Popular Tales of the Germans/Volume 2/Legends Concerning Number-Nip/Legend 5
AFTER the Gnome had bestowed his liberal dower on mother Joan, he appeared no more for a long time. The common people amused themselves with absurd stories, which the fancy of old housewives, in winter evenings, spun out as long and as slender as the thread from their distaffs; but they were all idle inventions, and served but to pass the time. And, as for one person really possessed there are an hundred Lukinses, an hundred fanatics for one truly inspired, and an hundred dreamers for one gifted with genuine second sight—so, for one authentic anecdote, there has ever gone about the neighbourhood of the Giant-mountains an hundred lying reports, among the vulgar, concerning Number-Nip. It was the Countess Cecilia, Voltaire’s contemporary and pupil, for whom the last interview with the spirit, in our days, was reserved; it took place just before he dived, for the last time, into the world below.
This lady, charged with all the fashionable aches and pains which the effeminate daughters of Teuto owe to the French kitchen and manners, was on a journey, with two healthy blooming daughters, to Carlsbad. The mother was so impatient to try the virtues of the spring, and the daughters to enjoy the company, the dances, concerts and diversions of the place, that they travelled day and night without stopping to repose. It so happened that they entered the Giant-mountains just at the edge of night. It was one of those serene summer evenings when not a breath of air is stirring; the nocturnal sky was thick beset with sparkling spars; the bright crescent, whose milky light relieved the swarthy shades of the lofty pines, and a thousand phosphorescent insects that sported among the bushes, conspired, like so many moving sparks of fire, to illuminate one of the softest scenes of nature, though the company in the coach enjoyed it but faintly;—for the easy motion of the carriage, as it went steadily up hill, had lulled mama into a gentle slumber; and the daughters, as well as Mrs. Abigail, had each squeezed into a corner, and were likewise dozing. But the wakeful John, who was mounted upon the lofty watch-tower of the coach-box, felt no inclination to sleep: all the stories of Number-Nip, which he had formerly devoured with such eager attention, came rushing at once into his mind, now he was traversing the stage where these adventures had happened; and he could have wished with all his soul never to have heard a syllable about the matter. Ah! how did he now long for the snug security of Breslaw, where no spirit easily ventures! From time to time he cast a timid look on every side; often sweeping, with his half-closed eyes, the two-and-thirty points of the compass in less than a minute’s time. When he espied any suspicious appearance, a cold shudder ran down his back, and his hairs grew stiff like bristles. He sometimes would communicate his apprehensions to his brother postilion, and ask with great emotion if nothing walked now in the mountain; and although the postilion ensured his safety by a deep driver-like oath, yet his heart still misgave him.
After a long pause in the conversation, the postilion stopped the horses, muttered somewhat between his teeth, and then went on again—then stopped—and so several times. John, who had now shut his eyes fast for fear, omened nothing good from these manœuvres: peeping up cautiously he saw, to his utter confusion, stalking on about a stone’s throw before the coach, a jet-black figure, of a size exceeding that of man, crowned with a broad Spanish tippet; but what was the most suspicious circumstance in its whole appearance, was its being without an head. If the coach halted, the figure also halted; and when the postilion drove on, it proceeded also.—‘Messmate, dost thou see any thing?’ cried the cow-hearted pilot from the coach-box, in a faultering voice and up-standing hair. ‘I do, indeed, see something,’ answered the other in a low tone; ‘but hush, hold your tongue, I am sadly afraid we shall miss our way.’ John fortified himself with all the prayers he knew against evil spirits: with a long string of pater-nosters and benedicites into the bargain, reeking all the time with a cold sweat. And, as a person afraid of thunder raises all the house at midnight, while the rambling noise is yet afar off, without gathering the least courage from society, so the faint-hearted coachman was impelled by the same instinct to seek the consolation of sympathy at least from his sleeping mistress; so he leaned over, and tapped briskly at the window. The yawning Countess, out of humour at being disturbed from so comfortable a nap, sharply demanded, ‘Who’s there? what is all that noise for?’—‘Your honour,’ replied John, with a trembling voice, ‘be so good as only just to look out at the window; for, Lord have mercy upon us! there walks a man without an head close beside us!’—‘Blockhead as thou art,’ replied the Countess, of what is thy vulgar imagination dreaming? And if that was the case,’ continued she in a tone of raillery, ‘a man without an head is no rarity; there are plenty in Breslaw and other places.’ The damsels could not this time relish the wit of their honoured mama; their hearts palpitated with fear; they pressed close to the old lady, trembling and crying out, ‘Bless us! there is Number-Nip, the mountain spirit!’ The old lady, whose theory differed widely from that of her daughters concerning the invisible world, and believed in no spirits but beaux esprits and esprits forts, set to chide the girls for these low-bred prejudices: she proceeded to prove that all stories of ghosts and apparitions were the abortions of a sick imagination; and explained the whole from natural appearances.
