Benjamin Farjeon.

Self-Doomed. A Novel



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"Round Katrine Loebeg's," replied Anna, sorrowfully. "The child-the poor, misguided child! It was only yesterday I was nursing her on my knee and tossing her in the air."

Anna was deeply moved, and I scarcely less than she, at this disclosure. It was hardly to be believed that a fresh young heart like that which beat in the breast of pretty Katrine Loebeg should have given itself up to this scarecrow. But it was true. Gideon Wolf had cast a spell upon her, and she was as secure in his wiles as a trout on a hook. Sweet Katrine Loebeg! whom I looked upon almost as a child of my own, who could have chosen from the best, and for whom many a manly heart was aching! An orphan, too, with no father to protect her, and no mother to warn her of the pitfalls which lie in the path of unsuspecting, innocent maidenhood. That made it worse-a thousand times worse. What could there be in Gideon Wolf to attract that young soul? What unholy arts had he used to draw her to him? Incredible as it seemed, it was most unhappily true that he had infatuated her, and was paying court to her.

"Did you speak to them, Anna?" I asked.

"No; they did not see me."

"But surely, Anna, this was not done in the open street!"

"No; that's where the villainy of it is. You know the archway on the right hand side of the Court of Public Justice. At this time of the day scarcely any one passes through it. I should not have done so had I not wanted to go to the Blind House to give Mother Morel her paper of snuff. She is ninety-eight, but her nose is in splendid condition. It is the only sense she has left to enjoy. She is blind, she is deaf, she mumbles so that it is impossible to understand a word she says, and she has scarcely any feeling in her. Her nose is the only thing she has left which convinces her that she still belongs to this world; it is her sole comfort. Well, when I went through the archway no one was there, and outside the archway there were only the pigeons picking up the crumbs; but when I came back from the Blind House, there, in the darkest corner of the archway, was your treasure, Gideon Wolf-"

"Don't call him my treasure," I interrupted, mildly; "I have not a high opinion of him."

"Why did you take him as your apprentice, then? I warned you how it would be."

"Is it possible," I cried, testily, "to find in this world a woman who will tell a story without flying round it in every direction but the right one? Get out of that archway, Anna."

"There was Gideon Wolf in the very darkest part of it, with his arm round Katrine's waist. And unless my ears are mistaken, I heard the sound of a kiss."

"When two young people are together like that, Anna, it is not an unlikely thing to happen."

"Well," she asked, sharply, "what are you going to do about it?"

"That is a difficult question to answer. What can I do?"

"There is no difficulty. You must prevent it from going any further."

"How, Anna? In what way? Gideon is no longer my apprentice he is his own master; he is an independent workman."

"A fine workman he has turned out to be!" she cried, scornfully.

"Over and over again have I said to myself, 'Why does Master Fink keep such a creature in the house? Why does he not bid him pack and be off?' It would not be believed if people knew all."

She was not in the secret of the little romance that was played when Gideon's mother and I were boy and girl together. I had the greatest confidence in Anna, but this sentiment of my youthful days I had not divulged to any one. Besides, if in an unguarded moment I had confided in Anna I am doubtful whether she would have sympathized with me. She would not have looked at it through my spectacles. She might even have lost confidence in me, and that was a risk I did not care to run.

"You manage your kitchen," I said to this faithful old servant, "and I will manage my shop. Every one knows his own business best. If I took the liberty of suggesting to you how you should cook that plump goose you have in your hand, I should not be surprised to feel it flying about my head, dead as it is.

"From the first day I came here," said Anna, and there was really a touch of pathos in her voice, "everything has gone right in my kitchen. Never a joint have I spoiled, nor a bird, nor has an ounce of fat or a slice of bread been wasted. Out of what has been saved by careful management we have even been able to feed the beggars. Go down-stairs now, and you will see the saucepans, and the pans, and the moulds shining like new silver, and if you find a speck of dust on a plate or a glass you may cut off my head."

It was true, every word of it, and I should have melted into tears had it not been for the tragic tone in which my good Anna said I might cut off her head.

