Self-Doomed. A Novel
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"Master Fink," said Gideon, "I wish to speak to you."
"Yes, Gideon, yes," I said, drawing a double line with my ruler, a thick one and a thin one; I kept my books very neatly, and often turned over the leaves with pride. "What have you to say?"
"I am not getting along well, Master Fink."
"That is plain," I said, with my eyes on his account.
"I might go on like this for fifty years," he continued, "and I should be no better off then than I am now."
"It really appears so," I said; "and to be honest with you, Gideon, if all the people I had dealings with resembled you, I should myself be no better off."
I said this quite calmly and dispassionately. It is hurtful to a man to be forever angry about things he cannot alter for the better, be he on the right or the wrong side with respect to them.
"I have served you faithfully, Master Fink. As apprentice and workman I have worked for you for more than ten years."
"Yes," said I, "it is more than ten years since you first entered my shop." And there rose before me the vision of his mother, my old sweetheart, as she appeared to me ten years ago, to beg me to take her son as my apprentice and make an upright man of him. Conscientiously had I endeavored to do my duty by him, to guide him in the straight path, to make him truthful, industrious, honest, and brave. As well might I have striven to alter the nature of a fox, and to instil into the heart of that treacherous animal noble and faithful qualities. Sadly did I confess that his mother's cherished dreams of the future could never be realized, and that she would one day awake to the bitter reality.
"Master Fink," said Gideon, the years I have worked for you have been wasted. I stand here today without a florin, compelled to do without many things I desire to possess."
"It is a common calamity," I remarked "all men suffer from it."
"We are sent into the world," said Gideon, gloomily, "with a common right, the poor as well as the rich, to enjoy what there is in it."
"Ah, ah," thought I, "is this young man a member of one of those secret societies I have read of, whose aim it is to root up the very foundations of society?" And I said aloud, "Yes, to enjoy what belongs to us, what we have worked for and honestly earned. Proceed, and leave politics out of the question. You say that the ten years you have worked for me have been as good as wasted. Have you not learned a trade?"
"My pockets are empty," he retorted. "Suppose that I wished to settle in life-" He paused suddenly.
I took up his words according to my understanding of them. "All, then, is arranged between you and Katrine Loebeg."
"What do you know about her?" he cried, with a dark flush in his face. "Why do you mix up our names?"
The rascal! I could have knocked his head against the wall!
"Be careful, Gideon, be careful," I said, half warningly, half threateningly "more is known about you and Katrine Loebeg than you seem to be aware of.People are not blind."
He bit his lips. "What there is between Katrine and me is our business, and concerns no one but ourselves."
"You are in error. Katrine was born in this town, and she is an orphan. She is regarded with eyes of affection by many, and I could name worthy parents who would gladly receive her as a child of their own. See that you deal honestly by her. You did not finish what you were about to say. Suppose you wished to settle in life-"
"How should I be able to do so? If I set up for myself as a watch-maker in this place, either you or I would have to put up our shutters. There is not room enough for two."
"The world is wide, Gideon."
"But if I wish to stop here?"
"Stop here, in Heaven's name! Who prevents you?"
"I did not expect you would mock me, Master Fink," and from biting his lips he took to biting his nails. "I have a proposition to make to you. Having worked for you so long it is natural I should look for some advancement. I will work for you for two more years at the present rate, and at the expiration of that time you shall admit me as a partner in your business. You have no son to take care of you in your old age. I will be your son; I will take care of you. Then all will be well with us."
"The murder is out," I thought. "Now I will see how far he will go."
"In plain words, Gideon," I said, "you propose to adopt me as your father. How can I thank you for your generous proposal! Of course it would have to be a settled agreement between us."
"Of course," he said, eagerly.
I remained silent for a little while, with my head resting on my hand, and I saw, without looking up, that his eyes never left my face. "The villain!" I thought. "He thinks the hook is already in my gills. I will remain silent just long enough to make him believe he has me safe. A fine idea, truly, to take this envious, idle knave as my partner. In three years I should find myself penniless, without a roof to my head. If it were not for his mother, whom I once loved, I would bid him pack off without another word. I am to allow him to adopt me as his father, am I? I am to put myself into his charge, for all the world as though I needed a keeper! A lunatic, indeed, I should prove myself to be by so doing. He must think that mankind were made for him to prey upon. Do I not put up with his blunders and bad workmanship-ay, and with something worse which I have never given utterance to? Because I am silent on the matter, he does not suspect that I know him to be a thief, and that I could send him to prison for what he has done. But for his mother's sake I will spare him. I will not bring shame and disgrace upon the gray hairs of the woman who brought into my life its most beautiful dreams, and who made the mistake of choosing a vagabond instead of me. She has suffered enough, and my hand shall not be raised against her. Ah, you gambler and schemer, Gideon Wolf, I could find it in my heart to strike you where you stand!"
Thus I thought and mused, while Gideon stood before me, reckoning up the chickens I had hatched, and calculating how many gold-pieces they would sell for.
"Gideon Wolf," I said, in as gentle a tone as I could command, "your proposal springs from a heart beating with consideration for your old master. It displays your nature in a beautiful light. But have you fully considered the sacrifice you propose to make; have you debated the subject with yourself in a calm and serious spirit; are you quite prepared to waste two of your most valuable years in my service, before you can hope to reap the reward to which you believe yourself entitled?"
