The Most Noble Order of the White Mouse
Once upon a time there was a state that — by European standards — was really quite small. The state was a constitutional monarchy. Its population consisted of one king, of course, one prime minister, one head of the security service, one minister with responsibility for the police, and one public prosecutor.
The country had just one criminal, a single political prisoner and a lone political refugee.
The army was made up of one general who commanded one colonel, a lone major, and a single captain.
Needless to say, there was just one trades union; on its books there was one builder and one specialist in demolition, one professor and one student, one academician and one completely illiterate citizen.
It was just the same in every other area of life. The country counted among its inhabitants just one alcoholic and one drug addict, one pimp and just one professional lady of the night, one AIDS sufferer and one who had gone down with syphilis.
Next to the only individual in the country to own a really luxurious villa lived the only homeless man — in a large rubbish skip. The country did indeed have some ethnic minorities — the census returns reported a single Jew, one Tatar, one Pole and a person from the Caucasus region, one Russian and a lone Albanian. So it was with sexual minorities: just one gay man and one lesbian.
The appropriate forces of law ‘n’ order – no more than one man in each, of course — kept a close watch on the country’s only paedo, as well as on the one guy who had a secret fondness for bouts of bestiality. The same strict balance could also be observed in the arts. The country was quite happy with its only composer, it needed no more than one artist, one actor and one writer. One journalist wrote for the one newspaper. There was employment for just the one architect.
There were — it should perhaps be pointed out at this stage — vague rumours circulating to the effect that not everything had always been quite so perfect in the country.
For example, people were saying that apparently there were at one time several professors delivering lectures to several students, and then these students got it into their heads to shut themselves in one of the lecture halls together with their professors and draft an inflammatory petition.
But that’s another story. Our story took place in a country where there was just one of everything. There was proof aplenty that this is indeed just how things were; it was all there in the secret reports, the bugged phone conversations, the photographs made by a hidden camera, the letters that were steamed open and all the audio and video materials that were examined. The author used them all to reconstruct the events that he describes here.
Once a day the Head of the Security Service would appear before the King to make his report. He was a short, stout man with a boxed beard, looking more like a doctor with a lucrative practice and a penchant for fine wining and dining than a representative of his deadly serious profession.
His early morning reports always stressed the stability of the situation in the country and the total absence of negative tendencies of any kind. Everything was permanently on the rise – the volume of industrial production, the level of education and the consumption of beneficial foodstuffs (including alcohol). The birth rate was increasing and – in order to ensure the maintenance of stability – the mortality rate was keeping up with it.
Normally the King would stop his head of security without hearing out his full report. However, on one occasion he broke with well-established tradition.
The fact of the matter was that the King had ordered the country’s only jeweller to fashion a badge for an Order of Chivalry he had founded, the only such Order in the kingdom, and one that would have only one Knight.
The Order was called The Most Noble Order of the White Mouse. Only a foreigner totally unschooled in the country’s history would be puzzled by such a name. Every native-born citizen had been told while still at school that the white mouse was the ancient symbol of their country’s statehood. Historical records prove that the rodent with the high-pitched squeak and long tail first appeared on the state coat of arms over five hundred years ago, during the reign of one of the present King’s distant and most illustrious forebears. It was his customary practice to conclude all his decrees with the traditional formula: “and as for the people of my country, they are to sit quietly, without rumour, as does the church mouse before the broom that comes to sweep it away”. The only thing to have changed on the state coat of arms over the centuries was the actual colour of the mouse. From originally being grey it gradually acquired ever brighter hues, until – in the last century – it turned a most noble white, a colour known in heraldry as argent, signifying purity, goodness and independence.
The badge of the Order lay before the King on a tiny pillow of purple silk, with its enamels and diamonds gleaming merrily.
As was his normal practice, the King did not bother to listen to his security chief’s report right to the very end, but on this occasion he did not dismiss him to go off and do his job. Instead the King asked him who he thought should be the holder of the highest award the country could bestow. The boss of the country’s most important agency scratched his boxed beard a few times in what may have been a sign of slight embarrassment, He had long been a staunch ally of the King’s and doubtless knew full well who actually deserved the honour more than anyone else, but nevertheless decided to hold his peace.
