The princess enters, obese and sweaty, large diamonds on her fingers, in her ears, around her neck and in her hair in a vulgar display of extravagance.
She is a Hungarian countess or baroness. She met the prince somewhere in the Orient. A marriage was arranged, that was certain, but also certain, was that right from the beginning it was a fraud on both sides.
She wanted the marriage to make her impossible pregnancy legal. The prince wanted the same marriage to prevent an international scandal and hide his small mistake. It was a net of lies and impudent fraud, a legal feast for Herr Sebastian Gontram, everything was in motion, and nothing was solid. Every smallest assertion would prompt legal opposition from the other side. Every shadow would be extinguished through a court ruling.
Only one thing stayed the same, the little princess. Both the prince and the princess proclaimed themselves as father and mother and claimed her as their own. This product of their strange marriage is heir to many millions of dollars. The mother has the advantage, has custody.
“Have a seat, princess!”
The Legal Councilor would sooner bite his tongue than call this woman, ‘Highness’. She is his client and he doesn’t treat her a hair better than a peasant woman.
“Take your coat off!” but he doesn’t help her with it.
“We have just written you a letter,” he continues and reads the beautiful letter to her.
“But of course,” cries the princess. “I will take care of it first thing tomorrow morning!”
She opens her purse and pulls out a heavy envelope.
“Look at this, Honorable Legal Councilor. I came straight here with it. It is a letter from Lord, Count Ormes of Greater-Becskerekgyartelep, you know him.”
Herr Gontram furrows his brow. This isn’t good. The King himself would not be permitted to demand him to conduct any business while at home. He stands up and takes the letter.
“That’s very good,” he says. “Very good. We will clear this up in the morning at the office.”
She defends herself, “But it’s very urgent! It’s very important!”
The Legal Councilor interrupts her, “Urgent? Important? Let me tell you what is urgent and important, absolutely nothing. Only in the office can a person judge what is urgent and important.”
He reproaches her, “Princess, you are an educated woman! You know all about proper manners and enjoy them all the time. You must know that you don’t bring business home at night.”
She persists, “But I can never catch you at the office Honorable Legal Councilor. During this week alone I was–”
Now he is almost angry. “Then come next week! Do you think that all I do is work on your stuff alone? Do you really believe that is all I do? Do you know what my time alone costs for the murderer Houten? And it’s on my head to handle your millions as well.”
Then he begins to tell a funny story, incessantly relating an unending imaginary story of a strange crime lord and the heroic attorney that brings him to justice for all the horrible sex murders that he has committed.
The princess sighs, but she listens to him. She laughs once in awhile, always in the wrong places. She is the only one of all his listeners that never knows when he lies and also the only one that doesn’t understand his jokes.
“Nice story for the children!” barks Attorney Manasse.
Both girls are listening eagerly, staring at the Legal Councilor with wide-open eyes and mouths. But he doesn’t allow himself to be interrupted. It is never too early to get accustomed to such things. He talks as if sex murderers were common, that they happen all the time in life and you can encounter dozens of them every day.
He finally finishes, looks at the hour, “Ten already! You children must go to bed! Drink your spiced wine quickly.”
The girls drink, but the princess declares that she will under no circumstances go back to her house. She is too afraid and can’t sleep by herself, perhaps there is a disguised sex murderer in the house. She wants to stay with her friend. She doesn’t ask her Mama. She asks only Frieda and her mother.
“You can as far as I’m concerned,” says Frau Gontram. “But don’t you oversleep! You need to be in church on time.”
The girls curtsey and go out, arm in arm, inseparable.
“Are you afraid too?” asks the princess.
Frieda says, “What Papa was saying is all lies.”
But she is still afraid anyway and at the same time strangely longing for these things. Not to experience them, oh no, not to know that. But she is thinking how she wants to be able to tell stories like that! Yes, that is another sin for confession! She sighs.
Above, they finish the spiced wine. Frau Gontram smokes one last cigar. Herr Manasse stands up to leave the room and the Legal Councilor is telling the princess a new story. She hides her yawn behind her fan, attempts again to get a word in.
