The Pictures/5

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Edward had been invited by the counsellor to dinner; it was the first invitation he had received from him for a long time; and though the youth did not comprehend the cause of this returning good-will in his old friend, still he went in high spirits, chiefly in the pleasing expectation of renewing his former acquaintance with Sophia. He took with him the paper which he had discovered.

It annoyed him extremely to find there the elder and younger Von Eisenschlicht; still, as he sat fronting Sophia at table, he addressed himself chiefly to her, and took pains to appear calm, though his feelings were violently excited; for it did not escape him, that old Walther paid all possible attentions to young Eisenschlicht, and almost neglected him; it was known too in the town, that the counsellor wished to have the rich young man for a son-in-law. The latter received the kindness of his host as if it was a matter of course; and Erich, who wished well to Edward, endeavoured to prevent the excited youth from breaking out into violence. Sophia was sprightliness itself: she had dressed herself more than usual, and her father could not help often viewing her attentively, for her costume varied in some points from her usual style, and reminded him more strongly than ever of that lost picture of Messys, which represented the two young people, to a certain degree of likeness, as shepherds.

After dinner the company assembled in the picture-saloon, and Erich could not help smiling when he observed that his friend had actually hung the counterfeit Höllenbreughel aloft in a corner, where he could scarcely be noticed. The younger Eisenschlicht seated himself by the side of Sophia, and seemed to be engaged in very earnest conversation with her. Edward paced unquietly up and down, and looked at the pictures; Erich conversed with the father of the young suitor, and Walther kept an attentive eye on all.

But why, said Erich to his neighbour, are you disgusted with most of the works of the Flemish school here?

Because they represent so many tatterdemalions and beggars, answered the rich man. Nor are these Netherlanders the sole objects of my dislike: I hate particularly that Spaniard Murillo on that account, and even a great number of your Italians. It is melancholy enough that one cannot escape this vermin in the streets and market-places, nay, even in our very houses; but that an artist should require me besides to amuse myself with this noisome crew upon a motley canvas, is expecting rather too much from my patience.

Perhaps then, said Edward, Quintin Messys would suit you, who so frequently sets before us with such truth and vigour money-changers at their counters, with coins and ledgers.

Not so either, young gentleman, said the old man: that we can see easily and without exertion in reality. If I am to be entertained with a painting, I would have stately royal scenes, abundance of massy silk stuffs, crowns and purple mantles, pages and blackamoors; that, combined with a perspective of palaces and great squares, and down broad straight streets, elevates the soul; it often puts me in spirits for a long time, and I am never tired of seeing it over and over again.

Undoubtedly, said Erich, Paul Veronese, and several other Italians, have done many capital things in this department also.

What say you to a marriage of Cana in this manner? asked Edward.

All eating, replied the old man, grows tiresome in pictures, because it never stirs from its place; and the roast peacocks and high-built pasties, as well as the cup-bearers half bent double, are in all such representations annoying things. But it is a different case, when they are drawing a little Moses out of the water, and the king's daughter is standing by, in her most costly attire, surrounded by richly dressed ladies, who might themselves pass for princesses, men with halberds and armour, and even dwarfs and dogs: I cannot express how delighted I am, when I meet with one of these stories, which in my youth I was forced to read in the uneasy confinement of a gloomy schoolroom, so gloriously dressed up. But you, my dear Mr. Walther, have too few things of this sort. Most of your pictures are for the feelings, and I never wish to be affected, and least of all by works of art. Nor indeed am I ever so, but only provoked.

Still worse, began young Eisenschlicht, is the case with our comedies. When we leave an agreeable company, and, after a brilliant entertainment, step into the lighted theatre, how can it be expected that we should interest ourselves in the variety of wretchedness and pitiful distress that is here served up for our amusement? Would it not be possible to adopt the same laudable regulation which is established by the police in most cities, to let me subscribe once for all for the relief of poverty, and then not be incommoded any farther by the tattered and hungry individuals?

