The day, as may be supposed, is looked forward to with no small amount of anxiety; very clean and tidy are the little shoes placed by the young expectants; and their parents—who have threatened and promised in St. Nicholas's name for a year past—take care that, with one sort of present or the other, the shoes are well filled. The great question—rods or sweetmeats—is, however, finally settled for each individual before breakfast-time on the great day; and before dinner, despite maternal warnings, most of the said sweetmeats have been consumed. And so it came to pass that Friedrich and his brothers and sisters had hit upon a plan for ending the day, with the same spirit and enjoyment with which it opened.
The mother, by a little kind manoeuvring, generally induced the father to sup and take his evening pipe with a neighbour, for the tradesman was one of those whose presence is rather a "wet blanket" upon all innocent folly and fun. Then she good-naturedly took herself off to household matters, and the children were left in undisturbed possession of the stove, round which they gathered with the book, and the game commenced. Each in turn read whichever poem he preferred; and the reader for the time being, was wrapt in a huge hood and cloak, kept for the purpose, and was called the "Maerchen-Frau," or Story Woman. Sometimes the song had a chorus, which all the children sang to whichever suited best of the thousand airs that are always floating in German brains. Sometimes, if the ballad was a favourite one, the others would take part in any verses that contained a dialogue. This was generally the case with some verses in the pet ballad of Bluebeard, at that exciting point where Sister Anne is looking from the castle window. First the Maerchen-Frau read in a sonorous voice—
"Schwester Aennchen, siehst du nichts?" (Sister Anne, do you see nothing?)
Then the others replied for Anne—
"Staeubchen fliegen, Graeschen wehen." (A little dust flies, a little grass waves.)
Again the Maerchen-Frau—
"Aennchen, laesst sich sonst nichts sehen?" (Little Anne, is there nothing else to be seen?)
And the unsatisfactory reply—
"Schwesterchen, sonst seh' ich nichts!" (Little sister, I see nothing else!)
After this the Maerchen-Frau finished the ballad alone, and the conclusion was received with shouts of applause and laughter, that would have considerably astonished the good father, could he have heard them, and that did sometimes oblige the mother to call order from the loft above, just for propriety's sake; for, in truth, the good woman loved to hear them, and often hummed in with a chorus to herself as she turned over the clothes among which she was busy.
At last, however, after having been for years the crowning enjoyment of St. Nicholas's Day, the credit of the Maerchen-Frau was doomed to fade. The last reading had been rather a failure, not because the old ballad-book was supplanted by a new one, or because the children had outgrown its histories; perhaps—though they did not acknowledge it—Friedrich was in some degree to blame.
His increasing knowledge, the long readings in the bookseller's shop, which his brothers and sisters neither shared nor knew of, had given him a feeling of contempt for the one book on which they feasted from year to year; and his part, as Maerchen-Frau, had been on this occasion more remarkable for yawns than for anything else. The effect of this failure was not confined to that day. Whenever the book was brought out, there was the same feeling that the magic of it was gone, and very greatly were the poor children disquieted by the fact.
At last, one summer's day, in the year of which we are writing, one of the boys was struck, as he fancied, by a brilliant idea; and as brilliant ideas on any subject are precious, he lost no time in summoning a council of his brothers and sisters in the garden. It was a half-holiday, and they soon came trooping round the great linden tree—where the bees were already in full possession—and the youngest girl, who was but six years old, bore the book hugged fast in her two arms.
The boy opened the case—as lawyers say—by describing the loss of interest in their book since the last Feast of St. Nicholas. "This did not," he said, "arise from any want of love to the stories themselves, but from the fact of their knowing them so well. Whatever ballad the Maerchen-Frau chose, every line of it was so familiar to each one of them that it seemed folly to repeat it. In these circumstances it was evident that the greatest compliment they could pay the stories was to forget them, and he had a plan for attaining this desirable end. Let them deny themselves now for their future pleasure; let them put away the Maerchen-Frau till next St. Nicholas's Day, and, in the meantime, let each of them do his best to forget as much of it as he possibly could." The speaker ceased, and in the silence the bees above droned as if in answer, and then the children below shouted applause until the garden rang.
But now came the question, where was the Maerchen-Frau to be put? and for this the suggestive brother had also an idea. He had found certain bricks in the thick old garden wall which were loose, and when taken out there was a hole which was quite the thing for their purpose. Let them wrap the book carefully up, put it in the hole, and replace the bricks. This was his proposal, and he sat down. The bees droned above, the children shouted below, and the proposal was carried amid general satisfaction. "So be it," said the suggestor, in conclusion. "It is now finally decided. The Maerchen-Frau is to be walled up."
And walled up she was forthwith, but not without a parting embrace from each of her judges, and possibly some slight latent faith in the suggestion of one of the party that perhaps St. Nicholas would put a new inside and new stories into her before next December.
"I don't think I should like a new inside, though," doubted the child before mentioned, with a shake of her tiny plaits, "or new stories either."
As this quaint little Fraeulein went into the house she met Friedrich, who came from the bookseller's.
"Friedrich," said she, in a solemn voice, "we have walled up the 'Maerchen-Frau.'"
"Have you, Schwesterchen?"
This was Friedrich's answer; but it may safely be stated that, if any one had asked him what it was his sister had told him, he would have been utterly unable to reply.
He had been to the bookseller's!
The summer passed, and the children kept faithfully to their resolve. The little sister sometimes sat by the wall and comforted the Maerchen-Frau inside, with promises of coming out soon; but not a brick was touched. There was something pathetic in the children's voluntary renouncement of their one toy. The father was too absent and the mother too busy, to notice its loss; Marie missed it and made inquiries of the children, but she was implored to be silent, and discreetly held her tongue. Winter drew on, and for some time a change was visible in the manners of one of the children; he seemed restless and uncomfortable, as if something preyed upon his mind. At last he was induced to unburden himself to the others, when it was discovered that he couldn't forget the poems in "Maerchen-Frau." This was the grievance.
"It seems as if I did it on purpose," groaned he in self-indignation. "The nearer the time comes, and the more I try to forget, the clearer I remember them everyone. You know my pet is Bluebeard; well, I thought I would forget that altogether, every word: and then when my turn came to be Maerchen-Frau I would take it for my piece. And now, of all the rest, this is just the one that runs in my head. It is quite as if I did it on purpose."
Involuntarily the company—who appeared to have forgotten it as little as he—struck up in a merry tune—
"Blaubart war ein reicher Mann," etc.[A]
"Oh, don't!" groaned the victim. "That's just how it goes in my head all along, especially the verse—
"Stark war seines Koerpers Ban, Feurig waren seine Blicke, Aber ach!—ein Missgeschicke!— Aber ach! sein Bart war blau."[B]
"On Sunday, when the preacher gave out the text, I was looking at him, and it came so strongly into my head that I nearly said it out loud—'But ah! his beard was blue!' To-day the schoolmaster asked me a question about Solomon. I could remember nothing but 'Ah! his beard was blue!' I have tried this week with all my might; and the harder I try, the better I remember every word. It is dreadful."
[Footnote A: "Bluebeard was a rich man."]
"Strong was the build of his body, Fiery were his glances, But ah!—disaster!— But ah! his beard was blue."]
It was dreadful; but he was somewhat comforted to learn that the memories of his brothers and sisters were as perverse as his own. Those ballads were not to be easily forgotten. They refused to give up their hold on the minds they had nourished and amused so long.
One and all the children were really distressed, with the exception of Friedrich, who had, as usual, given about half his attention to the subject in hand; and who now sat absently humming to himself the account of Bluebeard's position and character, as set forth in Gotter's ballad.
The others came to the conclusion that there was but one hope left—that St. Nicholas might have put some new ballads into the old book—and one and all they made for the hiding-place, followed at a feebler pace by the little Fraeulein, who ran with her lips tightly shut, her hands clenched, and her eyes wide open with a mixture of fear and expectation. The bricks were removed, the book unwrapped, but alas! everything was the same, even to the rough woodcut of Bluebeard himself, in the act of sharpening his scimitar. There was no change, except that the volume was rather the worse for damp. It was thrown down with a murmur of disappointment, but seized immediately by the little Fraeulein, who flung herself upon it in a passion of tears and embraces. Hers was the only faithful affection; the charm of the Maerchen-Frau was gone.
They were all out of humour with this, and naturally looked about for some one to find fault with. Friedrich was at hand, and so they fell upon him and reproached him for his want of sympathy with their vexation. The boy awoke from a brown study, and began to defend himself:—"He was very sorry," he said; "but he couldn't see the use of making such a great fuss about a few old ballads, that after all were nothing so very wonderful."
This was flat heresy, and he was indignantly desired to say where any were to be got like them—where even one might be found, when St. Nicholas could not provide them? Friedrich was even less respectful to the idea of St. Nicholas, and said something which, translated into English, would look very like the word humbug. This was no answer to the question "where were they to get a ballad?" and a fresh storm came upon his head; whereupon being much goaded, and in a mixture of vanity and vexation of spirit, he let out the fact that "he thought he could write one almost as good himself."
This turned the current of affairs. The children had an instinctive belief in Friedrich's talents, to which their elders had not attained. The faith of childhood is great; and they saw no reason why he should not be able to do as he said, and so forthwith began to pet and coax him as unmercifully as they had scolded five minutes before.
"Beloved Friedrich; dear little brother! Do write one for us. We know thou canst!"
"I cannot," said Friedrich. "It is all nonsense. I was only joking."
"It is not nonsense; we know thou canst! Dear Fritz—just to please us!"
"Do!" said another. "It was only yesterday the mother was saying, 'Friedrich can do nothing useful!' But when thou hast written a poem thou wilt have done more than any one in the house—ay, or in the town. And when thou hast written one poem thou wilt write more, and be like Hans Sachs, and the Twelve Wise Masters thou hast told us of so often."