“Oh, yes, dear Legal Councilor,” she says quickly. “I almost forgot! May I pick your wife up at noon tomorrow in the carriage? I’d like to take her with me into Rolandseck for a bit.”
“Certainly,” he answers. “Certainly, if she wants to.”
But Frau Gontram says, “I can’t go out.”
“And why not?” the princess asks. “It would do you some good to get out and breathe some fresh spring air.”
Frau Gontram slowly takes the cigar out from between her teeth. “I can’t go out. I don’t have a decent hat to wear–”
The Princess laughs as if it is a good joke. She will also send the Milliner over in the morning with the newest spring fashions.
“Then I’ll go,” says Frau Gontram. “But send Becker from Quirinusjass, they have the best.”
“And now I must go to sleep–good night!”
“Oh, yes, it is time I must get going too!” the princess cries hastily.
Legal Councilor escorts her out, through the garden and into the street. He helps her up into her carriage and then deliberately shuts the garden gate.
As he comes back, his wife is standing in the house door, a burning candle in her hand.
“I can’t go to bed yet,” she says quietly.
“What,” he asks. “Why not?”
She replies, “I can’t go to bed yet because Manasse is lying in it!”
They climb up the stairs to the second floor and go into the bedroom. In the giant marriage bed lies the little attorney pretty as can be and fast asleep. His clothing is hung carefully over the chair, his boots standing nearby. He has taken a clean nightgown out of the wardrobe and put it on. Near him lies his Cyclops like a crumpled young hedgehog.
Legal Councilor Gontram takes the candle from the nightstand and lights it.
“And the man insults me, says that I’m lazy!” he says shaking his head in wonderment.
“–And he is too lazy to go home!”
“Shh!” Frau Gontram says. “You’ll wake everyone up.”
She takes bedding and linen out of the wardrobe and goes very quietly downstairs and makes up two beds on the sofas. They sleep there.
Everyone is sleeping in the white house. Downstairs by the kitchen the strong cook, Billa, sleeps, the three hounds next to her. In the next room the four wild rascals sleep, Philipp, Paulche, Emilche and Josefche. Upstairs in Frieda’s large balcony room the two friends are sleeping. Wülfche sleeps nearby with his black tobacco stub. In the living room sleep Herr Sebastian Gontram and his wife. Up the hall Herr Manasse and Cyclops contentedly snore and way up in the attic sleeps Sophia, the housemaid. She has come back from the dance hall and lightly sneaked up the stairs.
Everyone is sleeping, twelve people and four sharp hounds. But something is not sleeping. It shuffles slowly around the white house–
Outside by the garden flows the Rhine, rising and breasting its embankments. It appears in the sleeping village, presses itself against the old toll office.
Cats and Tomcats are pushing through the bushes, hissing, biting, striking each other, their round hot glittering eyes possessed with aching, agonizing and denied lust–
In the distance at the edge of the city you hear the drunken songs of the wild students–
Something creeps all around the white house on the Rhine, sneaks through the garden, past a broken embankment and overturned benches. It looks in pleasure at the Sunday antics of the love hungry cats and climbs up to the house. It scratches with hard nails on the wall making a loose piece of plaster fall, pokes softly at the door so that it rattles lightly like the wind.
Then it’s in the house shuffling up the stairs, creeping cautiously through all the rooms and stops, looks around, smiles.
Heavy silver stands on the mahogany buffet, rich treasures from the time of the Kaiser. But the windowpanes are warped and patched with paper. Dutchmen hang on the wall. They are all good paintings from Koekoek, Verboekhuoeven, Verwee and Jan Stobbaerts, but they have holes and the old golden frames are black with spider webs. These magnificent beauties came from the ArchBishop’s old hall. But the broken crystal is sticky with flyspecks.
Something sneaks through the still house and each time it comes it breaks something, almost nothing, an infinite smallness, a crack. But again and again, each time it comes, the crack grows in the night. There is a small noise, a light creaking in the hall, a nail loosens and the old furniture gives way. There is a rattle at the swollen shutters and a strange clanking between the windowpanes.
Everyone sleeps in this big house on the Rhine but something slowly shuffles around.