Benjamin Farjeon.

Self-Doomed. A Novel



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"I shall never marry," I said, " I love only one.

Our conversation was interrupted by Steven Wolf, who stole abruptly upon us.

"No poaching!" he cried. "Respect the rights of property."

"It is not in that way," I said, and I confess that at that moment I felt a deadly hatred towards him, "I should speak of the girl I was going to marry."

"You choose your way," he retorted, "and I will choose mine. Not a bad way, is it?"

And he put his arm round Louisa's waist. Her eyes were cast down; she never looked at me.

"Words are wasted between us," I said. "Farewell, Louisa Wagner. May you be happy."

He sent a shout of mocking laughter after me.

"Truly," I could not help thinking, "in good feeling I have the advantage of you."

I suffered terribly, and for some time my mind was plunged into such darkness that I could see no gleam of goodness in all the wide world. That is the selfish view we take of things when sorrow comes to our door. "Why," I asked myself, "does Louisa Wagner marry that brute and gambler instead of an honest, hard-working youngster who not only loves but respects her? For what reason does she prefer him to me?" If I could have answered those questions I might be able to tell you more than I know of the workings of a woman's heart. It is beyond me, and beyond you, and therefore I have kept myself free from woman's power from that day to this. I recovered my peace of mind, and so that it might not again be disturbed by the sight of the woman I loved, I left my native village with my knapsack on my shoulders, and came here, where I set up in business for myself as a watch-maker, and have jogged on ever since, with a fair share of happiness and content. There is io condition of life in which a man has not good reason to be grateful. I have grown to know this, and it has been of value to me in my reflections upon life's trials and disappointments. I have my work, I have my connection, I owe no one a florin, I am at peace with the world. That is happiness enough.

CHAPTER III
RELATES HOW GIDEON WOLF BECAME MASTER FINK'S APPRENTICE

Year after year passed peacefully and prosperously over my head until eighteen years had gone by. I was fortunate in many ways-in making friends, in earning respect, in forming a connection, and in obtaining the services of old Anna, who served me so long and so faithfully. Her age and her lack of beauty saved me from much anxiety. She had no wooers, no men dancing at her heels; I doubt, if I myself had offered to marry her, whether she would have accepted me. Not that such an idea ever entered my head. Heaven forbid! I had too great a respect for her years.

One morning, at the end of this time, a woman entered my shop-a pale, thin, elderly-looking woman, with an expression of intense weariness on her worn face. She gazed at me wistfully, and I at her in pity.

"Master Fink?" she said.

"Yes," I said, "I am he."

As I spoke I recognized her, changed as she was.

My old sweetheart, Louisa Wagner, stood before me. It saddened me to look at her. Her eyes were dim, her hair was nearly white; and my hair was still brown, and my eyes clear and strong, and in my heart some gladness reigned. Ah me! Time's hand had weighed heavily upon her during the eighteen years which had flown by since last I saw her. Had, then, all the flowers of her life withered? No-one still bloomed, and brought joy to her; but this I had yet to learn. No joy was now in her face, only deep anxiety and weariness. I saw that she was ready to faint from fatigue.

"Have you come specially to see me?" I asked.

"Yes," she sighed.

"Where from?"

"From our native village."

"You have ridden here?" I said.

"No," she replied, faintly, "I walked."

"Walked!" I exclaimed. " Why, it is fifty miles!"

"Yes," she murmured, "it is fifty miles. What a long, long road! But I am here at last, thank God!"

I divined that it was no light errand that had brought her to me, and it was evident that her strength was spent. It was as much as she could do to prevent herself from sinking to the ground. I hastily summoned Anna from her kitchen, and bade her attend to my visitor. A heart of quick sympathy beat in my old Anna's breast, and without asking who the woman was she administered to her wants. It was not without difficulty that this was accomplished, for Louisa was so eager to disclose her errand that, had she been allowed to have her way, she would not have tasted food until she had acquainted me with her mission. But Anna insisted, and so did I, and she had not the strength to reject the kindly offices which were forced upon her. When she had drank a basin of nourishing soup which Anna prepared-I never really knew what soup was till Anna made it for me; what a treasure that woman was! – I told her I was ready to listen to her.

"I have come to you for help," she said.

"I will give it to you," I replied, "if it is in my power."

She bent her head humbly and gratefully.

"You can see," she said, "that I am very poor."

"I grieve, to see it."

