The Fear before the Wife
Imprisoned in a lunatic asylum, Professor Karl Barkentin writes the confession of how he came to murder his wife.
No, no, not in the duel — that would not be enough of a joy for me, not enough air. — The knife in his neck so that I could see him falling, twitching on the ground, and my being delighted by it — that would be the fitting thing.
He would also have to be lying there on that fence, on the garden fence, nodding over the dark azalias, exactly like my wife, my beautiful wife that I stabbed to death there.
But I will not arrive at this satisfaction.
I am imprisoned in this narrow room from which I can see through the solitary window only the garden which the patients themselves till. A high wall is drawn all around so that the madmen, the lunatics cannot escape. And among these pitiable men, I am held — I, the only healthy one, who is just a murderer.
If I only knew why they do not want to believe that of me.
It is true, I must surely have made a right tame, polite impression in the period of my brilliance, when I was still a university professor and teacher of literature. But what does that say? When an ape committed a murder, a real murder, for which they beheaded an innocent man. And me, they do not want to concede to me the solitary beautiful and just act of my life.
Professor Barkentin has lost his mind. A year after his wedding. But he never murdered his wife. — That is what these men have bandied about, and over that I really could lose my mind again.
But still, I’m not giving up; I still hope that they will finally believe me.
Indeed the craftiest attempts have been set in motion to convert me from my ostensibly delusional idea. Recently Professor Wächter, the famed institute director, visited me.
It is strange that this man was my friend when I still possessed a home. How often he accompanied Lilli in song. It was a beautiful picture, to see this tall, broad shouldered man with the pale Christ’s countenance sitting next to the slender, blond woman.
Had she also infatuated him?
Recently he visited me. He squeezed my hand and asked how it was going with me. I wanted to make fun of him and pretended that a doubt had occurred to me in the preceding days, as to whether I really did commit the gruesome act on my wife. He looked at me seriously, checked my pulse, then opened the window and turned back to me after a while with a gentle smile on his beautiful saintly face.
“Look, my dear friend,” he said, “I was expecting something similar all last week. Doubtless, an improvement in your condition has occurred. If you keep behaving so nice and demure now, go for walks in the garden diligently, and don’t skip the cold showers which I decreed for you, then I believe you will have progressed so far that I can provide you in a few days with the last evidence.”
“The last evidence?” I repeated with great obligingness and had to laugh inwardly at what stupidity the famed professor with the Christ’s head went in with in my case.
“Yes,” he responded, while he gauged me cautiously with his eyes. “Would you be able to receive the visit tomorrow — but, dear friend, now compose yourself — the visit of your wife, your real living wife?”
He suddenly fell silent, as if he feared having to expect a violent flare up from me. I however, although the fury was already boiling up in me, held inconspicuously onto the table and answered with a light bow, “Professor, I believe I will now withstand the sight.”
He came up to me, even closer, and looked me again sharply in the face.
These strange dark eyes have some such odd quality of finding out, such a penetrating into the depths, as if they made chase like hounds on a hunt after the thoughts which were lurking behind my forehead. In such moments, I could throw myself on the man and throttle this Christ who so harried his patients.
But I composed myself. I smiled.
“So, tomorrow,” he concluded meaningfully and strode, elegantly and erect as ever, to the door. “You will lie down to sleep on time today!”
The next day, the monstrous thing really happened. This vulgar, ridiculous deceit which they performed with me. With me, when I am no madman, but cleverer than all of them, with me, the murderer!
Towards 10 o’clock in the morning — my warder had just carried out the breakfast — Professor Wächter appeared and asked me to step up to the window. He himself stood next to me and did not let me out of his eye for a moment. Across the well tended gravel paths of the treeless, free space, a slender, blond female figure dressed in black appeared by the side of his first assistant.
That was meant to be Lilli, the dead Lilli, from whom, thank God, I had freed the world.
She did not turn a glance to the place where I remained. Of course not. For if I had been able to examine the features of this lady, who admittedly resembled my wife superficially, then I would immediately have had to see through the crude deceit. Thus, however, the apparition glided past quick as thought — haha, probably to spare me. — And Professor Wächter grasped my hand and asked sympathetically, “Now, dear friend, isn’t it true, you now see, that your wife lives and that you yourself were all the time only sick, and not depraved!”
Then I could not hold myself any longer.
I threw myself on the sofa and began laughing loudly, ever louder and louder until the professor had to surely notice that I had seen though his ridiculous tricks.
That miserable comedian!
How much sympathy, admirably acted sympathy, lay around his bearded mouth as he bent over the sofa to sit me up. Then he whispered again softly with a few assistants whom my laughing had enticed into the doorway. A few minutes later, I was alone with my warder.
They held me really to be so insane that they allowed themselves to play such a cheeky game on me.
And only one proof do I have, only one solitary proof which will convince them of my act of murder — the book which I am writing.
They are letting it happen unhindered; they probably believe I will thereby become calmer and it will serve for my amusement.
So I often sit for hours and write, my own prosecutor who delivers the glistening charges which must finally bring me to the scaffold.
“Just wait, just wait, all of you, when this book is first finished!”
I am not disturbed much.
Both my neighbours to the right and left, these poor, unfortunate creatures whose minds have gone astray, behave calmly. I believe they have respect for me.
One is a fat, massive butter merchant with coarse, puffed up facial features and an almost completely bald head. The poor man — it is ridiculous to think of it — the poor man imagines he is a great Napoleon; a distant similarity in his handwriting is meant to have formed the basis for this delusion. He stands almost the entire day with his arms crossed by the window and murmurs commands which he supposes he is giving to his marshals. He does not greet the other patients, he only sometimes acknowledges me by a light bow of his head. At the moment, he thinks he is located in the prison on St Helena. He shared that with me recently in the garden quite calmly and rationally.
My neighbour on the other side is the wife of a great merchant, a little, ugly, black-haired creature who is emaciated in every limb. Remarkable! This little ugliness considers herself a famous courtesan for whose feet the most well-known men, not just of our little coastal town but of the entire land, have languished. She calculates her adulteries in the hundreds.
As if it were not enough for one!
Yes, it is enough for one. More than enough. Only that an avenger is not always found as I was, even if I am just a physically weak, dissipated man.
Hear it! Hear it, everyone! I am a murderer! I want to be one!
Now I am happy, now I am glad!
The chains jingle, the straw rustles.
The end is here, I am prepared,
Now he enters in hangman’s clothes
And catches me — the day, it greys,
The scaffold is already erect outside.
Thank God! Now it’s clear to all,
That I in truth was a murderer;
They sit there — it was no delusion.
“Good morning, gentlemen! I did it.
Now you finally believe what I committed,
That I stabbed my wife with passion.
Have thanks that you believe my work,
My only deed! — Here, hangman, my head!”