Before I leave you for the holidays, one last look at one of the more iconic treatments of a topic very, very close to the core of Coleridge’s literary work: The Eternal Wanderer, better known as “The Wandering Jew”.
One of the more memorable, and more modernist treatments of the trope comes by O. Henry, noted short story artist of New York World Sunday Magazine.
No Mariners in there, lamentably, but still… Enjoy!
(Text taken from HERE.)
The Door of Unrest
I sat an hour by sun, in the editor’s room of the Montopolis _Weekly
Bugle_. I was the editor.
The saffron rays of the declining sunlight filtered through the cornstalks
in Micajah Widdup’s garden-patch, and cast an amber glory upon my
paste-pot. I sat at the editorial desk in my non-rotary revolving chair,
and prepared my editorial against the oligarchies. The room, with its one
window, was already a prey to the twilight. One by one, with my trenchant
sentences, I lopped off the heads of the political hydra, while I
listened, full of kindly peace, to the home-coming cow-bells and wondered
what Mrs. Flanagan was going to have for supper.
Then in from the dusky, quiet street there drifted and perched himself
upon a corner of my desk old Father Time’s younger brother. His face was
beardless and as gnarled as an English walnut. I never saw clothes such
as he wore. They would have reduced Joseph’s coat to a monochrome. But
the colours were not the dyer’s. Stains and patches and the work of sun
and rust were responsible for the diversity. On his coarse shoes was the
dust, conceivably, of a thousand leagues. I can describe him no further,
except to say that he was little and weird and old — old I began to
estimate in centuries when I saw him. Yes, and I remember that there was
an odour, a faint odour like aloes, or possibly like myrrh or leather; and
I thought of museums.
And then I reached for a pad and pencil, for business is business, and
visits of the oldest inhabitants are sacred and honourable, requiring to
“I am glad to see you, sir,” I said. “I would offer you a chair, but —
you see, sir,” I went on, “I have lived in Montopolis only three weeks,
and I have not met many of our citizens.” I turned a doubtful eye upon his
dust-stained shoes, and concluded with a newspaper phrase, “I suppose that
you reside in our midst?”
My visitor fumbled in his raiment, drew forth a soiled card, and handed it
to me. Upon it was written, in plain but unsteadily formed characters,
the name “Michob Ader.”
“I am glad you called, Mr. Ader,” I said. “As one of our older citizens,
you must view with pride the recent growth and enterprise of Montopolis.
Among other improvements, I think I can promise that the town will now be
provided with a live, enterprising newspa–”
“Do ye know the name on that card?” asked my caller, interrupting me.
“It is not a familiar one to me,” I said.
Again he visited the depths of his ancient vestments. This time he
brought out a torn leaf of some book or journal, brown and flimsy with
age. The heading of the page was the _Turkish Spy_ in old-style type; the
printing upon it was this:
“There is a man come to Paris in this year 1643 who pretends to have lived
these sixteen hundred years. He says of himself that he was a shoemaker
in Jerusalem at the time of the Crucifixion; that his name is Michob Ader;
and that when Jesus, the Christian Messias, was condemned by Pontius
Pilate, the Roman president, he paused to rest while bearing his cross to
the place of crucifixion before the door of Michob Ader. The shoemaker
struck Jesus with his fist, saying: ‘Go; why tarriest thou?’ The Messias a
nswered him: ‘I indeed am going; but thou shalt tarry until I come’;
thereby condemning him to live until the day of judgment. He lives
forever, but at the end of every hundred years he falls into a fit or
trance, on recovering from which he finds himself in the same state of
youth in which he was when Jesus suffered, being then about thirty years
“Such is the story of the Wandering Jew, as told by Michob Ader, who
relates –” Here the printing ended.
I must have muttered aloud something to myself about the Wandering Jew,
for the old man spake up, bitterly and loudly.
