Benjamin Farjeon.

Self-Doomed. A Novel



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CHAPTER I
MASTER FINK RELATES CERTAIN INTERESTING PARTICULARS CONCERNING HIS APPRENTICE, GIDEON WOLF

I am truly glad to see you; this meeting has warmed my heart. It is one of life's pleasantest experiences to shake the hand of an old friend, and to learn from his own lips that he has not forgotten you in his wanderings. I am sorely grieved to hear that you have lost your faithful mate, the dear woman who was your companion for so many years. Be comforted; we shall meet them again, these beloved ones. Resignation, friend, resignation. There are griefs which all mortals have to bear. Happy the man in whose heart shines the bright star of Hope, and who derives consolation from it. It is a solace born of Faith the comforter, and it is beyond price.

You are anxious to know what has become of my people? Name them, friend. Gideon Wolf, my apprentice? And pretty Katrine Loebeg, too-you are curious about her? Strange that you should bring their names into association, for when you last visited me, twelve years ago, there was nothing between those two; I may say that with confidence. Indeed, it is scarcely possible there could have been, for Katrine was but thirteen. A beautiful maiden, truly, but her heart was not then ripe enough for love; she was a mere child. Twelve years ago! Ah me, ah me! How time flies! The three best seasons have passed over my head, and I am in the winter of my life. But I feel young sometimes even now-yes, indeed, I am good for many a year, I hope. I am fond of life, and I have much to be grateful for, though I stand alone in the world, without wife or child.

Gideon Wolf and Katrine Loebeg! Gracious heavens, the contrast! Truly a wolf and a lamb; a hawk and a dove; a poisonous weed and a pure white lily. But you were as much a stranger to those two when you were here last as you are at the present moment. Old Anna was my house-keeper then. You remember Anna; you had good jokes with her, and she liked you; she said you were a proper man. Where is she now, you ask? In her grave. She served me faithfully, and lived till she was nearly eighty. Ah, she was a treasure-you don't often meet with such. Everything went on in the house from hour to hour, from day to day, from week to week, like a well regulated clock. And what beautiful stews she made! Never, never shall I taste the like again. I have another house-keeper now. Hush! She is here.

* * * * * *

She has gone, and will not trouble us again tonight. You are thoughtful-you observed something strange in her. Her dead-white face, her long silvery hair, her great fixed eyes have impressed you. Why, yes-she never seems to see anything that is before her, but to be forever gazing into a world invisible to all other human beings. What she beholds there, Heaven only knows, though I sometimes fancy I can see with my mind's eye the terrible scene which shall abide with her to the last hour of her life, and the figures who played their parts therein.

On rare occasions I have heard her addressing them, but in a tone so low that her words have not reached my ears. To me she never speaks except upon the duties of the house, or in reply to a question I ask her. You will scarcely believe that she was beautiful once-very, very beautiful-and that she might have picked and chosen. No, she was never married. What a pitiful look in her eyes? Yes, yes; it is enough to move one to sadness. What is it you desire to know? Is she in her right mind? No, she is mad!

Yes, she is mad, but she is perfectly harmless, and goes about her duties well enough in her dull, monotonous way, and is a good cook, too, but not so good as Anna. That is not to be wondered at. There never was another cook like Anna. My mouth waters when I think of her. This one is not old. You will scarcely credit it-she is not yet six-and-twenty. Ah, you may well open your eyes. But if you will consider a little, you will not be able to recall the memory of any old woman whose white hair was so thick and abundant, and who wore it loose, as this young one does, almost to her knees. Not many years ago her hair was golden brown, and we used to gaze upon it and upon her with delight and admiration-for her eyes were the brightest of any, and her face had a beautiful color in it.

Fill your pipe again, and draw closer to the fire. How the wind shrieks without! There are angry spirits abroad; it is a mercy we are comfortably housed. So! Settle yourself in your arm-chair, and I will tell you the story of Gideon Wolf, who worked for me till he was twenty-four years of age, and who was not satisfied with the fruits of honest labor, because it did not enable him to grow rich in a month. That was his sole idea of happiness-riches, nothing but riches. The flowers of the fields, the fragrance of the hedges, the singing of the birds, the beauty of the heavens, all the wonders of nature-they were naught to him. He set up an idol for himself, and he worshipped it with all his might. Did a carriage roll past the door, be would look up from his work with discontent in his eyes, and an expression on his face which said, as plainly as if he had uttered the words aloud, "Why haven't I a carriage? Why should I walk, while others ride?" Did a gentleman in a fine coat enter my shop to leave his watch to be cleaned, there on Gideon's face was always the same miserable expression.

