The Cobbler of Dort
by the Author of Mephistopheles in
"Oh! the world's nothing more than a cobbler's stall,
Stitch, stitch, hammer, hammer, hammer!
And mankind are the boots and the shoes on the wall;
Stitch, stitch, hammer, hammer, hammer!
The great and the rich
Never want a new stitch;
They fit like a glove before and behind,
Are polished and neat, and always well lined,
And thus wear till they come to life's ending:
But the poor and the mean
Are not fit to be seen,—
They are things that none would borrow or steal,
Are out at the toes, and down at the heel,
And are always beyond any mending.
So the world's nothing more than a cobbler's stall,
Stitch, stitch, hammer, hammer, hammer!
And mankind are the boots and the shoes on the wall;
Stitch, stitch, hammer, hammer, hammer!
"Jacob!—Jacob Kats, I say!" exclaimed a shrill female voice.
"Stitch, stitch, hammer, hammer, hammer!" continued the singer.
"Are you deaf, mynheer?"
"And mankind are the boots and the shoes on the wall."
"Do leave off your singing, and open the door; the burgomaster
will be angry that I have stayed so long."
"Stitch, stitch, hammer, hammer, hammer!"
"You are enough to provoke the most patient girl in Dort.
Open the door, Jacob Kats! Open the door this instant, or you shall never
have any more work from me!"
"Ya?" drawled the cobbler interrogatively, as he slowly
opened the door of his stall.
"Is this the way you behave to your customers, mynheer?" asked
a smartly-dressed, plump-faced, pretty little woman, in rather a sharp
tone;—"keeping them knocking at the door till you please to open
it? It's not respectful to the burgomaster, Jacob Kats!"
"Ya!" replied the mender of leather.
"Here, I want you to do this very neatly," said the girl, producing
a small light shoe, and pointing to a place that evidently wanted repairing.
"Ya!" said Jacob Kats, examining with professional
curiosity the object spoken of.
"The stitches have broken away, you see; so you must fill up
the place they have left, with your best workmanship," she continued.
"Ya!" he responded.
"And mind you don't make a botch of it, mynheer!"
"And let me have it in an hour, for the burgomaster has given me leave to go to a dance."
"And be sure you make a reasonable charge."
"I shall be back in an hour," said the little woman, as
she opened the door to let herself out of the stall; "and I shall expect
that it will be ready by that time:" and away she went. "Ya!" replied
Jacob for the last time, as he prepared to set briskly about the job,
knowing that his fair customer was too important a personage to be
disappointed. "It is not every cobbler that can boast of being employed
by a burgomaster's nursery-maid," thought Jacob; and Jacob was right.
Now every one knows what sort of character a cobbler is; but
a Dutch cobbler is the beau idéal of the tribe, and the cobbler of Dort
deserved to be king of all the cobblers in Holland. He was the
finest specimen of "the profession" it was possible to meet with; a
profession, by-the-by, which his forefathers from time immemorial had
followed, for none of them had ever been, or ever aspired to be, shoemakers.
Jacob could not be said to be tall, unless a height of five feet
one is so considered. His body was what is usually called "punchy;"
his head round like a ball, so that it appeared upon his shoulders like
a Dutch cheese on a firkin of butter; and his face, having been well
seamed by the ravages of the small-pox, closely resembled a battered
nutmeg-grater, with a tremendous gap at the bottom for a mouth,
a fiery excrescence just above it, for a nose, and two dents, higher
still, in which were placed a pair of twinkling eyes. It will easily be
understood from this description, that our hero was by no means
handsome; but his father and his grandfather before him, had been
remarkable for the plainness of their looks, and therefore Jacob had
no earthly reason to desire to put a better face on his business than
his predecessors. Much cannot be said of his dress, which had little
in it differing from that of other cobblers. A red woollen cap ornamented
his head,—a part of his person that certainly required some
decoration; long sleeves, of a fabric which could only be guessed at,
in consequence of their colour, cased his arms; half-a-dozen waistcoats
of various materials covered the upper part of his body; and
his nether garments were hid under an immense thick leather
apron,—a sort of heir-loom of the family.
But Jacob had other habits beside these; he drank
much—he smoked more—and had an equal partiality for songs and
pickled herrings. Alone, which is something like a paradox, he was the most
sociable fellow in existence; he sang to himself, he talked to himself,
he drank to himself, and was evidently on the most friendly terms
with himself: but when any one made an addition to the society,
he became the most reserved of cobblers; monosyllables were all he
attempted to utter; nor had he any great variety of these, as may have
been observed in the preceding dialogue. His stall was his kingdom;
he swayed his hammer, and ruled his lapstone vigorously; and, as other
absolute monarchs have done,—in his subjects he found his tools.
