The Old Man of the Mountain/III
Whenever Edward's thoughts now recurred, as they often did, to the nature of his situation, that and every thing connected with it, the appointment which had fixt him in this secluded spot, the business he was engaged in, as well as the persons with whom he had to hold intercourse, appeared to him in a light totally different from before. He was loth to acknowledge to himself how forcibly and singularly his imagination had been wrought upon by his late discourse with Rose. Hitherto he had only lookt on her as a pleasing child; but now the lovely girl became an object to which expectations and silent hopes attacht themselves: he watcht her more attentively; he talked oftener to her and more at length; and the budding of her youthful soul, the frank artlessness of her thoughts, interested his heart more and more. And then, when he recollected the hideous, sallow-faced Eleazar, with his surly morose temper, and thought that this tender flower had already in secret devoted herself as a sacrifice to so odious a creature, his anger was moved by this absurd project, which at other times again he could not help smiling at. Eleazar had been absent for some days past. He had not taken much pains to conceal that he was going into the lonely, remote parts of the mountains in search of those marks which he had read of in the master miner's book. This absurdity sorted well with his strange dreamy character; for he was perpetually poring over books of magic and alchemical treatises, had a laboratory in his room, and would often boast in pretty intelligible hints that he had found the philosopher's stone. When Edward bethought himself of his singular conversation with his old master, and of the sentiments he had given vent to during that confidential hour, he no longer regarded it as improbable that Balthasar should have been led by his wild moody whims to design his blooming foster-daughter for the wife of the gloomy Eleazar. A shudder came over him to think with what dark and perplext spirits he was so closely linkt; his head went round with the giddiness of all about him, and he seemed almost to lose his hold on himself. This made him still more regret the loss of young William: at the same time his annoyances were increast by the robberies of the warehouse, which instead of ceasing were carried on with more audacity than ever. He himself had entertained a slight suspicion of William, and was quite unable to make out how the crime was perpetrated.
In this mood it was with no very friendly welcome that he met Eleazar on his return from his wild-goose chace. Eleazar too grew highly indignant, when he heard that the robberies had been continued during his absence with the greatest impudence; and as he could not justly charge Edward with any negligence or supineness, this first conversation between them, little as they had ever been disposed to agree, took a tone of still more bitterness than usual. As soon as his hateful companion was gone, Edward determined to do what he now could not help regarding as his indispensable duty, by speaking more seriously than ever to Herr Balthasar on this subject.
These depredations, which were prosecuted with so much security, excited the wonder of the whole neighbourhood; and at the public-house in the town there was often much talk about them. Old Conrad was sitting in the wooden arm-chair beside the stove, and was just telling the fat thriving landlord the details of the last robbery, when a stranger came in, who immediately gave himself out to be a travelling miner. The stranger was much younger than Conrad, and therefore at first modestly said but little, and merely asked a few questions, insinuating however that there might probably be means of soon bringing the matter to light, if his advice were but to be followed. By these hints the curiosity of some peasants who happened to be present, having come with corn from the plain several miles off to this town high up among the mountains, was vehemently aroused. Conrad, who lookt upon himself as the wisest person in the company, became grave and monosyllabic, waiting to hear what this new device or scheme for detecting the thief, would end in.
— You must lay a charm, said the stranger, which the thief, when he has once set foot within it, will not be able to escape from; and so, as soon as the sun rises, you are sure to find him.
— And what is such a charm to be made of? asked Andrew, who was the forwardest of the peasants.
Conrad laught aloud and scornfully, while he said:
— Clownish dolts, don't thrust in your tongues, when people are debating about matters of art and science; stick to your straw and your chaff; they are things you are better skilled in handling. Proceed, knowing sir, he added, looking with suspicious graciousness toward the stranger; how do you mean that such a charm or spell is to be prepared, so as to be certain of its effect?
The stranger, whose pale face formed a singular contrast with the stout dusky-hued Conrad, the fat host, and the puffy cheeks of the peasants, said with a somewhat stifled voice:
— Yew twigs cut and peeled beneath the new moon, and then boiled at the first quarter in a decoction of wolf's milk and hemlock, which itself must have been previously made on the selfsame night, are to be stuck in the earth, while some words that I know are repeated, at certain distances round the spot where the robbery is committed; and the thief, be he ever so daring, and ever so learned in laying spells and breaking them, will be unable to step out of this circle, and will stand in fear and trembling, till the persons who set the magical trap pounce upon him in the morning. I have often seen this practist in Hungary and Transylvania, and it has always succeeded.
