The Old Man of the Mountain/IX
|←SECTION VIII||The Old Man of the Mountain by , translated by Julius Charles Hare
Edward had taken his measures with no less secrecy than judgement. None of the servants, foremen, or even of the overseers knew that he was doing anything out in the warehouse. Every interruption had been guarded against. He was quite alone, nor did anybody even know of his having left the house, when he made his arrangements; and it was dark before he came back. He could not tell whether a fresh robbery might not be committed on that very night, or not till a future one. All the watchmen had been removed from the warehouse in such a manner as not to excite suspicion.
And now amid the solitude of the night he sat down to the account books, for the sake of bringing all his thoughts to bear on a single point, and thereby recovering from the agitation he had lately undergone. It was of importance to have these matters perfectly arranged before he went away. At length he succeeded in banishing what had happened from his thoughts for the time; and he became so much engaged in his employment, he forgot that these very hours might be unravelling that unpleasant affair, which had given them so much annoyance for years.
When he had finisht and was turning over the leaves of an old book that he had taken up along with the rest, some written papers fell out of it: they were in Balthasar's hand, and had evidently been written many years. He read the following fragments.
Yes, in truth weeping is a wonder, and, as they say, a gift sent from heaven. A bliss spreads through our soul, as soon as our flowing tears come, like the waters of a river, sweeping away black sorrow, and disquietude, and trembling doubts. Ye are all given back to me, ye spirits that once were mine, and that a cruel destiny afterward severed from me.
For the sake of this, people will woo tears, and try to lure them with coaxing when they will not come. Our day's work is over, and now, as the rich man and the glutton will wind up his multifarious meal with sweetmeats, so after our toil, after closing our accounts, we court devotional thoughts and pathetical emotions, we meditate on the dead, in order to entice this lifes-wine of tears into our voluptuous eyes and our luxurious brain. Now a sentimental melancholy inhaloes every ordinary object around us; and amid the meek abasht feelings of a pining anguish and remorse, suddenly starts up nauseous arrogance, vaunting the grandeur of a spoilt capricious heart. O what poor wretches our fellow creatures now seem to us in their commonplaceness, who yet all, as the patient children and drudges of mother earth, are better than we.
But laughter! This earthquake which invisible powers heave up out of the knotty entanglement of our dark enigmatical being! which in boisterous senseless noises announces that within, in the unseen world, the soul neither recks of nor knows truth or falsehood, and has just been murdering the innocent herald who was bringing these phantasms before it! These rude unmeaning sounds which will for a long time distort even the best face, the most mechanically regular mask!
How men long after this loathsome convulsion! While tears lie and cheat by aping heavenly feelings, laughter is awkwardly trying to let the craziness of evil demons skulk behind it, hides itself from vulgarity for the sake of being seen, feigns terrour when our unsubdued struggling feelings are detected, and saunters about in the midst of whatever is disgusting and impure, perpetually clapperclawing with some outcast among the rabble or other: one moment our intelligent, and higher faculties, as they call them, get the upper hand; the next they are beaten down and trod upon by something base and profligate: and thus veering to and fro, now toying now scolding, laughter clatters down the steps of idiocy, which crumble with the decay of our bodily strength — and man grins, and is happy. ——
Blessed time, when there was a real existence, a life in life! when the vast whole of eternity, being sufficient to itself, had not splintered itself out into time! when the spirit did not need a succession, measured out by the atoms of time and space, to become conscious of its power and of its being! What a portentous event was it, when eternity and life parted fellowship! when the band by which spirits were bound in one, burst, and that strange creature, Death, rusht in through the chasm to domineer over all. Now that which is firm, stedfast, enduring, has concentrated itself in the depths of its own being, and has put on the unvarying aspect of solid meditation. Stones, rocks, metals, bid defiance to decay with their cold looks, and would make believe that they know not of change. Drops of water dancing like tiny elves along them, the sightless legions of the air, wherever they spread, are eating into the limbs of the rigid haughty giant; the dwarf, man, digs into his bones, and, if his strength were equal to his fury, would reduce him to fleeting sand. May it not peradventure be the same with the eternal stars? A little acid, and the monster sneezes sillily, and roars, and yawns, and for the moment remembers its spiritual nature.
