The International (magazine)/Volume 1/A Pawned Character
Let us follow one of their heroes for but ten chapters and what do we find? He has, in nine cases out of ten, absolutely no occupation or profession by which he can support himself, and yet he lives at the most expensive hotels, eats the daintiest of foods, smokes the finest Havanas, and even for the poor he always has a six-pence. He has plenty for drinks and will ride nothing but thorough-bred horses. He spends his time at sea-side resorts and in travel. And at the close of these ten chapters of wild extravagance we find him in the eleventh still possessing a sufficient fortune to allow him to drown his sorrows—caused by the faithlessness of his love—in splendid champagne suppers and mad orgies.
All because our authors have no idea of the real value of money. Modest sums they scorn. An income short of twenty or thirty thousand is beneath their notice. Who has ever read of a hero who had a salary of forty-five dollars a month, for instance?
Another mistake these writers are guilty of, is in the way they describe their characters. They go into detail as to the figure, the color of the hair and eyes, the shape of the nose. They even allow us to look into their hero's heart, to read his most private thoughts—everything is made quite clear to us except the condition of his purse.
Yet the purse, in my judgment, should be opened first of all, so that the reader may know whom he has the honor of meeting. It would then require only a few strokes of the pen and the whole character would be disclosed.
I will now practice what I preach and endeavor to set clearly before you the state of my hero's finances. Let us open his purse. You see several compartments with nothing in them. Here is a special compartment—again nothing. Turn the purse upside down, what falls out? Nothing. . . .
The rest of his personality can now be readily described. A tall, slender figure, pale face with dreamy eyes, and a sarcastic mouth that shows the cynical turn of the man's mind. Clothed in tattered trousers and two-thirds of a coat, with a pair of old, faded flowered slippers on his feet, let me present to you my hero, Mr. Alfred N——.
He holds a long pipe from which struggle a few last rings of smoke, that form as they rise, a beautiful picture . . . . which fades and with the pipe, grows cold. What is the picture which has disappeared with the last ring? A beautiful but cold-hearted maiden . . . and now the dreamer's mind is empty—as empty as his room.
The shadows of approaching night fill the corners of the bare chamber. The closet is hungry for clothes, the bedstead longs for a feather bed, the book-case is lonely for books—poverty stares pitilessly from all sides and seems to say:
"Ha, ha! forsaken by the world! Every one, even your love, has deserted you. But I will stand by you, my boy!"
The cold pipe drops from his hand, the bitter smile vanishes from his lips, his eye lids droop . . . . dreams cost nothing.
Suddenly there was a rap at the door. Alfred sprang up.
"Probably some one has mistaken the door. Shall I open it?"
It surely could be none of his friends, they all knew he had no money to lend. But he finally opened the door a little, with due consideration of his doubtful trousers and two-thirds coat, and into the room glided a head.
"Old rags? Old clothes, my master? Aaron pays well, God knows."
The bitter smile returned once more as Alfred answered:
"I have nothing to sell."
But the Jew was not to be so easily disposed of. Slipping into the room, he continued:
"You must have something. Old shoes, books? Aaron buys everything, everything!"
"See for yourself," Alfred responded coldly. "Here is the clothes-closet, here the book-shelf, here—"
"God knows! Nothing, absolutely nothing," exclaimed the Jew in wonder. "As bare as if swept by a cyclone. Too bad, young man, Aaron pays well."
With these words there was heard the clear ring of metal, a sound more tempting than the voice of a siren. Alfred trembled as he heard it, his eyes became riveted on the dirty bag the Jew held in his hand. Across the latter's face flashed an expression of exultant contempt. Caressing the uplifted bag he continued:
"Aaron pays well and buys everything, everything, young master."
"But you see, I have nothing," cried Alfred angrily.
"Why, my master need not grow so angry. He still has something for which Aaron would lay out many, many ducats—"
"Don't jest with me, Jew, or you will fly down those stairs at a rate that will land you in Abraham's bosom!"