“‘Tis a lie,” said he, “like nine tenths of what ye call history. ‘Tis a
Gentile I am, and no Jew. I am after footing it out of Jerusalem, my son;
but if that makes me a Jew, then everything that comes out of a bottle is
babies’ milk. Ye have my name on the card ye hold; and ye have read the
bit of paper they call the _Turkish Spy_ that printed the news when I
stepped into their office on the 12th day of June, in the year 1643, just
as I have called upon ye to-day.”
I laid down my pencil and pad. Clearly it would not do. Here was an item
for the local column of the _Bugle_ that — but it would not do. Still,
fragments of the impossible “personal” began to flit through my
conventionalized brain. “Uncle Michob is as spry on his legs as a young
chap of only a thousand or so.” “Our venerable caller relates with’ pride
that George Wash — no, Ptolemy the Great — once dandled him on his knee
at his father’s house.” “Uncle Michob says that our wet spring was nothing
in comparison with the dampness that ruined the crops around Mount Ararat
when he was a boy –” But no, no — it would not do.
I was trying to think of some conversational subject with which to
interest my visitor, and was hesitating between walking matches and the
Pliocene age, when the old man suddenly began to weep poignantly and
“Cheer up, Mr. Ader,” I said, a little awkwardly; “this matter may blow
over in a few hundred years more. There has already been a decided
reaction in favour of Judas Iscariot and Colonel Burr and the celebrated
violinist, Signor Nero. This is the age of whitewash. You must not allow
yourself to become down-hearted.”
Unknowingly, I had struck a chord. The old man blinked belligerently
through his senile tears.
“‘Tis time,” he said, “that the liars be doin’ justice to somebody. Yer
historians are no more than a pack of old women gabblin’ at a wake. A
finer man than the Imperor Nero niver wore sandals. Man, I was at the
burnin’ of Rome. I knowed the Imperor well, for in them days I was a
well-known char-acter. In thim days they had rayspect for a man that
“But ’twas of the Imperor Nero I was goin’ to tell ye. I struck into
Rome, up the Appian Way, on the night of July the 16th, the year 64. I
had just stepped down by way of Siberia and Afghanistan; and one foot of
me had a frost-bite, and the other a blister burned by the sand of the
desert; and I was feelin’ a bit blue from doin’ patrol duty from the North
Pole down to the Last Chance corner in Patagonia, and bein’ miscalled a
Jew in the bargain. Well, I’m tellin’ ye I was passin’ the Circus
Maximus, and it was dark as pitch over the way, and then I heard somebody
sing out, ‘Is that you, Michob?’
“Over ag’inst the wall, hid out amongst a pile of barrels and old
dry-goods boxes, was the Imperor Nero wid his togy wrapped around his
toes, smokin’ a long, black segar.
“‘Have one, Michob?’ says he.
“‘None of the weeds for me,’ says I — ‘nayther pipe nor segar. What’s
the use,’ says I, ‘of smokin’ when ye’ve not got the ghost of a chance of
killin’ yeself by doin’ it?’
“‘True for ye, Michob Ader, my perpetual Jew,’ says the Imperor; ‘ye’re
not always wandering. Sure, ’tis danger gives the spice of our pleasures
— next to their bein’ forbidden.’
“‘And for what,’ says I, ‘do ye smoke be night in dark places widout even
a cinturion in plain clothes to attend ye?’
“‘Have ye ever heard, Michob,’ says the Imperor, ‘of predestinarianism?’
“‘I’ve had the cousin of it,’ says I. ‘I’ve been on the trot with
pedestrianism for many a year, and more to come, as ye well know.’
“‘The longer word,’ says me friend Nero, ‘is the tachin’ of this new sect
of people they call the Christians. ‘Tis them that’s raysponsible for me
smokin’ be night in holes and corners of the dark.’