Friedrich had read many of the verses of the Cobbler Poet, but the name of Hans Sachs awakened no thought in his mind. He had heard nothing of that speech but one sentence, and it decided him.
Friedrich can do nothing useful. "I will see what I can do," he said, and walked hastily away. Down the garden, out into the road, away to the mill, where he could stand by the roaring water and talk aloud without being heard.
"Friedrich can do nothing useful. Yes, I will write a ballad."
He went home, got together some scraps of paper, and commenced.
In half-a-dozen days he began as many ballads, and tore them up one and all. He beat his brains for plots, and was satisfied with none. He had a fair maiden, a cruel father, a wicked sister, a handsome knight, and a castle on the Rhine; and so plunged into a love story with a moonlight meeting, an escape on horseback, pursuit, capture, despair, suicide, and a ghostly apparition that floated over the river, and wrung her hands under the castle window. It seems impossible for an author to do more for his heroine than take her out of the world, and bring her back again; but our poet was not content. He had not come himself to the sentiment of life, and felt a rough boyish disgust at the maundering griefs of his hero and heroine, who, moreover, were unpleasantly like every other hero and heroine that he had ever read of under similar circumstances; and if there was one thing more than another that Friedrich was determined to be, it was to be original.
He had no half hopes. With the dauntlessness of young ambition, he determined to do his very best, and that that best should be better than anything that ever had been done by any one.
Having failed with the sentimental, he tried to write something funny. Surely such child's tales as Bluebeard, Cinderella, etc., were easy enough to write. He would make a Kindeslied—a child's song. But he was mistaken; to write a new nursery ballad was the hardest task of all. Time after time he struggled; and, at last, one day when he had written and destroyed a longer effort than usual, he went to bed in hopeless despair.
His disappointment mingled with his dreams. He dreamt that he was in the bookseller's shop hunting among the shelves for some scraps of paper on which he had written. He could not find them, he thought, but came across the Petrarch volumes in their beautiful binding. He opened one and saw—not a word of that fair-looking Italian, but—his own ballad that he could not write, written and printed in good German character with his name on the title-page. He took it in his hands and went out of the shop, and as he did so it seemed to him, in his dream, that he had become a man. He dreamt that as he came down the steps, the people in the street gathered round him and cheered and shouted. The women held up their children to look at him; he was a Great Man! He thought that he turned back into the shop and went up to the counter. There sat the smiling little bookseller as natural as life, who smiled and bowed to him, as Friedrich had a hundred times seen him bow and smile to the bearded men who came in to purchase.
"How many have you sold of this?" said Friedrich, in his dream.
"Forty thousand!" with another smile and bow.
Forty thousand! It seemed to him that all the world must have read it. This was Fame.
He went out of the shop, through the shouting market-place, and home, where his father led him in and offered pipes and a mug of ale, as if he were the Burgomaster. He sat down, and when his mother came in, rose to embrace her, and, doing so, knocked down the mug. Crash! it went on the floor with a loud noise, which woke him up; and then he found himself in bed, and that he had thrown over the mug of water which he had put by his bedside to drink during the thirsty feverish hours that he lay awake.
He was not a great man, but a child.
He had not written a ballad, but broken a mug.
"Friedrich can do nothing useful."
He buried his face, and wept bitterly.
In time, his tears were dried, and as it was very early he lay awake and beat his brains. He had added nothing to his former character but the breaking of a piece of crockery. Something must be done. No more funny ballads now. He would write something terrible—miserable; something that should make other people weep as he had wept. He was in a very tragic humour indeed. He would have a hero who should go into the world to seek his fortune, and come back to find his lady-love in a nunnery; but that was an old story. Well, he would turn it the other way, and put the hero into a monastery; but that wasn't new. Then he would shut both of them up, and not let them meet again till one was a monk and the other a nun, which would be grievous enough in all reason; but this was the oldest of all. Friedrich gave up love stories on the spot. It was clearly not his forte.
Then he thought he would have a large family of brothers and sisters, and kill them all by a plague. But, besides the want of further incident, this idea did not seem to him sufficiently sad. Either from its unreality, or from their better faith, the idea of death does not possess the same gloom for the young that it does for those older minds that have a juster sense of the value of human life, and are, perhaps, more heavily bound in the chains of human interests.
No; the plague story might be pathetic, but it was not miserable—not miserable enough at any rate for Friedrich.
In truth, he felt at last that every misfortune that he could invent was lost in the depths of the real sorrow which oppressed his own life, and out of this knowledge came an idea for his ballad. What a fool never to have thought of it before!
He would write the history—the miserable bitter history—of a great man born to a small way of life, whose merits should raise him from his low estate to a deserved and glorious fame; who should toil, and strive, and struggle, and when his hopes and prayers seemed to be at last fulfilled, and the reward of his labours at hand, should awake and find that it was a dream; that he was no nearer to Fame than ever, and that he might never reach it. Here was enough sorrow for a tragedy. The ballad should be written now.
The next day. Friedrich plunged into the bookseller's shop.
"Well, now, what is it?" smiled the comfortable little bookseller.
"I want some paper, please," gasped Friedrich; "a good big bit if I may have it, and, if you please, I must go now. I will come and clean out the shop for you at the end of the week, but I am very busy to-day."
"The condition of the shop," said the little bookseller, grandiloquently, with a wave of his hand, "yields to more important matters; namely, to thy condition, my child, which is not of the best. Thou art as white as this sheet of paper, to which thou art heartily welcome. I am silent, but not ignorant. Thou wouldst be a writer, but art not yet a philosopher, my Friedrich. Thou art not fast-set on thy philosophic equilibrium. Thou hast knocked down three books and a stool since thou hast come in the shop. Be calm, my child: consider that even if truly also the fast-bound-eternally-immutable-condition of everlastingly-varying-circumstance—"
But by this time Friedrich was at home.
How he got through the next three days he never knew. He stumbled in and out of the house with the awkwardness of an idiot, and was so stupid in school that nothing but his previous good character saved him from a flogging. The day before the Feast of St. Nicholas (which was a holiday) the schoolmaster dismissed him with the severe inquiry, if he meant to be a dunce all his life? and Friedrich went home with two sentences ringing in his head—
"Do I mean to be a dunce all my life?"
"Friedrich can do nothing useful."
To-night the ballad must be finished.
He contrived to sit up beyond his usual hour, and escaped notice by crouching behind a large linen chest, and there wrote and wrote till his heart beat and his head felt as if it would split in pieces. At last, the careful mother discovered that Friedrich had not bid her good-night, and he was brought out of his hiding-place and sent to bed.
He took a light and went softly up the ladder into the loft, and, to his great satisfaction, found the others asleep. He said his prayers, and got into bed, but he did not put out the light; he put a box behind it to prevent its being seen, and drew out his paper and wrote. The ballad was done, but he must make a fair copy for the Maerchen-Frau; and very hard work it was, in his feverish excited state, to write out a thing that was finished. He worked resolutely, however, and at last completed it with trembling hands, and pushed it under his pillow.
Then he sat up in bed, and looked round him.
Time passed, and still he sat shivering and clasping his knees, and the reason he sat so was—because he dared not lie down.
The work was done, and the overstrained mind, no longer occupied, filled with ghastly fears and fancies. He did not dare to put out the light, and yet its faint glimmer only made the darkness more horrible. He did not dare to look behind him, though he knew that there was nothing there. He trembled at the scratching sound in the wainscot, though he knew that it was only mice. A sudden light on the window, and a distant chorus, did not make his heart beat less wildly from being nothing more alarming than two or three noisy students going home with torches. Then his light took the matter into its own hands, and first flared up with a suddenness that almost made Friedrich jump out of his skin, and then left him in total darkness. He could endure no longer, and, scrambling out of bed, crossed the floor to where the warm light came up the steps of the ladder from the room beneath. There our hero crouched without daring to move, and comforted himself with the sounds of life below. But it was very wearying, and yet he dared not go back. A neighbour had "dropped in," and he could see figures passing to and fro across the kitchen.
At last his sister passed, with the light shining on her golden plaits, and he risked a low murmur of "Marie! Marie!"
She stopped an instant, and then passed on; but after a few minutes, she returned, and came up the ladder with her finger on her lips to enjoin silence. He needed no caution, being instinctively aware that if one parental duty could be more obvious than another to the tradesman, it would be that of crushing such folly as Friedrich was displaying by timely severity. The boy crept back to bed, and Marie came after him.
There are unheroic moments in the lives of the greatest of men, and though when the head is strong and clear, and there is plenty of light and good company, it is highly satisfactory and proper to smile condescension upon female inanity, there are times when it is not unpleasant to be at the mercy of kind arms that pity without asking a reason, and in whose presence one may be foolish without shame. And it is not ill, perhaps, for some of us, whose acutely strung minds go up with every discovery, and down with every doubt, if we have some humble comforter (whether woman or man) on whose face a faithful spirit has set the seal of peace—a face which in its very steadfastness is "as the face of an angel."
Such a face looked down upon Friedrich, before which fancied horrors fled; and he wound his arms round Marie's neck, and laid down his head, and was comfortable, if not sublime.
After a dozen or so of purposeless kisses, she spoke—
"What is it, my beloved?"
"I—I don't think I can get to sleep," said the poet.
Marie abstained from commenting on this remark, and Friedrich was silent and comfortable. So comfortable that, though he despised her opinion on such matters he asked it in a low whisper—"Marie, dost thou not think it would be the very best thing in the world to be a great man? To labour and labour for it, and be a great man at last?"
Marie's answer was as low, but quite decided—
"Why not, Marie?"
