He looked through them for a moment, adjusting them until they were focused. He could see very clearly with them, out into the street.
‘I do like them,’ said the tourist. ‘How much are these?’
The price came as a shock. If he bought them he would have had an expensive day. But these glasses made the street scene so clear!
‘All right then,’ said the tourist. ‘I'll take these.’
He paid for them. And left, with the opera glasses in their case. Now he had to hurry. Suddenly he realised that he had really disliked the birdlike face of that optician. But he dismissed this silly aversion; he often had these strange dislikes, as well as likes, and they were sometimes a nuisance in everyday life.
Now he hurried. There was the Opera, with the black-silhouetted public already streaming across the evening square into the wide illuminated entrances. Nervous, although he knew he was not late, he still hurried. He bounded up the flight of stairs between the slow-moving file of people. He quickly found his place in the first row. He settled down in happy contemplation of enjoying the music.
He took his opera glasses out of their case and placed them, together with the case, in front of him on the wide ledge. Close to him, to the left and right, and behind him the seats were quickly taken up: it was becoming increasingly full: down below the boxes and stalls were also filling up.
Suddenly, it occurred to the young man that the glasses might fall... into the now darkened auditorium, and he put them on his knees.
The performance began in rapt and devoted attention to Wagner. Apart from the tremendous waves of music there was scarcely a sound or movement in the large auditorium, scarcely a cough, just the occasional hand lifting a pair of opera glasses.
In order to bring the scene closer, the young tourist also turned his glasses on Siegmund, whose voice was vibrating blissfully through him.
Suddenly, in the midst of his enjoyment, it flashed through his mind that the auditorium, seen from up there in the gods, was a chasm, and the glasses were heavy. At the same moment, some way off, a programme floated down. It distracted him. He saw it flutter down and come to rest on the head of a grey-coiffured lady whose hand now clutched it as though it were a bird. Seated next to the lady was a gentleman with a gleaming bald skull.
Sieglinde, however, again captured the attention of the young tourist. The pale-blond Teutonic maiden fascinated him and completely imprisoned his surrendering soul in a magical spell of song. He found her, together with Siegmund in Hunding's hut, movingly poetical.
The opera glasses felt heavy on his knee. Again, he set them on the ledge where they stuck up like twin towers. They were safe enough there.
Then, in an almost humorous train of thought, the young man leaned over in order to see who was sitting just below him in the stalls and, should they fall, on whom the glasses would land.
It was an almost mischievous curiosity, welling up around the growing thought of an almost impossible possibility. Because he had now thought of it - that the glasses could fall, the glasses would certainly not fall.
He could not see clearly who was sitting right beneath him. The auditorium was very dark there. But it was precisely because of that darkness, in which the outlines of the audience were blurred, that further along he again
saw, more clearly, the dove-grey lady who had caught hold of the fluttering programme and, seated next to her, the bald-headed gentleman...
Whose skull gleamed. Among the thousands of closely-packed, attentive silhouettes, coiffured ladies and bald male pates, gleamed that faraway skull... It gleamed about three-quarters of the way down between the fourth circle and the downstage area. It was a gleaming sphere, like a haunting full moon sunk among all those shadowy forms: reverential heads and backs motionless in attention: it gleamed like a goal, like a target; it gleamed white; it shone...
The young tourist was vexed with his odd and annoying introspectiveness, and forced himself to concentrate on Hunding, after which he greatly enjoyed the love aria for the polished tenor voice which sang of love and surging spring. But he could not forget the shining sphere over there and could not make it disappear. Time and time again his gaze turned diagonally towards the skull, which, in the dim light of the auditorium, now appeared to shine like an immense billiard ball.
A stirring of impatience and irritation in himself shocked the young man. At the same time he gripped the opera glasses, suddenly afraid that they would fall. But the glasses did not fall and the young man's hands gripped them more tightly than was necessary... and turned them on Siegmund and Sieglinde.
Then it was as if he could not control himself, or as if something - a powerful imperative, forced him to propel the glasses high through the chasm of the auditorium, aiming at that tempting sphere, that giant billiard ball, the shining target, down there, in the depths, three-quarters of the way between himself and the stage....
He threw himself backwards in a violent motion of resistance... And, trembling, just managed to put down the opera glasses... The effort was almost too great for him. Then he pressed his arms to his sides. So as not to grab the glasses and hurl them at the round target. Gleaming there.
The lady in the next seat shot him a sideways glance. He reacted to her movement as if it were a motherly act of rescue.
‘I do apologise,’ he mumbled, pale and half-crazed. ‘I don't feel well. I feel really ill. If you'll excuse me, I'd like to leave.’
The first act was coming to an end. He got up; trembling, but without a sound, he slipped past the legs of the five or six people between himself and the end of the row.
‘You're forgetting your binoculars!’ the lady in the next seat whispered after him.
