Benjamin Farjeon.

Self-Doomed. A Novel



скачать книгу бесплатно

I continued I would not be driven from my purpose by his sneers.

"I ask you to come and live with me as my daughter, Katrine. I will protect you as a father; I will provide for you as a father. Inquire of any person in the town about my character-"

"Yes, yes," said Pretzel, "ask Gideon Wolf for Master Fink's character. Ask Gideon, ask Gideon."

" – And you will learn that I have never wronged a human being-"

"Then Gideon Wolf is not human," said Pretzel, and I am an image of stone. You shall prove for yourself, Katrine, what kind of a man this is who stands before us. He shall himself show you his benevolent heart. Ask him but one question-whether, if you accept his offer, he will open his doors to Gideon Wolf, so that you may all live together in love and good-will?"

"Will you do this?" asked Katrine.

"No," I answered, "it is impossible."

"What do you say to that, Katrine?" cried Pretzel. "Does not that show you something of his real meaning? He has abominable ideas in his head about you. He wants you as his daughter-oh yes, as his daughter! That is his pretence. It is infamous, infamous! If Gideon were here he would throw this old sinner from my door-step into the road. Katrine my child, I think I hear a window slamming down-stairs. Run and shut it, and see that all the doors are secure. We must protect ourselves against this wrong-doer."

Katrine obeyed, and the moment she was out of sight Pretzel came close to me and Anna.

"How many years is it, Master Fink," he hissed, "since I told you I would be even with you? Pretzel never forgets-never forgets and never forgives-never forgives! You will find that I shall be more than even with you. I will strike you through this simple girl. I will ruin her, yes, I will blight her life, because I know it will cause you sorrow. That will be interest for the money you borrowed of me-good interest, good interest! I have Katrine and her lover in my power, and nothing that you can do shall save them. The deeper the misery into which she is plunged the deeper will be your suffering. I shall remember that, I shall remember that, and Gideon Wolf and I, between us, shall strike her with wretchedness. What do you say to that, you old hag?" And he poked his face, upon which there was really a diabolical expression, so close to Anna's that she jumped back, as if the evil one himself were attempting to seize her. Katrine now re-appeared, and Pretzel put his arm round her waist to protect her, and continued, "This scoundrel has been unbosoming himself to me while you were away, and has been gloating over his wicked intentions. You have heard his offer, and if you allow him to go on he will tell you, being the prince of liars, that if you do not accept it you will be ruined and brought to sorrow. He is not at all particular in what he says. Perhaps you wish to hear him."

"I do not," said the poor girl, firmly.

"Remember, then, how he has treated Gideon Wolf, and give him his answer, Katrine."

She looked me full in the face.

"You are a slanderer," she said; "you have an abominable heart. You cheat your workmen; you set snares for the innocent; and you would separate me and Gideon, whom I love with all my soul. Go; I will have nothing to say to you."

"Heaven pity you!" I sighed; and Anna and I walked slowly away, and did not speak a single word till we reached home. Then Anna said,

"Do not take it too much to heart, Master Fink. You have done your duty."

But we were both very sad for many days.

CHAPTER XIII
GIDEON WOLF AND HIS MOTHER BEGIN THE NEW YEAR TOGETHER

Before we knew where we were, the last day of the old year was upon us. Time is a thief he is forever stealing upon us, and robbing us of sunny moments. He ripens to destroy. Joy vanishes, but sorrow remains. Never, never, though I live to a hundred, shall I forget that last clay of the old year.

For four days the snow had fallen without cessation-heavy, thick, blinding snow. There was no telling when it would leave off. The streets were a foot deep, and people coming in from the surrounding country related dismal stories of the state of the land. Depend upon it that those who had no occasion to leave their houses were glad enough to shut out the snow and the wind, and sit by their firesides, drinking hot spiced wine. It had been a custom with me at different times of the year, especially on New-year's night, for every person in my house to assemble a little before midnight, for the purpose of drinking more than one steaming glass of wine of Anna's making. That was not the only good cheer in which we indulged and it happened sometimes that friends were with us to help us eat the splendid dishes which Anna cooked for us. This year Anna and I were alone. The day had not been particularly joyous, but although no guests sat at my table I did not allow the old year to go out unrecognized. Exactly as the clock struck eleven my faithful old house-keeper made her appearance, carrying a jug of hot wine, the fragrant steam of which was really delightful.

"I thought I would come a little earlier than usual," said Anna, "in case you might be lonely."

"You did right, Anna," I said.

I filled her glass and mine, and then we shook hands, and drank the toast, "May we all be alive at the birth of another year, in contentment and health!" Then Anna, upon my invitation, sat on the opposite side of the fire, and we disposed ourselves for a chat.

