Legends of Lampidosa
Collected by a Recluse
Albert Altenberg, one of the richest citizens of Brussels, lay on his death-bed with no consolation, except that he had a son capable of atoning for the errors into which avarice had betrayed him. “Herman!” he said, as the young man sat by his bed studying the last expression of his glazing eyes—“I leave you wealthy, and your uncles, if they are still living, have no other heir—but we had once a sister—read these papers, and do justice to my memory.”—Herman assented by a slight pressure of the hand, which clung to his till it became lifeless. Soon after his father’s funeral, an extraordinary change appeared in his character. Instead of the hospitality, the beneficence, and spirit of enterprize, which old Altenberg had been studious to repress, the heir discovered even more frugality and caution than his father. He converted all the scattered wealth he inherited into one fund, but its depository was a profound secret. At length its amount was doubted, and the reserve of his demeanor seemed the consequence of necessary retrenchment. Presently his fellow-citizens discovered that he spent no more than the moderate sum required for mere subsistence; and it was easier to discern that he was poor than that he might be virtuous. His friends gradually changed their assiduous courtesy into those cold and stately condescensions which are practised to humble the receiver. During two or three years he continued to frequent societies where his entrance was noticed at last only by a scornful smile or a careless familiarity, which he affected to receive with indolent indifference. But the result of suspected poverty was not unfelt, and he had not courage enough to contemn it. He left Brussels in secret, without leaving any trace of his route, as some supposed to join the Emperor Joseph’s army as a volunteer, or, as many more believed, to perish by suicide.
The great clock of a noted inn at Brussels had struck twelve, when the half-clothed waiting-damsel ran into one of the most crouded dormitories, and shaking a sleeper’s shoulder, exclaimed in his ear, “Monsieur!—monsieur has mistaken the room—this bed is engaged to a lady.”—“This bed!” returned the angry traveller—“this vile composition of rushes and fir shavings!—Must a man he disturbed even in purgatory!”—The soubrette, arranging the stiff wings of her cap, began an oration on the lady’s prior claims, and the guest professed his belief that women belong to one of the nine classes of demons supposed by a Flemish doctor. “Sir,” said a young student from Gottingen, “it is some consolation to know that every great man for the last forty-two centuries has been equally tormented.”—“A glorious comfort, truly!” retorted the grumbler, “that three or four hundred fools have been remembered by greater fools than themselves! I want neither Skenkius, nor Jacobus de Dondin, nor Grunnius Coracotta, to tell me why women love to teaze and a goose to go barefoot.”
This torrent was interrupted in his way downstairs by meeting the cause of his disturbance, a plain ancient gentle-woman, whose ugliness restored him to good-humour. Grace or beauty would have made him furious, by lessening his pretext for spleen: and as angry men usually submit to any evil they are allowed to murmur at, the malcontent seated himself in grim repose by the kitchen-fire. There some Belgian soldiers were congratulating themselves on their future quarters at the farm of a decrepit and solitary widow, celebrated for wealth and avarice. Their new auditor, concealed in a recess, listened to their ribaldry, perhaps for the first time, without disgust, because his misanthropy found an excuse in the vices of others. Before the dawn of a morning over-cast with Belgian fogs, a diligence left this inn-door, containing only M. Von Grumholdt and one female passenger. Our traveller, with no small chagrin, recognised the close coif and grey redingote of his midnight disturber, while she quietly considered his singular aspect. Very little of his face was visible, except the contemptuous curl of his under lip, and the prominence of that feature which is said to express disdain. A broad hat, enormous boots, and a coarse wide wrapping coat, deprived his figure of all symmetry of character, except that of a busy and important burgo-master. As the day-light increased, M. Von Grumboldt discovered indications of curiosity, shrewishness, and other feminine virtues, in the thin lips and wrinkled forehead of his meagre companion, especially when she ventured an inquiry respecting the next inn. A cup of coffee at Quatre-Bras, since so celebrated in military annals, removed a few furrows from his brow, and enabled him to perceive that it was prepared by a fair and well-shaped hand, decorated with a ring of some value. But he chose to sleep, till suddenly seeing the place of his destination, he alighted from the diligence with no other ceremony than an abrupt and scowling farewell. His humble fellow-traveller continued her journey a few hours longer, and when the carriage stopped at the end of a lonely lane, among the corn-fields which surrounded her residence, she entered it on foot, without any attendant. Though the night was far advanced, no one seemed to have awaited her coming, and the Brussels diligence was soon far out of sight. Lighted by a full harvest-moon, she was selecting her steps with Flemish neatness and nonchalance along the solitary avenue, when a man’s shadow crossed her path. She looked up calmly, though not without a sense of danger, and saw the traveller who had called himself Von Grumboldt. His lingering pace and muffled figure might have justified suspicion, but she only said, “We are still travellers, it seems, on the same road.”