The Old Man of the Mountain/V
A few days after this Edward observed the stranger coming out of Herr Balthasar's apartment. He wondered what such a person could have had to do there; and, when he entered the old man's room, he found him violently disturbed and enraged.
— Always the same wild irrational feelings, the same superstitious foolery, ruling over mankind! he cried, as Edward came in: That miserable fellow there whom you met flatters himself he shall gain a large sum of money from me, if he can detect our thief by means of some senseless artifice. He won't come back again, the blockhead! for I have at length given vent for once to my feelings. There is nothing in the world so insufferable to me, as when people try, by means of certain phrases fabricated at random, or of certain traditional ceremonies, most of them a misgrowth out of historical blunders, or out of ancient usages which formerly had a very different meaning, to put themselves in connexion with what they call the invisible world, nay fancy, though they deem it an object of terrour, that they can master it thereby. In fact the greater part of mankind are crazed, without choosing to confess it: nay, the very wisdom of thousands is arrant madness.
It seemed as if the worthy old man himself felt ashamed of his passionate vehemence; for he immediately began talking on other subjects. He made Edward sit down by him, and had some breakfast brought, which was quite against his usual custom.
— Thus we shall be able, he then continued, to settle a number of matters this morning, which on other days we may perhaps hardly find leisure for.
The door was again lockt, and the servant was ordered not to interrupt their conversation on any account.
— I feel, Herr Balthasar then began, that I am growing old; I must take thought and provide for the future, as I know not whether I am doomed to die a slow lingering death, or a sudden unforeseen one. If I draw up no settlement of my property, if I die without a will, that spendthrift in my native town, who has made the beloved of my youth so unhappy, will be my next natural heir: and verily it appalls me to think that my large fortune may hereafter be misused to maintain that despicable glutton in his rioting. All my poor people, all the hands now actively employed in this spot, would again pine away and be condemned to beggary and sloth. It is a sacred duty to forestall this. What are your views, my young friend, for your future life?
Edward was a good deal embarrast by this address. Some time back indeed he had formed certain plans, and had even meant to speak to the old man about them, in the hope of profiting by his experience: but since his lovely foster-daughter had appeared to him in so different a light, since he had felt so strongly attracted toward her, he was no longer equally forward and confident. He could not make up his mind whether to declare or conceal his affection; for notwithstanding the familiarity with which Balthasar treated him, by many of the old man's feelings and views he found himself estranged and perplext.
— You are hesitating, said the old man after a while; you have not enough reliance in me, because you do not know me. I look upon it as one of my duties to provide as a father for you: you are honest, sensible, diligent, and kind-hearted; you are perfectly verst in the various branches of my business; and I feel a confidence in you such as I have seldom been able to put in anybody. Your exertions for me and my establishments, your prudence and integrity, everything obliges me, even though I entertained no affection for you, to leave you well and very richly provided, since I have so much to thank you for. But I should be glad to know, and I beg you to be perfectly candid to me, whether you could be prevailed upon by the possession of a large fortune to fix your abode in this country, in this house, or perhaps would prefer settling after my death as a rich man in the neighbouring town, engaging in some other occupation, and marrying, or, it may be, travelling about in search of the home which you may like the best. Tell me your thoughts on this subject now with entire sincerity: since you have a claim, which I will take care shall be a valid one, to a third of my property, I cannot well make my final arrangements till I have learnt your intentions: for my establishments here and up the mountains, my manufactories, machines, mines, and various institutions, I also look upon as my children, and they must not be left orphans at my death.
Edward sank still deeper in thought. Never could he have expected this generosity and fatherly love from the old man; never had it occurred to him that this friend might one day make him rich and independent. This speech had changed the footing on which he stood with Herr Balthasar; he thought he should now be better able to confess boldly what for some days had been busying and disquieting his mind. He led the way by an assurance of his gratitude, saying that what the old man meant to do for him was far too much, that his relations after all had still a title to his affection, and that a great deal less would make him happy and as rich as he could desire.
— I am aware of all that you can urge to me on this score, said the old man interrupting him: these relations of mine, even the scapegrace son and the good-for-nothing father, will be taken care of, so that they shall not have any reasonable ground of complaint. But I know that you have sacrificed the best years of your youth and strength to me. To a gay spirit like yours, to a person of your lively friendly temper, your long residence amid these joyless mountains must have been anything but pleasant. You many years since bade adieu to every sort of merriment and amusement: everything that charms youth, music, dancing, even society, plays, travelling, the literature of the day, you have given up for my sake; because you resolved, as I well markt, and that too very early, to suit yourself entirely to my inclinations. Scarce one man in a thousand could have done this; and you were this one: you have done it too without losing anything of your good nature, and kindly obliging disposition. If therefore you would like to settle elsewhere hereafter and in a totally different line of life, I cannot have the slightest objection to it, nor will it occasion the least curtailment of your fortune. But you must tell me your determination frankly, if you have already made up your mind, or can make it up on the instant: for in case you choose to remain here and carry on my business, I must secure you the means of exerting yourself usefully, by a number of arrangements and explicit incontrovertible injunctions in my will; therefore speak.