It would be convenient, undoubtedly, said Edward; but whether absolutely laudable, either as a regulation of police, or a maxim of art, I am not prepared to say. For my own part, I cannot resist a feeling of pity towards the individual unfortunates, and would not wish to do so, though to be sure one is often unseasonably disturbed, impudently importuned, and sometimes even grossly imposed upon.

I am of your opinion, cried Sophia: I cannot endure those dumb blind books, in which one is to write one's name, in order placidly to rely upon an invisible board of management, which is to relieve the distress as far as possible. In many places even it is desired that the charitable should engage to give nothing to individuals. But how is it possible to resist the sight of woe? When I give to him who complains to me of his distress, I at all events see his momentary joy, and may hope to have comforted him.

This is the very thing, said the old merchant, which in all countries maintains mendicity, that we cannot and will not rid ourselves of this petty feeling of soft-hearted vanity and mawkish philanthropy. This it is, at the same time, that renders the better measures of states abortive and impracticable.

You are of a different way of thinking from those Swiss whom I have heard of, said Edward. It was in a Catholic canton, where an old beggar had long been in the habit of receiving his alms on stated days, and, as the rustic solitude did not allow much trade and commerce, was accounted in almost every house one of the family. It happened however, that once when he called at a cottage, where the inmates were extremely busied in attending a woman in labour, in the confusion and anxiety for the patient, he met with a refusal. When after repeating his request he really obtained nothing, he turned angrily away, and cried as he departed, Well, I promise you, you shall find I do not come again, and then you may see where you catch another beggar.

All laughed, except Sophia, who would have it the beggar's threat was perfectly rational, and concluded with these words:

Surely if it were put out of our power to perform acts of benevolence, our life itself would become poor enough. If it were possible that the impulse of pity could die in us, there would be a melancholy prospect for our joy and our pleasure. The man who is fortunate enough to be able to bestow, receives more than the poor taker. Alas! it is the only thing, she added with great emotion, that can at all excuse and mitigate the harshness of property, the cruelty of possession, that a part of what is disproportionately accumulated is dropped upon the wretched creatures who are pining below us, that it may not be utterly forgotten we are all brethren.

The father looked at her with a disapproving air, and was on the point of saying something, when Edward, his beaming eyes fixed on the moist eyes of the maid, interposed with vehemence:

If the majority of mankind were of the same way of thinking, we should live in a different and a better world. We are struck with horror when we read of the distress that awaits the innocent traveller in wildernesses and deserts of foreign climes, or of the terrible fate which wastes a ship's crew on the inhospitable sea, when in their sorest need no vessel or no coast will appear on the immeasurable expanse; we are struck with horror when monsters of the deep tear to pieces the unfortunate marinerand yet do we not live in great cities, as upon the peak of a promontory, where immediately at our feet all this woe, the same horrible spectacle displays itself, only more slowly, and therefore the more cruelly ? But from the midst of our concerts and banquets, and from the safe hold of our opulence, we look down into this abyss, where the shapes of misery are tortured and wasted in a thousand fearful groups, as in Dante's imagery, and do not venture even to raise their eyes to us, because they know what a cold look they meet, when their cry rouses us at times out of the torpor of our cold apathy.

These, said the elder Eisenschlicht, are youthful exaggerations. I still maintain, the really good citizen, the genuine patriot, ought not to suffer himself to be urged by a momentary emotion to support beggary. Let him bestow on those charitable institutions as much as he can conveniently spare; but let him not waste his slight means which ought in this respect also to be subservient to the higher views of the state. For in the opposite case, what is it he does? He promotes by his weakness, nay, I should be inclined to call it a voluptuous itching of the heart, imposture, laziness and impudence, and withdraws his little contribution from real poverty, which, after all, he cannot always meet with, or discern. Should we however be willing to acknowledge that overcharged picture of wretchedness to be correct, what good, even in this case, can a single individual effect? Is it in his power to improve the condition of the wretch who is driven to despair? What does it avail to give relief for a single day or hour? The unfortunate being will only feel his misery the more deeply, if he cannot change his state into a happy one; he will grow still more dissatisfied, still more wretched, and I injure instead of benefiting him.