"Aaron means what he says," answered the Jew insinuatingly. "My master has a precious treasure for which Aaron will pay whatever the master desires." With this he put his hand into the bag.
Alfred watched him with sparkling eyes and finally said reluctantly:
"Well, speak out! What have I to sell you?"
The Jew came a step nearer and whispered:
Alfred repeated in astonishment:
"My character? Are you crazy?"
The Jew stepped back, and replied cringingly:
"The master is surprised? Aaron buys everything: Worn-out clothes; maidens' purity; old umbrellas; honor; hair; genius—Aaron buys the whole world. Why not buy character? Character, in these days, is a rare article. There are many, many people with no character—"
Alfred gazed with horror at the speaker. The last rays of the setting sun stole in and added to the Jew's repulsiveness. The bag in his hand grew fiery red, the ragged hair and beard changed into golden threads, gold sparkled in the folds of his garment, played over his wrinkled face—even his eyes shone like two ducats. It seemed to him that he saw before him the very demon of gold, with bent form and twisted fingers, ready to spring upon his prey, and sap its life-blood and smother in it the last spark of godliness. . . .
He covered his face with his hands.
When he looked up the figure had resumed its true proportions. The sun had sunk.
"Well, will my master sell his character? Aaron pays well. There is a great demand for characters, because of the election so near at hand. . . . Will you sell? Aaron will pay you a big price!"
With these words the Jew took out of the bag a ducat, and held it up between his fingers. Alfred looked longingly for a moment at the gold piece as it glittered in the twilight, but suddenly he turned away and said, resolutely:
"No, I will not sell."
The Jew shrugged his shoulders.
"Why? Why will you not sell? God knows, you have a splendid character. I will give twice as much! No? Three times—I will make the gentleman a millionaire . . . . he shall live in a palace . . . . drink the rarest wines . . . . kiss the sweetest lips. . . ."
For a moment Alfred gazed into the distance as if he saw there a beautiful vision. Then he rubbed his eyes and repeated with a sigh:
"I will not sell!"
"Well, just as the master wishes. Keep your character and your poverty. Aaron will keep his money. Good day."
He threw the ducats back among the others so that they rang out, placed the bag in his bosom, and started to go. At the door, he turned.
"Aaron has a good heart," he said, "and cannot leave a righteous man in want. Listen—I will lend you money—give me your character in pawn. The interest will be small, fifty per cent—a mere trifle! How is that?"
Alfred thought a while. He looked around the room, at the empty closet, the hard bed, the lonely book-helves. Poverty whispered: "I will never forsake you!" His decision was made and waving his hand, he cried:
"Well, you may have it. I'll pawn it—"
Suddenly he paused. How was it possible to pawn a character! That was a thought of a diseased brain. He closed his eyes—opened them—the Jew was still there. He pinched himself—the Jew remained.
"I know what is troubling the gentleman. But that is Aaron's business."
He pulled from inside his coat a strange looking box, such as is used in holding pills, opened it and almost immediately closed it again.
"So, your character is here," he said with a sneer, and tapping the box. Alfred gazed upon it with awe. In the dim light he could read Noble Characters.
"See," the Jew said, "what honor I do you. I sort characters according to their value. Here," and he drew from his pocket another box. "I have the honest Old Bohemian Characters, which now-a-days are only to be found among the old people who have never killed any one. Here are Unblemished Characters. They are comparatively cheap, for they are not durable, they must be carefully guarded from the wind. Political leaders generally present each other with them. In this box I keep Respectable Characters, mostly trash—but what does my master care for my boxes? It is the money he wants, is it not?"
Pulling out the bag he began to count out the glistening coins, one after another—suddenly he stopped.
"In five years from now Aaron will come to you, no matter where you may be. If you do not pay the loan, with the interest, the character shall be mine. Do you agree?"
Alfred nodded. The Jew continued to count out the ducats, and the pile grew higher and higher, and strange to say the bag seemed to grow no thinner.
Give us each, O Heaven, such a bag!
