STORIES BY FOREIGN AUTHORS - GERMAN
CHRISTIAN GELLERT'S LAST CHRISTMAS ...... BY BERTHOLD AUERBACH
A GHETTO VIOLET ..... BY LEOPOLD KOMPERT
THE SEVERED HAND .... BY WILHELM HAUFF
PETER SCHLEMIHL..... BY ADELBERT VON CHAMISSO
The translations in this volume, where previously published, are used by arrangement with the owners of the copyrights (as specified at the beginning of each story). Translations made especially for the series are covered by its general copyright. All rights in both classes are reserved.
CHRISTIAN GELLERT'S LAST CHRISTMAS
From "German Tales."
Three o'clock had just struck from the tower of St. Nicholas, Leipzig, on the afternoon of December 22d, 1768, when a man, wrapped in a loose overcoat, came out of the door of the University. His countenance was exceedingly gentle, and on his features cheerfulness still lingered, for he had been gazing upon a hundred cheerful faces; after him thronged a troop of students, who, holding back, allowed him to precede them: the passengers in the streets saluted him, and some students, who pressed forwards and hurried past him homewards, saluted him quite reverentially. He returned their salutations with a surprised and almost deprecatory air, and yet he knew, and could not conceal from himself, that he was one of the best beloved, not only in the good city of Leipzig, but in all lands far and wide.
It was Christian Furchtegott Gellert, the Poet of Fables, Hymns, and Lays, who was just leaving his college.
When we read his "Lectures upon Morals," which were not printed until after his death, we obtain but a very incomplete idea of the great power with which they came immediately from Gellert's mouth. Indeed, it was his voice, and the touching manner in which he delivered his lectures, that made so deep an impression upon his hearers; and Rabener was right when once he wrote to a friend, that "the philanthropic voice" of Gellert belonged to his words.
Above all, however, it was the amiable and pure personal character of Gellert which vividly and edifyingly impressed young hearts. Gellert was himself the best example of pure moral teaching; and the best which a teacher can give his pupils is faith in the victorious might, and the stability of the eternal moral laws. His lessons were for the Life, for his life in itself was a lesson. Many a victory over the troubles of life, over temptations of every kind, ay, many an elevation to nobility of thought, and to purity of action, had its origin in that lecture-hall, at the feet of Gellert.
It was as though Gellert felt that it was the last time he would deliver these lectures; that those words so often and so impressively uttered would be heard no more from his mouth; and there was a peculiar sadness, yet a peculiar strength, in all he said that day.
He had this day earnestly recommended modesty and humility; and it appeared almost offensive to him, that people as he went should tempt him in regard to these very virtues; for continually he heard men whisper, "That is Gellert!"
What is fame, and what is honor? A cloak of many colors, without warmth, without protection: and now, as he walked along, his heart literally froze in his bosom, as he confessed to himself that he had as yet done nothing—nothing which could give him a feeling of real satisfaction. Men honored him and loved him: but what was all that worth? His innermost heart could not be satisfied with that; in his own estimation he deserved no meed of praise; and where, where was there any evidence of that higher and purer life which he would fain bring about! Then, again, the Spirit would comfort him and say: "Much seed is lost, much falls in stony places, and much on good ground and brings forth sevenfold."
His inmost soul heard not the consolation, for his body was weak and sore burdened from his youth up, and in his latter days yet more than ever; and there are conditions of the body in which the most elevating words, and the cheeriest notes of joy, strike dull and heavy on the soul. It is one of the bitterest experiences of life to discover how little one man can really be to another. How joyous is that youthful freshness which can believe that, by a thought transferred to another's heart, we can induce him to become another being, to live according to what he must acknowledge true, to throw aside his previous delusions, and return to the right path!
The youngsters go their way! Do your words follow after? Whither are they going? What are now their thoughts? What manner of life will be theirs? "My heart yearns after them, but cannot be with them: oh, how happy were those messengers of the Spirit, who cried aloud to youth or manhood the words of the Spirit, that they must leave their former ways, and thenceforth change to other beings! Pardon me, O God! that I would fain be like them; I am weak and vile, and yet, methinks, there must be words as yet unheard, unknown—oh! where are they, those words which at once lay hold upon the soul?"
With such heavy thoughts went Gellert away from his college-gate to Rosenthal. There was but one small pathway cleared, but the passers cheerfully made way for him, and walked in the snow that they might leave him the pathway unimpeded; but he felt sad, and "as if each tree had somewhat to cast at him." Like all men really pure, and cleaving to the good with all their might, Gellert was not only far from contenting himself with work already done: he also, in his anxiety to be doing, almost forgot that he the inward depression easily changes to displeasure against every one, and the household of the melancholic suffers thereby intolerably; for the displeasure turns against them,—no one does anything properly, nothing is in its place. How very different is Gellert's melancholy! Not a soul suffers from it but himself, against himself alone his gloomy thoughts turn, and towards every other creature he is always kind, amiable, and obliging: he bites his lips; but when he speaks to any one, he is wholly good, forbearing, and self-forgetful.
Whilst they were talking together, Gellert was sitting in his room, and had lighted a pipe to dispel the agitation which he would experience in opening his letters; and while smoking, he could read them much more comfortably. He reproached himself for smoking, which was said to be injurious to his health, but he could not quite give up the "horrible practice," as he called it.
He first examined the addresses and seals of the letters which had arrived, then quietly opened and read them. A fitful smile passed over his features; there were letters from well-known friends, full of love and admiration, but from strangers also, who, in all kinds of heart-distress, took counsel of him. He read the letters full of friendly applause, first hastily, that he might have the right of reading them again, and that he might not know all at once; and when he had read a friend's letter for the second time, he sprang from his seat and cried, "Thank God! thank God! that I am so fortunate as to have such friends!" To his inwardly diffident nature these helps were a real requirement; they served to cheer him, and only those who did not know him called his joy at the reception of praise—conceit; it was, on the contrary, the truest modesty. How often did he sit there, and all that he had taught and written, all that he had ever been to men in word and deed, faded, vanished, and died away, and he appeared to himself but a useless servant of the world. His friends he answered immediately; and as his inward melancholy vanished, and the philanthropy, nay, the sprightliness of his soul beamed forth, when he was among men and looked in a living face, so was it also with his letters. When he bethought him of the friends to whom he was writing, he not only acquired tranquillity, that virtue for which his whole life long he strove; but his loving nature received new life, and only by slight intimations did he betray the heaviness and dejection which weighed upon his soul. He was, in the full sense of the word, "philanthropic," in the sight of good men; and in thoughts for their welfare, there was for him a real happiness and a joyous animation.
When, however, he had done writing and felt lonely again, the gloomy spirits came back: he had seated himself, wishing to raise his thoughts for composing a sacred song; but he was ill at ease, and had no power to express that inward, firm, and self-rejoicing might of faith which lived in him. Again and again the scoffers and free-thinkers rose up before his thoughts: he must refute their objections, and not until that was done did he become himself.
It is a hard position, when a creative spirit cannot forget the adversaries which on all sides oppose him in the world: they come unsummoned to the room and will not be expelled; they peer over the shoulder, and tug at the hand which fain would write; they turn images upside down, and distort the thoughts; and here and there, from ceiling and wall, they grin, and scoff, and oppose: and what was just gushing as an aspiration from the soul, is converted to a confused absurdity.
At such a time, the spirit, courageous and self-dependent, must take refuge in itself and show a firm front to a world of foes.
A strong nature boldly hurls his inkstand at the Devil's head; goes to battle with his opponents with words both written and spoken; and keeps his own individuality free from the perplexities with which opponents disturb all that has been previously done, and make the soul unsteadfast and unnerved for what is to come.
Gellert's was no battling, defiant nature, which relies upon itself; he did not hurl his opponents down and go his way; he would convince them, and so they were always ready to encounter him. And as the applause of his friends rejoiced him, so the opposition of his enemies could sink him in deep dejection. Besides, he had always been weakly; he had, as he himself complained, in addition to frequent coughs and a pain in his loins, a continual gnawing and pressure in the centre of his chest, which accompanied him from his first rising in the morning until he slept at night.
Thus he sat for a while, in deep dejection: and, as often before, his only wish was, that God would give him grace whereby when his hour was come, he might die piously and tranquilly.
It was past midnight when he sought his bed and extinguished his light.
And the buckets at the well go up and go down.
About the same hour, in Duben Forest, the rustic Christopher was rising from his bed. As with steel and flint he scattered sparks upon the tinder, in kindling himself a light, his wife, awakening, cried:
"Why that heavy sigh?"
"Ah! life is a burden: I'm the most harassed mortal in the world. The pettiest office-clerk may now be abed in peace, and needn't break off his sleep, while I must go out and brave wind and weather."
"Be content," replied his wife: "why, I dreamt you had actually been made magistrate, and wore something on your head like a king's crown."
"Oh! you women; as though what you see isn't enough, you like to chatter about what you dream."
"Light the lamp, too," said his wife, "and I'll get up and make you a nice porridge."
The peasant, putting a candle in his lantern, went to the stable; and after he had given some fodder to the horses, he seated himself upon the manger. With his hands squeezed between his knees and his head bent down, he reflected over and over again what a wretched existence he had of it. "Why," thought he, "are so many men so well-off, so comfortable, whilst you must be always toiling? What care I if envy be not a virtue?—and yet I'm not envious, I don't grudge others being well-off, only I should like to be well-off too; oh, for a quiet, easy life! Am I not worse off than a horse? He gets his fodder at the proper time, and takes no care about it. Why did my father make my brother a minister? He gets his salary without any trouble, sits in a warm room, has no care in the world; and I must slave and torment myself."