Either the King had not yet finally decided on the individual most deserving of the award, or was still entertaining certain doubts, because he was scrutinizing the list of inhabitants of his country very closely. He was so deeply immersed in thought that he even shifted his wig slightly and his bald patch began to shine in the rays of the early morning sun – although not as brightly as the badge of the new Order. It has to be said here that, in spite of the bald patch, the King was still quite a young man, physically attractive and full of strength. He played tennis regularly and, donning a bullet-proof vest in order to lose weight, would go jogging round his residence.
At length the King tore his eyes away from the document and gave voice to his thoughts:
“What if we were to install our Writer as the Knight Commander First Class of our Order?”
The security chief stroked his beard again. The question was now beginning to take on the kind of precision that he loved; it made him feel like an eel in a field of peas covered in the dew of early morning.
“That would be an excellent choice, Your Majesty,” said the owner of the boxed beard, “but...”
The King raised an eyebrow, and the security chief continued speaking in a firm voice:
“there isn’t a single Reader in the country”.
“Is that right?” – the monarch couldn’t believe it. He took up the list again and, sure enough, he found one Astrologer, one Cannibal, one Fascist Thug and one Village Idiot, but there really wasn’t a Reader.
The inhabitants of the country had every reason to believe that the King’s resolve could not be shaken once he had made up his mind.
So it was that the next words the security chief heard were these: “What makes you think that that has any bearing on the matter? After all, we intend to bestow the award on the Writer, not the Reader. And in any case the Writer presumably reads his own works, at least while he’s writing them.
The security chief glanced at the badge of the Order, and once again decided to keep his own counsel.
“I’ll invite the Writer to supper this evening”, said the King.
That evening the King and the Writer sat facing each other across an exquisitely laid table. They were both about the same age, somewhere between forty and fifty – an age when men are in their prime. The King wore a wig of chestnut hair, whereas the Writer’s well-coiffed head was covered in natural hair of the same colour, flecked here and there with noble touches of grey.
The Baroque interior of the chamber used for intimate suppers with special guests was illumined by large delicately-scented candles in antique silver candelabras. The hearth exuded fragrant warmth. An elegant marble side table stood close by, and on it lay the badge of the Most Noble Order of the White Mouse awaiting its Knight Commander.
The feeling of well-being and comfort that permeated the whole room was enhanced by the presence of a beautiful young woman who was also seated at the table but at some distance from the King and the Writer, so that she could both hear what they were talking about and lose the thread if the host and his guest chose to lower their voices. Her thick fiery red curls tumbled down freely over her bare shoulders, in a quite miraculous way complementing the deep aquamarine of her eyes The King diplomatically addressed the woman as ‘milady’, leaving it to his visitor to guess what her real status was, bearing in mind that the King had been a widower for many years.
“I’m hoping that you will make me a present of your most recent books”, said the King.
There was nothing insulting in the familiar way in which the King spoke to the Writer; he spoke in exactly the same way to all the people who lived in the country he ruled, and everyone was accustomed to it, just as they were to the regular failure of the harvest in summer and the poor state of the roads in winter.
“No, Majesty, that’s something I won’t do”, replied the Writer, draining his glass of Bordeaux with relish.
“And why is that?” the King inquired, with no hint in his voice that the Writer’s response had affected him in any way. He gave a sign to the servant to fill the Writer’s glass.
“It’s been a long time since any of my books were published”, answered the Writer. He raised his glass, looking in turn at the Monarch and the red-haired woman.
A question was forming on the tip of the King’s tongue — since when have none of the Writer’s manuscripts been turned into published books? — but His Majesty was endowed with the qualities of a true statesman and so what the Writer actually heard was:
“But all the same, you are still a writer, aren’t you?”
“Maybe I am”, replied the Writer. “I do still write, but what I write is not for publication”.
“That’s even better”, and the King was clearly pleased with the direction the conversation was taking. “That is exactly how a true writer should live. As the Ancient Romans put it: Habent sua fata libelli. Books have their own destinies. I am glad not to have been mistaken in you. I intend now to sign the decree admitting you as Knight Commander to the Most Noble Order of the White Mouse”.
These words were uttered by the King in a solemn tone. He raised his glass, expecting his guest to do the same. The Writer was, however, in no hurry.