His place of empire was worthy of its ruler. It had originally been an
outhouse, belonging to one of those low Gothic-looking dwellings with
projecting eaves and bow windows that may be seen in the unfashionable
parts of most Dutch towns; and its interior, besides a multitude
of objects belonging to the trade, contained a variety of other matters
peculiar to himself. Such spaces on the wells as were not hidden
from view by superannuated boots and shoes, were covered with
coloured prints from designs by Ostade, Teniers, and others, representing
boors drinking, playing at cards or at bowls, and similar
subjects. On a heavy three-legged stool, the throne of the dynasty
of the Kats, sat the illustrious Jacob, facing the window to receive
all the advantages the light could give: before him were the paraphernalia
of his vocation: on one side was a curious old flask, smelling
strongly of genuine Schiedam, which invariably formed "a running
accompaniment" to his labours; and on the other was an antique
pipe, short in the stem, and having a bowl on which the head
of a satyr had been carved, but constant use for several generations
had made the material so black, that it might have been taken for
the frontispiece of a more objectionable personage.
Jacob Kats had been diligently waxing some flax preparatory
to commencing the repairs of the burgomaster's nursery-maid's shoe,
occasionally stopping in his task to moisten his throat with the
contents of the flask, which, either from a prodigal meal of pickled
herrings having made him more thirsty than usual, or the Schiedam
appearing more excellent, had been raised to his mouth so often that
day, that it had tinged his nose to a more luminous crimson, and had
given to his eyes a more restless twinkling, than either had known
for some time; when, having prepared his thread, laid it carefully on
his knee ready for immediate use, and placed the object on which
his skill was to be exercised close at hand, he turned his attention to
his pipe,—it being an invariable rule of his progenitors never to
attempt anything of importance without first seeking the stimulating
influence of the Virginian weed. On examining his stock of tobacco,
he discovered that he had barely enough for one pipe.
"Donner und blitzen! no more? Bah! I wish to the Teufel my
pipe would never want refilling," exclaimed the cobbler of Dort, filling
the bowl with the remains of the tobacco; and then, having ignited it
with the assistance of flint, steel, and German tinder, puffed away at
the tube, consoling himself with the reflection that, when his labour
was done, he should be able to procure a fresh supply. He smoked
and stitched, and stitched and smoked, and smoked and stitched
again, and, while his fumigations kept pace with his arms, his
thoughts were by no means idle; for, to tell the exact truth, he became
conscious of a flow of ideas more numerous and more ambitious
than he had ever previously conceived. Among other notions
which hurried one another through his pericranium, was one particularly
interesting to himself. He thought it was high time to
attempt something to prevent the ancient family of the Kats becoming
extinct, as he was now on the shady side of forty, enjoying
in single blessedness the dignities of Cobbler of Dort, and, if such a
state continued, stood an excellent chance of being the last of his
name who had filled that honourable capacity. He could not help
condemning the taste of the girls of his native town, who had never
looked favourably upon his advantages: even Maria Van Bree, a fair
widow who had signified her affection every day for fifteen years by
repeating a joke upon his nose, only last week had blighted his
dearest hopes by marrying an old fellow with no nose at all. Jacob
thought of his solitary condition, and fancied himself miserable.
He became sentimental. His stitches were made with a melancholy
precision, and in the intensity of his affliction he puffed his miserable
pipe; but, as song was the medium through which he always expressed
his emotions, his grief was not tuneless: in tones that, without
any exaggeration, were wretched to a degree, he sung the following
exquisite example of Dutch sentiment:
"Ach! had ik tranen kon ik schreijen,
De smart knaagt mij het leven af;
Neen wanhoop spaargeen folte ringen,
Stort bij Maria mij in't graf."
Which is most appropriately rendered thus:
"Ah! had I tears, so fast they'd spring,
Nought from these eyes the flood could wipe out;
But had I songs, I could not sing,—
The false Maria's put my pipe out."
The conclusion of this pathetic verse brought to his mind
the extraordinary circumstance of his pipe (the one he had been smoking)
continuing to be vigorously puffed long after it had usually required
replenishing. He might have exhausted three in the same time.
He also became conscious of a curious burning sensation spreading
from immediately under his red cap to the very extremities of his
ten toes. The smoke he inhaled seemed very hot; and the alarm
which his observations on these matters created was considerably
increased by hearing a roar of small shrill laughter burst from under
his very nose!