"It is very nice to be great, and I should love to see thee a great man, Friedrich, very well indeed, but the very best thing of all is to be good. Great men are not always happy ones, though when they are good also it is very glorious, and makes one think of the words of the poor heathen in Lycaonia—'The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men.' But if ever thou art a great man, little brother, it will be the good and not the great things of thy life that will bring thee peace. Nay, rather, neither thy goodness nor thy greatness, but the mercy of GOD!"
And in this opinion Marie was obstinately fixed, and Friedrich argued no more.
"I think I shall do now," said the hero at last; "I thank thee very much, Marie."
She kissed him anew, and bade GOD bless him, and wished him good-night, and went down the ladder till her golden plaits caught again the glow of the warm kitchen, and Friedrich lost sight of her tall figure and fair face, and was alone once more.
He was better, but still he could not sleep. Wearied and vexed, he lay staring into the darkness till he heard steps upon the ladder, and became the involuntary witness of—the true St. Nicholas.
It was the mother, with a basket in her hand, and Friedrich watched her as she approached the place where all the shoes were laid out, his among them.
The children were by no means immaculate or in any way greatly superior to other families, but the mother was tender-hearted, and had a poor memory for sins that were past, and Friedrich saw her fill one shoe after another with cakes and sweetmeats. At last she came to his, and then she stopped. He lifted up his head, and an indefinable fury surged in his heart. He had been very tiresome since the ballad was begun; was she going to put rods into his shoes only? His! He could have borne anything but this. Meanwhile, she was fumbling in the basket; and, at last, pulled out—not a rod, but—a paper of cakes of another kind, to which Friedrich was particularly attached, and with these she lined the shoes thickly, and filled them up with sweetmeats, and passed on.
"Oh, mother! mother! Far, far too kind!" The awkwardness and stupidity of yesterday, and of many yesterdays, smote him to the heart, and roused once more the only too ready tears. But he did not cry long, he had a happy feeling of community with his brothers and sisters in getting more than they any of them deserved; to have seen the St. Nicholas's proceedings had diverted his mind from gloomy fancies, and altogether, with a comfortable sensation of cakes and kindness, he fell asleep smiling, and slept soundly and well.
The next day he threw his arms round his mother, and said that the cakes were "so nice."
"But I don't deserve them," he added.
"Thou'lt mend," said she kindly. "And no doubt the Saint knew that thou hadst eaten but half a dinner for a week past, and brought those cakes to tempt thee; so eat them all, my child; for, doubtless, there are plenty more where they come from."
"I am very much obliged to whoever did think of it," said Friedrich.
"And plenty more there are," said the good woman to Marie afterwards, as they were dishing the dinner. "Luise Jansen's shop is full of them. But, bless the boy! he's too clever for anything. There's no playing St. Nicholas with him."
The day went by at last, and the evening came on. The tradesman went off of himself to see if he could meet with the Burgomaster, and the children became rabid in their impatience for Friedrich's ballad.
He would not read it himself, so Marie was pressed into the service, and crowned with the hood and cloak, and elected Maerchen-Frau.
The author himself sat in an arm-chair, with a face as white and miserable as if he were ordered for execution. He formed a painful contrast to his ruddy brothers and sisters; and it would seem as if he had begun already to experience the truth of Marie's assertion, that "great men are not always happy ones."
The ballad was put into the Maerchen-Frau's hands, and she was told that Friedrich had written it. She gave a quick glance at it, and asked if he had really invented it all. The children repeated the fact, which was a pleasant but not a surprising one to them, and Marie began.
The young poet had evidently a good ear, for the verses were easy and musical, and the metre more than tolerably correct; and as the hero of the ballad worked harder and harder, and got higher and higher, the children clapped their hands, and discovered that it was "quite like Friedrich."
Why, when that hero was almost at the height of fortune, and the others gloried in his success, did the foolish author bury his face upon his arms, and sob silently but bitterly in sympathy?—moreover, with such a heavy and absorbing grief that he did not hear it, when Marie stopped for an instant and then went on again, or know that steps had come behind his chair, and that his father and the Burgomaster were in the room.
The Maerchen-Frau went on; the hero awoke from his unreal happiness to his real fate, and bewailed in verse after verse the heavy weights of birth, and poverty, and circumstance, that kept him from the heights of fame. The ballad was ended.
Then a voice fell on Friedrich's ear, which nearly took away his breath. It was his father's asking sternly, "What is all this?"
And then he knew that Marie was standing up, with a strange emotion on her face, and he heard her say—
"It is a poem that Friedrich has written. He has written it all himself. Every word. And he is but twelve years old!" She was pointing to him, or, perhaps, the Burgomaster might not have recognized in that huddled miserable figure the genius of the family.
His was the next voice, and what he said Friedrich could hardly remember; the last sentences only he clearly understood.
"GOD has not blessed me with children, neighbour. My wife, as well as I, would be ashamed if such genius were lost for want of a little money. Give the child to me. He shall have a liberal education, and will be a great man."
"I shall not," said the tradesman, "stand in the way of his interests or your commands. I cannot tell what to say to your kindness, Burgomaster. GOD willing, I hope he will be a credit to the town."
"GOD willing, he will be a credit to his country," said the Burgomaster.
The words rang in Friedrich's ears over and over again, like the changes of bells. They danced before his eyes as if he saw them in a book. They were written in his heart as if "graven with an iron pen and lead in the rock for ever."
"GOD willing, I hope he will be a credit to the town."
"GOD willing, he will be a credit to his country."
"He shall have a liberal education, and will be a GREAT MAN."
Friedrich tried to stand on his feet and thank the Burgomaster; who, on any other occasion, might have been tempted to suppose him an idiot, so white and distorted was the child's face, struggling through tears and smiles. He could not utter a word; a mist began to come before his eyes, through which the Burgomaster's head seemed to bob up and down, and then his father's, and his mother's, and Marie's, with a look of pity on her face. He tried to tell her that he was now a great man and felt quite happy; but, unfortunately, was only able to burst into tears, and then to burst out laughing, and then a sharp pain shot through his head, and he remembered no more.
* * * * *
Friedrich had a dim consciousness of coming round after this, and being put to bed; then he fell asleep, and slept heavily. When he woke Marie was sitting by his side, and it was dark. The mother had gone downstairs, she said, and she had taken her place. Friedrich lay silent for a bit; at last he said,
"I am very happy, Marie."
"I am very glad, dearest."
"Dost thou think father will let the Burgomaster give me a good education, Marie?"
"Yes, dear, I am sure he will."
"It is very kind," said Friedrich, thoughtfully; "for I know he wants me for the business. But I will help him some day. And, Marie, I will be a good man, and when I am very rich I will give great alms to the poor."
"Thou wilt be a good man before thou art a rich one, I trust," said his dogmatic sister. "We are accepted in that we have, and not in that we have not. Thou hast great talent, and wilt give it to the Lord, whether He make thee rich or no. Wilt thou not, dearest?"
"What dost thou mean, Marie? Am I never to write anything but hymns?"
"No, no, I do not mean that," she said. "I am very ignorant and cannot rightly explain it to thee, little brother. But genius is a great and perilous gift; and, oh, Friedrich! Friedrich! promise me just this:—that thou wilt never, never write anything against the faith or the teaching of the Saviour, and that thou wilt never use the graces of poetry to cover the hideousness of any of those sins which it is the work of a lifetime to see justly, and to fight against manfully. Promise me just this."
"Oh, Marie! to think that I could be so wicked!"
"No! no!" she said, covering him with kisses. "I know thou wilt be good and great, and we shall all be proud of our little brother. GOD give thee the pen of a ready writer, and grace to use it to His glory!"
"I will," he said, "GOD help me! and I will write beautiful hymns for thee, Marie, that when I am dead shall be sung in the churches. They shall be like that Evening Hymn we sing so often. Sing it now, my sister!"
Marie cleared her throat, and in a low voice, that steadied and grew louder and sweeter till it filled the house and died away among the rafters, sang the beautiful hymn that begins—
"Herr, Dein Auge geht nicht unter, wenn es bei uns Abend wird;" (Lord! Thine eye does not go down, when it is evening with us.)
The boy lay drinking it in with that full enjoyment of simple vocal music which is so innate in the German character; and as he lay, he hummed his accustomed part in it, and the mother at work below caught up the song involuntarily, and sang at her work; and Marie's clear voice breaking through the wooden walls of the house, was heard by a passer in the street, who struck in with the bass of the familiar hymn, and went his way. Before it was ended, Friedrich was sleeping peacefully once more.
But Marie sat by the stove till the watchman in the quaint old street told the hour of midnight, when (with the childish custom taught her by the old schoolmaster long ago) she folded her hands, and murmured,
"Nisi Dominus urbem custodiat, frustra vigilat custos." (Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.)
And then she slept also.
The snow fell softly on the roof, and on the walls of the old church outside, and on the pavement of the street of the poet's native town, and the night passed and the day came.
There is little more to tell, for that night was the last night of his sorrowful humble childhood, and that day was the first day of his fame.
* * * * *
The Duke of —— was an enlightened and generous man, and a munificent patron of the Arts and Sciences, and of literary and scientific men. He was not exactly a genius, but he was highly accomplished. He wrote a little, and played a little, and drew a little; and with fortune to befriend him, as a natural consequence he published a little, and composed a little, and framed his pictures.
But what was better and more remarkable than this, was the generous spirit in which he loved and admired those who did great things in the particular directions in which he did a little. He bought good pictures while he painted bad ones; and those writers, musicians, and artists who could say but little for his performances, had every reason to talk loudly of his liberality. He was the special admirer of talent born in obscurity; and at the time of which we are writing (many years after the events related above), the favourite "lion" in the literary clique he had gathered round him in his palace, was a certain poet—the son of a small tradesman in a small town, who had been educated by the kindness of the Burgomaster (long dead), and who now had made Germany to ring with his fame; who had visited the Courts of Europe, and received compliments from Royalty, whose plays were acted in the theatres, whose poems stood on the shelves of the booksellers, who was a great man—Friedrich!