“I do have to tell you in strictest confidence”, and here the King lowered his voice, “that your detractors have not been idle. They have passed me a list of my country’s inhabitants, if you know what I mean, and they have discovered formal grounds...”
“I would really like to know what they might be,” the Writer inquired, also speaking in hushed tones and sipping his wine through clenched teeth. “If, of course, it isn’t a state secret”.
“What kind of secret could there possibly be! According to this list it seems that there is not a single Reader in the country.”
“Now that’s a weighty argument”, said the Writer, and the tone of his voice conveyed a well-hidden note of joy. Or it may well equally be that there was no joy whatsoever in his voice.
The King burst into loud guffaws, and his laughter sounded completely genuine.
“Argument, you say! Here you are – a writer. Before you lies the whole of Eternity. Pour us more wine”, here the King turned to the servant who was standing unnoticed by the window and gradually metamorphosing into one of the characters of the historical scenes depicted on the old Baroque wallpaper that decorated the walls of the chamber.
The servant unglued himself from the wall, served the King and his guest, and then turned to the red-haired woman who was taking no part in the conversation, but clearly listening to it intently.
“What if Eternity means not the endlessness of time, but the total absence of it?”, said the Writer without shifting his gaze from the red-haired woman’s face and half-concealed bosom. “Perhaps Eternity can only be measured in terms of a human life”.
The King popped an olive into his mouth.
“Those words alone mark you out as truly worthy of the Order”.
“But, Your Majesty, there really isn’t a single Reader in your list”.
“Writer, you surprise me. The list has... for example, no one designated as Subject. So what follows from that?”
The Monarch was pleased with this sudden twist in the conversation, and began to elaborate his thought further:
“Among all the inhabitants of our country there is just one King and one Writer. At the same time there isn’t a single Subject and there’s no Reader. What do we conclude? Just this – that you and I are in some way the equals of each other. You have something of a king in you, and I have something of a writer. I suggest we drink to that.
“Your wine is truly excellent”, and the Writer raised his glass slightly.
The King also raised his glass, and screwing up one eye, looked through it at his guest.
“You surely know that the world changes according to how we observe it. Taking a sober view of things is just one of the possible ways. The ancient Germanic tribes had a point when they discussed all important issues twice: once when they were sober and once again when they were slightly drunk.”
“I can’t quarrel with that. A philosopher I once knew said that sobriety is the mother of a philistine bourgeois lifestyle, whereas art and learning are born of the union between a drunken slut and a starving ascetic”.
“Well put indeed”, and the King was clearly in agreement with what the Writer had said. “I too once knew a philosopher. As I recall, the two of us talked at length about life and death. Memento mori... But let’s not dwell on such matters before the main course has been brought to the King’s table”.
At this point the King turned to the woman for the first time:
“My dear, kindly ask them to bring in the meat”.
The flame-haired woman stood up and walked across the room, trailing just the slightest hint of exquisite perfume behind her. The magnificence of her hair was matched by the grace of her movement, which in turn was accentuated by a beautifully cut dress of green damask.
“I didn’t catch your reply”, and the King turned to the Writer whose gaze was still following the woman’s ample thighs and ballerina-like waist encircled by a golden belt.
The woman soon reappeared in the chamber, followed by two servants bearing a huge silver platter of roast lamb with plums which they placed on the table.
“Your reply?”, the King reminded the Writer that he was still waiting, as he helped himself to some of the lamb. His eyes gleamed with the joy and anticipation of the true gourmet. “I can really recommend this. It is the traditional dish of our dynasty – ever since the 16th century when the royal army smashed the hordes of our sworn comrade Grand Duke Vavan and captured both him and all his rams. Malicious people say that the victors then tasted the flesh of the Grand Duke’s roasted hams. Of course, that’s nothing but a vicious rumour put about by the people we defeated, so as to cast a shadow on our civilised European nation”.
The Writer looked suspiciously at the meat and washed down his initial impressions — ones formed by his ears rather than his taste buds — with a glass of wine.
