Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: The Early Years. Part 2. Chapter 6
AFTER this victory (a real victory of David over Goliath, if I may say so), the moment not having yet arrived for my induction into the Paris hotel, I returned for the nonce to that existence on the streets of Frankfurt which I have already sketched in broad outline — an existence of sensitive loneliness amid the tumult of the world. As I drifted footloose through the bustle of the great city, I could have found, had I desired it, abundant opportunity for conversation and companionship with a variety of individuals who might outwardly have seemed to be living lives very like my own. This, however, was by no means my intention; I either avoided such contacts entirely or took care that they never became intimate; for in early youth an inner voice had warned me that close association, friendship, and companionship were not to be my lot, but that I should instead be inescapably compelled to follow my strange path alone, dependent entirely upon myself, rigorously self-sufficient. Furthermore, it seemed to me that if I made myself common in the least, fraternized with acquaintances or, as my poor father would have said, put myself on a frère-et-cochon footing — if, in short, I spent myself in a loose sociability — I should literally do violence to some secret part of my nature, should, so to speak, thin the vital sap and disastrously weaken and reduce the tension of my being.
When therefore I had to deal with inquisitiveness and importunity — as would happen, for instance, in the café where I would sit late beside a sticky little marble-topped table — I would behave with that courtesy which better befits my taste and character than rudeness and is, moreover, incomparably better protection. For rudeness makes one common; it is courtesy that creates distinctions. And so I summoned courtesy to my aid on those occasions when unwelcome proposals (I assume that the reader schooled in the multifarious world of the emotions will not be astounded) were made to me from time to ume in more or less veiled and diplomatic language by men of a certain sort. It is small wonder, considering the appealing face nature granted me and the altogether winning appearance that my miserable clothing could not conceal — the scarf around my neck, my mended coat, and broken shoes. For the petitioners of whom I speak and who, of course, belonged to the higher levels of society this mean exterior served as an incitement to desire and an encouragement as well; it was, on the other hand, a barrier between me and the world of fashionable women. I do not mean that there was any lack of attention from that quarter, or of involuntary interest in my naturally favoured person, indications I joyfully noted and remembered. How often have I seen the egotistical, absent-minded smile fade at sight of me from some pure white face scented with eau-de-lis and the face assume an expression of almost suffering tenderness! Your black eyes, precious creature in the brocade evening wrap, grew attentive, wide, almost afraid, they penetrated my rags till I felt their searching touch on my bare body, they returned inquiringly to my clothes, your glance met mine, absorbed it deep within, while your little head tilted a trifle backward as though you were drinking, you returned my glance, plunged deep into my eyes with a sweet, uneasy, importunate attempt to understand. Then, of course, you had to turn away 'indifferently', had to enter your wheeled home, and yet when you were already half-way into your silken cage and your servant, with an air of fatherly benevolence, was handing me a coin, the charms of your person seen from behind, tightly spanned by figured cloth of gold, illuminated by the moonlight of the great lamps in the lobby of the opera house, still seemed to hesitate irresolutely in the narrow frame of the carriage door.
No, indeed, there was no lack of silent encounters, one of which I have just summoned up — with emotion. On the whole, however, what good was I to women in gold evening gowns? A penniless youth, I could hardly expect more from them than a shrug of the shoulders. The beggarliness of my appearance, the absence of everything that constitutes the cavalier, wholly devalued me in their eyes and altogether banished me from the radius of their attention. Women only notice 'gentlemen' — and I was not one. Matters stood quite otherwise with certain vagrant gentlemen, eccentrics who were seeking neither a woman nor a man, but some extraordinary being in between. And I was that extraordinary being. That is why I needed so much evasive courtesy to calm their importunate enthusiasm; at times, indeed, I found myself compelled to reason with and soothe some beseeching and inconsolable individual.
I refrain from pronouncing moral judgement on a craving which, when I was the object of it, seemed not incomprehensible. Rather I may say with the Roman that I regard nothing human as alien to me. In the story of my personal education in love, however, the following incident must be recorded.
