The Old Man of the Mountain/IV
In the depths of the forest, where the iron forges were at work, and where in the midst of dark rocks by the side of a waterfall the shouts and the hammering of the workmen resounded far and wide in rivalry with the roar of the torrent, Edward the next evening met the inspector of the mines, to talk over some business of importance with him, and to give him some instructions from Herr Balthasar. The fire in the vast furnace glared wildly through the dusk: the brighter glow of the half-molten iron, the myriads of dazzling sparks that spurted up from the anvil beneath the sledges of the sturdy smiths, the dark forms moving through the large boarded shed, into which the trunk of a tree in full leaf had forced its way, overshadowing the bellows in the corner with its branches — this singular night piece attracted all Edward's attention, when loud talking and laughter arose among the workmen. Some one had just been telling them how Conrad, when he was drunk, had been treated by the peasants the day before, and how to his extreme annoyance he had awaked that morning in the midst of a corn field. The story seemed to interest everybody so much, that their work was suffered to stand still for a while.
— It serves him right, cried one of the broad-shouldered journeymen, the vapouring coxcomb! He is the most insufferable and rudest miner in the whole country for miles round; and fancies he knows everything better than his neighbours, and is the cleverest fellow in the world.
— They say he is running about like a madman, and as if the fiend had got hold of him, continued the narrator; for now the very thing of which he has bragged from morning to night, is at an end: he has not only been forced to see corn growing in the field, he has lain in the midst of it.
Edward turned to the speaker and askt:
— Michael, are you quite well again already, that you come out thus into the open air?
— Yes, Sir, answered the smith; thanks to you and our old master. My eye is gone of course; but how many of us have to work with but one! The spark of iron that burnt it out might have been still bigger. It was great pain, to be sure: that could not be otherwise; but with God's help I am become quite stout again after all. Herr Balthasar indeed has also done much toward helping me, and I owe a world of thanks to his care, his kindness, and his charity. And so we do all, everybody that belongs to him.
Another man with one eye chimed in with these praises, and added:
— It will fall out now and then that one or other of us gets maimed in this way; for fire is not a thing to be jested with: but God has blest us in giving us our old master; for even if a fellow were to become stark blind, he would never let him starve or want.
The workmen were gone back to the anvil, and Edward then first observed that Eleazar had come into the hut, and was talking to a stranger. This was the travelling miner, the planner of the disgrace inflicted upon old Conrad, which of all mortifications he could have endured was the bitterest. Eleazar was scolding vehemently, and said it was quite impious to drive an old man by such tricks into a passion, nay to the brink of despair; for he had heard that Conrad was running franticly about the mountains, utterly deaf to all advice and consolation.
The stranger excused and defended himself as well as he could; and as the sledges had now begun hammering again, while the roar of the bellows mingled with that of the waters, the quarrel was lost sound of, and only grew somewhat more audible, when Conrad himself in a fury rusht howling with swollen face and red starting eyes up to the disputants.
— My honour! he screamed, my honour as a noble miner! my glory and my pride! all are gone, irrevocably and for ever! And by a pack of base boors, by a puny, cream-faced, chicken-breasted, outlandish starveling, have I been robbed of it. Amid all the mountains round, and doubtless in many others likewise, there was not a miner nor a mine-surveyor who could boast that he had never in his life been down in the beggarly plain. I awoke in the straw, in the corn, such was the rascals plot to ruin me. The ears were sticking in my nose and eyes when I came to myself, the sorry, brittle, bristly stuff, that I had never yet seen except in the pallet of my bed. Scandal and shame! Murder and house-breaking are not so detestable! and no law against it, no remedy, no mortal skill in the whole wide world.
The others had enough to do to tear the strong old man away from the weakly stranger, on whom he wanted to take personal vengeance.
As Conrad could not get satisfaction in this way, he sat down on the ground in a corner of the hut; and it being a holiday evening, the journeymen lay down round about him, some trying to comfort him, others jeering him.
— Be pacified, said the man with one eye, the whole affair is mere child's play. Had the fire burnt out your eye, had you had to endure unspeakable torments in your brain, and to toss through sleepless feverish nights, then indeed you would have something to complain of. But as it is, the whole matter is a sheer trifle, and all fancy.
— That is your notion! cried Conrad: there never was a fool that could not talk and chatter like one. Your having lost your eye in your vocation is an honour to you, and you may be proud of it, and glory in it. But their sticking me down in the middle of their dung, where I was forced to lie like a tumble-down sheaf, or a truss of hay — it has knockt half a dozen nails into my coffin. Conrad! Conrad! ninnyhammer! sack of straw! so it seemed that everything was shouting in my ears. I have now seen the miserable, dirty ploughed land, in which the scurvy clowns have to breed up their bread. It's so flat down there, you can see nothing, far as eye can reach; and one hears no sledgehammers, no rush of waters, not even a boy pounding. It looks just like the end of the world; and I could never have fancied that the corn country and the plains, where more than half the world have to live, were so utterly mean and despicable.
