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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Alexander Balázs (Mid-19th Century)

My Double

I HAVE a certain acquaintance whom, to my sincere regret, I meet very seldom. Frankly, I should like to be with him often—if possible, daily. In the first place, because he is a very cultivated and charming person, with whom one can gossip away a most delightful hour over a glass of beer or a bottle of wine. The second reason is, that whenever we meet he gives me a cigar that costs at least a gulden. If I make any motion to refuse it, he knows how to overcome my scruples with so much delicacy, to convince me so thoroughly that my acceptance would confer a favor upon him, that I at last incline to his view of the case, and light his fragrant Havana. Any one who is as passionately fond of smoking as I will not blame me for not pushing refusal to the point of quixotism. Furthermore, we live in a civilized society; we are not barbarians. Courtesy is a duty, a virtue, and demands of us that we yield to the wishes of our fellow men. Hence I may confess, without endangering my reputation, that I am not sorry to receive cigars costing a Gulden, but that silently I rather cherish the wish to meet my acquaintance and his cigars daily.

My acquaintance! Ah, what is his name? Now I have even forgotten his name. What ingratitude! By way of excuse I can only allege that this forgetfulness is the fault not of my heart, but of my memory. And then it is, in a measure, his own fault; for it is certain that his name is one of such frequent occurrence as to have little of specific and only a generic value—Smith, or Brown, or Robinson. But this is not the worst. Not only have I forgotten his name, but I have no idea of his occupation. I only know that he must be master of a considerable income, for his purse is exceedingly well filled whenever one sees him. Then, too, it is no small matter not only to smoke cigars at a Gulden, but to offer them to one’s acquaintances. No member of the middle class could do it. And so I have no idea who he is or what is his position in society. Nor shall I ever know. We have no acquaintances in common, and I would not commit the indiscretion of questioning him. It is noticeable that he not only offers me cigars worth a Gulden, but never omits to mention this latter fact, from which I infer that he is a Philistine or an upstart. But it is useless to dwell on this point. The fact remains that his cigars are excellent, and that I regret not meeting him oftener.

Another fact about my anonymous acquaintance has struck me. Whenever we meet I have to listen to the same complaint from him. At our first meeting he started it, and whenever we see each other he begins the same story, so that I am inclined to think it has become a fixed idea with him. He expresses his regret that we have not met for so long a time, offers me a cigar, and plunges into the tale of his grievance.

“Just consider what wretched bad luck I have! The thing is unheard-of, and could have happened only to me.”

“You don’t say so!”

“Just think, there is a fellow in this town who bears so extraordinary a resemblance to me, not only in feature, but in gesture and speech, that no one can possibly distinguish us from each other.”

“Dear me, how astonishing!”

“So complete is the resemblance that my own mother could not tell me from him. I once had an interview with my double, and discovered from him that he had been born not only in the same year, and on the same day, but at the very same hour as myself.”

“Such a resemblance is amazing; but why should you consider it a peculiar misfortune?”

“What! do you not see that I am held responsible for all the behavior of a complete stranger?”

“You are right; that is pretty bad.”

“It’s worse than that; it is a positive misfortune. I have to live in continual terror of being arrested for theft or forgery or burglary, or of being pursued by a cast-off mistress who may scratch my eyes out and throw acid in my face. One day a tailor attacked me on the street because I had not paid him a debt of ten Gulden. In vain I assured him that I did not owe him anything, that he was taking me for some one else. He grew angrier and more scandalous in his behavior, and so, in order to avoid a street row, I had to pay my wretched double’s debt.”

“And why did you not call upon the police for help?”

“Do you think I wanted to make a public exhibition of myself? The enraged tailor bawled so that all the passers-by stopped. Oh, it was horrible! I shall go mad in the end, or commit suicide.”

“And what sort of a person is your double?”

“A rascal, a drunkard, a rake, a wretched creature, who, though he dresses in rags and prowls about the lowest rum-shops, has the audacity to accost respectable girls in order to seduce them. The whole affair is no joke, I assure you, but a very real misfortune. I tremble when I think of the misunderstandings that I might be plunged into in the social circles where I move.”

“My dear sir, surely you exaggerate. Your friends and social connections know you too well to associate you with the vile conduct of another, no matter what his resemblance to you may be.”

“You are very innocent, and know little of the world. The majority of men do not recoil from slander, and are willing to believe the worst, rather than the best, of their fellow men. But the worst thing that I have to anticipate is that one fine day my betrothed may suddenly meet this man with some vulgar trollop.”

“I would advise you to pay him to leave town.”

“I have tried that too. I once met him in a suburb, and asked him to dine with me. He accepted, saying that he was glad to make my more intimate acquaintance. I then discovered that he was a sign-painter by trade. I offered him a thousand Gulden if he would leave the capital. He refused with scorn. He liked city life, he said, and would rather be a beggar here than a king elsewhere. So you see the hopelessness of my situation.”

Thus I have to hear his story and his jeremiads about it. I acknowledge that he never forgets to offer me his excellent cigars, and I am weak enough to accept them, even at the risk of hearing the same story over again. I had not seen him for a long time once, and I began to believe that he had emigrated, or died, when I met him quite accidentally on the street. He was walking in front of me, and I was just then in a state of mind in which a Havana cigar would have been very grateful to me. I therefore tried to catch him up, but just as I was about to succeed, he turned and entered a house. When I returned, somewhat later, by the same road, I saw my acquaintance emerging from the same house. But what a change had taken place in him! Instead of the well-cut clothes which he ordinarily affected, he was garbed in rags; instead of his gleaming silk hat, he wore a common working-man’s cap. And yet it was he himself, and no other, no painter who bore a close resemblance to him. No resemblance could be so absolute. And yet, did he not say that his own mother could not tell him from his double? I did not know whether to address him or not. Curiosity conquering me, I approached him, smiled, and said, “Good morning, friend.” He stopped in surprise. Then he said, in a hoarse voice:

“What can I do for you? I have not the honor of your acquaintance.”

“I beg your pardon,” I said, “I must have been mistaken.”

“I thought so,” he answered; “the same thing has happened to me before.”

I was overwhelmed with astonishment. My anonymous friend was right. Never had there been such a resemblance. At that moment some one called to me, patted my shoulder familiarly, and when I turned around I recognized my old friend B., the police lieutenant.

“What are you staring at?” he asked.

I told him the whole story.

“I understand,” he said, “and I know your double and his excellent cigars quite well.”

“Thank Heaven! My curiosity will be satisfied at last! Believe me, I am interested in the man for his own sake, not only for the sake of his cigars. But don’t let us stand in the street. Here is a café.”

I now heard the whole story. My acquaintance was a cunning and experienced adventurer, a Don Juan besides, and an irreclaimable gambler. Whenever he won heavily it was his habit to smoke cigars of at least a Gulden each. As soon as all his money was gone he changed back to the humble sign-painter, and worked until he had saved enough to start again. The story about his double was a trick to disarm the suspicion of his acquaintances, should they meet him in his working-man’s costume. At last the police found him out, and kept a vigilant eye on him.

Now I should like to know when I shall ever again have the pleasure of smoking cigars at a Gulden each?