The Old Man of the Mountain/II
The next day Balthasar sent Edward a summons to his room. When he had lockt the door he began:
— You are the only person entrusted with a circumstance and a connexion, which agitated me so deeply yesterday that I was unable to tell you anything about it. As however I look upon you quite in the light of my son, I feel myself bound to disclose something more of myself and my story to you, than any mortal man has ever yet heard.
They sat down: the old man gave his young friend his hand, which the latter prest cordially, and then said:
— You cannot doubt my affection and friendship; and what you confide to me will in my hands be as secret as in the silent grave.
— I have watcht you this long time, said the old man, and know you well. Hitherto we have had but little talk together; I am now forced to change and break through my usage with regard to you, and I am anxious besides that there should be a being who knows and understands me.
Edward's curiosity was roused; and the old man went on with a tremulous voice:
— I am still so much moved, my whole frame is still so much disordered by yesterday's shock, that you must have patience with my weakness. That my life is a cheerless one, that I have long renounced all those recreations and enjoyments, which are in fact the only things most men live for, you must long ago have remarkt. From my youth up I have got out of the way of pleasure, with a feeling which I might almost call dread. Educated by a rigid father, who lived in the greatest penury, my childhood and youth were merely suffering and sorrow. When I grew bigger, my ripening understanding only enabled me more distinctly to perceive the misery of my parents and the wretchedness of the whole earth. Often for many nights together no sleep visited my eyes, which were flowing with tears. Thus my imagination accustomed itself to view the whole world as nothing but a place of punishment, where sorrow and need were the lot of all, and such as were raised above the sordid wants of life were but in a yet sadder state of silly delusion, in which they neither recognized their own calling nor the destiny of mankind, but giving themselves up to vapid pleasures and pitiful comforts reeled along toward the grave. One single star shed its light through this dark gloom — but it was as far beyond my reach as if it had stood in the heavens — my relation Elizabeth, whom you saw: she was rich, highborn, and bred to a life of splendour and luxury. A cousin of mine, Helbach, who was still richer and haughtier, was designed for her husband: our family scarcely ever saw these proud relations of theirs; and my stern father had a special hatred for them, and never spake but with rancour of their extravagance. This hatred he also transferred to me, when he discovered my secret and strong affection. He gave me his curse, if I ever dared to think of that lovely and beloved being. Nor was it long before she was married to her overbearing kinsman; one stream of wealth flowed into the other, and produced such a splendid way of living that the whole town felt envy at it. My mother's brother, who gave his son this large fortune, was so much ashamed of our poverty, that he did not even invite my parents to the wedding; which so greatly increast the vexation and annoyance of my father, already a prey to bitter mortification, that the after-throes of this insult brought him to the grave. My poor mother soon followed him. Of myself I will say nothing. If life had hitherto worn a dark aspect in my eyes, it now changed into a spectre, whose ghastly, distorted features and looks at first struck me with horrour, and afterward, when use made me cold and indifferent, taught me to despise everything, above all myself. Elizabeth had known of my passion. Rarely as we saw each other, she had taken no pains to conceal the affection with which she answered mine. Though she was not like me utterly dead to all joy, yet a shade was cast over her whole existence, and heavy clouds covered it. She has suffered enough since. Her husband was a profligate spendthrift; he squandered thousands from vanity, and for paltry, contemptible purposes. It would look as if a number of ill-starred men bore a kind of malice and hatred against money, so that they have recourse to the strangest devices to drive it away from them on every side, while the miser hugs and cherishes it with a blind devotion, and lets himself be crusht by his idol. Elizabeth was weak enough to give up her property to him unconditionally, and, when his credit had already fallen, to declare herself bound by his debts; and thus the very house into which all the gods of Olympus had seemed to enter, bringing eternal joy as their gift, became a scene of misery, confusion, hatred, and strife. The wretched husband, counsellor Helbach, has sold his last shilling for an annuity, without a thought about his wife and son. This son of his is as it were possest by the furies, unruly, headstrong, and without feeling: he ran into debt, then took to swindling, and finally, two years ago, when his weeping mother was trying to admonish him, abused and even struck her in his brutal rage. After this grand feat he set off into the wide world. His father meanwhile revels and laughs, devouring his income, which must still be large, at well-stored tables. This made her come to me, subduing her pride and her feelings, in order that I might relieve her from a debt, which would have brought her to shame and to a prison. These twenty years past she has been longing to die, but still lives, an object of horrour to herself, and of pleasure to nobody. Send her a thousand dollars every quarter: she has promist me that her abandoned husband shall know nothing of this assistance either now or hereafter.
