Adalbert von Chamisso ~ Peter Schlemihl, the Shadowless Man

DMdJ Neu1I. The Grey Man

Having safely landed after a fatiguing journey, I took my modest belongings to the nearest cheap inn, engaged a garret room, washed, put on my newly-turned black coat, and proceeded to find Mr. Thomas John’s mansion. After a severe cross-examination on the part of the hall-porter, I had the honour of being shown into the park where Mr. John was entertaining a party. He graciously took my letter of introduction, continuing the while to talk to his guests. Then he broke the seal, still joining in the conversation, which turned upon wealth. “Anyone,” he remarked, “who has not at least a million is, pardon the word, a rogue.” “How true,” I exclaimed; which pleased him, for he asked me to stay. Then, offering his arm to a fair lady, he led the party to the rose-clad hill. Everybody was very jolly; and I followed behind, so as not to make myself a nuisance.

The beautiful Fanny, who seemed to be the queen of the day, in trying to pick a rose, had scratched her finger, which caused much commotion. She asked for some plaster, and a quiet, lean, tall, elderly man, dressed in grey, who walked by my side, put his hand in his coat pocket, pulled out a pocket-book, and, with a deep bow, handed the lady what she wanted. She took it without thanks, and we all continued to ascend the hill.

Arrived at the top, Mr. John, espying a light spot on the horizon, called for a telescope. Before the servants had time to move, the grey man, bowing modestly, had put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a beautiful telescope, which passed from hand to hand without being returned to its owner. Nobody seemed surprised at the huge instrument issuing from a tiny pocket, and nobody took any more notice of the grey man than of myself.

The ground was damp, and somebody suggested how fine it would be to spread some Turkey carpets. Scarcely had the wish been expressed, when the grey man again put his hand into his pocket, and, with a modest, humble gesture, pulled out a rich Turkey carpet, some twenty yards by ten, which was spread out by the servants, without anybody appearing to be surprised. I asked a young gentleman who the obliging man might be. He did not know.

The sun began to get troublesome, and Fanny casually asked the grey man if he might happen to have a tent by him. He bowed deeply, and began to pull out of his pocket canvas, and bars, and ropes, and everything needed for the tent, which was promptly put up. Again nobody seemed surprised. I felt uncanny; especially when, at the next expressed desire, I saw him pull out of his pocket three fine large horses with saddles and trappings! You would not believe it if I did not tell you that I saw it with my own eyes.

It was gruesome. I sneaked away, and had already reached the foot of the hill, when, to my horror, I noticed the grey man approaching. He took off his hat, bowed humbly, and addressed me.

“Forgive my impertinence, sir, but during the short time I have had the happiness to be near you I have been able to look with indescribable admiration upon that beautiful shadow of yours, which you throw from you contemptuously, as it were. Pardon me, but would you feel inclined to sell it?”

I thought he was mad. “Is your own shadow not enough for you? What a strange bargain!”

“No price is too high for this invaluable shadow. I have many a precious thing in my pocket, which you may choose–a mandrake, the dish-cloth of Roland’s page, Fortunati’s purse—-”

“What! Fortunati’s purse?”

“Will you condescend to try it?” he said, handing me a money-bag of moderate size, from which I drew ten gold pieces, and another ten, and yet another ten.

I extended my hand, and exclaimed, “A bargain! For this purse you can have my shadow.” He seized my hand, knelt down, cleverly detached my shadow from the lawn, rolled it up, folded it, and put it in his pocket. Then he bowed and retired behind the rose-hedge, chuckling gently.

I hurried back to my inn, after having tied the bag around my neck, under my waistcoat. As I went along the sunny street, I heard an old woman’s voice, “Heigh, young man, you have lost your shadow!”

“Thank you,” I said, threw her a gold piece, and sought the shade of the trees. But I had to cross a broad street again, just as a group of boys were leaving school. They shouted at me, jeered, and threw mud at me. To keep them away I threw a handful of gold among them, and jumped into a carriage. Now I began to feel what I had sacrificed. What was to become of me?

At the inn I sent for my things, and then made the driver take me to the best hotel, where I engaged the state rooms and locked myself up. And what, my dear Chamisso, do you think I did then? I pulled masses of gold out of the bag, covered the floor of the room with ducats, threw myself upon them, made them tinkle, rolled over them, buried my hands in them, until I was exhausted and fell to sleep. Next morning I had to cart all these coins into a cupboard, leaving only just a few handfuls. Then, with the help of the host, I engaged some servants, a certain Bendel, a good, faithful soul, being specially recommended to me as a valet. I spent the whole day with tailors, bootmakers, jewellers, merchants, and bought a heap of precious things, just to get rid of the heaps of gold.

