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- Peter Schlemihl etc. - 5/20 -
As soon as my house was ready for my reception, Bendel returned to conduct me to it. We set out on our journey. About a league from the town, on a sunny plain, we were stopped by a crowd of people, arrayed in holiday attire for some festival. The carriage stopped. Music, bells, cannons, were heard; and loud acclamations rang through the air.
Before the carriage now appeared in white dresses a chorus of maidens, all of extraordinary beauty; but one of them shone in resplendent loveliness, and eclipsed the rest as the sun eclipses the stars of night. She advanced from the midst of her companions, and, with a lofty yet winning air, blushingly knelt before me, presenting on a silken cushion a wreath, composed of laurel branches, the olive, and the rose, saying something respecting majesty, love, honour, &c., which I could not comprehend; but the sweet and silvery magic of her tones intoxicated my senses and my whole soul: it seemed as if some heavenly apparition were hovering over me. The chorus now began to sing the praises of a good sovereign, and the happiness of his subjects. All this, dear Chamisso, took place in the sun: she was kneeling two steps from me, and I, without a shadow, could not dart through the air, nor fall on my knees before the angelic being. Oh, what would I not now have given for a shadow! To conceal my shame, agony, and despair, I buried myself in the recesses of the carriage. Bendel at last thought of an expedient; he jumped out of the carriage. I called him back, and gave him out of the casket I had by me a rich diamond coronet, which had been intended for the lovely Fanny.
He stepped forward, and spoke in the name of his master, who, he said, was overwhelmed by so many demonstrations of respect, which he really could not accept as an honour--there must be some error; nevertheless he begged to express his thanks for the goodwill of the worthy townspeople. In the meantime Bendel had taken the wreath from the cushion, and laid the brilliant crown in its place. He then respectfully raised the lovely girl from the ground; and, at one sign, the clergy, magistrates, and all the deputations withdrew. The crowd separated to allow the horses to pass, and we pursued our way to the town at full gallop, through arches ornamented with flowers and branches of laurel. Salvos of artillery again were heard. The carriage stopped at my gate; I hastened through the crowd which curiosity had attracted to witness my arrival. Enthusiastic shouts resounded under my windows, from whence I showered gold amidst the people; and in the evening the whole town was illuminated. Still all remained a mystery to me, and I could not imagine for whom I had been taken. I sent Rascal out to make inquiry; and he soon obtained intelligence that the good King of Prussia was travelling through the country under the name of some count; that my aide-de-camp had been recognised, and that he had divulged the secret; that on acquiring the certainty that I would enter their town, their joy had known no bounds: however, as they perceived I was determined on preserving the strictest incognito, they felt how wrong they had been in too importunately seeking to withdraw the veil; but I had received them so condescendingly and so graciously, that they were sure I would forgive them. The whole affair was such capital amusement to the unprincipled Rascal, that he did his best to confirm the good people in their belief, while affecting to reprove them. He gave me a very comical account of the matter; and, seeing that I was amused by it, actually endeavoured to make a merit of his impudence.
Shall I own the truth? My vanity was flattered by having been mistaken for our revered sovereign. I ordered a banquet to be got ready for the following evening, under the trees before my house, and invited the whole town. The mysterious power of my purse, Bendel's exertions, and Rascal's ready invention, made the shortness of the time seem as nothing.
It was really astonishing how magnificently and beautifully everything was arranged in these few hours. Splendour and abundance vied with each other, and the lights were so carefully arranged that I felt quite safe: the zeal of my servants met every exigency and merited all praise.
Evening drew on, the guests arrived, and were presented to me. The word MAJESTY was now dropped; but, with the deepest respect and humility, I was addressed as the COUNT. What could I do? I accepted the title, and from that moment I was known as Count Peter. In the midst of all this festivity my soul pined for one individual. She came late--she who was the empress of the scene, and wore the emblem of sovereignty on her brow.
She modestly accompanied her parents, and seemed unconscious of her transcendent beauty.
The Ranger of the Forests, his wife, and daughter, were presented to me. I was at no loss to make myself agreeable to the parents; but before the daughter I stood like a well-scolded schoolboy, incapable of speaking a single word.
At length I hesitatingly entreated her to honour my banquet by presiding at it--an office for which her rare endowments pointed her out as admirably fitted. With a blush and an expressive glance she entreated to be excused; but, in still greater confusion than herself, I respectfully begged her to accept the homage of the first and most devoted of her subjects, and one glance of the count was the same as a command to the guests, who all vied with each other in acting up to the spirit of the noble host.
