Benjamin Farjeon.

Self-Doomed. A Novel



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The knapsack on my shoulders was the same which had accompanied me on my youthful travels, and though I had not worn it since that time, it felt like an old friend to me. I had determined to walk the best part of the way, out of a sentimental desire to renew acquaintance with scenes I had not set eyes on for five and twenty years. I knew that I should be overtaken on the road by carts and wagons on which I could get a lift when I was tired.

There are others besides myself who, in their middle or old age, have started upon such an excursion, and who have retraced, as it were, the roads of life with feelings of pensive sadness and wonder at the change that has come over them. I have read of countries in which people live at such a rapid rate that everything in them is constantly changing its condition; where in a year the roads are so altered that you cannot recognize them as the same over which you travelled but yesterday; where dwellings are being continually pulled down and built up again; where villages grow into towns, and towns into cities, with magical swiftness; where farm-houses disappear, to make room for mansions; and where the people, young and old, are afflicted with such a restlessness in the soles of their feet that they keep running from this spot to that, and from that to this, in their eager haste to acquire land and money and houses. It is not so with us, and despite the grand talk about the march of progress and the advance of civilization, I do not believe we are any the worse off for it. We move slowly along, and there are not many who desert their native place in their youth, and pass their manhood in a distant spot. True, I had done so, but there was a heart-reason for it. I have no doubt, if Louisa had chosen me for her mate, I should have been in the old village at this moment, surrounded by my children. In the countries of which I speak wanderers like myself are deprived of a sad and sweet pleasure, such as stole into my heart as I passed and recognized old familiar scenes made dear to me by the years which had passed since they and I last greeted each other. For, indeed, it was not only I who greeted them, it was they, also, that greeted me. The trees, the woods, the farm-houses, the vineyards, the wayside inns, the scores of familiar landmarks which met my eyes, all seemed to say, "Ah, old fellow, here you are once more. We have often wondered what had become of you. Where have you been hiding yourself all this long while? We are glad to see you alive and well. Welcome-welcome!" Yes, it is true, they all welcomed me, and were rejoiced to see me, and I waved my hands and smiled at them, in response to the spiritual greeting which brought gladness and sadness to my soul. A sweet spirit of repose pervaded my being, and even in my sadness there was no unhappiness. Here was an old windmill, within view of the moving sails of which I had rested five-and-twenty years ago, thinking of Louisa Wagner; here the great stone, embedded in the earth and covered with moss, upon which I sat.

The sails were revolving now, and the sight brought back to me the very thoughts which agitated me then. Ah, how I suffered, how I suffered! "Take with you all my hopes," thus did I muse at that long distant time-"take with you all my hopes, and grind them into dust." And now, as I sat upon the ancient, moss-covered stone, the heart's storm was hushed, the tempest of the soul was stilled. I breathed a prayer, and was grateful. That is the most beautiful time of a man's life, when he feels at peace with himself and the world. So might an aged father, after a long and varied life, gaze upon his old wife and beautiful children, and say, "Thank God!" Everything I saw contributed to my enjoyment. The orchards in which the plums were ripening and the apples blushing like young maids, the fir-trees bending solemnly above me in the heights, the hedges, the hay-ricks, the cattle drinking in the lowlands, the ponds in which the ducks were swimming, the fowls scratching at the earth, the brooks, the streams, the pigeons flying to their steepled houses, the very children who looked at me as I passed-all were the same as I had seen in my younger days. They had not grown an hour older, not an hour. There came a troop of youngsters on their way home from school, caps and frocks and boots and books, all the same. They followed me, singing an evening song, and I rewarded them and made them happy. A cow stood with her head over a fence, and gazed at me with mild, serious eyes. Two young colts, running towards me with side-twistings of their bodies, suddenly stopped, transfixed. And there was the inn at which I had rested for the night, and the wife of the innkeeper, with a baby in her arms. All the same-all the same-young and sweet and beautiful as in the days gone by. Ah, what a pleasure to me was that journey, and what reflections passed through my mind as I thought of the more pregnant journey I had taken on the roads of life since I had torn myself from my native village! It is good occasionally to give one's self up to these thoughts. At such times the trouble and vexation of our days sink into insignificance, and are of less importance than the bird which flies in the air, than the leaf which flutters in the wind. At such times we learn the truest lessons.

It was soon over, that excursion of fifty miles, as all things are and shall be, for time is but a breath; and on the morning of the third day I entered the village in which I was born.

