The Wondersmith, by Fitz James O'Brien


THE shadow that glided along the dark corridor, at the moment that Monsieur Kerplonne deposited his sentinel eye outside the door of the Wondersmith’s apartment, sped swiftly through the passage and ascended the stairs to the attic. Here the shadow stopped at the entrance to one of the chambers and knocked at the door. There was no reply.

“Zonela, are you asleep?” said the shadow, softly.

“Oh, Solon, is it you?” replied a sweet low voice from within. “I thought it was Herr Hippe. Come in.”

The shadow opened the door and entered. There were neither candles nor lamp in the room; but through the projecting window, which was open, there came the faint gleams of the starlight, by which one could distinguish a female figure seated on a low stool in the middle of the floor.

“Has he left you without light again, Zonela?” asked the shadow, closing the door of the apartment. “I have brought my little lantern with me, though.”

“Thank you, Solon,” answered she called Zonela; “you are a good fellow. He never gives me any light of an evening, but bids me go to bed. I like to sit sometimes and look at the moon and the stars — the stars more than all; for they seem all the time to look right back into my face, very sadly, as if they would say, ‘We see you, and pity you, and would help you, if we could.’ But it is so mournful to be always looking at such myriads of melancholy eyes! and I long so to read those nice books that you lend me, Solon!”

By this time the shadow had lit the lantern and was a shadow no longer. A large head, covered with a profusion of long blonde hair, which was cut after that fashion known as a l’enfants d’Edouard; a beautiful pale face, lit with wide, blue, dreamy eyes; long arms and slender hands, attenuated legs, and — an enormous hump; — such was Solon, the shadow. As soon as the humpback had lit the lamp, Zonela arose from the low stool on which she had been seated, and took Solon’s hand affectionately in hers.

Zonela was surely not of gypsy blood. That rich auburn hair, that looked almost black in the lamp-light, that pale, transparent skin, tinged with an under-glow of warm rich blood, the hazel eyes, large and soft as those of a fawn, were never begotten of a Zingaro. Zonela was seemingly about sixteen; her figure, although somewhat thin and angular, was full of the unconscious grace of youth. She was dressed in an old cotton print, which had been once of an exceedingly boisterous pattern, but was now a mere suggestion of former splendor; while round her head was twisted, in fantastic fashion, a silk handkerchief of green ground spotted with bright crimson. This strange headdress gave her an elfish appearance.

“I have been out all day with the organ, and I am so tired, Solon! — not sleepy, but weary, I mean. Poor Furbelow was sleepy, though, and he’s gone to bed.”

“I’m weary, too, Zonela; — not weary as you are, though, for I sit in my little book-stall all day long, and do not drag round an organ and a monkey and play old tunes for pennies — but weary of myself, of life, of the load that I carry on my shoulders;” and, as he said this, the poor humpback glanced sideways, as if to call attention to his deformed person.

“Well, but you ought not to be melancholy amidst your books, Solon. Gracious! If I could only sit in the sun and read as you do, how happy I should be! But it’s very tiresome to trudge round all day with that nasty organ, and look up at the houses, and know that you are annoying the people inside; and then the boys play such bad tricks on poor Furbelow, throwing him hot pennies to pick up, and burning his poor little hands; and oh! sometimes, Solon, the men in the street make me so afraid — they speak to me and look at me so oddly! — I’d a great deal rather sit in your book-stall and read.”

“I have nothing but odd volumes in my stall,” answered the humpback. “Perhaps that’s right, though; for, after all, I’m nothing but an odd volume myself.”

“Come, don’t be melancholy, Solon. Sit down and tell me a story. I’ll bring Furbelow to listen.”

So saying, she went to a dusk corner of the cheerless attic-room, and returned with a little Brazilian monkey in her arms — a poor, mild, drowsy thing, that looked as if it had cried itself to sleep. She sat down on her little stool, with Furbelow in her lap, and nodded her head to Solon, as much as to say, “Go on; we are attentive.”

“You want a story, do you?” said the humpback, with a mournful smile. “Well, I’ll tell you one. Only what will your father say, if he catches me here?”