Conrad was about to answer, but the pert Andrew was beforehand with him and cried:
— My grandfather, the smith, had a spell with abracadabra, which was to be repeated backward and forward, along with certain verses of the Bible; and when he had said these words, every thief, whether he was in the wood, on the high road, or in the field, was forced to halt on the sudden in the middle of his running — or, if he was riding on horseback, it was just the same — and to wait in terrour and affright, so that even children if they chose might seize hold of him.
Conrad gave the peasant a look of inexpressible contempt, and then turning with ambiguous courtesy to the strange miner, said:
— You are a man of experience and knowledge, as it seems; nevertheless your well-meant advice will hardly meet with acceptance here. For first the old man of the mountain will never have anything to do with sorcery and witchcraft, because he hates every kind of superstition, even that which is pious and unavoidable, much more then one of this sort, which he must needs hold to be utterly accurst. Besides you don't even know in what way the thief goes to work, so as to take proper measures against him.
— What do you mean? asked the stranger, somewhat abasht, but whose curiosity was stirred.
— Have you never heard, continued Conrad, or read of those wonderful persons, or, as you have been such a great traveller, have you yourself never stumbled upon such, whose eyes can pierce through a board, through wainscot and wall, nay down into the depths of the earth and into the heart of a mountain?
— In Spain, replied the stranger, there are said to be men, who without the help of a divining-rod can find out treasures and metals with their bodily eyes, even though they should be lying ever so deep under rocks or forests.
— Just so, proceeded Conrad; Zahori, or Zahuri is the name borne, as I have heard tell, by the people who have carried their power and knowledge to this pitch. Only nobody knows whether one man can learn this of another, or whether it is a natural gift, or proceeds from a league with the evil one.
— From the devil certainly! cried Andrew interrupting him, having been gradually poking in his face nearer and nearer.
— I am not talking to you, lowland lubber, said Conrad; you would do better to seat yourself behind the stove; that is your right place when people are canvassing grave questions of science.
Andrew muttered, and angrily drew back his chair a little; whereupon Conrad went on:
— Look you man, this art in many countries is not the only one, nor even the highest, profitable as it may be for discovering veins of metal, or even gold and silver. Of much greater weight however, and far more formidable are those who have a power in their eyes to do one an injury, and with a single glance can infect one with a disease, a fever, a jaundice, a fit of madness, or even look one dead. The better and godlier part of these persons hence always of their own accord wear a bandage before one of their eyes — for this power will often exist only on one side — so that they may walk about and deal with their neighbours, without harming them.
— Of these I have never heard, replied the stranger.
— That is matter of surprise to me, continued the old miner with the most perfect gravity: for since you come from Hungary, and probably were born there, where you have such a sight of vampires, or blood-sucking corpses, such swarms of goblins and manikins of the mountains, dwarfs and subterraneous creatures, that will often come across you even by broad daylight, I fancied everything belonging to witchcraft must be in high vogue there and generally notorious.
— No, answered the traveller, I never up to this present instant heard anything of these prodigies, much as I have seen and myself experienced that by such as have not been so far from home may be deemed remarkable enough.
— Now then, said Conrad taking up his word again, when the Zahori, as they call him, has once got so far that with his naked eye, instead of quietly seeing the treasures beneath his feet, he can give anyone a fit of sickness or put him to death, he has only one step further to become perfect and a master in his art. Look you, my good stranger, when he has thus reacht the highest degree, he will set himself down before a dish of baked meat, while it is still standing in the oven covered up and shut down, and without anybody being able to observe him will with his mere eyes devour you a goose, or a hare, or whatever it may be, swallowing it up so clean and neat, that, if he chooses, not a bone will be left. Place some nuts before him or melons, he will eat up all the kernel or pulp out of them, without making even a single scratch on the shell or rind, but leaving them undamaged just as if everything was still within. He has had a good meal; nobody can prove, or even suspect what he has done; and others have nothing left them but a fruitless search.