"Master Fink," be said, "the poor are much to be pitied."

"So are the rich, Gideon," I answered. "I doubt whether of the two, the poor have not the most reason to be grateful."

"Grateful!" he cried. "For what? For having so little, while the rich have so much?"

"Every back to its burden," I said. "Go on with your work, my lad, and make the best of things. You will be the happier for it."

But it was not in his nature to follow such good advice. Did he drink beer he turned it sour by grumbling that it wasn't wine. He envied everybody who had finer things than he could afford to buy, and the jingling of silver in other people's pockets sent the blood rushing angrily through his veins. I knew that he hungered for money, but I was not afraid that be would rob me. I was a sharp blade at my business, and my property was safe from his itching fingers. Let a spring, a pair of hands, the smallest of wheels be missing, and I was sure to find it out. He was aware of this; I had taken some pains to make him understand it. Besides,if he had robbed me of all I possessed it would not have contented him. That is one of the curses of such natures as his-never to be satisfied, never to be even grateful.

When his apprenticeship was out I still employed him, paying him piece by piece for the work he did. Had I paid him a regular wage he would have got the advantage of me. He did not earn a great deal; after deducting what was due for his board and lodging there was seldom at the end of the week more than a florin for him to receive. He spent upon his clothes more than he was warranted in doing, for he aped the fashions of his betters. It was money thrown away; the finest clothes in the world could not make Gideon Wolf look like a gentleman. Then he indulged in a terrible vice which eats into the soul of a man-he was a gambler. He had a poor mother, fifty miles away, who, he would declare with a hypocritical look at the rafters, depended upon him for support. With what a long face would he come to me and say,

"Master Fink, my dear mother is sick-very, very sick! I beg of you to lend me five florins to send her. It will be an act of true charity. You can put it down to my account. Do not fear that you will lose anything by me. One day I shall be rich, and I will repay you every florin."

But he gave his mother nothing; it was within my knowledge that during all the years he was in my service he had not sent her the smallest coin. Sometimes it was not for his mother that he begged money of me.

"Ah, what an adventure, Master Fink-what a sad, melancholy adventure!" he would say, bursting in upon me suddenly.

"What is the matter, now, Gideon?" I would ask, preparing for the shock.

"Oh, the world-the cruel, cruel world!" he would moan. "You know, Master Fink, that I went from here with three florins in my pocket, which I intended to pay Muller the tailor off the just debt I owe him."

"Proceed, Gideon."

"On the outskirts of the town I met a poor unfortunate woman-"

"On the outskirts of the town, Gideon? That is not the way to Muller's shop."

"Muller was not in when I called, so, the day being fine, I took a walk through the woods. Was it good or bad fortune, Master Fink, that the idea came into my head of walking through the woods?"

"Until you further enlighten me I cannot say."

"You shall hear all. In the woods I met this poor unfortunate woman. She had no shoes to her feet, and only a thin torn dress upon her body; and oh, Master Fink, she had a baby in her arms who was sobbing for want of food. The wretched creature told me her sad story, and begged me, if I had a mother of my own, to save her child from starvation. What could I do? I am poor-yes, I am poor, and the money in my pocket really belonged to Muller, but could I resist so heart-rending an appeal? Could you have resisted it? No, you are too humane, and because I am not rich, am I to be deprived of the pleasure of doing a good action? I did as you would have done. Without considering how I should replace the three florins I gave them to the poor woman, who crawled away, calling down blessings on my head."

"You want me to lend you three florins to pay Muller."

"Yes, Master Fink, to lend it, not to give it. You must not rob me of the pleasure of doing an act of charity."

To these and numberless other stories I would listen, without troubling myself to contradict him. What would have been the use? As long as I kept Gideon with me it was best not to come to words with him, and I bore with many things of which I did not approve. Occasionally I lent him a portion of what he asked for, taking care that he did not get too deeply in my debt, and I used to think with wonder of the amazing amount of deceit that could be hidden in the breast of one human being.

I see in your eyes the question, Why, if I did not like Gideon Wolf, did I continue to employ him? Why did I keep him, an indifferent workman, in my shop, when there were so many better men looking for work who would have been grateful to me all the days of their lives if I had taken them on? For it is not workmen that are difficult to find; it is masters. Well, there was a strong human reason, and I may speak of it now because it will hurt no one. It was not for the sake of Gideon Wolf, but for the sake of his mother, that I kept him with me.

