The Two Most Remarkable Days of Siegmund's Life

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The Two Most Remarkable Days of Siegmund's Life  (1797) 
by Ludwig Tieck, translated by Wikisource
The Two Most Remarkable Days of Siegmund's Life (Die beiden merkwürdigsten Tage aus Siegmunds Leben) was written in 1796 and first published the following year by Nicolai, in Berlin and Stettin, in volume 7 of his Straußfedern series.


The Two Most Remarkable Days of Siegmund's Life

A Story

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Evening was already drawing in when a carriage stopped in front of the hotel and a lively and cheerful young man stepped out and instructed the landlord to prepare a room for him. A general stampede took hold of the entire house; servants ran upstairs and downstairs in search of lights and firewood, their steps echoing five times through the great vaults; the stranger was led to his room, where wax candles on very elegant candlesticks had been left for him; Herr Siegmund perceived from all the indications that he had indeed chanced upon an elegant, albeit a very expensive, hotel.

Well, he said aloud, as he walked with confident steps up and down his room and glanced fleetingly at the English engravings. This time tomorrow I could be a councillor, and all my worries for the future shall be at an end.

He looked out the window; it was still quite bright out in the street, bright enough for him to notice an adorable little face in the house opposite that was staring attentively at him across the street. His eyes met her friendly gaze, at length he saluted her, and she thanked him courteously.

In the light of such good omens, the future councillor looked upon the city with very favorable eyes. He dreamt of a hundred pleasant adventures, and it was with a reluctant heart that he saw the beautiful young woman draw back from her window. Through the curtains he could still make out her candle as she moved about the room, now drawing closer to the window, now moving further away.

He too shut the curtains. The stove warmed the room only slightly and as he was feeling restless after his journey, he took the candles, locked the door and went down to the kitchen, where he announced that he would return later for dinner. Dinner was served quite late, so there was time enough for him to go for a walk.

Siegmund loved nothing better than to randomly traverse the streets of a strange city, lingering here and there to absorb the diverse and wonderful impressions that the strange objects and unfamiliar houses aroused in his soul. It was a pleasant autumn evening, everywhere the fumes of dinner hung over the houses and mingled with the haze of the damp autumn fog that was settling on the streets; the Moon was beginning to turn yellow in the twilight, and from the factories joyous crowds of young and old workers were going home. Young girls roamed the remoter streets arm in arm and chatted loudly at random in the hope of attracting the attentions of the young men who were passing by, and so make it easier to strike up an interesting conversation with them. Small boys romped about, and beggars buzzed around, brazenly soliciting alms from people as they hurried past.

Siegmund feasted his eyes on the varying forms; he stopped often to look through low windows into sparingly lit rooms, whose light was so alluring, but whose confining walls, blackened with the smoke of oil lamps, were so forbidding. Craftsmen's families might be sitting at round tables, eating happily, and lively chewing their supper; in another room a diligent old woman might be sitting at her reel, carefully counting the revolutions, in order to deliver her spun yarn on the morrow. Often Siegmund would stand in silence if he perceived a light in the distance in the hallway of a house, with shadows flitting back and forth, or if a door opened to the sound of a loud bell and a landlord obsequiously dismissed a party of guests, who strode home with their respectable lantern. On such excursions Siegmund would read the whole of human existence cursorily, as it were; he would imagine himself a member of each of those families, and he would recall the earliest years of his childhood, when the brilliant lights of the houses used to beckon to him on dreary rainy nights just like a Fairyland. In a poetic frenzy, he finally mounted the city walls, and now perceived on one side dark flickering lights, the muffled sound of carriages and confused voices, the watchmen relieving one another, the tolling of the bells, houses hidden behind trees, the evening wind searching through the rattling arbour, a barge on the little river: on the other side the open countryside with misty clouds, distant hills and forests, farmers on their way home, mills tirelessly repeating their monotonous strokes in the little waterfall, voices he knew not whose, flitting birds; when he thus collected all the scattered individual portraits into one single image in his imagination, he became extraordinarily contented with himself and his fortunes, he imagined how truly pleasant his future life here was going to be, and his high hopes were only tainted by that dark anxiety which afflicts nearly everyone in strange surroundings.

Siegmund gave free rein to his reveries and walked in whatever directions chance happened to offer him. He happily surrendered himself to the uncertain punishment of laboriously trying to find his way out of a labyrinth of side-roads, which in the end usually resulted in his having to ask for directions.

The scenes in the streets were now much altered; from the taverns came the noise of music and stomping dance, the windows rattled with merry laughter; shadow-players moved through the streets, grinding their organs and singing, a strange contrast to the sacred songs that moaned down from some unlit attics; in some places people quarrelled; beggars listed drunkenly at the street corners, and now took exception to the compassion which they had but lately craved. The Graces had become lonelier and quieter and many were in male company; and only atop the more distinguished houses were the chimneys still smoking and overclouding the Moon.