Strange to say, his very next thought, that he would like to be made local magistrate, he would in no wise confess to himself.
He sat still a long while; then he went back again to the sitting-room, past the kitchen, where the fire was burning cheerily. He seated himself at the table and waited for his morning porridge. On the table lay an open book; his children had been reading it the previous evening: involuntarily taking it up, he began to read. Suddenly he started, rubbed his eyes, and then read again. How comes this verse here just at this moment? He kept his hand upon the book, and so easily had he caught the words, that he repeated them to himself softly with his lips, and nodded several times, as much as to say: "That's true!" And he said aloud: "It's all there together: short and sweet!" and he was still staring at it, when his wife brought in the smoking porridge. Taking off his cap, he folded his hands and said aloud:
"Accept God's gifts with resignation, Content to lack what thou hast not: In every lot there's consolation; There's trouble, too, in every lot!"
The wife looked at her husband with amazement. What a strange expression was upon his face! And as he sat down and began to eat, she said: "What is the meaning of that grace? What has to you? Where did you find it?"
"It the best of all graces, the very best,—real God's word. Yes, and all your life you've never made such nice porridge before. You must have put something special in it!"
"I don't know what you mean. Stop! There's the book lying there—ah! that's it— and it's by Gellert, of Leipzig."
"What! Gellert, of Leipzig! Men with ideas like that don't live now; there may have been such, a thousand years ago, in holy lands, not among us; those are the words of a saint of old."
"And I tell you they are by Gellert, of Leipzig, of whom your brother has told us; in fact, he was his tutor, and haven't you heard how pious and good he is?"
"I wouldn't have believed that such men still lived, and so near us, too, as Leipzig."
"Well, but those who lived a thousand years ago were also once living creatures: and over Leipzig is just the same heaven, and the same sun shines, and the same God rules, as over all other cities."
"Oh! yes, my brother has an apt pupil in you!"
"Well, and why not? I've treasured up all he told us of Professor Gellert."
"A man with such a proud, new-fangled title couldn't write anything like that!"
"He didn't give himself the title, and he is poor enough withal! and how hard it has fared with him! Even from childhood he has been well acquainted with poverty: his father was a poor minister in Haynichen, with thirteen children; Gellert, when quite a little fellow, was obliged to be a copying office-clerk: who can tell whether he didn't then contract that physical weakness of his? And now that he's an old man, things will never go better with him; he has often no wood, and must be pinched with cold. It is with him, perhaps, as with that student of whom your brother has told us, who is as poor as a rat, and yet must read; and so in winter he lies in bed with an empty stomach, until day is far advanced; and he has his book before him, and first he takes out one hand to hold his book, and then, when that is numb with cold, the other. Ah! tongue cannot tell how poorly the man must live; and yet your brother has told me, if he has but a few pounds, he doesn't think at all of himself; he always looks out for one still poorer than he is, and then gives all away: and he's always engaged in aiding and assisting others. Oh! dear, and yet he is so poor! May be at this moment he is hungry and cold; and he is said to be in ill-health, besides."
"Wife, I would willingly do the man a good turn if I could. If, now, he had some land, I could plough, and sow, and reap, and carry, and thresh by the week together for him. I should like to pay him attention in such a way that he might know there was at least one who cared for him. But his profession is one in which I can't be of any use to him."
"Well, just seek him out and speak with him once; you are going to-day, you know, with your wood to Leipzig. Seek him out and thank him; that sort of thing does such a man's heart good. Anybody can see him."
"Yes, yes; I should like much to see him, and hold out to him my hand,—but not empty: I wish I had something!"
"Speak to your brother, and get him to give you a note to him."
"No, no; say nothing to my brother; but it might be possible for me to meet him in the street. Give me my Sunday coat; it will come to no harm under my cloak."
When his wife brought him the coat, she said: "If, now, Gellert had a wife, or a household of his own, one might send him something; but your brother says he is a bachelor, and lives quite alone."
Christopher had never before so cheerfully harnessed his horses and put them to his wood-laden wagon; for a long while he had not given his hand so gayly to his wife at parting as to-day. Now he started with his heavily-laden vehicle through the village; the wheels creaked and crackled in the snow. At the parsonage he stopped, and looked away yonder where his brother was still sleeping; he thought he would wake him and tell him his intention: but suddenly he whipped up his horses, and continued his route. He wouldn't yet bind himself to his intention— perchance it was but a passing thought; he doesn't own that to himself, but he says to himself that he will surprise his brother with the news of what he has done; and then his thoughts wandered away to the good man still sleeping yonder in the city; and he hummed the verse to himself in an old familiar tune.
Wonderfully in life do effects manifest themselves, of which we have no trace. Gellert, too, heard in his dreams a singing; he knew not what it was, but it rang so consolingly, so joyously! ... Christopher drove on, and he felt as though a bandage had been taken from his eyes; he reflected what a nice house, what a bonny wife and rosy children he had, and how warm the cloak which he had thrown over him was, and how well off were both man and beast; and through the still night he drove along, and beside him sat a spirit; but not an illusion of the brain, such as in olden time men conjured up to their terror, a good spirit sat beside him—beside the woodman who his whole life long had never believed that anything could have power over him but what had hands and feet.
It is said that, on troublous nights, evil spirits settle upon the necks of men, and belabor them so that they gasp and sweat for very terror; quite another sort it was to-day which sat by the woodman: and his heart was warm, and its beating quick.
In ancient times, men also carried loads of wood through the night, that heretics might be burned thereon: these men thought they were doing a good deed in helping to execute justice; and who can say how painful it was to their hearts, when they were forced to think: To-morrow, on this wood which now you carry, will shriek, and crackle, and gasp, a human being like yourself? Who can tell what black spirits settled on the necks of those who bore the wood to make the funeral-pile? How very different was it to-day with our woodman Christopher!
And earlier still, in ancient times, men brought wood to the temple, whereon they offered victims in the honor of God; and, according to their notions, they did a good deed: for when words can no longer suffice to express the fervency of the heart, it gladly offers what it prizes, what it dearly loves, as a proof of its devotion, of the earnestness of its intent.
How differently went Christopher from the Duben Forest upon his way! He knew not whether he were intending to bring a purer offering than men had brought in bygone ages; but his heart grew warm within him.
It was day as he arrived before the gates of Leipzig. Here there met him a funeral-procession; behind the bier the scholars of St. Thomas, in long black cloaks, were chanting. Christopher stopped and raised his hat. Whom were they burying? Supposing it were Gellert.—Yes, surely, he thought, it is he: and how gladly, said he to himself, would you now have done him a kindness—ay, even given him your wood! Yes, indeed you would, and now he is dead, and you cannot give him any help!
As soon as the train had passed, Christopher asked who was being buried. It was a simple burgher, it was not Gellert; and in the deep breath which Christopher drew lay a double signification: on the one hand, was joy that Gellert was not dead; on the other, a still small voice whispered to him that he had now really promised to give him the wood: ah! but whom had he promised?—himself: and it is easy to argue with one's own conscience.
Superstition babbles of conjuring-spells, by which, without the co-operation of the patient, the evil spirit can be summarily ejected. It would be convenient if one had that power, but, in truth, it is not so: it is long ere the evil desire and the evil habit are removed from the soul into which they have nestled; and the will, for a long while in bondage, must co-operate, if a releasing spell from without is to set the prisoner free. One can only be guided, but himself must move his feet.
As Christopher now looked about him, he found that he had stopped close by an inn; he drove his load a little aside, went into the parlor, and drank a glass of warmed beer. There was already a goodly company, and not far from Christopher sat a husbandman with his son, a student here, who was telling him how there had been lately quite a stir. Professor Gellert had been ill, and riding a well- trained horse had been recommended for his health. Now Prince Henry of Prussia, during the Seven Years' War, at the occupation of Leipzig, had sent him a piebald, that had died a short time ago; and the Elector, hearing of it, had sent Gellert from Dresden another—a chestnut—with golden bridle, blue velvet saddle, and gold-embroidered housings. Half the city had assembled when the groom, a man with iron-gray hair, brought the horse; and for several days it was to be seen at the stable; but Gellert dared not mount it, it was so young and high-spirited. The rustic now asked his son whether the Professor did not make money enough to procure a horse of his own, to which the son answered: "Certainly not. His salary is but one hundred and twenty-five dollars, and his further gains are inconsiderable. His Lectures on Morals he gives publicly, i.e., gratis, and he has hundreds of hearers; and, therefore, at his own lectures, which must be paid for, he has so many the fewer. To be sure, he has now and then presents from grand patrons; but no one gives him, once and for all, enough to live upon, and to have all over with a single acknowledgment."
Our friend Christopher started as he heard this; he had quite made up his mind to take Gellert the wood: but he had yet to do it. How easy were virtue, if will and deed were the same thing! if performance could immediately succeed to the moment off burning enthusiasm! But one must make way over obstacles; over those that outwardly lie in one's path, and over those that are hidden deep in the heart; and negligence has a thousand very cunning advocates.
