Self-Doomed. A Novel
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"Really, Master Fink, you don't owe anybody anything-that is an absolute fact, eh?"
"It is an absolute fact, Pretzel."
Then he would laugh slyly, and say, "An honorable, straightforward man like you could easily borrow what he wants. Ah, how people would stare! They would clap their hands, and say, 'What a wonderful man Master Fink is-what a wonderful, wonderful man!' You would be looked up to, much more than you are now, though you stand well. Yes, Master Fink, such is the power of money that you would be made a magistrate."
I thought, "Ah, if I were a magistrate, and you were brought before me, I would make short work of you, Miser Pretzel." And I wondered to myself why he was so anxious to lend money to me who had always spoken of him as a villainous usurer.
Day after day, week after week, he continued to pester me and try to inflame my ambition with his cunning speech, until it entered my head to set a trap for him. I told him, much as I should like to take his advice, that it was not in my power, because, in an unlucky moment of my life, I had vowed never to borrow money at interest. He opened his eyes very wide at this I don't suppose he ever had such a thing said to him before. He tried to reason me out of my vow, but I said it was of no use, and that nothing should ever tempt me to break it.
"Have you ever known me to forfeit my word?" I asked. "Is it likely, then, that I should break a solemn oath? I admit that it was foolish, that I am bound by it."
He did not annoy me for a little while after this, but more than once I saw him looking in at my shop-window, counting with his eyes the watches and chains and trinkets therein displayed. Ha, ha! He was going to walk straight into the trap. All this time I did not hold my tongue concerning him I spoke of him freely to the neighbors as an abominable usurer, hoping that what I said would reach his ears. Whether it did or not he exhibited no ill-will towards me, but nodded and smiled in a friendly way when we met. And one morning he entered my shop, and said,
"Master Fink, I will do you a service against your will. I will compel you to become a rich man you shall make great profits you shall rise in the town we want men like you to take the direction of affairs. You shall borrow of me the money needed for alterations and improvements, and I will charge you no interest-only, of course, you shall sign a bond to pay me on a stated day. That is but fair."
"Indeed, indeed, I do not care for it," I said.
"Am I not already sufficiently well off?"
"No, you are not," he persisted. "I will do you this kindness, so that people shall say, 'Pretzel is a good fellow; we have been mistaken in him.' Oh, I know what some of them think of me!"
"The devil is never so black as he is painted," I said, saucily.
"Ah, Master Fink," he said, without a trace of displeasure in his face, "you will have your joke, you will have your joke."
"Yes," said I to myself, "and I intend to enjoy it, and profit by it."
But although he urged and urged, I would not immediately do as he wished; I drew him on, and within a week, so eager was he to have his fingers in my pie, he had lent me three thousand florins for two years, without interest.He plumped the money on my counter, and I signed a bond, undertaking to repay it in hard coin on a certain date, and giving Pretzel the power, in case it were not refunded to the minute, to seize my goods and furniture, and sell me up stock and block. In the bond Pretzel had inserted words to the effect that the money was to be handed to him at exactly twelve o'clock in the morning by his own watch.
"Mind," he said, with a little chuckling laugh, "if you are a minute later than twelve o'clock by my watch I shall take possession of all your goods."
"Yes, yes," I said, "I understand. At twelve o'clock on that day you shall receive the money you are kind enough to lend me without interest."
His evil eye never had a slyer, wickeder look in it than when he shook hands with me and wished me good-luck and good-day, leaving his three thousand florins behind him. With his money tied up in a bag I went immediately to the State Bank and deposited it upon interest, and there I let it remain, without Pretzel or any person outside the bank knowing anything of the transaction. From time to time Pretzel looked in, and asked when my plate glass and my new-fashioned goods were to arrive. I put off his questions with an awkwardness which I intended he should notice. He did notice it, and after some time had passed he said,
"The new watches and chains are a long time coming; I am quite anxious to see them. Remember, I lent you the money to purchase them with."
"No," I said, and I pretended to be much confused, "you did not lend me the money to purchase them with; you simply lent me the money. That is stated in the bond, and it is not stated in what manner I should employ what I borrowed of you. A good speculation offered itself to me, and I have invested in it."
