Franziska zu Reventlow
Translated by: M. Charlotte Wolf
Artwork by Auguste Couder
He was dead, and this made him feel terribly uncomfortable. The whole thing seemed inappropriate and inconsiderate. He had always been opposed to dying in bed and had always stated with conviction that he would meet his end through suicide or accident.
Now this cursed illness had struck him down; they hadn’t even had time to get him to a hospital. He was flat on his back in his apartment; a doctor had come, then another, and a third one; a nurse, friends, acquaintances, flowers, relatives, bottles of wine—everything that will show up when a young man from a good family suddenly falls ill.
At midday, half past twelve, it was finally over, and he died. It must have been about three o’clock in the afternoon now, and he would have preferred to go to the café, as always. But that was no longer possible, for he was dead. The nurse had stayed on when everybody else left. He could hear her moving about the room, and became nervous. What was she still doing in his room? Maybe she was being indiscreet and snooping around in his belongings. How unpleasant, but what could he do? At the same time, she was humming hymns—“oh, would I had a thousand tongues.” Tactless; she was clearly feeling unobserved, otherwise she would be singing an elegy or something else more appropriate for the occasion.
Every so often the doorbell would ring; the nurse would step out, and he would hear her say, in different tones, “The young master died today at noon.” Apparently, the voices of delivery men out there—about bills. For the first time, he felt a certain satisfaction as he heard them talk about his death and he was overcome by a mischievous cheerfulness. At least he was now forever rid of these unpleasant things; they could not touch him anymore. Until recently, they had made his life rather complicated; he shuddered just thinking about it. But he couldn’t shudder anymore, he was dead.
And yes, there had been moments when he seriously contemplated shooting himself, when he felt unable to cope with the question of finances. In bygone days, he had received help from all sides, that was when he was still seen as a hopeful young man and people expected he would somehow “assert himself.” But he had never asserted himself and came to be regarded as a lost cause. And, as a lost cause, it was one’s duty to either pull oneself up by the bootstraps or discreetly disappear, which could have produced a pretty scene, but, in the end, others would have benefited more than he. And, given the current situation, these reflections were actually quite futile.
The doorbell rang again—with excitement and drama. This time the voice that negotiated with the nurse was decidedly female.
Of course, it was Maria. She seemed to putting on a real scene—oh, Maria! she couldn’t live without creating scenes and today, the day of his death—who could know if she would ever again have such an opportunity.
“What…no right…uncle…I…that’s not true…you don’t have a clue…” A deafening babble of voices ensued; other people seemed to chime in—neighbors, the landlady. Interspersed in all this, like a refrain, the softly caustic voice of the nurse, “In a house where someone has just died—a house where someone has just died…” Then things quieted down again. Maria had not got in; it would only have embarrassed him.
Sometime later, the doorbell rang again; this time reserved, determined, and subdued, as was appropriate for a house where someone has just died, and appropriate, too, for the nerves of the recently deceased. The relatives were returning from their lunch break.
“Well, my dear nurse, have you had time to recover from the night watch?”
“That is my job, madam.”
“Hasn’t the coffin arrived yet?”
“Incredible, these delivery people! When are we supposed to pay our visit?” That was the aunt.
The deceased felt an impolite twinge. What were they doing back in his room? The aunt was probably sitting on his sofa, the uncle on the armchair at his writing desk, and the cousin was smoking the cigarettes he’d left behind, a recent birthday present from Maria.
Finally, everybody seemed to have found a place to sit and the uncle started the conversation. “Hans,”—that was the cousin— “are you informed about his financial situation?”
Hans: “Why, papa?”
The uncle cleared his throat and the deceased began to feel quite amused because he recognized this throat clearing and thought the uncle might spare himself all further comments. But that is not what happened. After all, it was no longer about the living nephew, whose lifestyle could not be assessed—it was about the deceased nephew, and that changed the situation considerably.
“I mean, did the poor boy have debts?”
Hans: “Oh, yes.”
“Are they large?”
And from the sofa, the aunt added, “I should hope not…”
But Hans said, determined and confident, “Very large.”
A pause—a chair was moved, and someone paced up and down the room. Probably the uncle. Then the aunt started up again—but it was not her lucky day and she couldn’t finish a single sentence, “You’re not thinking of…”
“Of course I am, everything has to be put in order. I certainly don’t want people to be bilked out of their money or his name dragged through the mud. It is our name, too.”
Hans named a rather enormous amount. The deceased was quite surprised; he couldn’t recall if it was correct and started doing calculations, but that didn’t work too well. Meanwhile, the others seemed to be trying to maintain their composure, and then the aunt said, “But Hans, how is this possible—and you knew about this? Who, for heaven’s sake, loaned him all that money?”
“Well, people,” Hans said.
”People—who knew him better than you did.”
“Hans!” The uncle said with melancholic dignity; and the aunt said: “How can you say such a thing? After all, he grew up in our house. I was like a second mother to him, and if, in his foolishness…”
Too bad that the uncle interrupted her now, but that’s what he did.
“Let that be, Mathilde, everything shall be forgiven and forgotten. He is resting in his grave…”
That was not quite correct; the uncle was being a little hasty, but at that moment the doorbell rang. The aunt seemed to leap up from the sofa, “That’ll be the coffin—Liese, please take a look.”
So, the little cousin was there too. She had never been allowed to visit him in his room.
No, it wasn’t the coffin. Maria had sent a wreath. Too bad he couldn’t see their faces, but they seemed to be taking it in stride. After all, he was dead.
“7,000…12,000…15,000…bank drafts…interest…cutthroats.” The conversation became quite animated. Then the doorbell rang again.
The pastor was asking if they wanted a first-class burial.
Yes, of course. The costs were discussed. A first-class burial was rather expensive, and so was the coffin—oak, metal fittings—and an extra fee for the pastor’s speech.
The aunt did not argue once. But the deceased felt angry.
“And you really want to pay all that?” the aunt was saying, breathing heavily.
“I regard it as my duty”—the uncle.
“There’s still that small inheritance from his mother. Dear Klara left it up to me how to spend it on him. Who could have known the poor boy would pass away so young.”
“You could have paid his debts while he was still alive”—that was the little cousin who had not said a word until then.
A somber pause.
“Good Liese,” the deceased thought.
Yes, the inheritance, the notorious inheritance. He couldn’t care less at this point, but it still rankled. Ever since he could remember, it had been a sore point between him and his uncle. What wonderful trips he could have undertaken with it—with Maria! They had always dreamed of traveling together, on this inheritance money. Traveling in style—under assumed names, with fabulous suitcases, fairytale manicure sets and perfect clothes. Only patent leather shoes would be set out in front of their door—“on Wednesday, we’ll have breakfast in Egypt.”
And now he was dead. The creditors would get the inheritance. Maria would never see any beautiful clothes or ever have breakfast in Egypt…
The doorbell sounded.
“The coffin,” the aunt said.
“No, it’s the man from the print shop.”
“Ask him to wait a minute. We already composed a draft yesterday—when the doctor said… It must be somewhere on the desk—there!”
“‘Today, after a brief and severe illness, our dear nephew…’”
If only the coffin would arrive, the deceased thought; he was beginning to share his aunt’s impatience. He wanted peace now. There was really no pleasure in listening to the way they were tossing around sums of money.
“‘…after a brief and severe illness, passed away peacefully in the Lord…’”
“He did not pass away in the Lord,” the aunt remarked sharply.
“Jesus embraces all sinners,” came the nurse’s voice.
“Do you think so?” said Hans.
The doorbell rang again. This time, it was the coffin.