“Herr Hippe is not my father,” cried Zonela, indignantly. “He’s a gypsy, and I know I’m stolen; and I’d run away from him, if I only knew where to run to. If I were his child, do you think that he would treat me as he does? make me trudge round the city, all day long, with a barrel-organ and a monkey — though I love poor dear little Furbelow — and keep me up in a garret, and give me ever so little to eat? I know I’m not his child, for he hates me.”

“Listen to my story, Zonela, and we’ll talk of that afterwards. Let me sit at your feet;"— and, having coiled himself up at the little maiden’s feet, he commenced:——

“There once lived in a great city, just like this city of New York, a poor little hunchback. He kept a second-hand book-stall, where he made barely enough money to keep body and soul together. He was very sad at times, because he knew scarce any one, and those that he did know did not love him. He had passed a sickly, secluded youth. The children of his neighborhood would not play with him, for he was not made like them; and the people in the streets stared at him with pity, or scoffed at him when he went by. Ah! Zonela, how his poor heart was wrung with bitterness when he beheld the procession of shapely men and fine women that every day passed him by in the thoroughfares of the great city! How he repined and cursed his fate as the torrent of fleet-footed firemen dashed past him to the toll of the bells, magnificent in their overflowing vitality and strength! But there was one consolation left him — one drop of honey in the jar of gall, so sweet that it ameliorated all the bitterness of life. God had given him a deformed body, but his mind was straight and healthy. So the poor hunchback shut himself into the world of books, and was, if not happy, at least contented. He kept company with courteous paladins, and romantic heroes, and beautiful women; and this society was of such excellent breeding that it never so much as once noticed his poor crooked back or his lame walk. The love of books grew upon him with his years. He was remarked for his studious habits; and when, one day, the obscure people that he called father and mother — parents only in name — died, a compassionate book-vendor gave him enough stock in trade to set up a little stall of his own. Here, in his book-stall, he sat in the sun all day, waiting for the customers that seldom came, and reading the fine deeds of the people of the ancient time, or the beautiful thoughts of the poets that had warmed millions of hearts before that hour, and still glowed for him with undiminished fire. One day, when he was reading some book, that, small as it was, was big enough to shut the whole world out from him, he heard some music in the street. Looking up from his book, he saw a little girl, with large eyes, playing an organ, while a monkey begged for alms from a crowd of idlers who had nothing in their pockets but their hands. The girl was playing, but she was also weeping. The merry notes of the polka were ground out to a silent accompaniment of tears. She looked very sad, this organ-girl, and her monkey seemed to have caught the infection, for his large brown eyes were moist, as if he also wept. The poor hunchback was struck with pity, and called the little girl over to give her a penny — not, dear Zonela, because he wished to bestow alms, but because he wanted to speak with her. She came, and they talked together. She came the next day — for it turned out that they were neighbors — and the next, and, in short, every day. They became friends. They were both lonely and afflicted, with this difference, that she was beautiful, and he — was a hunchback.”

“Why, Solon,” cried Zonela, “that’s the very way you and I met!”

“It was then,” continued Solon, with a faint smile, “that life seemed to have its music. A great harmony seemed to the poor cripple to fill the world. The carts that took the flour-barrels from the wharves to the store-houses seemed to emit joyous melodies from their wheels. The hum of the great business-streets sounded like grand symphonies of triumph. As one who has been travelling through a barren country without much heed feels with singular force the sterility of the lands he has passed through when he reaches the fertile plains that lie at the end of his journey, so the humpback, after his vision had been freshened with this blooming flower, remembered for the first time the misery of the life that he had led. But he did not allow himself to dwell upon the past. The present was so delightful that it occupied all his thoughts. Zonela, he was in love with the organ-girl.”

“Oh, that’s so nice!” said Zonela, innocently — pinching poor Furbelow, as she spoke, in order to dispel a very evident snooze that was creeping over him. “It’s going to be a love-story.”

“Ah! but, Zonela, he did not know whether she loved him in return. You forget that he was deformed.”

“But,” answered the girl, gravely, “he was good.”

A light like the flash of an aurora illuminated Solon’s face for an instant. He put out his hand suddenly, as if to take Zonela’s and press it to his heart; but an unaccountable timidity seemed to arrest the impulse, and he only stroked Furbelow’s head — upon which that individual opened one large brown eye to the extent of the eighth of an inch, and, seeing that it was only Solon, instantly closed it again, and resumed his dream of a city where there were no organs and all the copper coin of the realm was iced.