— The devil again! cried Andrew; that's the trick I should like, if I could learn the art.
— An artist of this sort, continued the old miner, may however ascend a great deal higher; for such things after all would be merely a jest. If he has a spite against any one, he can pluck his heart out of his body with a look, just as easily as his money out of his pocket. The enemy he sets eye on will waste away and die miserably, or will sink into beggary, while he himself becomes as rich as ever he pleases.
— It makes ones mouth water! cried Andrew unconsciously, so completely was he carried away by the visions presented to him.
Conrad turned his back upon him, drew his chair nearer to the miner, and then said:
— If we had not this rabble so close at our side, I could explain the matter to you with greater tranquillity of mind. The truth is this. When the Zahuri has been promoted from being an apprentice or pounding-lad, to be a brother, and then a master or mine-surveyor, he will seat himself on his chair in his room, here overhead in this inn, or wherever it may be, will think of the warehouse of our old man of the mountain, or of the London docks, or of some place down in Spain where he knows that some banker, jeweller, or ship-master has valuable goods in his hands, and so soon as ever he thinks of them with his eyes, he has them before him, and nobody knows of it or can hinder it. In like manner by merely willing it he can also send them forthwith from the place whence he takes them, to Russia, or Calcutta, or anywhere else, and bring back the money he asks for them. Now should there be a man of this class living here, in the neighbourhood, or even in America, and he took a fancy to rob the warehouse, you will easily understand, with your unassisted reason, that then your peeled and boiled twigs would be of just as much avail, as a basin of well-made water gruel to cure an earthquake.
The stranger had wit enough to perceive that Conrad was making a fool of him; but the peasants, though there were some things that puzzled them, swallowed all these nonsensical stories. Conrad exulted in his superiority, and went on:
— Look you man, if there were no conjurers of this kind, how would all the contraband goods get in, which we find in every part of the world? and this is the reason why the preventive service can do so little, however strict and vigilant they may be. The learning the art indeed must probably cost some trouble; and this no doubt is why so very few seem to reach any mastery in it.
— All that you have been telling me, answered the traveller, is mighty strange; and perhaps the neatest way of winding up our dialogue would be, if I were to affirm that I am one of the masters in this art. However you would immediately require some specimen of my skill; and at that indeed I might boggle a little. Nevertheless be it in earnest or in jest that you have been talking all this while, there is most unquestionably, as no rational being will dispute, a number of incomprehensible and marvellous things in the world.
Conrad, who in the mean time had been regaling himself with some strong beer, and fancied he had gained a complete victory over his unknown antagonist, was irritated by this rejoinder, and the more so because the peasants, who had heard the conversation, were not capable of undertaking the part of arbitrators.
— Heyday! he now exclaimed; you seem to me to be one of those people who have hardly a notion as to what is marvellous or what natural. Have you ever seen spirits with your own eyes, as I have? Have you ever held conversations with goblins, with the little creatures that go into and come out of the mountain-lord's great house there? Have you ever seen metals and precious stones a-growing? or gold and silver trees waving and tossing about, all alive and vegetating?
— Do you believe then, asked the stranger, that stones grow and decay, that metals shoot up and propagate their species? Do you fancy that the beds under the earth sprout up just like a potatoe-field?
— I know nothing about potatoes and all such vermin! cried Conrad in a passion, it being something new to him to have an unknown, and, as it seemed, an insignificant person lord it over him: But that metals and rocks have life and motion in them every body is aware, that they grow up and die away, and that, as there is sunshine and moonshine here above, rain and mist, frost and heat, so there are vapours and blasts there below, which burst in and rush out, and boil invisibly in the dark there, and mould themselves into shape. One of these blasts will curdle into a mist, and then it trickles down, and intermarries with the essences of the hills and of the regions under the earth; and according to the course and form the steam takes then, it begets metals or stones, it quickens into silver or gold, or runs along as iron and copper branching out or cleft asunder in veins that strike far and near.
