Fire Eater by
From "Summer Legends," translated by Helen B. Dole. Published by T. Y.
Crowell & Co.
Copyright, 1888, by T.Y. Crowell & Co
Next Easter he must go to N—to school.—Fact.—It is high time; he is
eleven years old, and here he is running wild with the
street-boys.—That's what I say."
He, that is, I, hung my head, and I felt more like crying than
laughing. I had passed eleven sunny boyhood years in the little country
town, I stood in high esteem among my playmates, and would rather be
the first in the ranks of my birthplace than second in the metropolis.
Through the gray mist, which surrounded my near future like a thick
fog, gleamed only one light, but a bright, attractive light; that was
the theatre, the splendor of which I had already learned to know. The
white priests in the "Magic Flute," Sarastro's lions, the fire-spitting
serpents, and the gay, merry Papageno,—such things could not be seen
at home; and when my parents promised me occasional visits to the
theatre, as a reward for diligence in study and exemplary conduct, I
left the Eden of my childhood, half consoled.
Young trees, transplanted at the proper time, soon take root. After a
tearful farewell to my friends and a slight attack of home-sickness, I
was quite content. I was received into the second class at the
gymnasium, and drank eagerly of the fountain of knowledge; a certain
Frau Eberlein, with whom I found board and lodging, cared for my bodily
She was a widow, and kept a little store, in which, with the assistance
of a shop-girl, she served customers, who called from morning to night.
She dealt principally in groceries and vegetables, but besides these,
every conceivable thing was found piled up in her shop: knitting-yarn,
sheets of pictures, slate-pencils, cheese, pen-knives, balls of twine,
herring, soap, buttons, writing-paper, glue, hairpins, cigar-holders,
oranges, fly-poison, brushes, varnish, gingerbread, tin soldiers,
corks, tallow candles, tobacco-pouches, thimbles, gum-balls, and
torpedoes. Besides, she prepared, by means of essences, peach brandy,
maraschino, ros solis, and other liqueurs, as well as an excellent ink,
in the manufacture of which I used to help her. She rejoiced in
considerable prosperity, lived well, and did not let me want for
My passion for the theatre was a source of great anxiety to good Frau
Eberlein. She did not have a very good opinion of the art in general,
but the comedy she despised from the bottom of her heart. Therefore she
made my visiting the theatre as difficult as possible, and it was only
after long discussions, and after the shop-girl had added her voice,
that she would hand over the necessary amount for purchasing a ticket.
The shop-girl was an oldish person, as thin as a giraffe which had
fasted for a long time, and was very well read. She subscribed
regularly to a popular periodical with the motto, "Culture is freedom,"
and Frau Eberlein was influenced somewhat by her judgment. This
kind-hearted woman was friendly towards me, and as often as her
employer asked, "Is the play a proper one for young people?" she would
answer, "Yes," and Frau Eberlein would have to let me go.
Those were glorious evenings. Long before it was time for the play to
begin, I was in my seat in the gallery, looking down from my dizzy
height, into the house, still unlighted. Now a servant comes and lights
the lamps in the orchestra. The parquet and the upper seats fill, but
the reserved seats and the boxes are still empty. Now it suddenly grows
light; the chandelier comes down from an opening in the ceiling. The
musicians appear and tune their instruments. It makes a horrible
discord, but still it is beautiful. The doors slam; handsomely dressed
ladies, in white cloaks, gay officers, and civilians in stiff black and
white evening dress take their seats in the boxes. The conductor mounts
his elevated seat and now it begins. The overture is terribly long, but
it comes to an end. Ting-aling-aling,—the curtain rises. Ah!—
I soon decided in my own mind that it should be my destiny, some time,
to delight the audience from the stage, but I was still undecided
whether I would devote myself to the drama or the opera, for it seemed
to me an equally desirable lot to shoot charmed bullets in "Der
Freischutz," or, hidden behind elderberry bushes, to shoot at
tyrannical Geslers in "William Tell." In the meantime I learned Tell's
monologue, "Along this narrow path the man must come," by heart, and
practised the aria, "Through the forest, through the meadows."
Providence seemed to favor my plan, for it led me into an acquaintance
with a certain Lipp, who, on account of his connections, was in a
position to pave my way to the stage.
Lipp was a tall, slender youth, about sixteen years old, with terribly
large feet and hands. He usually wore a very faded, light-blue coat,
the sleeves of which hardly came below his elbows, and a red vest. He
had a rather stooping gait, and a beaming smile continually played
about his mouth. Besides, the poor fellow was always hungry, and it was
this peculiarity which brought about our acquaintance.