"And why," she continued, and now her voice began to swell, "do I tell you this? To praise myself-to make you think I am a miracle of a woman? No, Master Fink, you know better than that. I am no miracle; only an ordinary creature, who is contented when things go on in a quiet and honest fashion. It is to prove to you how easy it is for one pair of hands to do a thing well, and for another pair to make everything go wrong. Had I taken an apprentice, some wench who thought more of her own stomach than her master's, your meat would have been undone or done to rags, and your favorite dishes burned to a cinder. But I would have no apprentice; the work I had to do was done, and that was enough for me. I was not going to bring confusion upon the house. And your shop, before you took Gideon Wolf into it, was like my kitchen, a model. You got up in the morning, you had your meals in peace, you did with your own one pair of hands every bit of work there was to do, you were putting by money, and this house was a house of truth and honesty. No lies to disturb us then, Master Fink; no deceit, no treachery, no unholy work-"

"Stop, Anna," I exclaimed, "for Heaven's sake, stop! Everything you have said is true, except the last. Whatever else takes place in the house, there is no unholy work going on in it."

"I tell you, Master Fink," said Anna, and her voice became so solemn that I felt the hair rising on my head, "that there is unholy work being carried on in your house. The Evil One visits it regularly!"

I stared at her with my mouth wide open. Had the most savory morsel been popped into it at that moment I should not have been able to move my jaws; there it would have remained, uneaten.

"Explain to me what you mean," I managed to murmur.

"Explain to me," she retorted, "what Gideon Wolf means, by getting up in the middle of the night to play cards with the Devil!"

You may imagine my astonishment; you might have thrown me from my chair to the ground with your little finger. "Playing cards in the middle of the night with the Devil!" I gasped.

"Yes, Master Fink, with the Devil. Doesn't Gideon Wolf sleep in the next room to mine, and isn't there a hole in the wall behind the curtains of my bed, into which I have stuffed a piece of soft rag, and tied it with a string to my pillow, so that it can't be taken out on the other side without disturbing me? Well, then. The first time I saw anything of Gideon Wolf's unholy work was six months ago, when, waking up in the middle of the night, I heard him talking to Some One in his room. My room was dark-I have nothing on my conscience, and can sleep without a light-but in his the candle was burning, as I saw when I quietly took the rag out of the hole and peeped through. There was no harm in my doing it-I am old enough to be his grandmother. I knew that, lawfully, there should be only you, me, and Gideon in the house. You were asleep down-stairs. Who could it be, then, that Gideon Wolf was talking to? It was my duty to see, and I am thankful that I am not a coward. Gideon was sitting in his shirt-sleeves at his little table; his back was towards me, and, as I have told you, there was a candle alight. He was shuffling and dealing out a pack of cards, talking all the time in a voice you never heard, Master Fink, all the years he has been with you. It was not a natural voice; the bad passions expressed in it made me shudder. He dealt cards to himself and to Whoever it was that sat opposite to him. I did not see the Being he was playing with, but it could be nobody but Satan, who has the power of making himself invisible to any person he pleases-and he didn't choose to show himself to me. But Gideon saw him clearly enough, for he spoke to the Fiend, and shook his fist at him, and swore at him, and when he was winning, grinned in his face-a diabolical grin, such as I never saw on the face of a proper man. Now and then I thought I heard a faint, wicked laugh from the Fiend, but I could not make sure of it. Gideon kept an account of something-of his winnings and losings, I suppose-on pieces of paper, upon which he wrote figures at the end of every game. 'That makes five hundred,' Gideon said; 'that makes a thousand; that makes fifteen hundred; that makes two thousand. Where am I to get the money from? How am I to pay you?' I knew how he would have to pay; it was his soul that was being gambled away. It was when Gideon was speaking in that way that I thought I heard the laughing of the Fiend. This went on for nearly an hour, I should say, and then Gideon Wolf, dashing the pack of cards against the wall, rose from the table with a face as white as my table-cloths. Something seemed to vanish out of the room, and Gideon, after muttering to himself for a minute or two, burned all the little pieces of paper at the candle, and gathering the ashes put them in the stove. Having done this with great care, he collected the pack of cards, blew out the candle, and went to bed. The next morning when I went to his room I looked into his stove, and there I saw the burned ashes of the pieces of paper, and I knew I had not been dreaming."

"But, Anna," I said, "why have you not told me this before?"

"Because," she replied, "you make a scoff of sacred things-for which I am afraid you will be punished unless I pray you off; and I try hard to-yes, Master Fink, I pray for you every day of my life."

"You do me a great wrong," I said; "never in my life have I scoffed at sacred things."

"You don't believe in the Devil," she said, shaking her head dolefully.

"Not in the way you do, Anna. But it would be foolish for us to discuss religious matters. When you find me doing an evil action, then will be the time to pray for me. Did you ever see Gideon play cards again in that way?"

