A girl and a man were sleeping on a narrow iron bed. The girl’s head rested in the crook of her right arm; her mouth, softly breathing, was half open; her face bore a pouting and anxious expression—that of a child who cannot understand why it is sad.
She lay turned away from the man, who slept on his back in a state of utter exhaustion, his arms loose. Tiny beads of sweat stood out on his forehead and in the roots of his curly fair hair; the handsome defiant face looked somewhat vacant. In spite of the open window the room was very hot, and the pair slept without blanket or covering. This is Berlin, Georgen-kirchstrasse, third courtyard, fourth floor, July 1923, at six o’clock in the morning. The dollar stands for the moment at 414,000 marks.
Out of the dark well of the courtyard the smells from a hundred lodgings drifted into their sleep. A hundred noises, faint as yet, entered the open window where a dingy curtain hung motionless. On the other side of the courtyard barely twenty-five feet away, a refugee child from the Ruhr suddenly screamed.
The girl’s eyelids quivered. She raised her head; her body grew rigid. The child wept quietly, a woman’s voice scolded, a man grumbled—and the girl’s head sank back, her limbs relaxed, and she slept.
In the house there was movement. Doors banged, feet shuffled across the court. There was noise on the stairs; enamel pails knocked against iron banisters; in the kitchen next door the tap was running. On the ground floor a bell rang out in the tin-stamping shed; wheels hummed, machine belts slithered.
The pair slept on....
In spite of the early hour and the clear sky, a dull vapor hung over the city. The stench of an impoverished people did not so much rise to the skies, as cling sluggishly to the houses, creep through every street, and seep through windows into every mouth that breathed.
In the neglected parks the trees let fall faded leaves.
An early main-line train from the east approached Schlesische Bahnhof—the wreck of a train, with rattling windows, broken panes and torn cushions. Its carriages clanked over the points and crossings of Stralau-Rummelsburg.
Rittmeister Joachim von Prackwitz-Neulohe—white-haired and slim, with bright dark eyes, retired cavalry captain and tenant of a manor—leaned out of the window to see where they had come to, and started back: a spark had flown into his eyes. “Miserable dust heap!” he muttered angrily, dabbing with his handkerchief.
Fires had been kindled with limp yellow paper and matches whose heads jumped off or which swank. Bad coal or damp rotten wood smoldered; adulterated gas spluttered, burning without heat; blue watery milk warmed slowly; bread was doughy or too dry; margarine, softened by the heat of the flats, smelled rancid.
The people ate their carelessly cooked food as hastily as they slipped into garments cleaned, shaken and brushed too often. Hastily they skimmed the newspapers; because of the rise in prices there had been riots, disturbances and looting in Gleiwitz and Breslau, in Frankfurt-on-the-Main and Neuruppin, in Eisleben and Dramburg, six killed and a thousand arrested and therefore public meetings had been prohibited by the government. The State Tribunal had sentenced a princess to six months’ imprisonment on the charge of being accessory to high treason and perjury—but the dollar stood at 414,000 as against 350,000 marks on the twenty-third. Salaries would be paid at the end of the month, in a week’s time. What would the dollar be then? Would there be enough to buy food for a fortnight? For ten days? Three days? Would one be able to pay for shoe leather, gas, fares? Quick, wife, here’s another 10,000 marks. Buy something with it—a pound of car rots, some cufflinks, the phonograph record “Yes, we have no bananas,” or a rope to hang ourselves with—it doesn’t matter what. Only be quick, run, don’t lose a second.
The early sun was also shining upon the manor of Neulohe. The rye stood in the fields, the wheat was ripe, oats were ready, too. Across the fields a few tractors rattled, lost in the expanse of country. Larks were warbling and trilling overhead.
Forester Kniebusch, bald but with his wrinkled brown face thickly bearded, left the heat of the open field for the wood. Walking slowly, he adjusted the rifle sling on his shoulder with one hand and with the other wiped the sweat from his brow. He walked neither happily, hurriedly, nor powerfully. He walked in his own way, the way he walked in his own forest—light-footed, soft-kneed, cautious, noticing every twig on the path, to avoid stepping on it; he wished to walk quietly.
In spite of all his caution, however, at a turn in the path he met a procession of handbarrows emerging from behind a thicket. Men and women. Their barrows were loaded with freshly cut wood; not branches, only solid trunks were good enough for them. The forester’s cheeks flushed angrily, his lips trembled, and his faded eyes lit up with a gleam of their bygone youth.
The man with the leading barrow—Bäumer, of course—gave a start. Then he went on. The barrows of stolen wood clattered past with hardly a yard to spare, the people looking straight in front or aside as if the forester were not there, motionless, breathing heavily.... Then they disappeared behind the thicket.