Her eloquence was proceeding full gallop, when the black figure, that had disappeared for a few moments out of John’s view, emerged from among the bushes, and advanced towards the road. It was now plain to be seen that John’s eye had taken a false measure—the man on foot had an head as well as other people, only he did not wear it, according to the usual fashion, between his shoulders, but carried it under his arm, just as if it had been a lap-dog. This monstrous figure, only three strides off, excited great consternation both within and without the coach. The young misses and the maid, who did not at other times presume to make observations till the ladies had done, now screamed all with one consent, and let down the silk curtain to avoid seeing the figure, and hid their heads, like the ostrich when it is run down by the hunters. Mama clasped her hands in silent agony; and this unphilosophical movement gave room to suppose, that she was silently recanting her confident assertions concerning the non-existence of spirits. John, against whom the formidable figure in black seemed to be meditating some design, began, in the anguish of his heart, the salutation appointed to be addressed to all good spirits,
Angels and Ministers – – – –
In a moment the company was enlarged by the addition of another person; a man on horseback passed very coolly beside the driver, without seeming to take the smallest notice of his wanting an head; and then he rode on before the coach, as if he had been hired for that purpose. The black figure did not seem to relish the society; he turned the horses into another road; the horseman took the same: and however often the driver changed his course, he could not get rid of his troublesome companion, who followed as faithfully as if he had been tethered to the coach. This surprised him much, especially as he remarked that the rider’s steed wanted a leg; notwithstanding which the three-footed Rosinante moved very upright, and crossed the ruts without making a false step. The swarthy postilion began to grow a little uneasy: he was apprehensive lest his Number-Nip’s part would be soon over, now the true Number-Nip had himself entered upon the stage.
After some time the rider turning his horse rode close up to the driver, and asked, in a voice of confidence, ‘Whither away, countryman, without an head?’ ‘Whither away! whither should one go, but, as thou seest, where one’s nose points?’ retorted the postilion apparition, in a voice of timid defiance. ‘Very well!’ replied the horseman, ‘let us see, comrade, which way thy nose points.’ So saying he seized the reins, took the black figure by the middle, and dashed him against the ground with such force, that every bone in his body chattered; for the apparition had flesh and bone, as apparitions commonly have. The mask and drapery were presently stripped away, and out there came a well-proportioned curly-pated fellow, just of the shape of an ordinary man. The knave finding himself detected, and apprehensive of the weight of his adversary’s fist—for he doubted not but the horseman was Number-Nip himself, whom he had ventured to personate—surrendered at discretion, and begged piteously for his life: ‘My good Lord of the Mountain,’ said he, ‘have compassion on a wretch who has been the shuttle-cock of fortune all his days; who could never be what he would, but was always violently thrust out of the character he had studied; and who, now his existence is annihilated among men, cannot even figure as a ghost.’
This address was a word in season. The spirit was as much enraged with his rival, as whilom king Philip with the false Sebastian, or the Czar Boris with the monk Geiska, who acted the false Demetrius. In imitation of the Hirschberg mode of administering justice, he would have proceeded to instant execution, if his curiosity had not been excited to learn the adventures of the mask. ‘Get up, comrade,’ he said, ‘and do as thou art bid.’ He then, having first drawn out his horse’s fourth leg from between his ribs, made up to the coach-door, and opened it, with an intention of saluting the company.
But the inside of the carriage was still as the grave; terror had so violently agitated the ladies’ nervous system, that the spirits had taken shelter, one and all, from the external organs of sense, behind the counterscarp of the ventricles of the heart; whatever had life within the coach, from the right honourable lady to the lady’s maid, lay in a deep swoon. The horseman, however, was at no loss what to do in the case; he fetched his hat full of water from the rivulet that ran murmuring along, sprinkled the faces of the departed ladies, held a smelling-bottle to their nostrils, rubbed a little of the volatile spirit on their temples, and by these means brought them once more to life. They opened their eyes one after another, and beheld at the coach-door a well-made man, of perfectly unsuspicious appearance, whose services soon gained their confidence. ‘I am very sorry, ladies,’ said he, addressing them very politely, ‘that you should have suffered such an insult within my jurisdiction, from a rascal in disguise, who no doubt intended to rob you; but you are now perfectly safe: I am Lord Giantdale; allow me to attend you to my house, which is but a little way off.’ The Countess found this a very seasonable invitation; she accepted it with joy: Curly-pate was ordered to drive on, and obeyed with fearful officiousness. In order to give the ladies time to recover from their fright, the cavalier joined the postilion, directing him to turn first to the right and then to the left. Meanwhile he remarked, very justly, that the horseman every now and then would call to him some of the bats that were humming about, and give them secret orders, a remark that added not a little to his apprehensions.