“I seem to remember,” and the Writer began to speak while putting a few plums on his plate, “yes, I do remember that it was one of the French classical writers who said that a man is what he eats. Stendhal was very fond of omelettes. E.T.A. Hoffman used to write his scary stories with a piece of rye bread with cumin tied to his nose so that he could sniff it while writing. He also did his writing when seriously drunk, and the more he drank, the higher his fantasy soared. Lev Tolstoy liked fresh cucumbers straight from the cellar. And then there’s that Russian painter Sovrasov, you know the one I mean, Majesty, the one who painted that picture called “The rooks have returned”; he used to eat next to nothing, just drank vodka and ate cranberries...”
“People say that the rooks in our country don’t migrate any more”. With these words the King put an end to the Writer’s gastronomical tirade.
“I’ve noticed it too”, the Writer agreed.
“And how do you explain it?” A sudden note of suspicion had crept into the King’s voice.
“I have no idea what ornithologists think about it”, replied the Writer cautiously; he had obviously sensed the change in the King’s mood. Out of the corner of his eye he squinted at the woman and noticed how tense she had become while listening to the subtle shifts in meaning and direction of the conversation.
“What have ornithologists got to do with it?”, and there was growing anger in the way in which the King was fidgeting in his chair. “I want to know what people think about it in the circles in which you move”.
“You surprise me somewhat, Your Majesty”.
“You don’t have to answer. I already know the joke perfectly well. The rooks are afraid that they will be shot down by the anti-aircraft guns on the frontier, or else they won’t be let into the country again when they return from wherever it is they’ve spent the winter”.
“What is it you want, then, milord Writer? I am awarding you the highest honour our country can bestow, and here you are jumping and wriggling like a fish in a frying pan!”
The beautiful flame-headed woman went as pale as a ghost, something that the Writer’s sharp eye caught immediately. The candidate for membership of The Most Noble Order of the White Mouse ate a plum, took a sip of wine and said:
“I have four rules: never believe anyone, never be afraid of anything, never beg for anything and never thank anyone for anything.”
The King’s attention was focussed entirely on chewing. It looked as though he was trying to chew his irritation at the same time as the piece of lamb in his mouth. Indeed, once he had swallowed the meat and washed it down with some Burgundy, he managed to sound quite benevolent when he did begin to speak:
“We Kings are exceptions to the rules. I hope that it is much the same with writers. But, my dear chap, Kings also have rules. I could for example install myself as a member of the Order, but that isn’t in my rule book. And I can thoroughly recommend the Beaujolais. Do have a glass.”
“With pleasure... But facts are facts — there’s no hiding the fact that I don’t have one single Reader.”
“And I don’t have a single Subject.”
“That’s not the same thing at all. Your Majesty, you can issue a decree making all the people who live in this country your subjects — with the exception of the diplomatic corps, of course.”
“Just listen to me, Writer,” — the wine, the plentiful food and the warmth of the open fire had made the King slightly tipsy, and he was beginning to drag out his words — “I could with just as much success issue a decree making all these people your Readers. The problem is that there are certain things I can’t settle with decrees. What kind of subjects would I make with them? A true Subject takes pride in his Monarch. He names his children after the Monarch out of pure respect.”
“I’ve seen your portrait hanging on the walls of lots of houses.” A cautious note had crept into the Writer’s voice; now and again he glanced quickly at the woman who was clearly disturbed by the direction the conversation was taking.
“I’ve seen your portrait,” repeated the King in a mocking voice. “Res suis vocabulis nominare!” Just say what you mean!”
“Your Majesty has a fondness for Latin...”
“It’s the result of my education!” The King obviously wasn’t going to say any more on the subject. His face was flushed and his tongue had by now loosened up completely. “Do you know who it was who persuaded me to change our Statute Book? Change it by including a paragraph about the abolition of the death penalty and about the centre of the European continent being in our country? He was the first to hang a portrait of me in his office. And then he was the first to betray me. He left a letter for me before he ran off through the sewers and across the frontier. Have you heard what he wrote in the letter? What am I thinking about, how could you have heard? My first Prime Minister wrote that he had never loved me. That even if the centre of Europe or even of the whole bloody Universe was not just in my country, but right inside my backside and even if that was what the Statute Book said, he wouldn’t even squat next to me to have a crap...”
“Your Majesty, there’s a lady present.”
“Where? Oh, her... She already knows it all anyway. Now, Writer, what have you got to say about the letter?”
“What the author actually says is a matter for his conscience, but I will say this: he’s got a way with words. He bites quite hard.”