“You are getting old, Kniebusch.” The forester could hear the voice of Rittmeister von Prackwitz.
Yes, he thought gloomily, I am so old that I would gladly take to my bed and die. He thought it and walked on.
He was not to die in his bed, however.
Alarm bells were shrilling in Meienburg Penitentiary, the warders ran from cell to cell, the governor was telephoning the Reichswehr for reinforcements, the staff were buckling on their pistol belts and seizing rubber truncheons. Ten minutes ago No. 367 had thrown his bread ration at the warder’s feet, screaming: “I insist on having bread, regulation weight, and not this damned plaster pulp!”
And this had precipitated the uproar, the riot. Yells, shouts, wails, singing and howling came from twelve hundred cells. “Grub! Grub! We’re starving!” The little town of Meienburg crouched beneath the shining white walls of the penitentiary. That uproar penetrated into every house, through every window. And there came a frightful crash. A thousand prisoners had beaten their stools against the iron doors.
Warders and orderlies ran through the corridors, trying to calm the rebels, unlocking the cells of the well-behaved prisoners. “Be reasonable... nobody in Germany gets better food... the dollar... the Ruhr... harvest crew will be organized at once and sent to the big estates. A packet of tobacco every week, meat every day... for the well-behaved.”
Slowly the noise died down. “Harvest crews... meat... tobacco... good conduct.” The news trickled into every cell and calmed the rumbling stomachs with hopes of repletion. And there was the prospect of the open sky, perhaps of escape. The last of the rioters, those who were still goading themselves into fury, were dragged by warders to the solitary confinement cells. “Well, then, see if you can live without the plaster pulp.”
The iron doors crashed to.
In Countess Mutzbauer’s apartments in the Bayerischen district of Berlin, the lady’s maid Sophie was already awake in spite of the early hour. The room which she shared with the still-sleeping cook was so narrow that, in addition to the two iron beds, there was space only for two chairs, and she had to write her letter on the window sill.
Sophie Kowalewski had beautifully manicured hands, but they guided their pencil awkwardly. Downstroke, upstroke, pothook, comma, upstroke, downstroke... Ah, she would like to say so much! How she missed him, how slowly time went, still three years to wait and hardly six months gone! But Sophie, daughter of the overseer at Neulohe, had not learned to express her feelings in writing. If Hans had been with her, if it had been a question of talking or touching, she could have expressed anything, have made him mad with a kiss, happy with an embrace. But as things were....
She looked into the distance. How she would like to convey her feelings to him through this letter! Out of the windowpane a reflected Sophie stared at her, and involuntarily she smiled. A dark curl or two fell loosely over her forehead. Under her eyes, also, the shadows were dark. She ought to be using these hours to sleep thoroughly—but was there time for this when everything faded away, everything decayed before it was completely clear? Live for the moment, then. Today you were still alive.
However tired she might be in the mornings, her feet painful, her mouth stale from the liquors, the wine, the kisses of the night before, by evening she was again attracted to the bars. Dance, drink, and riot! There were plenty of gentlemen, flabby as the 100,000-mark notes, each fifty times a maid’s wages, stuffed in their pockets. Last night, too, she had been with one of these gentlemen—but what did it matter? Time ran, flew, galloped. Perhaps in the repeated embraces, in the features which bent over her, greedy and restless as her own, she was looking for Hans (now in prison).... But he, shining, swift, superior to them all, had no counterpart.
Sophie Kowalewski, who had escaped to the city from the hard work on the farm, was looking for—she didn’t exactly know what—something that would grip her even more. Life is unique, transient, she thought, when we die we are dead for a very long time, and when we get old—even over twenty-five—men will no longer look at us. Hans, oh Hans.... Sophie was wearing madam’s evening dress and didn’t care whether the cook saw it or not. Just as cook had her pickings from the tradespeople, so she, Sophie, lifted silk stockings and underwear from her mistress; neither could throw stones at the other.
It was nearly seven o’clock—so a quick finish. “And I remain, with passionate kisses, your ever-loving future wife, Sophie.” She did not attach any value to the word wife. She did not even know if she wanted to marry him, but she must use the word so that he would be given her letter in the penitentiary.
And the convict, Hans Liebschner, would get the letter, for he was not one of those who had been put into solitary confinement for roaring too madly. No, in spite of being scarcely half a year in prison, he had been promoted to orderly against all rules and regulations. And now he talked with particular conviction about harvest crews. He could do so. Neulohe, he knew, was not far from Meienburg, and Neulohe was the home of a nice girl called Sophie.
I’ll wangle it all right, he thought.