Siegmund was just about to ask the way to his hotel when he heard a loud quarrel echoing through the quiet street; it drew his attention, and he walked in the direction of the shrill noise. On the stone steps of a small house an elderly well-dressed man, who was standing in the corner, apparently wished to enter the house. An old woman could be heard refusing him entry:

And you well know once and for all that my mistress has nothing to say to you, she was shouting repeatedly through the door.

But the old man rang the bell again and again, and made some new proposals in a hushed voice; the old woman, however, did not want to know. The engagement lasted a long time and Siegmund, who imagined that he was witnessing an amusing scene from a comedy, could no longer contain himself and began to laugh all too loudly. Muttering, the old man looked around and walked over to the gentleman who was laughing right in front of the house. The latter inquired about his hotel, and now the joke was on him, for he was standing right in front of it. The house before which the remarkable engagement had taken place was the very one from which the charming young woman's face had appeared in the twilight.

He went into the parlour of his hotel, where the guests were already busily engaged with their dinners and their political discussions. It was just around the time when Dumouriez had defected,[1] and this incident exercised the wits and imaginations of everyone: some people shouted and strove to either defend or condemn him; some drank his health, while in another part of the room he was cursed; a gambler reviled him and spoke enthusiastically of the noble duties of patriotism; a scholar, who had recently published a treatise on Roman metres, demonstrated that Dumouriez had undertaken the whole campaign without the necessary tactical knowledge; another, who spoke contemptuously of the whole of France, was already half-drunk, the poor country, by pouring its own wine down his throat, having given him weapons against itself.

But, gentlemen, the President is entirely of my opinion, cried a stocky little man from behind the table.

Of course he is, answered the gambler, because you are always of his opinion.

The whole company laughed and the little man turned red; he wished them to understand that he had given the President many helpful suggestions in the course of time, but no one would listen to him. The closer he drew the comparison between himself and the President, the clearer it became to his audience that he was nothing but an echo of his benefactor, and several insinuated quite unashamedly that he was just repeating these opinions in the hope of securing for himself a lucrative position. The man grew ever more heated and becoming redder and redder, he turned away superciliously and looked for support from Siegmund; the latter was pained by the embarrassment of the bloated face and therefore, taking advantage of a short pause, he took it upon himself to defend the little man.

Must one then, gentlemen, always be seeking remuneration, he began, when one agrees with the opinion of an intelligent and respected individual? Should one always contradict him in defiance of politeness, friendship, and even one's own convictions, merely to demonstrate to the world that one can exist independently of him? Only the egoist can discover self-interest in all actions. And why should I too not be permitted to make use of this harmless weakness of a gentleman in a harmless manner? We are never all sincerity, even to our closest friends; we declare to them many a thing of which we are not convinced; in our most intimate moments we maintain a certain way of life; we tolerate their weaknesses so as not to antagonize them, and they in their turn overlook other weaknesses in us. Hanc veniam damus petimusque vicissim.[2]

Beautiful, proclaimed the man who had written the treatise. Too bad that you are a sophist, and you quote a saying of honest Horace in lieu of sophistries.

Do we behave any differently throughout our lives? continued Siegmund. And even the noblest people do not reproach themselves for that, do they? Who gives the miller the right to place his mill-wheel under a waterfall so that the waves are constrained to laboriously turn an immense wheel, instead of being allowed to flow on freely and unhindered?

A strange combination of ideas, cried the treatise-writer.

Not so strangely combined, replied the man who had been embarrassed and the wrinkles of whose face had now returned to their unruffled condition. And not as strange as your interpretation of the ode Justum et tenacem etc.[3]

Sutor ne ultra crepidam![4] the scholar calmly replied, throwing the phrase across the table like a gauntlet. His opponent must have had an extraordinary talent for blushing, for the blood now rushed back to his bloated cheeks faster than the mercury in a heated thermometer. As he caught his breath, Siegmund began anew:

If we tolerate a man's weaknesses, it is no more than an obligatory act of human kindness; but if this forbearance brings with it the added benefit of enabling us to acquire some advantage or other, then we would be big fools if we did not cling to this handrail that guides us along a steep path. Who would not want to go downhill slowly and get out of the way of a rolling stone?

The friend of the President became the friend of Siegmund. He affirmed everything that the latter said, and slowly cast a very ponderous glance around the room, before allowing it to rest on the bested scholar. Siegmund had unintentionally become the Speaker in this tedious Parliament, and all eyes were now turned towards him. Someone asked the landlord discreetly who this intelligent stranger was, but the landlord himself did not know; and because no one knew his name or background, Siegmund came to be held in even greater esteem.

