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An essay by Thomas De Quincey

The Last Will And Testament.--The House Of Weeping

Title:     The Last Will And Testament.--The House Of Weeping
Author: Thomas De Quincey [More Titles by De Quincey]

From Jean Paul Frederick Richter.

Since the day when the town of Haslau first became the seat of a Court, no man could remember that any one event in its annals (always excepting the birth of the hereditary prince) had been looked for with so anxious a curiosity as the opening of the last will and testament left by Van der Kabel. This Van der Kabel may be styled the Haslau Croesus; and his whole life might be termed, according to the pleasure of the wits, one long festival of god-sends, or a daily washing of golden sands nightly impregnated by golden showers of Danae. Seven distant surviving relatives of seven distant relatives deceased of the said Van der Kabel, entertained some little hopes of a place amongst his legatees, grounded upon an assurance which he had made, 'that upon his oath he would not fail to _remember them_ in his will.' These hopes, however, were but faint and weakly; for they could not repose any extraordinary confidence in his good faith--not only because in all cases he conducted his affairs in a disinterested spirit, and with a perverse obstinacy of moral principle, whereas his seven relatives were mere novices, and young beginners in the trade of morality,--but also because, in all these moral extravagances of his (so distressing to the feelings of the sincere rascal), he thought proper to be very satirical, and had his heart so full of odd caprices, tricks, and snares for unsuspicious scoundrels, that (as they all said) no man who was but raw in the art of virtue could deal with him, or place any reliance upon his intentions. Indeed the covert laughter which played about his temples, and the falsetto tones of his sneering voice, somewhat weakened the advantageous impression which was made by the noble composition of his face, and by a pair of large hands, from which were daily dropping favours little and great--benefit nights, Christmas-boxes and New-Year's gifts; for this reason it was that, by the whole flock of birds who sought shelter in his boughs, and who fed and built their nests on him, as on any wild service-tree, he was, notwithstanding, reputed a secret magazine of springes; and they were scarce able to find eyes for the visible berries which fed them, in their scrutiny after the supposed gossamer snares.

In the interval between two apoplectic fits he had drawn up his will, and had deposited it with the magistrate. When he was just at the point of death he transferred to the seven presumptive heirs the certificate of this deposit; and even then said, in his old tone--how far it was from his expectation, that by any such anticipation of his approaching decease, he could at all depress the spirits of men so steady and sedate, whom, for his own part, he would much rather regard in the light of laughing than of weeping heirs; to which remark one only of the whole number, namely, Mr. Harprecht, inspector of police, replied as a cool ironist to a bitter one--'that the total amount of concern and of _interest_, which might severally belong to them in such a loss, was not (they were sincerely sorry it was not) in their power to determine.'

At length the time is come when the seven heirs have made their appearance at the town-hall, with their certificate--of deposit; _videlicet_, the ecclesiastical councillor Glantz; Harprecht, the inspector of police; Neupeter, the court-agent; the court-fiscal, Knoll; Pasvogel, the bookseller; the reader of the morning lecture, Flacks; and Monsieur Flitte, from Alsace. Solemnly, and in due form, they demanded of the magistrate the schedule of effects consigned to him by the late Kabel, and the opening of his will. The principal executor of this will was Mr Mayor himself; the sub-executors were the rest of the town-council. Thereupon, without delay, the schedule and the will were fetched from the register office of the council to the council chamber: both were exhibited in rotation to the members of the council and the heirs, in order that they might see the privy seal of the town impressed upon them: the registry of consignment, indorsed upon the schedule, was read aloud to the seven heirs by the town-clerk: and by that registry it was notified to them, that the deceased had actually consigned the schedule to the magistrate, and entrusted it to the corporation-chest; and that on the day of consignment he was still of sound mind: finally, the seven seals, which he had himself affixed to the instrument, were found unbroken. These preliminaries gone through, it was now (but not until a brief registry of all these forms had been drawn up by the town-clerk) lawful, in God's name, that the will should be opened and read aloud by Mr Mayor, word for word as follows:--

'I, Van der Kabel, on this 7th day of May, 179-, being in my house at Haslau, situate in Dog-street, deliver and make known this for my last will; and without many millions of words, notwithstanding I have been both a German notary and a Dutch schoolmaster. Howsoever I may disgrace my old professions by this parsimony of words, I believe myself to be so far at home in the art and calling of a notary, that I am competent to act for myself as a testator in due form, and as a regular devisor of property.