How many go forth, prompted by good intentions, but let little hindrances turn them from their way—entirely from their way of life! In front of the house Christopher met other woodmen whom he knew, and—"You are stirring betimes!" "Prices are good to-day!" "But little comes to the market now!" was the cry from all sides. Christopher wanted to say that all that didn't concern him, but he was ashamed to confess that his design was, and an inward voice told him he must not lie. Without answering he joined the rest, and wended his way to the market; and on the road he thought: "There are Peter, and Godfrey, and John, who have seven times your means, and not one of them, I'm sure, would think of doing anything of this kind; why will you be the kind-hearted fool? Stay! what matters it what others do or leave undone? Every man shall answer for himself. Yes, but go to market—it is better it should be so; yes, certainly, much better: sell your wood—who knows? perhaps he doesn't want it—and take him the proceeds, or at least the greater portion. But is the wood still yours? You have, properly speaking, already given it away; it has only not been taken from your keeping...."
There are people who cannot give; they can only let a thing be taken either by the hand of chance, or by urgency and entreaty. Christopher had such fast hold of possession, that it was only after sore wrestling that he let go; and yet his heart was kind, at least to-day it was so disposed, but the tempter whispered: "It is not easy to find so good-natured a fellow as you. How readily would you have given, had the man been in want, and your good intention must go for the deed." Still, on the other hand, there was something in him which made opposition,—an echo from those hours, when, in the still night, he was driving hither,—and it burned in him like sacred fire, and it said, "You must now accomplish what you intended. Certainly no one knows of it, and you are responsible to no one; but you know of it yourself, and One above you knows, and how shall you be justified?" And he said to himself, "I'll stand by this: look, it is just nine; if no one ask the price of your wood until ten o'clock, until the stroke of ten,—until it has done striking, I mean; if no one ask, then the wood belongs to Professor Gellert: but if a buyer come, then it is a sign that you need not—should not give it away. There, that's all settled. But how? what means this? Can you make your good deed dependent on such a chance as this? No, no; I don't mean it. But yet—yet—only for a joke, I'll try it."
Temptation kept him turning as it were in a circle, and still he stood with an apparently quiet heart by his wagon in the market. The people who heard him muttering in this way to himself looked at him with wonder, and passed by him to another wagon, as though he had not been there. It struck nine. Can you wait patiently another hour? Christopher lighted his pipe, and looked calmly on, while this and that load was driven off. It struck the quarter, half-hour, three-quarters. Christopher now put his pipe in his pocket; it had long been cold, and his hands were almost frozen; all his blood had rushed to his heart. Now it struck the full hour, stroke after stroke. At first he counted; then he fancied he had lost a stroke and miscalculated. Either voluntarily or involuntarily, he said to himself, when it had finished striking, "You're wrong; it is nine, not ten." He turned round that he might not see the dial, and thus he stood for some time, with his hands upon the wagon-rack, gazing at the wood. He knew not how long he had been thus standing, when some one tapped him on the shoulder, and said, "How much for the load of wood?"
Christopher turned round: there was an odd look of irresolution in his eyes as he said: "Eh? eh? what time is it?"
"Then the wood is now no longer mine—at least to sell:" and, collecting himself, he became suddenly warm, and with firm hand turned his horses round, and begged the woodmen who accompanied him to point him out the way to the house with the "Schwarz Brett," Dr. Junius's. There he delivered a full load: at each log he took out of the wagon he smiled oddly. The wood-measurer measured the wood carefully, turning each log and placing it exactly, that there might not be a crevice anywhere.
"Why are you so over-particular to-day, pray?" asked Christopher, and he received for answer:
"Professor Gellert must have a fair load; every shaving kept back from him were a sin."
Christopher laughed aloud, and the wood-measurer looked at him with amazement; for such particularity generally provoked a quarrel. Christopher had still some logs over; these he kept by him on the wagon. At this moment the servant Sauer came up, and asked to whom the wood belonged.
"To Professor Gellert," answered Christopher.
"The man's mad! it isn't true. Professor Gellert has not bought any wood; it is my business to look after that."
"He has not bought it, and yet it is his!" cried Christopher.
Sauer was on the point of giving the mad peasant a hearty scolding, raising his voice so much the louder, as it was striking eleven by St. Nicholas. At this moment, however, he became suddenly mute; for yonder from the University there came, with tired gait, a man of a noble countenance: at every step he made, on this side and on that, off came the hats and the caps of the passers-by, and Sauer simply called out, "There comes the Professor himself."
What a peculiar expression passed over Christopher's face! He looked at the new- comer, and so earnest was his gaze, that Gellert, who always walked with his head bowed, suddenly looked up. Christopher said: "Mr. Gellert, I am glad to see you still alive."
"I thank you," said Gellert, and made as though he would pass on; but Christopher stepped up closer to him, and, stretching out his hand to him, said: "I have taken the liberty—I should like—will you give me your hand, Mr. Gellert?"
Gellert drew his long thin hand out of his muff and placed it in the hard oaken- like hand of the peasant; and at this moment, when the peasant's hand lay in the scholar's palm, as one felt the other's pressure in actual living grasp, there took place, though the mortal actors in the scene were all unconscious of it, a renewal of that healthy life which alone can make a people one.
How long had the learned world, wrapped up in itself, separated from the fellow- men around, thought in Latin, felt as foreigners, and lived buried in contemplation of bygone worlds! From the time of Gellert commences the ever- increasing unity of good-fellowship throughout all classes of life, kept up by mutual giving and receiving. As the scholar—as the solitary poet endeavors to work upon others by lays that quicken and songs that incite, so he in his turn is a debtor to his age, and the lonely thinking and writing become the property of all; but the effects are not seen in a moment; for higher than the most highly gifted spirit of any single man is the spirit of a nation. With the pressure which Gellert and the peasant exchanged commenced a mighty change in universal life, which never more can cease to act.
"Permit me to enter your room?" said Christopher, and Gellert nodded assent. He was so courteous that he motioned to the peasant to enter first; however, Sauer went close after him: be thought it must be a madman; he must protect his master; the man looked just as if he were drunk. Gellert, with his amanuensis, Godike, followed them.
Gellert, however, felt that the man must be actuated by pure motives: he bade the others retire, and took Christopher alone into his study; and, as he clasped his left with his own right hand, he asked: "Well, my good friend, what is your business?"
"Eh? oh! nothing—I've only brought you a load of wood there—a fair, full load; however, I'll give you the few logs which I have in my wagon, as well."
"My good man, my servant Sauer looks after buying my wood."
"It is no question of buying. No, my dear sir, I give it to you."
"Give it to me? Why me particularly?"
"Oh! sir, you do not know at all what good you do, what good you have done me; and my wife was right; why should there not be really pious men in our day too? Surely the sun still shines as he shone thousands of years ago; all is now the same as then; and the God of old is still living."
"Certainly, certainly; I am glad to see you so pious."
"Ah! believe me, dear sir, I am not always so pious; and that I am so disposed today is owing to you. We have no more confessionals now, but I can confess to you: and you have taken a heavier load from my heart than a wagon-load of wood. Oh! sir, I am not what I was. In my early days I was a high-spirited, merry lad, and out in the field, and indoors in the inn and the spinning-room, there was none who could sing against me; but that is long past. What has a man on whose head the grave-blossoms are growing," and he pointed to his gray head, "to do with all that trash? And besides, the Seven Years' War has put a stop to all our singing. But last night, in the midst of the fearful cold, I sang a lay set expressly for me—all old tunes go to it: and it seemed to me as though I saw a sign-post which pointed I know not whither—or, nay, I do know whither." And now the peasant related how discontented and unhappy in mind he had been, and how the words in the lay had all at once raised his spirits and accompanied him upon the journey, like a good fellow who talks to one cheerfully.
At this part of the peasant's tale Gellert folded his hands in silence, and the peasant concluded: "How I always envied others, I cannot now think why; but you I do envy, sir: I should like to be as you."
And Gellert answered: "I thank God, and rejoice greatly that my writings have been of service to you. Think not so well of me. Would God I were really the good man I appear in your eyes! I am far from being such as I should, such as I would fain be. I write my books for my own improvement also, to show myself as well as others what manner of men we should be."
Laughing, the peasant replied: "You put me in mind of the story my poor mother used to tell of the old minister; he stood up once in the pulpit and said: 'My dear friends, I speak not only for you, but for myself also; I, too, have need of it.'"
Christopher laughed outrageously when he had finished, and Gellert smiled, and said: "Yes, whoever in the darkness lighteth another with a lamp, lighteth himself also; and the light is not part of ourselves,—it is put into our hands by Him who hath appointed the suns their courses."
The peasant stood speechless, and looked upon the ground: there was something within him which took away the power of looking up; he was only conscious that it ill became him to laugh so loudly just now, when he told the story of the old minister.
A longer pause ensued, and Gellert seemed to be lost in reflection upon this reference to a minister's work, for he said half to himself: "Oh! how would it fulfil my dearest wish to be a village-pastor! To move about among my people, and really be one with them; the friend of their souls my whole life long, never to lose them out of my sight! Yonder goes one whom I have led into the right way; there another, with whom I still wrestle, but whom I shall assuredly save; and in them all the teaching lives which God proclaims by me. Did I not think that I should be acting against my duty, I would this moment choose a country life for the remnant of my days. When I look from my window over the country, I have before me the broad sky, of which we citizens know but little, a scene entirely new; there I stand and lose myself for half an hour in gazing and in thinking. Yes, good friend, envy no man in the rank of scholars. Look at me; I am almost always ill; and what a burden is a sickly body! How strong, on the contrary, are you! I am never happier than when, without being remarked, I can watch a dinner-table thronged by hungry men and maids. Even if these folks be not generally so happy as their superiors, at table they are certainly happier."