On hearing these words the woman shuddered almost imperceptibly.
“That’s the whole point,” the King went on. “Can’t you have a guess at who might have helped him?”
The Writer looked pensive as he took a sip of wine, but said nothing. The King, it seemed, was not expecting to hear anything in reply. He finished chewing his olive, spat out the stone into the palm of his hand and flicked it into the fire.
“Let’s not beat about the bush.” The King’s voice was quite calm again, as if his recent emotional outburst had been no more than a piece of theatricality. “Nobody reads you and nobody loves me. I can offer you favourable terms. I will be your Reader...
“And I am to be your Subject?”
You’re wrong. You will be my favourite writer. I reckon we’ll have a good time together. We’ll meet here, by the fire. Eternity, you say, is the absence of time, So what, in that case, is Death? That philosopher I once knew said that Death was simply Nothing, but when we are eventually — well — there, we will actually feel this Nothing. So, to cut a long story short – you agree.”
The King swallowed the rest of his wine and ordered the dessert to be brought in. The servant who had the looks of a hero from a scene on the wallpaper left the chamber silently.
“Your Majesty...” The Writer began to speak, and there wasn’t a hint of agreement in his voice.
The King raised his hand to stop him.
“Not another word! Please excuse me, I have to leave for a moment. You should also bear in mind that the highest award our state can bestow will allow you to publish your books.”
The door closed behind the King, and the Writer looked across the table at the woman. The expression on his face revealed a whole gamut of emotions — he was clearly enthralled by her, and at the same hoping that she would be able to advise him.
The flame-haired woman gave a slight, almost imperceptible nod of the head. Was it a warning or a come-on? It could be taken either way. After this wordless dialogue the writer stood up, advanced a few steps towards her and handed her his visiting card.
“What’s your name?”
He was going to say something else but the woman put a finger to her lips, swiftly took the card and hid it from view. A movement of her eyes told the writer to return to his seat. He had just about managed to sit down and pick up his glass when the host of the supper appeared in the doorway.
“Here I am again!”, he announced in a merry voice, waving his mobile telephone. “Were you bored without me? As they used to say back in the days of St Thomas Aquinas, and a lot later than that as well, ‘solus cum sola non cogitabuntur orare “Pater noster”’, when you leave a man alone with a woman, the one thing they’re not going to do is say the Lord’s Prayer together. You can kill me for it, but I do love Latin. Oh, the clarity of thought, each phrase like a finely-cut gem! And, by the way, where’s our dessert?”
The red-faced servant lad, trying desperately to avoid his master’s eye, placed a bowl of fruit on the table together with crystal coupe glasses of whipped cream on tall stems.
“Now get out!” barked the King. “Back to the kitchen!”
He settled himself in his chair, took a sip of wine, and continued speaking, just as though he had never left the chamber:
“The philosopher I used to discuss questions of life and death with for some reason considered that death was a blue-coloured substance. And indeed, there were times when he would come out with neat aphorisms that he made up himself. What about this one, eh? People are afraid of drowning even when they’re being ferried across the river Styx. Not bad, eh? So, writer, what about you? You wouldn’t be afraid, would you?”
“What do you mean by that, Your Majesty?”
The Writer couldn’t help but notice that the expression on the woman’s face was one of alarm.
“Oh, nothing special, it just came back to me... I remember the time when he went to the bath-house with a friend of his... Funny, isn’t it, how you start thinking of philosophers when night is coming on?”
The King took another sip of wine from his glass and went on, although his words had no obvious connection with what he had just said:
“Sometimes you have to be a Kant for the sake of some blonde’s breasts. Or Hegel because of some brunette’s pretty backside.”
What the King said next confirmed the impression that his thoughts were indeed travelling along a tortuous, almost incomprehensible path.
“Tell me, Writer, do you have a wife?”
“Unfortunately yes or unfortunately no?”
“That reminds me of the old saying: a bad wife is not the cause of philosophy, she’s the result of it. I’ve never had a wife. Maybe because I’m not a philosopher.”
“What about children? Do you have any?”
“Probably I do.”
“You old goat!”, the King roared a laugh of approval. “As one of your fellow writers once observed: he knows women and believes in their purpose. Then, once again breaking any chain of logic in the conversation, he asked “Did you by any chance go to the loo on your way here?”
