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

Jean Paul (J. P. F. Richter) (1763–1825)

The Calico Dress

From “Life of Firmian Siebenkäs”

FIRMIAN SIEBENKÄS finished his critique in the forenoon, and sent it to Pelzstiefel, his chief, who wrote back that he would bring the money for it himself in the evening, for he now seized upon every possible opportunity of paying a visit. At dinner, Firmian (in whose head the sultry, fetid vapor of ill-temper would not dissolve and fall) said to Lenette, “I can’t understand how you come to care so very little about cleanliness and order. It would be better even if you rather overdid your cleanliness than otherwise. People say, What a pity it is such an orderly man as Siebenkäs should have such a slovenly kind of wife!” To irony of this sort, though she knew quite well it was irony, she always opposed regular formal arguments. He could never get her to enjoy these little jests instead of arguing about them, or join him in laughing at the masculine view of the question. The fact is, a woman abandons her opinion as soon as her husband adopts it. Even in church, the women sing the tunes an octave higher than the men, that they may differ from them in all things.

In the afternoon the great, the momentous hour approached in which the ostracism, the banishment from house and home, of the checked calico gown was at last to be carried out—the last and greatest deed of the year 1785. Of this signal for fight, this Timur’s and Mohammed’s red battle-flag, this Ziska’s hide, which always set them by the ears, his very soul was sick; he would have been delighted if somebody had stolen it, simply to be quit of the wearisome, threadbare idea of the wretched rag for good and all. He did not hurry himself, but introduced his petition with all the wordy prolixity of a parliamentarian addressing the house (at home). He asked his wife to guess what might be the greatest kindness, the most signal favor, which she could do him on this last day of the old year. He said he had an hereditary enemy, an Antichrist, a dragon, living under his roof; tares sown among his wheat by an enemy, which she could pull up if she chose; and at last he took the checked calico gown out of the drawer, with a kind of twilight sorrow. “This,” he said, “is the bird of prey which pursues me; the net which Satan sets to catch me; his sheepskin, my martyr-robe, my Cassim’s slipper. Dearest, do me but this one favor—send it to the pawn-shop!”

“Don’t answer just yet,” he continued, gently laying his hand on Lenette’s lips; “let me just remind you what a stupid parish did when the only blacksmith there was in it was going to be hanged in the village. This parish thought it preferable to condemn an innocent master tailor or two to the gallows, because they could be better spared. Now, a woman of your good sense must surely see how much easier and better it would be to let me take away this mere piece of tailor’s patchwork, than metal things which we eat out of every day. The mourning calico won’t be wanted, you know, as long as I’m alive.”

“I’ve seen quite clearly for a long while past,” she said, “that you’ve made up your mind to carry off my mourning dress from me, by hook or by crook, whether I will or no. But I’m not going to let you have it. Suppose I were to say to you, ‘Pawn your watch,’ how would you like that?” Perhaps the reason why husbands get into the way of issuing their orders in a needlessly dictatorial manner is, that they generally have little effect, but rather confirm opposition than overcome it.

“Damnation!” he cried; “that’ll do, that’s quite enough! I’m not a turkey-cock, nor a bonassus neither, to be continually driven into a frenzy by a piece of colored rag. It goes to the pawn-shop to-day, as sure as my name’s Siebenkäs.”

“Your name is Leibgeber as well,” said she.

“Devil fly away with me, if that calico remains in this house!” said he. On which she began to cry, and lament the bitter fortune which left her nothing now, not even the very clothes for her back. When thoughtless tears fall into a seething masculine heart, they often have the effect which drops of water have when they fall upon bubbling molten copper; the fluid mass bursts asunder with a great explosion.

“Heavenly, kind, gentle devil,” said Firmian, “do please come and break my neck for me! May God have pity on a woman like this! Very well, then, keep your calico; keep this Lenten altar-cloth of yours to yourself. But may the devil fly away with me, if I don’t cock the old deer’s horns that belonged to my father on to my head this very day, like a poacher on the pillory, and hawk them about the streets for sale in broad daylight! Yes, I give you my word of honor it shall be done, for all the fun it may afford every soul in the place. And I shall simply say that it is your doing. I’ll do it, as sure as there’s a devil in hell.”…

Pelzstiefel entered with all solemnity of deportment, and with a church-visitation countenance full of inspection-sermons. Lenette scarcely turned her swollen eyes toward the windward side of her husband as he came in at the door. Pelzstiefel kept the strings tight which held the muscles of his knit face, lest it might unbend before Firmian’s, which was all beaming soft with kindliness, and thus commenced:

“I came to this house to hand you the money for your review of Professor Lang; but friendship demands of me a duty of a far more serious and important kind, that I should exhort you and constrain you to conduct yourself toward this poor unfortunate wife of yours here like a true Christian man to a true Christian woman. Or even better, if you like,” he added.

“What is it all about, wife?” asked Firmian.