It was a lovely evening, and the Duke, leaning on the arm of his favourite, walked up and down a terrace. The Duke was (as usual) in the best possible humour. The poet (as was not uncommon) was just in the slightest degree inclined to be in a bad one. They had been reading a critique on his poems. It was praise, it is true, but the praise was not judiciously administered, and the poet was aggrieved. He rather felt (as authors are not unapt to feel) that a poet who could write such poems should have critics created with express capabilities for understanding him. But the good Duke was in his most cheery and amiable mood, and quite bent upon smoothing his ruffled lion into the same condition.
"What impossible creatures you geniuses are to please!" he said. "Tell me, my friend, has there ever been, since you first began your career, a bit of homage or approbation that has really pleased you?"
"Oh, yes!" said the poet, in a tone that sounded like Oh, no!
"I don't believe it," said the Duke. "Come, now, could you, if you were asked, describe the happiest and proudest hour of your life?"
A new expression came into the poet's eyes, and lighted up his gaunt intellectual face. Some old memories awoke within him, and it is doubtful if he saw the landscape at which he was gazing. But the Duke was not quick, though kind; he thought that Friedrich had not heard him, and repeated the question.
"Yes," said the poet. "Yes, indeed I could."
"Well, then, let me guess," said the Duke, facetiously. (He fancied that he was bringing his crusty genius into capital condition.) "Was it when your great tragedy of 'Boadicea' was first performed in Berlin, and the theatre rose like one man to offer homage, and the gods sent thunder? I wish they had ever treated my humble efforts with as much favour. Was it then?"
"Was it when his Imperial Majesty the Emperor of —— was pleased to present you with a gold snuff-box set with diamonds, and to express his opinion that your historical plays were incomparably among the finest productions of poetic genius?"
"His Imperial Majesty," said Friedrich, "is a brave soldier; but, a—hem!—an indifferent critic. I do not take snuff, and his Imperial Majesty does not read poetry. The interview was gratifying, but that was not the occasion. No!"
"Was it when you were staying with Dr. Kranz at G——, and the students made that great supper for you, and escorted your carriage both ways with a procession of torches?"
"Poor boys!" said the poet, laughing; "it was very kind, and they could ill afford it. But they would have drunk quite as much wine for any one who would have taken the inside out of the University clock, or burnt the Principal's wig, as they did for me. It was a very unsteady procession that brought me home, I assure you. The way they poked the torches in each other's faces left one student, as I heard, with no less than eight duels on his hands. And, oh! the manner in which they howled my most pathetic love songs! No! no!"
The Duke laughed heartily.
"Is it any of the various occasions on which the fair ladies of Germany have testified their admiration by offerings of sympathy and handiwork?"
"No!" roared the poet.
"Are you quite sure?" said the Duke, slyly. "I have heard of comforters, and slippers, and bouquets, and locks of hair, besides a dozen of warm stockings knit by the fair hands of ——"
"Spare me!" groaned Friedrich, in mock indignation. "Am I a pet preacher, that I should be smothered in female absurdities? I have hair that would stuff a sofa, comforters that would protect a regiment in Siberia, slippers, stockings ——. I shall sell them, I shall burn them. I would send them back, but the ladies send nothing but their Christian names, and to identify Luise, and Gretchen, and Catherine, and Bettina, is beyond my powers. No!"
When they had ceased laughing the Duke continued his catechism.
"Was it when the great poet G—— (your only rival) paid that handsome compliment to your verses on ——"
"No!" interrupted the poet. "A thousand times no! The great poet praised the verses you allude to simply to cover his depreciation of my 'Captive Queen,' which is among my best efforts, but too much in his own style. How Germany can worship his bombastic —— but that's nothing! No."
"Was it when you passed accidentally through the streets of Dresden, and the crowd discovered you, and carried you to the hotel on its shoulders?"
The momentary frown passed from Friedrich's face, and he laughed again.
"And when the men who carried me twisted my leg so that I couldn't walk for a fortnight, to say nothing of the headache I endured from bowing to the populace like a Chinese mandarin? No!"
"Is it any triumph you have enjoyed in any other country in Europe?"
"My dear genius, I can guess no more; what, in the name of Fortune, was this happy occasion—this life triumph?"
"It is a long story, your highness, and entertaining to no one but myself."
"You do me injustice," said the Duke. "A long story from you is too good to be lost. Sit down, and favour me."
A patron's wishes are not to be neglected; and somewhat unwillingly the poet at last sat down, and told the story of his Ballad and of St. Nicholas's Day, as it has been told here. The fountain of tears is drier in middle age than in childhood, but he was not unmoved as he concluded.
"Every circumstance of that evening," he said, "is as fresh in my remembrance now as it was then, and will be till I die. It is a joy, a triumph, and a satisfaction that will never fade. The words that roused me from despair, that promised knowledge to my ignorance and fame to my humble condition, have power now to make my heart beat, and to bring hopeful tears into eyes that should have dried with age—
"GOD willing, he will be a credit to the town."
"GOD willing, he will be a credit to his country."
"He shall have a liberal education, and will be a great man."
"It is as good as a poem," said the delighted Duke. "I shall tell the company to-night that I am the most fortunate man in Germany. I have heard your unpublished poem. By the bye, Poet, is that ballad published?"
"No, and never will be. It shall never know less kindly criticism than it received then."
"And are you really in earnest? Was this indeed the happiest triumph your talents have ever earned?"
"It was," said Friedrich. "The first blast on the trumpet of Fame is the sweetest. Afterwards, we find it out of tune."
"Your parents are dead, I think?"
"They are, and so is my youngest sister."
"And what of Marie?"
"She married—a man who, I think, is in no way worthy of her. Not a bad, but a stupid man, with strong Bible convictions on the subject of marital authority. She is such an angel in his house as he can never understand in this world."
"Do you ever see her?"
"Sometimes, when I want a rest. I went to see her not long ago, and found her just the same as ever. I sat at her feet, and laid my head in her lap, and tried to be a child again. I bade her tell me the history of Bluebeard, and strove to forget that I had ever lost the childish simplicity which she has kept so well;—and I almost succeeded. I had forgotten that the great poet was jealous of my 'Captive Queen,' and told myself it would be a grand thing to be like him. I thought I should like to see a live Emperor. But just when the delusion was perfect, there was a row in the street. The people had found me out, and I must show myself at the window. The spell was broken. I have not tried it again."
They were on the steps of the palace.
"Your story has entertained and touched me beyond measure," said the Duke. "But something is wanting. It does not (as they say) 'end well.' I fear you are not happy."
"I am content," said Friedrich. "Yes, I am happy. I never could be a child again, even if it pleased GOD to restore to me the circumstances of my childhood. It is best as it is, but I have learnt the truth of what Marie told me. It is the good, and not the great things of my life that bring me peace; or rather, neither one nor the other, but the undeserved mercies of my GOD!"
* * * * *
For those who desire to know more of the poet's life than has been told, this is added. He did not live to be very old. A painful disease (the result of mental toil), borne through many years, ended his life almost in its prime. He retained his faculties till the last, and bore protracted suffering with a heroism and endurance which he had not always displayed in smaller trials. The medical men pronounced, on the authority of a post-mortem examination, that he must for years have suffered a silent martyrdom. Truly, his bodily sufferings (when known at last) might well excuse many weaknesses and much moody, irritable impatience; especially when it is remembered that the mental sufferings of intellectual men are generally great in proportion to their gifts, and (when clogged with nerves and body that are ever urged beyond their strength) that they often mock the pride of humanity by leaving but little space between the genius and the madman.
Another fact was not known till he had died—his charity. Then it was discovered how much kindness he had exercised in secret, and that three poor widows had been fed daily from his table during all the best years of his prosperity. Before his death he arranged all his affairs, even to the disposal of his worn-out body.
"My country has been gracious to me," he said, "and, if it cares, may dispose of my carcase as it will. But I desire that after my death my heart may be taken from my body and buried at the feet of my father and my mother in the churchyard of my native town. At their feet," he added, with some of the old imperiousness—"strong in death." "At their feet, remember!"
In one of the largest cities of Germany, a huge marble monument is erected to the memory of the Great Man. On three sides of the pedestal are bas-relief designs illustrating some of his works, whereby three fellow-countrymen added to their fame; and on the fourth is a fine inscription in Latin, setting forth his talents, and his virtues, and the honours conferred on him, and stating in conclusion (on the authority of his eulogizer) that his works have gained for him immortality.
In a quiet green churchyard, near a quiet little town, under the shadow of the quaint old church, a little cross marks the graves of a tradesman and of his wife who lived and laboured in their generation, and are at rest. Near them, daisies grow above the dust of the "Fraeulein," which awaits the resurrection from the dead. And at the feet of that simple couple lies the heart of their great son—a heart which the sickness of earthly hope and the fever of earthly ambition shall disturb no more.
By the Poet's own desire, "the rude memorial" that marks the spot contains no more than his initials, and a few words in his native tongue to mark the foundation of the only ambition that he could feel in death—
"Ich verlasse mich auf Gottes Guete immer und ewiglich."
—My trust is in the tender mercy of GOD for ever and ever.
A BIT OF GREEN.
"Thou oughtest, therefore, to call to mind the more heavy sufferings of others, that so thou mayest the easier bear thy own very small troubles."—THE IMITATION OF CHRIST.
Children who live always with grass and flowers at their feet, and a clear sky overhead, can have no real idea of the charm that country sights and sounds have for those whose home is in a dirty, busy, manufacturing town—just such a town, in fact, as I lived in when I was a boy, which is more than twenty years ago.