Five years have elapsed. We find Alfred in the midst of one of those whirls which foam with champagne, glisten with sparkling gems and rustle with silks, in an enchanted land which has been created by the demon of gold.
He looks well, his figure is more rotund, his cheeks are bright with health, his eyes shine with content. It can be seen that he has drunk from the cup of luxury in measured draughts, with the moderation of a true Epicurean. The absence of character agrees with him wonderfully well.
He has a wife. The beautiful coldhearted maiden whose image he saw in the last rings of smoke, five years ago? Oh, no ! To be sure her icy heart melted in the warm glow of ducats, but Alfred's had frozen. No longer is he interested in that beautiful picture framed in smoke. His love is now framed in solid gold. He does not love his wife, nor she him, yet what matters that? Before the world they are all that they should be, and privately—foolish is he who lets old-fashioned ideas interfere with his pleasures!
That Alfred has no character, is an open secret, every one knows it, and can read it on his brow. And still he holds his head up proudly, and all bow humbly before him. His breast is covered with medals; high offices are intrusted to him; honor, beauty, glory lie at his feet. Wise fathers hold him up to their sons as a shining example. See how he has worked his way up! How? Whose business is that? All bow down to him. Grey-haired old men, who scorn the wickedness of the world, grow young in his presence. Grave philosophers brighten up at his smile. Protectors of the law frequent his halls, political parties fight over him; his name is ever before the public. . . .
And in that same little room under the rafters, where five years ago he pawned his character, sits to-day a delicate, pale-faced youth, in faded slippers and old clothes, and dedicates to him a long poem, full of enthusiasm for the noble aspirations of humanity. . . .
And I—I would rather write an ode on gold! That would be truly worthy of this age! Derzavin's Ode on God has out-lived itself; for our age it has no value, except in such forms as that in which the Emperor has immortalized it by having it woven in gold upon a silk curtain.
Yes, gold is the god of our century; the heavens proclaim its glory above that of the moon, the dollar is more beautiful than the stars. On earth all rulers bow before gold; in divers shapes and under various names we worship it. Some call it religion; others love; many call it law, and still others speak of it as wicked Mammon; but one and all, they pay it honor. For gold we preach; shed blood on the battle-field; sacrifice ourselves for our country; love humanity; work with hands and brain; saddle Pegasus,—for gold I write this, my satire, with none too keen a pen. Oh, metal bright, powerful, heavenly—I worship thee! All the day long would I play to thee on a golden harp, accompanying my hymn of praise with thy own heavenly sound!
Surely you will forgive me, my dear brother-searchers for gold, for this deviation from my story. My story, which is dedicated to that which to you and me is dearest under the sun!
The liveried servant comes in and announces to Alfred that a dirty Jew is outside, who demands an interview with the master. Alfred remembers his bargain of five years ago.
"Let him come to my room," he commands.
It is a cozy little room, breathing forth luxury. The walls are covered with pictures of beautiful women, lively and gentle, proud and humble, slender and stout, all in costumes such as no modest woman would wear.
The Jew enters.
"You are late," Alfred says, looking at his watch.
"Yes," replies the Jew. "I was detained. I have had trouble over one of my characters, which I bought in a foreign country On the frontier it was confiscated. The officers did not know exactly what to do with it, and so my poor character was sent from one office to another, until it began to thaw like ice and finally, before it reached the third office, there was nothing left of it at all—"
"You have brought me back my pawned character, have you not?" Alfred interrupts.
"Yes, your Highness," the Jew replies, taking out of his pocket a soiled box.
"Well, never mind, you may keep it, I do not care to have it back. I have learned that I can live much better without it. And now, I would like to tell you something."
"I still possess a small piece of shame, which occasionally gives me a little trouble. I will sell that to you."
Aaron shrugged his shoulders, shook his head and replied, with a repulsive smile:
"Can't do it! Such goods have gone out of style. Look, your Highness, around the walls of your room."
- Englished by Rose M. Humpal.Published in 1895 by Z. Otto of Prague.