In a village in Bavaria there died, about 1850, an old man, nearly a hundred years old. No one knew anything certain about his origin, for he had no family. During more than half a century, broken down with infirmities that rendered it impossible for him to earn a livelihood by any kind of labor, he had no other resource than the charity of the public, to which he appealed by creeping about among the manor-houses and farms of the neighborhood, offering almanacs, matches, and other small objects, for sale. The whole countryside had given him the nickname of “Count Max;” the children never addressed him in other way. Why did people call him by this title? Nobody knew; but it had become a habit with everybody. Possibly, it might have suggested, in the beginning, by the refinement of his countenance and manners, which offered a marked contrast with the squalor of his rags. Several years after his death, he appeared, in a dream, to the daughter of the owner of one of the castles in which, whenever he called with his wares, the servants used to give him a good supper and a night’s lodging upon clean straw in the stables, for he had no abode of his own. Addressing the lady, he said to her: – Thanks for having remembered poor Max in your prayers, they have been heard by the Lord. You wish to know whom I am, O charitable soul, who took pity on the wretched merchant! I come to gratify your wish; my history will be an instructive lesson for all who learn it.”
Continuing to address the lady, he continued his recital as follows: –
“A century and a half ago, I was the rich and powerful lord of this region; I was vain, haughty, and infatuated on the score of my nobility. My enormous wealth was employed only on my pleasures, for which, large as it was, it hardly sufficed; for I was a gambler and a rake, and I spent my time in a succession of orgies. My vassals, whom I regarded as having been created for my use, like so many beasts of burden, were crushed and ground into the dust to pay for my prodigality. I remained deaf to their complaints as to those of all who were poor and friendless, considering that they ought to esteem themselves greatly honored by serving my caprices. I died young, exhausted by every kind of excess, but without having experienced any great misfortunes. On the contrary, everything had seemed to go well with me, so that I was looked upon as one of Fortune’s favorites. On account of my rank, my funeral was very splendid; the high-livers whom I admitted to my intimacy regretted me as a lavishly- hospitable and magnificent host; but not a tear was shed over my tomb, not a prayer was sent up for my soul, and my memory was cursed by all those whose misery had been intensified by my exactions and my crimes. Ah! How terrible is the malediction of those whom we have rendered wretched! Their reproaches and their curses sounded perpetually in my ears during long years that seemed to me an eternity! And at the death of each of my victims, a new face, threatening or ironical, rose before me and pursued me incessantly, and I was not able to find a corner in which to hide myself from his view! Not a single kindly glance did I ever meet with; my former companions in debauch, as miserable as I, fled from me and seemed to say, contemptuously, “You have no longer wherewith to pay for our pleasures!” What would I not have given for a moment’s repose, for some obscure hiding place in which to take refuge from the shame and the regrets that were devouring me! But I had no longer anything to give; all the gold that I had scattered by handfuls upon the Earth had failed to produce a single benediction!
“At length, weary, worn out, exhausted, like the wanderer, who, harassed and foot-sore, sees no end to the road before him, I cried aloud, “My God, take pity on me! When will this horrible situation come to an end!” Then a friendly voice, the first I had heard since I quitted the Earth, replied, “When you will it.” – “What must I do, great God?” I cried again, “tell me! I am ready to submit to everything!” – “You must repent,” again replied the voice; “you must humble yourself before those whom you have humbled; you must beg them to interceded for you; for the prayer of the injured who forgives is always favorably listened to by the Supreme Judge.” I humbled myself; I sought the forgiveness of my vassals, of my servants, of all my victims, whose faces, gradually losing their expression of anger and becoming more and more benevolent, at length disappeared altogether. No words could express the joy of that moment! I seemed to have begun a new life; hope took the place of despair; and I thank God for that deliverance with all the energy of my soul. The voice afterwards called to me: “Prince!” and I replied, “There is no other Prince here than the Almighty, who abases the proud. Forgive me, O God! for I have sinned; make me the servant of my servants, if such be Thy will!”
“Some years afterwards, I was born again upon the Earth; but, this time, in a family of poor villagers. My parents died while I was still a child, and I was left helpless and alone. I got my living as I could, sometimes as a workman, sometimes as a farm-servant, but always honestly, for, this time, I believed in God. At the age of forty, an attack of disease deprived me of the use of my limbs; and I was obliged to beg, for fifty years, on the soil of which I had formerly been the absolute master; receiving with thankfulness a morsel of bread at the door of the farms which formerly belonged to me, and where, by the bitter mockery, they had nicknamed me “The Count,” and only too glad to find shelter, from time to time, in the stables of the castle that had formerly been my abode. In my sleep, I took pleasure in wandering over the stately abode of which I was formerly the haughty master! How many a time, in my dreams, did I see myself once more surrounded by my former splendor! These visions left with me, on waking, an indefinable feeling of bitterness and regret; but no complaint ever escaped my lips, and, when it pleased God to call me back into the spirit-world, I blessed Him for having given me the strength to submit, without murmuring, to the long and painful trial of which I am now receiving the reward. “To you, noble Lady, I thank you for having prayed for me!
We commend this history to those who imagine that there would be nothing to restrain men from crime, if they no longer had before their eyes the bugbear of eternal punishment; and we ask them whether the prospect of such a chastisement as that of “Count Max, the Beggar,” is less likely to arrest them on the road of evil than the threat of endless physical tortures in which so many have ceased to believe?