And indeed my heart bled for her. Had the picture of her as she was at that time presented itself to me eighteen years before, with the words, "This is what the beautiful girl by your side will become in a few years," I should have laughed at it in derision as a monstrous impossibility. Her eyes that were bright as the stars, her cheek that rivalled the peach in delicate bloom, her skin that was soft as velvet, where were they now? Ah, Beauty, Beauty, be not over-vain and confident! Old Father Time has tricks in store for you of which you do not dream as you walk, lithe and proud and happy, through the flowery paths of youth. Be humble, maiden, and grateful for your fair outside, and pray to God not to weigh you down with care and trouble.

These thoughts crossed my mind as I gazed at the pale, thin woman who had walked fifty weary miles to beg me to assist her.

Presently she disclosed what she wished me to do for her.

Her husband, Steven Wolf, had been dead six years, having done his best during his life to imbitter her days. She did not tell me this; she did not say that he had ill-treated her, had passed his hours in the ale-house, had made her slave for him, had never given her a loving word after the first few months of their marriage; but it was the truth. He had led her a life of misery, and, when he died, left her in the direst poverty. She took up her burden meekly, and battled on as women do, more bravely than men, and did her duty to the uttermost extent of her power. Her parents were dead, and she had no friends in a position to help her. Indeed, she led me to infer, more from the construction I placed upon her words than from the words themselves, that the friends of her girlhood had fallen off from her-driven away, of course, by the vagabond she had married. But she had one treasure, one dear, priceless treasure, which compensated for all her suffering, which kept hope alive even in her sad life. She had a child, a boy, and his name was Gideon. Two other children had been born to her, but she had lost them, and Gideon was the only one left. A heavenly light came into her eyes as she spoke of him; color touched her cheeks; her skin seemed to grow whiter and smoother. There, in the mother, I saw once again, for a brief space, the presentment of the beautiful girl I had loved in my youth. She told me much of her darling that interested me-how brave he was, how truthful, bright, intelligent-how that he was the pride of her life, and the best son a loving mother was ever blessed with.

"He is growing fast," she said, her eyes beaming with pride, "and, please God, in a few years will be a fine handsome man. I wish to perform my duty by him; I wish him to learn a trade from an honest master who will set him a good example. Your father, Gustave Fink, was an upright, just man, and it was his example that helped you to become one yourself. In our little village there is no opportunity for a lad to learn a trade that will advance him in the world. He must learn it elsewhere, and my prayer is that I may live to see my boy prosperous and honored, with a wife and children about him who shall look up to him with love and respect, and with his old mother sitting perhaps in a corner of his fireside, praising the good Lord for the blessings he has showered upon her. Ah, what happiness, what happiness!"

Her slight form shook, and her face was bedewed with tears, as she spoke of this happy future.

"Do you propose," I asked, "to leave the village yourself, if you find a master elsewhere for your son?"

"Oh no," she replied with eager haste; "I should be a clog upon him, a burden; he could not support me, and it might be that I should not be able to support myself among strangers. No, I must stop in the old place, where I can manage to make a living, and I will wait patiently till my son is a man, and says, 'Mother, come to me; I have a home for you.' Oh, Gustave Fink, you took a bold step when you left our village, a bold right step, for the world has prospered with you."

"I acknowledge it gratefully," I said.

"This shop is your own-you are the master here."

"It is my own-I am the master here."

"Be my son's master! Teach him your trade-let him profit by your example; counsel him, guide him! You will lose nothing by it, he is so good, so quick, so willing, so obedient! If you searched the whole world through you would not find another lad so bright, so easy to teach and mould. Ah, Gustave Fink, I beg of you, I implore you!"

So eager was she, so fearful lest I should refuse her, that she would have knelt to me had I not prevented her.

My mind had been made up while she was speaking. Long before she finished her appeal I knew what proposal she was about to make to me, and I had resolved to do as she wished me to do. Do not misunderstand me. I was not influenced by any stupid sentimentality in the matter. No, no all that had passed away, and I was now a practical man who would not permit sentiment to interfere with his business. I had a shrewd eye for a good bargain, and here was one unexpectedly offered to me. Besides, was it not a fine revenge?

Louisa Wolf," I said, "I will do what you desire your weary journey shall not be fruitless. I will take your son as my apprentice, and will do my best by him."

She simply said, "God will reward you!" and then she turned aside, and cried quietly to herself.

