Famous Stories from Foreign Countries/The Exchange

For other English-language translations of this work, see A Pawned Character.
For works with similar titles, see The Exchange.
Svatopluk Čech4025397Famous Stories From Foreign Countries — The Exchange1921Edna Worthley Underwood




Svatopluk Čech was bom in 1846 and ranks as one of the most important figures of the literature of Bohemia, both in prose and verse.

Among his popular ballads and story telling poems are—The Lark, The Smith of Lešetin, In Shadow of the Linden, The Goblet of Youth.

In prose he has written many stories and sketches distinguished by that gay and fantastic humor which strikes us as peculiarly the property of certain south-central races of Europe, such as the Poles, Bohemians, and Hungarians. These stories by Čech frequently show the light touch and splendid surface that is characteristic of French prose, with the addition of a brilliant irony that drives home successfully the point he wishes to make. Several volumes of stories of merit stand to the credit of Čech.


Chapter I.

Here is the pocket book of the hero of this story, Mr. Alfred N—. I ask you to take it and look into it. You see several compartments, and in them,—nothing. We turn the pocket book upside down and shake it. What falls out? Nothing.

Twilight clings to the comers of the room. The clothes closet yawns toward us—empty. The bed dreams in vain of luxurious pillows. The book cases are empty. Poverty grins from every corner. The cold pipe falls from the hands of the occupant of the room. The bitter smile disappears; the eyelids close,—the golden dreams have vanished.

Some one knocked softly. Alfred jumped up. Should he open the door? It was probably a mistake. None of his acquaintances would come to see him now because they knew he had nothing which they could borrow. Cautiously he opened the door, being mindful of his worn trousers, and the pitiful fragment of a coat that hung from his shoulders.

A diminutive man stepped into the room. His neglected appearance fitted exactly the words he said:

“Old clothes—dear Sir! Aron pays—pays fine!

The bitter smile reappeared on the face of Alfred.

“I have nothing!” he replied to the Jew.

But the Jew did not permit himself to be dismissed so easily.

He pushed his way into the room, and peered inquisitively about.

“Perhaps you’ll find something. Old shoes—books. Aron buys everything, everything, everything!”

“Look for yourself,” commanded Alfred, bitterly.

“Here is the clothes closet; here are the book cases, here—”

“As God is good, not a thing!” declared the Jew, amazed. “It’s as if it has just been swept out! Too bad—Young Man! Too bad! Aron pays—pays fine! At these words he drew from his dirty caftan a leathern purse and began to shake it. The bright sound of gold rang out; the alluring voice of the metal, more alluring than the voice of a siren. Alfred trembled at the sound. His eyes looked greedily upon the dirty purse. Over the face of the Jew flashed lightning swift a look of satisfaction. Patting lovingly the fat purse he continued:

“Aron pays—pays fine! Aron buys everything, everything, everything!”

“But can’t you see that I haven’t a thing to sell?” demanded Alfred angrily.

“Certainly the gentleman has something—for which Aron will pay many, many pieces of gold—”

“Stop this humbug, Jew! If you don’t, I’ll throw you down stairs and straight into Abraham’s bosom!”

“Aron knows what he says”, replied the Jew, in a wheedling, submissive voice. “The gentleman has a precious jewel for which Aron will pay whatever the gentleman may ask.”

He plunged his bent fingers into the deep purse. Alfred followed the gesture with sparkling eyes and replied:

“Speak out! What is it that I can sell to you? What is it that I have that I know nothing about?”

The Jew came nearer and whispered: “Character.”

Alfred surveyed him with surprised eyes. “Character? Are you a fool?”

The Jew stepped back, straightened up and spoke boastingly.

“The gentleman is surprised? Well—Aron buys everything; worn out clothes, the virtue of women, old umbrellas, honor, trash, and the divine fire of genius, rabbits’ skins—Aron buys the entire world. Why should he not buy character? Character is a rare thing nowadays—and valuable. There are plenty of people without character—”

Alfred regarded the speaker with terror. Through the window the last light of the setting sun penetrated and gave the Jew a sort of ghostly, inhuman appearance. The purse in his hand became red hot like a coal. The unkempt hair and beard were changed into threads of gold. Gold gleamed from every fold of his caftan. It gleamed from his features, and it was as if two golden ducats shone from his eyes. The Demon of Gold stood before him, bent of neck, with greedy claw-like fingers, that were ready to fall upon any prey and crush the life-blood out.

He covered his face with his two hands. When he looked up again the sun had set, and the Jew had resumed his ordinary appearance. The nimbus of gold had vanished. “Well, my dear Sir, will you sell your character? Aron pays—pays fine. There is a great sale for character just now—and not much to meet the demand. Will you sell? Aron will pay you a prodigious sum.”

The Jew took a ducat from the purse and held it up between his fingers. Alfred looked longingly toward the shining circle, then he turned his head away and replied firmly; “No,—I will not sell!”

The Jew shook his head.

“No? By heaven,—a fine character! I’ll give twice as much for it. Three times—a noble character! No? I’ll make you a millionaire! You shall dwell in palaces, drink wine of the choicest vintage, kiss the sweetest lips—”

Alfred looked about as if some beautiful vision floated before him in space. Then he repeated with a sigh: “I will not sell.”