'It is a custom of testators to premise the moving causes of their wills. These, in my case, as in most others, are regard for my happy departure, and for the disposal of the succession to my property--which, by the way, is the object of a tender passion in various quarters. To say anything about my funeral, and all that, would be absurd and stupid. This, and what shape my remains shall take, let the eternal sun settle above, not in any gloomy winter, but in some of his most verdant springs.

'As to those charitable foundations and memorial institutions of benevolence, about which notaries are so much occupied, in my case I appoint as follows: to three thousand of my poor townsmen of every class, I assign just the same number of florins, which sum I will that, on the anniversary of my death, they shall spend in feasting upon the town common, where they are previously to pitch their camp, unless the military camp of his Serene Highness shall be already pitched there, in preparation for the reviews; and when the gala is ended, I would have them cut up the tents into clothes. Item, to all the school-masters in our locality I bequeath one golden augustus. Item, to the Jews of this place I bequeath my pew in the high church.--As I would wish that my will should be divided into clauses, this is considered to be the first.

* * * * *


'Amongst the important offices of a will, it is universally agreed to be one, that from amongst the presumptive and presumptuous expectants, it should name those who are, and those who are not, to succeed to the inheritance; that it should create heirs and destroy them. In conformity to this notion, I give and bequeath to Mr Glantz, the councillor for ecclesiastical affairs, as also to Mr Knoll, the exchequer officer; likewise to Mr Peter Neupeter, the court-agent; item to Mr Harprecht, director of police; furthermore to Mr Flacks, the morning lecturer; in like manner to the court-bookseller, Mr Pasvogel; and finally to Monsieur Flitte,--nothing; not so much because they have no just claims upon me--standing, as they do, in the remotest possible degree of consanguinity; nor again, because they are for the most part themselves rich enough to leave handsome inheritances; as because I am assured, indeed I have it from their own lips, that they entertain a far stronger regard for my insignificant person than for my splendid property; my body, therefore, or as large a portion of it as they can get, I bequeath to them.'

At this point seven faces, like those of the Seven Sleepers, gradually elongated into preternatural extent. The ecclesiastical councillor, a young man, but already famous throughout Germany for his sermons printed or preached, was especially aggrieved by such offensive personality; Monsieur Flitte rapped out a curse that rattled even in the ears of magistracy; the chin of Flacks the morning lecturer gravitated downwards into the dimensions of a patriarchal beard; and the town-council could distinguish an assortment of audible reproaches to the memory of Mr Kabel, such as prig, rascal, profane wretch, &c.; But the Mayor motioned with his hand, and immediately the fiscal and the bookseller recomposed their features and set their faces like so many traps with springs, and triggers, at full cock, that they might catch every syllable; and then with a gravity that cost him some efforts:--

* * * * *


'Excepting always, and be it excepted, my present house in Dog-street: which house by virtue of this third clause is to descend and to pass in full property just as it now stands, to that one of my seven relatives above-mentioned, who shall, within the space of one half-hour (to be computed from the reciting of this clause), shed, to the memory of me his departed kinsman, sooner than the other six competitors, one, or, if possible, a couple of tears, in the presence of a respectable magistrate, who is to make a protocol thereof. Should, however, _all remain dry_, in that case, the house must lapse to the heir-general--whom I shall proceed to name.'

Here Mr Mayor closed the will: doubtless, he observed, the condition annexed to the bequest was an unusual one, but yet, in no respect contrary to law: to him that wept the first the court was bound to adjudge the house: and then placing his watch on the session table, the pointers of which indicated that it was now just half-past eleven, he calmly sat down--that he might duly witness in his official character of executor, assisted by the whole court of aldermen, who should be the first to produce the requisite tear or tears on behalf of the testator.