Edward saw the old man's deep anguish, and was long silent: at last he began:
— But how could Eleazar be so cruel as not to tell you of those letters?
— I was in the wrong, replied the old man, to find fault with him for it yesterday. He acts in my name, and knows well that I am weak and soft-hearted: the particulars he was not aware of, and so only did his duty. Indeed I know not myself after all whether I have done rightly in following my torn and deeply agitated heart: for perhaps still she may have too little firmness to keep the wretch in ignorance of what has happened; in spite of everything he is her husband, and of all her ties his are the closest. You no doubt, because you love me, but are of a tender disposition so that distress affects you, would have acted otherwise, and better; and yet probably were I to put myself entirely in your hands, you would spoil me and ruin me: for no quality a man can have is so dangerous as vanity, which draws food from everything.
— What do you mean by vanity? asked Edward.
— All our feelings, answered the old man, the best and honestest, the gentlest and blissfullest, are rooted in this poisonous soil. But more of this another time. I only wanted to tell you briefly, how I acquired my fortune, how my character took that cast under which you have learnt to know me. After my parents death I fulfilled my father's last wish by uniting myself to a girl who was also a distant relation of our family. She was poor, unprovided, unprotected, had grown up amid straits without any kind of education; at the same time she was hideously ugly, and her temper was so morose and quarrelsome, that I never spent a pleasant hour with her, and had very few peaceful ones so long as she lived. My situation was horrible.
— But how came you to marry her? said Edward.
— Because I had given my word to my father, continued Balthasar; and because it is a principle of mine, that man must never gratify his passions, least of all that of love. My conviction is, that our life is a state of torment and woe; and the more we try to escape from these feelings, the more awful vengeance do our terrours afterward take upon us. As to why this is so, who can fathom that question?
— This belief, answered Edward, is extremely strange, and at variance with all our wishes, nay with everyday experience.
— O how scanty then must your experience have been hitherto! replied the old man. Everything lives and moves, only to die and to rot: everything feels, only to feel pangs. Our inward agony spurs us on to what we call joy; and all wherewith spring and hope and love and pleasure beguile mankind, is only the inverted sting of pain. Life is woe, hope sadness, thought and reflexion despair.
— And supposing all to be so, said Edward somewhat timidly, do we not find comfort and help in religion?
The old man lifted up his eyes and gazed fixedly in his young companion's face: his dark look grew brighter, not however with pleasure or any soft emotion; but so strange a smile ran across his pale furrowed features, that it lookt very much like scorn; and Edward involuntarily thought of the miner's words.