"Donner und blitzen!" exclaimed the bewildered cobbler,
as he took the pipe out of his mouth and looked around him to discover
from whence the sounds proceeded.
"Smoke away, old boy! Smoke away! You won't smoke me
out in a hurry, I can tell ye."
Jacob directed his eyes to the place from whence came this
strange address, and his astonishment may be imagined at perceiving that
the words were uttered by his pipe! The ill-looking, black satyr,
carved on the bowl, seemed to cock his eye at him in the most impertinent
manner, twisted his mouth into all sorts of diabolical grimaces,
and laughed till the tears ran down his sooty cheeks. Jacob
was, as he himself expressed it, "struck all of a heap."
"You know you wished to the Teufel your pipe would never
require refilling," said the voice as plainly as it could, while laughing
all the time; "so your desire is now gratified. You may smoke me
till the day of judgement."
Jacob, in fear and trembling, recalled to mind his impious
wish; and even his regret for having been jilted by the widow Van Bree
was forgotten in the intensity of his alarm.
"Smoke away, Jacob Kats!—I'm full of capital tobacco,"
continued the little wretch, with a chuckle.
The terrified cobbler was thinking of refusing, yet too
much afraid of the consequences; while his tormentor, distorting his hideous
features into a more abominable grin, shrieked out in his shrill treble,
"You must smoke me—no use refusing now!
Here I am, old boy, with a full bowl that will never burn out—never,
never, never! so you'd best smoke." And then, as if noticing his indecision,
he exclaimed, with a fresh burst of horrid laughter, "Well, if you won't,
I'll make you: so, here goes!" and, before his wretched victim was
aware of the manoeuvre, he jumped stem foremost into his mouth.
"Now, smoke away, old boy, or worse will follow!"
said the little satyr threateningly.
Jacob was in such a state of fright that he did not dare
to refuse; but the first mouthful of smoke he inhaled seemed to choke him,
as if it was the burning flames of sulphur, and, gasping for breath, he
brushed the pipe from his mouth.
"Smoke away, Jacob!—capital tobacco!" screamed the
voice in a roar of more fiendish mirth, as he immediately regained his position.
In vain, with one hand after the other, the miserable cobbler knocked
the pipe from between his teeth: as fast as he struck it away, it
returned to the same place. "Smoke away, old boy!" continued his
unrelenting enemy, as often as his fits of laughter would allow.
"Smoke away!—capital tobacco!"
Jacob Kats seemed in despair, when, casting his eyes upon
his lapstone, a way of getting rid of the accursed pipe presented itself to
his mind. He threw down the grinning demon on the floor, and with
his lapstone raised above his head was about to crush it at a blow.
"Smoke away, old boy!" fixing itself again firmly between his teeth,
before Jacob had time to put his intention into execution, jeeringly
continued the detested voice; "smoke away!—capital tobacco!"
With one great effort, such as great minds have recourse
to on great occasions. Jacob let fall the stone, with a vigorous grasp
caught hold of the grinning pipe, and, as he thought, before it could
make a guess as to what he was about to do, dashed it into a thousand
pieces upon the lapstone at his feet.
"Donner und blitzen!" cried the delighted cobbler;
"I have done for you now!"
Alas for all sublunary pleasures!—alas for all worldly
convictions!—instead of his enemy being broken into a thousand pieces, it
was multiplied into a thousand pipes,—every one a facsimile of the original,
each possessing the same impertinent cock of the eye, each
disclosing the same satirical twist of the mouth, and all laughing like
a troop of hyenas, and shouting in chorus, "Smoke away! smoke
away, old boy!—capital tobacco!"
The patience of a Dutchman may be great, but the concentrated
patience of all Holland could not stand unmoved on so trying an
occasion as that which occurred to Jacob Kats. He saw his multitudinous
tormentors form into regular rank and file, and then, as if
his mouth had been a breach which he had "armed to the teeth,"
they presented their stems like so many bayonets, and charged in
military fashion, screaming, laughing, and shouting, in a manner
sufficiently terrible to scare the senses out of all the cobblers in
Christendom. Slowly the trembling wretch retreated before the
threatening phalanx; but he was surrounded—his back was against
the wall—there was no escape; and with one leap the enemy were
in the citadel. Extraordinary as it may appear, Jacob did not lose
his presence of mind. As they were all jostling, and giggling, and
crying out to be smoked, the unconquered cobbler firmly grasped the
whole mass of his foes in both his hands to make a last attempt at
their destruction, by throwing them into a tub of water, in which he
soaked his leather, that happened to be just within reach; but, in
a manner inexplicable to him, he felt that the more vigorously he
grasped them in a body, the more rapidly they seemed to shrink
from his touch, till nothing was left but the original pipe, which
suddenly slipped out of his hands.
