Anton, Friend Of All The World

In a tribute to his most unforgettable character, a literary great tells the story of cheerful Anton, who never had a job—but was always busy. An RD Classic from October 1939

Stefan Zweig Updated: Feb 15, 2023 14:58:57 IST
Anton, Friend Of All The World Photo: Shutterstock

I should be ungrateful indeed had I forgotten the person who showed me two of the most difficult things on earth: how, by means of an inner freedom, a man can free himself from the strongest power in this world, the power of money; and how a man can live among his fellow human beings without making a single enemy.

I came to know this unique individual in a very simple way. One afternoon, in the little town where I then lived, I was taking my spaniel for a walk, when the dog began to behave strangely. He rolled frenziedly on the ground, rubbed himself against every tree, whimpered and growled incessantly.

While I was wondering what was the matter with him, I became aware that someone was walking by my side—a man of about 30, poorly dressed, collarless and hatless. A beggar, I thought, and was about to put my hand in my pocket. But the stranger smiled tranquilly at me out of clear blue eyes as though we were old friends. “He’s got a tick, poor chap,” he said, pointing to my dog. “Come along, we’ll have it out.”

He addressed me with the ‘Du’ which in German is employed only among people who are on intimate terms; but there was such warm friendliness in his gaze that I took no offense at his familiarity. I followed him to a park bench and sat down beside him. He called the dog with a shrill whistle.

And, strange to say, my Kaspar, who was usually wary of strangers, responded at once, and, at a sign, put his head on the man’s knee. Searching the dog’s coat with long, sensitive fingers, the stranger finally uttered satisfied “Aha!” and began what must have been a painful operation, for Kaspar whimpered several times. Yet he made no effort to wriggle free. Suddenly the man released him. “Here it is,” he laughed, triumphantly holding something in the air. “Now run along, doggie.” As the dog scurried off, the stranger rose with a nod and a “Griiss Gott,” [God bless] and walked on. His departure was so sudden that it did not occur to me until later that I should have given him something for his trouble, or at least should have thanked him. But there was the same finality and self-possession about his going as his coming .

At home, still pondering the man’s odd behaviour, I reported the adventure to our old cook. “Oh, that was Anton,” she remarked. “He’s got an eye for everything.” I asked what was his trade, what he did for a living. “Nothing,” she said, as if astonished by my question. “What does he want with a trade?”

“Well,” I said, “everyone has to have something to live on.”

“Not Anton,” she said. “Everyone is glad to give him whatever he wants. He doesn’t care about money, he doesn't need it.” Well, this was odd. I knew that in our little town, as in every other town in the world, every crust of bread and every glass of beer, every night’s lodging and every coat had to be paid for. How came this spare little fellow with the threadbare trousers to get around this law, and yet remain utterly carefree and happy?

I resolved to investigate his technique, and soon discovered that our cook had been right: this fellow Anton had no kind of settled job. He just wandered about the town all day long—apparently aimlessly, but with watchful eyes that observed everything. He would stop the driver of a cart and show him that his horse was imperfectly harnessed. He would notice the rotting wood in a fence, and call on the owner to suggest that it ought to be painted. Usually he’d be asked to do the job—for everybody knew that there was no cupidity in his suggestions, but only sincere friendliness.

How many jobs have I not since then seen him putting his hand to! Once I found him sitting in a shoemaker’s shop mending shoes, once acting as an extra waiter at a party, once taking some children out for a walk. I discovered that everyone turned to Anton in an emergency; on one occasion I saw him selling apples among the market women, and I learned that the owner of the stall was in childbed and had let him take her place. Of course, there are plenty of handymen in every town, ready to pick up any odd job. The unique thing about Anton was that, regardless of how hard he had worked, he firmly refused to accept more money than he needed for that day. When things went well, he accepted no payment whatever. “I’ll come to you later if I need anything,” he would say.

I soon became aware that this odd, ragged, friendly fellow had discovered for himself a new system. He had faith in the decency of human beings; instead of depositing money in a savings bank, he preferred to accumulate moral obligations with his fellow townspeople; he invested his little all in invisible credits—and even the most cynical could not escape feeling indebted to one who did things for them as a favour, without thought of fixed compensation.

One had only to watch Anton walking down the street to realize in what special esteem people held him. Everyone greeted him cordially, everyone shook him by the hand. And this simple carefree man in the shabby coat walked through the town like a landowner inspecting his estates, with a genial and friendly air. He could enter any door, sit down at any table; everything was his to command. Never have I understood so well the power wielded by one who has mastered the secret of taking no thought for the morrow, and of genuinely trusting in God.

I must frankly admit that it annoyed me at first, after the episode with Kaspar, to have Anton pass me with merely a casual greeting, as though I were more or less a stranger. Evidently he did not wish to presume on that little service. Yet I felt excluded by this polite indifference from a large and friendly community. And so the next time something was out of order in the house—water was dripping from a gutter—I suggested to my cook that she send for Anton.

“You can’t send for him; he never stays long enough in one place,” she replied. “But I’ll get word to him.” Thus I learnt that this strange individual had no home. Yet no one was easier to get in touch with; a sort of wireless telephone connected him with the whole town. It was sufficient to tell the first person you met in the street, “I want Anton,” and the word would pass along, until someone ran across him. Indeed, that very afternoon he turned up. He looked at everything with shrewd eyes, pointing out, as he walked through the garden, that here a bush wanted trimming, there a young tree needed transplanting.

Finally he inspected the gutter and set to work forth with. Two hours later he reported that the job was finished, and departed—again before I could thank him. But this time at least I had told the cook to pay him well. I asked her if he had been satisfied. “Of course, he’s always satisfied,” she said. "I wanted to give him six shillings, but he would take only two. That would see him through for today and tomorrow. But if the Herr Doktor, he said, ever had an old winter coat to spare ...”

I find it hard to describe the pleasure it gave me to be able to offer to this man— the first person I had ever known who took less than was given him, something he was eager to have. I ran after him. “Anton, Anton,” I called down the hill. “I have a coat for you.”

Once more I encountered that serene, tranquil light in his eyes. He was not in the least surprised that I should run after him. It was natural to him that someone who had a coat that was not needed should offer it to another who badly wanted one. I got the cook to fetch all my available old clothes. He scrutinized the pile, picked up a coat, tried it on and then said quietly, “Yes, this will do me. "He said it with the air of a gentleman who has decided to take one of the articles brought out for his inspection in a shop. Then he glanced at the other things. “You can give those shoes to Fritz in the Salsergrasse, he needs a pair; and the shirts to Josef in the Square, he can patch them for himself. If you like I’ll take them along for you.” This is the magnanimous to ne of one volunteering to do a favour; I felt I ought to thank him for distributing my belongings among people who were complete strangers to me. As he tied the things in a bundle, he added, “Yes, you’re a good fellow. Nice of you to give all these things away.” And he vanished.

Strange, no enthusiastic review of any of my books had ever delighted me so much as this naive praise. In later years I have often thought of this Anton, and always with gratitude, for few people have given me so much spiritual help. Frequently when I have been worrying about stupid little money matters I have called to mind this man who lived calmly and confidently for the day, because he wanted no more than was enough for that one day. And always I have thought : “If everyone were to learn this secret of mutual trust and confidence, there would be no police, no courts of law, no prisons and no money. Would not our whole complicated economic system be remedied if everyone lived like this one man, who gave as much of himself as he could, yet took only what he needed? ”For some years I’ve heard nothing of Anton. But there are few people about whom I feel less anxiety: I know that God will never leave this man in the lurch and, what’s more, men will not, either.

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