"Yes, sir; we relish our eating and drinking. And, lately, when felling and sorting that wood below, I was more than usually lively; it seems as though I had a notion I was to do some good with it."
"And must I permit you to make me a present?" asked Gellert, resting his chin upon his left hand.
The peasant answered: "It is not worth talking about."
"Nay, it might be well worth talking about; but I accept your present. It is pride not to be ready to accept a gift. Is not all we have a gift from God? And what one man gives another, he gives, as is most appropriately said, for God's sake. Were I your minister, I should be pleased to accept a present from you. You see, good friend, we men have no occasion to thank each other. You have given me nothing of yours, and I have given you nothing of mine. That the trees grow in the forest is none of your doing, it is the work of the Creator and Preserver of the world; and the soil is not yours; and the sun and the rain are not yours; they all are the works of His hand; and if, perchance, I have some healthy thoughts rising up in my soul, which benefit my fellow-men, it is none of mine, it is His doing. The word is not mine, and the spirit is not mine; and I am but an instrument in His hand. Therefore one man needs not to utter words of thanks to his fellow, if every one would but acknowledge who it really is that gives."
The peasant looked up in astonishment. Gellert remarked it, and said: "Understand me aright. I thank you from my heart; you have done a kind action. But that the trees grow is none of yours, and it is none of mine that thoughts arise in me; every one simply tills his field, and tends his woodland, and the honest, assiduous toil he gives thereto is his virtue. That you felled, loaded, and brought the wood, and wish no recompense for your labor, is very thank- worthy. My wood was more easily felled; but those still nights which I and all of my calling pass in heavy thought—who can tell what toil there is in them? There is in the world an adjustment which no one sees, and which but seldom discovers itself; and this and that shift thither and hither, and the scales of the balance become even, and then ceases all distinction between 'mine' and 'thine,' and in the still forest rings an axe for me, and in the silent night my spirit thinks and my pen writes for you."
The peasant passed both his hands over his temples, and his look was as though he said to himself, "Where are you? Are you still in the world? Is it a mortal man who speaks to you? Are you in Leipzig, in that populous city where men jostle one another for gain and bare existence?"
Below might be heard the creaking of the saw as the wood was being sundered: and now the near horse neighs, and Christopher is in the world again. "It may injure the horse to stand so long in the cold; and no money for the wood! but perhaps a sick horse to take home into the bargain; that would be too much," he thought.
"Yes, yes, Mr. Professor," said he—he had his hat under his arm, and was rubbing his hands—"yes, I am delighted with what I have done; and I value the lesson, believe me, more than ten loads of wood: and never shall I forget you to my dying day. And though I see you are not so poor as I had imagined, still I don't regret it. Oh! no, certainly not at all."
"Eh! did you think me so very poor, then?"
"Yes, miserably poor."
"I have always been poor, but God has never suffered me to be a single day without necessaries. I have in the world much happiness which I have not deserved, and much unhappiness I have not, which perchance I have deserved. I have found much favor with both high and low, for which I cannot sufficiently thank God. And now tell me, cannot I give you something, or obtain something for you? You are a local magistrate, I presume?"
"You look like it: you might be."
Christopher had taken his hat into his hands, and was crumpling it up now; he half closed his eyes, and with a sly, inquiring glance, he peered at Gellert. Suddenly, however, the expression of his face changed, and the muscles quivered, as he said: "Sir, what a man are you! How you can dive into the recesses of one's heart! I have really pined night and day, and been cross with the whole world, because I could not be magistrate, and you, sir, you have actually helped to overcome that in me. Oh! sir, as soon as I read that verse in your book, I had an idea, and now I see still more plainly that you must be a man of God, who can pluck the heart from one's bosom, and turn it round and round. I had thought I could never have another moment's happiness, if my neighbor, Hans Gottlieb, should be magistrate: and with that verse of yours, it has been with me as when one calms the blood with a magic spell."
"Well, my good friend, I am rejoiced to hear it: believe me, every one has in himself alone a whole host to govern. What can so strongly urge men to wish to govern others? What can it profit you to be local magistrate, when to accomplish your object you must perhaps do something wrong? What were the fame, not only of a village, but even of the whole world, if you could have no self-respect? Let it suffice for you to perform your daily duties with uprightness; let your joys be centred in your wife and children, and you will be happy. What need you more? Think not that honor and station would make you happy. Rejoice, and again I say, rejoice: 'A contented spirit is a continual feast.' I often whisper this to myself, when I feel disposed to give way to dejection: and although misery be not our fault, yet lack of endurance and of patience in misery is undoubtedly our fault."
"I would my wife were here too, that she also might hear this; I grudge myself the hearing of it all alone; I cannot remember it all properly, and yet I should like to tell it to her word for word. Who would have thought that, by standing upon a load of wood, one could get a peep into heaven!"
Gellert in silence bowed his head; and afterwards he said: "Yes, rejoice in your deed, as I do in your gift. Your wood is sacrificial-wood. In olden time—and it was right in principle, because man could not yet offer prayer and thanks in spirit—it was a custom and ordinance to bring something from one's possessions, as a proof of devotion: this was a sacrifice. And the more important the gift to be given, or the request to be granted, the more costly was the sacrifice. Our God will have no victims; but whatsoever you do unto one of the least of His, you do unto Him. Such are our sacrifices. My dear friend, from my heart I thank you; for you have done me a kindness, in that you have given me a real, undeniable proof, that my words have penetrated your heart, and that I do not live on for nothing: and treasure it up in your heart, that you have caused real joy to one who is often, very often, weighed down with heaviness and sorrow. You have not only kindled bright tapers upon my Christmas-tree, but the tree itself burns, gives light, and warms: the bush burns, and is not consumed, which is an image of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and its admonition to trust in the Most High in this wilderness of life, in mourning and in woe. Oh! my dear friend, I have been nigh unto death. What a solemn, quaking stride is the stride into eternity! What a difference between ideas of death in the days of health, and on the brink of the grave! And how shall I show myself worthy of longer life? By learning better to die. And, mark, when I sit here in solitude pursuing my thoughts, keeping some and driving away others, then I can think, that in distant valleys, upon distant mountains, there are living men who carry my thoughts within their hearts; and for them I live, and they are near and dear to me, till one day we shall meet where there is no more parting, no more separation. Peasant and scholar, let us abide as we are. Give me your hand— farewell!"
And once again, the soft and the hard hand were clasped together, and Christopher really trembled as Gellert laid his hand upon his shoulder. They shook hands, and therewith something touched the heart of each more impressively, more completely, than ever words could touch it. Christopher got downstairs without knowing how: below, he threw down the extra logs of wood, which he had kept back, with a clatter from the wagon, and then drove briskly from the city. Not till he arrived at Lindenthal did he allow himself and his horses rest or food. He had driven away empty: he had nothing on his wagon, nothing in his purse; and yet who can tell what treasures he took home; and who can tell what inextinguishable fire he left behind him yonder, by that lonely scholar!
Gellert, who usually dined at his brother's, today had dinner brought into his own room, remained quite alone, and did not go out again: he had experienced quite enough excitement, and society he had in his own thoughts. Oh! to find that there are open, susceptible hearts, is a blessing to him that writes in solitude, and is as wondrous to him as though he dipped his pen in streams of sunshine, and as if all he wrote were Light. The raindrop which falls from the cloud cannot tell upon what plant it drops: there is a quickening power in it, but for what? And a thought which finds expression from a human heart; an action, nay, a whole life is like the raindrop falling from the cloud: the whole period of a life endures no longer than the raindrop needs for falling. And as for knowing where your life is continued, how your work proceeds, you cannot attain to that.
And in the night all was still around: nothing was astir; the whole earth was simple rest, as Gellert sat in his room by his lonely lamp; his hand lay upon an open book, and his eyes were fixed upon the empty air; and on a sudden came once more upon him that melancholy gloom, which so easily resumes its place after more than usual excitement.
It is as though the soul, suddenly elevated above all, must still remember the heaviness it but now experienced, though that expresses itself as tears of joy in the eye.
In Gellert, however, this melancholy had a more peculiar phase: a sort of timidity had rooted itself in him, connected with his weak chest, and that secret gnawing pain in his head; it was a fearfulness which his manner of life only tended to increase. Surrounded though he was by nothing but love and admiration in the world, he could not divest himself of the fear that all which is most horrible and terrible would burst suddenly upon him: and so he gazed fixedly before him. He passed his hand over his face, and with an effort concentrated his looks and thoughts upon surrounding objects, saying to himself almost aloud: "How comforting is light! Were there no light from without to illumine objects for us, we should perish in gloom, in the shadows of night. And light is a gentle friend that watches by us, and, when we are sunk in sorrow, points out to us that the world is still here, that it calls, and beckons us, and requires of us duty and cheerfulness. 'You must not be lost in self,' it says, 'see! the world is still here:' and a friend beside us is as a light which illumines surrounding objects; we cannot forget them, we must see them and mingle with them. How hard is life, and how little I accomplish! I would fain awaken the whole world to goodness and to love; but my voice is weak, my strength is insufficient: how insignificant is all I do!"