Gradually the guests dispersed; only the stocky little man remained behind with Siegmund. He felt much more courageous now, having been left in possession of the field with the help of his champion. He now ventured more boldly to pour forth philosophical aphorisms, and Siegmund was kind enough to agree with everything he said, since he had just become his second. They both promised to remain friends and to visit each other occasionally. They parted company and Siegmund went to bed.

He woke up with the most pleasant ideas; the Sun was shining brightly into his room, and the friendly murals and their copper engravings smiled in his face as he did his hair and got dressed. The pretty girl was back in the opposite window; he greeted her, she thanked him, he looked over a few more times, and then he stood in front of the mirror and inspected his attire and demeanour. Then he walked thoughtfully back and forth across his room, and said to himself:

I cannot fail, my recommendations are too good and pressing; it would be an insult to the General if I were denied the position. And why should I affect the useless and ludicrous propriety of a German nobleman, whatever his foolish titles may be? One always makes the most favourable impression on people when one appears to be very humble and does not seek to recommend oneself at all; one need only allow the other person to speak himself, and he will discover that one can talk very sensibly. Hitherto the conceited world reformers have been of no benefit to anyone, nay, they have probably harmed themselves and others. If flattery is required in this day and age to secure a commission, just as one must allow oneself to be examined well then, I cannot understand why I should not employ some flattery in order to acquire a good situation, if that is what it takes. The whole thing is really no more unpleasant than if my carriage had been upset on the way here and I had broken my arm, and this had all been necessary for me to become a councillor here. As many weaknesses as the President has, so many are the hooks by which I can seize my opportunity.

When he had concluded this speech, he went downstairs and asked the landlord if one of his employees could show him the way to the President's.

Who is the young woman who lives over there? he asked the landlord, quite casually, at the same time.

The landlord shook his head:

She is one of those, he said, half-smiling and half-angry: well, you know, she lives by her own hand, as they say. A vile creature! She has already fleeced several young men.

You just be wary of that wicked individual, he added sneeringly, she can act all pious and innocent, but don't be fooled by her crocodile tears, she's a veritable monster!

Siegmund did not have time to listen anymore to the landlord's invectives; as he left he looked up at the young woman's window; she looked back at him, but after what he had just heard, he directed a very contemptuous look at her and walked to the nearest cross-street without once looking back.

After they had passed through several streets, the servant pointed out in front of him a very eminent house; the elegant steps, large windows and everything about it testified to the aristocratic status and wealth of the owner. His heart began to pound now that he was about to meet the man in person who could decide his fate. He had pictured the President to himself as much as he could, but, after all, it was a stranger with whom he was now about to enter into negotiations; his dress now appeared to him not nearly as favourable as it had, and as he walked through the echoing marble hallway, it even seemed to him that he was not nearly as expert in human relations as to get the President so completely into his power as he had earlier imagined.

He was shown into the anteroom, where he waited while the President got dressed. He sent the General's letters in, and he had plenty of time to examine the extraordinarily magnificent furnishings of the room.

He rehearsed his compliments quietly to himself, walked lightly and tamely to and fro several times across the panelled floor, took out his watch to check that it was not still showing the same time, took some snuff from of a very elegant box, a gift, in order to remind himself that he had already dealt with distinguished people many times before and was even on a fairly familiar footing with them: finally the President entered the room, casually holding the General's letter in his hand.

Bows, gracious and humble, and on both sides a sudden step backwards, embarrassment, particularly on Siegmund's face, as the two men recognized one another: for the President was none other than the elderly man whom Siegmund had so rudely derided the day before in the moonlight in front of his hotel.

The President's demeanour returned readily to a slightly rebuffing coldness, which comes so easily to distinguished people. Siegmund was bewildered, and everything he had intended to say was thrown into confusion; within the space of a few minutes the pre-established harmony[5] had been upset within him, and he stammered an incoherent apology in the President's face for having laughed at him at the place in question the previous evening without realizing who he was. The President, as though puzzled, asked very seriously what Siegmund meant; Siegmund was scarcely able to remain upright on his legs.

When he had recovered somewhat, he realized that only two courses of action were open to him under the circumstances: either to walk out on the President immediately, procure a horse and return to his native city, or to try and get everything back on track as well as he could. He decided on the latter course, because he remembered that he had always regarded the hoped-for position as his due right and had made all necessary arrangements accordingly. He took hold of the reins and set about finding his way again by the light of all his wits. But I would like to see the German who could maintain his sang froid after so many misfortunes.

