The Old Man of the Mountain/VIII
It was with a very heavy heart that Edward went to his old master. The whole destiny of mankind lay darkly and with a crushing weight upon his breast. Anguishing was the conviction he felt, that in the very sweetest and purest innocence all the roots of evil and sin were already lurking, and that there needed only chance and caprice to foster their growth, for them to put forth their calamitous fruits. His situation was so completely changed, his chief wish was that the house which had so long been his home, the country he was become so fond of, were but far behind him, that gradually and with a steady hand he might eraze all the recollections of the time he had spent there. He was resolved that at all events he would not be a witness of the disasters to which, he was persuaded, the dark spirits brooding there must infallibly give birth; that he would not stay to behold them; for he did not feel sure of being so firm, that his own passion and frailty might not lend a hand in bringing down the impending ruin. Heartily as at this moment he abhorred such a thought, he yet knew full well from observation and experience that no man is always the same, and that even the best are not braced with the same strength at all hours: he knew how the sophistry of our passions will come athwart all our good feelings and resolves, and that the more secure they feel the more easily it trips them up and overthrows them.
He found the old man in a serious mood, but without the agitation he had feared.
— Come and shake hands with me, cried Balthasar as he entered, although you choose to leave me. How I shall support your absence I cannot yet conceive, anymore than I should know how I could live without light and warmth: but nevertheless I shall be forced to learn this lesson, if nothing can alter or upset your determination.
— My fatherly friend, Edward began, can you then persist in your determination, which to me is so utterly incomprehensible? Is it quite impossible for you to consent to what alone will make me happy, and assuredly will make your daughter so too?
— I had hoped, my dear friend, answered the old man very mildly, you would not have toucht on this string again, which thrills far too painfully through my whole frame. Pray convince yourself that this long-formed resolution, which you if you please may term a whim, I cannot possibly revoke; it is much too firmly intertwined with my whole being. What we do from conviction as we call it, from pondering about a matter and balancing it first in one scale and then in the other, over and over again, is seldom worth much. Whatever is permanent, characteristic, genuine in our nature, is instinct, prejudice, call it superstition; a conclusion without question or inquiry, an act because one cannot help it. Such is this of mine! You may look upon it as a vow, a solemn oath which I have sworn to myself, and which I cannot violate without the most atrocious perjury against my own heart. I owe my poor good Eleazar much amends for having let my soul entertain and cherish disgust, bitterness, and aversion toward him for so many years. And as to the happiness of the pair — on this point my opinion is just the reverse of yours. He is wise, sensible, virtuous; he is happy already, and will keep so, whether he marry or not. It is an act of condescension in a person of his grave character to take up with my daughter. A man who has got the philosopher's stone can never be harmed by any of earth's paltry troubles. And my Rose! O my dear friend, the truly dreadful thing would be, if I were to give her to you to wife: this being, this child, that I cannot help loving so dearly, that I fold up with remorse and sorrow in my heart, would go to wreck like others amid the pleasures of the world, in self-will and frivolity, in dissipation and recklessness. You would indulge her out of love in all sorts of follies, and so make her and yourself miserable. No, it cannot be on any terms; and you yourself will thank me hereafter for my reasonable refusal. And now not a word more, dearest Edward, on this subject: let us come to your other request, which I can safely promise to grant you.
Edward began, with a cheerless spirit, to reckon up the damage his master had sustained from the robberies that were carried on in such an inexplicable manner, and urged the absolute necessity that, before he left the country, effective measures should at length be taken to get some trace of the thief. The old man wanted to break off the discussion; but Edward reminded him of his promise. Above all was Balthasar averse to a proposal made by his young friend, to set a spring-gun secretly in the warehouse, whereby the audacious robber might at length be caught and punisht. The old man regarded such a measure as impious, unlawful, and nearly akin to wilful murder.