"Well then, you won't smoke me," coolly remarked the
sooty demon;—"but," added he, in tones that made the marrow in Jacob's
bones turn cold as ice, "I'll smoke you!"
While the last of the family of the Kats was reflecting upon
the meaning of those mysterious words, to his increasing horror he observed
the well-smoked features of the satyr gradually swell into an
enormous bulk of countenance, as the same process of enlargement
transformed the stem into legs, arms, and body, proportionately huge
and terrific; but the monstrous face still wore its original expression,
and seemed to the unhappy Dutchman as if he was looking at the
cock of his eye through a microscope. Without saying a word, the
monster, with the finger and thumb of his right hand, caught up
Jacob Kats by the middle, just as an ordinary man would take up an
ordinary pipe, and with his left hand twisted one of his victim's legs
over the other, as if they had been made of wax, till they came to a
tolerable point at the foot; then, taking from a capacious pocket at
his side a moderate-sized piece of tobacco, with the utmost impudence
imaginable, he rubbed it briskly upon Jacob's unfortunate nose,
which, as would any fiery nose under such circumstances, was burning
with indignation; and the weed immediately igniting, as the poor
cobbler lay with his head down gasping for breath, he thrust the
flaming mass into his mouth, extended a pair of jaws that looked like
the lock of the Grand Canal, quietly raised Jacob's foot between
them, and immediately began to smoke with the energy of a steam-engine!
Miserable Jacob Kats!—what agonies he endured! At
every whiff the inhuman smoker took, he could feel the narcotic
vapour, hot as a living coal, drawn rapidly down his throat, through
his veins and out at his toes, to be puffed in huge volumes out of the
monster's mouth, till the place was filled with the smoke. Jacob felt
that his teeth were red-hot,—that his tongue was a cinder,—and
big drops of perspiration coursed each other down his burning cheeks,
like the waves of the Zuyder Zee on the shore when the tide's
running up. Jacob looked pitiably at his tormentor, and thought he
discerned a glimpse of relenting in the atrocious ugliness of his
physiognomy. He unclosed his enormous jaws, and removed from them
the foot of his victim. The cobbler of Dort congratulated himself
on the approach of his release.
"Jacob Kats, my boy!" exclaimed the giant, in that quiet
patronising kind of voice all great men affect, carelessly balancing Jacob
on his finger and thumb at a little distance from his mouth, as he threw
out a long wreath of acrid smoke; "Jacob, you are a capital pipe,—there's
no denying that. You smoke admirably,—take my word for
it;" and then, without a word of pity or consolation, he resumed his
unnatural fumigations with more fierceness than ever. Jacob had
behaved like a martyr,—he had shown a spirit worthy of the Kats in
their best days; but the impertinence of such conduct was not to be
endured. He would a minute since have allowed himself to have
been dried into a Westphalia ham, to which state he had been rapidly
progressing, but the insult he had just received had roused the dormant
spirit of resistance in his nature; and, while every feature in
his tyrant's smoky face seemed illuminated with a thousand sardonic
grins, having no better weapon at hand, Jacob hastily snatched the
red cap off his head, and, taking deliberate aim at his persecutor,
flung it bang into the very cock of his eye. The monster opened his
jaws to utter a yell of agony, and down came the head of Jacob Kats
upon the floor, that left him without sense or motion.
How long the cobbler of Dort remained in this unenviable
situation it is impossible to say, but he was first recalled to consciousness
by a loud knocking at the door of his stall.
"Jacob! Jacob Kats!" exclaimed the well-known
voice of his fair customer, in a tone of considerable impatience; and Jacob,
raising himself on his elbows, discovered that he had fallen back off his stool;
and the empty flask at his side, and the unfinished work on his lap,
while they gave him a tolerably correct notion of his condition, did
not suggest any remedy for the fatal consequences of disappointing
the burgomaster's nursery-maid. It is only necessary to add, that,
with considerable difficulty, he managed to satisfy his important
patroness; but, to the very day of his death, Jacob, who proved to be
the last of the long dynasty of Kats who enjoyed the dignity inseparable
from the situation of Cobbler of Dort, could not, with any
degree of satisfaction, make up his mind as to whether the strange
effects he had that eventful day experienced had been caused by
extraordinary indulgence in the luxury of pickled herrings,—or too
prodigal allowance of Schiedam,—or intense disappointment for the
loss of the widow Van Bree.