"This is the quietest New Year we have ever spent," I said. "Just before you came in, Anna, I was feeling very melancholy."

"It does no harm, a little melancholy," said Anna, "though this is a week in which happiness should reign. For my part, always at this time I keep thinking of the poor and pitying them, and wishing I could do a great deal for them."

It is only just to the memory of my old Anna to say that she was one of the kindest souls in existence. She was forever giving away-so much so that it was impossible for her to save money-and she never spoke of her charities. It was seldom that she could not see to the bottom of her purse.

We spoke of many things-of the storm raging without, of Katrine Loebeg, of Gideon Wolf, of Miser Pretzel-and wondered how they were spending the evening. Then Anna related to me a pitiful story of one New-year's night, long ago in the past, when she was a child living with her mother, who was very poor. How that they had no home, and were walking through the cold snow in grief and darkness, when they saw lights in the windows of a farm-house. How they crept to the windows, and how, although fierce dogs were chained up they did not even bark at Anna and her mother. How they peeped through the windows, and saw all the family so happy that Anna began to sob. How her sobs reached the ears of those within, and how the master came out, and after a few questions took them into his house, where they were fed and warmed and made happy. She had nearly come to the end of her story, which she related with wonderful animation, when I held up my hand.

"I thought I heard a sound at the street door," I said.

We listened in silence, but heard nothing, and I told Anna to proceed. Her story was just finished as I held up my hand again.

"I must be haunted," I said; "when I don't listen, I hear sounds like moans; when I listen, I hear nothing. I cannot rest till I satisfy myself."

I went to the street door and opened it, and the snow and the howling wind beat in upon me and almost blinded me. I called out loudly many times, and receiving no answer, nor seeing anything, was about to close the door, when Anna, who had followed me, gave a great scream, and darting past me fell upon her knees. I looked down, and beheld her busy about the form of a woman lying in the snow. I stooped to assist her; and we carried the insensible woman into my room, and laid her before the fire.

"Poor thing, poor thing!" said Anna, rubbing the woman's hands and limbs. "Ah, what a state she is in! God help us, I fear she is frozen to death."

As she spoke these words I recognized the woman.

"It is Louisa Wolf," I said, pityingly, "Gideon Wolf's mother, for whom you made some soup on the day she came to ask me to take her son as my apprentice. No wonder that you do not recognize her; she is sadly, sadly altered. She has come-I divine it to spend the New Year with her son, whom she has not seen since he was a lad. For Heaven's sake, let us do all we can to revive her!"

Anna hurried away to light the fire and get the bed ready in the room Gideon used to occupy. Before she returned, the warmth and the hot wine I succeeded in making the poor creature drink-and I have no doubt the mother's love which had sustained her in her weary journey-restored Louisa Wolf to consciousness. She opened her eyes and they fell upon me. Ah, what a state of poverty she was in! Her clothes were in rags, her boots were worn off her feet, her face was pinched with cold and hunger and suffering. My heart bled for her. Recognizing me, she pushed me feebly from her with exclamations of horror, and struggled to her feet.

"My son!" she cried, in a terrible voice; so hoarse was it, so charged with overwrought agony, that it was scarcely human. "My son!"

"Rest yourself first," I said, compassionately; it was evident she did not know that Gideon had left my employment; "rest yourself, and take some food. Then we will talk."

"I want no rest," she cried, "nor will I eat in your house! It would choke me. Give me back my son you shall no longer keep him from me! I have walked fifty miles through the snow to see him, hoping to be here two days ago; but the cruel snow kept me back. Oh, my God, what I have suffered! My son-my son-give me my son! Do you hear me? Give me my son! Gideon, Gideon!" she screamed. "Your old mother is here! Come to me, for God's sake come to me!" Her screams brought Anna into the room. "Ah," cried Louisa Wolf, running to Anna, and putting her hands convulsively upon her; "you are a woman; you have a human heart beating in your breast-not like that monster there-"

"Stop!" exclaimed Anna; "you are crazy-you don't know what you are saying. Master Fink is a good and just man, and any one who says otherwise cannot be in her right senses."

"Anna," I said, sadly, "do not waste time in defending me. We stand in the presence of a sorrow so overwhelming that all other considerations are as nought in my eyes. I forgive Louisa Wolf for any words she may speak against me. The great Lord of all, who rules the storm and the tempest without-not fiercer is it, Anna, than the storm which racks and tears this poor woman's soul-has seen my actions, and will judge me." Anna came to my side and kissed my hand; it was a simple action, but it comforted me. "Louisa Wolf," I said, "your son is not here."