The President was stubborn enough not to meet the poor sinner halfway or to show him any mercy; perhaps he took delight in the contortions and wondrous flexions of the supplicant, who twisted his feet into every possible terpsichorean pose, fiddled with his watch-chain, knit his eyebrows, and wished for nothing more ardently than that the President might let his golden snuff-box fall to the ground so that he could return it to him with the humblest alacrity.

After the usual forms of introductory address Sorry, hope to be of service to you another time those mourning coaches which so often accompany our hopes to the grave, there finally emerged the negative response which the poor aspirant had been anxiously anticipating for some time like an approaching tempest. Siegmund was inconsolable when now the little Bellmann[6] walked through the hallway and the President very kindly invited him to step into his room, where he would presently join him. It occurred to Siegmund how poignant it was that he had played the little man's champion the previous day, and today this same individual was behaving so familiarly with a person before whom Siegmund trembled. The President now pointedly sought to curtail the visit, just as Siegmund was trying to prolong it without really knowing why. The President finally told him that the man whom he had just seen was the very man to whom the position that Siegmund had hoped for had been already promised. Siegmund was thunderstruck.

There are moments in life when difficulties assail us one after the other until we finally give ourselves over to blind desperation. This is the moment when all that is animal in our humanity usually wrestles the better part of our nature to the ground, that dangerous moment in which a man bids farewell to all refined sentiments, when he fails to recognize in his opponent a sentient human being, seeing instead nothing but an enemy. At this tempestuous moment Siegmund disclosed to the President his whole situation, how he had resigned his previous position because he considered the position on the local council a certainty, how he had borrowed money and now did not know how he was going to repay it, and how a thousand troubles to which he had never before given as much as a thought had now suddenly overwhelmed him.

The President shrugged his shoulders, an expression of sympathy with which people are even more generous than they are with sighs. There even occurred to him an idea which he found so funny he was unable to keep it to himself.

You thought, he said very sarcastically, that good counsel was so valuable around here that we would be prepared to bend over backwards to accommodate you.

You see, it was a pun,[7] of all the different species of human wit the most notorious; needless to remark, it was also in bad taste.

You exasperate me, Siegmund exclaimed as though he were already at his wits' end. The President was shocked by this sudden outburst, which exceeded the bounds of good breeding; he took refuge behind a magnificent armchair, before which Siegmund stood like a zealous prophet and held forth like Virtue Persecuted.

O woe is me, would that I had not seen what I saw, he proceeded to complain, applying a passage from Ovid to his situation.[8] How could I help it if they wouldn't let you into the house in question? How could I help it if I met you there and laughed at you against my will? Is a man's destiny not dear to you that you should let it wholly depend on chance and your whims? Oh, reverse your decision and do not mock me in my misfortune, for I do not deserve it, do not send me away without solace; punish chance if you must, but not me.

My friend, replied the President with an intolerably philosophical coldness, it was precisely your misfortune to have met with this coincidence. Is not this perhaps destiny's sign that you are doomed to misfortune? Indeed, it is your fate, for you are indeed unfortunate and have not understood the art of turning my feelings to your advantage, because destiny will not have it so. Marvel at the number of coincidences that have had to occur one after the other, painstakingly as it were, in order to bring this about.

I see nothing but your anger and resentment, your hardness of heart at my misfortune, said Siegmund. Can you, without feeling any regret, be so unfair?

Unfair, the President said, reluctantly taking up this word. And where, may I ask, lies the unfairness? If I have a friend who has rendered me many favours over a long period of time, and I finally have an opportunity to do something for him in return, should I refrain from doing it and instead bestow this benefit on someone who is a stranger to me? Why may I not be of use to my friend if the opportunity arises? I do not consider that unfair but rather my prime duty. You cannot blame chance any more than I can that the position has already been promised to my good friend. Good day.

The President bowed perfunctorily, and the little Bellmann re-emerged from the President's room; his benefactor withdrew and the little man escorted our hero to the steps. Siegmund tried to impress him as on the preceding day, but to no avail; the little man now understood the relationship in which they stood and was almost as discourteous as the President himself. He bade him a cold farewell and then returned haughtily to the door.

On the street Siegmund looked around several times and drew a breath of fresh air; he examined the passers-by minutely in order to obliterate the memory of the President's countenance; but the latter remained with all its cold and mocking features as though it were nailed to his imagination. He walked into the nearest side-street just to get out of sight of the elegant house, which had been such a bad omen to him right from the first. It seemed to him as though everyone was mocking him, as though the entire conversation he had had with the President was written on his forehead.

How different all the roads now appeared compared to the previous evening! The throng of people, the shops, the activity, everything depressed him, for everything was an image of acquisition, of the pursuit of wealth: an idea which had been so pleasing to him the previous evening, but which he now found hateful. How deeply he was lost in his thoughts for an hour!