Thus they went on talking and squabbling, till some one for the sake of starting another subject began telling about the robberies, which their master, the old man of the mountain, was so incomprehensibly allowing to go on, doing next to nothing to find out the offender, although his losses, rich as he might be, must have amounted to very large sums. The stranger miner again spoke of his contrivances for making sure of catching the thief; and Conrad, who recollected the former conversation, shook his fist at him in silence.
Eleazar seemed to enter into these strange schemes, and exulted with vulgar glee at the thought of thus at length getting hold of the rascal. As Edward eyed him in the dusky glare of the hut, and saw his face with its brown and yellow features unsteadily lit by the flickering flames, he thought that this disgusting and to him hateful monster had never lookt so hideous before: a secret shudder crept over him when he thought of Rose, and that this was the confident and bosom friend of a man whom he could not but honour, although his weaknesses and caprices formed so strong a contrast with his virtues.
The smiths listened to the conversation with great earnestness: they believed the stranger; yet every one of them brought forward some superstitious device of his own, in which the speaker himself always put still greater reliance. Edward, in spite of the disgust this gossiping excited in him, was almost unconsciously held fast within the circle. Ghost stories were told; the wild huntsman was talkt of, and several said they had seen him; others had met with mountain sprites and goblins; then they got to forebodings and omens; and the conversation kept on growing livelier, the storytellers more eager, and the hearers more attentive.
— Goblins, said Michael, there are assuredly: for I myself ten years ago was well acquainted with one; and he was a very passable fellow to have to do with. The urchin foretold too in those days that I should lose my right eye about this very time.
— What sort of a chap was that? cried one of his comrades; and why have you never told us this story before?
— When I had got through my apprenticeship, said Michael, at the mountain-town twenty miles from here, and was now come to work at old master Berenger's forge, I used to be plagued at first and quizzed by the other journeymen, as every younker is when he is fresh. When I grew tired of laughing and grumbled, we came to blows; I gave and got my share, as in such cases always must happen. Among the rest there was a grizzly-bearded journeyman who worried and annoyed me most of all, a giant of a fellow, and all along with it so cunning, with such a sharp sting in his tongue, that one could not possibly help being vext, however stedfastly one might have made up ones mind and determined with oneself at morning prayers, not to allow the gall to mount into ones throat. In my distress I often cried with anger; for in the town I had fancied myself a clever fellow, and my unruly tongue had made many a one tremble. One night when I was thoroughly harast and woebegone, I was lying over there on the jutting crag all alone in a little bit of a room — the only other person in the house was a woman as old as the mountains — on the sudden I heard something stirring and scraping near me. I opened the window shutter at my head a little, and as the half moon peept into the room, I saw a tiny creature brushing away at my shoes. Who are you? I askt the mite; for he lookt much like a boy of eleven years old. — Hush! said the little thing, and brusht away busily. I am Silly, the good comrade. — Silly? askt I; he's one whom I know nothing of. — Dame knows him, Ursul knows him, said the little one, and put my shoes on the floor. — Leave my things alone, cried I. — Make 'em clean, dust 'em, brush 'em neat, answered the creature, and set to work at my Sunday hat. — Is this farce never to end? I called out to him; brush your own nose. — He laught, and seemed to have no notion that I had any right to give orders in my own room. Art afraid, he then giggled out, of big Ulric? Need not be afraid. Ask him to morrow, when he sets at you again, where he got the brown fire scar atop of his head over the right eyebrow; he'll soon be meek as a lamb. The creature was gone. I listened; there was nothing. I closed the window shutter again and fell asleep. In the morning it seemed to me as if the whole had been merely a dream. My shoes however were clean, my hat brusht. At length I askt old Ursul about the unknown boy. She was very deaf; and it was long before I could make her understand what I meant. Ah! she at last cried, has the little boy been with thee? Well, well, good betide thee, my tall lad. The tiny thing harms nobody, and brings luck to everyone he takes notice of. I have known him now well-nigh these forty years. He goes round to the houses where he likes the folks, and helps them in their housekeeping, now in one thing, now in another. Cleaning everything is his darling employment. He can't bear dust; dirty sooty pots and other kitchenware are his aversion; and he will often scrub at 'em with all his might. Bright brass vessels, shining copper pans, are things he is quite bewitcht with; pewter plates too he likes very well. Many a time has he brought me a groschen, bright and new, as if it had come from the mint. — But where does the imp live? I cried. — Where does the child live? she said: people choose to call it goblin, or manikin; he himself signs himself Silly; that is his christen-name. But he is a kind good-natured sprite; and so thou must do nothing to hurt him, that he may not fall out with thee. I had heard of such fellows, but before this could never believe in them. In the smithy the baiting began as usual; old Ulric put me quite in a fury; for they had remarkt my soreness, and this made them think it the better sport to badger