We were sitting in the lobby of the big hotel, in one of those halls in which it always looks as though it is in a film – that’s all that films do, anyway. It was twenty-five past five; my partner was a neurologist, his surgery had finished, and we were drinking weak tea. It was so expensive that it would have been more correct to say, we took the tea.
“You see”, he said, “it is just a matter of practice. They come and go – men, women, Germans and foreigners, guests, visitors… and no one knows them. I know them. One glance – nice, if you have dabbled a little in psychology. I flick through people like open books.”
»What do you read?« I asked him.
»Interesting little chapters.« He looked around with his eyes screwed up. »No mysteries here – I know them all. Just ask me.«
»Alright, for example, what is he, over there?«
»The elderly gentleman… with the sideboards. No, not him… yes, him… «
»Him?« He didn’t hesitate for an instant.
»That is… the man bears, as you see, a striking resemblance to the old Kaiser Franz Joseph. You could even say that he is a faithful copy of the Kaiser – he looks like… he looks like an old deliverer of money orders, whom the people think is kind because he brings them their postal orders. His bearing – his affectations… I think the man used to be a courtier in Vienna – quite a high-ranking one. The collapse of the Habsburg Empire troubled him deeply, very deeply. Yes. But just look at how he speaks to the waiter: he is an aristocrat, no mistaking it. An aristocrat. Look, the man carries Ballplatz[P1] , Vienna; the entire ancient Austrian culture; the high school of riding – happy Austria… He is certainly an Excellency – a real big wig. That’s what he is.«
»Amazing. Really – amazing. How do you know all that?«
He smiled. Too flattered to be really flattered; how vain this person must be! »As I told you: it is all a matter of practice. I learnt it in my surgery. I’n not Sherlock Holmes, certainly not. I am a neurologist, just like others – but with an eye. With the eye.« He smoked, satisfied.
»And the lady over there at the back? The one sitting at a table, and seems to be waiting for someone – look, she keeps looking at the door…«
»She? Dear friend, you are mistaken. The lady is not waiting. Or at least she is not waiting for anyone here. She is waiting, though. She is waiting for something wonderful. Let me… just a moment…«
He took a monocle out of his waistcoat pocket and jammed it in his eye. It didn’t feel right, and he corrected it.
»That is… That is one of the very few great cocottes who are left in this poor world. You know that cocottes are dying out like the term itself. The bourgeois competition… Yes, what I wanted to say: a queen of bought lust. Less pathetically: a lady of great, really great demi-monde. Good Lord… Did you see that movement of the hand? She devours men. Devours them. She is a… And in her eyes – look closely at her eyes… look at them exactly… her eyes contain a grief, an entire garden full of weeping willows. This woman is yearning; after so much gratification which wasn’t any really, she is yearning. There is no doubt about it. It is questionable whether she will ever find what she is looking for. What she wants is difficult – very difficult. The woman has had everything in her life – everything. And now she wants more. That is not easy. This veiled minor key! It is possible that a man committed suicide because of her – it is possible – I can’t be sure. I don’t know everything; I am just a doctor of the soul… I would like to have loved this woman. Please understand me – not love! To have loved. It is dangerous to love this woman. Very dangerous. Yes.«
»Doctor… You are a Cagliostro… I don’t envy your patients.«
»You can’t fool me «, he said. »Not me. What else would you like to know while we’re about it?«
»Him, there! Yes, the fat man who is just getting up – he’s leaving – no, he’s coming back. The one with the slightly red face. Who might he be?«
»What do you think?«
»Well,… they all look the same to me today… Perhaps…«
»They all look the same? You just can’t see – being able to see is the whole trick. It’s easy really.«
»The man is a wine dealer. Either the boss of a large wine company himself, or his authorized representative. An energetic, educated man; with a strong will – a man who seldom laughs, and despite the wine, doesn’t have much of a sense of humour. A serious man. A business man, relentless. Hates large gatherings. A serious man. That’s what he is.«
»And her there? This little, somewhat common-looking madame?«
»Panter, how could you say such a thing! That is – (monocle) that is a decent, reputable provincial citizen’s wife… (monocle back in its hutch) – a good woman, mother of at least four children, grew up in the moral standards of the lower-middle classes – goes to church every Sunday – cooks for her husband, mends her brats’ trousers and frocks – everything is in order. She practices faithfulness and honesty, and doesn’t deviate an inch from them… not her.«
»And him over there, doctor?«
»Ah, well, you see – that is the typical financier of our times. That’s him in his entirety. I could tell you his life-story – that’s how open the soul of this person is to me. A money-grubber. He can take the hard knocks. You can’t keep him down. He doesn’t waste his time on details; doesn’t read books; couldn’t give a damn about anything but his business. That’s the Americanized European. With women – Damn! – It is already six o’clock… Please excuse me, but I have another urgent appointment. I must take a taxi at once. Pay! – The bill, please…«, he corrected himself. The waiter came, took and went. The doctor stood up.
»What do I owe?« I asked jokingly.
»Priceless – priceless. All the best! Till next time!« And he was gone.
Now my curiosity was aroused. All the analyzed victims were still there. All of them. I sidled up to the hotel porter, who had a good view of the lobby from his desk. I spoke to him. I greased his palm. And asked questions. And he answered. And I paid attention:
The Austrian courtier was a sewing machine trader from Gleiwitz. The grieving great whore was a Mrs. Bimstein from Chicago – her husband had now joined her at the table, unmistakably Mr. Bimstein. The representative of the large wine company was the clown, Grock. The plump housewife was the owner of an entertainment establishment in Marseilles; the brazen financier was a poet of the most recent school.
And only the psychologist was a psychologist.