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

Adelbert von Chamisso (1781–1838)

Sale of a Human Shadow

From “Peter Schlemihl”

THE PORTER announced me, and I had the honor to be summoned into the park, where Mr. Jones was walking with a small company. I knew him instantly by his portly self-complacency. He received me tolerably well—as a rich man is wont to receive a poor dependent devil—looked toward me, but without turning from the rest of the company, and took from me the letter I held in my hand. “Aye, aye, from my brother! I have not heard from him this long time. Is he well?—There,” he continued, addressing the company without waiting for an answer, and pointed with the letter to a hill—“there I have ordered a new building to be erected.”

He broke the seal, but not the conversation, of which wealth became the subject. “He who is not the master of at least a million,” he interposed, “forgive the expression, is a ragamuffin.” “That is true, indeed!” exclaimed I, with full, overflowing feeling. He must have been pleased with the expression of my concurrence, for he smiled on me, and said, “Remain here, my young friend; I shall perhaps have time to tell you by and by what I think of it.” He pointed to the letter, put it into his pocket, and turned again to the company. He then offered his arm to a young lady; other gentlemen were busy with other fair ones; every one found some one to whom he attached himself, and they walked toward the rose-encircled hill. I lingered behind, for not a soul deemed me worthy of notice. The company was extremely cheerful, jocular, and witty; they spoke seriously of trifles, and triflingly of serious matters; and I observed they unconcernedly directed their satires against the persons and the circumstances of absent friends. I was too great a stranger to understand much of these discussions, too much distressed and self-centered to enter into the full merit of the conversation.

We reached the rose-grove. The lovely Fanny, the queen, as it seemed, of the day, was capricious enough to pluck off a twig; a thorn pricked her, and a stream as bright as if from damask roses flowed over her delicate hand. This accident put the whole company in motion. English court-plaster was instantly inquired after. A silent, meager, pale, tall, elderly man, who stood next to me, and whom I had not before observed, instantly put his hand into the close-fitting breast-pocket of his old-fashioned, gray taffeta coat, took out a small pocketbook, opened it, and with a lowly bow gave the lady what she had wished for. She took it without any attention to the giver, and without a word of thanks. The wound was bound up, and the company ascended the hill, from whose brow they admired the wide prospect over the park’s green labyrinth, extending even to the immeasurable ocean.

It was indeed a grand and noble sight. A light speck appeared on the horizon between the dark waters and the azure heaven. “A telescope here!” cried the merchant; and before any one from the crowds of servants appeared to answer his call, the gray man, as if he had been applied to, had already put his hand into his coat-pocket. He took from it a beautiful Dollond, and handed it over to Mr. Jones; who, as soon as he had raised it to his eye, informed the company that it was the ship which had sailed yesterday, driven back by contrary winds. The telescope passed from hand to hand, but never returned to its owner. I, however, looked on the old man with astonishment, not conceiving how the large instrument had come out of the tiny pocket. Nobody else seemed surprised, and they appeared to care no more about the gray man than about me.

Refreshments were produced; the rarest fruits of every climate, served in the richest dishes. Mr. Jones did the honors with easy, dignified politeness, and for the second time addressed me: “Eat some; I am sure you got none on your voyage.” I bowed, but he did not observe me; he was talking to somebody else.

They would willingly have remained longer on the sod of the sloping hill, and have stretched themselves over the outspread turf, had they not feared its dampness. “Now it would be delightful,” said somebody in the company, “if we had Turkey carpets to spread out here.” The wish was hardly expressed ere the man in the gray coat had put his hand into his pocket, and with modest, even humble demeanor, began to draw out a rich embroidered Turkey carpet. It was received by the attendants as a matter of course, and laid down on the appointed spot. Without further ceremony the company took their stand upon it. I looked with new surprise on the man, the pocket, and the carpet, which was about twenty paces long by ten broad. I rubbed my eyes, not knowing what to think, and especially as nobody else seemed moved by what had passed. I longed to learn something about the man, and to inquire who he was; but I knew not to whom to apply, for I really was more afraid of the gentlemen servants than of the gentlemen served. I mustered up courage at last, and addressed myself to a young man who seemed less conceited than the rest, and who had oftener been left to himself. I gently asked him who that courteous gentleman was in gray clothes. “Who—he that looks like an end of thread blown away from a tailor’s needle?” “Yes, he that stands alone.” “I do not know him,” he answered; and, determined as it seemed to break off the discussion with me, he turned away, and entered into a trifling conversation with somebody else.

The sun now began to shine more hot, and to inconvenience the ladies. The lovely Fanny carelessly addressed the gray man, whom, as far as I know, nobody had addressed before, with the frivolous question, “Had he a tent?” He answered with a low reverence, as if feeling an undeserved honor had been done him; his hand was already in his pocket, from which I perceived canvas, bars, ropes, iron work, everything, in a word, belonging to the most sumptuous tent, issuing forth. The young men helped to erect it. It covered the whole extent of the carpet, and no one appeared to consider all this as at all extraordinary. If my mind was confused, nay, terrified, with these proceedings, how was I overpowered when the wish next expressed brought from his pocket three riding-horses—three fine, noble steeds, all saddled and bridled! Imagine for a moment, I ask you, three saddled horses from the same pocket which had before produced a pocketbook, a telescope, an ornamented carpet twenty paces long by ten broad, and a tent of the same size, with bars and iron work! If I did not solemnly assure you that I had seen it with my own eyes, you would certainly doubt the story.