"Master Fink," he said, severely, "it was understood, if the money was spent, that it should be spent in purchasing new stock, so that you might increase your trade."
"I cannot deny it," I answered, "but it was only understood; it was not written down."
"You stand by the bond?"
"To the letter."
"That is well, as far as it goes; but a speculation carries risk with it. How if yours should turn out bad?"
I made a gesture of despair, clasped my hand to my forehead, and said, dolefully,
"I should be ruined! Yet, no; you are my friend; you would never take my goods from me; you would give me time to repair my losses."
His eyes travelled round my shop; there was a malicious expression in his weazen face.
"The devil is never so black as he is painted, is he, Master Fink?" be said, with a wicked grin.
Thereafter he would ask me, whenever he saw me, "And how is the famous speculation getting on, eh?"
"Don't ask me, don't ask me," I would sigh. "How fortunate for me that I am in the hands of a man like yourself-in the hands of a friend! Never have I beheld your money since the day on which you lent it to me."
Which was as true as anything I ever spoke in my life. His money did not trouble me; it was safe enough in the State Bank.
So the first year passed, and six months of the second, Pretzel never ceasing to question me about my famous speculation, and I never ceasing to express my despair. During the last few months he was in the habit of coming to me with his watch in his hand, and saying,
"Master Fink, I wish you to regulate my watch."
And I regulated it for him, on an average, once in every week.
On the day before the money was to be repaid I went to the bank, and drew it out in hard coin, and received, also, the interest-with which interest I purchased, as I had previously determined, the handsome lever-watch I have ever since worn, and the handsome gold chain you see round my neck.
The morning arrived. I had a friend to breakfast with me, who was to witness what was about to take place. Suspecting some trick, and wishing to be prepared for it, I had arranged that this friend was to come to me at seven o'clock in the morning, and to stay till the affair was over. I expected that Pretzel would present himself at about a quarter to twelve, but to my astonishment he entered my shop as half a dozen clocks on my shelves chimed a quarter to ten. He was accompanied by a lawyer.
"Good-morning, Master Fink," he said.
"Good-morning," I said.
Heavens! How cunning and sharp and sly and malicious was his look!
"You know what to-day is?" he asked.
"Yes," I replied, "it is Wednesday."
"Right; it is Wednesday; and the date, Master Fink, the date is that on which you are to repay me my three thousand florins."
"Ah," I cried, "it is true, it is true! How could it have escaped me?"
"That is not my affair. This is my lawyer, Master Fink!"
I bowed to the lawyer, and said to Pretzel,
"You will renew the bond, will you not? You will let the money remain with me for another two years, at the same rate of interest?"
"What!" be cried; "are you mad, or do you think I am?"
"No," I said, in a rueful tone, "I am not mad, but you see the state I am in. Unfortunate-unfortunate that I am!"
"That is always the way," he said, appealing to his lawyer-" that is always the way." Then to me, "Is not my demand just?"
"Quite just; but you will continue to be my friend-you will not ruin me!"
He laughed in my face. "Master Fink," he said, "attend, to me. Years before I lent you this money you were in the habit of reviling me and speaking against me. You libelled and scandalized me; you held me up in the blackest light. You were never tired of calling me a villainous old usurer."
"It is true," I groaned, "but I have lived to see my error. You are upright, you are just, you are liberal."
"I lent you my money," be continued, "without interest, to prove to you and to everybody that when you spoke in that way against me you were speaking lies, and that really I am a benevolent man." There was something absolutely diabolical in his voice as he uttered these words. "And even then, when I gave you the money, to my own loss-for how much more profitably it could have been employed! – you threw into my teeth the taunt that the devil is never so black as he is painted." (I groaned again.) "If you have been improvident that is your affair. If you have squandered my money and lost it recklessly, you will be spoken of as a knave, and you will forfeit the honorable name you have been so proud of." (I gave two long distinct groans.) "I have come now for my money, and if you are not prepared to pay me three thousand honest florins, I will strip your house and your shop of every article they contain."
"No, no, Pretzel," I moaned, "you do not mean it!"
"I do mean it! You shall not have a bed to lie upon, nor a spoon to eat with. You will be a beggar, a rogue, a cheat! Ask this lawyer whether I am standing on my rights."
I looked at the lawyer.