Edward replied with emotion:
— Heaven grant you may long remain as a father amongst us! Whether however I am to look on this country as my home or no, depends solely upon you: a word from you, and I can immediately resolve to spend the whole of my life here, even if you should be spared to us many years longer. But if you cannot or will not speak that word, I must sooner or later seek out another home; and I fear that in that case even your noble bequest will fail to procure me that happiness, which I must needs value higher than riches.
— I don't understand you, my young friend, answered Balthasar; your words are a riddle to me.
— Your generosity, continued Edward, and your affectionate benevolence have brought up a poor orphan girl; you have behaved like a father to her; and her fate must therefore be decided by you and none else. Give me that dear maiden, give me Rose for my wife, and I will live and die on this mountain, without a wish beyond it.
The old man's face suddenly darkened and put on an expression which might be called terrific. He started up hastily, walkt several times up and down the room, then sat down again sighing, and began in a bitter tone:
— So! this is it! You are in love! Is it not so? I am doomed again to hear this ill-omened, this calamitous word! I am doomed to witness this frenzy, this dark, heart-rending, heart-sickening absurdity, even in you, in a man of your sense! And all, all that one might otherwise esteem, and look upon as reasonable, is swallowed up in this whirlpool, in which horrour, madness, wild passions, carnal lust, and capricious folly are frothing and boiling all at once. This marriage however, Edward, can never, never be.
— I have said too much, answered Edward calmly, to be satisfied with a bare refusal. Tell me what are your plans for the dear girl, and I shall learn to bear them with resignation.
— And she, the little fool! interposed the old man hastily, has she too tumbled in love with you? Has the luckless word already past to and fro betwixt you?
— No, replied Edward; her pure youth is still hovering in that happy state of simplicity, which only desires that tomorrow may be just like today and yesterday. She has no wishes but the simple ones of a child.
— So much the better, said Balthasar; she will be ready to act rationally then, and will not throw any hinderance in the way of my plan. Surely you, who are tolerably well acquainted with me, ought to have perceived long ago that I had designed the child for Eleazar. I mean her to marry, to live in sober wedlock, not to dream away and dote in what you call love.
— And will she, askt Edward, be happy with him for her husband?
— Happy! cried the old man, bursting into a kind of loud laugh; happy! What is a man to think of when he hears that word? There is no happiness; there is no unhappiness; only pain, which we are to welcome to our arms, only self-contempt, beneath which we must bow our necks, only hopelessness, which we must make the partner of our table and of our bed. Everything else is a lie and a trick. Life is a spectre, before which, whenever I pause to look upon it, I stand shuddering: and nothing but toil and activity, and straining all my faculties, can enable me to endure and to despise it. I could envy the loom and the spinning-jenny, if such a feeling, such a wish had any sense in it: for what is our consciousness but a consciousness of misery? what is our existence but an unveiling of the madness, the frenzy of all life? to which we either abandon ourselves in chill patience, or weep and struggle against it convulsively, or play through a caricature of happiness and joy, while in our dreary heart we are fully aware that it is all a wanton lie.
— Neither then must I ask you, continued Edward quietly and sorrowfully, whether you love Eleazar as a friend, whether he is truly worthy of friendship and esteem; for all freedom of will, every movement of feeling is crusht by these dark thoughts.
— As if I had not felt, said Balthasar, and wept and laught, like other men. The difference is only, that I soon stript truth naked, and that I acknowledged and felt my own baseness, and that of all mankind, of the world, and everything in it. Eleazar! he and you! If we are to make use of such words, my friend, I love you; all the fibres of my heart twine fast around you; awake and in my dreams you stand before me: your being miserable might reduce me to despair. And this raw-boned, loathsome Eleazar! If I am to give a name to this folly of my nature, I hate him; he is quite nauseous to me, whenever he stands before my eye or before my imagination: the bile which has tainted his eyes and face, his squinting glances, the twitches of his nose when he is speaking, while his long teeth stare out as if he were grinning, his shrugging up his shoulders at every word, whereby his odious snuff-coloured coat is every moment dragged upward and lays bare the skinny bones of his wrists, all this, his way of drawing in his breath, his hissing voice, is so revolting to my bodily senses, and always excites my wrath so strongly, so painfully, that no other created being ever gave me the same torment; and for this very reason, because there is so much I have to make amends to him for, because heaven and nature have so utterly neglected him, must he become my chief heir, my son. Besides he has long known of it, and is pleased with the prospect of this union.