My father was a doctor, with a very large, if not what is called a "genteel," practice, and we lived in a comfortable house in a broad street. I was born and bred there; and, ever since I could remember, the last sound that soothed my ears at night, and the first to which I awoke in the morning, was the eternal rumbling and rattling of the carts and carriages as they passed over the rough stones. I never noticed if I heard them in the day-time, but at night my chief amusement, as I lay in bed, was to guess by the sound of the wheels what sort of vehicle was passing.
"That light sharp rattle is a cab," I thought. "What a noise it makes, and gone in a moment! One gentleman inside, I should think. There's an omnibus; and there, jolty-jolt, goes a light cart; that's a carriage, by the way the horses step; and now, rumbling heavily in the distance, and coming slowly nearer, and heavier, and louder, this can be nothing but a brewer's dray!" And the dray came so slowly that I was asleep before it had got safely out of hearing.
Ours was a very noisy street, but the noise made the night cheerful; and so did the church clock near, which struck the quarters; and so did the light of the street lamps, which came through the blind and fell upon my little bed. We had very little light, except gaslight and daylight, in our street; the sunshine seldom found its way to us, and, when it did, people were so little used to it that they pulled down the blinds for fear it should hurt the carpets. In the room my sister and I called our nursery, however, we always welcomed it with blinds rolled up to the very top; and, as we had no carpet, no damage was done.
But sunshine outside will not always make sunshine shine within, and I remember one day when, though our nursery was unusually cheerful, and though the windows were reflected in square patches of sunlight on the floor, I stood in the very midst of the brightness, grumbling and kicking at my sister's chair with a face as black as a thunder-cloud. The reason of my ill-temper was this: Ever since I could remember, my father had been accustomed, once a year, to take us all into the country for change of air. Once he had taken us to the sea, but generally we went to an old farmhouse in the middle of the beautiful moors which lay not many miles from our dirty black town. But this year, on this very sunshiny morning, he had announced at breakfast that he could not let us go to what we called our moor-home. He had even added insult to injury by expressing his thankfulness that we were all in good health, so that the change was not a matter of necessity. I was too indignant to speak, and rushed upstairs into the nursery, where my little sister had also taken refuge. She was always very gentle and obedient (provokingly so, I thought), and now she sat rocking her doll on her knee in silent sorrow, whilst I stood kicking her chair and grumbling in a tone which it was well the doll could not hear, or rocking would have been of little use. I took pleasure in trying to make her as angry as myself. I reminded her how lovely the purple moors were looking at that moment, how sweet heather smelt, and how good bilberries tasted. I said I thought it was "very hard." It wasn't as if we were always paying visits, as many children did, to their country relations; we had only one treat in the year, and father wanted to take that away. Not a soul in the town, I said, would be as unfortunate as we were. The children next door would go somewhere, of course. So would the little Smiths, and the Browns, and everybody. Everybody else went to the sea in the autumn; we were contented with the moors, and he wouldn't even let us go there. And, at the end of every burst of complaint, I discharged a volley of kicks at the leg of the chair, and wound up with "I can't think why he can't!"
"I don't know," said my sister, timidly, "but he said something about not affording it, and spending money, and about trade being bad, and he was afraid there would be great distress in the town."
Oh, these illogical women! I was furious. "What on earth has that to do with us?" I shouted at her. "Father's a doctor; trade won't hurt him. But you are so silly, Minnie, I can't talk to you. I only know it's very hard. Fancy staying a whole year boxed up in this beastly town!" And I had so worked myself up that I fully believed in the truth of the sentence with which I concluded—
"There never WAS anything so miserable!"
Minnie said nothing, for my feelings just then were something like those of the dogs who (Dr. Watts tells us)
"delight To bark and bite;"
and perhaps she was afraid of being bitten. At any rate, she held her tongue; and just then my father came into the room.
The door was open, and he must have heard my last speech as he came along the passage; but he made no remark on it, and only said, "Would any young man here like to go with me to see a patient?"
I went willingly, for I was both tired and half-ashamed of teasing Minnie, and we were soon in the street. It was a broad and cheerful one, as I said; but before long we left it for a narrower, and then turned off from that into a side street, where the foot-path would only allow us to walk in single file—a dirty, dark lane, where surely the sun never did shine.
"What a horrid place!" I said. "I never was here before. Why don't they pull such a street down?"
"What is to become of the people who live in it?" said my father.
"Let them live in one of the bigger streets," I said; "it would be much more comfortable."
"Very likely," he said; "but they would have to pay much more for their houses; and if they haven't the money to pay with, what's to be done?"
I could not say, for, like older social reformers than myself, I felt more sure that the reform was needed, than of how to accomplish it. But before I could decide upon what to do with the dirty little street, we had come to a place so very much worse that it put the other quite out of my head. There is a mournful fatality about the pretty names which are given, as if in mockery, to the most wretched of the bye-streets in large towns. The street we had left was called Rosemary Street, and this was Primrose Place.
Primrose Place was more like a yard than a street; the houses were all irregular and of different ages. On one side was a gap with palings round it, where building was going on, and beyond rose a huge black factory. But the condition of Primrose Place was beyond description. I had never seen anything like it before, and kept as close to my father as was consistent with boyish, dignity. The pathway was broken up, children squalled at the doors and quarrelled in the street, which was strewn with rags, and bones, and bits of old iron, and shoes, and the tops of turnips. I do not think there was a whole unbroken window in all the row of tall miserable houses, and the wet clothes hanging out on lines stretched across the street, flapped above our heads. I counted three cripples as we went up Primrose Place. My father stopped to speak to several people, and I heard many complaints of the bad state of trade to which my sister had alluded. He gave some money to one woman, and spoke kindly to all; but he hurried me on as fast as he could, and we turned at last into one of the houses.
My ill-humour had by this time almost worked itself off in the fresh air, and the novel scenes through which we had come; and, for the present, the morning's disappointment was forgotten as I followed my father through the crowded miserable rooms, and clambered up staircase after staircase, till we reached the top of the house, and stumbled through a latched door into the garret. After so much groping in the dark, the light dazzled me, and I thought at first that the room was empty. But at last a faint "Good day" from the corner near the window drew my eyes that way; and there, stretched on a sort of bed, and supported by a chair at his back, lay the patient we had come to see.
He was a young man about twenty-six years old, in the last stage of that terrible disease so fatally common in our country—he was dying of consumption. There was no mistaking the flushed cheek, the painfully laborious breathing, and the incessant cough; while two old crutches in the corner spoke of another affliction—he was a cripple. His gaunt face lighted up with a glow of pleasure when my father came in, who seated himself at once on the end of the bed, and began to talk to him, whilst I looked round the room. There was absolutely nothing in it, except the bed on which the sick man lay, the chair that supported him, and a small three-legged table. The low roof was terribly out of repair, and the window was patched with newspaper; but through the glass panes that were left, in full glory streamed the sun, and in the midst of the blaze stood a pot of musk in full bloom. The soft yellow flowers looked so grand, and smelled so sweet, that I was lost in admiration, till I found the sick man's black eyes fixed on mine.
"You are looking at my bit of green, master?" he said, in a gratified tone.
"Do you like flowers?" I inquired, coming shyly up to the bed.
"Do I like 'em?" he exclaimed in a low voice. "Ay, I love 'em well enough—well enough," and he looked fondly at the plant, "though it's long since I saw any but these."
"You have not been in the country for a long time?" I inquired, compassionately. I felt sad to think that he had perhaps lain there for months, without a taste of fresh air or a run in the fields; but I was not prepared for his answer.
"I never was in the country, young gentleman."
I looked at my father.
"Yes," he said, in answer to my glance, "it is quite true. William was born here. He got hurt when a boy, and has been lame ever since. For some years he has been entirely confined to the house. He was never out of town, and never saw a green field."
Never out of the town! confined to the house for years! and what a house! The tears rushed to my eyes, and I felt that angry heart-ache which the sight of suffering produces in those who are too young to be insensible to it, and too ignorant of GOD's Providence to submit with "quietness and confidence" to His will.
"My son can hardly believe it, William."
"It is such a shame," I said; "it is horrible. I am very sorry for you."
The black eyes turned kindly upon me, and the sick man said, "Thank you heartily, Sir. You mean very kindly. I used to say the same sort of things myself, when I was younger, and knew no better. I used to think it was very hard, and that no one was so miserable as I was. But I know now how much better off I am than most folks, and how many things I have to be thankful for."
I looked round the room, and began involuntarily to count the furniture—one, two, three. The "many things" were certainly not chairs and tables.
But he was gazing before him, and went on: "I often think how thankful I ought to be to die in peace, and have a quiet room to myself. There was a girl in a consumption on the floor below me; and she used to sit and cough, while her father and mother quarrelled so that I could hear them through the floor. I used to send her half of anything nice I had, but I found they took it. I did wish then," he added, with a sudden flush, "that I had been a strong man!"
"How shocking!" I said.
"Yes," he answered; "it was that first set me thinking how many mercies I had. And then there came such a good parson to St. John's, and he taught me many things; and then I knew your father; and the neighbours have been very kind. And while I could work I got good wage, and laid by a bit; and I've sold a few things, and there'll be these to sell when I'm gone; and so I've got what will keep me while I do live, and pay for my coffin. What can a man want more?"
What, indeed! Unsatisfied heart, make answer!
A fit of coughing that shook the crazy room interrupted him here. When he had recovered himself, he turned to my father.
"Ay, ay, I have many mercies, as you know, Sir. Who would have thought I could have kept a bit of green like that plant of mine in a place like this? But, you see, they pulled down those old houses opposite just before I got it, and now the sun couldn't come into a king's room better than it comes into mine. I was always afraid, year after year, that they would build it up, and my bit of green would die; and they are building now, but it will last my time. Indeed, indeed, I've had much to be thankful for. Not," he added, in a low, reverential tone, "not to mention greater blessings. The presence of the LORD! the presence of the LORD!"