In about an hour a light appeared at a distance, then two, and lastly four; then came up four hunters with lighted torches, who, as they said, had been anxiously seeking their master, and seemed glad to have met with him. The Countess by this time had recovered her equilibrium, and finding herself out of danger, she thought of honest John, and began to feel concerned for his fate. She communicated her fears to her protector, who immediately dispatched two of his huntsmen to seek the pair of overthrown comrades, and give them proper assistance. In a short time the coach rolled under the dusky arch of a castle-gate into a spacious court, and stopped before a stately mansion that was illuminated throughout. The cavalier politely offered the Countess his arm, and led her into the drawing-room, where he introduced her to a numerous company. The young ladies were much distressed at the idea of appearing among such a splendid circle in their travelling dress.
After the first mutual testimonies of politeness, the company fell into a number of little groupes, some sitting down to play, and others amusing themselves with conversation. The adventure was warmly discussed, and, as generally happens in the relation of past dangers, it was wrought up into a little epic, in which mama would willingly have assigned to herself the character of heroine, if she could have reasoned away the smelling-bottle of the attentive horseman, and its effects. Not long after their arrival the polite host introduced a person, who came, he said, just as seasonably as if he had been called in on purpose: this was a physician, who immediately began to make enquiries concerning the Countess’s and the young ladies’ state of health; felt their pulses, and with a significant countenance started a number of suspicious symptoms. Though the old lady, all things considered, found herself as well as before the accident, the idea of danger gave her great alarm, for, in spite of all her aches, she was as much attached to her crazy carcase as one commonly is to an old coat, which is so easy that you lay it aside reluctantly, though it be threadbare. By the physician’s prescription she swallowed large doses of febrifuge powders; and the buxom girls must perforce follow the example of their anxious mother. By too ready compliance patients make rigid doctors. The blood-thirsty Theophrastus now insisted on taking some blood, and, in default of his aid de camp the surgeon, drew out his red ribband, and the Countess yielded without reluctance to this boasted preservative against all disagreeable effects of terror; nor would she have refused, if his demands for the security of her health had risen to a clyster. Happily he did not recommend this heroic application, it certainly would have reduced the bashful misses to desperation; for nothing short of the doctor’s eloquence and the mother’s authority could overcome their fear of the steel tooth of the flew, and bring them to set their foot into the warm water. The rosy lymph of the mother, and the purple balsam of health from the veins of the daughters, now trickled apace into the silver bason. Abigail’s turn came next; and though she vowed she was so terrified at the sight of blood, that the smallest prick with a needle generally threw her into hysterics, the inexorable physician would hearken to no protestations; so he barbarously stripped the stocking from the maiden’s taper leg, and treated her with as much care and skill as her betters.
Scarce was this chirurgical operation performed, when supper was announced; a sumptuous feast was served up. The side-tables were decorated with plate up to the very cornice: a noble concert, from the neighbouring apartment, helped the guests down with the exquisite ragouts and generous wines. After the dishes were removed, the major-domo arranged the party-coloured dessert, consisting of rocks and mountains of sweetmeats, and gum tragacanth. The puerile wit of the confectioner, which can much more readily satisfy the palate or the eye than the understanding, had represented the Countess’s adventure in little wax figures, such as are often seen to parade on the tables of the great. The Countess did not fail to observe the costly entertainment in silent admiration. She turned to the gentleman next her in the blue ribband, who, according to his own account, was a Bohemian nobleman, and eagerly enquired what was the occasion of the great feast celebrated here to-day; and was informed, ‘there was nothing extraordinary; it was only a social meal for a party of old acquaintance, who had met here by accident.’ She was much surprized, especially as she had never heard a word of the rich and hospitable Lord of Giantdale, either in Breslaw or any other place; and however carefully she called to mind the pedigrees of peers and nobles, of which she had laid up an ample stock in her memory, she could not recollect any such title. She attempted to get from the host himself a solution of her difficulty; but he evaded her enquiries so adroitly, that she could never come to close quarters with him upon the subject. He purposely broke off the genealogical thread, and drew the conversation towards the airy regions of the spiritual world. Among people that can be entertained with the common run of ghost and apparition stories, it seldom happens that the party is soon broken up; nor is there ever felt any want of speakers on this, copious subject, or of an attentive audience.