— What then, are you so far behind all the rest of the world here! asked the stranger with every mark of astonishment. O my good friend, with your leave, ever since the creation, or at all events ever since the deluge, the mountains, and stones, and rocks, and metals, and gems, have been lockt up in their houses and never gadded abroad. We dig and delve in here at top, and hardly get even at deepest below the upper skin of the warts, as the mountains are in comparison to the whole earth, much such a part as a nail-paring is of a man. Wherever we can set foot, we grub up these primeval stores, so far as we need them; and nothing ever shoots forth again, neither coal nor diamond, neither copper nor lead; and your notion of the matter is a mere superstition. In Africa, they tell us a story, people used from time to time to find little grains of gold in a sandpit, which they had to deliver up to the poor black king as his property. With the help of these he would then buy all sorts of things from foreiners. One day going a little deeper they fell in with two good-sized lumps of massy solid gold. The slaves in great delight carried the fruit of their labours to their black master, it being more than they had found for ten years past, and they thought how overjoyed the poor man would be at becoming rich thus all at once. But they were mistaken. The wise old king said: Look ye, my friends, these pieces are the father and mother of that little brood of gold grains which we have constantly been finding for ages: carry them back immediately and set them in the very same place, that they may be able to go on producing fresh ones. Unless you do so, we should get a vast gain for the moment, but should lose a lasting source of profit for ever hereafter. The moor was a goosecap, was not he?
— Very far from it, cried Conrad, growing more and more enraged; he was quite right not to meddle with that which goes on in secret; although we, as miners, cannot see the matter exactly in the same light as he did. Solid masses have grown like the rest of us; and who can say whether they may not enliven and further the shooting and coalescing of the metallic particles round about them?
— I tell you however, replied the stranger, that sprouting and growing, and spreading out into the regions of the air, or in the form of roots underground, are the properties of plants only. Stones rest in themselves; vegetables feed on light and warmth and moisture, and transform the particles of the earth they stand on into means of growth and enlargement. Then animals start off and break loose from the elements; but they move within them, and carry their roots about with them in their entrails.
— No! no! screamed Conrad, still more violently: In this way the whole world, and above all my glorious mountains, with their glittering subterraneous chambers, will be hocus-pocust into mere store-houses, wretcheder ones than if they were made of wood, into miserable wareshops and stalls. What then would the dwarfish sprites, and the mighty mountain-spirit, and all the goblins and elvish imps, and the swarm of gnomes there below have to do? and yet they are always, some of them cleverly, some of them clumsily, putting their hands to the wheel. And the waters! and the vapours! O thou blind and deaf generation, that wilt not see and understand, what is yet much more easily comprehensible than your dead, lifeless world! If life and growth, and the workings by which life is propagated and multiplied, can ever come to a standstill, then in your own realm too, in the places where you fancy you see life, it is a sheer illusion and cheat. The solid earth is alive, but in a different manner; and when it happens to draw in its breath, when the old giant yawns and stretches his tired limbs, and tries to arrange them more comfortably, you are all aghast, and set up a howl about earthquakes, while your walled hovels are running after you for variety's sake, and your towers are tumbling into your pockets and slippers.
— You are a strange man, said the other, and much too hot-headed to listen to reason. Surely we ought to love truth above our puerile prejudices. We do not make nature, but she is already such as she is, spread out before us, for us to watch her ways and learn from her teaching.
— Nature! exclaimed the old miner; that is just another of their stupid words! My mountain has nothing to do with nature; it is my mountain. About that I know everything; of your nature I know nothing at all. Just as if a tailor, who had a coat to make, were to keep on prating about nothing but wool, and merino sheep! To such a pitch have people already brought matters, that they can't look at anything as what it is, but search out some great big generality to which they may tie it and slay it and embowel it. What say you to this? I once talked to a man out of Hungary, a fellow-countryman of yours, but he had his wits more about him; and he told me of a vine, I believe not far from Tokay, which must have stood upon a vein of gold, and in which a stream of gold brancht out and ran through all the wood. He shewed me a bit of this vine, and I could clearly see and distinguish the gleaming of the gold that had grown up with it. He gave me his word that in some of the biggest and juiciest grapes seeds had been found at times which were of pure gold.