Edward tried to refute these notions, and at last said:
— You owe it to yourself and to me to adopt this plan, which I too am far from approving unconditionally, but which in the present instance is the only remedy. I need not again state the amount of the sums which have been stolen from you time after time during the last three years and more; they would make a large fortune, so large a one that many a wealthy man would have been ruined by such losses. It is your unaccountable indifference that has thus emboldened the thief, who, it is clear, must be accurately acquainted with all our goings on. Whenever a watch has been set, nothing has happened. But as soon as we were off our guard again, no bolts, no bars however strong, no precautions however well-judged, availed us. William, and many other persons equally innocent, we have eyed with misdoubt. You cannot deny it; your suspicion must needs have lighted on everybody about you in turn. How can a heart so noble as yours hold fellowship with such a hateful feeling as to imagine now and then, for moments, that those on whom you bestow your friendship and esteem, may be capable of the most scandalous baseness? You are guilty of the most glaring injustice to hundreds of honest and honorable men, for the sake of screening a single villain with an indulgence which I cannot but call weakness, and a weakness under these circumstances quite unpardonable. In a few days I shall leave you. It is possible that the thief may not find any favorable opportunities hereafter, that another overseer may be more successful, that he may induce you to take stronger measures, and so to intimidate the offender: the robberies may cease: may not malicious persons, may not the offender himself perhaps, to secure himself against all chance of detection, and to frustrate every inquiry, spread a rumour that I am the heinous thief? Nay, might not such a report carry with it a very great show of probability, since assuredly no one could have got at your goods with so little risk as I? What will it profit me when far away, though you endeavour to vindicate me and to silence such a calumny? Will not your unwonted lenity, your present preposterous supineness, make the detestable rumour wear a look of the utmost speciousness, nay, of irrefragable truth? How, by what means, shall I then be able to clear myself? And, my loved, my honoured friend, who do nothing but good to mankind, and think nothing but evil of them, may not the same suspicion start up even in you, and strike deep root in the dark places of your soul, and by little and little grow into a conviction that I am the person?
Balthasar gazed at him, and walkt several times silently up and down the room. He was evidently struggling with himself, and seemed totally lost in thought.
— You are not mistaken, he said after a long pause; or rather you are perfectly right. You know my notions about wealth and property. I look on them with terrour. It seemed to me to be quite right, and to be a kind of slight amends to destiny for my incomprehensible luck, that what was flowing in so abundantly upon me from every side should at least have one outlet by which a part of it might run off. At times I have fancied that such a person or such another was thus making his fortune, who wanted it, and in a manner deserved it by his cleverness and sagacity in getting it. I took up a superstitious resolution to remain purposely in the dark, that I might not dissipate this strange dream and be deprived of this vague feeling. It gave me pain that I had to misdoubt so many of my people, nay all of them; but at the same time it was a pleasure that I could not feel certain about any. Yes, my friend, you too, you too have I wronged. You now know me pretty well, and I entreat your forgiveness. I have oftentimes thought in secret, without however feeling the least anger against you: Well, he is taking beforehand what he has richly earned, by labour, by sleepless nights, by diligence of every kind ... he cannot know for certain whether death may not snatch me away suddenly ... peradventure he has some poor relations ... he may wish to marry and set up with a handsome establishment ... he may perhaps have the same notions about property as I myself. This has been the main ground of my lenity and weakness, as you call it; more especially when after the removal of William and several other doubtful characters all still went on just as before. Even your great anxiety, Edward, your indignation, even this turned my surmises against you. I have said to myself: Why does he talk so much about it, and make such a piece of work? I have given him the fullest powers in the matter: did he really take it so much to heart, he would have got hold of some clew long ago in one way or other by craft or by force. I could not possibly do otherwise than approve of whatever steps he took for my good.
An overpowering pain seized on Edward during this speech; he felt on the point of fainting. With a look of utter despondency he threw himself into a chair, hid his face with his hands, and bent it down upon the table, till at length a flood of tears that streamed from his burning eyes, and a loud fit of convulsive sobbing a little relieved his heart, which seemed about to break.
The old man was astonisht to see so great and unlookt for an effect produced by a speech which he had uttered with perfect calmness, and even with kindliness. He endeavoured to comfort and pacify his young friend, lifted up his head, and wiped the tears from his face, which still stared at him with an expression of the deepest grief and despair. He embraced him, he sought after words to heal the wound he had inflicted, to lull the storm he had called up.
— O my heavens! he at length cried, when he saw that all his efforts were in vain, what shall I do? Edward! I did not really mean any ill. I only think of others what I believe of myself. I love thee in truth, young man, above anybody I have ever known; thou art to me as a son: hence my perverse supineness under my unjust suspicions: thou must forgive me all, all, dearest Edward. I will do everything, everything you ask of me.
When Edward at length was somewhat recovered, he said with a broken voice, which was often checkt by violent sobs:
— No, no, noblest, most upright of mankind, never, never could you have sunk down into a miserable thief! No want, not even hunger and nakedness, no opportunity however tempting, could have degraded your lofty mind so low. You only say it to quiet me. O heavens! this man, who treated me with the warmest affection and with unbounded confidence, who placed large sums in my hands, without ever inquiring about them, that I might become the dispenser of his bounty in feeding the hungry and taking care of the sick, this same friend could at the very same time deem me capable of such infamous wickedness. Observe now, observe what a dangerous thing it is, to admit such dark spirits and phantoms into ones soul, from which in time they utterly drive out all truth and love, and strength and faith. O thou bright pure form of Truth! O thou spotless beauty of Virtue! How changed does this man seem to me since that calamitous word, how changed am I myself! how fearfully, how dismally has the relation between us changed! It seems to me as though the very belief in the possibility of anything like what this man has believed possible of me, had cast a shade of vice and depravity over my whole life: for this noble being has hitherto been the mirror of my own worth, by looking at which I became conscious of my own well-meaning and integrity. Can everything, everything in our heart be thus transformed in a single moment? Yes, my dear, my fatherly friend, I shall evermore honour and love you; I admire you while I mourn over you; but even without any further cause this conversation would have parted us; this alone, without regard to my happiness or unhappiness, must drive me from you into the wide world.