—“Do you walk alone, and at this hour, to the White Farm?” returned Von Grumboldt, in a low voice—“Take my arm, then—we may be useful to each other.”—Hesitation would have been danger, and she yielded to the offer without shrinking, though the pressure of her arm against a concealed pistol, and the motion of a sabre as she walked by his side, seemed to reveal his true purpose.—“It is strange,” she said, trembling, “that I see no lanthorn’s light, and no one here to meet me!”—Her escort was silent till they reached the square court yard of the farm, sheltered, according to Belgian fashion, on three sides by the mansion and its wings. All was desolately dark, and the defenceless mistress, gathering courage from her danger, said, in a frank tone, “Let us enter—though my servant is heedless, and probably absent, I shall find enough to furnish a supper for my protector;”—“Dare you trust me, then!” returned Von Grumboldt, in a tone which betrayed strong emotion—“You have not wronged yourself—but this is no place for you—here is but one concealment among the hollow elms round the dove-cot.”—“You are no stranger here!” she exclaimed, firmly—“Trust me only a little longer,” he answered—“but wait for my signal,”—The courageous woman took her station in the hollow elm to which he pointed, and his gentle knock at the farm-door was answered from the window by a ruffian-voice—“Why so late, Caspar! It will be day before we find her hoards.”—Von Grumboldt’s reply was a shrill whistle, and six men concealed among the elms rushed through the unbarred door into the farm-house, while their guide seized the ruffian admitted by a treacherous servant. He and his accomplice were soon in irons, while the armed stranger returned to seek the mistress of the mansion he had preserved from plunder.—“These are my soldiers, madam,” said he, in a gentler tone; “and you will not refuse their colonel permission to be your guest. I heard the business of this night planned by the felons who designed to execute it; therefore I chose to assist in its defeat myself.”—The modest Flemish farmeress looked at her preserver with a respectful silence more affecting than words, and taking the diamond ring from her finger, offered it to his.—“I have not forgotten your invitation,” said the Colonel, resuming his blunt austerity while he brushed a sudden moisture from his eyes—“you will find a voracious guest at your supper table.”—Without blushing at the humility of the task, our heroine arranged the ample contents of her store-room on her best table, and provided an abundant sideboard for her new visitor’s attendants. A chamber, whose neat furniture had chiefly proceeded from her own distaff, was allotted to the Colonel, who would not have chosen to confess, even on the rack, how many tender and deep regrets haunted his pillow. Almost at day-break he rose, and found his hostess busied in her simple domestic avocations.—“I do not ask you.” said she, “to admire my garden-vines, or the beautiful slope of this valley, for they appear to be remembered.”—“Perhaps,” replied her guest, “they resemble…or remind me of scenes long since past—and who can remember the past without regret? But though you have the goodness to ask nothing, I am come to claim a reward.”—The farmeress raised her eyes from the spiced bowl she was preparing for the first repast, and considered the speaker’s countenance. If the lower part contained those strong lines and curves which students suppose to indicate the darker passions, his clear eye and ample forehead would have impressed the most unlearned observer with an idea of vigorous intellects and a rapid spirit. While she paused, the Belgian officer was equally attentive to her looks, but his glance was an inquisition and his smile a satire; for he secretly derided the vain coquetry which he thought expressed in her hesitation. And with more coldness than respect, he added, “The premium I ask for a trifling and accidental service, is to remain a few days or weeks in this house—It suits my military duties, my love of rural manners, and my health, which a terrible disorder has laid waste.”—His entertainer answered, with a kinder smile, “My father was a physician educated in Antwerp; he bequeathed me a book which contains the symptoms and remedies best ascertained; and I think your illness has a well-known name.”—The Colonel, scowling contemptuously, bade his doctress proceed.—“It is the malady of poets, philosophers, statesmen, and kings—the symptoms are a leaden colour, a hollow eye, a sour smile, and a venomous wit—It is called wisdom, but its true name is melancholy.”—Struck by the boldness of this speech, Von Grumholdt forced a painful laugh, and desired to know the remedy.—“Old Finius of Antwerp,” said she, closing the volume from which she had seemed to quote, “would have prescribed 600 herbs, the bone found in a stag’s heart, a ring made from a wolf’s hoof—or perhaps a cup of wine: but my father taught me another remedy, which I keep among my hoards—those which the robbers could not find.”