"I have fully considered," he said, with gracious arrogance; "I am quite prepared."
"There are so many things," I said, laughing inwardly, "that may have escaped one of less experience than yourself. In human life so many unforeseen circumstances occur! I am hale and hearty and strong; yet unexpectedly the angel of death may call me to my account."
He held his hand before his eyes, which were as dry as a stone.
"Do not speak of such a calamity," he said, in a broken voice; "it cuts me to the heart. But even then you could provide for me. You are alone in the world; you have no family to whom you would care to leave your possessions."
"And I might leave them to you!" I cried, in the tone of a man upon whom a blessed inspiration had fallen. "I might make a will, constituting you my heir! True, true that would be the best way-by far the best way."
His face glowed with exultation. "You are too good, my master," he said, drawing his breath quickly. "You think of everything. It would never have occurred to me."
"How could such a thing be possible?" I cried, in assumed indignation at the injustice he was doing himself. "You are the last person who would calculate upon gaining anything by my death. But still consider, Gideon, what you might be throwing away by tying yourself to me. You have seen but little of the world, and you do not know how many lonely rich men there are who would gladly throw themselves into your arms if you made them understand what you are ready to sacrifice for them."
Certainly this young man was fool as well as rogue, for he accepted every word I spoke as the utterance of sincerity.
"Why waste more time?" be asked, with a complacent glance at that portion of my stock which was displayed to attract customers-among which were six fine fat gold lever watches, eighteen-carat hunters; six others, open-faced; four lady's dainty toys, with enamelled cases, set with diamonds a couple of dozen silver watches, with perfect movements and one marvel of workmanship, which told not only the time but the day of the year, the name and date of the month, and the changes of the moon. Then there was a fine collection of trinkets, chains, and rings, brooches, and the like, all paid for with the labor of my hands. And Gideon Wolf was standing beneath the fruitful vines, with his mouth wide open, waiting for the grapes to fall into it. But he was not the only fox in the world who met with disappointment. "Why waste more time?" he asked. "I am a man to be trusted, and what I mean I say. After all the years I have passed in your house, it would be black ingratitude in me to desert you in your old age."
"Am I so very old, Gideon?" I murmured.
"You are not young, Master Fink."
"But I feel sometimes as if I still had a little strength left in me; I do indeed, Gideon."
"The strongest are cut down when they least expect it," he said, showing me the whites of his eyes.
"There is Anna," I said; "she has been with me a long time, and her heart is full of kindness towards me. She would take care of me."
"Of what use are women?" exclaimed Gideon, scornfully. "They are mere playthings."
I sighed, "Alas, for poor Katrine!" and then said, "You have no cause of complaint against me, Gideon. You have been well and justly treated in my house. You acknowledge it?"
"Yes, Master Fink, I acknowledge it."
"You do not, I am sure, harbor any uncharitableness towards your old master."
"I should despise myself if I did."
"Fair wages all the time you were my apprentice, Gideon. This home is not to be despised. It is not a palace, it is true, but it is better than many palaces. The rain does not come through the roof and your bed-it is a comfortable bed, Gideon?"
"Yes, it is a comfortable bed."
"Then Anna is a good cook-one in a thousand. You have always had plenty to eat."
"I have nothing to complain of, Master Fink, nothing whatever. You have been a good and kind master, and I am going to show my gratitude. It is a bargain-you consent to my proposition. We commence from this day."
"Nay," I said, deeming it time to end the comedy; "it takes two to make a bargain;" and I rose and made him a low bow, just the kind of bow I made to Pretzel the Miser a good many years before, when he came into my shop, ready to strip me of every stick I possessed. "I will never consent to the sacrifice; it would be a reproach to me all my life. No, Gideon, I will not be adopted as your father; I will bear my burden alone. You shall grow rich in an easier way; you will find it, I make no doubt, for you are a sharp customer. Perhaps Miser Pretzel will make you his heir." Gideon's face, at the mention of Pretzel's name, was as white as milk, and I was confirmed in a suspicion which had crossed my mind, that Pretzel had a hand in counselling him to the end he wished to gain. "He is rolling in money-and so very, very generous! He once tried to do me a good turn. Or perhaps the invisible gentleman you play cards with in the middle of the night may, some time or other, lose a large sum of money to you, and bring it to you in a number of sacks. How wonderful that would be, would it not? So let what has been spoken between us be forgotten, as though it had never happened. And when you are rich," I said, closing the book in which his account was entered, and giving it a little tap, "and riding in your carriage, you shall pay me what you owe me, and get out of my debt. I hope you will give me your custom, as a slight return for the just treatment you have received in my house."
His face was dreadful to look at. Rage, terror, venom, in their most baleful aspects, were expressed in the play of his features. Had I been a weak old fellow I think he would not have restrained the impulse to put his fingers round my throat but he was aware of my strength, and we were both spared unpleasant consequences.
"So," he said, slowly, "you have been playing with me; you have been mocking me; you have been acting the part of spy and eavesdropper. You treat me as you would treat a dog that you can kick about at your pleasure. Because you are rich and I am poor, you think you have the right to crush me under your feet. Oh, if I had the power! – "
And he ground his teeth, and left me without another word.
It was a hard punishment I had dealt out to him, but he deserved it. He was a rascal from the hairs of his head to the soles of his feet.