A well-fed canon was able to relate many surprising stories of Number-Nip: the truth of them was eagerly combated, and as eagerly supported. The Countess, who found herself just in her element whenever she could assume the didactic tone, and march forth in battle array against prejudices, placed herself at the head of the philosophical party, and dreadfully embarrassed, by her scepticism, a paralytic privy counsellor, who had nothing pliant about him but his tongue, and who took upon himself to be the attorney general of Number-Nip. ‘My own story,’ continued the lady, ‘is an evident proof that every thing reported of that celebrated spirit is an empty dream. Did he hold his abode in the mountains here, and had he the noble qualities ascribed to him by idle story-tellers, he would never have suffered a rascal to molest us at the expence of his own reputation. But, poor ideal spirit! how could he save his honour?—And had it not been for the generous assistance of my Lord Giantdale, the audacious villain might have executed his design against us, without lett or impediment.’ The master of the house had hitherto taken but an inconsiderable share in these philosophical debates: he now engaged in the conversation, and observed, that the Countess had entirely depopulated the world of spirits;—‘The whole creation of fancy has vanished before your arguments, like a mist from before the rising sun. You have in particular ably shewn the non-existence of the ancient inhabitant of these regions, and his advocate, the privy counsellor, has been quite silenced. Yet I think a few objections might be urged against your last observation. How if the fabulous spirit had really a share in rescuing you from the hands of the robber in disguise? How if my fairy neighbour, when he undertook to bring you into a place of safety, had chosen to assume my appearance, in order to avoid giving you any alarm? And suppose I should tell you, that I have not stirred a step from this good company, as, being master of the house, I could not in common politeness to-night?—that you were brought to my residence by a stranger, who is now no where to be found?—In this manner then it were possible that the neighbouring spirit had actually saved his honour; and hence it would follow, that he is not the mere creature of the brain that you would make him.’
This address a little disconcerted the philosophical Countess; her fair daughters lad down their knives in evident consternation, and then looked stedfastly at their host, in order to read in his eyes whether this was said in jest, or seriously intended. A stricter examination of the problem was precluded, by the arrival of the recovered servant and postilion: of whom the latter testified no less joy at the sight of his four horses in the stable, than the former on being shewn into the dining-room, and finding his mistress safe, and in such comfortable plight. In the exultation of his heart he drew the chief instrument of the mischief out of his pocket, namely, the monstrous Saracen’s head of the figure in black, which had felled him to the ground, as effectually as the bursting of a bomb. The examination of the head was committed to the physician. However, without subjecting it to his anatomical knife, he instantly recognized it for an huge hollowed gourd filled with sand and stones, and worked up into a very grotesque figure, by the addition of a wooden nose, and a long flax beard.
The company did not break up till the morning was begining to dawn. The ladies were conducted to state-beds with superb hangings and delicate counterpanes; they had no sooner stretched themselves upon the down, than a sound sleep fell upon them, and the imagination could not even work up the terrifying phantoms that figured in the ghost stories they had heard, into a puppet-shew of terrifying dreams. It was far in the day when mama awaked; she immediately rang for her maid, and roused the young ladies, who gaped and stretched, and would fain have tried a nap upon the other cheek; but the Countess was so eager to try the healing powers of the Carlsbad water, that she could not be induced, by the most pressing invitation of her hospitable entertainer, to stop another day, however desirous the misses were to enjoy the ball, which he promised them upon that condition. They therefore prepared for setting forward immediately after breakfast. In their gratitude for the friendly reception they had experienced in the castle of my Lord Giantdale, who did not omit to accompany them to the extremity of his domain, they took their leave, with a firm promise to pay their respects to him on their return.
No sooner had the Gnome arrived back at his castle, than he summoned Mr. Curly-pate to an examination: that gentleman had been furnished with lodgings in a subterraneous dungeon, and he had spent the night in fearful expectation of the things that were to come to pass. ‘Vile miscreant!’ said the indignant sprite, as he was brought in, ‘what should hinder me from trampling thee to pieces in my anger, for attempting in my territories a piece of villainy, calculated to throw so much obloquy upon my name? Thy hide, be assured, shall pay for thy audacity.’—‘High and mighty regent of the Giant-mountains,’ answered flyboots, very coolly, ‘however exclusive may be your pretensions to this domain, and I by no means presume to question your title, tell me, I pray, where I may find the code of laws which it seems I have unfortunately transgressed. It is surely due to your nice sense of justice to grant me a fair trial before you condem me.’
This answer, and the shrewd subterfuge which the prisoner aimed at by his quibbling objection, and the self-possession with which he stated it, prognosticated no common character. In this expectation the rigorous judge abated somewhat of his resentment, and replied, ‘My laws are no other than those which nature has already inscribed on thy heart—but, that thou mayest not complain of being condemned unheard, proceed, and freely confess who thou art, and what induced thee to come hither to range and riot as a spectre on my mountain. So shall I judge thee as I find thee.’ This the culprit was right glad to hear, in hopes, by a faithful relation of his adventures, to talk away the threatened vengeance of the sprite, or at least to mitigate the punishment.