I made my way at once to the cottage in which Louisa had resided with her parents. It was inhabited by strangers. Upon inquiry I learned that she lived in a hut on the farther outskirts of the village. I recognized no one; no one recognized me. I went to my old cottage, the cottage in which my father and grandfather and great-grandfather had lived, and in which I had soled and heeled Louisa's boots. It was now a little shop in which sweetmeats and children's toys and cakes were sold. I asked the woman to allow me to go through the rooms, and told her I was born there.

"Then you must be Gustave Fink," she said.

"Yes," I answered, "I am Gustave Fink."

It was supposed, I discovered, that I had made a great fortune, and that I was rich enough to buy up the entire village. This impression was confirmed by my purchasing, at a cost of less than half-a-florin, toys and cakes for all the children who were looking at the treasures in the window. But it seemed to me, after the first greeting, that the woman gazed on me with displeasure, as on a man who had committed some grievous wrong. I dismissed the fancy. What earthly grounds could there have been for such a feeling?

From my old house I went to the church, and lived over again the Sabbath morning walk I had taken with Louisa, in her new cotton dress and the bit of new ribbon at her throat. I read the inscriptions on the tombstones, and was strangely affected. Many whom I had known had passed away years ago. All these years at peace, with the grass and the wild-flowers growing over them, while all around the hearts of men and women were still throbbing with wild desires, with unsatisfied yearnings, with longings and temptations. Ah, what a lesson, what a lesson! Wait but till to-morrow, when death's icy hand shall stop the beating of the pulses, when the great king, Dust, shall claim them for his own! How blind, how blind! If men would but kneel and sincerely pray, and hold out the kindly hand to their fellows! If they would but learn the lesson aright!

The simplest flower teaches it. Behold me, radiant, blooming, bright-eyed, perfect in outward form and in every hidden vein. It is the summer, and warm breezes kiss me, and the life-giving sun shines upon me, and I live-I live-I live! It is the winter, and I am dead. Seek me in vain I am crumbling into dust.

But the seed remains.

So shall the seeds of good deeds remain, and blossom into flower.

The church door was open. I entered, and knelt and prayed.

CHAPTER X
MASTER FINK HAS AN INTERVIEW WITH THE WOMAN HE LOVED

An hour past noon I stood before Louisa Wolf's hovel. It was nothing more; it would have been mockery to call it a cottage.

I looked in at the window it was almost bare of furniture, and I recognized that whoever inhabited it must have a hard fight to keep body and soul together. And in the room was an old, old woman-none other than Louisa Wolf.

She was but forty-five, but she looked seventy when she opened the door to my knock.

She fell back when she saw me, as though she had received a mortal wound. I hurried forward to support her, but she thrust me fiercely off, and retreated a step or two. I entered without invitation, and surveyed with wonder and compassion the miserable apartment. When, after this melancholy survey, I looked at Louisa Wolf, I was astonished to observe that a dark frown had settled on her face, and that she was regarding me with aversion. I had not long to wait before I was enlightened as to the cause of this unwelcome and unexpected reception.

"What do you do here?" she muttered. "What do you do here?"

"I have made a long journey," I said, "especially to see you."

"How have I deserved so great an honor," she asked, her eyes flashing scorn at me, "from one so powerful and rich? You have something to say to me-of course you have, else why should you have troubled yourself to come to me? Is what you have to say about a man or a woman, Gustave Fink?"

"It is about your son Gideon," I replied.

"About my dear son Gideon," she cried "I guessed as much, I guessed as much! It is for evil you are here-you are capable of nothing else. Have you come to complain of my boy? Have you come to set a mother against her son? Well done, well done, Gustave Fink! Have you come to tell me that Gideon ought to work twenty hours a day for you instead of eighteen, and that he does not pay his debt to you quick enough to satisfy your grasping soul? How is it possible, when you starve him, when you cheat him, when you rob him of his rest? Is that the way to treat the man who has slaved for you, who has worked his fingers to the bone for you, who has made you rich, and who brings all the custom to your shop? Yon would have been in the gutter had it not been for the exertions of my noble boy, who found out too late that he was bound to a monster without a heart. Did you think I was ignorant of your wicked doings? Evil actions such as yours cannot be forever hidden. Go, go, or I shall strike you!"

And indeed she raised her feeble hand to put her threat into execution.