"By the bond you have signed," he said, "which Pretzel holds in his hands, if you do not pay him three thousand florins he is entitled to carry away everything movable within these walls."
"And I will do it!" screamed Pretzel, working himself up into a state of frantic exultation; "I will do it! I can see that you have not got the money-that you are not prepared to pay it-that you have squandered it like a thief! You shall suffer for calling me a villainous old usurer; you shall suffer for saying that I am not so black as I am painted! Do you see those vans at the door? They are mine-they are mine-and I'll strip the place to the bare walls, you honest, honorable man!"
Sure enough, there at my door stood two large, strong vans, and I strove to squeeze out a few tears at my impending ruin as Pretzel pointed to them and flourished the bond in my face.
"Are you quite determined to show me no mercy?" I asked, with a succession of such heavy sighs that I thought to myself if I had not been a watch-maker I might have been a fine actor.
"Hear him!" he cried; "he implores mercy from a villainous old usurer! Why, he must be a fool as well as a rogue!"
"Well, then," I said, and I threw myself, quite heart-broken, into a chair, "come at twelve o'clock, when the money is due, and in the mean time I will see if I can get my friends to help me."
"It is twelve o'clock now," said Pretzel.
"Nay," I replied, looking round at my clocks, which were ticking merrily away, "it wants exactly two hours to noon. The correct time is five minutes to ten."
"By my watch," said Pretzel, pulling it out of his pocket, "it is exactly five minutes to twelve."
I looked at his watch; the hands pointed to five minutes to twelve; there was no disputing it.
"Your watch is wrong," I said; "it is two hours fast."
"I say nothing to that," said Pretzel, eagerly watching the second hands," you yourself have regulated it for several months past."
"Twenty-two times I have regulated it," I said, "and yesterday it was in perfect order."
"One minute gone," said Pretzel; "four minutes to twelve. I demand my money, my three thousand florins!"
"Your watch is two hours fast; how it came so Heaven only knows. You cannot demand your money till twelve o'clock by the right time."
"You are wrong. The bond says twelve o'clock by my watch. It does not stipulate that my watch shall keep right time. Read the words for yourself. You stand by the bond, you know, to the letter-the exact words you spoke to me. Another minute gone; three minutes to twelve. I demand my money, my three thousand florins!"
"But, Pretzel," I implored, "you cannot mean it. You will surely not cast me into the streets-you will not make a beggar of me!"
"Oh no," he cried, "I will not make a beggar of you-I will not cast you into the streets! I have so much reason to love you, have I not? As for your ruin, you have brought it on yourself. This is your signature, not mine. It is your honesty that is at stake, not mine. The villainous old usurer, the devil that is not so black as he is painted, wants only his rights-nothing more. Two minutes to twelve; another minute gone. I demand my money, my three thousand florins!"
"Bring me writing materials," I said to my friend, in a despairing tone, "and I will write Miser Pretzel an order on the bank for three thousand florins."
"I will accept no order on the bank," said, Pretzel, "for two reasons. One is, because I should find it was not worth the paper it was written on; and the other, because it is stated in the bond that the money is to be repaid to me in hard coin."
"You insist upon it, Pretzel?"
"Yes, I insist upon it. Another minute gone; one minute to twelve."
I tapped him gently on his breast, within which I verily believe beat the cunningest heart that mortal was ever cursed with; I made him a low bow I smiled benignly; and saying, "What must be, must be," I took from a drawer the bag with the three thousand florins in it, and put it into his bands.
"There is your money," I said, "the exact sum, in hard coin, which I drew from the State Bank yesterday. Give me my bond, that I may cancel it."
He turned white, then yellow, then green; he trembled with rage; he gasped for breath.
"You forced your money upon me," I said, "as you have forced it upon others. You would have ruined me, as you have ruined others. I have made you pay for it. Out of a spirit of revenge you laid a snare for me, and thought to entangle me in it; and now you find yourself caught in your own trap. Instead of biting, you are bit. I put your money into the State Bank, at fair interest; I knew it was quite safe there. I never touched it, never used a florin of it, and with the interest I received yesterday I bought this handsome chain and this handsome lever watch, which I shall wear as long as I live, to remind me always that honesty is the best policy. Never, never shall it be set two hours fast or two hours slow to entrap the innocent and unsuspecting. Count the money, Pretzel, count the money; you will find it right to a florin; and you can carry it away in those beautiful strong vans you have gone to the expense of hiring for my benefit."