And now he rose up and strode across the room; and he stood at the hearth where the fire was burning, made of wood given to him that very day, and his thoughts reverted to the man who had given it. Why had he not asked his name, and where he came from? Perchance he might have been able in thought to follow him all the way, as he drove home; and now ... but yet 'tis more, 'tis better as it is: it is not an individual, it is not So-and-so, who has shown his gratitude, but all the world by the mouth of one. "The kindnesses I receive," he thought, "are indeed trials; but yet I ought to accept them with thanks. I will try henceforth to be a benefactor to others as others are to me, without display, and with grateful thanks to God, our highest Benefactor: this will I do. and search no further for the why and for the wherefore." And once more a voice spoke within him, and he stood erect, and raised his arms on high. "Who knows," he thought, "whether at this moment I have not been in this or that place, to this or that man, a brother, a friend, a comforter, a saviour; and from house to house, may be, my spirit travels, awakening, enlivening, refreshing—yonder in the attic, where burns a solitary light; and afar in some village a mother is sitting by her child, and hearing him repeat the thoughts I have arranged in verse; and peradventure some solitary old man, who is waiting for death, is now sitting by his fireside, and his lips are uttering my words."
"And yonder in the church, the choir is chanting a hymn of yours; could you have written this hymn without its vigor in your heart? Oh! no, it MUST be there." And with trembling he thought: "There is nothing so small as to have no place in the government of God! Should you not then believe that He suffered this day's incident to happen for your joy? Oh! were it so, what happiness were yours! A heart renewed." ... He moved to the window, looked up to heaven, and prayed inwardly: "My soul is with my brothers and my sisters: nay, it is with Thee, my God, and in humility I acknowledge how richly Thou hast blessed me. And if, in the kingdom of the world to come, a soul should cry to me: 'Thou didst guide and cheer me on to happiness eternal!' all hail! my friend, my benefactor, my glory in the presence of God. ... In these thoughts let me die, and pardon me my weakness and my sins!"
"And the evening and morning were the first day."
At early morning, Gellert was sitting at his table, and reading according to his invariable custom, first of all in the Bible. He never left the Bible open—he always shut it with a peaceful, devotional air, after he had read therein: there was something grateful as well as reverential in his manner of closing the volume; the holy words should not lie uncovered.
To-day, however, the Bible was lying open when he rose. His eye fell upon the history of the creation, and at the words, "And the evening and the morning were the first day," he leaned back his head against the arm-chair, and kept his hand upon the book, as though he would grasp with his hand also the lofty thought, how night and day were divided.
For a long while he sat thus, and he was wondrously bright in spirit, and a soft reminiscence dawned upon him; of a bright day in childhood, when he had been so happy, and in Haynichen, his native place, had gone out with his father for a walk. An inward warmth roused his heart to quicker pulsation; and suddenly he started and looked about him: he had been humming a tune.
Up from the street came the busy sound of Jay: at other times how insufferable he had found it! and now how joyous it seemed that men should bestir themselves, and turn to all sorts of occupations! There was a sound of crumbling snow: and how nice to have a house and a blaze upon the hearth! "And the evening and the morning were the first day!" And man getteth himself a light in the darkness: but how long, O man! could you make it endure? What could you do with your artificial light, if God did not cause His sun to shine? Without it grows no grass, no corn. On the hand lying upon the book there fell a bright sunbeam. How soon, at other times, would Gellert have drawn the defensive curtain! Now he watches the little motes that play about in the sunbeam.
The servant brought coffee, and the amanuensis, Godike, asked if there were anything to do. Generally, Gellert scarce lifted his head from his books, hastily acknowledging the attention and reading on in silence; to-day, he motioned to Godike to stay, and said to Sauer, "Another cup: Mr. Godike will take coffee with me. God has given me a day of rejoicing." Sauer brought the cup, and Gellert said: "Yes, God has given me a day of rejoicing, and what I am most thankful for is, that He has granted me strength to thank Him with all my heart: not so entirely, however, as I should like."
"Thank God, Mr. Professor, that you are once more in health, and cheerful: and permit me, Mr. Professor, to tell you that I was myself also ill a short time ago, and I then learned a lesson which I shall never forget. Who is most grateful? The convalescent. He learns to love God and His beautiful world anew; he is grateful for everything, and delighted with everything. What a flavor has his first cup of coffee! How he enjoys his first walk outside the house, outside the gate! The houses, the trees, all give us greeting: all is again in us full of health and joy!" So said Godike, and Gellert rejoined:
"You are a good creature, and have just spoken good words. Certainly, the convalescent is the most grateful. We are, however, for the most part, sick in spirit, and have not strength to recover: and a sickly, stricken spirit is the heaviest pain."
Long time the two sat quietly together: it struck eight. Gellert started up, and cried irritably: "There, now, you have allowed me to forget that I must be on my way to the University."
"The vacation has begun: Mr. Professor has no lecture to-day."
"No lecture to-day? Ah! and I believe today is just the time when I could have told my young friends something that would have benefited them for their whole lives."
There was a shuffling of many feet outside the door: the door opened, and several boys from St Thomas' School-choir advanced and sang to Gellert some of his own hymns; and as they chanted the verse—
"And haply there—oh! grant it, Heaven! Some blessed saint will greet me too; 'All hail! all hail! to you was given To save my life and soul, to you!' O God! my God! what joy to be The winner of a soul to thee!"
Gellert wept aloud, folded his hands, and raised his eyes to heaven.
A happier Christmas than that of 1768 had Gellert never seen; and it was his last. Scarcely a year after, on the 13th of December, 1769, Gellert died a pious, tranquil death, such as he had ever coveted.
As the long train which followed his bier moved to the churchyard of St. John's, Leipzig, a peasant with his wife and children in holiday clothes entered among the last. It was Christopher with his family. The whole way he had been silent: and whilst his wife wept passionately at the pastor's touching address, it was only by the working of his features that Christopher showed how deeply moved he was.
But on the way home he said: "I am glad I did him a kindness in his lifetime; it would now be too late."
The summer after, when he built a new house, he had this verse placed upon it as an inscription:
"Accept God's gifts with resignation, Content to lack what thou hast not: In every lot there's consolation; There's trouble, too, in every lot."
A GHETTO VIOLET
From "Christian and Leah." Translated by A.S. Arnold.
Through the open window came the clear trill of a canary singing blithely in its cage. Within the tidy, homely little room a pale-faced girl and a youth of slender frame listened intently while the bird sang its song. The girl was the first to break the silence.
"Ephraim, my brother!" she said.
"What is it, dear Viola?"
"I wonder does the birdie know that it is the Sabbath to-day?"
"What a child you are!" answered Ephraim.
"Yes, that's always the way; when you clever men can't explain a thing, you simply dismiss the question by calling it childish," Viola exclaimed, as though quite angry. "And, pray, why shouldn't the bird know? The whole week it scarcely sang a note: to-day it warbles and warbles so that it makes my head ache. And what's the reason? Every Sabbath it's just the same, I notice it regularly. Shall I tell you what my idea is?
"The whole week long the little bird looks into our room and sees nothing but the humdrum of work-a-day life. To-day it sees the bright rays of the Sabbath lamp and the white Sabbath cloth upon the table. Don't you think I'm right, Ephraim?"
"Wait, dear Viola," said Ephraim, and he went to the cage.
The bird's song suddenly ceased.
"Now you've spoilt its Sabbath!" cried the girl, and she was so excited that the book which had been lying upon her lap fell to the ground.
Ephraim turned towards her; he looked at her solemnly, and said quietly:
"Pick up your prayer-book first, and then I'll answer. A holy book should not be on the ground like that. Had our mother dropped her prayer-book, she would have kissed it ... Kiss it, Viola, my child!"
Viola did so.
"And now I'll tell you, dear Viola, what I think is the reason why the bird sings so blithely to-day ... Of course, I don't say I'm right."
Viola's brown eyes were fixed inquiringly upon her brother's face.
"How seriously you talk to-day," she said, making a feeble attempt at a smile. "I was only joking. Mustn't I ask if the bird knows anything about the Sabbath?"
"There are subjects it is sinful to joke about, and this may be one of them, Viola."
"You really quite frighten me, Ephraim."
"You little goose, I don't want to frighten you," said Ephraim, while a faint flush suffused his features. "I'll tell you my opinion about the singing of the bird. I think, dear Viola, that our little canary knows ... that before long it will change its quarters."
"You're surely not going to sell it or give it away?" cried the girl, in great alarm; and springing to her feet, she quickly drew her brother away from the cage.
"No, I'm not going to sell it nor give it away," said Ephraim, whose quiet bearing contrasted strongly with his sister's excitement. "Is it likely that I should do anything that would give you pain? And yet, I have but to say one word ... and I'll wager that you will be the first to open the cage and say to the bird, 'Fly, fly away, birdie, fly away home!'"
"Never, never!" cried the girl.
"Viola," said Ephraim beseechingly, "I have taken a vow. Surely you would not have me break it?"
"A vow?" asked his sister.
"Viola," Ephraim continued, as he bent his head down to the girl's face, "I have vowed to myself that whenever he ... our father ... should return, I would give our little bird its freedom. It shall be free, free as he will be."
"He is coming—he is already on his way home."
Viola flung her arms round her brother's neck. For a long time brother and sister remained locked in a close embrace.
Meanwhile the bird resumed its jubilant song.
