Anton Gudnatz earns a tidy profit as a middleman profiteering in the German black market after World War I, while poor women and children starve, but will his conscience catch up with him and save him before it is too late?
Even in the world of grafters, moral gods still rule sometimes, yes, even the high heavenly one wins control with shimmering breath over such an ignoble person, even against the will of the person affected. The whole world would have been able to learn that to its comfort in the days of the expiring year of suffering 1919, if the man for whom this fate was prepared had been someone other than Anton Gudnatz.
In — I want to leave it indefinite — in a town in Silesia in the middle of the war, after he had been shot up quite badly before Warsaw, he had begun such a small business as is inaugurated with winks, carried on with greasing, does not die through bribes, blesses brazenness and deceit, yes, even tolerates theft. The little business began with twenty pounds of flour in his rucksack and a chicken in his handkerchief, and with double teams of horses through the night, bought officials and distinguished gentlemen, it sailed into the heights and once it was properly flourishing, entire wagons disappeared from the goods trains as if they were screwnuts and every person in authority in that town and the surrounding region blessed in secret the discretion of Anton Gudnatz, because he kept them alive, even if he himself and his receivers did not care for the thousands of children of the poorest who wasted away in hunger, and did not see the countless men and women who did not bring it upon themselves to steal from the mouths of other indigent people the morsels which they needed.
Before the war, Gudnatz had run a grocery store which during its most rampant period would have taken up a chaff basket, and his life, when it was going well, was preserved with a taler, so that someone preferred to get a beating than lend fifty pfennigs to Gudnatz and his wife.
And now he possessed a house in S—, had bought his sons a business in the district of L—, and if he tallied up the balance in his various savings accounts and his cash possessions, it amounted to a good quarter of a million. To count, to think over what should be done with the money, to build up plans in all the clouds and then, when he was tired of the game, to lie in the dark and watch the dance of colourful, gold and silver balls above him, that was what the actual happiness of Anton Gudnatz consisted of, if you did not count the hidden bottle of cognac which was never empty and the cigar which was never allowed to go out. For Gudnatz thereby differentiated himself from the other grafters: he only splurged in his mind, driving with two stallions and a coachman up front to his chamber-like rooms, which were in a rear house, amidst the junk from his impoverished times.
In the last few years, when the sacrifice for national need had moved ever closer, when he had lifted his contributions from his savings accounts, when his treasure was swelling more and more in stockings, in mattresses, in old boots, he carried on this game with colourful, imaginative thoughts more fervently and longer into the night, with more copious backing of the bottle than usual, and between the imperious “whoa” and “giddyup” that he shouted at his dreamt stallions, and the “ass” that he shouted at his imaginary coach driver, his wife heard him grumble many nasty things which always began with “damned swine” and ended with an audible gob of spit which he conveyed beside himself so that it smacked just so.
And once, when he was lying thus, tired and overstrung from the imagined coach driving, upset over the shamelessness and ingratitude of the state, which only barely existed through him and his like, a little dazed by the spiritual drenching from the bottle, when he was lying thus, completely in the dark and listening to the striking of the hour of the neighbouring church tower and saying just then in thought, “ten, eleven,” and at the same time thinking about what he would begin now if his sourly and arduously earned profits were taken away, such an agitation came over Anton Gudnatz that he had to sit up. His wife was sleeping, and it sounded as if she were blowing on soup calmly without break, so that he angrily wanted to wake her. But just as he had gathered in his lungs the breath for the shout, the front door below opened and steps came cautiously up the stairs, paused on the second floor, and then began to climb the stairs to his room.