— Now only look! rejoined the stranger; Can one wish for more than this? Gold not only grows as a mineral, but even as a plant. However I know a still better story. Once upon a time, when the weather was very damp, a man dropt some ducats in the rocky ground at a short distance from Cremnitz. In spite of every search they were not to be found. They must have fallen down among the stones, and have been buried in the rubbish. What came of it? Some years after, when no human being, not even the owner himself, thought any more of the loss, a strange sort of shrub was seen, which not a soul in the country had over met with. It flowered with wonderful beauty, and then formed a number of little pods. The pods soon after split like the fruit of the winter-cherry; and, when people went to look at it closelier, every skin contained a bright new Cremnitz ducat. Some fifty came to perfection; a good many, that had been nipt by the frost, were mere thin gold leaf. The oddest thing of all was that the ducats were always markt — for they took good care not to root up the beautiful weed — with the date of the year in which they ripened. Of late a wish has been entertained, if it were but possible, to graft a branch of a tree which peradventure might bear doubloons, on this lucrative bush, with a view of ennobling the fruit.
The very peasants laught at this; for they fancied they saw the jest: Conrad, however, though he perceived it, misunderstood it so far that he did not answer a single word, but drunk with beer and rage only lifted up his fist, and thrust it so violently into the storyteller's face, that he instantly tumbled from his stool to the ground, and a stream of blood gusht out from his mouth and nostrils. On getting up again the stranger, though evidently the weaker, wanted to take his revenge; but the peasants rusht in between, and brought about a peace at least for the moment. This was the easier, as some travelling musicians were just come with their instruments into the inn, where Conrad in his drunkenness immediately took them into his pay. Notwithstanding the remonstrances of the host and hostess, he made them first play some songs, then some dances, and gave no ear to those who admonisht and reminded him that the music might be heard up in the great house.
— Why should I trouble myself, he cried, about the old man of the mountain? He may for once let his evil conscience be sung to sleep a little.
He now began dancing, first alone, then with the hostess; and as the noise soon got abroad, several men and girls walkt in, who were glad to take part in this unexpected public ball. When the younger peasants however also stood up, Conrad rusht suddenly upon them, shoved them violently back, and imperiously commanded the musicians to be silent.
— When clod-hoppers and such scum mingle with their betters, he bawled out, one of us must retire from the foul contamination. But this I tell you, the first of you that budges, or even growls, I'll break every bone in his skin.
The peasants, whether alarmed by his drunken fury, or perhaps only unwilling to incense him still more, drew back to their table. Conrad seated himself, after all the victories he had achieved, majestically in his armchair again, and rolled his eyes round with a look of defiance. As nobody uttered a word, he said with a loud voice:
— Look ye, fellow miners, I am one of the oldest men about the works here above; see here, comrades, and ye ragamuffins there, host and peasants I mean, these dollars my prince and lord has gained from our pit.
He threw a handful of silver on the table.
— And old as I am, fellows, I was born and bred here in the mountains, and I never yet crawled down into the vallies and the plain. I can boast (and very few can say as much) I never yet saw any grain in the field, never yet saw corn growing or ripe atop of its pitiful straw. We work in gold and silver, are expert in mysteries and deep lore, hew blocks, amalgamate metals, fuse ores; and the miserable louts there have to go about, as people have told me, hand and glove with rank dung, and to carry the stinking stuff into the fields and spread it out; and therefore I have a right to look upon their foul frocks as scandalous and vile; at all events no miner should ever shake hands with 'em, or drink out of the same mug. I am determined too to die a man of honour, as I have grown old, without ever setting foot under their thatch roofs, or on their threshing-floors; I have preserved myself four and fifty years from this disgrace, and heaven will continue to guard me from it while I live.
Thus he went on prating, till at length he was so stupefied and exhausted that he fell asleep. The peasants, who now felt still sorelier affronted than before, had more than once cast significant looks on their cudgels. With these feelings they listened the more readily to the advice of the stranger, who had been washing himself in the meanwhile, to lift their insolent enemy, as he was fast asleep and seemed quite senseless, upon the top of one of their waggons, and to lay him, when they got to the bottom, in a corn field, that he might find himself there when he awoke from his fit. There was no difficulty in doing this, as the musicians had been paid and were gone, and the landlord was busied in the kitchen.