"Do you hear how it sings again?" said Ephraim; and he gently stroked his sister's hair.
"It knows that it will soon be free."
"A father out of jail!" sobbed Viola, as she released herself from her brother's arms.
"He has had his punishment, dear Viola!" said Ephraim softly.
Viola turned away. There was a painful silence, and then she looked up at her brother again. Her face was aglow, her eyes sparkled with a strange fire; she was trembling with agitation. Never before had Ephraim seen her thus.
"Ephraim, my brother," she commenced, in that measured monotone so peculiar to intense emotion, "with the bird you can do as you please. You can set it free, or, if you like, you can wring its neck. But as for him, I'll never look in his face again, from me he shall not have a word of welcome. He broke our mother's heart ... our good, good mother; he has dishonored himself and us. And I can never forget it."
"Is it right for a child to talk like that of her own father?" said Ephraim in a tremulous voice.
"When a child has good cause to be ashamed of her own father!" cried Viola.
"Oh, my Viola, you must have forgotten dear mother's dying words. Don't you remember, as she opened her eyes for the last time, how she gathered up her failing strength, and raising herself in her bed, 'Children,' she said, 'my memory will protect you both, yea, and your father too.' Viola, have you forgotten?"
Had you entered that little room an hour later, a touching sight would have met your eyes. Viola was seated on her brother's knee, her arms round his neck, whilst Ephraim with the gentle love of a brother for a younger sister, was stroking her hair, and whispering in her ear sweet words of solace.
The bird-cage was empty. ... That evening Ephraim sat up till midnight. Outside in the Ghetto reigned the stillness of night.
All at once Ephraim rose from his chair, walked to the old bureau which stood near the door, opened it, and took from it a bulky volume, which he laid upon the table in front of him. But he did not seem at all bent upon reading. He began fingering the pages, until he came upon a bundle of bank-notes, and these he proceeded to count, with a whispering movement of his lips. He had but three or four more notes still to count, when his sharp ear detected the sound of stealthy footsteps, in the little courtyard in front of the house. Closing the book, and hastily putting it back again in the old bureau, Ephraim sprang to the window and opened it.
"Is that you, father?" he cried.
There was no answer.
Ephraim repeated his question.
He strained his eyes, peering into the dense darkness, but no living thing could he see. Then quite close to him a voice cried: "Make no noise ... and first put out the light."
"Heavens! Father, it is you then ... !" Ephraim exclaimed.
"Hush!" came in a whisper from without, "first put out the light."
Ephraim closed the window, and extinguished the light. Then, with almost inaudible step, he walked out of the room into the dark passage; noiselessly he proceeded to unbolt the street-door. Almost at the same moment a heavy hand clasped his own.
"Father, father!" Ephraim cried, trying to raise his parent's hand to his lips.
"Make no noise," the man repeated, in a somewhat commanding tone.
With his father's hand in his, cautiously feeling his way, Ephraim led him into the room. In the room adjoining lay Viola, sleeping peacefully. ...
Time was when "Wild" Ascher's welcome home had been far otherwise. Eighteen years before, upon that very threshold which he now crossed with halting, stealthy steps, as of a thief in the night, stood a fair and loving wife, holding a sturdy lad aloft in her arms, so that the father might at once see, as he turned the street corner, that wife and child were well and happy. Not another Ghetto in all Bohemia could show a handsomer and happier couple than Ascher and his wife. "Wild" Ascher was one of those intrepid, venturesome spirits, to whom no obstacle is so great that it cannot be surmounted. And the success which crowned his long, persistent wooing was often cited as striking testimony to his indomitable will. Gudule was famous throughout the Ghetto as "the girl with the wonderful eyes," eyes—so the saying ran—into which no man could look and think of evil. During the earlier years of their married life those unfathomable brown eyes exercised on Ascher the full power of their fascination. A time came, however, when he alleged that those very eyes had been the cause of all his ruin.
Gudule's birthplace was far removed from the Ghetto, where Ascher had first seen the light. Her father was a wealthy farmer in a secluded village in Lower Bohemia. But distant though it was from the nearest town of any importance, the solitary grange became the centre of attraction to all the young swains far and near. But there was none who found favor in Gudule's eyes save "Wild Ascher," in spite of many a friendly warning to beware of him. One day, just before the betrothal of the young people, an anonymous letter was delivered at the grange. The writer, who called himself an old friend, entreated the farmer to prevent his dear child from becoming the wife of one who was suspected of being a gambler. The farmer was of an easy-going, indulgent nature, shunning care and anxiety as a very plague. Accordingly, no sooner had he read the anonymous missive than he handed it to his daughter, as though its contents were no concern of his.
When Gudule had read the letter to the end, she merely remarked: "Father, this concerns me, and nobody else."
And so the matter dropped.
Not until the wedding-day, half an hour before the ceremony, when the marriage canopy had already been erected in the courtyard, did the farmer sum up courage to revert to the warning of the unknown letter-writer. Taking his future son-in- law aside, he said:
"Ascher, is it true that you gamble?"
"Father," Ascher answered with equal firmness, "Gudule's eyes will save me!" Ascher had uttered no untruth when he gave his father-in-law this assurance. He spoke in all earnestness, for like every one else he knew the magnetic power of Gudule's eyes.
Nowhere, probably, does the grim, consuming pestilence of gaming claim more victims than in the Ghetto. The ravages of drink and debauchery are slight indeed; but the tortuous streets can show too many a humble home haunted by the spectres of ruin and misery which stalked across the threshold when the FIRST CARD GAME was played.
It was with almost feverish anxiety that the eyes of the Ghetto were fixed upon the development of a character like Ascher's; they followed his every step with the closest attention. Long experience had taught the Ghetto that no gambler could be trusted.
As though conscious that all eyes were upon him, Ascher showed himself most punctilious in the discharge of even the minutest of communal duties which devolved upon him as a denizen of the Ghetto, and his habits of life were almost ostentatiously regular and decorous. His business had prospered, and Gudule had borne him a son.
"Well, Gudule, my child," the farmer asked his daughter on the day when his grandson was received into the covenant of Abraham,—"well, Gudule, was the letter right?"
"What letter?" asked Gudule.
"That in which your husband was called a gambler."
"And can you still give a thought to such a letter?" was Gudule's significant reply.
Three years later, Gudule's father came to visit her. This time she showed him his second grandchild, her little Viola. He kissed the children, and round little Viola's neck clasped three rows of pearls, "that the child may know it had a grandfather once."
"And where are your pearls, Gudule?" he asked, "those left you by your mother,— may she rest in peace! She always set such store by them."
"Those, father?" Gudule replied, turning pale; "oh, my husband has taken them to a goldsmith in Prague. They require a new clasp."
"I see," remarked her father. Notwithstanding his limited powers of observation, it did not escape the old man's eyes that Gudule looked alarmingly wan and emaciated. He saw it, and it grieved his very soul. He said nothing however: only, when leaving, and after he had kissed the Mezuza [Footnote: Small cylinder inclosing a roll of parchment inscribed with the Hebrew word Shadai (Almighty) and with other texts, which is affixed to the lintel of every Jewish house.], he said to Gudule (who, with little Viola in her arms, went with him to the door), in a voice quivering with suppressed emotion: "Gudule, my child, the pearl necklet which I have given your little Viola has a clasp strong enough to last a hundred years ... you need never, therefore, give it to your husband to have a new clasp made for it." And without bestowing another glance upon his child the easy-going man left the house. It was his last visit. Within the year Gudule received a letter from her eldest brother telling her that their father was dead, and that she would have to keep the week of mourning for him. Ever since his last visit to her—her brother wrote—the old man had been somewhat ailing, but knowing his vigorous constitution, they had paid little heed to his complaints. It was only during the last few weeks that a marked loss of strength had been noticed. This was followed by fever and delirium. Whenever he was asked whether he would not like to see Gudule, his only answer was: "She must not give away the clasp of little Viola's necklet." And but an hour before his death, he raised his voice, and loudly called for "the letter." Nobody knew what letter. "Gudule knows where it is," he said, with a gentle shake of his head. Those were the last words he spoke.
Had the old man's eyes deceived him on the occasion of his last visit to his son-in-law's house? No! For, setting aside the incident of the missing pearls, the whole Ghetto could long since have told him that the warning of the anonymous letter was not unfounded—for Gudule was the wife of a gambler.
With the resistless impetuosity of a torrent released from its prison of ice and snow, the old invincible disease had again overwhelmed its victim. Gudule noticed the first signs of it when one day her husband returned home from one of his business journeys earlier than he had arranged. Gudule had not expected him.
"Why did you not come to meet me with the children?" he cried peevishly; "do you begrudge me even that pleasure?"
"I begrudge you a pleasure?" Gudule ventured to remark, as she raised her swimming eyes to his face.
"Why do you look at me so tearfully?" he almost shouted.
Ascher loved his wife, and when he saw the effect which his rough words had produced, he tenderly embraced her. "Am I not right, Gudule?" he said, "after a man has been working and slaving the livelong week, don't you think he looks forward with longing eyes for his dear children to welcome him at his door?"
At that moment Gudule felt the long latent suspicion revive in her that her husband was not speaking the truth. As if written in characters of fire, the words of that letter now came back to her memory; she knew now what was the fate that awaited her and her children.