I was awed, almost frightened, by the tone in which he spoke, and by the look of his face, on which the shadow of death was falling fast. He lay in a sort of stupor, gazing with his black eyes at the broken roof, as if through it he saw something invisible to us.
It was some time before he seemed to recollect that we were there, and before I ventured to ask him. "Where did you get your plant?"
He smiled. "That's a long story, master; but it was this way. You see, my father died quite young in a decline, and left my mother to struggle on with eight of us as she could. She buried six, one after another; and then she died herself, and brother Ben and I were left alone. But we were mighty fond of one another, and got on very well. I got plenty of employment, weaving mats and baskets for a shop in the town, and Ben worked at the factory. One Saturday night he came home all in a state, and said there was going to be a cheap trip on the Monday into the country. It was the first there had been from these parts, though there have been many since, I believe. Neither he nor I had ever been out of the town, and he was full of it that we must go. He had brought his Saturday wage with him, and we would work hard afterwards. Well, you see, the landlord had been that day, and had said he must have the rent by Tuesday, or he'd turn us out. I'd got some of it laid by, and was looking to Ben's wages to make it up. But I couldn't bear to see his face pining for a bit of fresh air, and so I thought I could stay at home and work on Monday for what would make up the rent, and he need never know. So I pretended that I didn't want to go, and couldn't be bothered with the fuss; and at last I set him off on Monday without me. It was late at night when he came back like one wild. He'd got flowers in his hat, and flowers in all his button-holes; he'd got his handkerchief filled with hay, and was carrying something under his coat. He began laughing and crying, and 'Eh, Bill!' he said, 'thou hast been a fool. Thou hast missed summat. But I've brought thee a bit of green, lad, I've brought thee a bit of green.' And then he lifted up his coat, and there was the plant, which some woman had given him. We didn't sleep much that night. He spread the hay over the bed, for me to lay my face on, and see how the fields smelt, and then he began and told me all about it; and after that, when I was tired with work, or on a Sunday afternoon, I used to say, 'Now, Ben, tell us a bit about the country.' And he liked nothing better. He used to say that I should go, if he carried me on his back; but the LORD did not see fit. He took cold at work, and went off three months afterwards. It was singular, the morning he died he called me to him, and said, 'Bill, I've been a dreaming about that trip that thou didst want to go after all. I dreamt—' and then he stopped, and said no more; but, after a bit, he opened his eyes wide, and pulled me to him, and he said, 'Bill, my lad, there's such flowers in heaven, such flowers!' And so the LORD took him. But I kept the bit of green for his sake."
Here followed another fit of coughing, which brought my father from the end of the bed to forbid his talking any more.
"I have got to see another patient in the yard," he said, "and I will leave my son here. He shall read you a chapter or two till I come back; he is a good reader for his age."
And so my father went. I was, as he said, a good reader for my age; but I felt very nervous when the sick man drew a Bible from his side, and put it in my hands. I wondered what I should read; but it was soon settled by his asking for certain Psalms, which I read as clearly and distinctly as I could. At first I was rather disturbed by his occasional remarks, and a few murmured Amens; but I soon got used to it. He joined devoutly in the "Glory be to the Father"—with which I concluded—and then asked for a chapter from the Revelation of St. John. I was more at ease now, and read my best, with a happy sense of being useful; whilst he lay in the sunshine, folding the sheet with his bony fingers, with his eyes fixed on the beloved "bit of green," and drinking in the Words of Life with dying ears.
"Blessed are they that dwell in the heavenly Jerusalem, where there is no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it; for the glory of GOD does lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof."
By the time that my father returned, the sick man and I were fast friends; and I left him with his blessing on my head. As we went home, my good kind father told me that I was nearly old enough now to take an interest in his concerns, and began to talk of his patients, and of the poverty and destitution of some parts of the town. Then he spoke of the bad state of trade—that it was expected to be worse, and that the want of work and consequent misery this year would probably be very great. Finally he added, that when so many were likely to be starving, he had thought it right that we should deny ourselves our little annual treat, and so save the money to enable us to take our part in relieving the distressed.
"Don't you think so, my boy?" he concluded, as we reached the door of our comfortable (how comfortable!) home.
My whole heart was in my "Yes."
It is a happy moment for a son when his father first confides in him. It is a happy moment for a father when his son first learns to appreciate some of the labour of his life, and henceforth to obey his commands, not only with a blind obedience, but in the sympathizing spirit of the "perfect love" which "casts out fear." My heart was too full to thank him then for his wise forbearance and wiser confidence; but when after some months my sister's health made change of air to the house of a country relative necessary, great was my pride and thankfulness that I was well enough to remain at the post of duty by my father's side.
One day, not long after our visit to William, he went again to see him; and when he came back I saw by the musk-plant in his hand the news he brought. Its flowers were lovelier than ever, but its master was transplanted into a heavenly garden, and he had left it to me.
Mortal man does not learn any virtue in one lesson; and I have only too often in my life been ungrateful both to GOD and man. But the memory of lame William has often come across me when I have been tempted to grumble about small troubles; and has given me a little help (not to be despised) in striving after the grace of Thankfulness, even for a "bit of green."
MONSIEUR THE VISCOUNT'S FRIEND.
A TALE IN THREE CHAPTERS.
"Sweet are the vses of aduersitie Which like the toad, ougly and venemous, Weares yet a precious lewell in his head." AS YOU LIKE IT: A.D. 1623.
It was the year of grace 1779. In one of the most beautiful corners of beautiful France stood a grand old chateau. It was a fine old building, with countless windows large and small, with high-pitched roofs and pointed towers, which in good taste or bad, did its best to be everywhere ornamental, from the gorgon heads which frowned from its turrets to the long row of stables and the fantastic dovecotes. It stood (as became such a castle) upon an eminence, and looked down. Very beautiful indeed was what it looked upon. Terrace below terrace glowed with the most brilliant flowers, and broad flights of steps led from one garden to the other. On the last terrace of all, fountains and jets of water poured into one large basin, in which were gold and silver fish. Beyond this were shady walks, which led to a lake on which floated water-lilies and swans. From the top of the topmost flight of steps you could see the blazing gardens one below the other, the fountains and the basin, the walks and the lake, and beyond these the trees, and the smiling country, and the blue sky of France.
Within the castle, as without, beauty reigned supreme. The sunlight, subdued by blinds and curtains, stole into rooms furnished with every grace and luxury that could be procured in a country that then accounted itself the most highly-civilized in the world. It fell upon beautiful flowers and beautiful china, upon beautiful tapestry and pictures; and it fell upon Madame the Viscountess, sitting at her embroidery. Madame the Viscountess was not young, but she was not the least beautiful object in those stately rooms. She had married into a race of nobles who (themselves famed for personal beauty) had been scrupulous in the choice of lovely wives. The late Viscount (for Madame was a widow) had been one of the handsomest of the gay courtiers of his day; and Madame had not been unworthy of him. Even now, though the roses on her cheeks were more entirely artificial than they had been in the days of her youth, she was like some exquisite piece of porcelain. Standing by the embroidery frame was Madame's only child, a boy who, in spite of his youth, was already Monsieur the Viscount. He also was beautiful. His exquisitely-cut mouth had a curl which was the inheritance of scornful generations, but which was redeemed by his soft violet eyes and by an under-lying expression of natural amiability. His hair was cut square across the forehead, and fell in natural curls behind. His childish figure had already been trained in the fencing school, and had gathered dignity from perpetually treading upon shallow steps and in lofty rooms. From the rosettes on his little shoes to his chapeau a plumes, he also was like some porcelain figure. Surely, such beings could not exist except in such a chateau as this, where the very air (unlike that breathed by common mortals) had in the ante-rooms a faint aristocratic odour, and was for yards round Madame the Viscountess dimly suggestive of frangipani!
Monsieur the Viscount did not stay long by the embroidery frame; he was entertaining to-day a party of children from the estate, and had come for the key of an old cabinet of which he wished to display the treasures. When tired of this, they went out on to the terrace, and one of the children who had not been there before exclaimed at the beauty of the view.
"It is true," said the little Viscount, carelessly, "and all, as far as you can see, is the estate."
"I will throw a stone to the end of your property, Monsieur," said one of the boys, laughing; and he picked one off the walk, and stepping back, flung it with all his little strength. The stone fell before it had passed the fountains, and the failure was received with shouts of laughter.
"Let us see who can beat that," they cried; and there was a general search for pebbles, which were flung at random among the flower beds.
"One may easily throw such as those," said the Viscount, who was poking under the wall of the first terrace; "but here is a stone that one may call a stone. Who will send this into the fish-pond? It will make a fountain of itself."
The children drew round him as, with ruffles turned back, he tugged and pulled at a large dirty looking stone, which was half-buried in the earth by the wall. "Up it comes!" said the Viscount, at length; and sure enough, up it came; but underneath it, his bright eyes shining out of his dirty wrinkled body—horror of horrors!—there lay a toad. Now, even in England, toads are not looked upon with much favour, and a party of English children would have been startled by such a discovery. But with French people, the dread of toads is ludicrous in its intensity. In France toads are believed to have teeth, to bite, and to spit poison; so my hero and his young guests must be excused for taking flight at once with a cry of dismay. On the next terrace, however, they paused, and seeing no signs of the enemy, crept slowly back again. The little Viscount (be it said) began to feel ashamed of himself, and led the way, with his hand upon the miniature sword which hung at his side. All eyes were fixed upon the fatal stone, when from behind it was seen slowly to push forth, first a dirty wrinkled leg, then half a dirty wrinkled head, with one gleaming eye. It was too much; with cries of, "It is he! he comes! he spits! he pursues us!" the young guests of the chateau fled in good earnest, and never stopped until they reached the fountain and the fish-pond.