‘Once,’ he began, ‘in my early days, I went by the name of Poor Robin; by the occupation of an honest purse-maker in a country town I gained a miserable livelihood; for there is no profession that keeps a man so low as honesty. Although my purses had a ready sale, because the report went abroad that they kept money well, the maker having a lucky hand, as being a seventh son; yet this idea was contradicted by my own case, for my purse continued always as empty as a conscientious stomach on a fast-day: and if my customers found their gold to keep well in the purses they bought from me, neither the lucky hand of the maker, in my opinion, nor the goodness of the work, were any way concerned in the matter; I impute the advantage solely to the materials of my purses, for they were all of leather; and you must know, sir, that your leathern purse always holds money faster than an open silk purse. The man that is satisfied with a leathern purse is not easily a spendthrift, but one that, as the saying goes, knows how to keep his purse-strings tight;—now your transparent purses of silk or gold twist are never out of the fingers of your prodigals; and then what wonder if they run out like a leaky cask at an hundred holes? and though you pour ever so much in, still they will always be empty.
My father earnestly inculcated into all his seven lads this golden maxim: Children, whatever you do, do it in earnest. So I drove on my trade with great zeal and perseverance, but without bettering my condition. There came a dear time, war, trouble, and counterfeit coin, into the country. My brother purse-makers thought, Base coin, base goods; but I said to myself, Honesty is always the best policy; so I parted with true wares for false money; laboured hard, till I brought myself to the beggar’s crutch; was expelled from the guild, cast into the debtor’s prison; and, as my creditors refused to maintain me any longer, banished out of the country.
‘On my pilgrimage to misery and hunger I was met by one of my old customers, mounted on a stately steed: he called out to me in an insulting tone, Thou cobler! thou bundle of rags! thou hast, I see, but half learned thy trade; thou canst blow up the bladder, and not fill it; make the pot, and not cook in it; thou hast leather, but never a last; thou makest capital purses, but hast not a sous to put in them. Hearken, comrade, replied I, thou hast a wretched aim, thy arrows none of them hit the mark. Dost thou not know that there are many things in the world that fit, and yet are not together? many a man has a stable, and no horse; a barn-floor, and no corn to thresh; a pantry, and no bread; a cellar, and no beer; and so, according to the proverb, one has the purse, and another the gold. Aye, but they would be better together, quoth he—if thou wilt come ’prentice to me, I will put the finishing hand to thee; and as thou already understandest so well the making of purses, I’ll teach thee how to fill them, for I am a money-maker by trade; and as both professions agree so well, those that carry them on should go hand in hand. Very well, said I, I accept your offer, provided you have the management of a lawful mint, where money is coined for the use of a free city or sovereign state; but if you coin on your own bottom, it is neck-breaking work, and commonly ends at the gallows, and so I wash my hands of the concern. Faint heart never won fair lady, returned he—he that sits by the meat and never helps himself, deserves to starve. What, pr’ythee, is the difference whether thou diest by hunger or of suffocation? Every man must die at last.—The difference is, interrupted I, that in the one case you die like an honest man, in the other like a malefactor. Mere prejudice! exclaimed he: what harm can there be in stamping a mark upon a bit of metal? Ephraim the Jew has stamped plenty with the same mark as ours: what is lawful for one man to do, can be no sin in another.
In short the man’s way was so persuasive, that I could not help accepting his proposal. I soon became expert at the business, and, in obedience to my father’s injunctions, drove it on with spirit while I was at it. The making of money I found far more profitable than the making of purses. But, while we were going on with all possible success, the jealousy of trade was awakened. Ephraim raised a violent persecution against his brethren of the craft; the traitor never rested till we were detected; and the trivial circumstance that we were not free of the trade, like master Ephraim, brought us to be sentenced to hard labour at the fortifications for life.
Here I lived some years, after the rules of the order of the penitential brotherhood; till a good angel, who happened to cross the country in order to set all stout healthy prisoners free, opened the prison-door to me. This good angel was no other than a recruiting officer, who called me to the nobler vocation of fighting for my sovereign, instead of trundling wheel-barrows in his service. I was happy in the exchange: I resolved to become a soldier in earnest, was always foremost in the assault, and in case of a retreat the nimbleness of my heels prevented the enemy from ever overtaking me. Fortune now seemed to smile: I was soon advanced to the head of a troop of horse, and was in great hopes of higher promotion. But being one day sent out a foraging, I followed my orders with such scrupulous punctuality, that I emptied not only granaries and barns, but the chests and coffers both of houses and churches that fell in my beat. Unluckily it was a friend’s country, so it occasioned a great outcry Malicious people went so far as to call it a marauding expedition. I was brought to a court-martial, and sentenced to run the gauntlet through a lane of fifteen hundred men. Having thus been discharged from the honourable profession in which I had hoped to make my fortune, I could now think of no resource but to return to my first occupation. But I had neither money to purchase a stock of leather, nor inclination to work. As I supposed myself to have an undoubted property in my old goods, seeing I had sold them below their value, I resolved to recover them, and that without dispute or altercation; and though they were now a little the worse for the wear, they would in some measure make up my loss. So I began to sound people’s pockets; and judging every purse I could feel to be one of my own manufacture, I condemned them for lawful prizes. Thus I had, moreover, an opportunity of recovering a good part of my own money, for, although it had been cried down, it passed as current as ever. My occupation throve for a time; I visited markets and fairs in divers capacities, sometimes as a cavalier, sometimes as a merchant, sometimes as a gipsey. I had studied my part so well, and my hand was become so nimble and certain, that I never made a false gripe. This mode of life suited me exceedingly: I found myself in good bread, and resolved to go on; but the caprice of my stars never suffered me to be what I wished. One Frankfort fair I fell in love with a rich corn-factor’s purse, which was as big with gold as its owner’s belly with grease. But, from the helplessness of the weighty bag, my gripe failed; I was catched in the fact, secured, and brought to trial, under the odious character of a cut-purse, though I by no means deserved the title in a dishonourable sense. I had formerly, in truth, cut purses enough, but I never cut away any man’s money-bag, as the accusation ran, but all that I had taken came into my hand of their own accord, as if they were returning to their rightful owner. These distinctions, however just, availed me nothing; I was set in the stocks, and my ill stars decreed that I should be a second time sentenced to be flogged out of my station. I, however, watched my opportunity, slipped quietly out of prison, and so waved the troublesome ceremony.