— I only half understand you, answered Edward: you are fighting against your own feelings, you are wilfully putting yourself on the rack. I am not arguing now against your promise, since you have already given it to that man: but why do you cling to this image of life, that harasses and tortures you? Why not open your mind to those joyous feelings, to those sunny thoughts, which lie just as near, nay nearer?
— As you please, said the old man, for you, but not for me. Day after day has taught me that very few men really live. Most of them are in a state of ceaseless dissipation: nay what they call thought and reflexion is itself the very same thing, a mere attempt to raise a mist around the nature and inborn feelings of their hearts, and to keep themselves from discerning them. And arrogance starts up, the consciousness of their dignity and strength goads and spurs them on, till they rave with ungovernable pride. This too I have known in my youth, and outlived it. Then I loved, as I deemed. How clear and rosy-hued, how bright and smiling the world lay before me! My heart too was as it were bathed in pure ether, blue, boundless, with sweet hope, like morning clouds, floating and scattering freshness through it. And the primary stock of this love, what is it? Silliness, animal passion, which intertwines itself with our seemingly tender feelings, which tricks itself out with blossoms, and then eats canker-like into them, to make them too shed their leaves, to trample that, which it called heavenly, in the mire, and — far worse than the comparatively innocent beasts of the field, that are driven by a blind instinct without anything of volition — to deface and spoil everything which but now it worshipt as holy. From this conflagration then shoot forth ever and anon those disastrous sparks, which again grow into children, and again awaken to the consciousness of woe, if not of sin. And so the wheel goes evermore round and round, through a measureless viewless eternity. And the charm, the beauty of the world! the fresh bloom of its appearances! Is not everything here again grounded upon that which nature teaches me to loathe and abhor? It is perhaps by this feeling alone, as an invisible inward prompter, that I understand what people mean by beauty. This, wheresoever it is found, in flower or tree, in human being, animal, or plant, takes its rise always out of filth and abominations. The lily and the rose falls to pieces in your hand, your touch withers it, and it leaves only rottenness behind: the youth's, the virgin's beauty and loveliness — look at it without any self-imposed illusion, without the brutish sting of the senses — is horrour and putridity and everything we revolt from! a few hours of death, a corpse dug out of its tomb, make this woe manifest to all. And I myself! what is there within me but death? a ghost and a skeleton! the stench of my own corpse haunts me; and in all my feelings there is madness, in all my thoughts despair.
— Cannot religion then, replied Edward, cannot philosophy, cannot the sight of the happiness you spread around you, lighten this gloomy mood, this melancholy, which is wasting your life away?
— Alas, my dear good friend, continued the old man, I assure you that all I have read of those christian anchorets and self-tormentors, who out of overheated zeal transformed their life into a never-ending martyrdom, for the sake of stifling every impulse and thought save the highest of all, is less, far less, than what I have practist on myself since I became conscious of the cheerlessness of my existence. I too had once found a home for my whole soul in those regions in which the faithful feel the presence and the love of the deity, full of confidence and a blessed serenity. My spirit was transfigured; all my feelings were purified; my whole nature seemed as it were unfolding itself in a single blossom; all within me was bliss and calm; and in this heavenly tranquillity there was a sweet impulse to new contemplations, a ravishing excitement to plunge yet deeper into the flood of joy. And what was the end of it?
— Pray go on, said Edward.
— I discovered — thus the old man after a pause resumed his speech — that here too sensuality, delusion, and folly, had again made me their captive. Those voluptuous tears which I often shed in my seemingly fervent devotion, which I took for the purest gush from my heart, even they sprang only out of sensuality and a state of bodily intoxication. My animal impulses had put on the mask of spirit; and the deliciousness of those tears soon seduced me into endeavouring to stir up such emotions artificially, into abusing this mysterious close relation to infinite love as a stimulus of the most refined sensual excitement, which I then extinguisht in a rapture of tears. I was appalled by this lie in my soul, when I detected and could no more deny it; and the fearfullest desolation of despair, the dismallest solitude of death closed round me again, when the deception had been broken, and the vision would no more descend among the apish toys of my imagination. When after this I wisht to pursue my inquiries beneath the light of truth, horrour itself met me in the very spot where but now, like a scene-painting, my rapture had been standing. I no longer felt doubt, for even in this there is still joy; I had no certainty, for even in the most terrible there is life; but the dead blank of the uttermost indifference, a barren enmity to everything holy, a scorn of all emotion, as being sheer foppishness and silliness, lay like a large field of snow in the wildernesses of my soul. Soul! spirit!: thus I often cried to myself laughing, and even now I cannot refrain from laughter. Can there be anything else? And if this be so, in what does spirit differ from matter? where is the party wall between life and death? In the spectral phantom of life, in the sphinx-born riddle of being, in that terrific fiat out of which the worlds sprang forth, to roll convulsively onward and evermore onward, till they can drop back into rest and nothingness — in this all contradictions and contrarieties are mixt up and confounded, to petrify into an indissoluble curse.