I never ventured out in daytime; and even at night when I happened to step out into the moonlight, I had to suffer untold anguish from the contemptuous sneers of men, the deep pity of women, the shuddering fear of fair maidens. Then I sent Bendel to search for the grey man, giving him every possible indication. He came back late, and told me that none of Mr. John’s servants or guests remembered the stranger, and that he could find no trace of him. “By the way,” he concluded, “a gentleman whom I met just as I went out, bid me tell you that he was on the point of leaving the country, and that in a year and a day he would call on you to propose new business. He said you would know who he was.”

“How did he look?” Bendel described the man in the grey coat! He was in despair when I told him that this was the very person I wanted. But it was too late; he had gone without leaving a trace.

A famous artist for whom I sent to ask him whether he could paint me a shadow, told me that he might, but I should be bound to lose it again at the slightest movement.

“How did you manage to lose yours?” he asked. I had to lie. “When I was travelling in Russia it froze so firmly to the ground that I could not get it off again.”

“The best thing you can do is not to walk in the sun,” the artist retorted with a piercing look, and walked out.

I confessed my misfortune to Bendel, and the sympathetic lad, after a terrible struggle with his conscience, decided to remain in my service. From that day he was always with me, ever trying to throw his broad shadow over me to conceal my affliction from the world. Nevertheless, the fair Fanny, whom I often met in the hours of dusk and evening, and who had begun to show me marked favour, discovered my terrible secret one night, as the moon suddenly rose from behind a cloud, and fainted with terror.

There was nothing left for me but to leave the town. I sent for horses, took only Bendel and another servant, a rogue named Gauner, with me, and covered thirty miles during the night. Then we continued our journey across the mountains to a little-frequented watering-place, where I was anxious to seek rest from my troubles.

II. A Soul for a Shadow

Bendel preceded me to prepare a house for my reception, and spent money so lavishly that the rumour spread the King of Prussia was coming incognito. A grand reception was prepared by the townsfolk, with music and flowers and a chorus of maidens in white, led by a girl of wonderful beauty. And all this in broad sunlight! I did not move in my carriage, and Bendel tried to explain that there must be a mistake, which made the good folk believe that I wanted to remain incognito. Bendel handed a diamond tiara to the beautiful maiden, and we drove on amid cheering and firing of guns.

I became known as Count Peter, and when it was found out that the King of Prussia was elsewhere, they all thought I must be some other king. I gave a grand fete, Bendel taking good care to have such lavish illuminations all round that no one should notice the absence of my shadow. I had masses of gold coins thrown among the people in the street, and gave Mina, the beautiful girl who headed the chorus at my arrival, all the jewels I had brought with me, for distribution among her friends. She was the daughter of the verdurer, and I lost no time in making friends with her parents, and succeeded in gaining Mina’s affection.

Continuing to spend money with regal lavishness, I myself led a simple and retired life, never leaving my rooms in daylight. Bendel warned me of Gauner’s extensive thefts; but I did not mind. Why should I grudge him the money, of which I had an inexhaustible store? In the evenings I used to meet Mina in her garden, and always found her loving, though awed by my wealth and supposed rank. Yet, conscious of my dreadful secret, I dared not ask for her hand. But the year was nearly up since I had made the fateful bargain, and I looked forward to the promised visit of the grey man, whom I hoped to persuade to take back his bag for my shadow. In fact, I told the verdurer that on the first of the next month I should ask him for his daughter’s hand.

The anniversary arrived–midday, evening, midnight. I waited through the long hours, heard the clock strike twelve; but the grey man did not come! Towards morning I fell into a fitful slumber. I was awakened by angry voices. Gauner forced his way into my room, which was defended by the faithful Bendel.

“What do you want, you rogue?”

“Only to see your shadow, with your lordship’s permission.”

“How dare you—-”

“I am not going to serve a man without a shadow. Either you show it to me, or I go.”

I wanted to offer him money; but he, who had stolen millions, refused to accept money from a man without a shadow. He put on his hat, and left the room whistling.

When at dark I went, with a heavy heart, to Mina’s bower, I found her, pale and beautiful, and her father with a letter in his hand. He looked at the letter, then scrutinised me, and said, “Do you happen to know, my lord, a certain Peter Schlemihl, who lost his shadow?”

