The Wondersmith, by Fitz James O'Brien

A Bottleful of Souls.

It was a dull December evening. There was little trade doing in Golosh Street, and the shutters were up at most of the shops. Hippe’s store had been closed at least an hour, and the Mino-birds and Bohemian waxwings at Mr. Pippel’s had their heads tucked under their wings in their first sleep.

Herr Hippe sat in his parlor, which was lit by a pleasant wood-fire. There were no candles in the room, and the flickering blaze played fantastic tricks on the pale gray walls. It seemed the festival of shadows. Processions of shapes, obscure and indistinct, passed across the leaden-hued panels and vanished in the dusk corners. Every fresh blaze flung up by the wayward logs created new images. Now it was a funeral throng, with the bowed figures of mourners, the shrouded coffin, the plumes that waved like extinguished torches; now a knightly cavalcade with flags and lances, and weird horses, that rushed silently along until they met the angle of the room, when they pranced through the wall and vanished.

On a table close to where Herr Hippe sat was placed a large square box of some dark wood, while over it was spread a casing of steel, so elaborately wrought in an open arabesque pattern that it seemed like a shining blue lace which was lightly stretched over its surface.

Herr Hippe lay luxuriously in his arm-chair, looking meditatively into the fire. He was tall and thin, and his skin was of a dull saffron hue. Long, straight hair — sharply cut, regular features — a long, thin moustache, that curled like a dark asp around his mouth, the expression of which was so bitter and cruel that it seemed to distil the venom of the ideal serpent — and a bony, muscular form, were the prominent characteristics of the Wondersmith.

The profound silence that reigned in the chamber was broken by a peculiar scratching at the panel of the door, like that which at the French court was formerly substituted for the ordinary knock, when it was necessary to demand admission to the royal apartments. Herr Hippe started, raised his head, which vibrated on his long neck like the head of a cobra when about to strike, and after a moment’s silence uttered a strange guttural sound. The door unclosed, and a squat, broad-shouldered woman, with large, wild, Oriental eyes, entered softly.

“Ah! Filomel, you are come!” said the Wondersmith, sinking back in his chair. “Where are the rest of them?”

“They will be here presently,” answered Madame Filomel, seating herself in an arm-chair much too narrow for a person of her proportions, and over the sides of which she bulged like a pudding.

“Have you brought the souls?” asked the Wondersmith.

“They are here,” said the fortune-teller, drawing a large pot-bellied black bottle from under her cloak. “Ah! I have had such trouble with them!”

“Are they of the right brand — wild, tearing, dark, devilish fellows? We want no essence of milk and honey, you know. None but souls bitter as hemlock or scorching as lightning will suit our purpose.”

“You will see, you will see, Grand Duke of Egypt! They are ethereal demons, every one of them. They are the pick of a thousand births. Do you think that I, old midwife that I am, don’t know the squall of the demon child from that of the angel child, the very moment they are delivered? Ask a musician, how he knows, even in the dark, a note struck by Thalberg from one struck by Listz!”

“I long to test them,” cried the Wondersmith, rubbing his hands joyfully. “I long to see how the little devils will behave when I give them their shapes. Ah! it will be a proud day for us when we let them loose upon the cursed Christian children! Through the length and breadth of the land they will go; wherever our wandering people set foot, and wherever they are, the children of the Christians shall die. Then we, the despised Bohemians, the gypsies, as they call us, will be once more lords of the earth, as we were in the days when the accursed things called cities did not exist, and men lived in the free woods and hunted the game of the forest. Toys indeed! Ay, ay, we will give the little dears toys! toys that all day will sleep calmly in their boxes, seemingly stiff and wooden and without life — but at night, when the souls enter them, will arise and surround the cots of the sleeping children, and pierce their hearts with their keen, envenomed blades! Toys indeed! oh, yes! I will sell them toys!”

And the Wondersmith laughed horribly, while the snaky moustache on his upper lip writhed as if it had truly a serpent’s power and could sting.

“Have you got your first batch, Herr Hippe?” asked Madame Filomel. “Are they all ready?”

“Oh, ay! they are ready,” answered the Wondersmith with gusto — opening, as he spoke, the box covered with the blue steel lace-work; “they are here.”

The box contained a quantity of exquisitely carved wooden manikins of both sexes, painted with great dexterity so as to present a miniature resemblance to Nature. They were, in fact, nothing more than admirable specimens of those toys which children delight in placing in various positions on the table — in regiments, or sitting at meals, or grouped under the stiff green trees which always accompany them in the boxes in which they are sold at the toy-shops.

The peculiarity, however, about the manikins of Herr Hippe was not alone the artistic truth with which the limbs and the features were gifted; but on the countenance of each little puppet the carver’s art had wrought an expression of wickedness that was appalling. Every tiny face had its special stamp of ferocity. The lips were thin and brimful of malice; the small black bead-like eyes glittered with the fire of a universal hate. There was not one of the manikins, male or female, that did not hold in his or her hand some miniature weapon. The little men, scowling like demons, clasped in their wooden fingers swords delicate as a housewife’s needle. The women, whose countenances expressed treachery and cruelty, clutched infinitesimal daggers, with which they seemed about to take some terrible vengeance.