“As far as I remember, no, I didn’t,” replied the Writer. He looked at the woman and, seeing that her eyes were sparkling, continued enthusiastically, ‘What, Your Majesty, are some state secrets being kept there?”
“Somebody stuck something on the wall. Just think of it, you get yourself sitting comfortably on the loo, you raise your eyes and what do you see? A portrait of yourself with something absolutely idiotic written on it, ‘Hands off our children!’ I don’t give a damn about their children!”
The King drained the remainder of the wine in his glass. The Writer followed his example, although the King had given him no sign that he should do so. There was a marked change in the relaxed atmosphere that the apparently light-hearted banter had created. The King’s voice, in spite of the amount of wine he had drunk, was completely sober. It sounded firm, harsh even.
“So, here we are then. I am happy to inform you that you now have a Reader. I asked my Head of Security to take a look at what you’ve been writing on the quiet. That settles one of your reservations, doesn’t it? I propose we raise our glasses to your Reader and your gong!”
The woman was hanging on to every word.
The Writer did not bother to raise his glass; quite the reverse, his face took on a satisfied expression.
“I can accept your proposal only partially.”
The King’s hand froze just as he was putting his glass to his lips, and he raised his eyes.
“I foresaw this turn of events, Your Majesty. Right now my manuscripts are already abroad. The Writer may not have a reader, but he does have a devoted friend.”
“Ah, yes, a devoted friend — it’s invaluable to have one in reserve,” and the irony in the King’s voice was unmistakable. “I can see that you are an incorrigible optimist.”
“Your Majesty, the only difference between an optimist and a pessimist is the date when they predict that the world will come to an end.”
“Quite well put, but it doesn’t actually change anything. If your manuscripts really are abroad, you’ve got yourself a foreign reader. Even better. A fine example of our country’s literary achievements. I’ll put my signature right away to the decree installing you as the Knight Commander of the Most Noble Order of the White Mouse.
The Writer continued to maintain a calm exterior. What betrayed his anxiety were his lips, more closely compressed than usual. He seemed to be well aware that the time for joking had passed.
“I may well not turn up for the installation ceremony. There’ll be a scandal.”
“Do I care? There won’t be any scandal. Our newspaper will publish both my decree and the news that the installation ceremony has already taken place here in the palace. In a cosy, one might almost say family, atmosphere. You gave a speech of thanks to the government and especially to the King for their concern for the well-being of our national literature. Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur. The world wants to be deceived, so let it be deceived. I will order the paper not to mention how I had scarcely left the room to go for a pee when you began to flirt – with some success, as I see – with my lady friend here.”
The glass in the redhead’s hand began to tremble and a few drops of wine spilled on the white tablecloth, forming an intricate pattern that was somehow reminiscent of a familiar constellation.
“So much for the gratitude of my subjects!”, said the King, with a note of suppressed sorrow in his voice. “I used to think of her as the best possible proof that the women of our country are the most beautiful in the world. Her eyelids were for me the wings of her eyes, her lips were the pathway to the Garden of Eden. I called her the embodiment of true womanhood and steadfast loyalty. It turns out that, mixed in with all that, she is the embodiment of treachery. Come here...”
She started towards the King, but stopped just by the Writer’s shoulders.
The King, however, seemed to have forgotten about her existence. He dug his silver spoon around in the crystal glass of whipped cream and changed the topic:
“There’s one thing you haven’t taken into account, Writer. I meant it when I said that people of your profession are like us kings. But there is one crucial difference. Kings deal with real people, while you writers deal only with the phantoms that your imagination conjures up. Some bloody fool once said that writers are the engineers of the human soul. No, it’s rulers like me who are the engineers of the human soul. I found it amusing to watch how you tried to slither out of the situation in which you find yourself... But I am a noble and merciful ruler. I will not only award you with the Order of the White Mouse, I’ll make a present to you of this woman into the bargain. You can take her with you. There’s not a drop of blue blood flowing in her veins, but she’s a right royal screw. And if you compare her to Our Late Queen,” and here the King raised his eyes to the Heavens, “she’s a great deal better.”
The Writer stood up.
“I cannot permit you to speak of a lady in that way!”