Of all the varieties of humankind which the great city presented to view, one was especially strange — whose very existence in our workaday world afforded no little food for the imagination — one that must needs attract the particular attention of a youth bent on self-education. It was that variety of female known as public persons, daughters of joy, or simply creatures or, more genteelly, priestesses of Venus, nymphs, and Phrynes. They either lay together in licensed houses or at night wandered the streets in certain sections, holding themselves, with official sanction or toleration, at the disposal of a world of men at once needy and able to pay. It always seemed to me that this arrangement, seen, if I am right, as one should see everything — that is, with a fresh eye undimmed by habit — that this phenomenon, I say, intrudes on our dull-mannered age like a colourful and romantic survival from a gaudier epoch. Its very existence always produced an enlivening and pleasurable effect on me. To visit those particular houses was beyond my means. On the streets and in the cafés, however, I had plenty of opportunity to study these enticing creatures. Nor did this interest remain one-sided; indeed, if I could congratulate myself on sympathetic attention from any quarter, it was from these flitting nightbirds, and before long, despite my habitual attitude of aloofness, I had established personal relations with some of them.
Birds of death is the popular name for the small owls and hawks which, it is said, fly at night against the windows of those who are sick unto death and lure their fearful souls into the open with the cry: 'Come with me!' Is it not strange that this same formula is used by the disreputable sisterhood when its members, strolling beneath the street lamps, boldly yet covertly summon men to debauchery? Some are corpulent as sultanas, tightly encased in black satin, against which the powdered whiteness of their faces glares in ghostly contrast; others in turn are of a sickly emaciation. Their makeup is crass, designed for effectiveness in the blaze and shadow of nocturnal streets. Raspberry lips glow in chalk-white faces; others have put rosy powder on their cheeks. Their brows are sharply and clearly arched, their eyes, lengthened at the corners by the use of eyebrow pencil and darkened at the edge of the lower lid, often show an unnatural brilliance induced by drugs. Imitation diamonds blaze in their ears; large feather hats nod on their heads; and in their hands all carry little bags, known as reticules or pompadours, in which are hidden toilet articles, lipstick, powder, and certain preventive devices. Thus they stroll past you on the sidewalk, touching your arm with theirs; their eyes, agleam in the street light, are directed sideways at you, their lips are twisted in a hot, provocative smile, and hastily, furtively whispering the enticing cry of the bird of death, they gesture with a short, side-wise motion of the head toward some undefined promise, as though for a man of courage who followed their invitation and summons there awaited somewhere a wonderful, never tasted, illimitable joy.
As I repeatedly observed this secret scene from a distance and with rapt attention, I saw too how the well-dressed gentlemen either remained unmoved or entered into negotiations and, if these proved satisfactory, went off with buoyant step in company with their lascivious guides. The creatures did not approach me for this purpose, for my poor attire promised no pecuniary gain from my patronage.
Soon, however, I was to rejoice in their private and unprofessional favour. If, mindful of my economic impotence, I did not dare approach them, it not infrequently happened that after a curious and approving examination of my person they would begin a conversation with me in the most cordial manner, inquiring in a comradely way about my occupation and interests — to which I would lightly reply that I was staying in Frankfurt for purposes of amusement. In the conversations that took place in entries and archways between me and members of this gaudy sisterhood they expressed their interest in me in the most various ways in their coarse, outspoken vocabulary. Such persons, let me say parenthetically, ought not to talk. Silently smiling, glancing, gesturing, they are significant; but once they open their mouths they run the risk of sobering us and losing their own halo. For speech is the foe of mystery and the pitiless betrayer of the commonplace.