In her person majesty, innocence, and grace, in union with beauty, presided over this joyous banquet. Minna's happy parents were elated by the honours conferred upon their child. As for me, I abandoned myself to all the intoxication of delight: I sent for all the jewels, pearls, and precious stones still left to me--the produce of my fatal wealth--and, filling two vases, I placed them on the table, in the name of the Queen of the banquet, to be divided among her companions and the remainder of the ladies.
I ordered gold in the meantime to be showered down without ceasing among the happy multitude.
Next morning Bendel told me in confidence that the suspicions he had long entertained of Rascal's honesty were now reduced to a certainty; he had yesterday embezzled many bags of gold.
"Never mind," said I; "let him enjoy his paltry booty. I like to spend it; why should not he? Yesterday he, and all the newly- engaged servants whom you had hired, served me honourably, and cheerfully assisted me to enjoy the banquet."
No more was said on the subject. Rascal remained at the head of my domestics. Bendel was my friend and confidant; he had by this time become accustomed to look upon my wealth as inexhaustible, without seeking to inquire into its source. He entered into all my schemes, and effectually assisted me in devising methods of spending my money.
Of the pale, sneaking scoundrel--the unknown--Bendel only knew thus much, that he alone had power to release me from the curse which weighed so heavily on me, and yet that I stood in awe of him on whom all my hopes rested. Besides, I felt convinced that he had the means of discovering ME under any circumstances, while he himself remained concealed. I therefore abandoned my fruitless inquiries, and patiently awaited the appointed day.
The magnificence of my banquet, and my deportment on the occasion, had but strengthened the credulous townspeople in their previous belief.
It appeared soon after, from accounts in the newspapers, that the whole history of the King of Prussia's fictitious journey originated in mere idle report. But a king I was, and a king I must remain by all means; and one of the richest and most royal, although people were at a loss to know where my territories lay.
The world has never had reason to lament the scarcity of monarchs, particularly in these days; and the good people, who had never yet seen a king, now fancied me to be first one, and then another, with equal success; and in the meanwhile I remained as before, Count Peter.
Among the visitors at this watering-place a merchant made his appearance, one who had become a bankrupt in order to enrich himself. He enjoyed the general good opinion; for he projected a shadow of respectable size, though of somewhat faint hue.
This man wished to show off in this place by means of his wealth, and sought to rival me. My purse soon enabled me to leave the poor devil far behind. To save his credit he became bankrupt again, and fled beyond the mountains; and thus I was rid of him. Many a one in this place was reduced to beggary and ruin through my means.
In the midst of the really princely magnificence and profusion, which carried all before me, my own style of living was very simple and retired. I had made it a point to observe the strictest precaution; and, with the exception of Bendel, no one was permitted, on any pretence whatever, to enter my private apartment. As long as the sun shone I remained shut up with him; and the Count was then said to be deeply occupied in his closet. The numerous couriers, whom I kept in constant attendance about matters of no importance, were supposed to be the bearers of my despatches. I only received company in the evening under the trees of my garden, or in my saloons, after Bendel's assurance of their being carefully and brilliantly lit up.
My walks, in which the Argus-eyed Bendel was constantly on the watch for me, extended only to the garden of the forest-ranger, to enjoy the society of one who was dear to me as my own existence.
Oh, my Chamisso! I trust thou hast not forgotten what love is! I must here leave much to thine imagination. Minna was in truth an amiable and excellent maiden: her whole soul was wrapped up in me, and in her lowly thoughts of herself she could not imagine how she had deserved a single thought from me. She returned love for love with all the full and youthful fervour of an innocent heart; her love was a true woman's love, with all the devotion and total absence of selfishness which is found only in woman; she lived but in me, her whole soul being bound up in mine, regardless what her own fate might be.
Yet I, alas, during those hours of wretchedness--hours I would even now gladly recall--how often have I wept on Bendel's bosom, when after the first mad whirlwind of passion I reflected, with the keenest self-upbraidings, that I, a shadowless man, had, with cruel selfishness, practised a wicked deception, and stolen away the pure and angelic heart of the innocent Minna!
At one moment I resolved to confess all to her; then that I would fly for ever; then I broke out into a flood of bitter tears, and
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