And thou with thy butterfly wings in thy light summer garment, thou that hoverest aloft, and flittest over the mountains, and sweepest along the earth! from the airy changeling of the caterpillar, up or down to the lion and to man, ye all of you, fostering a brief momentary spark in you, like the glance from the flint and steel — gone is the red bubbling up of the spark — and again a mere slough is lying before us, after its short dream of life and love, dust upon dust, rottenness upon decay — the great-grandfather beside his mouldering great-grandchild — and neither knows the other, neither has ever heard of the other.
The plants around you prick up their ears at you in a thousand forms; the flowers smile roguishly and sadly, in the midst of the masquerade; and dream mingles with dream, when the lover plucks the rose, and blushing himself holds out the blushing blossom to his blushing maiden.——
The beating of the pulse is not only a sign of life, it is life itself. No feeling, no thought, no sight or hearing, no taste or sensation flows along with a rushing stream, but all comes skipping, wave upon wave, drop upon drop, and this is its being. One thought is cast out by another; our feelings are only felt as they shift between life and death: the kiss only thrills on our lips when a chill void has already spread over them; our delight in a picture, in music, merely gushes through us; one moment it entrances us, the next it has vanisht. Thus the sea breathes in its ebb and flow, time in its days and nights, its winters and summers. If I do not forget myself this moment, I cannot recollect myself the next. — And death ——.
Is this revulsion of the pulse, this alteration of strain, this change of tune a prelude, a transition to a new piece of music? Every living creature exists to be devoured by another; man alone has apparently eluded these barrack-regulations, this military duty, and fattens himself up for the earth, that shattered chaos of stones and mould.
In love, in misfortune, in joy, in despondency, in labour and rest, death has always been my uppermost, I might rather say my only thought. Suicide in me would have been of all human actions the most natural. I have never felt that any indescribable fear, any overpowering shudder draws us back, and flings the knife from our hands. If poor naked Joy, that is so meanly clad she is ashamed to walk about the earth, were once to enter our doors, then the stab of the bright dagger would only be the last glittering pinnacle of our joyous transport. For after that brief pulsation is over, how bald is the earth, how black is life! It is because I know not whither I am going, or whether I am going, or whether there be a whither, that the act is so alluring. Only men will not confess this, but give the name of cowardice and of courage to what is neither the one nor the other. In dissipation, in thoughtlessness, in indifference, the poor wretches lose both life and death.
A strange dream, that is to say, a dream, has visited me. The commonest thing is quite as strange as the uncommonest, only habit blunts our sense.
I was dead. I knew it distinctly; and yet I lived on in my consciousness. All my forlorn doubts, my stiff-neckedness that would not bow to the yoke, my hard heart that closed itself so early against love, had shut me out, so my conscience told me, from the place to which the good hope to go. The state in which I found myself, and numberless others along with me, was one the common ordinariness, the dull triviality of which was quite appalling. I was utterly unable to recollect my friends and those whom I had loved, however intensely I strained my memory and put it to the rack. A longing, like that of one pining with thirst after a stream of fresh clear water, tormented me, to call up the forms and the ideas of those beloved beings in my imagination; I felt a yearning after them like a heavy weight that was crushing me in the hidden places of my heart. Just as little could I bring back those actions which during my life I might have called good. Every thing in this region of my thoughts was like a bare parcht waste. But everything evil rolled in whirling circles wearyingly and dizzyingly before my inward eye. My vices and errours, all the faults and misdeeds of my life, every wretched moment of my temporal existence gathered round me as it were with the cries and croaking of fierce hungry birds of prey. O these sins, how hugely and gigantically they swelled out! How horrible it was to see their consequences unfolding themselves far, far away in the realms of the future! how they took root and grew up riotously in after-generations! nothing but looks of anguish, of reproach, of pain, of bitter despair was turned upon me from thence. In like manner I easily called to mind all the persons who had ever been objects of my hatred or dislike; every tedious hour, the recollection of which tortured me afresh; all the folly and absurdity that I had ever uttered myself, or heard from others.