“Good!” said Madame Filomel, taking one of the manikins out of the box, and examining it attentively; “you work well, Duke Balthazar! These little ones are of the right stamp; they look as if they had mischief in them. Ah! here come our brothers.”

At this moment the same scratching that preceded the entrance of Madame Filomel was heard at the door, and Herr Hippe replied with a hoarse, guttural cry. The next moment two men entered. The first was a small man with very brilliant eyes. He was wrapt in a long shabby cloak, and wore a strange nondescript species of cap on his head, such a cap as one sees only in the low billiard-rooms in Paris. His companion was tall, long-limbed, and slender; and his dress, although of the ordinary cut, either from the disposition of colors, or from the careless, graceful attitudes of the wearer, assumed a certain air of picturesqueness. Both the men possessed the same marked Oriental type of countenance which distinguished the Wondersmith and Madame Filomel. True gypsies they seemed, who would not have been out of place telling fortunes, or stealing chickens in the green lanes of England, or wandering with their wild music and their sleight-of-hand tricks through Bohemian villages.

“Welcome, brothers!” said the Wondersmith; “you are in time. Sister Filomel has brought the souls, and we are about to test them. Monsieur Kerplonne, take off your cloak. Brother Oaksmith, take a chair. I promise you some amusement this evening; so make yourselves comfortable. Here is something to aid you.”

And while the Frenchman Kerplonne, and his tall companion, Oaksmith, were obeying Hippe’s invitation, he reached over to a little closet let into the wall, and took thence a squat bottle and some glasses, which he placed on the table.

“Drink, brothers!” he said; “it is not Christian blood, but good stout wine of Oporto. It goes right to the heart, and warms one like the sunshine of the South.”

“It is good,” said Kerplonne, smacking his lips with enthusiasm.

“Why don’t you keep brandy? Hang wine!” cried Oaksmith, after having swallowed two bumpers in rapid succession.

“Bah! Brandy has been the ruin of our race. It has made us sots and thieves. It shall never cross my threshold,” cried the Wondersmith, with a sombre indignation.

“A little of it is not bad, though, Duke,” said the fortune-teller. “It consoles us for our misfortunes; it gives us the crowns we once wore; it restores to us the power we once wielded; it carries us back, as if by magic, to that land of the sun from which fate has driven us; it darkens the memory of all the evils that we have for centuries suffered.”

“It is a devil; may it be cursed!” cried Herr Hippe, passionately. “It is a demon that stole from me my son, the finest youth in all Courland. Yes! my son, the son of the Waywode Balthazar, Grand Duke of Lower Egypt, died raving in a gutter, with an empty brandy-bottle in his hands. Were it not that the plant is a sacred one to our race, I would curse the grape and the vine that bore it.”

This outburst was delivered with such energy that the three gypsies kept silence. Oaksmith helped himself to another glass of Port, and the fortune-teller rocked to and fro in her chair, too much overawed by the Wondersmith’s vehemence of manner to reply. The little Frenchman, Kerplonne, took no part in the discussion, but seemed lost in admiration of the manikins, which he took from the box in which they lay, handling them with the greatest care. After the silence had lasted for about a minute, Herr Hippe broke it with the sudden question — —

“How does your eye get on, Kerplonne?”

“Excellently, Duke. It is finished. I have it here.” And the little Frenchman put his hand into his breeches-pocket and pulled out a large artificial human eye. Its great size was the only thing in this eye that would lead any one to suspect its artificiality. It was at least twice the size of life; but there was a fearful speculative light in its iris, which seemed to expand and contract like the eye of a living being, that rendered it a horrible staring paradox. It looked like the naked eye of the Cyclops, torn from his forehead, and still burning with wrath and the desire for vengeance.

The little Frenchman laughed pleasantly as he held the eye in his hand, and gazed down on that huge dark pupil, that stared back at him, it seemed, with an air of defiance and mistrust.

“It is a devil of an eye,” said the little man, wiping the enamelled surface with an old silk pocket-handkerchief; “it reads like a demon. My niece — the unhappy one — has a wretch of a lover, and I have a long time feared that she would run away with him. I could not read her correspondence, for she kept her writing-desk closely locked. But I asked her yesterday to keep this eye in some very safe place for me. She put it, as I knew she would, into her desk, and by its aid I read every one of her letters. She was to run away next Monday, the ungrateful! but she will find herself disappointed.”

And the little man laughed heartily at the success of his stratagem, and polished and fondled the great eye until that optic seemed to grow sore with rubbing.

“And you have been at work, too, I see, Herr Hippe. Your manikins are excellent. But where are the souls?”

“In that bottle,” answered the Wondersmith, pointing to the pot~bellied black bottle that Madame Filomel had brought with her. “Yes, Monsieur Kerplonne,” he continued, “my manikins are well made. I invoked the aid of Abigor, the demon of soldiery, and he inspired me. The little fellows will be famous assassins when they are animated. We will try them to-night.”