My friendly association with them was not devoid of a certain attractive tinge of danger, for the following reason. Whoever makes a career of catering to desire and earns a living by so doing is not in consequence by any means exempt from that particular human weakness; he would not otherwise devote himself so completely to its cultivation, stimulattion, and satisfaction. He would understand it less thoroughly if it were not especially alive in him, yes, if he were not his own person a true child of desire. So it happens, as we well know, that these girls usually have a bosom friend, a private lover, besides the many lovers to whom they give themselves professionally. Coming from the same lowly world, he calculatingly bases his way of life on their dream of bliss just as they do theirs on the dreams of others. These fellows are rash and violent characters for the most part, and though they lavish on their girls the joys of non-professional tenderness, supervise and regulate their work, and provide them with a certain knightly protection, they make themselves absolute lords and masters, confiscate most of the earnings, and if the returns are unsatisfactory, beat the girls unmercifully, a chastisement they bear willingly and happily. The authorities are hostile to this profession and persecute it constantly. Therefore in these flirtations I was exposing myself to a double danger; first, that I might be mistaken by the police for one of these rude cavaliers and picked up, and, on the other hand, that I might arouse the jealousy of these tyrants and have a taste of the knives with which they make so free. Thus caution was enjoined from both directions, and if more than one of the sisterhood let me see clearly that she would not be averse for once to neglecting her tedious profession in favour of my company, for a long time this double consideration stood firmly in the way — until in one particular case it was, in its graver aspect at least, happily suspended.
One evening, then — I had been applying myself with particular pleasure and persistence to my study of city life, and the night was far advanced — I was resting in a medium-grade café, at once weary and excited from my wanderings, a glass of punch in front of me. A wicked wind was sweeping the streets, and the rain mixed with snow that fell unremittingly made me reluctant to go in search of my distant lodgings; but my present refuge, too, was in an inhospitable state; some of the chairs had already been piled on the tables, charwomen were at work with wet rags on the dirty floor, the waiters were lolling about, disgruntled and half asleep, and if despite all this I still lingered, it was principally because I was finding it harder than usual to abandon the sights of the world for sleep.
Desolation reigned in the room. Next to one wall a man who looked like a cattle-dealer slept, leaning forward with his cheek on his leather money-belt. Opposite him two aged men with pince- nez, no douht incapable of sleep, played dominoes in complete silence. But not far from me, only two tables away, with a little glass of green liqueur in front of her, sat a stranger, a girl easily recognizable as one of Them, but someone I had never seen before. We examined each other with mutual approval.
She was marvellously foreign in appearance; from underneath a red wool cap perched on one side of her head, straight glossy black hair fell in a page-boy bob, half covering cheeks that looked slightly concave beneath the prominent cheekbones. Her nose was blunt, her mouth wide and painted red, and her eyes, which slanted up at the outer corners, shimmered with an indeterminate colour, indeterminate too in the direction of their gaze in a way altogether her own and unlike other people's. With her red cap she wore a canary-yellow jacket under which the delicate contours of her body revealed themselves as spare but rounded. Nor did I fail to notice that she was long-legged after the fashion of a filly, something that always appealed strongly to my taste. When she lifted the green liqueur to her lips, the fingers of her hand were spread outward and upward, and for some reason, I do not know why, that hand looked hot — perhaps because the veins on the back stood out so prominently. She had, too, the strange habit of pushing her underlip forward and up, rubbing it against the other.
And so I exchanged glances with her, though her slanting, shimmering eyes never clearly betrayed in what direction she was looking, and finally, after we had thus taken each other's measure for a while, I noticed not without youthful confusion that she had favoured me with the signal, that sidewise nod toward the wanton and unknown, with which her guild accompany the enticing call of the bird of death. In pantomime I turned one of my pockets inside out; but, replying with a shake of her head to indicate I need not worry about money, she repeated the signal and, counting out the coins for her green liqueur on the marble table-top, got up and moved smoothly to the door.
I followed her without delay. Dirty slush lay on the pavement, rain drove down at an angle, and the big, misshapen flakes that accompanied it settled on our shoulders, face, and arms like soft, wet animals. I was therefore well content when my unknown bride signalled a cab that was wobbling by. In broken German she gave the driver her address, which was in a street unknown to me, slipped in, and I, drawing the rattling door shut behind me, sank down on the shabby cushions beside her.