“And then I sets down and takes off a shoe and rubs me foot that is
frosted, and the Imperor tells me about it. It seems that since I passed
that way before, the Imperor had mandamused the Impress wid a divorce
suit, and Misses Poppaea, a cilibrated lady, was ingaged, widout
riferences, as housekeeper at the palace. ‘All in one day,’ says the
Imperor, ‘she puts up new lace windy-curtains in the palace and joins the
anti-tobacco society, and whin I feels the need of a smoke I must be after
sneakin’ out to these piles of lumber in the dark.’ So there in the dark
me and the Imperor sat, and I told him of me travels. And when they say
the Imperor was an incindiary, they lie. ‘Twas that night the fire
started that burnt the city. ‘Tis my opinion that it began from a stump
of segar that he threw down among the boxes. And ’tis a lie that he
fiddled. He did all he could for six days to stop it, sir.”
And now I detected a new flavour to Mr. Michob Ader. It had not been
myrrh or balm or hyssop that I had smelled. The emanation was the odour
of bad whiskey — and, worse still, of low comedy — the sort that small
humorists manufacture by clothing the grave and reverend things of legend
and history in the vulgar, topical frippery that passes for a certain kind
of wit. Michob Ader as an impostor, claiming nineteen hundred years, and
playing his part with the decency of respectable lunacy, I could endure;
but as a tedious wag, cheapening his egregious story with song-book
levity, his importance as an entertainer grew less.
And then, as if he suspected my thoughts, he suddenly shifted his key.
“You’ll excuse me, sir,” he whined, “but sometimes I get a little mixed in
my head. I am a very old man; and it is hard to remember everything.”
I knew that he was right, and that I should not try to reconcile him with
Roman history; so I asked for news concerning other ancients with whom he
had walked familiar.
Above my desk hung an engraving of Raphael’s cherubs. You could yet make
out their forms, though the dust blurred their outlines strangely.
“Ye calls them ‘cher-rubs’,” cackled the old man. “Babes, ye fancy they
are, with wings. And there’s one wid legs and a bow and arrow that ye
call Cupid — I know where they was found. The
great-great-great-grandfather of thim all was a billy-goat. Bein’ an
editor, sir, do ye happen to know where Solomon s Temple stood?”
I fancied that it was in — in Persia? Well, I did not know.
“‘Tis not in history nor in the Bible where it was. But I saw it,
meself. The first pictures of cher-rubs and cupids was sculptured upon
thim walls and pillars. Two of the biggest, sir, stood in the adytum to
form the baldachin over the Ark. But the wings of thim sculptures was
intindid for horns. And the faces was the faces of goats. Ten thousand
goats there was in and about the temple. And your cher-rubs was
billy-goats in the days of King Solomon, but the painters misconstrued the
horns into wings.
“And I knew Tamerlane, the lame Timour, sir, very well. I saw him at
Keghut and at Zaranj. He was a little man no larger than yerself, with
hair the colour of an amber pipe stem. They buried him at Samarkand I was
at the wake, sir. Oh, he was a fine-built man in his coffin, six feet
long, with black whiskers to his face. And I see ’em throw turnips at the
Imperor Vispacian in Africa. All over the world I have tramped, sir,
without the body of me findin’ any rest. ‘Twas so commanded I saw
Jerusalem destroyed, and Pompeii go up in the fireworks; and I was at the
coronation of Charlemagne and the lynchin’ of Joan of Arc. And everywhere
I go there comes storms and revolutions and plagues and fires. ‘Twas so
commanded. Ye have heard of the Wandering Jew. ‘Tis all so, except that
divil a bit am I a Jew. But history lies, as I have told ye. Are ye
quite sure, sir, that ye haven’t a drop of whiskey convenient? Ye well
know that I have many miles of walking before me.”
“I have none,” said I, “and, if you please, I am about to leave for my
I pushed my chair back creakingly. This ancient landlubber was becoming
as great an affliction as any cross-bowed mariner. He shook a musty
effluvium from his piebald clothes, overturned my inkstand, and went on
with his insufferable nonsense.
“I wouldn’t mind it so much,” he complained, “if it wasn’t for the work I
must do on Good Fridays. Ye know about Pontius Pilate, sir, of course.
