The Cobbler of Dort

by the Author of Mephistopheles in England

"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!"

"Ya!"

"And let me have it in an hour, for the burgomaster has given me leave to go to a dance."

"Ya!"

"And be sure you make a reasonable charge."

"Ya."

"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.