Thenceforward, all the characteristic tokens of a gambler's life, all the vicissitudes which attend his unholy calling, followed close upon each other in grim succession. Most marked was the disturbance which his mental equilibrium was undergoing. Fits of gloomy despondency were succeeded, with alarming rapidity, by periods of tumultuous exaltation. One moment it would seem as though Gudule and the children were to him the living embodiment of all that was precious and lovable, whilst at other times he would regard them with sullen indifference. It soon became evident to Gudule that her husband's affairs were in a very bad way, for her house-keeping allowance no longer came to her with its wonted regularity. But what grieved and alarmed her most, was the fact that Ascher was openly neglecting every one of his religious duties. To return home late on Friday night, long after sunset had ushered in the Sabbath, was now a common practice. Once even it happened, that with his clothes covered with dust, he came home from one of his business tours on a Sabbath morning, when the people in holiday attire were wending their way to the synagogue.
Nevertheless, not a sound of complaint escaped Gudule's lips. Hers was one of those proud, sensitive natures, such as are to be met with among all classes and amid all circumstances of life, in Ghetto and in secluded village, no less than among the most favored ones of the earth. Had she not cast to the winds the well-intentioned counsel given her in that unsigned letter? Why then should she complain and lament, now that the seed had borne fruit? She shrank from alluding before her husband to the passion which day by day, nay, hour by hour, tightened its hold upon him. She would have died sooner than permit the word "gambler" to pass her lips. Besides, did not her eyes tell Ascher what she suffered? Those very eyes were, according to Ascher, the cause of his rapid journey along the road to ruin.
"Why do you look at me so, Gudule?" he would testily ask her, at the slightest provocation.
Often when, as he explained, he had had "a specially good week," he would bring home the costliest gifts for his children. Gudule, however, made no use whatever of these trinkets, neither for herself nor for the children. She put the things away in drawers and cupboards, and never looked at them, more especially as she observed that, under some pretext or another, Ascher generally took those glittering things away again, "in order to exchange them for others," he said: as often as not never replacing them at all.
"Gudule!" he said one day, when he happened to be in a particularly good humor, "why do you let the key remain in the door of that bureau where you keep so many valuables?"
And again Gudule regarded him with those unfathomable eyes.
"There, you're ... looking at me again!" he exclaimed with sudden vehemence.
"They're safe enough in the cupboard," Gudule said, smiling, "why should I lock it?"
"Gudule, do you mean to say ..." he cried, raising his hand as for a blow. Then he fell back in his chair, and his frame was shaken with sobs.
"Gudule, my heart's love," he cried, "I am not worthy that your eyes should rest on me. Everywhere, wherever I go, they look at me, those eyes ... and that is my ruin. If business is bad. your eyes ask me, 'Why did you mix yourself up with these things, without a thought of wife or children?'... Then I feel as if some evil spirit possessed me and tortured my soul. Oh, why can't you look at me again as you did when you were my bride?—then you looked so happy, so lovely! At other times I think: 'I shall yet grasp fortune with both hands ... and then I can face my Gudule's eyes again.' But now, now ... oh, don't look at me, Gudule!"
There spoke the self-reproaching voice, which sometimes burst forth unbidden from a suffering soul.
As for Gudule, she already knew how to appreciate this cry of her husband's conscience at its true value. It was not that she felt one moment's doubt as to its sincerity, but she knew dot so far as it affected the future, it was a mere cry and nothing more.
The years rolled on. The children were growing up. Ephraim had entered his fifteenth year. Viola was a little pale girl of twelve. In opinion of the Ghetto they were the most extraordinary children in the world. In the midst of the harassing life to which her marriage with the gambler had brought her, Gudule so reared them that they grew to be living reflections of her own inmost being. People wondered when they beheld the strange development of "Wild" Ascher's children.
Their natures were as proud and reserved as that of their mother. They did not associate with the youth of the Ghetto; it seemed as though they were not of their kind, as though an insurmountable barrier divided them. And many a bitter sneer was hurled at Gudule's head.
"Does she imagine," she often heard people whisper, "that because her father was a farmer her children are princes? Let her remember that her husband is but a common gambler."
How different would have been their thoughts had they known that the children were Gudule's sole comfort. What their father had never heard from her, she poured into their youthful souls. No tear their mother shed was unobserved by them; they knew when their father had lost and when he had won; they knew, too, all the varying moods of his unhinged mind; and in this terrible school of misery they acquired an instinctive intelligence, which in the eyes of strangers seemed mere precocity.
The two children, however, had early given evidence of a marked difference in disposition. Ephraim's nature was one of an almost feminine gentleness, whilst Viola was strong-willed and proudly reserved.
"Mother," she said one day, "do you think he will continue to play much longer?"
"Viola, how can you talk like that?" Ephraim cried, greatly disturbed.
Thereupon Viola impetuously flung her arms round her mother's neck, and for some moments she clung to her with all the strength of her passionate nature. It was as though in that wild embrace she would fain pour forth the long pent-up sorrows of her blighted childhood.
"Mother!" she cried, "you are so good to him. Never, never shall he have such kindness from me!"
"Ephraim," said Gudule, "speak to your sister. In her sinful anger, Viola would revenge herself upon her own father. Does it so beseem a Jewish child?"
"Why does he treat you so cruelly, then?" Viola almost hissed the words.
Soon after fell the final crushing blow. Ascher had been away from home for some weeks, when one day Gudule received a letter, dated a prison in the neighborhood of Vienna. In words of genuine sympathy the writer explained that Ascher had been unfortunate enough to forge the signature to a bill. She would not see him again for the next five years. God comfort her! The letter was signed: "A fellow-sufferer with your husband."
As it had been with her old father, after he had bidden her a last farewell, so it was now with Gudule. From that moment her days were numbered, and although not a murmur escaped her lips, hour by hour she wasted away.
One Friday evening, shortly after the seven-branched Sabbath lamp had been lit, Gudule, seated in her arm-chair, out of which she had not moved all day, called the two children to her. A bright smile hovered around her lips, an unwonted fire burned in her still beautiful eyes, her bosom heaved ... in the eyes of her children she seemed strangely changed. "Children," said she, "come and stand by me. Ephraim, you stand here on my right, and you, dear Viola, on my left. I would like to tell you a little story, such as they tell little children to soothe them to sleep. Shall I?"
"Mother!" they both cried, as they bent towards her.
"You must not interrupt me, children," she observed, still with that strange smile on her lips, "but leave me to tell my little story in my own way.
"Listen, children," she resumed, after a brief pause. "Every human being—be he ever so wicked—if he have done but a single good deed on earth, will, when he arrives above, in the seventh heaven, get his Sechus, that is to say, the memory of the good he has done here below will be remembered and rewarded bountifully by the Almighty." Gudule ceased speaking. Suddenly a change came over her features: her breath came and went in labored gasps; but her brown eyes still gleamed brightly.
In tones well-nigh inaudible she continued: "When Jerusalem, the Holy City, was destroyed, the dead rose up out of their graves ... the holy patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob ... and also Moses, and Aaron his brother ... and David the King ... and prostrating themselves before God's throne they sobbed: 'Dost Thou not remember the deeds we have done?... Wouldst Thou now utterly destroy all these our children, even to the innocent babe at the breast?' But the Almighty was inexorable.
"Then Sarah, our mother, approached the Throne... When God beheld her, He covered His face, and wept. 'Go,' said He, 'I cannot listen to thee.' ... But she exclaimed ... 'Dost Thou no longer remember the tears I shed before I gave birth to my Joseph and Benjamin ... and dost Thou not remember the day when they buried me yonder, on the borders of the Promised Land ... and now, must mine eyes behold the slaughter of my children, their disgrace, and their captivity?'... Then God cried: 'For THY sake will I remember thy children and spare them.' ..."
"Would you like to know," Gudule suddenly cried, with uplifted voice, "what this Sechus is like? It has the form of an angel, and it stands near the Throne of the Almighty. ... But, since the days of Rachel, our mother, it is the Sechus of a mother that finds most favor in God's eyes. When a mother dies, her soul straightway soars heavenward, and there it takes its place amid the others.
"'Who art thou?' asks God. 'I am the Sechus of a mother,' is the answer, 'of a mother who has left children behind her on earth.' 'Then do thou stand here and keep guard over them!' says God. And when it is well with the children, it is the Sechus of a mother which has caused them to prosper, and when evil days befall them ... it is again the Angel who stands before God and pleads: 'Dost Thou forget that these children no longer have a mother?'... and the evil is averted. ..."
Gudule's voice had sunk to a mere whisper. Her eyes closed, her head fell back, her breathing became slower and more labored. "Are you still there, children?" she softly whispered.
Anxiously they bent over her. Then once again she opened her eyes.
"I see you still"—the words came with difficulty from her blanched lips—"you, Ephraim, and you, my little Viola ... I am sure my Sechus will plead for you ... for you and your father." They were Gudule's last words. When her children, whose eyes had never as yet been confronted with Death, called her by her name, covering her icy hands with burning kisses, their mother was no more ...
Who can tell what influence causes the downtrodden blade to raise itself once more! Is it the vivifying breath of the west wind, or a mysterious power sent forth from the bosom of Mother Earth? It was a touching sight to see how those two children, crushed as they were beneath the weight of a twofold blow, raised their heads again, and in their very desolation found new-born strength. And it filled the Ghetto with wonder. For what were they but the offspring of a gambler? Or was it the spirit of Gudule, their mother, that lived in them?