In the numerous vast halls countless swarms of men were sitting, standing, or walking about, all in the same state of deplorable woe. And no variety, no division of time, no hour, no sun or night disturbed or changed this melancholy monotonousness. One solitary amusement was there. Now and then some one reminded us of our former faith, how during our lives we had feared and worshipt a God. Then a loud burst of laughter, as at a most portentous absurdity, pealed through the hall. Afterward they all grew grave, and I strove with all my faculties to call back the reverence, the sanctity of my human feelings, but in vain.—— —— ——
Edward had not observed that the morning was already dawning, so completely had he been wrapt up in these singular papers. Without doubt too he would have gone on reading much longer, unless he had now been interrupted by loud cries and a violent knocking at his door. He went to see what it was, and Conrad rusht into the room, heated, panting, and with a ferocious look.
— Now we have him! cried the miner furiously: did not I say long ago that this vagabond is wickedness itself? Only let him instantly be bound, master overseer, hand and foot in the heaviest chains you can get, and then have the dog flogged till he is cut to pieces, that his life and his infernal soul may crawl out of him by inches.
— What is the matter with you? askt Edward. I am afraid you must be in a fever, and are stark raving.
— Hurrah! screamed Conrad; now my cruel illness will soon be gone, now that the miscreant has been caught at his wicked tricks. He will never carry me down again now into their rubbishy straw.
— Whom are you talking of? Edward again began: surely not of the Hungarian miner?
— The very person, answered Conrad: the monster has been stealing, and is in league with a whole gang of thieves. Hark you, to cut the matter short, I could not sleep last night, and so roamed about the woods, in part to get myself some herbs to cure my ailing. It was just beginning to dawn, when I heard something like wheels down below, along the lonely lane in the thick of the wood, and at the same time there was a moaning and groaning; for at night one hears and makes out every thing much plainlier. Off I ran. Two fellows were drawing a cart in great tribulation and fear, and the pale rascal was walking alongside, and driving them on. Scoundrels! I shouted in their faces! and the word was hardly out of my throat, when the two thieves had already scampered off; but the pale skinny mountebank I held fast; the cart with the stolen goods is standing in the wood. They will soon bring it after me however; for I met a couple of workmen whom I sent for it; and the Hungarian waivode I have dragged hither with my own hand.
Meanwhile the whole house was in an uprore. The stranger was sitting handcufft at the door; and miners, spinners, and weavers came crowding; others flockt from the mills; and all were shouting, all were staring with wonder at each other; everybody wanted to tell his story, and nobody seemed to know what it was that had happened; so that Edward and Conrad began with much perplexity and annoyance to question one after another, until the miner cried out with his thundering voice:
— Hold your jaws all of you. Not a soul shall speak another word, except he whom your young master shall ask.
One-eyed Michael was standing near them, and, as Edward turned to him, he said:
— It may have been about three in the morning when I set off from the forge to deliver a message betimes at the smelting house up in the mountains. I was walking along the path through the wood, thinking no harm, save that when I got pretty near to the warehouse all the nightly robberies came across me which have been going on this many a long day there. I'd give the world to catch the rogue, I said to myself, when all at once a gun went off. A gun! what ho! that put me to my wits. There are never any sportsmen hereabout, I said, and began marching and bustling on with a little more haste and speed. In a few moments I hear cries and yells and shouts, and a pothering and squabbling. All this methinks can never be right. I get to the top, and now I see the whole business. The warehouse is open, several barrows and men are before it, they are piling up the goods: a short figure that I could not make out in the dark, panting and whining, screaming and grumbling, is shuffling and tumbling about. I make up to the fellows with the stolen goods. Then some of them seized me fast and prest down my eyes. The noise lessens, I can't cry out, nor would it do me much good. When they let me loose again, there was nothing to be seen. Even the limper, in spite of all my search, had got off and was not to be found. When I came nearer the houses I awoke every body with my shouts, telling them to go and watch the warehouse, and scour after the rogues.
— And I, cried Conrad, have lugged the commander in chief of the cutpurses by the throat, that sapient soothsayer that was playing off his pranks with his match the other day at your forge.
Then they all set off again telling their stories, shouting and screaming, just as noisily as before. Edward however gave orders what all were to do; the stranger was to be watcht, the stolen goods to be taken into the house, and everybody was to be quiet, not to disturb their old master's rest, should he be still asleep. He himself hastened with a few others to the warehouse, to arrange matters there, and, if possible, to find out more about the thieves.