“Oh, my foreboding!” cried Mina. “I knew it; he has no shadow!”

“And you dared,” continued the verdurer, “to deceive us? See how she sobs! Confess now how you lost your shadow.”

Again I was forced to lie. “Some time ago a man stepped so clumsily into my shadow that he made a big hole. I sent it to be mended, and was promised to have it back yesterday.”

“Very well. Either you present yourself within three days with a well-fitting shadow, or, on the next day, my daughter will be another man’s wife.”

I rushed away, half conscious, groaning and raving. I do not know how long and how far I ran, but I found myself on a sunny heath, when somebody suddenly pulled my sleeve. I turned round. It was the man in the grey coat!

“I announced my visit for to-day. You made a mistake in your impatience. All is well. You buy your shadow back and you will be welcomed by your bride. As for Gauner, who has betrayed you and has asked for Mina’s hand–he is ripe for me.”

I groped for the bag but the stranger stopped me.

“No, my lord, you keep this; I only want a little souvenir. Be good enough and sign this scrap.” On the parchment was written: “I herewith assign to bearer my soul after its natural separation from my body.”

I sternly refused. “I am not inclined to stake my soul for my shadow.”

He continued to urge, giving the most plausible reasons why I should sign. But I was firm. He even tried to tempt me by unrolling my shadow on the heath. “A line of your pen, and you save your Mina from that rogue’s clutches.”

At that moment Bendel arrived on the scene, saw me in tears, my shadow on the ground apparently in the stranger’s power, and set upon the man with his stick. The grey man walked away, and Bendel followed him, raining blows upon his shoulders, till they disappeared from sight.

I was left with my despair, and spent the day and night on the heath. I was resolved not to return among men, and wandered about for three days, feeding on wild fruit and spring-water. On the morning of the fourth day I suddenly heard a sound, but could see nobody–only a shadow, not unlike my own, but without body. I determined to seize it, and rushed after it. Gradually I gained on it; with a final rush I made for it–and met unexpectedly bodily resistance. We fell on the ground, and a man became visible under me. I understood at once. The man must have had the invisible bird’s nest, which he dropped in the struggle, thus becoming visible himself.

The nest being invisible, I looked for its shadow, found it, seized it quickly, and, of course, disappeared from the man’s sight. I left him tearing his hair in despair; and I rejoiced at being able to go again among men. Quickly I proceeded to Mina’s garden, which was still empty, although I imagined I heard steps following me. I sat down on a bench, and watched the verdurer leaving the house. Then a fog seemed to pass over my head. I looked around, and–oh, horror!–beheld the grey man sitting by my side. He had pulled his magic cap over my head, at his feet was his shadow and my own, and his hand played with the parchment.

“So we are both under the same cap,” he began; “now please give me back my bird’s nest. Thanks! You see, sometimes we are forced to do what we refuse when asked kindly. I think you had better buy that shadow back. I’ll throw in the magic cap.”

Meanwhile, Mina’s mother had joined the verdurer, and they began to discuss Mina’s approaching marriage and Gauner’s wealth, which amounted to ten millions. Then Mina joined them. She was urged to consent, and finally said, sobbingly, “I have no further wish on earth. Do with me as you please.” At this moment Gauner approached, and Mina fainted.

“Can you endure this?” asked my companion. “Have you no blood in your veins?” He rapidly scratched a slight wound in my hand, and dipped a pen in the blood. “To be sure, red blood! Then sign.” And I took the pen and parchment.

I had scarcely touched food for days, and the excitement of this last hour had completely exhausted my strength. Before I had time to sign I swooned away. When I awoke it was dark. My hateful companion was in a towering rage. The sound of festive music came from the brightly illuminated house; groups of people strolled through the garden, talking of Mina’s marriage with the wealthy Mr. Gauner, which had taken place this morning.

Disengaging myself from the magic cap, which act made my companion disappear from my view, I made for the garden gate. But the invisible wretch followed me with his taunts. He only left me at the door of my house, with a mocking “au revoir.” The place had been wrecked by the mob and was deserted. Only the faithful Bendel was there to receive me with tears of mingled grief and joy. I pressed him to my heart, and bid him leave me to my misery. I told him to keep a few boxes filled with gold, that were still in the house, made him saddle my horse, and departed, leaving the choice of the road to the animal, for I had neither aim, nor wish, nor hope.