She remained with me for quite three hours, resting herself for her return journey home, and she accepted a trifle of money to assist her on her way. Not a word of the days that were gone was spoken by either of us-that will show you that there was no sentiment mixed up with this affair. I did not mention the name of Steven Wolf, nor did she, nor did the slightest reference to the love I had borne for her escape our lips. What we thought, we thought. It is necessary sometimes to keep a strict watch over tongue and mind, so that our worldly calculations may not be upset. Her lips quivered as she pressed my hand and bade me good-bye; but it was not I who caused her emotion; it was the thought of her son Gideon, from whom she was so soon to be separated.

CHAPTER IV
MASTER FINK HAS A SINGULAR DREAM

But although in our waking hours we are generally successful in keeping the workings of our mind in check, it is different when we are asleep. Then we are the slaves, and imagination is the master, the magician which plays us the most extravagant pranks. It is like sitting in a theatre, witnessing the representation of a play which sways us this way and that, which makes us laugh, which makes us weep, which makes us enjoy, which makes us suffer.

On the night following Louisa's departure I dreamed of the old days and of Louisa in the pride of her beauty. I was sitting on my low stool, soling and heeling her boots, golden boots, with jewels round the eyelet holes. A silver hammer was in my hand, and as I tapped and tapped and drove in the shining nails, musical notes rang out.

"Louisa is yours she loves you, loves you, loves you!"

And then the linnet which hung above me in a crystal cage piped sweetly,

"Let me out-let me out!"

I opened the door of the cage, and straight through the window flew the little bird-through the open window, from which I saw the church and the churchyard so closely associated with one memorable Sunday in my life. And who should come dancing towards me over the tombstones but Louisa, dressed in the self-same dress she had worn on that Sabbath, and with the self-same bit of ribbon at her throat. The linnet, wheeling round and round her pretty head, encircled it with thin lines of light, and still in the musical ringing of the silver hammer I heard the song,

"She loves you, loves you, loves you!"

Suddenly we were walking in a great field of flowers, and I was gazing in rapture at Louisa's golden boots. A thousand linnets were singing above us, the flowers were whispering around us, Louisa's hand was resting in mine.

"Then it is all a dream these eighteen years," I said to her.

And she answered, "Yes, it is all a dream. How could you be so foolish as to believe that I loved any man but you? What proof of my love shall I give you?"

"Make this field of flowers," I said, "grow above our heads,so that we shall be hidden from the world, and there shall be only you and I."

Immediately the flowers began to grow higher, higher, higher, shutting out the light till we were in almost perfect darkness, and then the linnet came and perched on my shoulder, and whispered,

"She is fooling you! She is not a young girl at all; she is an old witch! Put me in your waistcoat-pocket, and you will see what she really is."

I did so, and the linnet ticked like a watch:

"She loves-not you-not you-not you. She loves-a wolf-a wolf-a wolf."

And through a pathway of light in the field of flowers ran Louisa, changed into a shrivelled old woman with gold boots on her feet, and after her raced Steven Wolf, who, catching her, flung her high in the air. I rushed with fury upon the monster, and he raised a great sheet of bright brass, and crashed it on my head-

Bang! The din was enough to drive one crazy, and Louisa screaming at the top of her voice as she spun round and round in the air, with her golden boots-

Bang! Bang! Bang! I jumped out of bed in a fright, and ran to the bedroom door and threw it open; and there I beheld old Anna sitting in the passage outside, crying in her loudest voice that every bone in her body was broken, while a lot of my best plates and dishes, all in little pieces, lay around her. She was coming down-stairs with a trayful of crockery in her arms when she tripped, and fell all the way down. That was the end of my dream. I could not help laughing heartily at it, which made old Anna cross-tempered the whole of the day.

After breakfast I thought over my interview with Louisa, and of the new apprentice who would soon take up his abode with us. How his mother would grieve at parting from him! It would never have done for me to have married that trustful woman. She was so unworldly that she had never even asked me whether Gideon was to receive any wages during the seven years of his apprenticeship. It was an act of folly which would have made me angry had she been my wife; but she had been another man's, and he had broken her heart. That was as clear as the light which, shining through my shop-windows, had exposed her gray hairs to the eyes of one who, years ago, was ready to die for her. To think that, at any time of his life, a man should be so simple as to have such ideas!

So Gideon Wolf came to me, and, being duly apprenticed, lived with me and learned my trade. Old Anna was against it from the first. I had taken the important step without consulting her, and the moment she set eyes on Gideon she prophesied that evil would come of his residence in the house.

"Have not things gone on well enough to please you, Master Fink?" she asked.

"They have always gone on well," I replied.

"Then you must be growing avaricious in your old age," she remarked.

"Old age has not come upon me yet, Anna," I said, "and if I had a grain of avariciousness in my body I would pluck it out by the root."