—Her guest, silenced by confused and sudden feelings, followed into the next apartment, where, supported by pillows in an easy chair, sat an aged man, whose pale grey eye and fixed features shewed the quiet imbecility of second childhood. But the deep seams in his forehead, the knotted muscles about his lip, and the strong contraction of his dark eyebrows, also indicated what malignant passions had once been busy there. A boy and two infant girls were busied in wreathing his footstool with the forget-me-not, and other beautiful wild-flowers, so abundant in the fields near Waterloo.—“This unfortunate man,” said Von Grumbotdt’s conductress, “was tempted by anxious fondness for his children to confuse his sister’s fortune with his own, which vanished away as if the embezzled part had been a brand that consumed the whole. Those who aided him to rob her are gone, and no one remembers him. When I feel the beginning of that distrustful, envious, peevish, and timorous spirit which the world calls melancholy, I look at this forlorn old man and those orphan children; and their gratitude makes my heart good.”—The Colonel shuddered as he replied, “Is this human ruin an enlivening spectacle? And those orphans, whose dependence is the school of craft, envy, and avarice!—is not their fate a motive rather than a medicine for melancholy?”—“It might be,” answered the matron, “if I held myself responsible for events, but I am satified with good intentions, and leave their success to another arbiter. Though this human vegetable is not conscious of my presence, and never soothed by any caresses—though those children may be unquiet, sordid, or deceitful, it is pleasure enough to love and deserve to be loved by them.”—“Ah, madam!” said her guest, uncovering his head with an emotion of respect he had not fell before, “you have said truly that gratitude makes the heart good, but ungrateful men have corrupted mine. The horrible weariness of life, the death of spirit which comes upon me every day, has no remedy. I have learned to hope, to esteem, and to cherish nothing—but I remember every thing—and this terrible remembrance, this cruel experience of false and hollow hearts, convinces me that even your bounty is a melancholy illusion. It will make one ungrateful and two discontented—it will leave you in a desolate old age with no employment but to hate and regret.”—“My good friend, I have not yet told you my father’s most precious prescription. Many, perhaps, equalled him in science, a few in eloquence—but what a divine world would this be if all resembled him in gentleness!—His only maxim was, “Forget evil”—and there is in these two words a talisman which assuages the heart, lightens the head, and composes all enmities. Was your frightful languor and despair present while you rescued me from robbery and assassination?”—“No—because we cannot remember injuries while we are conferring benefits:—but benefits are forgotten!”—“Ah! now you shew me the gangrene of the wound—you have been misunderstood and insulted. Well, take courage—I have been charged with improvidence in my youth, because it was easier to trust than to suspect; and now I am called a miser by those who cannot know for whom I am amassing a future competence.”—“You seem poor, then, only to enrich others!” said the discontented man, sighing—“but is it necessary to suffer this rustic and laborious servitude, with the ignominy of imputed avarice, for the benefit of alien children and an insensible man, whose wretchedness is his due punishment?”—“It is not necessary, perhaps,” she replied, “but he is my brother, and was my enemy! I must pity and relieve his wretchedness, unless I endure the misery of hating him, which would be greater even than his. And the evil he caused me ceased when I forgot it.”—Von Humboldt started, and examined her with wild and eager eyes, while she added, “This is my cure for melancholy:—I cannot give you the Antwerp physician’s talisman, but the ring you received from me last night may have equal virtue. It is the only legacy I designed for a nephew noble enough to abstain from borrowed wealth, and to redeem his father’s honour by retiring himself into poverty, though with such a bitter feeling of its disadvantages.”
Neither the natural sang-froid of a Belgian, nor the acquired sterness of a veteran, could repress the soldier’s tears, when he recognized his father’s sister, so long lost and so deeply injured. This interview, this opportunity to offer an ample restitution of all that her brother had accumulated unjustly, completed his only wish and most sacred purpose, which had been baffled many years by the humble seclusion she had chosen from generous motives. Thus having retrieved his father’s name from blemish, he appeared again in Brussels among his former friends, who readily paid to the successful and distinguished Colonel Von G——the homage they had refused to Herman Altenberg in his supposed indigence. But he had learned its true value, and preferred the white farm where his benevolent aunt resided in the loveliness of charity and peace. She bequeathed him all that his filial integrity had restored to her, but he divided it among her less fortunate relatives, reserving only the ring, which, by recalling the beauty of patience and forgiveness to his recollection, became his talisman against melancholy.