But Monsieur the Viscount stood his ground. At the sudden apparition the blood rushed to his heart, and made him very white, then it flooded back again and made him very red, and then he fairly drew his sword, and shouting, "Vive la France!" rushed upon the enemy. The sword if small was sharp, and stabbed the poor toad would most undoubtedly have been, but for a sudden check received by the valiant little nobleman. It came in the shape of a large heavy hand that seized Monsieur the Viscount with the grasp of a giant, while a voice which could only have belonged to the owner of such a hand said in slow deep tones,
"Que faites-vous?" ("What are you doing?")
It was the tutor, who had been pacing up and down the terrace with a book, and who now stood holding the book in his right hand, and our hero in his left.
Monsieur the Viscount's tutor was a remarkable man. If he had not been so, he would hardly have been tolerated at the chateau, since he was not particularly beautiful, and not especially refined. He was in holy orders, as his tonsured head and clerical costume bore witness—a costume which, from its tightness and simplicity, only served to exaggerate the unusual proportions of his person. Monsieur the Preceptor had English blood in his veins, and his northern origin betrayed itself in his towering height and corresponding breadth, as well as by his fair hair and light blue eyes. But the most remarkable parts of his outward man were his hands, which were of immense size, especially about the thumbs. Monsieur the Preceptor was not exactly in keeping with his present abode. It was not only that he was wanting in the grace and beauty that reigned around him, but that his presence made those very graces and beauties to look small. He seemed to have a gift the reverse of that bestowed upon King Midas—the gold on which his heavy hand was laid seemed to become rubbish. In the presence of the late Viscount, and in that of Madame his widow, you would have felt fully the deep importance of your dress being a la mode, and your complexion a la strawberries and cream (such influences still exist); but let the burly tutor appear upon the scene, and all the magic died at once out of brocaded silks and pearl-coloured stockings, and dress and complexion became subjects almost of insignificance. Monsieur the Preceptor was certainly a singular man to have been chosen as an inmate of such a household; but, though young, he had unusual talents, and added to them the not more usual accompaniments of modesty and trustworthiness. To crown all, he was rigidly pious in times when piety was not fashionable, and an obedient son of the church of which he was a minister. Moreover, a family that fashion does not permit to be demonstratively religious, may gain a reflected credit from an austere chaplain; and so Monsieur the Preceptor remained in the chateau and went his own way. It was this man who now laid hands on the Viscount, and, in a voice that sounded like amiable thunder, made the inquiry, "Que faites-vous?"
"I am going to kill this animal—this hideous horrible animal," said Monsieur the Viscount, struggling vainly under the grasp of the tutors finger and thumb.
"It is only a toad," said Monsieur the Preceptor, in his laconic tones.
"Only a toad, do you say, Monsieur?" said the Viscount. "That is enough, I think. It will bite—it will spit—it will poison: it is like that dragon you tell me of, that devastated Rhodes—I am the good knight that shall kill it."
Monsieur the Preceptor laughed heartily. "You are misled by a vulgar error. Toads do not bite—they have no teeth; neither do they spit poison."
"You are wrong, Monsieur," said the Viscount; "I have seen their teeth myself. Claude Mignon, at the lodge, has two terrible ones, which he keeps in his pocket as a charm."
"I have seen them," said the tutor, "in Monsieur Claude's pocket. When he can show me similar ones in a toad's head I will believe. Meanwhile, I must beg of you, Monsieur, to put up your sword. You must not kill this poor animal, which is quite harmless, and very useful in a garden—it feeds upon many insects and reptiles which injure the plants."
"It shall not be useful, in this garden," said the little Viscount, fretfully. "There are plenty of gardeners to destroy the insects, and, if needful, we can have more. But the toad shall not remain. My mother would faint if she saw so hideous a beast among her beautiful flowers."
"Jacques!" roared the tutor to a gardener who was at some distance. Jacques started as if a clap of thunder had sounded in his ear, and approached with low bows. "Take that toad, Jacques, and carry it to the potager. It will keep the slugs from your cabbages."
Jacques bowed low and lower, and scratched his head, and then did reverence again with Asiatic humility, but at the same time moved gradually backwards, and never even looked at the toad.
"You also have seen the contents of Monsieur Claude's pocket?" said the tutor, significantly, and quitting his hold of the Viscount, he stooped down, seized the toad in his huge finger and thumb, and strode off in the direction of the potager, followed at a respectful distance by Jacques, who vented his awe and astonishment in alternate bows and exclamations at the astounding conduct of the incomprehensible Preceptor.
"What is the use of such ugly beasts?" said the Viscount to his tutor, on his return from the potager. "Birds and butterflies are pretty, but what can such villains as these toads have been made for?"
"You should study natural history, Monsieur—" began the priest, who was himself a naturalist.
"That is what you always say," interrupted the Viscount, with the perverse folly of ignorance; "but if I knew as much as you do, it would not make me understand why such ugly creatures need have been made."
"Nor," said the priest, firmly, "is it necessary that you should understand it, particularly if you do not care to inquire. It is enough for you and me if we remember Who made them, some six thousand years before either of us was born."
With which Monsieur the Preceptor (who had all this time kept his place in the little book with his big thumb) returned to the terrace, and resumed his devotions at the point where they had been interrupted which exercise he continued till he was joined by the Cure of the village, and the two priests relaxed in the political and religious gossip of the day.
Monsieur the Viscount rejoined his young guests, and they fed the gold fish and the swans, and played Colin Maillard in the shady walks, and made a beautiful bouquet for Madame, and then fled indoors at the first approach of evening chill, and found that the Viscountess had prepared a feast of fruit and flowers for them in the great hall. Here, at the head of the table, with Madame at his right hand, his guests around, and the liveried lacqueys waiting his commands, Monsieur the Viscount forgot that anything had ever been made which could mar beauty and enjoyment; while the two priests outside stalked up and down under the falling twilight, and talked ugly talk of crime and poverty that were somewhere now, and of troubles to come hereafter.
And so night fell over the beautiful sky, the beautiful chateau, and the beautiful gardens; and upon the secure slumbers of beautiful Madame and her beautiful son, and beautiful, beautiful France.
* * * * *
It was the year of grace 1792, thirteen years after the events related in the last chapter. It was the 2nd of September, and Sunday, a day of rest and peace in all Christian countries, and even more in gay, beautiful France—a day of festivity and merriment. This Sunday, however, seemed rather an exception to the general rule. There were no gay groups or bannered processions; the typical incense and the public devotion of which it is the symbol were alike wanting; the streets in some places seemed deserted, and in others there was an ominous crowd, and the dreary silence was now and then broken by a distant sound of yells and cries, that struck terror into the hearts of the Parisians.
It was a deserted bye-street, overlooked by some shut-up warehouses, and from the cellar of one of these a young man crept up on to the pathway. His dress had once been beautiful, but it was torn and soiled; his face was beautiful still, but it was marred by the hideous eagerness of a face on which famine has laid her hand—he was starving. As this man came out from the warehouse, another man came down the street. His dress was not beautiful, neither was he. There was a red look about him—he wore a red flannel cap, tricolour ribbons, and had something red upon his hands, which was neither ribbon nor flannel. He also looked hungry; but it was not for food. The other stopped when he saw him, and pulled something from his pocket. It was a watch, a repeater, in a gold filigree case of exquisite workmanship, with raised figures depicting the loves of an Arcadian shepherd and shepherdess; and, as it lay on the white hand of its owner, it bore an evanescent fragrance that seemed to recall scenes as beautiful and as completely past as the days of pastoral perfection, when
"All the world and love were young And truth in every shepherd's tongue."
The young man held it to the other and spoke. "It was my mother's," he said, with an appealing glance of violet eyes; "I would not part with it but that I am starving. Will you get me food?"
"You are hiding?" said he of the red cap.
"Is that a crime in these days?" said the other, with a smile that would in other days have been irresistible.
The man took the watch, shaded the donor's beautiful face with a rough red cap and tricolour ribbon, and bade him follow him. He, who had but lately come to Paris, dragged his exhausted body after his conductor, hardly noticed the crowds in the streets, the signs by which the man got free passage for them both, or their entrance by a little side-door into a large dark building, and never knew till he was delivered to one of the gaolers that he had been led into the prison of the Abbaye. Then the wretch tore the cap of Liberty from his victim's head, and pointed to him with a fierce laugh.
"He wants food, this aristocrat. He shall not wait long—there is a feast in the court below, which he shall join presently. See to it, Antoine! And you, Monsieur, Mons-ieur! listen to the banqueters."
He ceased, and in the silence yells and cries from a court below came up like some horrid answer to imprecation.
The man continued—
"He has paid for his admission, this Monsieur. It belonged to Madame his mother. Behold!"
He held the watch above his head, and dashed it with insane fury on the ground, and, bidding the gaoler see to his prisoner, rushed away to the court below.
The prisoner needed some attention. Weakness, and fasting, and horror had overpowered a delicate body and a sensitive mind, and he lay senseless by the shattered relic of happier times. Antoine, the gaoler (a weak-minded man whom circumstances had made cruel), looked at him with indifference while the Jacobin remained in the place, and with half-suppressed pity when he had gone. The place where he lay was a hall or passage in the prison, into which several cells opened, and a number of the prisoners were gathered together at one end of it. One of them had watched the proceedings of the Jacobin and his victim with profound interest, and now advanced to where the poor youth lay. He was a priest, and though thirteen years had passed over his head since we saw him in the chateau, and though toil and suffering and anxiety had added the traces of as many more, yet it would not have been difficult to recognize the towering height, the candid face, and, finally, the large thumb in the little book of ——, Monsieur the Preceptor, who had years ago exchanged his old position for a parochial cure. He strode up to the gaoler (whose head came a little above the priest's elbow), and, drawing him aside, asked, with his old abruptness, "Who is this?"