"Where, then, can he be?" she moaned, and she looked about the room really as though she were bereft of reason. "Merciful God! Do not tell me he is dead!"

"He lives," I said, " but I know nothing more of him than that. He left my house four months ago, and from that day we have spoken no word to each other."

"Four months ago!" she muttered. "That must be about the time you came to our old village. Why did he not tell me-why did not you? You are speaking the truth, Gustave Fink? Swear it, by your mother's spirit!"

"I am speaking the truth, Louisa Wolf," I said; "I swear to it by the memory of my mother!"

"Then I have no business here," she said, bewildered and dazed. "I came to this house to find him to press him in my arms-to embrace him, and receive his kisses! Oh, my dear one, my baby boy, where art thou? Tell me, you two-my enemies-tell me where I shall find my son."

"He lives in the Temple," I said, "a mile from this spot. That is all I know, and all I can tell you."

"In the Temple," she murmured, "a mile from this spot. God give me strength to get there! The Temple! A sacred place. I hear the holy music! My dear one, my dear one!" She raised her hands, mid there was a look of ecstasy on her face. Suddenly she recovered herself, and shuddering at the sight of me, said, "May I never again be afflicted with the sight of your face, Gustave Fink! The Temple-the Temple!" And she staggered to the door.

"You will never dream of going there to-night!" I cried; and Anna stood in her way.

"No," she said, "I will not dream of going-I will go. No mortal power shall stop me. The Temple! Do you not hear the music? Ah, how sweet-how sweet!"

"Think a moment," I said, hurriedly; "listen to the storm. It increases in fierceness. There is not a soul in the streets."

"God is there," she answered, "and all his holy angels. You cannot prevent me from going-they will not permit you. I am coming, Gideon, I am coming, my dear one! Thou and I will spend the New Year together. The storm is singing, to guide me to thee!"

"Give me my cloak, Anna," I said; "I will go with Louisa Wolf; otherwise she will perish in the snow."

"I will accompany you, Master Fink," said Anna; "I will not leave you to-night."

In a moment my cloak was on my shoulders, and my fur cap on my head. Anna, also, was as quickly equipped. She would have wrapped a thick shawl round Louisa Wolf, but the kindly service was rejected, and the shawl fell to the ground. I picked it up and carried it on my arm.

We went out into the storm. So thick was the falling snow that I could scarcely see a yard before me. It swirled into our faces, and the sharp wind cut us bitterly. But Louisa Wolf did not feel it. A look of rapture was in her eyes, and on her lips an ecstatic smile.

"Dear angels, lead me!" she whispered, as she stepped from my house.

Not a light was to be seen, not a human being but ourselves was abroad; our feet sank into the snow more than ankle deep, and we heard no sound but the raging wind. Moving as we did, noiselessly along, the moaning and the sobbing of the storm seemed, as it were, to be dissociated from us, and even amid these tempestuous evidences we were engulfed in an awful white silence. We were like three spirits moving through dead streets.

The difficulties in our way were so great that we made but slow progress. Louisa Wolf refused all offers of assistance; she would not touch our hands. Surely some superhuman power must have sustained her through the terrible fatigue she had endured. We were more than an hour reaching the Temple, and if Anna spoke to me, or I to her, it was in a whisper. Only once did we stop-when the distant church bells proclaimed the birth of a New Year.

Sweet and solemn they pealed upon the air, conveying their pregnant message which all do not take to heart-the message of the cradle and the grave.

"A Happy New Year to you, master," said Anna.

"And to you, Anna," I replied.

"The bells of the New Year!" murmured Louisa, Wolf. "God bless my beloved son, and make his life honored and happy!"

At length we were within a hundred yards of Miser Pretzel's residence, and then a singular impression stole upon me. There appeared to be an unusual movement in the air, a tremulous pulsing, as it were. I cannot more clearly define it; the impression was more spiritual than real. But it was prophetic of what followed.

We entered the narrow streets of the Temple; we traversed the tortuous thoroughfare in which Gideon Wolf resided; we stopped before the house, immediately opposite the house of Miser Pretzel.

High up in the air, the beam which kept these houses from falling upon each other in deadly embrace was indicated by a thick band of snow, stretching from garret window to garret window.

"Your son lives here," I said to Louisa Wolf.

"Here!" she sighed. "Yes, yes, I see the lights, I hear the angels' music. Hush! my dear one's voice is among them. Gideon, Gideon my darling, I am waiting for thee!"