“He hoped and feared,” continued Solon, in a low, mournful voice; “but at times he was very miserable, because he did not think it possible that so much happiness was reserved for him as the love of this beautiful, innocent girl. At night, when he was in bed, and all the world was dreaming, he lay awake looking up at the old books that hung against the walls, thinking how he could bring about the charming of her heart. One night, when he was thinking of this, with his eyes fixed upon the mouldy backs of the odd volumes that lay on their shelves, and looked back at him wistfully, as if they would say — ‘We also are like you, and wait to be completed,’— it seemed as if he heard a rustle of leaves. Then, one by one, the books came down from their places to the floor, as if shifted by invisible hands, opened their worm-eaten covers, and from between the pages of each the hunchback saw issue forth a curious throng of little people that danced here and there through the apartment. Each one of these little creatures was shaped so as to bear resemblance to some one of the letters of the alphabet. One tall, long-legged fellow seemed like the letter A; a burly fellow, with a big head and a paunch, was the model of B; another leering little chap might have passed for a Q; and so on through the whole. These fairies — for fairies they were — climbed upon the hunchback’s bed, and clustered thick as bees upon his pillow. ‘Come!’ they cried to him, ‘we will lead you into fairy-land.’ So saying, they seized his hand, and he suddenly found himself in a beautiful country, where the light did not come from sun or moon or stars, but floated round and over and in everything like the atmosphere. On all sides he heard mysterious melodies sung by strangely musical voices. None of the features of the landscape were definite; yet when he looked on the vague harmonies of color that melted one into another before his sight, he was filled with a sense of inexplicable beauty. On every side of him fluttered radiant bodies which darted to and fro through the illumined space. They were not birds, yet they flew like birds; and as each one crossed the path of his vision, he felt a strange delight flash through his brain, and straightway an interior voice seemed to sing beneath the vaulted dome of his temples a verse containing some beautiful thought. The little fairies were all this time dancing and fluttering around him, perching on his head, on his shoulders, or balancing themselves on his finger~tips. ‘Where am I?’ he asked, at last, of his friends, the fairies. ‘Ah! Solon,’ he heard them whisper, in tones that sounded like the distant tinkling of silver bells, ‘this land is nameless; but those whom we lead hither, who tread its soil, and breathe its air, and gaze on its floating sparks of light, are poets forevermore!’ Having said this, they vanished, and with them the beautiful indefinite land, and the flashing lights, and the illumined air; and the hunchback found himself again in bed, with the moonlight quivering on the floor, and the dusty books on their shelves, grim and mouldy as ever.”

“You have betrayed yourself. You called yourself Solon,” cried Zonela. “Was it a dream?”

“I do not know,” answered Solon; “but since that night I have been a poet.”

“A poet?” screamed the little organ-girl — “a real poet, who makes verses which every one reads and every one talks of?”

“The people call me a poet,” answered Solon, with a sad smile. “They do not know me by the name of Solon, for I write under an assumed title; but they praise me, and repeat my songs. But, Zonela, I can’t sing this load off of my back, can I?”

“Oh, bother the hump!” said Zonela, jumping up suddenly. “You’re a poet, and that’s enough, isn’t it? I’m so glad you’re a poet, Solon! You must repeat all your best things to me, won’t you?”

Solon nodded assent.

“You don’t ask me,” he said, “who was the little girl that the hunchback loved.”

Zonela’s face flushed crimson. She turned suddenly away, and ran into a dark corner of the room. In a moment she returned with an old hand~organ in her arms.

“Play, Solon, play!” she cried. “I am so glad that I want to dance. Furbelow, come and dance in honor of Solon the Poet.”

It was her confession. Solon’s eyes flamed, as if his brain had suddenly ignited. He said nothing; but a triumphant smile broke over his countenance. Zonela, the twilight of whose cheeks was still rosy with the setting blush, caught the lazy Furbelow by his little paws; Solon turned the crank of the organ, which wheezed out as merry a polka as its asthma would allow, and the girl and the monkey commenced their fantastic dance. They had taken but a few steps when the door suddenly opened, and the tall figure of the Wondersmith appeared on the threshold. His face was convulsed with rage, and the black snake that quivered on his upper lip seemed to rear itself as if about to spring upon the hunchback.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59