— Let us turn aside from this theme for today, said the old man with his usual gloomy air; we shall probably find time hereafter to speak of it. Thus I lived on in my state of damnation, and the thought of Elizabeth shone with a friendly but heart-piercing light into the hell around me. Still the frenzy of life had laid fast hold on me, and made me too take my place in the vast bedlam, and go through my part under the great task-master. People tell you that death cures all; others again look forward to being transported from one workhouse to another, where they shall keep on playing the fool through all eternity and evaporating in an endless succession of illusions. With a little money — it would be ridiculous were I to mention the sum; many take so much merely to fill their bellies — I engaged in a small line of business. It succeeded. I made a petty mercantile speculation. It turned out well. I entered into partnership with a man of considerable property. It seemed as if I had a talent of always guessing and foreboding where gain and profit were lying hid in distant countries, in uninviting, or hazardous undertakings; something like what is said of the divining rod, that it will hit upon metals and upon water. As many gardeners have a lucky hand, so in trade I prospered in every, even the most unpromising speculation. It was neither strength of understanding nor extent of knowledge, but mere luck. One becomes a man of understanding however, so soon as one has luck. My partner was astonisht; and, as he had a small estate here, we removed into this country, where till the time of his death we went on enlarging the number of our houses of business and manufactories. When he died, and I had settled my accounts with his heir, I might already have been accounted a rich man. But a feeling of awe came upon me along with this property as they call it. For how great is the responsibility for managing it rightly! And why were so many honest men unfortunate, while with me everything throve so unaccountably? After a number of painful years my wife also died: without children, without friends, I was again alone. How singularly that blind being, that men call fortune, pampered me, you may see from the following story. I always felt an aversion to play at cards or any other game for money. For what does a gambler do, but declare that he will exalt the wretched stuff, to which even as money he attaches such an inordinate value, into an oracle and a promulgation of the divine will? And then he stakes his heart and soul on this delusion: the freaks of chance, things utterly without meaning, are to calculate and make out for him by certain fantastical combinations, what he is worth, how he is favoured: his dark passions start up when he supposes that this chance neglects him; he triumphs when he fancies it sides with him; his blood flows more rapidly, his head is in an uprore, his heart throbs tumultuously, and he is more wretched than the madman that is lying in chains, when every card, down to the very last, turns up against him. Look you, this is the king of the creation in his patcht beggar's garb, which he takes to be a royal robe.
The old man almost laught, and Edward replied:
— Such is the case with all life; it runs along on a narrow line between truth and fancy, between reality and delusion.
— Be it so! cried Balthasar. But no more of this. I was only going to tell you how I let myself be persuaded by my partner in the last year of his life to put for once into the neighbouring lottery. I did so against my own feelings; because these institutions appear to me deserving of the severest punishment. By them the state sanctions highway-robbery and murder. Even without such things ill-fated man is immoderately inflamed by the lust of gain. I had already forgotten the paltry concern, when I heard I had gained the great prize: after receiving the payment it never let me rest. What the vulgar fable of evil spirits, had come into my house along with these money-bags. This unblest sum supplied the funds for the hospital for sick old women in the valley a couple of leagues off, the building of which has been made such a merit of by senseless newspaper-scribes. What had I contributed toward it? Not even a stroke of the pen. Now you will understand how my perpetual gains, and the sums that flowed in to me from every venture, compelled me to plunge into fresh speculations, and how this has been going on year after year upon an ever-widening scale. And thus there is neither rest nor pause, until death will at length put the last full stop to the matter for this bout. Then some one else will of course begin to rave on just where I left off, and the same invisible power will perhaps meet his folly under the shape of misfortune.
Edward knew not what to say.