"A dozen times at least. Sometimes he wins, sometimes he loses. When he wins there is an unholy light in his eyes; when he loses he curses and swears and walks up and down the room, clinching his fists and waving them in the air. But if I had not seen what I have seen it would not alter my opinion of him. If he were an honest man-which he is not and a handsome man-which he is not and if he didn't play cards with the Devil-even then he is no fit lover for an innocent girl like Katrine Loebeg. And so I shall tell her, whether she likes it or not."

"Do so," I said, "and I will also speak to her."

"It is your duty, Master Fink. You knew her father, and respected him. If he were alive this day he would take that comrade of the Evil One by the neck between his finger and thumb and send him spinning into the gutter. If I were a man I'd do it myself. You seem to know very little of this Gideon Wolf of yours. I'll tell you something else concerning him. Who do you think he goes to see every Friday night, as regularly as clock-work?"

"I cannot guess."

"Pretzel the miser, who lives in the Temple-Pretzel, your enemy with the evil eye, who hasn't a friend in the world but Gideon Wolf-Pretzel, that the little children run away from when he shows his ugly face, and that the very dogs in the streets snarl and bark at! Now I've given you a good stomach full, Master Fink, and I wish you joy of your apprentice."

Anna was very unjust to me, but I ascribed it to her excited feelings. She made amends to me that very night, by placing before me for supper the goose she had bought for the next day's dinner. Ah, if women only knew the effect of such a thing upon a man's spirits! The very smell was enough to dispel anger and vexation. If a young girl were to come to me for counsel before she was married, if she were to ask me how she could chain her husband to her, how she could make him love her all the days of his life, I should say to her, "Look after his stomach, my child. Make him nice stews and savory dishes. When he cuts into the beef with the knife you have sharpened for him, let him behold the gravy running out of it. It softens the heart. And when you give him a roast goose, be sure that you give him plenty of stuffing with it." But no one could roast a goose like old Anna. No one, no one! Upon her tombstone ought to have been cut the words, "Here lieth a woman who could roast a goose to perfection, and who made the finest stews in the world."

When Anna placed that goose before me I gave utterance to a long, deep sigh of satisfaction, and I looked at her with a smile in my eyes. Her face lighted up in an instant. You should have seen it; it was like the sun breaking out. Did I not know in my inmost soul that she had been suffering because she believed she had done me an injustice? And in an instant everything was cleared up through the savory steam-more eloquent than the finest words that rose from the hot roast goose.

But there is never joy without sorrow. Gideon Wolf came into the room just as I put the knife into the breast.

"A hot roast goose!" he cried, gleefully. "If I like one thing better than another it is a hot roast goose for supper."

And he drew his chair close to the table, and held out a plate.

I could not take my knife out of the breast, the fattest slices of which I intended for my own eating, and help him to the long joint of the leg. Sadly I laid the fat slices on his plate, and when he said, "Don't trouble about the stuffing, Master Fink I'll help myself;" I submitted without a word, but in silent wrath. He devoured the best part of that goose, and nearly the whole of the stuffing. What could be expected of such a gourmand? As for Anna, she went out of the room in such a state of vexation that I am sure she could not have got a wink of sleep that night.

CHAPTER VI
PRETZEL THE MISER, WITH THE EVIL EYE

Of Anna's revelations, those which troubled me most were that relating to Pretzel the miser, and that relating to Katrine Loebeg. Of the intimacy which she had discovered, by means of a hole in the wall, between the Devil and Gideon Wolf I soon disposed. The world abounds in men who feed on delusions, and who find their greatest comfort therein. The majority of these men are beings who hunger after what is not within their reach, or who are envious of their neighbors. Gideon Wolf, hungering for wealth, and seeing no practical road to its swift attainment, flew to his imagination for the realization of his desire. He played cards in the solitude of his room with a Shadow, and won of it or lost to it great sums of money. There is a certain distinction, and also a certain comfort, in this delusion. Imaginary millions are involved in the turning up of a card, and the high play affords a triumph when a fortune is won, and a scarcely less enjoyable despair when it is lost. So much for Gideon Wolf's folly in playing cards with the Devil. That I did not believe in the personality of the Evil One was, in my old Anna's eyes, a terrible sin. She herself had the firmest belief that he walked the earth, a solid body, horns, hoofs, tail, and all complete. No, the Devil did not trouble me, but Pretzel the miser did.