On afternoons when there was no school, and I went out on the green to
play ball with my companions or fly my kite, Frau Eberlein used to put
something to eat in my pocket. Lipp soon spied it out, and he knew how
to get a part, or even the whole of my luncheon for himself. He would
pick up a pebble off the ground, slip it from one hand to the other
several times, then place one fist above the other, saying:
"This hand, or that?
Burned is the tail of the cat.
Which do you choose?
Upper or under will lose!"
If I said "upper," the stone was always in the lower hand, and vice
versa. And Lipp would take my apple from me with a smile, and devour it
as if he were half-famished.
Why did I allow it? In the first place because Lipp was beyond me in
years and in strength, and in the second place, because he was the son
of a very important personage. His father was nothing less than the
doorkeeper of the theatre; a splendid man with a shining red nose and
coal-black beard reaching to his waist. The wise reader now knows how
young Lipp came by a light-blue coat and red vest.
My new friend from his earliest years had been constantly on the stage.
He played the gamin in folk-scenes and the monster in burlesques.
Besides, he was an adept at thunder and lightning; by means of cracking
a whip and the close imitation of the neighing of horses, he announced
the approaching stage-coach; he lighted the moon in "Der Freischutz;"
and with a kettle and pair of tongs gave forewarning of the witches'
hour. When I opened my heart to Lipp and confided to him that I wanted
to go on the stage, he reached out his broad hand to me with emotion
and said, "And so do I." Hereupon we swore eternal friendship, and Lipp
promised as soon as possible to procure me an opportunity for putting
my dramatic qualifications to the test. From that hour his manner
changed towards me. Before, he had treated me with some condescension,
but now his behavior towards me was more like that of a colleague.
Moreover, the game of chance for my lunch came to an end, for from that
time forth I shared it with him like a brother.
The fine fellow kept his promise to make a way for me to go on the
stage. A few evenings later ("Der Freischutz" was being played), I
stood with a beating heart behind the scenes, and friend Lipp stood by
my side. In my hand I held a string, with which I set the wings of the
owl in the wolf's glen in rhythmic motion. My companion performed the
wild chase. By turns he whistled through his fingers, cracked a whip,
and imitated the yelping of the hounds. It was awfully fine.
"You did your part splendidly," said Lipp to me at the end of the
scene; "next time you must go out on the stage."
I swam in a sea of delight. A short time after, "Preciosa" was given,
and Lipp told me that I could play the gypsy boy. They put a white
frock on me and wound red bands crosswise about my legs. Then a
chorister took me by the hand and led me up and down the back of the
stage two or three times. That was my first appearance.
It was also my last. The affair became known. In school I received a
severe reprimand, and in addition, as a consequence of the airy gypsy
costume, a cold with a cough, which kept me in bed for a day or two.
"It serves you right," said Frau Eberlein. "He who will not hear must
feel. This comes from playing in the theatre. If your blessed
grandmother knew that you had been with play-actors she would turn in
Crushed and humiliated, I swallowed the various teas which my nurse
steeped for me one after another. But with each cup I had to listen to
an instructive story about the depravity of actors. In order to lead me
back from the way of the transgressors to the path of virtue, Frau
Eberlein painted with glowing colors; one story in particular, in which
occurred three bottles of punch-essence never paid for, made a deep
impression on me. But Frau Eberlein's anecdotes failed to make me
change my resolves.
Soon after, something very serious happened. Lipp's father, the
doorkeeper of the theatre, after drinking heavily, fell down lifeless
by the card-table in the White Horse; and my friend, in consequence of
this misfortune, came under the control of a cold-hearted guardian, who
had as little comprehension of the dramatic art as Frau Eberlein. Lipp
was given over to a house-painter, who, invested with extended
authority, took the unfortunate fellow as an apprentice.
Lipp was inconsolable at the change in his lot. The smile disappeared
from his face, and I too felt melancholy when I saw him going along the
street in his paint-bespattered clothes, the picture of despair.
One day I met the poor fellow outside the city gate, where the last
houses stand, painting a garden fence with an arsenic-green color. "My
good friend," he said, with a melancholy smile, "I cannot give you my
hand, for there is paint on it; but we are just the same as ever." Then
he spoke of his disappointed hopes. "But," he continued, "because they
are deferred, they are not put off for ever, and these clouds" (by this
he referred to his present apprenticeship as painter) "will pass away.
The time will come—I say no more about it; but the time will come."
