E.T.A. Hoffmann: “Master Flea” 2/2
An illustrated brief version of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “Meister Floh” — excerpted from “Tales of the Nations,” a picture book published in Hamburg in 1933 by the “Cigarettenbilderdienst Hamburg-Bahrenfeld” (“Cigarette Picture Service”).Narrator and Illustrator:Stefan Mart.
During such a fight, Alina one day saw among the gaping crowd a young man with long curly hair who was making his way up to the steps of the booth. The girl couldn’t believe her eyes, but there was no doubt: that was what Zeherit, her thistle prince, would look like in human form. And it really was him! He had taken on human shape because of his great longing to see the lovely girl and to be able to protect her in the dismal darkness of the human world.
“Zeherit!” Alinore cried out in joyful surprise on her high platform. But the youth put his finger on his lips, indicating that she should remain silent, and in feverish haste he gave her a folded piece of paper on which a few words had been scribbled.
The note was signed “Pepush”. Alina read it, her heart beating fast. – “Oh, Mr Pepush…!” At that moment Leuwenhoek’s big bell rang out summoning her and Master Flea to the performance in the tent. Still very confused, little Alina looked around in the dim light of the theatre for the Master. But he was sitting far away from her, and was very aggrieved because he had seen her gazing at Mr Pepush and knew she had fallen in love with him. Master Flea had his pride.
It was he who had rescued her – had she forgotten that his bites were still essential to preserve her life? Deeply mortified, he decided he would leave the girl. A tumult set in outside the tent. The rival entrepreneur had once again turned his megaphone in the direction of Leuwenhoek’s circus. Swammer was trying to prevent the crowd from entering the tent. Master Flea seized the opportunity. He took a determined jump to freedom through a hole in the canvas of the tent.
To his surprise, he found himself among the colourful odds and ends on sale in the neighbouring booth, a toy bazaar. Among many others looking at the goods stood a very respectable gentleman, Mr Peregrinus
Tys, who was doing his Christmas shopping. Mr Peregrinus was a bachelor: not, however, on principle but due to excessive shyness, which he was unable to overcome in the presence of the fair sex. He had selected the very finest things as he wanted to give many presents to the children of his neighbour, a bookbinder called Shepherd.
The real reason for his generosity he did not admit even to himself: he had long felt secretly attracted to the eldest daughter of this large family but he did not dare to raise his eyes and look freely and openly at the gentle, beautiful girl.
Peregrinus Tys, both arms laden with presents, was just about to reach for the last item he had selected – an oval box with a picture of a wild boar hunt on it – when a little incident took place. Master Flea came leaping out. He had noticed Alina following him in her fear. He quickly sprang into one of the boxes lying on the counter in order to hide. But Alina was already there, seized the box in which she thought Master Flea had taken refuge, and ran off with it.
Peregrinus hesitated for a moment, his hand outstretched, but then he took hold of what he thought was the box with hunting scene. – When he got home, his housekeeper took charge of his purchases. Pauline was a stout old dame with a beetroot-red nose. She was the only female whose presence the shy and introverted eccentric would tolerate in his vicinity. Heaven alone knows how this ugly creature with her watery eyes and unkempt hair came to be known as the Empress of Golgonda. –
It must be said right away that the heart of the bachelor, Mr Peregrinus Tys, had never beaten so fast on any previous Christmas Eve as it was now beating in anxious anticipation. He already heard in his imagination the little silver bell tinkling gently at Shepherd’s and the loud jubilation of all the children. But before he left, he checked the presents once more. He was annoyed to find that box with the hunting scene had somehow gone astray. Then he noticed another unopened box.
When he opened it he saw to his horror that it was empty, except that something seemed to leap out of it towards him which bore some resemblance to a large coloured flea. But his eyesight was not good enough for him to be sure.
He now felt a strange tickling sensation under his cravat. But as it was Christmas, Mr Peregrinus did not wish to delay any further and prepared to visit his neighbour to bring him all the wonderful presents. But before him now stood a very pretty, slender creature dressed up as though she were coming from a ball, wearing a silk gown, and a tiara in her dark hair. The frightened bachelor wanted to make off at once, but the apparition took him by both hands and whispered in her delightful voice: “Oh, Peregrin, dear Peregrin, I am bringing you the wooden box with the missing hunting scene.”