I comprehended instantly the lying and backbiting that had been going on, and the kind of character that villain Gideon had been giving me all the time he had eaten my bread and been sheltered under my roof. This was the return he had made for my kindness and consideration. Where could that young man have got his secret and wicked mind from? Not from his mother, whose heart had been always open to tender impressions, and who, the moment she saw me, could not help speaking frankly. It was the father who had bestowed upon his son the curse of his venomous nature. Heavens! What some parents have to answer for! There must have been a time in the world when human creatures were suckled at the teats of treacherous animals.

How could I be angry with the unfortunate woman? I pitied her-from my heart I pitied her. What a fate was hers! First the father, then the son. She was born to be deceived. She put her trust in rocks that wounded her body and brought anguish to her soul. In what way was it all to end?

My mission was useless, I saw that clearly enough, and I was almost tempted to exclaim, "Never again will I attempt to do good to any living creature!" I had been animated by the best intentions, and they were turned as poisonous arrows against me. After what I had heard I was convinced that Louisa Wolf would put a wrong construction upon every word I uttered concerning her son. Her mother's love was too strong a shield for me to hope to produce any good effect upon it in my desire to assist her. Perhaps it was as well; it was labor saved. Her son's nature was too bad to be altered for the better; it was rotten to the core.

But I was desirous to ascertain the full extent of his misrepresentations.

"You know, then," I said," how much your son is indebted to me."

My amazement was great when she mentioned a sum it would have taken him twenty years to repay.

"Oh, I know, I know!" she cried, in terrible agitation, invoking, by the movement of her hands, Heaven's imprecations on my head. "You have set it all down against him, every florin, and added devil's interest, so as to make him your slave for life. From the first week he became your apprentice you brought him in your debt, and you continued to do so day after day, week after week, till his time was out. He could not leave you as he wished to do, because you had in your false books page upon page of figures, which you told him he must clear off. You threatened him with prison if he left in your debt. You would like me to believe that it is not true-you would like me to believe that you are an honorable, good man, and that my son is a thief; but, Gustave Fink, you can no longer deceive me. There was a time-but it is past I have been warned against you. My son has told me-yes, he has told me in his letters that one day you would seek me out, and endeavor to make me believe that he is worse than you are yourself. You can save the lies; keep them to use on some other poor woman. Where is Heaven's justice that such men as you prosper, while honest, upright men are made to suffer? Gideon might dispute the debt-he might take you before the judges, and say, 'My master is a rogue his accounts are false; he makes me largely in debt to him because he does not wish me to leave his service.' Of what use would it be? A poor man against a rich man-we know what that comes to in law. And you have made people think you are so good. Kind Master Fink! Benevolent Master Fink! That is how they speak of you-those who are not acquainted with your real character. You would have had me believe it by sending me money from time to time, and putting down twice the sum in your books against Gideon. You have done yourself no good; every florin you have sent me I have sent back to my poor boy yes, every florin. I have wanted bread over and over again, but I have fasted for days rather than spend the smallest coin of your money upon myself. It was my son's money you were sending me, not your own. But your punishment is coming. Gideon is your slave; he will not be so much longer. He will be free soon, and then he will expose you, and will let me live with him. He will be rich one day, mark my words, and you will have to stand aside and bow to him. And I shall be with him-it will break your heart to see him and his loving mother together at last, you who have tried your hardest to keep us apart. Every year I have hoped to go to him, but you have compelled him to put me off. 'Not this year,' he has been obliged to write, 'not this year, but next. Master Fink will not hear of it yet awhile, and he has so got me in his power that I dare not offend him by asking you to come.' And then again, when another year went by, 'Master Fink swears he will discharge me if you come, and will imprison me for the money he says I owe him.' And again and again and again the same. What could my poor boy do when you had set your heart upon separating us? So it has gone on all these weary years, and I have never kissed my boy's bright face since the unhappy day he left me to become your apprentice. What wicked thing had I done in my life that I should be so bitterly punished? What evil fortune led me to your door to beg you to rob me of my son? Better that I had dropped down dead on the road, for then Gideon would have remained among friends." Tears streamed from her eyes; her face was convulsed with grief. "What pleasure," she continued, wringing her hands and swaying to and fro, "do you think I have in this world except him, my boy, my baby that I suckled at my breast? What do I care for in the world but him? Has my life been so full of joy that you should bring a deeper misery into it than any I have suffered? You are my son's enemy and mine-oh, I have known it long! You were my enemy when I was a girl, and you used to speak against Steven because I chose him instead of you."