Friend, I am going to open for you a chapter of my life which few have read.

CHAPTER II
A LOVE-CHAPTER IN THE LIFE OF MASTER FINK

The village in which I was born lies fifty miles from this spot, and is one of those places hidden in odd nooks and corners which the busy world seems either to have forgotten or to regard as of too slight importance to take any notice of. It moves neither backward nor forward; it is the same to-day as it was a hundred years ago. Its houses, its roads, its little shops, its bits of garden, its church, are the same now as then, and, unless something startling occurs, will be the same at the end of another hundred years. There are families living there at this moment whose great-great-grandfathers lived there-in the self-same cottages, grown now so old that their walls are rotting and crumbling away. The people, with scarcely an exception, are all of them poor, and live a life of contentment. As I should have done perhaps-my family for five generations having done so before me-had it not happened that I fell in love with Louisa Wagner.

I have spoken of the beauty of Katrine Loebeg. Louisa Wagner was even more beautiful. Do not think I say so because I loved her; it was universally acknowledged; and just in the way Katrine was sought after here so was Louisa sought after in the village in which I was born. I may say, without running the risk of being thought vain, that I was a well-looking lad. It is undoubtedly a fact that I was industrious, and not given to tippling. From my father I learned the mysteries of the art of watchmaking. Our family had been the village watch and clock menders for generations. There was, however, not enough business in that line to be picked up among the scanty and poor population to support us, so my grandfather, and my father after him, took to cobbling boots and shoes to eke out a living. I also learned to cobble, and was no mean hand at it. We were, therefore, the village watch-menders and cobblers, and managed to rub on, chiefly, it must be owned, by the patching of leather, which is a degree or two lower in the social scale than the art which teaches you how to put together the delicate works of a watch.

Louisa Wagner was the only child of a laborer on the private estate of the owner of the village lands, and in falling in love with her I fell in love with a girl in my own station in life.

Heavens! how beautiful she was! Her cheeks were handsomer than the handsomest peach, her eyes were as bright as the brightest stars, her skin was as soft as the softest velvet. To me what a vision of brightness! Where on this earth was to be found her equal? In my belief, nowhere. That is the way of lovers for a time. No feeling so potent as that which agitates the heart of a young man as he contemplates the being upon whom he has set his affections. Gradually the change comes, as we all live to learn. The heavenly light fades slowly away, and life's hard lessons, no less than the strange workings of the human heart, recall us to a sterner reality. Happy those who find themselves cast upon a peaceful shore, where they can enjoy the calmer and more enduring affection which sometimes follows the subsidence of love's delirium!

For weeks and weeks I nursed my passion, fed on it, was made happy by it. Louisa Wagner did not appear to look on me with coldness; nay, she seemed flattered by my ardent glances, and, as I believed, had a feeling stronger for me than that of ordinary friendship. That she should love me with such devotion as I loved her was not to be thought of. This love of a young man when it is pure, as mine was, ennobles him, and beautifies all surrounding things. I sang at my work, though it was even so mean as the patching of boots. Louisa had two pairs of boots, and I soled and heeled them, one after the other, and my heart went into the stitches. I held them in my hands and kissed them-yes, I am not ashamed to confess it, I kissed them in a kind of rapture. I took them to bed with me. By the side of my bed hung a cage with a linnet in it. I told the bird in a whisper that the boots belonged to Louisa-ah, what foolish, foolish things we do when the fever is upon us! – and the linnet trilled out its joyfullest notes. I laughed, I chirruped, I shed tears, and when I knelt at my bedside and repeated my prayers, I pressed Louisa's boots to my heart. Upon the soling and heeling of those boots I would have liked to challenge the world. Surely such excellent workmanship could not have been produced by other hands than mine. Louisa Wagner thought so, and said so, as she took them from me and examined them.

"You will see," I said, "they will last for years."

"They are beautifully done," she said, and I fancied she gave me an admiring glance; "such fine stitches! You are really clever."

"I can earn a living," I said, and my voice trembled because of the meaning I wished to convey in the words.

"But," she said, "I cannot pay you for them for a long, long while. You will have to wait."

"In money," I said, "you can never pay me."

"Oh yes, I can, Gustave Fink," she replied.