"It is the Vicomte de B——. I know his face. He has escaped the commissaires for some days."
"I thought so. Is his name on the registers?"
"No. He escaped arrest, and has just been brought in, as you saw."
"Antoine," said the priest, in a low voice, and with a gaze that seemed to pierce the soul of the weak little gaoler; "Antoine, when you were a shoemaker in the Rue de la Croix, in two or three hard winters I think you found me a friend."
"Oh! Monsieur le Cure," said Antoine, writhing; "if Monsieur le Cure would believe that if I could save his life! But—"
"Pshaw!" said the priest, "it is not for myself, but for this boy. You must save him, Antoine. Hear me, you must. Take him now to one of the lower cells and hide him. You risk nothing. His name is not on the prison register. He will not be called, he will not be missed; that fanatic will think that he has perished with the rest of us (Antoine shuddered, though the priest did not move a muscle) and when this mad fever has subsided and order is restored, he will reward you. And Antoine—"
Here the priest pocketed his book, and somewhat awkwardly with his huge hands unfastened the left side of his cassock, and tore the silk from the lining. Monsieur le Cure's cassock seemed a cabinet of oddities. First he pulled from this ingenious hiding-place a crucifix, which he replaced; then a knot of white ribbon, which he also restored; and, finally, a tiny pocket or bag of what had been cream-coloured satin, embroidered with small bunches of heartsease, and which was aromatic with otto of roses. Awkwardly, and somewhat slowly, he drew out of this a small locket, in the centre of which was some unreadable legend in cabalistic-looking character, and which blazed with the finest diamonds. Heaven alone knows the secret of that gem, or the struggle with which the priest yielded it. He put it into Antoine's hand, talking as he did so partly to himself and partly to the gaoler.
"We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. The diamonds are of the finest, Antoine, and will sell for much. The blessing of a dying priest upon you if you do kindly, and his curse if you do ill to this poor child, whose home was my home in better days. And for the locket—it is but a remembrance, and to remember is not difficult!"
As the last observation was not addressed to Antoine, so also he did not hear it. He was discontentedly watching the body of the Viscount, whom he consented to help, but with genuine weak-mindedness consented ungraciously.
"How am I to get him there? Monsieur le Cure sees that he cannot stand upon his feet."
Monsieur le Cure smiled, and stooping, picked his old pupil up in his arms as if he had been a baby, and bore him to one of the doors.
"You must come no further," said Antoine, hastily.
"Ingrate!" muttered the priest in momentary anger, and then, ashamed, he crossed himself, and pressing the young nobleman to his bosom with the last gush of earthly affection that he was to feel, he kissed his senseless face, spoke a benediction to ears that could not hear it, and laid his burden down.
"GOD the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be with thee now and in the dread hour of death. Adieu! we shall meet hereafter."
The look of pity, the yearning of rekindled love, the struggle of silenced memories passed from his face and left a shining calm—foretaste of the perpetual Light and the eternal Rest.
Before he reached the other prisoners, the large thumb had found its old place in the little book, the lips formed the old old words; but it might almost have been said of him already, that "his spirit was with the GOD who gave it."
As for Monsieur the Viscount, it was perhaps well that he was not too sensible of his position, for Antoine got him down the flight of stone steps that led to the cell by the simple process of dragging him by the heels. After a similar fashion he crossed the floor, and was deposited on a pallet; the gaoler then emptied a broken pitcher of water over his face, and locking the door securely, hurried back to his charge.
When Monsieur the Viscount came to his senses he raised himself and looked round his new abode. It was a small stone cell; it was underground, with a little grated window at the top that seemed to be level with the court; there was a pallet—painfully pressed and worn—a chair, a stone on which stood a plate and broken pitcher, and in one corner a huge bundle of firewood which mocked a place where there was no fire. Stones lay scattered about, the walls were black, and in the far dark corners the wet oozed out and trickled slowly down, and lizards and other reptiles crawled up.
I suppose that the first object that attracts the hopes of a new prisoner is the window of his cell, and to this, despite his weakness, Monsieur the Viscount crept. It afforded him little satisfaction. It was too high in the cell for him to reach it, too low in the prison to command any view, and was securely grated with iron. Then he examined the walls, but not a stone was loose. As he did so, his eye fell upon the floor, and he noticed that two of the stones that lay about had been raised up by some one and a third laid upon the top. It looked like child's play, and Monsieur the Viscount kicked it down, and then he saw that underneath it there was a pellet of paper roughly rolled together. Evidently it was something left by the former occupant of the cell for his successor. Perhaps he had begun some plan for getting away which he had not had time to perfect on his own account, Perhaps—but by this time the paper was spread out, and Monsieur the Viscount read the writing. The paper was old and yellow. It was the fly-leaf torn out of a little book, and on it was written in black chalk, the words—
"Souvenez-vous du Sauveur." (Remember the Saviour.)
He turned it over, he turned it back again; there was no other mark; there was nothing more; and Monsieur the Viscount did not conceal from himself that he was disappointed. How could it be otherwise? He had been bred in ease and luxury, and surrounded with everything that could make life beautiful; while ugliness, and want, and sickness, and all that make life miserable, had been kept, as far as they can be kept, from the precincts of the beautiful chateau which was his home. What were the consolations of religion to him? They are offered to those (and to those only) who need them. They were to Monsieur the Viscount what the Crucified Christ was to the Greeks of old—foolishness.
He put the paper in his pocket and lay down again, feeling it the crowning disappointment of what he had lately suffered. Presently, Antoine came with some food; it was not dainty, but Monsieur the Viscount devoured it like a famished hound, and then made inquiries as to how he came and how long he had been there. When the gaoler began to describe him, whom he called the Cure, Monsieur the Viscount's attention quickened into eagerness, an eagerness deepened by the tender interest that always hangs round the names of those whom we have known in happier and younger days. The happy memories recalled by hearing of his old tutor seemed to blot out his present misfortunes. With French excitability, he laughed and wept alternately.
"As burly as ever, you say? The little book? I remember it, it was his breviary. Ah! it is he. It is Monsieur the Preceptor, whom I have not seen for years. Take me to him, bring him here, let me see him!"
But Monsieur the Preceptor was in Paradise.
That first night of Monsieur the Viscount's imprisonment was a terrible one. The bitter chill of a Parisian autumn, the gnawings of half-satisfied hunger, the thick walls that shut out all hope of escape but did not exclude those fearful cries that lasted with few intervals throughout the night, made it like some hideous dream. At last the morning broke; at half-past two o'clock, some members of the commune presented themselves in the hall of the National Assembly with the significant announcement:—"The prisons are empty!" and Antoine, who had been quaking for hours, took courage, and went with half a loaf of bread and a pitcher of water to the cell that was not "empty." He found his prisoner struggling with a knot of white ribbon, which he was trying to fasten in his hair. One glance at his face told all.
"It is the fever," said Antoine; and he put down the bread and water and fetched an old blanket and a pillow; and that day and for many days, the gaoler hung above his prisoner's pallet with the tenderness of a woman. Was he haunted by the vision of a burly figure that had bent over his own sick bed in the Rue de la Croix? Did the voice (once so familiar in counsel and benediction!) echo still in his ears?
"The blessing of a dying priest upon you if you do well, and his curse if you do ill to this poor child, whose home was my home in better days."
Be this as it may, Antoine tended his patient with all the constancy compatible with keeping his presence in the prison a secret; and it was not till the crisis was safely past, that he began to visit the cell less frequently, and reassumed the harsh manners which he held to befit his office.
Monsieur the Viscount's mind rambled much in his illness. He called for his mother, who had long been dead. He fancied himself in his own chateau. He thought that all his servants stood in a body before him, but that not one would move to wait on him. He thought that he had abundance of the most tempting food and cooling drinks, but placed just beyond his reach. He thought that he saw two lights like stars near together, which were close to the ground, and kept appearing and then vanishing away. In time he became more sensible; the chateau melted into the stern reality of his prison walls; the delicate food became bread and water; the servants disappeared like spectres; but in the empty cell, in the dark corners near the floor, he still fancied that he saw two sparks of light coming and going, appearing and then vanishing away. He watched them till his giddy head would bear it no longer, and he closed his eyes and slept. When he awoke he was much better, but when he raised himself and turned towards the stone—there, by the bread and the broken pitcher, sat a dirty, ugly, wrinkled toad, gazing at him, Monsieur the Viscount, with eyes of yellow fire.
Monsieur the Viscount had long ago forgotten the toad which had alarmed his childhood; but his national dislike to that animal had not been lessened by years, and the toad of the prison seemed likely to fare no better than the toad of the chateau. He dragged himself from his pallet, and took up one of the large damp stones which lay about the floor of the cell, to throw at the intruder. He expected that when he approached it, the toad would crawl away, and that he could throw the stone after it; but to his surprise, the beast sat quite unmoved, looking at him with calm shining eyes, and, somehow or other, Monsieur the Viscount lacked strength or heart to kill it. He stood doubtful for a moment, and then a sudden feeling of weakness obliged him to drop the stone, and sit down, while tears sprang to his eyes with the sense of his helplessness.
"Why should I kill it?" he said, bitterly. "The beast will live and grow fat upon this damp and loathsomeness, long after they have put an end to my feeble life. It shall remain. The cell is not big, but it is big enough for us both. However large be the rooms a man builds himself to live in, it needs but little space in which to die!"
So Monsieur the Viscount dragged his pallet away from the toad, placed another stone by it, and removed the pitcher; and then, wearied with his efforts, lay down and slept heavily.
When he awoke, on the new stone by the pitcher was the toad, staring full at him with topaz eyes. He lay still this time and did not move, for the animal showed no intention of spitting, and he was puzzled by its tameness.