— So then we are now finally severed, said the old man very sorrowfully, by destiny, not by my fault. One may master everything, except ones own innermost self. Suspicion in me is not that bad thing into which your overstrained sense of honour, such as I never saw in any man before, converts it by the meaning you assign to it. But, my dearest friend, without whom my life will long be a mere blank, you will stay at least a few days, until you can take away the papers that will secure your fortune to you. For this compensation you must accept from me as from a father, unless you would quite overwhelm me with shame.
They embraced, and the old man gave Edward an unlimited permission to take whatever steps he thought proper for the sake of detecting and punishing the thief. Edward had regained his self-possession; and the old man was all kindness and gentleness. They talkt about other affairs; and Edward took some accountbooks under his arm to look over and correct.
— Embrace me once more with all your heart, said the old man, and forgive me too with all your heart.
Edward turned back, and after embracing him said:
— My dearest friend, what have I to forgive you for, thinking as you do? It is not the right word. What I have just endured I can never forget; and this shock will thrill through me to the latest day of my life. The human heart and soul, man and God, seem to have become totally different in my eyes since that terrific flash of lightning. Thinking as you do too, you cannot be angry with me, if I now say half in jest, that, had you not allowed me to take my measures, I might have fancied after I was gone that you had been thus ingeniously and cunningly robbing yourself, who knows with what subtle views, perchance for the very sake of throwing suspicion on some one or other.
— You are not altogether in the wrong, said Balthasar.
Edward was again standing at the door.
— Wait another moment, young man! cried his master.
Edward once more turned back. But when he drew nearer to the old man, he was astonisht to find how totally his countenance and the expression of his eyes were changed. A quick firy glance was sparkling restlessly upon him.
— You are fully convinced, I well know, the old man began, of the truths of the Christian religion; you read your bible diligently and devoutly. You also believe in the historical parts of it, and regard the whole as an actual revelation: the rational, and allegorical, and learned philological interpretations do not satisfy your mind. Is it not so? you are a true Christian with all your heart and soul.
— Certainly, answered Edward.
— The story, continued the old man, how the Saviour was tempted in the wilderness by the Evil One, is not in your opinion a parable, or an allegory, or mythical legend, without any substance? but you believe that this event actually befell Jesus Christ, the Son of God, along with the various circumstances and questions and answers recorded?
— What are you aiming at? askt Edward hesitatingly after a pause. Yes, I believe this story like a sincere and orthodox Christian.
— Well! the old man went on, while his pale closed lips wrinkled into a strange smile: I have a double aim, though I should hardly need to say more, if you had ever thought deeply about this incident. In the first place, if our Saviour himself had to bear such things, if it was possible for him to be suspected though but by the Evil One, surely you might forgive me with all your heart, if with half or a quarter of mine I have now and then half misdoubted you. Meseems, this mysterious, marvellous story with its fathomless, untold meanings does not downrightly condemn my views of human nature. They are not mere spectres that have taken possession of my soul, unless indeed they belong to one and the same family with spirits. In the second place, do your eyes see much meaning in this wondrous story, if the success of the temptation was totally and absolutely impossible? Now then what say you? appalling are the feelings that seize on one of us, and you too cannot escape them, when all this is brought home to the heart and mind. There is still a third remark that I would close with: what would have become of the world and of mankind, of heaven and earth, if the tempter had won the day? if love had faltered and been beguiled? O young man, the doors are not closed in every place where we see them put to. You fancy you have made out everything, when you have hardly counted up to five. I too believed, I too inquired, was absorbed in love and devotion, beheld love in my own soul and in the souls of my brethren, and this is the very delusion the breaking up of which snap my heart and life asunder, never, never to revive and reunite. Cast away your pride in your feelings, think not to soar on the wings of your imagination; but crawl along the ground like worms, and eat dust; for that is what befits you.
The old man squeezed Edward's hand, and then with a bitter smile, and a sudden laugh that scared him, tore himself away. For a while Edward continued fixt in a stupour, and when at length he lifted up his eyes, Balthasar was again immerst in deep thought, and standing at his writing table with the gloomy suffering look which he usually wore. Edward felt as if he was leaving a dying man when he went away, and shut the heavy oaken door slowly and carefully after him.