"No," I insisted, "indeed you never can."

"Why?" she asked.

"I did not do them for money. I wish you to accept them from me; it will make me very proud."

She thanked me quite readily, saying, "Well, if you will have it so, Gustave Fink," and gave me the sweetest smile.

I ran home in a tremor of delight, carrying her smile with me. It is a fact. Her smiling face was before me all the way.

Of course I told my linnet the news-how that Louisa had accepted my work, and paid me for it with the sweetest smile-and the bird sang gayly, and the rhythm and the tenderness of the song found an echo in my heart. Up to this point the linnet was my sole confidant. Not to another creature did I breathe my secret. None the less did I look upon myself as Louisa Wagner's accepted lover. After what had passed-which, as you see, I magnified into the most ridiculous importance-how could it be otherwise? I was satisfied, I was happy. That when I could find courage to speak plainly to her she would place her hand in mine, and permit me to touch her lips with mine, I entertained not the slightest doubt.

I was a proud young fellow the following Sunday when I saw her walking in the boots I had repaired for her, and which looked like new. She wore a new cotton dress, and a bit of new ribbon round her white throat, and I settled it in my mind that they were worn for me. No man has ever tasted a greater happiness than I did on that day. But I could not find courage to speak to Louisa of the love which made my heart like a garden of sweet flowers. I walked by her side and was contented.

Ah, how it all comes back to me! The meeting at the church door, the walk through the church-yard and the village till we came to her father's cottage, the stupid talk about the boots!

"I never felt so comfortable in my life," she said; "they are as easy as if I had worn them for years. And they do not make my feet look large."

Her feet look large! In my eyes they were the feet of a princess. Now, as she put out her foot, and I was gazing at it in a sort of rapture, who should come up to us but a neighbor of mine, a wheelwright, Steven Wolf by name.

I can see the picture as plainly as if it were bodily before me in the room. I turn towards the fire, and I see the picture there in the glowing coals.

"The prettiest foot in all the village," cried Steven Wolf, "and the prettiest mouth, and the loveliest eyes!"

His voice jarred upon me. It was like the voice of a brawler calling out in the church and interrupting the service. No wonder, I thought, that Louisa should blush as he gazed boldly at her. His look was a profanation. To save the girl I loved from further indignity I bade her good-bye and left her. Turning my head for a moment as I walked away, it pierced my heart like the thrust of a needle to see that Steven Wolf had followed her into her father's cottage.

I have called Steven Wolf a wheelwright. Well, he might be that for two days in the week; for the other five an indolent sot. He bore a bad character in the village, and there was much suspicious talk concerning him. How could Louisa's father encourage such a character at his hearth? But I could not forget that old Wagner and Steven Wolf were by no means on unfriendly terms. They were often seen together. "When Louisa is mine," I thought, "and I have the right to protect her, she shall have nothing to say to this vagabond." When Louisa was mine! Ah, fraught with happiness was the future I mapped out! I resolved to speak to her soon-before the end of the week, if I could find an opportunity.

On the Monday Steven Wolf thrust his head into my little shop, where I sat working.

"What a fine pair of soles you put on Louisa Wagner's boots!" be cried. "Here-mend mine at the same price." And he flung down a pair.

I threw them back at him with passionate words. He picked them up and walked off, laughing heartily. In the evening of the same day I saw him and Louisa walking together, and I made the acquaintance of that torturer, jealousy. There was no sleep for me that night. When I came upon them Louisa did not see me, but he, looking me full in the face, gave me a malicious, triumphant smile to feed upon. I did feed upon it for days and days till I could bear it no longer, and determined to know the best or the worst that could befall me.

I spoke to Louisa; I declared my love for her; I told her I was able to support her, and I asked her to be my wife. She answered me in the kindest manner, and I learned that she had already promised to become the wife of Steven Wolf. I stood transfixed; my life seemed most suddenly and horribly to have come to an end.

"Do not hate me," she said. "I am very, very sorry!"

"I cannot hate you," I replied. My voice was so strange in my ears that I could scarcely believe it was I who was speaking. "I shall love you all my days."

"We are still friends," she said, holding out her hand.

"Yes," I said, sadly, "we are still friends. It is not possible I could ever be your enemy."

I took her hand, and held it in mine. Tears gushed from my eyes as I felt the sympathetic pressure of her fingers.

"You will see some other girl whom you will love," she said. "You are a good man; every one speaks well of you; your wife will be proud of you."



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