Do you see the peddler there with the tangled beard? They call him Tonio. In a moment he’ll come to our table. Buy a few gems or a pair of Bolognese tears from him; — You know: those glass drops, which shatter in the hand — into tiny splinters — like salt — when you break off the threadlike end. — A plaything, nothing more. And watch his face, — the expression!
Don’t you agree, the gaze of this man has something deeply gripping? — And that which lies in the toneless voice when he names his wares: Bolognese tears, the twisted hair of a lady. When we go home, I want to tell you his story, not in this empty tavern — — — outside by the lake — in the park.
A story I could never forget, even if it weren’t my friend whom you see now as a peddler and who doesn’t recognize me anymore.
Yes, yes, — just believe me, he was a good friend to me, — earlier, when he still lived, — still had his soul, — not yet insane. — — — Why I don’t help him?
There’s no way to help him. Don’t you feel one should not help a soul, — one gone blind — which is tapping its own, mysterious way to light, — maybe to a new and brighter light? —
And it’s nothing more than a tapping of the soul for memory, when Tonio offers Bolognese tears for sale here. —
— — How magically the lake shimmers in the moonlight! — — — The reeds, over there on the shore! — So like night — dark! — And how the shadows of the elms doze on the surface of the water — — — there in the cove!
— — Some summer nights I used to sit on this bench, when the wind whispered, rushing through the grass, searching, and the slopping waves beat drowsily against the roots of the shore-side trees, — and then I thought myself down into the tender, secret wonder of the lake, saw in the depth the shining, glistening fish, how they silently moved their reddish fins in a dream, — old stones green from moss, drowned branches and deadwood and shimmering mussels and white pebbles.
Wouldn’t it be better to lie — a dead man — there below on a soft mat of rocking seaweed — and forget all wishing, and dreaming?! —
But I wanted to tell you about Tonio.
Back then we all lived in town; — we called him Tonio although that wasn’t his name.
You never heard of the beautiful Mercedes either, have you? A Creole with red hair and so bright, strange eyes.
How she came to town, I don’t know anymore, — no one’s heard of her for a long time now. — —
As Tonio and I met her — at a party of the orchid club —, she was the beloved of a young Russian.
We sat on a veranda, and the far-off, sweet sounds of a Spanish song drifted to us from out of the ballroom. —
— — Garlands of tropical orchids of unspeakable majesty hung from the ceiling: Cattleya aurea, the empress of these flowers that never die, — odontoglosses and dendrobies on decaying pieces of wood, white, shining loelies, like butterflies of paradise. — Cascades of deep-blue lykasts, — and from the thicket of these blossoms swallowed up as if in a dance, blazed a stupefying scent which rushes through me again and again when I think of the image of that night, an image which stands before me sharp and clear as if in a magic mirror held to my soul: Mercedes on a bench of bark-covered wood, her figure half-hidden behind a living curtain of violet vandees. — That slender, passionate face completely in shadows.
None of us spoke a word. —
Like a vision out of a 1001 Nights; I thought of the tale of the sultaness who was a ghoul and crept by full moon to the cemetery to eat on the graves the flesh of the dead. And Mercedes’ eyes rested on me — as if examining me.
A dim recollection awoke in me, as if once in a distant past — in a far, far life, cold, rigid snake eyes had looked at me in this way, such that I could forgot it nevermore.
Her head was bent forward and the fantastic black and crimson speckled tongues of the blossoms of a Burmese bulbophyllum were caught in her hair, as if to whisper new, unheard of sins in her ear. Then I understood how a man could give his soul for such a woman.
— — — The Russian lay at her feet. — He, too, spoke no word. — —
The fest was strange — as the orchids themselves — and full of odd surprises. A Negro stepped through the curtains and offered glittering Bolognese tears in a jasper dish. — I saw how Mercedes, smiling, said something to the Russian, — saw how he put a Bolognese tear between his lips, held it thus for a long time, and then gave it to his beloved.
In that instant a gigantic orchid sprang out, torn lose from the darkness in the confusion of leaves, — the face of a demon, with lustful, thirsty lips, — without a chin, only iridescent eyes and gaping, bluish gums. And this terrible plant’s face trembled on its stem; swayed as in evil laughter, — staring at Mercedes’ hand. My heart stood still, as if my soul had seen into an abyss.
Do you believe that orchids can think? In that instant I felt that they could do it, — felt, as a clairvoyant feels, that these fantastic blossoms exulted in her hair. — And she was a queen of the orchids, this Creole with her sensual, red lips, that silent greenish shimmer of skin, and hair the color of dead copper. — — — — No, no — orchids are no flowers, — they’re satanic creations. — Beings, which only show us the feelers of their gestalt, show us false eyes, lips and tongues in whirlwinds of color which numb our senses, so that we do not suspect the horrible viper’s body which hides itself, — invisible —, in the realm of shadows, bringing death.