me. I was just going to dash a redhot iron at the grizzly-bearded lubber's snow-white head, when Silly came across my thoughts. And the brown fire scar up there! I said; you know, Ulric! Thus I cried, without thinking there was anything in it, when on the sudden the old giant became so quiet, timid, and meek, that it made me stare my eyes out. From that moment forward the fierce fellow became my friend. Nay he was so humble in his behaviour to me, that I rose mightily in everybody's opinion, and thenceforth stood near the top of the board. When we grew better acquainted, he told me in confidence that in his youth he had once let himself be misled into engaging in an attempt to steal with the help of a servant maid. He had already crept into the room, supposing that everybody was asleep; but the smith being still awake had rusht against him with a fire brand snatcht up from the hearth; and thus his head and hair had been singed. He fancied that no mortal creature knew the story, of which he was heartily ashamed; and therefore he entreated me by all my hopes of heaven never to tell any one of it; indeed he was unable to make out how I could have learnt the affair. On this point however he was mistaken; for without his own confession I had never known a word of it. After this my life flowed along very peaceably, and the little creature came every now and then, and helpt me in what I had to do. Before long however we quarrelled. He often came upon me so suddenly, so unexpectedly, and many a time when nothing was further from my thoughts, that I was frightened to the very core. Whenever I said a word to him about this, he grew very pettish, and told me, I was an ungrateful fellow, not to acknowledge his manifold services. Now I had heard a little before from an English traveller, that the name of my goblin in his language meant foolish, and that in England such a creature was called Puck, or Robin Goodfellow; and when in the openness of my heart I told all this to my little guest, and at the same time, because he had just frightened me again, wanted to hang a bell about his neck, that I might always hear him when he was coming, the urchin became angry and furious beyond all measure, prophesied that I should lose my eye about this time, and vanisht with a great rumbling. Nor have I ever seen the brat again since.
— Thou prince of all babbling braggarts! cried Conrad, when the story was ended: Can't you open your mouth, man, without lying? and yet you are already come to years. Folks that hold traffic for any time with spirits, grow sharp-witted. The dealings of these creatures are with supernatural out-of-the-way things; and when they pay us a visit, the very terrour they arouse, till one grows used to them a bit, gives one something impressive and dignified.
— More especially, cried Michael somewhat angered, when one has been sleeping a night in a potato field.
— That night, answered Conrad, and that abominable mischance, that foul scandalous deed of a vagabond, will be the death of me; I know it as well as you. I shall not hold out much longer.
— May be so, said the pale stranger; yet you can't tell all this while whether I too may not be one of these goblins, who has been trying to cure you of your follies. To be good friends with you, my rough-spoken, overbearing sir, it was verily requisite that you should have treated me with a little more civility. Wisdom, experience, strength of mind, may often be learnt from those in whom one is the slowest to look for them. If however, my good companions, you would like to know which of you all will die first, I have a way of telling you that in a moment.
They all seated themselves in a circle on benches and stools. The stranger pulled a plated box out of his pocket, while he continued:
— When this little chip which I am going to light is burning, you must pass it quickly from hand to hand, and the person in whose hold it goes out will be the first of us to see the next world.
All lookt at the stranger in anxious expectation. He thrust a little bit of wood down into the box, while he muttered some sounds, and then he drew it out again burning and flickering. Eleazar, who sat next to him, received it, gave it to his neighbour, and thus the match went on spitting sparks from one hand to another. It had finisht the round, and come back to Eleazar, who was very loth to take it, and was hastily passing it on, when on the sudden it flared brightly and then went out between his fingers.
— Stupid stuff! he cried sulkily, as he threw the bit of wood on the ground and jumpt up in a passion; Nothing but empty superstition! And we are so good-natured as to let ourselves be made the tools of such nonsense.
He lookt sharply at the stranger with his glaring eyes, then slapt him on the shoulder, and withdrew with him. Meanwhile the moon had arisen, and was pouring its bright light over the forests and rocks: the party went each his own way, and Edward too bent his steps homeward. As he was walking up the narrow footpath, he heard a warm discussion; it sounded like a quarrel; and when he drew nearer he fancied he distinguisht Eleazar and the stranger. He struck off therefore into another path, partly for the sake of avoiding them and not being forced to return in their company, partly too that he might not have the air of wishing to overhear what they were disputing about; for Eleazar was of a very suspicious temper, and mistrusted everybody, though he took it extremely ill if any one did not place an unlimited confidence in him.
In the house everything was quiet: except that Rose was singing a simple air with a supprest voice, scarce audibly in her remote chamber. Edward was moved by it, and so strongly, that he could not help being surprised at his extreme susceptibility. Before he fell asleep, his melancholy had so increast, that he could hardly refrain from shedding tears.