This Pretzel was, in my opinion, the most abominable man in the town. He was a miser, and a moneylender at exorbitant interest. One hundred, two hundred, even four hundred per cent., did not satisfy him; he was never satisfied till he had extracted the last copper from the unhappy people who went to him for assistance. A little, thin, dried-up old man, with a joyless laugh. Out of his whole body I do not believe you could have squeezed a teaspoonful of blood. The number of people he had ruined! I could not count them. And all done under the shadow of the law. Yes, he was always, always right, and his victims always, always wrong. The judges and the lawyers all declared so-not because they wished to favor him, but because they were compelled to go by the letter of the law. "I want nothing more than my rights," he would say; "look at my bond." And there was never a flaw in it, never the smallest crevice that a poor wretch could creep through to escape from his clutches. All, gracious heaven! A heartless money-lender's bond. That it is necessary he should be upheld in it-that he should be allowed to prey, to blast, to ruin, to destroy! Is there no such thing as moral justice in this strangely constituted world? Public opinion. Yes, yes. But what do men like Pretzel care for public opinion? Could they not, if they pleased, buy up all the corn and the oil? If I had a son, never, never should be become a money-lender! I would sooner see him dead at my feet. "Look at my bond," says the money-lender; "ask my debtor if he denies his signature." "Take what you demand," says the judge. And helpless women and children stand by, wringing their hands and weeping tears of blood. The money-lender sees not, hears not. He takes what he demands, and when the Sabbath comes he kneels in church, and prays and humbles himself. It is a cheap way of buying himself off. Though if the truth were known, and if the workings of a man's soul could be brought into view, the heart and the mind of the ruthless schemer would be seen to be full of triumphant figures all the time his lips are moving with meaningless prayer.

Not that Pretzel ever went to church, or ever prayed, or ever knelt to any God but Money. No, no: there was no mock humility about Pretzel. He gloried in his deeds, and when ruin overtook those unfortunate ones who had been drawn into his web, he would heap reproaches upon them for their unworldliness and their want of prudence. It was they who were the wrongers, not he. "See what you have done," he would say; "see what you have brought upon your poor families!" Can a more fiendish taunt be imagined?

Of every person, with one single exception, with whom Pretzel had dealings he got the advantage. That exception was myself. No one but I, in all the town, who had borrowed money of him, could say, "I have gained something from dealing with Pretzel." To hear that, and to be compelled to acknowledge that it was true, cut him to the soul. You may guess how he hated me.

It happened in this way: Old Pretzel did not always wait for customers; if they did not come to him he went to them; he made business, I have heard him say. It was not always, "I beg, I implore of you, good Pretzel, to lend me a hundred forms; it will save me from ruin. For the sake of my wife and children do this good deed!" It was he who sometimes said, "Why don't you borrow two hundred, three hundred, five hundred florins of me? It will help you on. You can buy fresh stock with it, and turn it twice over before I come to you for payment. You will grow rich, instead of being poor all your life. I would not do this for every one, but I take an interest in you. Think of it, for the sake of your wife and children. Think well of it; the money is ready for you, and it won't run away." He would cast his eyes upon a tradesman who was getting along comfortably, and when he had calculated how much he was worth, he would go to him and tempt him to borrow, putting all sorts of baits in his way. And he did it so cleverly that the victim could scarcely ever remember how the whole thing was done, and how it happened that ruin suddenly fell upon him like a clap of thunder.

Pretzel came to me-it was in the first year of Gideon Wolf's apprenticeship; that is how those two became acquainted, by Pretzel visiting my shop. Pretzel's words, when they were uttered in the presence of Gideon Wolf, fell upon a rich soil. Well, he came to me many times, admired my workmanship, admired my stock-I believe he knew to the smallest coin what it would fetch in the market-and would say,

"You ought to have a fine plate-glass window to your shop. It would draw custom. A fine plate-glass front, with glass shelves in it, and your beautiful watches and chains all set out in blue velvet eases. How they would glitter! It would make people's mouths water. Everybody in the town would come to look, and a great many would be tempted to buy. You would do three times the trade you are doing now. You would be able to buy the newest-fashioned goods; you would grow rich."

"But it would cost a great deal of money," I would answer, "to make these alterations."

"What does it matter," he would urge, "how much it would cost if you got it back five times, ten times over?"

"But I haven't any spare cash, Pretzel; all that I am worth lies in my stock. True, I do not owe anything; what I have is all my own."



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