When a man is greatly embarrassed, he usually walks very quickly; he wants to hurry past all unpleasant thoughts towards a moment of peace and contentment, a moment which maliciously advances one step ahead of him with every step he takes. Siegmund bumped into some porters, who cursed him roundly; coachmen swore down at him from their seats because he upset their horses; an old woman began to howl pitifully because he broke some of her pots, for which he absentmindedly and hastily compensated her at six times their value. He grew weary of the din, and now slowly mounted the city walls in order to recuperate.

Siegmund grew very morose when even here he failed to find the peace and solitude he had hoped for. Well-dressed ladies and gentlemen were walking past in order to be seen. Men walked by, engaged in loud disputation not a single pedestrian who would have refreshed his eyes with the beauties of nature, any more than Siegmund, who was too busy debating with himself about his future.

Oh, if only I could feel as I did this time yesterday! he exclaimed as he leant against a tree. I'm a fool! Yesterday I stood up for that little man with so much spirit, and my guardian angel never whispered to me that I was taking up arms on behalf of my own worst enemy! What should I do now? Report my embarrassment to the General? He's glad to be quit of me and no longer under any obligations. Look for another position? But which one?

Everything depressed him; he gazed at the streets of the city and thoroughly detested the hustle and bustle of the citizenry. The bells were summoning the pedestrians to lunch, but he did not heed them. Gradually the walls became deserted, but he did not take any notice: he was happier and at peace when alone. His solitude, however, did not last long, and when the pedestrians returned their numbers were greater than in the forenoon; the ladies were even better dressed and looked anxiously at the sky, wondering whether the lowering autumn clouds would draw closer and spoil their fine attire with a downpour. But the Sun broke forth again with renewed heat, and the faces of the promenaders grew happy and cheerful.

A gaunt man joined the melancholy Siegmund by chance; he was a local journalist, who would gladly hunt anywhere for a story. This patriotic poet had deduced from Siegmund's countenance, gait and garments that he must be a stranger; he wished therefore to extract some traditions from him which he would be able to conflate with other expressions in the form of letters to his newspaper. Siegmund was rather taciturn; to him, his scene with the President was the biggest story in the world now; he thought about it constantly and was quite indifferent to all the political remarks of his new acquaintance, who predicted many things, while refuting other prophesies.

A horse trotted close by them, and then made several of those crazy manoeuvres that the animals are taught with great difficulty in riding schools, namely to fall down should the necessity arise in order not to endanger unskilful horsemen. Such also was the case here; the rider was reeling from side to side, and did not want to interrupt the noble parade horse in its fine evolutions. The rider was none other than the dreadful President.

Consider this wonderful individual, the journalist said discreetly. You may be assured that he is going to all this trouble just for our sake!

For our sake? interrupted Siegmund.

Precisely, replied the gaunt man; this gentleman takes more pride in his horsemanship than in anything else in the world, and he is willing to run the risk of breaking his neck just to be admired by us. Look, we can hardly see him now and yet he is still up to his tricks.

The President, meanwhile, had covered a considerable distance. The horse forced its way backwards, and he got entangled in the branches of a tree, losing in the process a very elegant hat. No sooner had the journalist seen this than he quickly left our hero, reverentially returned the hat to the gracious gentleman, and considered himself amply rewarded for his deed when the President condescended to exchange a few words with him in full view of several passers-by, while the horse was recovering his tracks and the journalist too was eagerly endeavouring to prance about.

It was fortunate that Siegmund had remained behind, for he began to laugh so loudly that an elderly lady and gentleman thought he must be insane and ill-bred to laugh out loud on a public promenade.

There did not seem to be any let-up in his outburst, which comprised a single unbroken stream of those inarticulate sounds that one does not know what to make of and to which one gives the name laughter. It is difficult to calculate how many thoughts might now have passed through his head, but when he had laughed his fill, he sat down exhausted on a bench, rubbed his hands, looked about him with a glad and cheerful countenance, and as this spot was just then quite deserted, he did not feel bashful, but rather began the following soliloquy:

Is there anything in the whole world as foolish as that so-called King of the World, Mankind? The strangest of all arabesques are so appropriate to this multicoloured picture of life that it is precisely they that we notice the most. I arrive here with the greatest confidence that I will be made a councillor, I laugh at a man in whose hands my fortune lies, I courageously shield my enemy from the attacks of his mockers, I am scorned by this same man and the President, I am made aware of my dependence and yet here that same President and his horse are putting themselves to all this trouble just for me. He is counting on a glance from me, and just one critical or disparaging shake of my head would be enough to distress him. This gaunt man philosophizes about vanity, but is vain enough to run after the President just to be able to exchange a few words with him; the passers-by deride the journalist, but at the first opportunity they would behave no differently, and even I would be capable now of declaring the President the greatest horseman in the world in order to win his favour, and perhaps my noble patron is lying in the dust just around the corner because he wished himself to be admired by some idiot who was passing by.