Shaking as if he had an ague, Pretzel counted the money and flung the bond at my feet.
"You do not require me any longer," said the lawyer to him, with an ill-concealed smile. I saw that he enjoyed the joke, and that very soon the whole town would be laughing at the capital trick Master Fink had played upon Miser Pretzel.
"Wait a moment, please," I said to the lawyer; "it is not yet quite finished. In your presence I present Pretzel the money-lender with a small account he owes me, and I request immediate payment of the same.
"Account!" snarled Pretzel; "I owe you nothing."
"Pardon me. Here is the account, with the items fairly and properly set down. Twenty-two times have I regulated your watch for you, at your own request. Why you wanted it so often examined and set in order when nothing was the matter with it was your affair, not mine; I sit at my counter to attend to my customers. I charge you one florin a time-in all, twenty-two florins."
"You are an extortionist," he said; and if he could have scorched me to death with his evil eye it would have afforded him, I have no doubt, the greatest satisfaction; "I shall not pay you a florin of this false account."
"It is a faithful account," I said, "and if it is not paid before twelve o'clock to-morrow-by my watch, not yours-I shall have you summoned in the Public Court. You may take my word that I mean what I say. Good-morning."
"Master Fink," he said, with the look of a snake, "one day I may be even with you."
"Till then," I said, "farewell."
From that hour we had never exchanged a single word. He prospered, and was feared and hated, and well did I know that if the opportunity ever offered itself he would deal me a deadly blow.
And this was the man with whom Gideon Wolf was consorting. Nothing but evil could come of such a friendship. But it was of no use my interfering between those two rascals; I should have been laughed to scorn by the pair of them.
It was otherwise with Katrine Loebeg. I had been kind to her; when she was a little one I had walked in the fields with her, and we had been merry together. I could speak to her as a father would to his child; I could warn her; I could enlighten her as to Gideon Wolf's time character. Ah! I did not think of the glamour which love sheds over the eyes of the young-not only over the eyes, over the reason, over the judgment. Had I reflected a little, had I recalled the memory of the past, when I myself was in love, I might have taken a different view.
I met Katrine the very next evening in the public street. I spoke to her, cautiously and tenderly. She was a timid, confiding girl, with a gentle voice, but the moment I ventured to say one word against Gideon Wolf she turned upon me like a fury. I never supposed her capable of such spirit. It was the passion of a mother defending her young. Ah, woman, woman! So weak, so strong, so fierce, so tender! It puts me out of patience to think of it. A bundle of sticks, some inflexible as steel bars, some supple as blades of grass-that well represents the qualities of her nature. What can be said of a man who, with some knowledge of the world, deliberately uses these astonishing, these beautiful contrasts to his own base ends? I have my own opinion on such matters. Perhaps I am old-fashioned. If so, thank God for old fashions! May they never entirely die out!
"What do you mean," cried Katrine, "first Anna, then you, by coming to me, and speaking against Gideon?"
"Anna has spoken to you, then," I said.
"Yes, she has," said Katrine, "and said such things of Gideon as she ought to be ashamed of. She deserves to be punished for it, and so I told her. I am not good enough for him, not half good enough. Is he not already sufficiently persecuted, sufficiently unfortunate? But if all the world rose against him, I would stand by his side, if he would let me, and die for him! Yes, gladly would I die for him!"
Fool that I was! Not to know that if you want to increase a woman's love for a man, all you have to do is to speak to her against him! I soon discovered my error, and was compelled to confess to myself that I had done Gideon Wolf a good turn in his suit with Katrine Loebeg. So may a man himself, by an act which he has not well considered, frustrate his own good intentions.
What thrilled me through and through was to see Pretzel the Miser, who had been secretly watching us, go to Katrine when I left her, and walk side by side with her in confidential converse. There came to my mind the picture of Eve and the Serpent in the Garden of Eden.
Well, the best service we could now render to Katrine was to hold our peace. Heaven knows, things were bad enough; to have set the whole town talking would have made them worse.