After Gudule's death, her eldest brother, the then owner of the grange, came over to discuss the future of his sister's children. He wished Ephraim and Viola to go with him to his home in Lower Bohemia, where he could find them occupation. The children, however, were opposed to the idea. They had taken no previous counsel together, yet, upon this point, both were in perfect accord,— they would prefer to be left in their old home.
"When father comes back again," said Ephraim, "he must know where to find us. But to you, Uncle Gabriel, he would never come."
The uncle then insisted that Viola at least should accompany him, for he had daughters at home whom she could assist in their duties in the house and on the farm. But the child clung to Ephraim, and with flaming eyes, and in a voice of proud disdain, which filled the simple farmer with something like terror, she cried:
"Uncle, you have enough to do to provide for your own daughters; don't let ME be an additional burden upon you; besides, sooner would I wander destitute through the world than be separated from my brother."
"And what do you propose to do then?" exclaimed the uncle, after he had somewhat recovered from his astonishment at Viola's vehemence.
"You see, Uncle Gabriel," said Ephraim, a sudden flush overspreading his grief- stricken features, "you see I have thought about it, and I have come to the conclusion that this is the best plan. Viola shall keep house, and I ... I'll start a business."
"YOU start a business?" cried the uncle with a loud laugh. "Perhaps you can tell me what price I'll get for my oats next market day? A business!... and what business, my lad?"
"Uncle," said Ephraim, "if I dispose of all that is left us, I shall have enough money to buy a small business. Others in our position have done the same... and then..."
"Well, and then?" the uncle cried, eagerly anticipating his answer.
"Then the Sechus of our mother will come to our aid." Ephraim said softly.
The farmer's eyes grew dim with moisture; his sister had been very dear to him.
"As I live!" he cried, brushing his hand across his eyes, "you are true children of my sister Gudule. That's all I can say."
Then, as though moved by a sudden impulse, he quickly produced, from the depths of his overcoat, a heavy pocketbook. "There!"... he cried, well-nigh out of breath, "there are a hundred gulden for you, Ephraim. With that you can, at all events, make a start; and then you needn't sell the few things you still have. There ... put the money away... oats haven't fetched any price at all to-day, 'tis true; but for the sake of Gudule's children, I don't mind what I do... Come, put it away, Ephraim... and may God bless you, and make you prosper."
"Uncle!" cried Ephraim, as he raised the farmer's hand to his lips, "is all this to be mine? All this?"
"Yes, my boy, yes; it IS a deal of money isn't it?" ... said Gudule's brother, accompanying his words with a sounding slap on his massive thigh. "I should rather think it is. With that you can do something, at all events ... and shall I tell you something? In Bohemia the oat crop is, unfortunately, very bad this season. But in Moravia it's splendid, and is two groats cheaper ... So there's your chance, Ephraim, my child; you've got the money, buy!" All at once a dark cloud overspread his smiling face.
"It's a lot of money, Ephraim, that I am giving you ... many a merchant can't lay his hands on it," he said, hesitatingly; "but if ... you were to ... gam—"
The word remained unfinished, for upon his arm he suddenly felt a sensation as of a sharp, pricking needle.
"Uncle Gabriel!" cried Viola—for it was she who had gripped his arm—and the child's cheeks were flaming, whilst her lips curled with scorn, and her white teeth gleamed like those of a beast of prey. "Uncle Gabriel!" she almost shrieked, "if you don't trust Ephraim, then take your money back again ... it's only because you are our mother's brother that we accept it from you at all ... Ephraim shall repay you to the last farthing ... Ephraim doesn't gamble ... you sha'n't lose a single penny of it."
With a shake of his head the farmer regarded the strange child. He felt something like annoyance rise within him; an angry word rose to the lips of the usually good tempered man. But it remained unsaid; he was unable to remove his eyes from the child's face.
"As I live," he muttered, "she has Gudule's very eyes."
And with another thumping slap on his leg, he merrily exclaimed:
"All right, we'll leave it so then.... If Ephraim doesn't repay me, I'll take YOU, you wild thing... for you've stood surety for your brother, and then I'll take you away, and keep you with me at home. Do you agree... you little spit- fire, eh?"
"Yes, uncle!" cried Viola.
"Then give me a kiss, Viola."
The child hesitated for a moment, then she laid her cheek upon her uncle's face.
"Ah, now I've got you, you little spit-fire," he cried, kissing her again and again. "Aren't you ashamed now to have snapped your uncle up like that?"
Then after giving Ephraim some further information about the present price of oats, and the future prospects of the crops, with a sideshot at the chances of wool, skins, and other merchandise, he took his leave.
There was great surprise in the Ghetto when the barely fifteen-year-old lad made his first start in business. Many made merry over "the great merchant," but before the year was ended, the sharp-seeing eyes of the Ghetto saw that Ephraim had "a lucky hand." Whatever he undertook he followed up with a calmness and tact which often baffled the restless activity of many a big dealer, with all his cuteness and trickery. Whenever Ephraim, with his pale, sad fnce, made his appearance at a farmstead, to negotiate for the purchase of wool, or some such matter, it seemed as though some invisible messenger had gone before him to soften the hearts of the farmers. "No one ever gets things as cheap as you do," he was assured by many a farmer's wife, who had been won by the unconscious eloquence of his dark eyes. No longer did people laugh at "the little merchant," for nothing so quickly kills ridicule as success.
When, two years later, his Uncle Gabriel came again to see how the children were getting on, Ephraim was enabled to repay, in hard cash, the money he had lent him.
"Oho!" cried Gudule's brother, with big staring eyes, as he clutched his legs with both hands, "how have you managed in so short a time to save so much? D'ye know that that's a great deal of money?"
"I've had good luck, uncle," said Ephraim, modestly.
"You've been...playing, perhaps?"
The words fell bluntly from the rough country-man, but hardly had they been uttered, when Viola sprang from her chair, as though an adder had stung her. "Uncle," she cried, and a small fist hovered before Gabriel's eyes in such a threatening manner that he involuntarily closed them. But the child, whose features reminded him so strongly of his dead sister, could not make him angry.
"Ephraim," he exclaimed, in a jocund tone, warding off Viola with his hands, "you take my advice. Take this little spit-fire with you into the village one day...they may want a young she-wolf there." Then he pocketed the money.
"Well, Ephraim," said he, "may God bless you, and grant you further luck. But you won't blame me if I take the money,—I can do with it, and in oats, as you know, there's some chance of good business just now. But I am glad to see that you're so prompt at paying. Never give too much credit! That's always my motto; trust means ruin, and eats up a man's business, as rats devour the contents of a corn-barn."
There was but one thing that constantly threw its dark shadow across these two budding lives,—it was the dark figure in a distant prison. This it was that saddened the souls of the two children with a gloom which no sunshine could dispel. When on Fridays Ephraim returned, fatigued and weary from his work, to the home over which Viola presided with such pathetic housewifely care, no smile of welcome was on her face, no greeting on his. Ephraim, 'tis true, told his sister where he had been, and what he had done, but in the simplest words there vibrated that tone of unutterable sadness which has its constant dwelling-place in such sorely-tried hearts.
Meanwhile, a great change had come over Viola. Nature continues her processes of growth and development 'mid the tempests of human grief, and often the fiercer the storm the more beautiful the after effects. Viola was no longer the pale child, "the little spit-fire," by whom her Uncle Gabriel's arm had been seized in such a violent grip. A womanly gentleness had come over her whole being, and already voices were heard in the Ghetto praising her grace and beauty, which surpassed even the loveliness of her dead mother in her happiest days. Many an admiring eye dwelt upon the beautiful girl, many a longing glance was cast in the direction of the little house, where she dwelt with her brother. But the daughter of a "gambler," the child of a man who was undergoing imprisonment for the indulgence of his shameful vice! That was a picture from which many an admirer shrank with horror!
One day Ephraim brought home a young canary for his sister. When he handed her the bird in its little gilt cage, her joy knew no bounds, and showering kisses by turns upon her brother, and on the wire-work of the cage, her eyes sparkling with animation:
"You shall see, Ephraim, how I'll teach the little bird to speak," she cried.
The softening influence which had, during the last few months, come over his sister's nature was truly a matter of wonder to Ephraim. Humbly and submissively she accepted the slightest suggestion on his part, as though it were a command. He was to her a father and mother, and never were parents more implicitly obeyed by a child than this brother by a sister but three years his junior.
There was one subject, however, upon which Ephraim found his sister implacable and firm—their absent father, the mere mention of whose name made her tremble. Then there returned that haughty curl of the lips, and all the other symptoms of a proud, inflexible spirit. It was evident that Viola hated the man to whom she owed her existence.
Thus had it come about that Ephraim was almost afraid to pronounce his father's name. Neither did he care to allude to their mother before Viola, for the memory of her death was too closely bound up with that dark form behind the distant prison walls.
Let us now return to the night on which Ephraim opened the door to his father. How had it come about? A thousand times Ephraim had thought about his father's return—and now he durst not even kindle a light, to look upon the long- estranged face. As silent as when he had come, Ascher remained during the rest of the night; he had seated himself at the window, and his arm was resting upon the very spot where formerly the cage had stood. The bird had obtained its freedom, and was, no doubt, by this time asleep, nestling amid the breeze-swept foliage of some wooded glen. HE too had regained his liberty, but no sleep closed his eyes, and yet he was in safe shelter, in the house of his children.