‘I was now quite undetermined to what I should betake myself to ward off hunger—I failed in my very attempt to become a beggar. For scarce had I assumed that character, when the police in Leignitz took me under its wing, and, under the officious pretext of providing for me, forced me to an occupation that went against my heart. With some hazard and difficulty I escaped from this rigid jurisdiction, which takes upon it to keep the whole world in pupilage; for my rule has at all times been, Never get into a scrape with the police. I therefore avoided cities, and roved about the country, as a citizen of the world at large. It happened that the Countess passed through the very hamlet where I had taken up my abode; somewhat about the coach was broken, and must be mended before the company could proceed: I joined the idle crowd, whom curiosity collected to gape at the strange gentry, and formed an acquaintance with the sheepish servant, who, in the simplicity of his heart, entrusted to me his apprehensions on your account, Mr. Number-Nip, as they should now cross the mountain in the night, in consequence of the delay occasioned by the accident. This suggested the idea of turning to advantage the cowardice of the party, and trying my talents in the capacity of an apparition. I slipped into the dwelling: house of my landlord and patron, the parish clerk, who happened just then to be absent. I first laid hold of the black gown, his robe of office, at the same moment the gourd, that served for the ornament of the cup-board, attracted my notice. Thus accoutred, and provided with a sturdy cudgel beside, I betook myself to the wood, and there fitted up my mask. What use I made of it you already know. That I should have happily executed the master-stroke of my whole life but for your intervention, can admit of little doubt; the game indeed was already won. After getting rid of the two cowardly louts, my intention was to drive the carriage deep into the wood: there, without doing the ladies the smallest injury, to open a little emporium for the exchange of the black gown, which, considering the service it had rendered me, was of no trivial value, for the Countess’s purse and trinkets; and then, wishing the company a safe journey, to take a polite farewel.
To say the truth, sir, my fears from you were the least of my thoughts. The world is arrived at such a pitch of infidelity, that one cannot quiet children now-a-days with your name; and if a faint heart, like the Countess’s servant, or an old woman behind her spinning-wheel, did not now and then talk of you, the world would have long since lost all remembrance of such a personage. I thought whoever chose might be Number-Nip: I am now, indeed, better informed, and find myself in your power. But, as I have surrendered at discretion, I am in hopes that my sincere confession will somewhat mitigate your anger. It were a small matter, sir, to you to make an honest man of me. Were you but to dismiss me with a viaticum out of your brewer’s copper;—or pluck me a score of sloes out of your garden-hedge, as you did for the hungry traveller, who, though he bit away one of his teeth at your fruit, found all the sloes metamorphosed into little balls of gold;—or if you would make me a present of one of the eight golden skittles you have left, since you gave the ninth to the student from Prague for beating you at bowls;—or only your milk-pan, which changes curds into gold;—or, if I deserve punishment, beat me, as you did the shoe-maker, with a golden rod, and then give it me as a memorial of the adventure, according to the story the lads of the last tell of you, as they sit hammering soles—my fortune were made at once. Truly, sir, could you but feel human necessities, you would acknowledge it to be a very hard matter for those to be honest who are in want of all things: when, for instance, you are pinched by hunger, and have not a maravedi in your pocket, it is an heroic pitch of virtue to forbear stealing a roll from the stock of bread which some Crœsus of a baker exposes at his window—for necessity, as the proverb says, has no law.’