Siegmund began to laugh again and to rock back and forth on the bench with violent convulsions of his body.

Just for me, he continued, the President saddled his horse today and had it caparisoned in the finest horsecloth; why should I then be made to feel humble and dependent? It is to please me that these ladies and gentlemen are so well groomed and smartly dressed!

By philosophizing thus, Siegmund more or less recovered his cheerfulness. As honest folk passed by, he silently resumed his ruminations, and became increasingly convinced that human beings are fools.

Siegmund now enjoyed his walk in a rather buoyant mood; in his heart he made fun of everyone he saw; no countenance or splendid attire embarrassed him.

Towards evening he returned to his hotel; he was satisfied that the landlord was just as polite to him as before, if indeed not more polite, because he assumed that Siegmund had been dining with the President. Siegmund went up to his room and ordered a delicious supper, because he did not want to expose himself to the jeers of his good friend Bellmann at the dining table. He drew the curtains, sat down in a comfortable armchair at the table, and asked for a bottle of the best wine. And with that he began his meal with the best appetite.

When he had drunk several glasses of the heady wine, he felt like a prince in a fairytale palace, at whose command all his domestic servants sprang into action; the empty dishes were taken away by one while clean dishes were brought by another; he felt warm and cosy in his room, and thanks to the wine the blood coursed readily through his heart, as though it had a spring in its step. He completely forgot about his circumstances, and passed the happiest moments in sensual pleasure. The walls danced around him with a gentle motion and he laughed and joked with the waiter, whose astonishment at the merry gentleman's quaint ideas was unconstrained.

He now drained the final glass in one long draught and staggered downstairs to go for another walk, as it was such a lovely evening.

The houses, with their brightly lit windows, seemed to him extraordinarily beautiful and friendly; he greeted a couple of passers-by very politely, though he did not know them, stopped on a bridge, and burst out laughing at a skiff that was fastened by a small chain to a laundry boat and was swaying back and forth. He had absolutely no qualms about stopping a man with a zograscope and looking into his peep-box and, to the screeching accompaniment of the old man's singing, heartily amusing himself. When the performance was over, he was about to slip away without paying, just so that he could pick a quarrel with the Director of the National Theatre. When this dispute about the usurped complimentary ticket was over, he gave the man twelve times as much as he was asking for.

Gradually the open air dispelled his sense of giddiness; there now prevailed in him that happy mood which is colder and for that very reason more pleasant. The outlines of various objects were no longer blended together; he slackened his pace, and everything he saw made him happy and cheerful. The warm, joyous air, the bright sunshine and the blue sky are transported, embodied as it were in the wine barrels, to our northern climes; through the enjoyment of wine, a man becomes for several hours an inhabitant of those beautiful countries to the south, and it is only with great reluctance that he returns to his native land with its cold climate after the heady vapours have evaporated. While he was in this mood, Siegmund resolved to write an epic apology for wine and drunkenness, to prove how intoxication warms the heart and elevates it, how a man's unsuspected mental abilities steal forth from their hiding-places and transform his brain into a multicoloured dance floor for the finest and most beautiful of thoughts. In order not to prove himself a liar, he gave an old cripple all the money he had on him, without even counting it first.

Because I am happy, he said, take it, however much it may be tonight, for the eyes should not know what the hands do.

Siegmund was nearly sober again by the time he reached the hotel, and was surprised to find the front door locked; he rang the bell, someone opened a window, and presently he heard slippers on the stairs and deep breathing as someone struggled to unlock the door; the door opened and an old woman lighted him up the stairs. Before he could collect his thoughts, he found himself in a strange room where the aforementioned young woman with the pretty face was sitting on a sofa.

It would have been improper to excuse himself and leave; the old woman had disappeared, and after a friendly invitation Siegmund sat down beside the young woman.

Siegmund was about to put the finishing touch to his merry pranks, but he was very surprised to find that his brazen overtures of love were not reciprocated in the manner he had been led to expect; on the contrary, the pretty young woman freed herself from his caresses and asked him with such good grace to try and behave himself in a more civilized manner that he blushed and shamefacedly begged her forgiveness. The conversation now took a new turn; they talked of trivial matters, and Siegmund, who felt affection mingled with a certain respect for the young woman, was finally sufficiently disarmed to tell her the whole of his story. She confessed to him that if anything, he had appeared to her in a very favourable light from the very first moment she had laid eyes upon him, that she had immediately desired to become acquainted with him, but that she had completely despaired of any such acquaintance after the glance he had darted at her in the forenoon.