That since the terraqueous globe has moved or existed, there can ever have met a more lugubrious congress, or one more out of temper and enraged than this of Seven United Provinces, as it were, all dry and all confederated for the purpose of weeping,--I suppose no impartial judge will believe. At first some invaluable minutes were lost in pure confusion of mind, in astonishment, in peals of laughter: the congress found itself too suddenly translated into the condition of the dog to which, in the very moment of his keenest assault upon some object of his appetite, the fiend cried out--Halt! Whereupon, standing up as he was, on his hind legs, his teeth grinning, and snarling with the fury of desire, he halted and remained petrified:--from the graspings of hope, however distant, to the necessity of weeping for a wager, the congress found the transition too abrupt and harsh.

One thing was evident to all--that for a shower that was to come down at such a full gallop, for a baptism of the eyes to be performed at such a hunting pace, it was vain to think of any pure water of grief: no hydraulics could effect this: yet in twenty-six minutes (four unfortunately were already gone), in one way or other, perhaps, some business might be done.

'Was there ever such a cursed act,' said the merchant Neupeter, 'such a price of buffoonery enjoined by any man of sense and discretion? For my part, I can't understand what the d----l it means.' However, he understood this much, that a house was by possibility floating in his purse upon a tear: and _that_ was enough to cause a violent irritation in his lachrymal glands.

Knoll, the fiscal, was screwing up, twisting, and distorting his features pretty much in the style of a poor artisan on Saturday night, whom some fellow-workman is bar_ber_ously razoring and scraping by the light of a cobbler's candle: furious was his wrath at this abuse and profanation of the title _Last Will and Testament_: and at one time, poor soul! he was near enough to tears--of vexation.

The wily bookseller, Pasvogel, without loss of time, sate down quietly to business: he ran through a cursory retrospect of all the works any ways moving or affecting that he had himself either published or sold on commission;--took a flying survey of the pathetic in general: and in this way of going to work, he had fair expectations that in the end he should brew something or other: as yet, however, he looked very much like a dog who is slowly licking off an emetic which the Parisian surgeon Demet has administered by smearing it on his nose: time--gentlemen, time was required for the operation.

Monsieur Flitte, from Alsace, fairly danced up and down the sessions chamber; with bursts of laughter he surveyed the rueful faces around him: he confessed that he was not the richest among them, but for the whole city of Strasburg, and Alsace to boot, he was not the man that could or would weep on such a merry occasion. He went on with his unseasonable laughter and indecent mirth, until Harprecht, the police inspector, looked at him very significantly, and said--that perhaps Monsieur flattered himself that he might by means of laughter squeeze or express the tears required from the well-known meibomian glands, the caruncula, &c.;, and might thus piratically provide himself with surreptitious rain;[1] but in that case, he must remind him that he would no more win the day with any such secretions than he could carry to account a course of sneezes or wilfully blowing his nose; a channel into which it was well known that very many tears, far more than were now wanted, flowed out of the eyes through the nasal duct; more indeed by a good deal than were ever known to flow downwards to the bottom of most pews at a funeral sermon. Monsieur Flitte of Alsace, however, protested that he was laughing out of pure fun, for his own amusement; and, upon his honour, with no _ulterior views_.

[Footnote 1: In the original, the word is Fenster schweiss, window-sweat, _i. e._ (as the translator understands the passage) Monsieur Flitte was suspected of a design to swindle the company by exhibiting his two windows streaming with spurious moisture, such as hoar frost produces on the windows when melted by the heat of the room, rather than with the genuine and unadulterated rain which Mr Kabel demanded.]

The inspector on his side, being pretty well acquainted with the hopeless condition of his own dephlegmatised heart, endeavoured to force into his eyes something that might meet the occasion by staring with them wide open and in a state of rigid expansion.

The morning-lecturer, Flacks, looked like a Jew beggar mounted on a stallion which is running away with him: meantime, what by domestic tribulations, what by those he witnessed at his own lecture, his heart was furnished with such a promising bank of heavy-laden clouds, that he could easily have delivered upon the spot the main quantity of water required had it not been for the house which floated on the top of the storm; and which, just as all was ready, came driving in with the tide, too gay and gladsome a spectacle not to banish his gloom, and thus fairly dammed up the waters.