Though there was so much of embarrassment and humility in the man, and he excited so little attention, yet his appearance to me had in it something so appalling that I was not able to turn away my eyes from him. At last I could bear it no longer. I determined to steal away from the company; and this was easy for one who had acted a part so little conspicuous. I wished to hasten back to the city, and to return in pursuit of my fortune the following morning to Mr. Jones, and, if I could muster up courage enough, to inquire about the extraordinary gray man. I had hastily glided through the rose-grove, descended the hill, and found myself on a wide grass-plot, when, thinking of the possibility of being discovered wandering from the beaten path, I looked about with inquiring apprehension. How was I startled when I saw the old man in the gray coat advancing toward me! He immediately took off his hat, and bowed to me more profoundly than any one had ever done before. It was clear he wished to address me, and without extreme rudeness I could not avoid him. I in my turn uncovered, made my bow, and stood still with bare head in the sunshine as if rooted there. I shook with terror while I saw him approach. I felt like a bird fascinated by a rattlesnake. He appeared sadly perplexed, kept his eyes on the ground, made several more bows, came closer, and with a low and trembling voice, as if he were asking alms, thus accosted me:

“Will the gentleman forgive the intrusion of one who has stopped him in this unusual way? I have a request to make, but pray pardon—” “In the name of Heaven, sir!” I cried out in my anguish, “what can I do for one who—” We both started back, and I believe both blushed deeply. After a momentary silence he began again: “During the short time that I enjoyed the happiness of being near you, I observed, sir—will you allow me to say so—I observed, with unutterable admiration, the beautiful, beautiful shadow in the sun, which with a certain noble contempt, and perhaps without being aware of it, you threw off from your feet. Forgive my venturesome intrusion—but would you be inclined to transfer it to me?”

He was silent, and my head turned round like a water-wheel. What could I make of this singular proposal for disposing of my shadow? “He is crazy,” thought I; and with an altered tone, yet more forcible as contrasted with the humility of his own, I replied: “How is this, my friend? Is not your own shadow enough for you? This seems to me a whimsical sort of bargain indeed.” He spoke again: “I have in my pocket many articles which might not be quite unacceptable to the gentleman; for this invaluable shadow I deem no price too large.”

A chill came over me. I remembered what I had seen, and knew not how to address him whom I had just ventured to call my friend. I spoke again, and assumed an extraordinary courtesy to set matters to rights.

“Pardon, sir, pardon your most humble servant, I do not quite understand your meaning. How can my shadow—” He interrupted me: “I only beg your permission to be allowed to lift up your noble shadow and put it in my pocket; how to do it is my own affair. As a proof of my gratitude to the gentleman, I leave him the choice of all the jewels which my pocket affords; the genuine divining-rods, mandrake-roots, change pennies, money-extractors, the napkins of Rolando’s Squire, and divers other miracle-workers—a choice assortment. But all this is not enough for you; better that you should have Fortunatus’s wishing-cap, spick and span and new, and also a fortune-bag which belonged to him.” “Fortunatus’s fortune-bag!” I exclaimed; and great as had been my terror, all my senses were now enraptured by his words. I became dizzy, and saw nothing but double ducats sparkling before my eyes.

“Condescend, sir, to inspect and make a trial of this bag.” He put his hand into his pocket, and drew from it a moderately sized, firmly stitched purse of thick cordovan, with two convenient leather cords hanging to it, which he presented to me. I instantly dipped into it, drew from it ten pieces of gold, and ten more, and ten more, and yet ten more. I stretched out my hand. “Done! The bargain is made. I give you my shadow for your purse!” He grasped my hand and knelt down behind me, and with wonderful dexterity I perceived him loosening my shadow from the ground from head to foot. He lifted it up, rolled it together, folded it, and at last put it into his pocket. He then stood erect, bowed to me again, and returned back to the rose-grove. I thought I heard him laughing softly to himself. I, however, held the purse tight by its strings. The earth was sun-bright all around me, and I swooned away.

At last I came to, and hastened from a place where apparently I had no further business. I first filled my pockets with gold, then firmly secured the strings of the purse round my neck, taking care to conceal the purse itself in my bosom. I left the park unnoticed, reached the highroad, and bent my way to the town. I was walking thoughtfully toward the gate, when I heard a voice behind me: “Hullo, young gentleman! Hullo! Don’t you hear?” I looked round. An old woman was calling after me. “Take care, sir, take care—you have lost your shadow!” “Thanks, good woman.” I threw her a piece of gold for her well-meant counsel, and walked away under the trees.

At the gate I was again condemned to hear from the sentinel, “Where has the gentleman left his shadow?” And immediately afterward a couple of women exclaimed, “Good heavens! the poor fellow has no shadow!” I began to be vexed, and carefully avoided walking in the sun. This I could not always do—for instance, in Broad Street, which I was next compelled to cross, and, as ill-luck would have it, at the very moment when the boys were being released from school. A confounded hunchbacked vagabond—I see him at this moment—had observed that I wanted a shadow. He instantly began to bawl out to the young scamps of the suburbs, who first reviled me, and then bespattered me with mud. “Respectable people usually take their shadows with them when they go into the sun!” I scattered handfuls of gold among them to divert their attention, and, with the assistance of some compassionate souls, sprang into a hackney-coach.