Edward was silent at first for a while: then not without emotion he spake the following words:
— I cannot understand what you say except in part; for the bent of your thoughts and feelings I am an utter stranger to. Whatever sorrows I have undergone, whatever unprofitable or cheerless meditations I have indulged in, still I have never strayed into these deserts, which lie, it would seem, at the horizon of all such as abandon themselves with too passionate intensity to captious inquiries. I have heard and read of strong minds, who in the recklessness of passion, or in the extravagancies of love, strove to burst the bolts of nature and of life, in order to become one with the universe and to possess it. Despair, self-loathing, hatred of God, have often been the doom and the unhappy lot of men thus under the mastery of their impulses. We feel no doubt that reason is not absolutely sufficient to reveal all that we wish to understand, to reconcile all that we wish to see in harmony with the workings of the deity. But it may be dangerous to seek for help in the regions of our feelings and imagination, to give ear to our visionary forebodings. They try to set up their own supremacy, and may easily fall out with reason, though at the outset they seem to uphold her. If they gain their aim, and this noble mediatorial power, which seated in the centre of all our spiritual powers, irradiating and swaying them, first converts them into true powers, is overthrown and cast into chains by them, then each of our higher impulses begets a giant as its son, that will war against God. For doubt, wit, unbelief, and scoffing are not the only faculties that fight against God: our imagination, our feelings, our enthusiasm do the same, though at first they seem to supply faith with so safe and mysterious an asylum. Consequently, my dear, my honoured friend, since our life is surrounded on all sides by these dizzying precipices, and every path, whatever course it takes, leads to them, what remains for us to do, except to trust with a certain kind of light-heartedness, which perhaps is also one among the noblest powers of our nature, with cheerfulness, gaiety, and humility, in the existence and the love of that infinite inexhaustible love, of that supreme wisdom, which puts on every shape, and can weave into its woof even what to us seems worthless and incongruous? so as to bear our life safely and easily, to take pleasure in our task-work, and to be happy, which we cannot else be, in the midst of affluence itself, making others happy as far as we are able. Is not this too piety and religion? I for my part have never met with them under any other form.
— All this might be so, answered the old man breaking off the discussion, if the root of life sprang out of love.
— Does not every flower tell us so? cried Edward, every smile of a child, the meek thankful eye of the sufferer whom we relieve, the glance of the bride——
He stopt short suddenly; for Rose's bright childly glance beamed at these words with all its might through his soul. When he lookt up again, he was greatly surprised to see his old friend's eyes wet with tears.
— Edward, said he greatly moved, you shall know all. Rose is no adopted child; she is my own daughter, my own blood. Alas! this again is another deplorable story of human weakness and vanity. While I was living here alone, a young beautiful girl came as a maid-servant into my house. Her parents were exceedingly poor, but she had been well and religiously brought up. She was honest and virtuous. She was so fond of solitude that, when she had done her work, she used to withdraw from all society, especially from that of the young. In a very singular manner she attacht herself to me; her devotion or love had almost a superstitious character. She revered me, wretch as I am, like a supernatural being. Never yet had my passions been moved by any girl, and least of all were they so by her, beautiful as she was: I was an old man, and fancied I loved her like a father, and thought of looking out a husband for her. How it happened, I should not be able to tell you; everything might seem so untrue. She became pregnant. I had already long felt dismay at my own weakness and meanness. Shame, despair, dread of the world, waged war within my soul, and made me their recreant slave. I sent her away in my distress, provided for her, richly, prodigally; but my heart was turned to stone. Grief, sadness, doubts in herself and in God, bitter mortification that she had forfeited my love, or was unworthy of it, while she burst into fearful accusations against herself, as the most innocent are the readiest to do, snapt the thread of her life. Had I seduced her? Did I not really love her? No, a miserable seducer I was not; but I had not the courage to acknowledge my sin, and to reward the love of her innocent heart. And thus I was a base wretch. She died, and I regarded myself with still more hopeless scorn. The poor creature's parents, whom I placed in comfortable circumstances, blest me, old villain as I was, for not punishing their daughter's shame, and for bringing up her child in my house. This child, this fair girl, whom I love, beyond perhaps what is allowable — for her happiness is my thought day and night — will now perchance also be sacrificed to woe; for a destiny stronger than I constrains me to give her to Eleazar as his wife. Go now to him; he is to be my son-in-law; tell him the wedding will take place in a week; and if you cannot stay with me afterward, my dearest Edward, whom I also love as my own son, the fortune I designed for you shall be paid to you ... and we too shall never meet again. Go now.
He sobbed so violently that he could not say more; and Edward went away in a most strange state of feeling, to look for Eleazar, who lived in a house by himself lower down in a narrow valley, carrying on his favorite pursuits there.