‘That's all right, Madame. I'll be back shortly, I hope.’
He stumbled down a few steps; there were angry hisses of ‘Shh!’. Then the curtain fell, the house lights came up, and there was applause. He had deliberately left the binoculars there, afraid of the things. Now, in the interval, he regained his composure. How stupid he'd been! In the now brightly-lit auditorium the obsession of a moment ago struck him as a foolish, ridiculous impulse to which he would never have given in! He wasn't a lunatic! Hurl his binoculars into the auditorium?! Come, he would put the crazy notion out of his head with a minimum of willpower and common sense. He felt hungry and went to the bar for a roll and a glass of beer. That would calm him down after that nonsense of just now.
However, when the second act began and the house lights dimmed, he decided that what had surged through him had been a kind of giddy delirium induced by heights, what the French call vertige de l'abîme... Although he had felt no compulsion to plunge down himself. Perhaps it might be better not to sit so far forward in that first row, so high above the abyss of the auditorium... No, it would be better if he stayed back here, in the aisle. Even if the obsession had been nonsense, it might take hold of him again in that seat and so detract from his enjoyment of the music.
He stopped. Down there his seat remained unoccupied and the twin towers of his black opera glasses rose sarcastically but harmlessly on the wide ledge in front of his empty seat. But if he stood on tiptoe, he could just see the white pate in the auditorium, gleaming like a target...
He shrugged his shoulders in annoyance, dismissed that annoyance with a ‘tut-tut’, and gave his full attention to Brünnhilde's exultant cries, atop the rock on which she had appeared. And became calmer. And was transported.
The magic fire motif overwhelmed him and his pure rapture completely restored his equilibrium.
Still, when the opera was over, he determined never again to sit in the first row of the fourth circle. At any rate never again with such large opera glasses in front of him. And also not to take the opera glasses with him ...since their weight had felt so strange in his hands and together with the sense of depth, and because of that stupid target down there, might have triggered that mad obsession... to leave them there... with their small twin black towers... on the wide ledge... outlined against the void of the auditorium, now emptying below and on all sides.
And he almost fled down the stairs, afraid that someone would call out after him that he had forgotten his binoculars.
Five years had passed. He had certainly been successful in his career. He was married. He had travelled during the summers, during the winters, on business and for pleasure. He had not been back to Dresden, but this year he was there by chance. In the early autumn when the parks there are arrayed in gold-leafed splendour. The Opera playbills announced a series of performances of the Ring cycle. That evening The Valkyrie was playing. He remembered the lovely performance of five years earlier. His obsession had faded in his memory to no more than the vaguest recollection of vertigo. But why had he sometimes smiled and shrugged his shoulders since? Certainly, he would attend The Valkyrie again that evening. But at the box office he was told that it was sold out.
He was disappointed. He turned away. Just then someone approached and informed the ticket agent that he wished to make the seat he had in the first row of the fourth circle, available that evening. He was unable to come.
The young man eagerly purchased the ticket and asked himself where he had seen that disagreeable birdlike face before... Come now, once again it was the first row of the high fourth circle, but this time he would not get dizzy and would not let himself be upset by any freak notion. For that matter, he would not even take any binoculars with him. He had none with him and he would not buy any.
He arrived rather later that evening. The auditorium was already dark and full; the music had begun. He was reluctant to disturb the people in his row,
but the usherette assured him that he could easily reach his seat by passing only four people. So he shuffled past their legs, mumbling an apology, and sat down.
When the usherette bent over him and asked in a whisper, proffering a large pair of binoculars:
‘Would you like to hire some opera glasses perhaps? For one mark?’
He thought he detected sarcasm in her voice, started and looked at the opera glasses she was offering. They were his opera glasses, of five years ago, that he had left behind, that had never been claimed, had not been taken to the police station but constantly hired out by the usherette, whenever she was able. They were his opera glasses. Before he was able to refuse, he had grabbed the things in an irresistible impulse. Angry voices cried ‘Shh!’ and the usherette withdrew, motioning to him that he could pay later...
Then it happened, that in the middle of Siegmund and Sieglinde's duet, high up, in the first row of the fourth circle, someone started squirming, shrieking as if seized by a fit, as if he were wrestling with a power stronger than himself, and across the auditorium, startled out of its pious concentration, a hand hurled through space a heavy object which plunged like a stone in an arc into the chasm.
Down to where next to a dove-grey lady a bald-pated man, a different one, although never aimed at or noticed, was fatally struck and gave a dying roar, as his brains splattered.
This collective version of a favourite anthology story by Couperus (first published as ‘De binocle’ in De Haagsche Post of 28 August 1920) was produced in the 1996-1997 Session by an M.A. translation workshop at University College London consisting of: Willem Alling, Paul Charters, Katheryn Ronnau-Bradbeer and Paul Vincent. We should like to thank Professor Frédéric Bastet for his helpful advice.