— You are not yet used, the old man continued, to my words and expressions, because we have never yet talked upon these matters; you do not yet know my way of thinking; and as these feelings, these views of life are still new to you, you are surprised. Believe me, my good fellow, the only thing that keeps one from going mad, is swimming silently along with the stream, letting five always pass for even, and fitting oneself to that which cannot be changed. At the same time there is also another remedy that may serve to keep one afloat. One may lay down certain fixt unshakable principles, a line of conduct from which one never swerves. Money, wealth, gain, the circulation and the flowing of property and of the precious metals toward every quarter, through every relation of life, and every region of the earth, are one of the very strangest devices the world ever hit upon. It is a creature of necessity like every thing else; and as there is nothing on which passion has seized with such force, it has bred it up to be a monster more chimerical and wild than anything the fever of a heated fancy ever dreamt of. This monster is incessantly devouring and preying on all that comes within its reach; nothing satiates it; it gnaws and crunches the bones of the destitute, and laps up their tears. That in London and Paris before a palace, where a single banquet costs a thousand pieces of gold, a poor man should die of starvation, when the hundredth part of a piece of gold might save him; that families should perish in frantic despair; that there should be madness and suicide in the very room where a couple of paces off gamblers are rioting in gold — all this seems so natural to us, such a matter of course, that we no longer feel any surprise at it; and everybody takes for granted with cold-blooded apathy, that it all must be so, and cannot be otherwise. How every state pampers this money-monster! — indeed it cannot help doing so — and trains it up to be more ferocious! In many countries wealth can no longer increase except among the rich, whereby the poor will be still more impoverisht, until at length Time will cast up the dismal sum, and then draw a bloody pen across the appalling amount. When I found myself thus rich, I held it to be my duty to keep this wealth in controul, so far as man can, and to tame the wild beast. Unquestionably the creation has been doomed to woe; else war, disease, famine, pain, and passion would not run riot and lay waste so. Existence and torment are one and the same word: nevertheless every one who does not mean wantonly to play the fiend is bound to alleviate misery wherever he can. There is no property in the sense which most people put on the word; there ought not to be any, and the attempt to keep hold of it is godless. Still worse is it to spread calamity by the influence of wealth. Thus then I administer mine, so as to help my neighbours, to find work for the poor, care and remedies for the sick; and by an ever-increasing activity I strive to bring things into such a state, that as many as possible shall eat their bread without tears and anguish, shall gather pleasure from their children and their occupations, and that, so far as my eye and arm can reach, the creation may not be the object of as many curses here, as in other villages and towns.
— The blessings you diffuse, Edward threw in, must make you also happy.
— Blessings! repeated the old man and shook his head. It is all a mere drop in the ocean. How short is the time within which even the child that is now sucking at the breast must needs die! This time, these hundreds and thousands of years, how they mock at our frail edifices! how Oblivion triumphs in every part of the earth, with ruins crumbling beneath her feet! and Destruction, while with unfeeling malignity she tramples every form of life in the dust! I have just been comforting my good Elizabeth today. But can I really comfort her? She is for ever haunted by the thought of her destiny, of her life, of her lost youth, of her having flung herself away on a worthless being, of her having brought a tiger as her son into the world. In her dreams she is visited by the feeling, whether asleep or waking it pursues her, and thrills through every fibre, that she once loved me, perhaps loves me still; and so her heart has to bear my wretchedness along with her own. True she may now and then relish a morsel somewhat better; she may now and then forget herself, perhaps over some silly book, delighting in the good fortune of others, and feeling interest in afflictions which are merely faint shadows of her own; and this sentimental folly may help her over half a dozen minutes a little more at her ease. Verily it is a grand achievement that I have been able to do this for her. The consciousness however, that neither her husband nor her son, the offspring of her own blood and body, and surely of her soul too, is to know anything of my bounty, as it would be called, or else her sufferings will increase — do you not perceive how pitiful this, and the whole of life is? But let us break off, and tell me instead what news you have heard.
Edward informed him that William had again gone off suddenly and without assigning any cause.
— I am glad of it, answered the old man; I always took him for our thief, and winkt hard in looking at him, that I might not ruin him utterly: this indulgence however must have come to an end. I was exceedingly fond of him, and for that very reason only hated him the more.
— How do you mean? asked the young man.
— Why, replied the other, foolishly enough I felt charmed by his countenance, by the soft sound of his voice, by his whole look and air: this perverse sympathy will keep following us everywhere. I took a liking to him: and catching my heart in this piece of folly, I punisht myself by conceiving a downright aversion to the fellow, as we should and must do to everything we are greatly delighted with.
Edward wanted to ask further questions, but the striking of the clock called him to his business, and being dismist by the old man he went away, with a multitude of thoughts concerning this singular conversation, to meditate further upon it at leisure.