“Keep calm, Writer” – and the King’s voice sounded tired – “You wouldn’t want the body of a beautiful young woman to be found in the sewers tomorrow, would you? Especially since she’s a right royal screw”, – the King took obvious pleasure in repeating his remark. “No, of course you wouldn’t, and I understand you completely. Examples of womanhood like her are our national treasure.”
The woman pressed herself closer to the Writer, who put his arm around her bare, trembling shoulders.
“I have nothing to say to you, Your Majesty, except this... You know, the books writers create are like children –they are both born of woman. May we go now?”
“Go, and remember – you are Our only Writer and the only Knight Commander of the Most Noble Order of the White Mouse, and will therefore always be under Our care and protection.”
“What about her?” – the Writer took the woman by the hand.
“She is in your care. You are a strong man, are you not? In some ways you are almost the equal of a king. But there is one significant difference. A king is better placed to concern himself with the well-being of a writer than a writer is of a king. Do you recall what the Spanish King replied to his French colleague’s question about how Cervantes was?.. Go, and may God be with you.”
Left alone, the King sat for a moment deep in thought, then ate a peach with great relish and called for his Chief of Security to be brought in.
The man with the face of a kindly family doctor who enjoyed his food and drink was waiting outside the door. He stood two leather suitcases next to the fireplace, took out his notebook and prepared himself to make a report at this unusual hour. The King stopped him with a wave of his hand.
“Does the writer live alone?”
“He certainly does.”
“That’s good. A man can concentrate on eternity when he does not have to worry himself about trifling family matters. By the way, the award ceremony has already taken place. There will an announcement in tomorrow’s paper. The Writer made a speech of thanks.”
“Not to have done so would have been the height of ingratitude,” – the Chief of Security immediately hit upon the right note for his reaction.
“Especially since as an addition to his gong he was given a bonus in the shape of the King’s former mistress. But you know that already, don’t you? Take a seat.”
The King poured a glass of wine for his Security Chief and pushed a plate towards him.
“Where are the manuscripts?”
Chewing a piece of cold lamb, the Chief of Security turned his eyes towards the well-stuffed suitcases that he had brought with him.
“Were there any problems with the friend?”
“We had a good heart-to-heart and then I sent him off to the Writer five minutes before I telephoned the Writer with your invitation. The scribbler was put on his guard at once, of course. An hour later our friend left in a taxi with these two suitcases. The only thing is that they both have coded locks. For purely aesthetic reasons I decided not to touch them. You can proceed to deflower them with your own hands.”
“Was it really so difficult not to ask for the codes?”
“We didn’t have time,” – and a slight note of disquiet crept into the Security Chief’s voice.
“What do you mean, you didn’t have time?” the King asked. He was clearly suspicious.
“We were working against the clock,” said the owner of the boxed beard, seeking to avoid a direct answer. He then changed the subject. “Your Majesty, there is one significant factor: the Writer had no time for computers and always wrote with a simple ballpoint pen.”
“I have always liked people of a conservative mindset,” the King observed. “They are easier to understand. They cause less trouble. But nothing is perfect in this world. These types are weighed down by their old-fashioned ideas, so they still manage to cause enough trouble. How do you see the rest of the story unfolding?”
The Security Chief tore a sheet out of his notebook; there was writing on both sides. The King quickly read through what was written there and frowned. He was not pleased.
“You’ve been working too hard. This first suggestion of yours is quite unacceptable. So is the second. And the third. There will be rumours. As for your fourth suggestion... Have you gone completely out of your mind? I am today going to pin the medal on your chest, and you yourself ... By the way, I have already signed a secret decree. In actual fact you are the one to be made Knight Commander of the Most Noble Order of the White Mouse.”
The Chief of Security sprang to his feet with what was for him probably unusual speed and stood stiff and upright, with true military bearing.
The medal of the Order of the White Mouse was still lying on its cushion of silk, its gleaming diamonds infused with the red of the flames in the hearth. The King, following the example of his late night guest, also rose from his chair and pinned the medal right over his Security Chief’s heart.
“Are you going to tell me now that you intend to kill yourself tomorrow?”
