The Old Man of the Mountain/VI
Eleazar was sitting in a loose flame-coloured bed-gown before a small furnace with a still. The room was but dimly lighted; the curtains had been let halfway down, and the lower panes were blockt up with large books. Everything was in the utmost disorder, so that Edward could scarcely find a place to sit down in. Vials and retorts, crucibles, pans, hooks, cylinders, and all sorts of chemical instruments were standing and lying about. A strange vapour from the fire filled the room. With a surly air Eleazar put down the bellows, and came out of his corner. He only half heard what Edward had to tell him, and said at length with his croaking voice:
— In a week? so soon? I shall never have finisht my great work by that time. Could not the old fellow wait patiently for another month or two? Why the silly child has not even a notion yet what marriage means.
Edward was utterly disgusted with these peevish words, and with the heartless ingratitude displayed in them. He called to mind how much Balthasar had been saying to him about madness as the real groundwork and substance of life; and it seemed to him as if this were actually the foundation on which both father and son-in-law were about to erect their melancholy dwelling. The fate of the innocent girl cut him to the heart.
— Only lay your request before our master, he said indignantly, and no doubt he will allow you to enjoy your freedom some time longer. If you were to be very pressing, perchance he might even give up the plan of the marriage altogether; for it seems to me, you have no very mighty anxiety about Rose's hand.
— Softly! said Eleazar, throwing off his bed-gown and putting on his coat very much at his ease; softly! He seated himself again before the furnace, and tasted the liquour while he clarified it: Be it so; for then his fortune will all keep together, and thus I shall be able at length to carry on my operations on a grand scale. But the old man will never listen to what anybody says; what he has once determined and pronounced must be fulfilled, though reason itself were to go to the bottom. Still this should not annoy me a jot, unless that outlandish raggamuffin had put me out of all patience, and made my choler boil over. One ought to have the right of knocking such mischievous scoundrels on the head.
— What is the matter with you? askt Edward somewhat surprised.
— Have you already forgotten that miserable vagabond, continued Eleazar with a ferocious look, who played off his stupid trick upon us the other day at the forge? I am to die soon. This was the only thing wanting to set all our affairs in the most dismal confusion. But here, here at this furnace, I have it already preparing, the only sure safeguard against all such idle fears; and as I have succeeded with the help of wisdom in turning unsightly things into gold, so I shall not fail in producing that elixir for which so many mighty minds have heretofore sought and laboured, and often in vain.
Edward went nearer to him.
— In truth, he exclaimed, you amaze me. You talk about these mysterious matters with such a careless security, as I have never yet met with; and it perplexes me the more since my reason tells me that your pursuit is a mere chimera, and the discovery of such an art a fable.
— Reason! cried the little man, drawing up his withered face into numberless wrinkles. This reason methinks is the true chimera, and never spawned anything but fables. Take these gold bars, which I cast in this form yesterday, after extracting the metal last week from some lead: there lies a touchstone; scratch it; and then tell me whether it is not true genuine gold.
Edward took up the bars, put them to the test, and found them genuine.
— You must either fancy, continued the alchemist, that I begin by getting a heap of ducats, and then melt them down like a fool, or else you cannot have another word to say. Will you keep these two bars as a remembrance? I make you a present of them.
Edward lookt at the stunted figure with astonishment, then laid down the bars on the table again, and said:
— No, I won't rob you; the present would be much too valuable. But you should not let these vast treasures lie about here at random thus mixt up with all the rest of your things: it is holding out a lure to thieves and robbers.
— Nobody will look for gold in my house, answered the other, busying himself again at his furnace: nobody will recognize gold under this ungainly form. Besides there are means after all for keeping off thieves and house-breakers, which none of you have ever yet dreamt of. If however you still doubt me, bring me a dollar next time, make a secret mark on it, and I will give it you back turned into gold. But the matter must not go further. And then you will no longer question my chance of discovering the elixir of life. Only I should like to punish that beggarly vagrant, that rascally herb-culler, and pitiful conjuror, as he deserves. Let him only come for once into my quarters! With all his contemptible jugglery, I would astound him! I am so enraged with the fellow, the blood runs into my head at the very thought of him.
— How, interposed Edward, came that paltry jest to make so deep an impression upon you?
— Jest! screamed Eleazar; Heavens! is it a jest that I have ever since been a prey all over to these hellish tortures, this ghastly fear of death? My own skeleton, my own rotting carcase is standing perpetually before my eyes. Old Conrad too over yonder has fallen sick, and is bewailing the loss of his reputation. Such a knave as this stranger is just as bad as a murderer: nay worse: for he pours the poison down ones throat in the midst of a large party without himself risking life or limb.
He jumpt up.
— Hark you! he cried and threw his arms round Edward: Yes! the old man is right; the wedding must be very soon, as soon as possible, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, to make all safe. I can go on discovering my life-preserving elixir after the marriage: can't I? One shall not die all at once in a moment, friend Ned; flesh and bone still keep pretty tightly together.
He laught so loud that he shook with it, and the writhings of his face squeezed the tears out of his goggle eyes. Edward who had never yet seen the sullen creature laugh, shuddered at the sight. When the old man grew calmer, he told him that he could not possibly now communicate this wish of his to Herr Balthasar; and that the affair would probably proceed in the way already settled. He felt glad, when he had left the room and house behind him, and could again breathe in the open air. His determination to quit the place was stronger than ever; he even resolved, if it would hasten his journey, to forgo the great reward which Herr Balthasar intended for him.