A pedestrian joined me on the sad journey. After tramping along for a while, he asked permission to put his cloak on my horse. I consented; he thanked me, and then, in a kind of soliloquy, began to praise the power of wealth, and to speak cleverly of metaphysics. Meanwhile, day was dawning; the sun was about to rise, the shadows to spread their splendour–and I was not alone! I looked at my companion–it was the man with the grey coat!

He smiled at my surprise, and continued to converse amiably. In fact, he not only offered to replace for the time being my former servant Bendel, but actually lent me my shadow for the journey. The temptation was great. I suddenly gave my horse the spurs and galloped off at full speed; but, alas! my shadow remained behind and I had to turn back shamefacedly.

“You can’t escape me,” said my companion, “I hold you by your shadow.” And all the time, hour by hour, day by day, he continued his urging. At last we quarrelled seriously, and he decided to leave me. “If ever you want me, you have only to shake your bag. You hold me by my gold. You know I can be useful, especially to the wealthy; you have seen it.”

I thought of the past and asked him quickly, “Did you get Mr. John’s signature?” He smiled. “With so good a friend, the formality was not necessary.”

“Where is he? I want to know.”

He hesitated, then put his hand into his pocket, and pulled out Mr. John’s livid body; the blue lips of the corpse moved, and uttered painfully the words: “Justo judico Dei judicatus sum; justo judicio Dei condemnatus sum.”

Seized with horror, I threw the inexhaustible money-bag into the abyss, and then spoke the final words. “You fiend, I exorcise you in the name of God! Be off, and never show yourself before mine eyes again!”

He glared at me furiously and disappeared instantly.

III. The Wanderer

Left now without shadow and without money, save for the few gold pieces still in my pocket, I could almost have been happy, had it not been for the loss of my love. My horse was down below at the inn; I decided to leave it there and to wander on on foot. In the forest I encountered a peasant, from whom I obtained information about the district and its inhabitants. He was an intelligent man, and I quite enjoyed the talk. When we approached the wide bed of a mountain stream, I made him walk in front, but he turned round to speak to me. Suddenly he broke off–“But how is that? You have no shadow!”

“Unfortunately!” I said, with a sigh. “During an illness I lost my hair, nails, and shadow. The hair and nails have grown again, but the shadow won’t.”

“That must have been a bad illness,” said the peasant, and walked on in silence till we reached the nearest side-road, when he turned off without saying another word. I wept bitter tears, and my good spirits had vanished. And so I wandered on sadly, avoiding all villages till nightfall, and often waiting for hours to pass a sunny patch unobserved. I wanted to find work in a mine to save me from my thoughts.

My boots began to be worn out. My slender means made me decide to buy a strong pair that had already been used; new ones were too dear. I put them on at once, and walked out of the village, scarcely noticing the way, since I was thinking deeply of the mine I hoped to reach the same night, and of the manner in which I was to obtain employment. I had scarcely walked two hundred steps, when I noticed that I had lost the road. I was in a wild virginal forest. Another few steps and I was on an endless ice-field. The cold was unbearable, and I had to hasten my steps. I ran for a few minutes, and found myself in rice-fields where Chinese labourers were working. There could be no doubt; I had seven-league boots on my feet!

I fell on my knees, shedding tears of gratitude. Now my future was clear. Excluded from society, study and science were to be my future strength and hope. I wandered through the whole world from east to west, from north to south, comparing the fauna and flora of the different regions. To reduce the speed of my progress, I found I had only to pull a pair of slippers over my boots. When I wanted money, I just took an ivory tusk to sell in London. And finally I made a home in the ancient caves of the desert near Thebes.

Once in the far north I encountered a polar bear. Throwing off my slippers, I wanted to step upon an island facing me. I firmly placed my foot on it, but on the other side I fell into the sea, as the slipper had not come off my boot. I saved my life and hurried to the Libyan desert to cure my cold in the sun; but the heat made me ill. I lost consciousness, and when I awoke again I was in a comfortable bed among other beds, and on the wall facing me I saw inscribed in golden letters my own name.

To cut things short–the institution which had received me had been founded by Bendel and the widowed Mina with my money, and in my honour had been called the Schlemihlium. As soon as I felt strong enough, I returned to my desert cave, and thus I live to this day.

You, my dear Chamisso, are to be the keeper of my strange history, which may contain useful advice for many. You, if you will live among men, honour first the shadow, then the money. But, if you live only for your better self, you will need no advice.


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