I had listened in profound sorrow and indignation to the outpourings of her grief, but for the life of me I could not remain silent at this accusation.

"Louisa Wolf," I said, "I never spoke against your husband. What I thought I thought, but I never openly uttered one word against Steven Wolf. You were free to choose, and you chose. With all my heart I wish that your choice had brought you greater happiness."

When I saw her eyes wandering mournfully round her cheerless apartment I was angry with myself for having spoken. It would have been more generous by far to have held my tongue.

"Ah," she said, shuddering, "this is part of your revenge-this is why you come here-to exult and rejoice over my misery! Years ago you resolved in your heart that you would one day be revenged upon me for refusing you and accepting another man. Well, you have your revenge! Look at my home-you see the whole of it. There is no other room. Here is my bed-a little straw on the bare boards. Here is the cupboard in which I keep my food when I have any. Take your fill, take your fill-you are well revenged. Look at my face-look at my hands-see what I have come to, and rejoice!" She struck her breast despairingly. Into my eyes the warm tears gushed, but she could not see them, for she was blinded by her own. "Gustave Fink, I once held you in my heart-I did, although I accepted Steven even then I held you in my heart. Not guiltily, no, not guiltily, but as a sister might a brother whom she could love and honor. I thought of you as a pure-minded, noble, generous man, and I looked up to you as the best I had ever known. Now, in my heart you have destroyed that image, and I regard you as a monster. Yes, you are there still, but as my enemy and my son's enemy. You have poisoned my life-your revenge has reached as far as that. From the day upon which conviction entered my mind that you were not worthy of my esteem, I had nothing but the memory of my son. to comfort me. You would rob me of him, but you shall not-you shall not, I say! God will prevent you, and will smite you with a terrible but just punishment for your cruelty to a poor and suffering woman!"

Of what use to attempt to undeceive her? It would have been but adding torture to torture. But was it not infamous that one's good intentions should have been frustrated, and one's kindness turned to gall, by the machinations of a knave? Still, I did say, out of simple justice to myself,

"Believe it or not, as you will, Louisa Wolf, my only motive in coming here was to endeavor to do you and your son a kindness."

"I do not believe it," said the poor creature, vehemently "your actions give your words the lie! Answer me this, if you can. Did you seek me out to tell me that Gideon had done his duty by you, that he was a faithful, willing, honest servant, and that you are satisfied with him, and grateful to him for the great services he has rendered you? Did you come here to give me pleasure or sorrow? You are silent-you dare not speak no, Gustave Fink, you dare not! God once smote a liar dead, and you fear he would smite you the same. Now, hear me. Before this year is out I will see my son, or die! Nothing shall prevent me nothing but death! If he cannot come to me I will go to him, and give him a mother's blessing-I will, as there is a Judge in heaven by whom you shall one day be condemned!"

Well, I left her; it was the best mercy I could show her.

As I turned my back upon the miserable hovel I was conscious that a spiritual sweetness had departed from my life, and that a human link of love was snapped which could never again be made whole. Now that I had lost the esteem of the woman whose laugh was the cheeriest, whose eyes the brightest, whose face the sunniest in my remembrance, I felt how precious it had been to me, and how, in its unrecognized influence, it had often helped to soften my judgment and my temper when things were not going exactly right with me.

Thus it happened that twice in my life had I received a terrible wound at the hands of a good and virtuous woman whom I had honorably loved.

It was fortunate that at least two or three days were to elapse between my interview with Louisa Wolf and my coming face to face again with her treacherous son. Had I seen him immediately after the interview I might have conducted myself in an unbecoming manner, and it would have been good neither for him nor me. I had time on my homeward journey to reason with myself. "Shall I make myself unhappy," I thought, "shall I fret myself to a shadow because I have been maligned? Shall I allow such a rascal as Gideon Wolf to entirely destroy my peace and repose? That would, indeed, be giving him an advantage over me. Let me rather bear this stroke with equanimity, and be thankful that there are still some honest men left in the world." But it was poor comfort, and it needed all my philosophy to calm the turbulence of my feelings. So startling were the revelations! To think that all the money I had sent to his mother during the last ten years,to soften her lot, should have found its way into Gideon Wolf's pocket! And for him never to have given me the slightest cause for suspicion that this cunning game was being systematically carried on! It was a bit of trickery worthy of his friend Pretzel. The pair of knaves! It was well for him-yes, it was well for him that I did not meet him when I left his mother's cottage. I should have been tempted to break every bone in his body.



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