Siegmund suddenly remembered what the landlord had told him that morning about this young woman, and he now found himself ill disposed to believe a word of it.

Certainly I have been unfavourably represented to you, continued the beautiful stranger, but I can assure you it was nothing but slander.

Siegmund endorsed everything she said; both united in their condemnation of the malice of the world, in which even the worst of people say the worst of things about others.

Be particularly wary of your landlord! the beautiful young woman said very fervently. He is the biggest crook in the whole city; settle your account with him as soon as possible, otherwise he will charge you an unconscionable amount!

Siegmund was not a little horrified by these tidings; he imagined that he could already see the sum total he would have to pay the stout man.

They spoke much about the varied and complex characters of people, about malice and baseness, nobility and righteousness. Siegmund had quite forgotten where he was, and moralized away for all he was worth.

I believe I know you now, continued the beautiful woman. Now I shall tell you quite candidly something of my history, so that you can see how mistaken one may be about some people.

I am a poor girl, my parents died young, my upbringing was not the best; what little I know, or what little education I have received, I have only myself to thank for. From my youth on I was considered rather pretty, and in the end I was persuaded to believe so myself.

Since I had no fortune, I sought to earn a living by embroidery, millinery and other suchlike activities; but my admirers pursued me unremittingly, and I came to consider my situation in a somewhat more reasonable light, and since that time my life has been happier, and I am no longer exposed to poverty as much as I used to be.

You only have to look around at the occupations of your fellow men and examine the industry of all their activity; you will soon discover that nothing but self-interest sets all this machinery in motion; and if you search for the true purpose of most occupations, you will find that it is none other than to fill the stomachs of those who pursue those occupations.

Scholars, great minds, musicians, all sorts of people live by the talents that nature has given them. Why then should we only be allowed to turn a profit from our intellectual or physical abilities? Why should we not also be permitted to exercise our other gifts? If people are foolish enough to sacrifice their wealth for a girl they consider beautiful, why should she not take advantage of this folly, just as mountebanks, doctors, acrobats and writers take advantage of human foibles? I have found that there is no trade that does not involve some sort of swindle, and that such graft is justified to some extent by the stupidity that allows itself to be swindled. You smile at my confessions, but you know in your heart that I am right.

I am entirely of your opinion, my fair friend, replied Siegmund, who was just thinking how only yesterday he had defended the sycophant.

Everyone, continued the other, seeks to make use of the miseries of his fellow-man in order to make smooth his own path through life; one man dresses to please his patron; another espouses the necessary political and philosophical opinions; a third marries for money; a fourth trades dishonestly; everyone lies, cheats, plays the charlatan. The whole world wears a mask, and only the power of beauty must remain excluded from this universal obsession with controlling others?

And so I live in comfort and prosperity. Strangers, who would have given away their fortune to another girl if not to me, have increased my wealth; fools pursued me and forced their money on me no matter how much I refused it. But I choose too; I am, just as you see me here, a zealous democrat; I hate and despise everyone who calls himself a nobleman, so I have always rebuffed your President with the greatest derision, no matter how much he has forced himself upon me. I have already assisted many poor people and helped many a poor family, so I cannot see why I should not be pleased with myself, but rather should consider myself a depraved creature.

You are the kindest philosopher in the world! exclaimed Siegmund. I have not yet found a woman whose magnanimity could compare with yours.

The beautiful woman pressed a tender kiss on the lips that flattered her.

I saw you coming this evening, she said, and only opened the door to you because you please me, and because I even love you now without hoping to make any profit from you. I think my love is more selfless than the modest tenderness of many a wife.

Siegmund became ever more enchanted; he laid her on his beating heart and covered her cheeks and bosom with passionate kisses.

I have an idea! his beloved exclaimed as though inspired. I have an idea for which you will thank me. You shall see that I am not only selfless but that I can also sacrifice myself, if I can be called someone's sweetheart. I have made up my mind once and for all that you should remain here in this city, and I am willing to do something unpleasant for you: to wit, I will capitulate to the President.

Siegmund could not find words enough to thank her. That same night she gave him another reason to be even more thankful, and he left her to recover in his hotel from all the philosophical reasoning, which had worn him out.

The President was immediately sent for, and he did not fail to come. When Siegmund had undressed to go to bed, he said to himself:

So, it seems I have a prostitute to thank for my good fortune, and not my own talents or skills? Nevertheless I do have myself to thank; it was my personality that completely won this young woman over to my cause. Indeed, it would have won me less credit if I had owed everything to just the gracious intercession of a tedious General, who was not even acquainted with me and did not have any particular liking for me. I am not the first, and I shall not be the last, to receive a position through a woman; they give us milk when we are babies and bread when we are grown men, and it is usually more shocking how many are provided for by a married woman or by marriage.