“Good!” cried Kerplonne, rubbing his hands joyously. “It is close upon New Year’s Day. We will fabricate millions of the little murderers by New Year’s Even, and sell them in large quantities; and when the households are all asleep, and the Christian children are waiting for Santa Claus to come, the small ones will troop from their boxes and the Christian children will die. It is famous! Health to Abigor!”

“Let us try them at once,” said Oaksmith. “Is your daughter, Zonela, in bed, Herr Hippe? Are we secure from intrusion?”

“No one is stirring about the house,” replied the Wondersmith, gloomily.

Filomel leaned over to Oaksmith, and said, in an undertone — —

“Why do you mention his daughter? You know he does not like to have her spoken about.”

“I will take care that we are not disturbed,” said Kerplonne, rising. “I will put my eye outside the door, to watch.”

He went to the door and placed his great eye upon the floor with tender care. As he did so, a dark form, unseen by him or his second vision, glided along the passage noiselessly and was lost in the darkness.

“Now for it!” exclaimed Madam Filomel, taking up her fat black bottle. “Herr Hippe, prepare your manikins!”

The Wondersmith took the little dolls out, one by one, and set them upon the table. Such an array of villanous countenances was never seen. An army of Italian bravos, seen through the wrong end of a telescope, or a band of prisoners at the galleys in Lilliput, will give some faint idea of the appearance they presented. While Madame Filomel uncorked the black bottle, Herr Hippe covered the dolls over with a species of linen tent, which he took also from the box. This done, the fortune-teller held the mouth of the bottle to the door of the tent, gathering the loose cloth closely round the glass neck. Immediately, tiny noises were heard inside the tent. Madame Filomel removed the bottle, and the Wondersmith lifted the covering in which he had enveloped his little people.

A wonderful transformation had taken place. Wooden and inflexible no longer, the crowd of manikins were now in full motion. The beadlike eyes turned, glittering, on all sides; the thin, wicked lips quivered with bad passions; the tiny hands sheathed and unsheathed the little swords and daggers. Episodes, common to life, were taking place in every direction. Here two martial manikins paid court to a pretty sly~faced female, who smiled on each alternately, but gave her hand to be kissed to a third manikin, an ugly little scoundrel, who crouched behind her back. There a pair of friendly dolls walked arm in arm, apparently on the best terms, while, all the time, one was watching his opportunity to stab the other in the back.

“I think they’ll do,” said the Wondersmith, chuckling, as he watched these various incidents. “Treacherous, cruel, bloodthirsty. All goes marvellously well. But stay! I will put the grand test to them.”

So saying, he drew a gold dollar from his pocket, and let it fall on the table in the very midst of the throng of manikins. It had hardly touched the table, when there was a pause on all sides. Every head was turned towards the dollar. Then about twenty of the little creatures rushed towards the glittering coin. One, fleeter than the rest, leaped upon it, and drew his sword. The entire crowd of little people had now gathered round this new centre of attraction. Men and women struggled and shoved to get nearer to the piece of gold. Hardly had the first Liliputian mounted upon the treasure, when a hundred blades flashed back a defiant answer to his, and a dozen men, sword in hand, leaped upon the yellow platform and drove him off at the sword’s point. Then commenced a general battle. The miniature faces were convulsed with rage and avarice. Each furious doll tried to plunge dagger or sword into his or her neighbor, and the women seemed possessed by a thousand devils.

“They will break themselves into atoms,” cried Filomel, as she watched with eagerness this savage melee. “You had better gather them up, Herr Hippe. I will exhaust my bottle and suck all the souls back from them.”

“Oh, they are perfect devils! they are magnificent little demons!” cried the Frenchman, with enthusiasm. “Hippe, you are a wonderful man. Brother Oaksmith, you have no such man as Hippe among your English gypsies.”

“Not exactly,” answered Oaksmith, rather sullenly, “not exactly. But we have men there who can make a twelve-year-old horse look like a four-year-old — and who can take you and Herr Hippe up with one hand, and throw you over their shoulders.”

“The good God forbid!” said the little Frenchman. “I do not love such play. It is incommodious.”

While Oaksmith and Kerplonne were talking, the Wondersmith had placed the linen tent over the struggling dolls, and Madame Filomel, who had been performing some mysterious manipulations with her black bottle, put the mouth once more to the door of the tent. In an instant the confused murmur within ceased. Madame Filomel corked the bottle quickly. The Wondersmith withdrew the tent, and, lo! the furious dolls were once more wooden-jointed and inflexible; and the old sinister look was again frozen on their faces.

“They must have blood, though,” said Herr Hippe, as he gathered them up and put them into their box. “Mr. Pippel, the bird-fancier, is asleep. I have a key that opens his door. We will let them loose among the birds; it will be rare fun.”

“Magnificent!” cried Kerplonne. “Let us go on the instant. But first let me gather up my eye.”

The Frenchman pocketed his eye, after having given it a polish with the silk handkerchief; Herr Hippe extinguished the lamp; Oaksmith took a last bumper of Port; and the four gypsies departed for Mr. Pippel’s, carrying the box of manikins with them.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 21:06