His body, whin he killed himself, was pitched into a lake on the Alps
mountains. Now, listen to the job that ’tis mine to perform on the night
of ivery Good Friday. The ould divil goes down in the pool and drags up
Pontius, and the water is bilin’ and spewin’ like a wash pot. And the
ould divil sets the body on top of a throne on the rocks, and thin comes
me share of the job. Oh, sir, ye would pity me thin — ye would pray for
the poor Wandering Jew that niver was a Jew if ye could see the horror of
the thing that I must do. ‘Tis I that must fetch a bowl of water and
kneel down before it till it washes its hands. I declare to ye that
Pontius Pilate, a man dead two hundred years, dragged up with the lake
slime coverin’ him and fishes wrigglin’ inside of him widout eyes, and in
the discomposition of the body, sits there, sir, and washes his hands in
the bowl I hold for him on Good Fridays. ‘Twas so commanded.”
Clearly, the matter had progressed far beyond the scope of the _Bugle’s_
local column. There might have been employment here for the alienist or
for those who circulate the pledge; but I had had enough of it. I got up,
and repeated that I must go.
At this he seized my coat, grovelled upon my desk, and burst again into
distressful weeping. Whatever it was about, I said to myself that his
grief was genuine.
“Come now, Mr. Ader,” I said, soothingly; “what is the matter?”
The answer came brokenly through his racking sobs:
“Because I would not…let the poor Christ…rest…upon the step.”
His hallucination seemed beyond all reasonable answer; yet the effect of
it upon him scarcely merited disrespect. But I knew nothing that might
assuage it; and I told him once more that both of us should be leaving the
office at once.
Obedient at last, he raised himself from my dishevelled desk, and
permitted me to half lift him to the floor. The gale of his grief had
blown away his words; his freshet of tears had soaked away the crust of
his grief. Reminiscence died in him — at least, the coherent part of it.
“‘Twas me that did it,” he muttered, as I led him toward the door — “me,
the shoemaker of Jerusalem.”
I got him to the sidewalk, and in the augmented light I saw that his face
was seared and lined and warped by a sadness almost incredibly the product
of a single lifetime.
And then high up in the firmamental darkness we heard the clamant cries of
some great, passing birds. My Wandering Jew lifted his hand, with
“The Seven Whistlers!” he said, as one introduces well-known friends.
“Wild geese,” said I; “but I confess that their number is beyond me.”
“They follow me everywhere,” he said. “‘Twas so commanded. What ye hear
is the souls of the seven Jews that helped with the Crucifixion.
Sometimes they’re plovers and sometimes geese, but ye’ll find them always
flyin’ where I go.”
I stood, uncertain how to take my leave. I looked down the street,
shuffled my feet, looked back again — and felt my hair rise. The old man
And then my capillaries relaxed, for I dimly saw him footing it away
through the darkness. But he walked so swiftly and silently and contrary
to the gait promised by his age that my composure was not all restored,
though I knew not why.
That night I was foolish enough to take down some dust-covered volumes
from my modest shelves. I searched “Hermippus Redivvus” and “Salathiel”
and the “Pepys Collection” in vain. And then in a book called “The
Citizen of the World,” and in one two centuries old, I came upon what I
desired. Michob Ader had indeed come to Paris in the year 1643, and
related to the _Turkish Spy_ an extraordinary story. He claimed to be the
Wandering Jew, and that —
But here I fell asleep, for my editorial duties had not been light that
Judge Hoover was the _Bugle’s_ candidate for congress. Having to confer
with him, I sought his home early the next morning; and we walked together
down town through a little street with which I was unfamiliar.
“Did you ever hear of Michob Ader?” I asked him, smiling.
“Why, yes,” said the judge. “And that reminds me of my shoes he has for
mending. Here is his shop now.”
Judge Hoover stepped into a dingy, small shop. I looked up at the sign,
and saw “Mike O’Bader, Boot and Shoe Maker,” on it. Some wild geese
passed above, honking clearly. I scratched my ear and frowned, and then
trailed into the shop.