The ecclesiastical councillor--who had become acquainted with his own nature by long experience in preaching funeral sermons, and sermons on the New Year, and knew full well that he was himself always the first person and frequently the last, to be affected by the pathos of his own eloquence--now rose with dignified solemnity, on seeing himself and the others hanging so long by the dry rope, and addressed the chamber:--No man, he said, who had read his printed works, could fail to know that he carried a heart about him as well as other people; and a heart, he would add, that had occasion to repress such holy testimonies of its tenderness as tears, lest he should thereby draw too heavily on the sympathies and the purses of his fellow-men, rather than elaborately to provoke them by stimulants for any secondary views, or to serve an indirect purpose of his own: 'This heart,' said he, 'has already shed tears (but they were already shed secretly), for Kabel was my friend;' and, so saying, he paused for a moment and looked about him.

With pleasure he observed that all were sitting as dry as corks: indeed, at this particular moment, when he himself, by interrupting their several water-works, had made them furiously angry, it might as well have been expected that crocodiles, fallow-deer, elephants, witches, or ravens should weep for Van der Kabel, as his presumptive heirs. Among them all, Flacks was the only one who continued to make way: he kept steadily before his mind the following little extempore assortment of objects:--Van der Kabel's good and beneficent acts; the old petticoats so worn and tattered, and the gray hair of his female congregation at morning service; Lazarus with his dogs; his own long coffin; innumerable decapitations; the Sorrows of Werther; a miniature field of battle; and finally, himself and his own melancholy condition at this moment, itself enough to melt any heart, condemned as he was in the bloom of youth by the second clause of Van der Kabel's will to tribulation, and tears, and struggles:--Well done, Flacks! Three strokes more with the pump-handle, and the water is pumped up and the house along with it.

Meantime Glantz, the ecclesiastical councillor, proceeded in his pathetic harangue--'Oh, Kabel, my Kabel!' he ejaculated, and almost wept with joy at the near approach of his tears, 'the time shall come that by the side of thy loving breast, covered with earth, mine also shall lie mouldering and in cor----' _ruption_ he would have said; but Flacks, starting up in trouble, and with eyes overflowing, threw a hasty glance around him, and said, 'With submission, gentlemen, to the best of my belief I am weeping.' Then sitting down, with great satisfaction he allowed the tears to stream down his face; that done, he soon recovered his cheerfulness and his _aridity_. Glantz the councillor thus saw the prize fished away before his eyes--those very eyes which he had already brought into an _Accessit_,[2] or inchoate state of humidity; this vexed him: and his mortification was the greater on thinking of his own pathetic exertions, and the abortive appetite for the prize which he had thus uttered in words as ineffectual as his own sermons; and at this moment he was ready to weep for spite--and 'to weep the more because he wept in vain.' As to Flacks, a protocol was immediately drawn up of his watery compliance with the will of Van der Kabel: and the messuage in Dog-street was knocked down to him for ever. The Mayor adjudged it to the poor devil with all his heart: indeed, this was the first occasion ever known in Haslau, on which the tears of a schoolmaster and a curate had converted themselves--not into mere amber that incloses only a worthless insect, like the tears of Heliodes, but like those of the goddess Freia, into heavy gold. Glantz congratulated Flacks very warmly; and observed with a smiling air, that possibly he had himself lent him a helping hand by his pathetic address. As to the others, the separation between them and Flacks was too palpable, in the mortifying distinction of _wet_ and _dry_, to allow of any cordiality between them; and they stood aloof therefore: but they stayed to hear the rest of the will, which they now awaited in a state of anxious agitation.

[Footnote 2: To the English reader it may be necessary to explain, that in the continental universities, etc., when a succession of prizes is offered, graduated according to the degrees of merit, the illiptical formula of '_Accessit_' denotes the second prize; and hence, where only a single prize is offered, the second degree of merit may properly be expressed by the term here used.]

[The end]
Thomas De Quincey's essay: Last Will And Testament.--The House Of Weeping