efforts to persuade her that he was most certainly still in the barracks and who knows whether he would ever end up in the trenches, since all he had left were his eyeteeth so that it was hard for him to bite, let alone chew.
Not a single sensible word sunk in. No words in jest brought comfort. She’ d had enough of the world. She would write to the captain, she would go to him, prostrate herself, sacrifice herself to him, willingly disgrace herself if only he would give her Emil back.