“Well—just as the gentleman pleases. Keep your character together with your misery. Aron will keep his gold. I bid you good day.” He threw the ducats back into the purse, placed it in his caftan, and turned to go away. In the door he paused and looked back.

“Aron has a good heart. He does not like to leave a man like you in such misery. Do you know something? I’ll lend you the gold, and you pledge me your character. How does this offer please the gentleman?”

Alfred meditated. He looked about the room; the closet was empty. The bed had no pillows. The book cases were empty—everywhere poverty. He made a despondent gesture. “Well, take it!—I pledge it.” Then he paused. How could a person pawn his character? That was the dream of a foolish brain.

“I know what worries the gentleman. And Aron knows help for it, too.” He took from his pocket some little pill boxes, opened and closed them. “Look—here is your character,” he replied scornfully, tapping upon the cover of a box. Alfred looked at the little box. In the dim light he read the superscription:

“Noble characters!”

“Look—see how I classify character—all according to merit.”

“Here you have old fashioned Bohemian characters. They belong to old people—with long beards. Here are light characters—comparatively cheap—but not durable. I have to guard them constantly against changing winds. Sometimes politicians buy these characters for presents. In this box are found stern, upright characters. They are often found at army headquarters. But what do you care about them? You’d rather see the money counted out.” He took out another purse and piled shining ducats one upon another. Suddenly he paused. “In five years, at this same hour, Aron will come again, no matter where you may be. Then if you do not pay me back the sum with interest, the character belongs to me.”

Alfred nodded. The ghostly Jew grabbed deeper and deeper within the purse. With fabulous swiftness gold coins were piled up to the ceiling like great columns of marble. The purse evidently was inexhaustible. The more gold he took out, the more gold there was in it. God give all men a purse like this!

Chapter II.

Five years passed.

Alfred stood in the center of a merry crowd where champagne flowed like a river. Diamonds flashed; silks and velvets rustled. Sparkling fountains, bright shadows on water, penetrating perfumes, splendid gardens,—all this the Demon of Gold had brought together in one place. Alfred, too, has changed. He is heavier and more round bodied. His cheeks glow with health; his eyes shine with contentment. It is evident that he had been drinking from the cup of pleasure, with the careful discernment of the epicure. Over there sits his wife. Is she that beautiful motionless maiden, whose vision had so moved him five years ago? Not at all! The ice of her heart had melted under the glow of Alfred’s blazing ducats. The vision charmed him no more, that had once enticed him. He did not love her and she did not love him. They treated each other courteously before the world, but in private—what a difference.

The lack of character of Alfred was an open secret. Every one remarked about it, yet he carried his head high, and everyone bowed before him. His breast was covered with orders. The highest honors were his. Fathers held him up to their sons as model. “See,”—they say—“how he has advanced.”

In that same garret where he used to sit, there is a pale youth in shabby slippers and ragged coat, dedicating to him a long poem about the exalted goal of human endeavor.

And I—I would rather write an Ode to Gold! Such an one were worthy of the age. Dershawin’s “Ode to God” is old fashioned. It has no merit for our age except the form in which the Emperor of China has preserved it—in letters of gold upon a banner of silk.

Gold is the god of the age! Heaven announces its glory; above the moon (on the dollar), and the stars (on small silver pieces) shines the giant ducat—the sun. Upon earth we pray to it—in the monstrance and the cross. Under different names we serve it; some as faith, love, right, truth,—others in sinful Mammon. For the sake of gold we preach morality, we shed blood on the fields of battle. For the sake of gold—with a dull pen—I write this satire. O! shining, mighty, divine metal—I praise you, prostrated in the dust before you. Surely, Dear Brothers in Gold, you will pardon me this diversion.

A servant resplendent in gold braid, announced to Alfred, that a dirty Jew was waiting who insisted upon coming in.

“Take him to my study”, he ordered.

It is a softly sensuous, luxurious room. From baseboard to ceiling, the walls are covered with pictures of beautiful women, gorgeously dressed.

Again Alfred and the ghostly Jew are face to face.

“You are late,” said Alfred, glancing at the clock.

“Yes—on account of bribes,” was the reply. “And I lost a noble character, too, which I bought abroad. On the boundary they confiscated it. One would think character contraband of war.”

“You bring my pawned pledge back, do you?” interrupted Alfred.

“Of course, Your Grace!” replied the Jew, and drew from his pocket the little dirty box.

“Keep it! Keep it! I don’t care anything about it. I am convinced that one lives better without character. But there is something I’d like to sell you.”


“A little feeling of shame that has remained with me—and sometimes makes me uncomfortable.”

Aron shrugged his shoulders, shook his head and laughed disagreeably.

“Nothing doing! The article is out of fashion—something nobody buys. As a proof—Your Grace—I beg you to consider these portraits which hang upon your walls—”

 This work is a translation and has a separate copyright status to the applicable copyright protections of the original content.


This work was published before January 1, 1929, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

Public domainPublic domainfalsefalse


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1929.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1961, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 62 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

Public domainPublic domainfalsefalse