Oh! do not say so, exclaimed Edward, if you would not have me think harshly of you, for it sounds to me like blasphemy. What the poor man gains in such a moment of sunshine? Oh! sir, he who is accustomed to be thrust out of the society of men; he, for whom there is no holiday, no market-place, no society, and scarcely a church, for whom ceremony, courtesy and all the attentions which every man usually pays to his neighbour are extinct; this wretched creature, for whom, in public walks and vernal nature, there shoots and blossoms nothing but contempt, often turns his dry eye to heaven and the stars above him, and sees there even nothing but vacancy and doubts; but in such an hour as that which unexpectedly bestows on him a more liberal boon, and enables him to return to his gloomy hovel, to cheer his pining family with more than momentary comfort, faith in God, in his father, again rises in his heart, he becomes once more a man, he feels again the neighbourhood of a brother, and can again love him and himself. Happy the rich man, who can promote this faith, who can bestow with the visible the invisible gift; and woe to the prodigal, who through his criminal thoughtlessness deprives himself of those means of being a man among men; for most severely will his feelings punish him, for having poured out in streams in the wilderness, like a heartless barbarian, the refreshing draught, of which a single drop might have cheered his brother, who lay drooping under the load of his wearisome existence.

He could not utter the last words without a tear; he covered his face, and did not observe that the strangers and Erich had taken leave of their host. Sophia too wept; but she roused herself and recovered her composure as her father returned.

After his feelings had subsided in the course of a conversation on other topics, Edward drew the paper out of his pocket, and laid before the counsellor the doubtful case, and how much he was afraid that he was still his debtor in a considerable sum, which he purposed to pay him by means of a loan which he would endeavour to procure upon his house.

The old gentleman looked alternately at him and the yellow paper with widely-opened eyes; at last he grasped the hand of the youth, and said with a tremulous voice:

My young friend, you are a great deal better than I and the world supposed you; your fine feeling delights me, and though you ought not to have spoken so vehemently to Mr. Von Eisenschlicht, I was nevertheless moved; for, to say the truth, I think with you upon that point. As to this paper, I can scarcely give you a decisive answer, whether it is valid or not. It originates from an early period, when I had various and at times intricate money-dealings with your worthy father: we assisted one another in our speculations and journeys; and the old gentleman was to be sure at that time, in early youth, sometimes a little slippery and wild. He here acknowledges himself indebted to me in a considerable sum: the note must have been lost among his papers; I know nothing more of it, because we had a great many accounts to settle with one another, and I was at that time of day myself not so steady as now. However (and with these words he tore the paper to pieces), let this apparent demand be cancelled; for in no case, not even if the debt were clear, could I accept this sum from you, my son; it would at all events be my duty to pay you as much by way of arrear for those pictures, which you sold me far too cheap. If it is in my power, my good boy, to give you any sort of assistance, reckon upon me, and all may perhaps still be well.

Edward bent over his hand and cried:

Yes, be my father; supply the place of him whom I prematurely lost! I promise you, it is my firm purpose, I will become another man, I will make up for my lost time; I hope still to become useful to society. But the advice of a father, the encouragement of a friend, must guide me, to enable me to take confidence in myself.

This happy turn, said the old man, things might have taken with us many years ago, but you at that time despised it. In whatever I can be of service to you, you may safely reckon upon me. But now I will, for curiosity's sake, take another look at my papers, to see whether they contain any account of this debt.

He left the two young people alone, who first gazed awhile on one another in silence, and then flew into each other's arms. They held each other for a long time clasped. Sophia then gently disengaged herself, kept the youth at a distance, and said, looking him in the face with a sprightly air:

How happens this to me? Edward, what should this signify to us?