Anna was as much a companion as a servant, and I had too great a respect for her to be angry at anything she said.

"Why do you make the change, then, Master Fink?" I could not answer her without deceiving her, so I merely shrugged my shoulders and smiled.

"Ah, you may smile," she continued, "and make light of it; but that won't alter what's done. Tell me one thing, Master Fink."

"I will tell you many, Anna that is, as many as I can."

"When you have a watch in good going order, one that has not lost or gained a minute for years, that you can depend upon as you can depend upon the sun, is it the act of a good workman, out of simple wilfulness, to take it to pieces and put it together again?"

"I understand your meaning, Anna, but rely upon me-I have a good reason for what I have done. Let us not anticipate evil. Go down to your kitchen, and prepare for me my favorite dinner, French beans stewed sweet and sour. You have not your equal in that dish; you really make me enjoy my life."

Before many months had passed I shared Anna's fears respecting Gideon Wolf. Little by little it was made clear to me that he had a thoroughly bad nature, that he was sly, greedy, envious, small-minded, mean-spirited. Occasionally I sent his mother a small sum of money which I said was due for services he had rendered; and you may be sure, in addition to this, that I paid him fair wages. But had I known how he would turn out, I would as soon have taken the son of the Arch Fiend himself for my apprentice as the son of Louisa Wolf. Too late did I discover that I had made a bad bargain.

CHAPTER V
RELATES HOW GIDEON WOLF WAS SEEN BY OLD ANNA PLAYING CARDS WITH THE DEVIL

He grew into a tall, thin, sallow-faced young man, about as ill-favored as one of Pharaoh's lean kine; with large splay feet; with sandy hair; with a nose which looked as if it had been broken in the middle by a violent blow; with eyes as dull as the eyes of a fish; with a voice in which was never heard a note of natural gayety. Such men are a mistake in the world, and how any young woman can be drawn to them is a mystery which I defy students of human nature to satisfactorily explain. A mother's love for her ugly bantling is easily understood, but a fine young woman's, with bright eyes in her head, for such a scarecrow as Gideon Wolf is beyond ordinary comprehension. Yet they draw prizes these crooked-grained ones, while better men are left to sigh in vain.

You have already heard how Gideon passed through his apprenticeship, and how I continued to employ him as a workman when his time was out. He was twenty-two years of age when, on a certain evening, old Anna, who had been out marketing, burst in upon me with a plump goose in her hand, and cried in a great heat,

"Fine doings, Master Fink, fine doings! It is high time the world came to an end."

"What, in Heaven's name, has put you in such a fever?" I inquired, looking up from the newspaper in which I was reading an account of a wonderful ox, which had a man's head growing out of one shoulder and a turtle out of the other. "Ah," I cried, in sudden fear, "that goose! You have been cheated. It is not a fresh goose; it ought to have been eaten days ago, and the dealer will not change it. Give it to me-I will go to him myself-"

"No need to trouble, Master Fink," said Anna, in a slightly acid tone; "the goose is a good goose, and I bought it cheap. I should like to see the dealer who could take me in. Look at it."

I did more than look at it. I poked its ribs; I felt its fat breast; my eyes glistened.

"Already, Anna," I cried, joyously, "already I smell the stuffing!"

"I don't deny it; I am fond of good cooking. It is nothing to be ashamed of; we were sent into the world to eat, as well as to do other things, and it is right that we should enjoy it."

"It is not the goose that has put me in a fever," said Anna, "it is Gideon Wolf."

I pricked up my ears. "Has he been behaving rudely to you, Anna?"

"What!" she screamed, in a voice so shrill that I jumped in my chair. "He! A lamp-post like him! If he dared, I'd box his ears till I set them on fire!"

I laughed quietly; I could not help it, her indignation was so comical. "Well, then," I asked, wiping my eyes, for I had brought the tears into them, "what has he done?"

Her reply was brief and startling: "Gideon Wolf is courting."

"It is not possible," I cried; "you must be dreaming."

"I don't dream," said Anna, "with my eyes wide open. This very evening, not ten minutes ago, as I was coming home, after buying the goose, I saw him with his arm round her waist."

"Bound the goose's waist!" I exclaimed, for really she was beginning to confuse me.

She looked at me solemnly, reproachfully. "Pray to-night, Master Fink," she said, "to be forgiven for making a joke of my words!" And she was about, to leave me.

"Stay, Anna," I said, conscience-stricken," and pardon me. With his arm around whose waist?"



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