He soon fell asleep and was still resting peacefully when the waiter awakened him and handed him a note that was written on the finest paper. Still drowsy, he broke open the seal. It was an extraordinarily courteous invitation from the President requesting the honour of his presence; he had forgotten the previous day to inquire about some circumstances that greatly interested him.

Siegmund had already jumped out of bed before he had finished reading it; yesterday's scruples never even occurred to him. He summoned the first available barber, dressed in such a hurry that it took him fifteen minutes longer than usual, and trotted off to the President's. A servant led him into the gracious gentleman's bedroom, who begged his forgiveness for having incommoded him so early. Siegmund scarcely knew how he ought to respond to these noble and exquisite courtesies. The President explained that he had read the general's letter again and, pleading distraction the preceding day, he had misjudged his character; he had long heard so much spoken in praise of the skill and indescribably great talents of the recommended one that he could not possibly refuse him the requested position without committing the greatest injustice.

In short, everything was put to rights in this interview; Siegmund was made a councillor, and as soon as he left the President's he immediately engaged new lodgings, asked for his bill in the hotel, and though he was not horrified at the large total, he was still a little surprised at it.

Everyone here in the city seemed to ply his trade philosophically, for when the landlord saw the payer's long-drawn face, he said quite coldly:

One cannot hold it against people like us if we take advantage of an opportunity when it presents itself to us; I am also paid something because my hotel is the best, and every guest is left in no doubt that he has lodged here. In about five years' time my rates too will be somewhat cheaper, for I think that by then I'll have recovered the sum that a duke in disguise once cheated me out of.

So the common man must also pay you for the debts incurred by princes? Siegmund asked, laughing.

Fortunately my hotel is the only really good one in this city, the fat man continued without being put out. So the sum I am hoping for is already as good as in my pocket. The goldsmith is a fool who does not also seek to profit from inferior silver.

The bill was settled, and Siegmund moved out into his new lodgings.

When he returned to the hotel at midday to dine, the little Bellmann leapt into his arms and was delighted that so worthy a man had obtained the vacant position. His joy was unfeigned, for he had the prospect of being invested in a few weeks with another position that was just as lucrative.

The journalist wrote a large article for his newspaper on the arrival and inauguration of the new councillor.

Siegmund, the President and the young woman lived thereafter in the greatest harmony; the beautiful woman tuned her democratic temperament somewhat aristocratically, and the very next day Siegmund and the President were seen riding together. Siegmund did him the favour of riding timidly and of handling the horses somewhat awkwardly. The President gave him much advice; Siegmund thanked him and learned to ride better.

The General replied to the councillor's letter of gratitude: he always knew that the President could not fail to follow his recommendation.

These are the two most remarkable days in the story of Siegmund's life. The reader who has read even a half-good book on morality will be easily able to analyse this hastily-devised sophistical charade; consequently the author does not need to explain any further that it was not his intention to pass off his characters as ideals.


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The End

Notes[edit]

  1. Charles-François du Périer Dumouriez (1739–1823), a general of the French Revolutionary Wars, who defected to the Austrians in 1793 after a failed attempt to persuade his troops to march on Paris and overthrow the revolutionary government.
  2. Latin: I ask this privilege for myself and grant it to others. The quotation is from Horace, Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry), also known as Epistles, Book 2, Epistle 3.
  3. Latin: Justum et tenacem etc., "The just and resolute man will not be moved from his settled purpose either by the misdirected rage of his fellow citizen or by the threats of an imperious tyrant." This is a quotation from Horace's Odes (Carmina, Book 3, Ode 3, Stanza 1).
  4. Latin: The cobbler should stick to his last. Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History 35.36.85-86, records that a shoemaker (sutor) had approached the painter Apelles of Kos to point out a defect in the artist's rendition of a sandal (crepida from the Greek krepis), which Apelles duly corrected. Encouraged by this, the shoemaker then began to enlarge on other defects he considered present in the painting, at which point Apelles advised him that ne supra crepidam sutor iudicaret ("a shoemaker should not judge above the sandal"), which advice, Pliny observed, had become a proverbial saying.
  5. A reference to Gottfried Leibniz's philosophy of occasionalism.
  6. The stocky little man whom Siegmund befriended in the hotel. It seems that Bellmann is his surname, though it was not mentioned earlier.
  7. The German word Rat means both counsel and councillor.
  8. Ovid, Tristia 3:5:49-50: "I am punished because my unknowing eyes saw an offence, my sin is that of possessing sight."
This is a translation and has a separate copyright status from the original text. The license for the translation applies to this edition only.
Original:
This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.
 
Translation:
This work is in the public domain worldwide because it has been so released by the author.