Drunk from the narcotic scent we finally returned to the ballroom.
The Russian called a word of parting after us. — A true parting, because death stood behind him. — A boiler explosion — the next morning — ripped him to atoms.
Months had gone by, and there his brother Ivan was Mercedes’ lover, an inaccessible, proud man who avoided all contact. — Both lived in the villa by the city’s gate, secluded from all friends, — and loved a wild, insane love.
Those who saw them, as I, walking through the park, evenings in the twilight, clinging to each other, conversing in near whispers, lost to the world — no eyes for surroundings —, understood that an all-powerful passion, foreign to our blood, held those two beings fused together.
Then — suddenly — there came the news that Ivan had also met with an accident —, during a balloon ride which he took, seemingly planless, thrown in some puzzling way from the gondola.
We all thought Mercedes would never overcome the shock.
— — A few weeks later — in the Spring — she drove past me in her open carriage. No feature of that face spoke of borne sorrows. It was to me as if an Egyption statue of bronze, its hands resting on the knees, the gaze fixed in another world, and not a living woman, drove by me. — — — Even in dreams the impression followed me: the statue of Memnon with its superhuman calm and the empty eyes, in a modern equipage, driving in the dawn light, — ever onwards, through the crimson-glowing mist and rising dust, towards the sun. — The shadows of the wheels and the horses eternally long — strangely distorted — gray-violet, as they jerk phantom-like over the dew-moistened road in the early morning light.
For a long time I traveled and saw the world and many an amazing scene, but few have affected me this much. — There are colors and forms with which our soul spins waking, living dreams. — The nighttime sound of a street-grating under our feet, the beat of an oar, a gust of fragrance, the sharp profile of the red-shingled roof of a house, raindrops that fall on our hand, — these are often the magic words which summon such scenes back to our feeling. There lies a deep, melancholic ringing, like harp tones, in such feeling of memories.
I returned home and found Tonio as the Russian’s successor by Mercedes. — blinded by love, chained at the heart, chained at the ankles, — like he before him. — I saw and spoke to Mercedes often: the same unrestrained love in her, too. — At times I felt her inquiring glance resting on me.
Like that time during the orchid night.
In Manuel’s apartment — our mutual friend — we sometimes got together, — Tonio and I. And one day he sat there at the window, — broken. His features distorted, like those of a man in torment.
Manuel pulled me quietly to one side.
It was a strange story which he whispered hastily to me: Mercedes, Satanists, — a witch —! Tonio discovered it from letters and papers he had found by her. And the two Russians had been, through the power of imagination, — with the help of Bolognese tears, — murdered by her. —
I read the manuscript later: The victim, it says, will be smashed to pieces in the same hour when the Bolognese tears he held in his mouth and gave away in passionate love are broken in church during High Mass.
And Ivan and his brother had each found such a sudden, horrible end! —
— — — We understood Tonio’s stiff desperation. — Even if mere coincidence had carried the guilt of the sorcery’s success, what abyss of a demonic conception of love lay in this woman! — A conception so foreign and incomprehensible that we normal ones with our understanding sink as in quicksand when we venture to bring illumination to this terrible riddle of a cancered soul. — —
We sat up then half the night — we three — and listened as the old clock gnawed ticking at the time, and I searched and searched in vain for words of comfort in my head — in my heart — in my throat; — and Tonio’s eyes hung resolute on my lips: he was waiting for the lie which could still bring him oblivion. As Manuel — behind me — made the decision to open his mouth, to speak, — I knew it without turning around. Now — now he would say it. — —
A cleared throat, the scraping of a chair, — — — then the silence once more, a long endless time. We sensed, now the lie is tapping its way through the room, tapping uncertainly on the walls, like a souless phantom with no head.
Finally words — false words — withered words: “Maybe — — — — — — — — maybe — — she loves you in some other way than — — — — than the others.”
Dead silence. We sat and held our breath: — that the lie should only not die, — — it wobbled back and forth on gelatine feet and wants to fall, — — — only a few more seconds!
Slowly, slowly Tonio’s features began to change: false light of hope!
— — The lie had become flesh! —
— — Should I still tell you the ending? I shudder to dress it in words.
Let’s stand up, chills are running up and down my spine, we’ve sat too long here on this bench. And the night is so cold.
— — You see, fate looks at people as a snake, — there is no running away.
Tonio sank anew in a whirlwind of racing passion to Mercedes, he walked at her side, — her shadow. — She held him clasped with her devilish love as a polyp of the deep sea clasps its victim.
— — On a Good Friday destiny set to work: Tonio stood early in the morning, in an April storm, before the church door, with no hat, in torn clothes, hands balled to fists, trying to drive off the worshippers. —
Mercedes had written to him — and it had driven him insane; — they found in his pocket her letter in which she had asked him for a Bolognese tear.
And since that Good Friday Tonio’s mind stands in darkest night.