She slid from my supporting arms, which she had not now the power to thrust from her-indeed she was not conscious that they were around her-and sank upon the white steps of the door which, open, would have led her to her son's chamber. Her back was towards this door, her face towards the house occupied by Pretzel.

"Her strength is spent," I said to Anna.

As I uttered these words the upper window of Pretzel's house, immediately above the snow-clad beam, was thrust violently open, and a man issued therefrom, and sliding cautiously upon the wooden support, embraced it with his arms and legs. At the same moment a glare of light made itself visible in the room from which he emerged. I grasped Anna's arm, and her eyes followed the direction of mine. Entranced, we watched the man winding his way, inch by inch, along the beam, to the opposite window, which gave light to the room in which Gideon Wolf slept. So perilous was this enterprise that we held our breaths in very fear; we stood like stone, transfixed.

The glare in the room the man had left grew stronger and stronger, and like a great dark snake the man, whose body was stretched lengthways upon the beam, slid slowly onward till he reached Gideon Wolf's window. Then, with one hand cautiously raised, he strove to open this window; but he strove in vain. The window was fast, and no effort of his could move it. He could use but one hand; the beam was slippery with snow and ice-flakes, bits of which, dislodged by his movements, fell at our feet. His other arm and hand embraced the beam, to save himself from falling to certain death. One glance did I give at Louisa Wolf. A transport of rapture was on her face; she made a movement as though she were pressing a baby to her breast.

"See," whispered Anna, pointing upward, and she clung to me, trembling in every limb, "he is turning back."

Yes, foiled in his endeavors to open the window, the man, by a wonderful exercise of strength, twisted himself round, and was now sliding towards the room he had left. His progress was slower and more laborious; his exertions had well-nigh exhausted him.

"He will be killed-he will be killed!" gasped Anna. "He will fall, and die here at our feet! Help-help!"

"Do not cry out," I said, and with my hand on her mouth I prevented her screams from being heard.

"We cannot help him before he reaches Pretzel's window. If you rouse Louisa Wolf to consciousness she will go mad. Do you not see who it is up there?"

"No," she replied, "my eyes are too weak."

"Anna, it is Gideon Wolf himself."

Yes, it was he and no other, and as I gazed at his snake-like figure I marvelled to myself what kind of devil's work he had been engaged in. It was something villainous and unholy of that I was inwardly convinced.

By this time he had reached the open window of Miser Pretzel's house; but as he placed his hand upon the sill, and raised his head almost to the level of his hand, a tremendous volume of flame burst upon him and compelled him to shrink swiftly down upon the snow-clad beam.

"My God!" I cried, "the man is lost! The house is on fire! Anna, look after Louisa Wolf. Katrine Katrine! Pretzel-Pretzel! Come quickly, or you will be burned to death!"

And I beat with my fists upon Pretzel's door, and kicked at the panels with all my strength.

In less time than I take to tell it, the entire upper portion of Miser Pretzel's house was one mass of flame; cries and shouts rent the air; doors were flung open; half-naked people rushed out of their houses screaming women and children ran this way and that. But Miser Pretzel's house remained fast closed, and Louisa Wolf lay motionless in the snow, with her head in old Anna's lap. Strong men hacked at Pretzel's door with knives and axes, while Gideon Wolf, clinging to the snow-clad beam, cast frantic glances around-above, below, on every side-and screamed to us to save him. We could not hear his words, the uproar was so great, but we saw by his gestures that he was making agonized appeals to us. Ah, ah! They had broken in Pretzel's door, and reckless men rushed into the house to save the miser and Katrine Loebeg.

"Keep back, Master Fink," they cried, " we can do the work better than you." It was easy for me to obey them, for I was fascinated by Gideon Wolf's deadly peril. His struggles to retain his hold grew fainter and fainter. In his agony and terror and weakness his body slipped from the beam, and he hung in mid-air, sixty feet above us, supported only by one arm. In this violent movement his clothes became disarranged, and from his loosened pockets fell a great number of gold pieces. Yes, into the snow, like dead birds overweighted by sin, descended the bright golden shower, and the people threw themselves upon the ground, and tore frantically into the thick white carpet to gather it. Simultaneously with this new feature of the awful scene, men issued from Pretzel's house, bearing two bodies, the miser's and Katrine's. They brought them close to me, exclaiming,

"There has been murder done!"

They pointed to wounds in the breast of Miser Pretzel, from which the blood was still flowing, proving that the dark deed had been but recently committed. But Katrine was safe in my arms-I felt her warm breath upon my face-her bosom heaved-her eyes opened. She gave one upward glance, and beheld the suspended form of Gideon Wolf gradually but surely slipping from life to death.



скачать книгу бесплатно

страницы: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9