‘Get thee gone, vagabond!’ exclaimed the Gnome, when Curlypate had ended, ‘as far as feet can carry thee, and ascend the gallows, the summit of thy fortune!’ Upon this he discharged his prisoner with a lusty kick.—The latter rejoiced at escaping so easily, and applauded his powers of persuasion, which, as he supposed, had for this time extricated him from a very ticklish situation. He made a forced march to get out of reach of the rigorous sovereign of the mountain, and in his haste left his black gown behind him. With all his speed, however, it seemed as if he never stirred from the spot; he had constantly the same landscape in view, excepting that he had lost sight of the castle, where he had been confined. Weary with this continual running round the same circle, he stretched himself under the shadow of a tree to take a little repose, and wait for some traveller, who might shew him the way. Here he fell into a sound sleep: when he awaked thick darkness encompassed him on all sides. He recollected perfectly well that he had gone to sleep under an oak-tree, but he could hear no whispering of the wind among the leaves, nor could he perceive any star twinkling through the boughs, nor the smallest glimmering of light. He started up in his first alarm, but an unknown power held him fast, and the motion he made produced a noise like the rattling of chains: he now perceived that he was in irons, and imagined himself to be in Number-Nip’s dominions, many thousand fathoms under ground, an idea that threw him into a violent consternation.
In a few hours there was some appearance of day, but the light shone very faintly through an iron grate in the wall. Without exactly knowing where he was, the cell did not seem perfectly new to him. He was in hopes the gaoler would come to him, but in vain. One tedious hour succeeded another; hunger and thirst tortured the captive: he began to make a noise, rattling his chains, knocking against the wall, and crying out piteously for help; he heard human voices near at hand, but no person would open the door of his cell. At length the gaoler, having armed himself with a prayer against ghosts, undid the door, crossing himself devoutly, and exorcising the devil, who he imagined was making a disturbance in the empty gaol. But upon a nearer examination of the sorcery, he recognized his runaway prisoner, the cut-purse, and Curlypate at the same instant saluted his old friend the gaoler of Leignitz. It was now evident that Number-Nip had taken the advantage of his nap to expedite him unperceived to his old lodgings: ‘So, Mr. Curlypate, are you caught again in your cage? how the devil didst thou contrive to get here, man?’ ‘Why at the door to be sure,’ replied the gaol-bird; ‘I am quite weary of rambling, so I thought I would e’en return to you for a quiet birth: I am in great hopes you will be so good as to allow me my old quarters.’ As it was impossible to explain how the prisoner had got back into his cell, or who had fastened the irons upon him; Curlypate, feeling no desire to make public his adventure on the mountain, continued boldly to maintain that he had returned of his own accord, as having the gift of going in and out of places, however secured by locks and bolts, and putting on or off his fetters at pleasure. The magistrates were moved, by this seeming submission, to forgive him the flogging that was his due; they only imposed upon him the task of trundling a wheel-barrow for the benefit of the state, till he should think proper to slip off his irons.—But it has never been reported that he has made any use of the kind permission.
The Countess in the mean time arrived safe, and in good plight, at Carlsbad. The first thing she did, was to call in the physician of the wells, in order to hold a consultation with him on the state of her health, and to settle the plan for taking the waters. It was not long before the once-renowned Dr. Springsfeld, who would not have exchanged the golden spring of Carlsbad for Pison, the river of Paradise, stepped into the apartment: ‘Good doctor, your servant, we are happy to see you,’ exclaimed mama and both the misses, in voices of intimacy and friendship. ‘You have out-gone us,’ continued the former; ‘we suspected this to be the case at my Lord Giantdale’s; but why did not you tell us there, you naughty man, that you were the physician of the wells?’—‘Ah! doctor!’ interrupted Miss Harriet, ‘I verily believe you have cut my vein through and through: my foot gives me such pain, that I must e’en hobble by the help of a crutch, and am terribly afraid I shall not be in a condition to dance this season.’ The doctor started in surprize, then paused to consider; but could not recollect ever to have seen the ladies before. ‘You must doubtless,’ he replied with a simper, ‘mistake me, ladies, for some other person. I really have not the honour of being personally known to you. My Lord Giantdale is not among my acquaintance; and during the season I never on any account stir from this place.’ The Countess was at a loss to conceive the meaning of the doctor’s strenuous denial of himself: at last she concluded it must be with an intention very contrary to the practice of his colleagues—to decline his fee for the services he had rendered them. So she proceeded with a smile, ‘Indeed, doctor, your delicacy is excessive; but it shall not prevent me from considering myself as your debtor, and acknowledging my obligations for the kind assistance you have afforded us.’ She then forced a gold snuff-box upon him, which the physician, however, would receive only as a fee before-hand; and, lest he should disoblige a good patient, he no longer contradicted her. He moreover easily solved the riddle to his own satisfaction, by supposing the whole family to be infected with a species of vapours, in which strange and incomprehensible flights of the imagination are by no means uncommon—so he prescribed plenty of mild evacuants.