Only after the nocturnal vehicle had again set itself into jogging motion did our conversation begin. I scruple to set it down, for I am sensible enough to see that its freedom lies beyond the compass of my voluble and chatty pen. It was without introduction, this conversation, it was without polite conventions of any sort; from the very beginning it had the free, exalted irresponsibility that is usually a characteristic only of dreams, where our 'I' associates with shadows that have no independent life, with creations of its own, in a way that is after all impossible in waking life where one flesh-and- blood being exists in actual separation from another. Here it happened, and I happily admit that I was moved to the depths of my soul by the intoxicating strangeness of the experience. We were not alone and even less were we as two; for duality ordinarily creates an inhibiting social situation — and there could be no talk of that here. My darling had a way of putting her leg over mine as though she were simply crossing her own; everything she said and did was marvellously unconstrained, bold and free as lonely thoughts are, and I was joyously ready to follow her lead.
In brief, this exchange consisted in the expression of the lively attraction we had immediately felt for each other, in the exploration, explanation, analysis of this attraction, as well as in an agreement to cultivate it in every way, augment it, and turn it to account. My companion for her part lavished on me many words of praise that reminded me distantly of certain expressions of that wise cleric, the Spiritual Counsellor at home, except that hers were at once more inclusive and more emphatic. For at first glance, so she assured me, anyone who knew anything about such matters could see that I had been created and pre-destined for the service of love, that I would indeed provide the world and myself with much pleasure and much joy if I hearkened to this special calling and arranged my life entirely to that end. Moreover, she wished to be my instructress and to put me through a thorough schooling, for it was obvious that my gifts still required the direction of an expert hand. . . . This I understood from what she said, but only approximately, for just as her appearance was foreign, her speech was broken and ungrammatical; indeed, she really did not know German at all, so that her words and expressions were often completely absurd and verged strangly upon the irrational — a fact that increased the dream-like quality of her company. It must be especially and specifically noted, however, that her behaviour was devoid of any frivolity or light-mindedness; instead she maintained in all circumstance — and how strange the circumstances sometimes were! — a severe, almost fierce seriousness, both then and during the whole time of our association.
After prolonged jolting and rattling the carriage finally stopped, we got out, and my friend paid the driver. Then we went upward through a dark, cold stairwell which smelled of dead lamp-wicks, and my guide opened the door to her room, just opposite the stairs. Here it was suddenly very warm; the smell of a greatly over-heated iron stove mingled with the heavy, flowery scent of cosmetics, and when the hanging lamp was lighted, a deep-red glow suffused the room. Comparative luxury surrounded me; on little velvet-topped tables stood colourful vases with dried sheaves of palm leaves, paper flowers, and peacocks' feathers; soft, furry hides lay about; a canopy bed with hangings of red wool adorned with gold braid dominated the room, and there was a great abundance of mirrors, even in places where one does not ordinarily expect them — as, for instance, in the canopy of the bed and in the wall at its side. But since we were filled with longing to know each other completely, we set to work at once, and I stayed with her until the following morning.
Rozsa, this was my antagonist's name, had been born in Hungary, but of the most doubtful antecedents; her mother had been employed in a travelling circus to leap through tissue-paper- covered hoops, and who her father had been remained wholly obscure. She had early shown a very marked inclination to unlimited galanterie, and while she was still young she had been placed, by no means against her will, in a house of ill-fame in Budapest, where she had spent a number of years as the establishment's chief attraction. But a businessman from Vienna, who believed he could not live without her, had extracted her from this den of iniquity by dint of great cunning plus the active co- operation of a society for the suppression of the white-slave trade and had installed her in his home. No longer young, and prone to apoplexy, he had been excessive in expressing his joy at possessing her and had unexpectedly passed away in her arms. Thus Rozsa had found herself left to her own devices. Living by her arts, she had moved from city to city and had only recently settled in Frankfurt. Unsatiated and unsatisfied by her purely professional activities, she had entered into a permanent relationship with a man who had originally been a butcher's assistant. His fierce energy and wild virility, however, had led him to choose pimping, extortion, and other kinds of blackmail as his calling. This fellow had made himself Rozsa's master and had derived the best part of his income from her amorous activities. But on account of some bloody deed he had been picked up by the police and had been forced to leave her unattended for a protracted period. As she was by no means inclined to give up her private pleasure, she had turned her eyes towards me and had chosen the quiet, still- untrained youth as her bosom companion.