Here Lipp stopped speaking and dipped his brush in the paint-pot, for
his master was coming around the corner of the house.
One day Lipp disappeared. The authorities did everything in their power
to find him, but in vain; and since, at that time, the river, on which
the city stood, had overflowed its banks, it was decided that Lipp had
perished. The only person who did not share in this opinion was myself.
I had a firm conviction that he had gone out into the wide world to
seek his fortune, and that some day he would turn up again as a
celebrated artist and a successful man. But year after year passed by
and nothing was heard of Lipp.
I had entered upon my fifteenth year, was reading Virgil and Xenophon,
and could enumerate the causes which brought the Roman empire to ruin.
But in the midst of my classical studies I did not lose sight of the
real aim of my life, the dramatic art; and as the stage had been closed
to me since my first appearance, I studied in my own room the roles in
which I hoped to shine later. Then I had already tried my skill as a
dramatic author, and in my writing-desk lay concealed a finished
tragedy. It was entitled "Pharaoh." In it occurred the seven plagues of
Egypt and the miracles of Moses; but Pharaoh's destruction in the Red
Sea formed the finale from which I promised myself the most brilliant
Therefore I went about dressed as a regular artist. My schoolmates
imitated the University students,—wore gay-colored caps, dark
golden-red bands, and carried canes adorned with tassels; but I wore
over my wild hair a pointed Calabrian hat, around my neck a loose silk
handkerchief fastened together in an artistic knot, and in unpleasant
weather a cloak, the red-lined corner of which I threw picturesquely
over my left shoulder.
In this attire I went about in my native town, where I was accustomed
to spend my summer vacations. The boys on the street made sport of me
by their words and actions, but I thought, "What does the moon care
when the dog bays at her!" and holding my head high, I walked past the
Every year, in the month of August, a fair was held in the little town.
On the common, tents and arbors were put up, where beer and sausages
were furnished. Further entertainment was provided in the way of
rope-dancers, jugglers, a Punch-and-Judy show, fortune-tellers,
monstrosities, wax figures, and tragedies.
As a spoiled city youth, I considered it decidedly beneath my dignity
to take part in the people's merry-making; but I couldn't get out of
it, and so I went with my parents and brothers and sisters to the
opening of the festival out in the park, and walked more proudly than
ever under my Calabrian hat.
The sights were inspected one after another, and in the evening we all
sat together in the front row of a booth, the proprietor of which
promised to exhibit the most extraordinary thing that had ever been
seen. The spectacle was divided into three parts. In the first a little
horse with a large head was brought out, which answered any questions
asked him by nodding, shaking, and beating his hoofs. In the second
part two trained hares performed their tricks. With their forelegs they
beat the drum, fired off pistols, and in the "Battle with the Hounds"
they put to flight a whining terrier.
The proprietor had kept the best of all—that is, the Egyptian
fire-eater, called "Phosphorus"—for the last part. The curtain went up
for the third time, and on the stage, in fantastic scarlet dress, with
a burning torch in his left hand, there stood a tall—ah! a form only
too well known to me. It was Lipp, who had been looked upon as dead.
I saw how the unfortunate fellow with a smile put a lump of burning
pitch in his mouth, and then everything began to swim around me. I
pulled my hat down over my eyes, made my way through the crowd howling
their applause, and staggered home exhausted.
During the rest of the festival I kept myself in strict seclusion. I
announced that I was not well, and this was really no untruth, for I
was very miserable. "That is because he is growing," said my anxious
mother; and I assented, and swallowed submissively the family remedies
which she brought to me.
At last the fair was over, and the Egyptian fire-eater had left the
town. But the poor fellow did not go far. In the city where he
exhibited his skill he was recognized and arrested, because he had
avoided service in the army. To be sure, he was set free again after a
few weeks as unqualified; but in the meantime his employer with the
performing hares had gone nobody knew where, and Lipp was left solely
dependent on his art, which he practised for some time in the
neighboring towns and villages.
The end of his artistic career is sad and melancholy. He fell a victim
to his calling. As an ambitious man he enlarged his artistic
capabilities; he ate not only pitch but also pieces of broken glass,
and an indigestible lamp-chimney was the cause of his destruction.
When I returned to the city I burned my tragedy of "Pharaoh," and sold
my cloak and Calabrian hat to an old-clothes dealer. I was thoroughly
disgusted with the career of an artist, and whenever afterwards I was
inclined to relapse, Frau Eberlein would call out to me, "Do you, too,
want to die from a lamp-chimney?" Then I would bend my head and bury my
nose in my Greek grammar.