The King resumed his seat and turned over the page with his Security Chief’s proposals
“Ah, now, that’s better... Yes indeed... A good old method that we tried and tested on the Philosopher. Only this time it won’t simply be a matter of a long-term period of absence on business. No, let’s make it a long-term period of absence to allow the Writer to hone his creative skills. You know, Berlin, Rome, Paris, that sort of thing. What else? Yes, the official announcement for the press must make it clear that the state is paying for everything. And that, after all, will be the honest truth.”
“When are we going to send him off, Your Majesty?”
The King had a ready reply:
“I think that the best time is right now, this very night.” The King looked at the old wall clock with two putti. “Let’s say, at one o’clock. You will personally prepare all the necessary papers for his departure.”
“What about the woman?”
“So that he won’t feel sad...”
“Will you really allow it?”
“Why, you old sinner!”
“Your Majesty, was it not you who said that sins are no more than deeds worth remembering?”
“Think of it, she will still be nice and warm from his embrace.”
“Yes, there is a certain charm in it. At the same time we can give the writer a little show to watch. A little something for the road, so to speak...”
For some reason the King did not seem pleased by these last words. He pointedly looked at the clock. The two halberd-shaped hands were preparing to meet at the number XII.
When he heard the Security Chief’s Mercedes drive off, the King ordered his Police Minister to be summoned at once.
The country’s no. 1 Policeman was the complete opposite of the Security Chief. He was tall, stiff and so closely shaven that his face shone. The King gave him a hearty handshake, sat him down at the table and poured him a glass of wine.
“No, nothing has happened,” the King said in response to the questioning look on the Police Minister’s face. “It’s simply that I wanted to sit and have a chat with one of the two men in this country I trust as I trust myself. The other one is my Security Chief, and he’s just left. Affairs of state, you know. There are still a few nuances that we did not have time to discuss fully. I won’t keep you long. Just an hour and you’ll be back in the arms of your good lady wife, or whoever else you choose. In the meantime have a good drop of Burgundy to cheer yourself up. True, the lamb’s gone cold.”
The Police Minister drained his glass, wiped his lips with a serviette and surveyed the table.
“I can recommend the elk sausage,” said the King.
The Chief Policeman put a few tasty bits and pieces on a plate and started to enjoy his snack. Meanwhile the King sat down at his Empire-style desk and began to write something hastily. A few minutes later the Chief of Police read these words on the piece of paper placed before him: ‘You will not be getting any sleep tonight. Reliable reports have been received that an audacious, cynical murder is going to be committed at one o’clock tonight in our capital city. Let us talk further in the palace park. Even the walls of royal residences have ears’.
The Minister poured himself a glass of Burgundy, concentrated on drinking it and stood up. The King took him by the arm and, when they were already standing in the doorway, added this to what he had written:
“God lives in some people, the Devil in others, and in a third group you find nothing but microbes and intestinal worms.”
Fifteen minutes later the King was back in the guest dining room. He poured himself some wine but didn’t drink. He went over to the leather suitcases that his Chief of Security had brought, weighed them both in his hands and chose the heavier of the two. He placed it on the mantelpiece, fiddled a bit with the combinations and – assuring himself that it was indeed locked solid – took out a large hunting knife from one of the desk drawers. He tested it for sharpness, found it satisfactory for purpose and drove the tip of the knife into the suitcase. The knife neatly cut all around the edge of the light brown leather.
The suitcase was packed with simple folders tied up with ribbons. The King shifted his heavy green silk armchair closer to the fire, placed his glass of wine on the mantelpiece and put the uppermost folder on his knees. Without undue haste he untied the white ribbons, but suddenly flung the folder into the fire in a fit of rage. It was the same story with the second folder. The second suitcase he opened by making crosscuts on the side with the knife and tearing the leather apart with his hands. The result was exactly the same.
At this point the author of these lines faces a quandary. The sources which he has used hitherto begin to contradict each other; what is more, the differences between the variant readings were so fundamental that it was impossible to establish which of the two possible variants was the correct one.
According to the first variant the folders contained nothing but pure, white paper. According to the second, the paper in the folders also resembled the purity of virgin snow, but in the middle of the sheet at the top of each folder there were three words written in a fine calligraphic hand: ‘Go fuck yourself.’
Once they have had the opportunity to analyse all the information presented here, readers will be able to work out for themselves how the story should continue.
Translation © 2015
18 December 2015