Love, cried Edward, happiness, and eternal truth. Believe me, dearest girl, I feel as if I had waked from a stifling dream. The happiness, which lay so close at my feet, which my affectionate father designed for me, as he stood by thy cradle, I spurned from me like a rude boy, to make myself contemptible to the world and to myself. Hast thou then forgiven me, gentle being? Canst thou then love me?

I wish thee well from my very heart, my old playmate, said Sophia: but for all that, we are not happy yet.

What can there be still in our way? cried Edward. Oh! how deeply am I ashamed, to have been capable of mistaking so grossly your generous father! How kindly he meets my wishes! How cordially he presses me to his bosom as his son!

Ay, thou strange creature, said Sophia, laughing, but his caresses were not meant so. But the man will never reflect as long as he lives, and immediately begins to reckon without his host! Of what you are talking of, papa, however kind he may be, will not consent to hear a syllable. Besides, we must first become better acquainted with each other. These are things, my friend, which may linger on for years to come. And in the mean time you perhaps may shift about again, and then in your jovial company laugh over my sorrow and my tears.

No, cried Edward, and threw himself at her feet, do not think harshly of me; be as good and kind as thy eye bespeaks thee! And I feel it, thy father will rejoice in our happiness, and bless our union! He embraced her passionately, without observing that her father had returned, and was standing behind him.

What is that, young gentleman? cried the old man angrily: bless your union? No, drive away, banish from his house, that will he, the loose companion who would thus abuse his confidence and partiality.

Edward had risen and looked him earnestly in the face.

You do not mean to give me your daughter for my wife? he asked in a quiet tone.

What! cried the old man with the greatest impatience, are you raving, master? To a man who has sold and flung away his paternal inheritance, the most precious pictures? Not though you were worth a million, should a man so void of feeling ever obtain her! Ay, then indeed, after my death, perhaps even in my lifetime, my treasures would be brought to a fine market: there would the pictures go flying to all the four corners of the world, that I should not rest in my grave. He is politic, however, my pretty gentleman. First properly opens my heart, brings me with noble magnanimity an old bond of his father's, which he is ready to pay me, tickles me into emotion, that I may become still more magnanimous, still more generous and heroic, and throw my daughter into his arms. No, no, my young sir, you have not won the game so easily with me. The debt is discharged; I find no traces of it in my books, and even, as I said before, if there were, I will even assist you, as I promised, by word and deed, with friendship and money, as much as you can reasonably desire. But as to my child, let her be left out of the business, and to that end I beg in future to decline your company in my house. Nor, if I know her mind, has she any inclination for you. Speak, Sophy, could you prevail upon yourself to take up with such a good for nought?

I have no wish to marry yet, said Sophia, and least of all a person who is more fit for any thing in the world than a husband.

Half in pain, and yet smiling, she threw the youth a parting look, and left the saloon.

Sophia! cried Edward, and was on the point of hastening after her: how canst thou speak those words?

The old man held him fast by the skirts, and threatened by his looks to give him another long lecture; but Edward, who had now entirely lost his patience, took up his hat, and placing himself in front of the father, said with a voice overpowered by anger and sobs:

I am going, sir, and do not return, mark that, to your house, till you send for me, till you yourself invite me back again! Ay, till you earnestly entreat me not to disdain your dwelling. I cannot fail; talents, good conduct, accomplishments, these pave my way to the highest posts. I am already recommended to the prince. That however is the first and least step to my fortune. Wholly different roads must open to me. And then, when the city prides itself on having given me birth, when I have quite forgotten the present hour, then will I send some confidential person of reputation to you, and privately inquire after your daughter: then will you be in ecstasy, at finding that I still remember you; you will fold your hands in gratitude to Heaven, for showing you the possibility of obtaining such a son-in-law,and so, precisely so, it will come about, and in this way I shall force you to give me your daughter.

He rushed out, and the father looked after him with an air of doubt, and muttered:

Now has he quite lost his senses.