There sat my Wandering Jew on his shoemaker’s bench, trimming a
half-sole. He was drabbled with dew, grass-stained, unkempt, and
miserable; and on his face was still the unexplained wretchedness, the
problematic sorrow, the esoteric woe, that had been written there by
nothing less, it seemed, than the stylus of the centuries.
Judge Hoover inquired kindly concerning his shoes. The old shoemaker
looked up, and spoke sanely enough. He had been ill, he said, for a few
days. The next day the shoes would be ready. He looked at me, and I
could see that I had no place in his memory. So out we went, and on our
“Old Mike,” remarked the candidate, “has been on one of his sprees. He
gets crazy drunk regularly once a month. But he’s a good shoemaker.”
“What is his history?” I inquired.
“Whiskey,” epitomized Judge Hoover. “That explains him.”
I was silent, but I did not accept the explanation. And so, when I had
the chance, I asked old man Sellers, who browsed daily on my exchanges.
“Mike O’Bader,” said he, “was makin’ shoes in Montopolis when I come here
goin’ on fifteen year ago. I guess whiskey’s his trouble. Once a month
he gets off the track, and stays so a week. He’s got a rigmarole
somethin’ about his bein’ a Jew pedler that he tells ev’rybody. Nobody
won’t listen to him any more. When he’s sober he ain’t sich a fool —
he’s got a sight of books in the back room of his shop that he reads. I
guess you can lay all his trouble to whiskey.”
But again I would not. Not yet was my Wandering Jew rightly construed for
me. I trust that women may not be allowed a title to all the curiosity in
the world. So when Montopolis’s oldest inhabitant (some ninety score
years younger than Michob Ader) dropped in to acquire promulgation in
print, I siphoned his perpetual trickle of reminiscence in the direction
of the uninterpreted maker of shoes.
Uncle Abner was the Complete History of Montopolis, bound in butternut.
“O’Bader,” he quavered, “come here in ’69. He was the first shoemaker in
the place. Folks generally considers him crazy at times now. But he
don’t harm nobody. I s’pose drinkin’ upset his mind — yes, drinkin’ very
likely done it. It’s a powerful bad thing, drinkin’. I’m an old, old
man, sir, and I never see no good in drinkin’.”
I felt disappointment. I was willing to admit drink in the case of my
shoemaker, but I preferred it as a recourse instead of a cause. Why had
he pitched upon his perpetual, strange note of the Wandering Jew? Why his
unutterable grief during his aberration? I could not yet accept whiskey
as an explanation.
“Did Mike O’Bader ever have a great loss or trouble of any kind?” I asked.
“Lemme see! About thirty year ago there was somethin’ of the kind, I
recollect. Montopolis, sir, in them days used to be a mighty strict place.
“Well, Mike O’Bader had a daughter then — a right pretty girl. She was
too gay a sort for Montopolis so one day she slips off to another town and
runs away with a circus. It was two years before she comes back, all
fixed up in fine clothes and rings and jewellery, to see Mike. He
wouldn’t have nothin’ to do with her, so she stays around town awhile,
anyway. I reckon the men folks wouldn’t have raised no objections, but
the women egged ’em on to order her to leave town. But she had plenty of
spunk, and told ’em to mind their own business.
“So one night they decided to run her away. A crowd of men and women
drove her out of her house, and chased her with sticks and stones. She
run to her father’s door, callin’ for help. Mike opens it, and when he
sees who it is he hits her with his fist and knocks her down and shuts the
“And then the crowd kept on chunkin’ her till she run clear out of town.
And the next day they finds her drowned dead in Hunter’s mill pond. I
mind it all now. That was thirty year ago.”
I leaned back in my non-rotary revolving chair and nodded gently, like a
mandarin, at my paste-pot.
“When old Mike has a spell,” went on Uncle Abner, tepidly garrulous, “he
thinks he’s the Wanderin’ Jew.”
“He is,” said I, nodding away.
And Uncle Abner cackled insinuatingly at the editor’s remark, for he was
expecting at least a “stickful” in the “Personal Notes” of the _Bugle_.