Doctor Springsfeld was none of your heavy helpless physicians, who possess no other talent for conciliating their patients’ hearts, besides praising their own pills and electuaries. He was well versed in the secret of exhilarating the spirits, by a number of little anecdotes; and could retail the news of the day with infinite address. In going his round of visits, after he had parted from the Countess, he recounted in every bed-chamber he entered the singular interview with his new patient. The story improved upon repetition: he sometimes humorously represented the Countess as disordered, sometimes as a person gifted with second sight. The company were eager to become acquainted with so extraordinary a character; and the Countess Cecilia became the table-talk of the day. The first time she made her appearance in the rooms, with her beautiful daughters, all the world crouded to have a sight of them. But how were the ladies astonished, to find the whole party here to whom they had been introduced so lately at the castle of my Lord Giantdale! They were first of all struck by the Bohemian nobleman in the blue ribband, the reverend belly of the canon, and the paralytic privy counsellor. They expressed their satisfaction at being saved the aukward ceremony of curtseying to strangers, for there was not a single unknown face in the room. The affable old lady addressed herself first to one, and then to another, calling each by his proper name and title. She talked much of my Lord Giantdale, and frequently referred to the conversation they had carried on at his hospitable board; but was confounded at the cold behaviour of a company, which but a little while before had behaved to her with so much cordiality. She very naturally fell upon the idea, that it was a concerted scheme, and that my lord himself would wind up the joke, by unexpectedly making his appearance. However, she was determined he should not enjoy the triumph of a victory over her sagacity: so she pleasantly proposed to the crutch-propped privy counsellor, to set his four legs in motion, and start the peer from his hiding-place.
This conversation, in the opinion of the whole company, afforded undeniable evidence of an overstrained imagination. They all expressed their compassion for her situation; unanimously agreeing that she was a sensible woman, without any thing extravagant in her ideas, except when her fancy took the road over the Giant-mountains. The Countess on her part, from the nodding and winking of the ring of critics that surrounded her, soon saw that she was eyed with a shrewd suspicion of her disease having shifted out of her limbs into her head. She thought the best way of removing so injurious a prejudice was, to relate, at length, her adventure upon the Silesian borders. She was heard with the attention usually bestowed upon a tale that entertains for a moment, but of which not a syllable is believed. Thus she experienced the fortune of the prophetess Cassandra, to whose admonitions Apollo had rendered every Trojan ear deaf, as a punishment for her refusal to comply, according to her agreement, with his amorous wishes.—‘Strange indeed!’ exclaimed the whole company with one voice, at the same time casting a significant glance towards Dr. Springsfeld; who secretly shrugged up his shoulders, and vowed in his own mind not to dismiss the patient from under his care, till the waters should have washed every trace of the romantic Giant-mountains clean out of her imagination. The spring in the mean time performed all the doctor or the patient expected from it. The Countess, perceiving that her story met with small credit among the Israelites of Carlsbad, and even rendered the soundness of her understanding problematical, dropped the subject; and Dr. Springsfeld did not fail to ascribe this happy effect to the water, which had in truth operated in a very different, though a no less salutary manner, by curing the Countess of her gout, and easing every ache in her joints.
The old lady being thus happily recovered, the young ones having had their fill of admiration, their nostrils being now satiated with the incense of flattery from the scented beaux, and their limbs tired of cotillions and minuets, mother and daughters returned with one consent to Breslaw. They did not fail to take the way of the Giant-mountains, as they had promised to their hospitable entertainer in Giantdale, from whom the Countess hoped for a satisfactory solution of the riddle that so puzzled her; how she became acquainted with the company at the waters that had afterwards behaved with such coldness; and how the whimsical alibi, that had all the wildness of a dream, was brought about. But nobody could direct them to my Lord Giantdale’s seat, nor was the name known to a soul on either side the mountains.—So the lady was at length unwillingly convinced that the stranger who had rescued and entertained her was no other than Number-Nip, the mountain spirit, himself. She owned that he had practised the rites of hospitality in a very generous manner; forgave him his frolic respecting the Carlsbad company; and from this time forward sincerely believed in the existence of spirits, though, to avoid the arrows of the wits, she was cautious how she made a public declaration of her faith.
Since his manifestation to the Countess Cecilia, nothing further has been heard of him. He returned to his subterraneous states; and as the great earthquake that destroyed Lisbon and Guatimala, soon afterwards happened, and has since been continually advancing nearer and nearer, so as lately to threaten the pillars of the Giant-mountains themselves, the spirits of the deep have found so much work below ground, in damming the torrents of lava, that they have never had leisure to appear on the surface of the earth. For if the forebodings of desolation in the book entitled Chevila are not come to pass, and the seer of Sellerfield has proved as false a prophet as those who encouraged king Ahab to go up to Ramoth-Gilead; if the north of Europe has still stood firm upon its old foundations; and if his Imperial Majesty did not send out a fleet from Vienna to take part in the American War—we are obliged to the vigilant Gnomes for our security, which is entirely owing to their unwearied labours.