Lenette preserved an embarrassed silence. She had asked Pelzstiefel’s advice and assistance, less for the sake of obtaining them than to have an opportunity of telling her story. The truth was, that when the school inspector came unexpectedly in while her burst of crying was at its bitterest, she had really just that very moment sent her checked, spiny, outer caterpillar-skin (the calico dress, to wit) away to the pawn-shop; for her husband having pledged his honor, she felt sure that, beyond a doubt, he would stick those preposterous horns on his head and really go and hawk them all over the town; for she well knew how sacredly he kept his word, and also how utterly he disregarded “appearances,” and that both of these peculiarities of his were always at their fellest pitch at a time of domestic difficulty like the present. Perhaps she would have told her spiritual counselor and adviser nothing about the matter, but contented herself with having a good cry when he came, if she had had her way—and her dress! But having sacrificed both, she needed compensation and revenge. At first she had merely reckoned up difficulties in indeterminate quantities to him; but when he pressed her more closely, her bursting heart overflowed and all her woes streamed forth. Pelzstiefel, contrarily to the laws of equity and of several universities, always held the complainant in any case to be in the right, simply because he spoke first; most men think impartiality of heart is impartiality of head. He swore that he would tell her husband what he ought to be told, and that the calico should be back in the house that very afternoon.

So this father confessor began to jingle his bunch of binding-and-loosing keys in the advocate’s face, and reported to him his wife’s general confession and the pawning of the dress. When there are two diverse actions of a person to be given account of—a vexatious and an agreeable one—the effect depends on which is spoken of first; it is the first one narrated which gives the ground-tint to the listener’s mind, and the one subsequently portrayed only takes rank as a subdued accessory figure. Firmian should first have heard that Lenette pawned the dress, while he was still out of doors, and of her talebearing not till afterward. But you see how the devil brought it about, as it really did all happen.

“What!” (Siebenkäs felt, if not exactly thought). “What! She makes my rival her confidant and my judge! I bring her home a heart all kindness and reconciliation, and she makes a fresh cut in it at once, distressing and annoying me in this way, on the very last day of the year, with her confounded chattering and taletelling.” By this last expression he meant something which the reader does not yet quite understand; for I have not yet told him that Lenette had the bad habit of being rather ill-bred; wherefore she made common people of her own sex, such as the bookbinder’s wife, the recipients of her secret thoughts—the electric discharging-rods of her little atmospheric disturbances, while at the same time she took it ill of her husband that, though he did not, indeed, admit serving-men and maids and “the vulgar” into his own mysteries, he yet accompanied them into theirs.

Pelzstiefel, like all people who have little knowledge of the world, and are not gifted with much tact, who never assume anything as granted in the first place, but always go through every subject from the very beginning, now delivered a long, theological, matrimonial-service sort of exhortation concerning love as between Christian husband and wife, and ended by insisting on the recall of the calico—his Necker, so to say. This address irritated Firmian, and that chiefly because, irrespectively of it, his wife thought he had not any religion, or, at all events, not so much as Pelzstiefel. “I remember,” said Firmian, “seeing in the history of France that Gaston, the first prince of the blood, having caused his brother some little difficulties or other of the warlike sort on one occasion, in the subsequent treaty of peace bound himself, in a special article, to love Cardinal Richelieu. Now I think there is no question but that an article to the effect that man and wife shall love one another ought to be inserted as a distinct, separate, secret clause in all contracts of marriage; for though love, like man himself, is by origin eternal and immortal, yet, thanks to the wiles of the serpent, it certainly becomes mortal enough within a short time. But, as far as the calico’s concerned, let’s all thank God that that apple of discord has been pitched out of the house.”

Pelzstiefel, by way of offering up a sacrifice, and burning a little incense before the shrine of his beloved Lenette, insisted on the return of the calico, and did so very firmly; for Siebenkäs’s gentle, complaisant readiness to yield to him, up to this point, in little matters of sacrifice and service, had led him to entertain the deluded idea that he possessed an irresistible authority over him. The husband, a good deal agitated now, said, “We’ll drop the subject, if you please.” “Indeed, we’ll do nothing of the kind,” said the other; “I must really insist upon it that your wife have her dress back.” “It can’t be done.” “I’ll advance you whatever money you require,” cried Pelzstiefel, in a fever of indignation at this striking and unwonted piece of disobedience. It was now, of course, more impossible than ever for the advocate to retire from his position, and he shook his head eighty times. “Either you are out of your mind,” said Pelzstiefel, “or I am; just let me go through my reasons to you once more.” “Advocates,” said Siebenkäs, “were fortunate enough, in former times, to have private chaplains of their own; but it was found that there was no converting any of them, and therefore they are now exempt from being preached at.”

Lenette wept more bitterly, and Pelzstiefel shouted the louder on that account. In his annoyance at his ill success, he thought it well to repeat his commands in a ruder and blunter form. Of course Siebenkäs resisted the more firmly. Pelzstiefel was a pedant, belonging to a class of men surpassing all others in barefaced, blind self-conceit, just like a violent wind blowing from all the points of the compass at once—for a pedant even makes an ostentatious display of his own personal idiosyncrasies. Like a careful and conscientious player, he felt it a duty to thoroughly throw himself into the part he was representing, and carry it out in all its details, and say, “Either the mourning gown comes, or I go. My visits cannot be of much consequence, it is true, still they have, I consider, a certain value, if it were but on your wife’s account.”

Firmian, doubly irritated, firstly at the imperious rudeness and conceit of an alternative of the sort, and secondly at the lowness of the market price for which the inspector threatened to abandon his society, could but say, “Nobody can influence your decision on that point now but yourself. I most certainly cannot. It will be an easy matter for you to give up our acquaintance, though there is no real reason why you should; but it will not be easy for me to give up yours, although I shall have no choice.”

Pelzstiefel, from whose brow the sprouting laurels were thus so unexpectedly shorn, had nothing to do but take his leave.