She told me this simple tale in a relaxed hour, and I reciprocated with a condensed version of my own earlier life. For the rest, however, both then and in the future, conversation played a very minor role in our association, for Rozsa restricted herself to simple, practical directions and commands, accompanied by short, excited cries, which were survivals from her earliest youth — that is, from the circus ring. But on those occasions when our conversation took a broader turn, it was devoted to mutual admiration and praise, for the promise that we had held for each other at our first encounter was richly confirmed, and my mistress, for her part, gave me repeated and unsolicited assurance that my adroitness and prowess in love exceeded her fondest expectations.
Here, earnest reader, I am in the same position as once before in these pages when I was relating certain early and happy experiences with the sweets of life and I added a warning not to confuse an act with the name it goes by, or to make the elementary mistake of dismissing something living and specific with a general term. For if I now set down the fact that for a number of months, until my departure from Frankfurt, I was on intimate terms with Rozsa, often stayed with her, secretly superintended the conquests she made on the street with those slanted, shimmering eyes and the gliding play of her underlip, sometimes, even, was there in hiding when she received her paying customers (occasions that gave me small grounds for jealousy) and did not disdain to accept a reasonable share of the proceeds, one might well be tempted to apply a short, ugly word to my way of life at that time and to lump me summarily with those dark gallants about whom I was talking above. Whoever thinks that actions make people equal may go ahead and take refuge in this simple procedure. For my own part, I am in agreement with folk wisdom which holds that when two persons do the same thing it is no longer the same; yes, I go further and maintain that labels such as 'drunkard', 'gambler', or even 'wastrel' not only do not embrace and define the actual living case, but in some instances do not even touch it. This is my point of view; others may judge differently about this confession — in respect to which it should be remembered that I am making it of my own free will and could quite easily have passed over it in silence.
If, however, I have treated the present interlude in as much detail as good taste will permit, it is because in my view it was of the most crucial importance for my education; not in the sense that it especially advanced my knowledge of the world or in itself refined my social manners — for that person my wild Eastern blossom was by no means the right person. And yet the word 'refine' can claim a place here, which I withhold only in order to clarify my meaning. For our vocabulary offers no other term for the profit I derived, in person and character, from my association with this exacting and beloved mistress, whose demands coincided so precisely with my gifts. Moreover, here one must think not only of a refinement in love but also through love. Those italics must be understood aright, for they point to a distinction between, and at the same time an amalgamation of, means and ends, in which the former take on a narrower and more specific meaning and the latter a far more general one.
Somewhere in these pages I have already remarked that because of the extraordinary demands life imposed on my energies it was not permissible for me to squander myself in enervating passion. Now, however, during the six-month period that is signalized by the name of the inarticulate but audacious Rozsa I did just that — except that the censorious word 'enervating' comes from the vocabulary of hygiene, and its appropriateness to certain important instances is very doubtful. For it is the enervating that benerves us — if certain vital prerequisites are met — and makes us capable of performances and enjoyments in the world that are beyond the compass of the un-benerved. I take no little pride in my invention of this word 'be-nerved' with which I have quite spontaneously enriched our vocabulary; it is intended to serve as the scientific antonym to the virtuously deprecatory 'enervate'. For I know from the very bottom of my being that I could never have borne myself with so much subtlety and elegance in the many vicissitudes of my life if I had not passed through Rozsa's naughty school of love.