It was Alinore, who had noticed her mistake. This incident and the sight of the beautiful girl was too much for the fat housekeeper, Pauline, who was still present in the room. Being unwilling to tolerate a second woman in her vicinity, she refused to serve, gave notice and hurried out of the house. When Alina was alone with Mr Peregrinus Tys, she fell on her knees before him: “My dear friend, return the prisoner to me! My very life depends upon it!” Peregrinus did not know that the prisoner she was talking about was that something that had escaped from the empty box. He thought a mill wheel was revolving in his head.
He heard sobbing and weeping. When he had recovered from his dizziness, he saw the beautiful girl lying on the ground before him, motionless and pale as death. “Be on your guard, good sir, be on your guard!” Peregrinus heard something whisper this just under his nose. A tiny monster was sitting on his silken cravat. A pair of round, bright eyes shone out of its bird-like head, and a long pointed object protruded from its sparrow’s beak.
Two horns grew out of its forehead, and on its feet the curious creature was wearing golden boots with diamond spurs. – “Though you do not know me, good Mr Peregrinus; I beg you, sir, allow me to introduce myself – I am Master Flea. Permit me to insert a minute microscope made by a skilled optician of my people into the pupil of your left eye. You will see at once what power this microscope will give you over others, since you will be able to read their innermost thoughts.
But do not always wear it, as it would weigh you down unbearably to always know what your fellow men are thinking!” So enthralled was Peregrinus Tys by this magical insect that he had almost forgotten the beautiful girl lying lifeless at his feet. – “Woe is me, I am dying!” Alinore murmured through her snow-white lips. – “Give – the – prisoner! – I am dying!” All at once a penetrating but harmonious sound was to be heard, as though little golden bells had been struck. Alinore leaped up and hopped around the room laughing, her lips and cheeks now rosy and warm. Good Master Flea had taken pity on her and bitten
her. Mr Peregrinus Tys stood there motionless with astonishment; but that was not the end of the wondrous events of the day. The door was thrown open – Leuwenhoek and Swammer burst in. The two scoundrels had resolved their differences and were determined to join forces to bring back the two escaped prisoners. Due to the power of the microscope, Peregrinus Tys became instantly aware of the sinister thoughts of these villains. A third person appeared – Mr Pepush turned up to protect Alinore.
Mr Peregrinus, the bachelor, began to understand the background of these mysterious events thanks to that marvelous instrument which Master Flea had inserted into his eye. To everybody’s amazement, a milky ray of light came in through the window, and wound itself in a spiral around the chandelier. The Sublime Spirit from the fairy-land of Famagusta had arrived at the very last minute to recover his assets from the two magicians who had stolen them.
As soon as he had taken on visible form, the two magicians, Swammer and Leuwenhoek, fell upon the spirit with howls of rage; they grabbed two chairs and lambasted it until the milky substance of his body was flowing out of it in all directions. Only then was the magic spell broken which had bound lovely Alinore and Mr Pepush, and the two magicians no longer had any power over them either.
Alinore fell into Mr Pepush’s arms; they were both now so happy that they had enough vitality to live as humans for a whole lifetime. Swammer and Leuwenhoek made off like two beaten curs. – The air had been cleared. Master Flea bestirred himself. He whispered to the bachelor, Peregrinus Tys, who was now alone: “Now is the time for you to take a big decision, Mr Peregrinus.
Take your presents and let us go over to your neighbour. I can tell you a secret: that lovely girl Rosy Shepherd has been waiting for you with impatience. Don’t be so shy, Mr Peregrinus, give the child your hand and tell her that you are ready!”
A year of marital bliss had passed. Nobody would have recognised the former bachelor Peregrinus: he had become a useful husband. He sat at the cradle and was rocking his first-born son.
“I would never have known you, my son, had it not been for Master Flea.” The good papa was telling his sleeping baby son the whole epic of the flea from start to finish. – Peregrinus suddenly raised his head. He could hear shouting in the kitchen. Master Flea had bitten fat Pauline’s nose, because the old housekeeper had been careless enough to let the baby’s milk boil over. Rosy, the beautiful young wife, now joined the happy father at the cradle and both laughed merrily at the joke.
But they then heard the silvery sound of Master Flea’s voice: “Mr and Mrs Peregrinus Tys, your devoted servant! I beg to inform you that my mission here has been accomplished. I would ask you to remember that I am, after all, a flea. Please excuse me! I am expected elsewhere. Should His Grace, young Master Tys, ever fall into bad health, I shall appear at once and help out with a couple of bites!”
Having made this promise, the kindly insect executed some extraordinary leaps: “Goodbye! I am jumping back to my madcaps, to the flea people whose master I am!”