From the Life of a Good-for-Nothing

Joseph von Eichendorff

Chapter One

The wheel of my father's mill was once more turning and whirring merrily, the melting snow trickled steadily from the roof, the sparrows chirped and hopped about, as I, taking great delight in the warm sunshine, sat on the door-step and rubbed my eyes to rid them of sleep.

Then my father made his appearance; he had been busy in the mill since daybreak, and his nightcap was all awry as he said to me, "You Good-for-nothing! There you sit sunning yourself, and stretching yourself till your bones crack, leaving me to do all the work alone. I can keep you here no longer. Spring is at hand. Off with you into the world and earn your own bread!"

"Well," said I, "all right; if I am a Good-for-nothing, I will go forth into the world and make my fortune."

In fact, I was very glad to have my father speak thus, for I myself had been thinking of starting on my travels; the yellow-hammer, which all through the autumn and winter had been chirping sadly at our window, "Farmer, hire me; farmer, hire me," was, now that the lovely spring weather had set in, once more piping cheerily from the old tree, "Farmer, nobody wants your work."

So I went into the house and took down from the wall my fiddle, on which I could play quite skillfully; my father gave me a few pieces of money to set me on my way; and I sauntered off along the village street. I was filled with secret joy as I saw all my old acquaintances and comrades right and left going to their work digging and ploughing, just as they had done yesterday and the day before, and so on, whilst I was roaming out into the wide world. I called out "Good-by!" to the poor people on all sides, but no one took much notice of me. A perpetual Sabbath seemed to reign in my soul, and when I got out among the fields I took out my dear fiddle and played and sang, as I walked along the country road:

The favored ones, the loved of Heaven,
God sends to roam the world at will;
His wonders to their gaze are given
By field and forest, stream and hill.

The dullards who at home are staying
Are not refreshed by morning's ray;
They grovel, earth-born calls obeying,
And petty cares beset their day.

The little brooks o'er rocks are springing,
The lark's gay carol fills the air;
Why should not I with them be singing
A joyous anthem free from care?

I wander on, in God confiding,
For all are His, wood, field, and fell;
O'er earth and skies He, still presiding,
For me will order all things well.

As I was looking around, a fine traveling-carriage drove along very near me; it had probably been just behind me for some time without my perceiving it, so filled with melody had I been, for it was going quite slowly, and two elegant ladies had their heads out of the window, listening. One was especially beautiful, and younger than the other, but both pleased me extremely.

When I stopped singing the elder ordered the coachman to stop his horses, and accosted me with great condescension: "Aha, my merry lad, you know how to sing very pretty songs!"

I, nothing loath, replied, "Please Your Grace, I know some far prettier."

"And where are you going so early in the morning?" she asked.

I was ashamed to confess that I did not myself know, and so I said, boldly, "To Vienna." The two ladies then talked together in a strange tongue which I did not understand.

The younger shook her head several times, but the other only laughed, and finally called to me, "Jump up behind; we too are going to Vienna."

Who more ready than I! I made my best bow, and sprang up behind the carriage, the coachman cracked his whip, and away we bowled along the smooth road so swiftly that the wind whistled in my ears.

Behind me vanished my native village with its gardens and church-tower, before me appeared fresh villages, castles, and mountains, beneath me on either side the meadows in the tender green of spring flew past, and above me countless larks were soaring in the blue air. I was ashamed to shout aloud, but I exulted inwardly, and shuffled about so on the foot-board behind the carriage that I well-nigh lost my fiddle from under my arm. But when the sun rose higher in the sky, while heavy, white, noonday clouds gathered on the horizon, and the air hung sultry and still above the gently-waving grain, I could not but remember my village and my father, and our mill, and how cool and comfortable it was beside the shady mill-pool, and how far, far away from me it all was. And the most curious sensation overcame me; I felt as if I must turn and run back; but I stuck my fiddle between my coat and my vest, settled myself on the foot-board, and went to sleep.

When I opened my eyes again, the carriage was standing beneath tall linden-trees, on the other side of which a broad flight of steps led between columns into a magnificent castle. Through the trees beyond I saw the towers of Vienna. The ladies, it appeared, had left the carriage, and the horses had been unharnessed. I was startled to find myself alone, and I hurried into the castle. As I did so I heard some one at a window above laughing.

An odd time I had in this castle. First, as soon as I found myself in the cool, spacious vestibule, some one tapped me on the shoulder with a stick. I turned quickly about, and there stood a tall gentleman in state apparel, with a broad bandolier of silk and gold crossing his breast from his shoulder to his hip, a staff in his hand, gilded at the top, and an extraordinarily large Roman nose; he strutted up to me, swelling like a ruffled-up turkey-cock, and asked me what I wanted there. I was taken entirely aback, and in my confusion was unable to utter a word. Several servants passed, going up and down the staircase; they said nothing, but eyed me superciliously.

Then a lady's-maid appeared; she came up to me, declared that I was a charming young fellow, and that her mistress had sent to ask me if I did not want a place as gardener's boy. I put my hand in my pocket - the few coins I had possessed were gone. They must have been jerked out by my shuffling on the foot-board behind the carriage. I had nothing to depend upon save my skill with the fiddle, for which the gentleman with the staff, as he informed me in passing, would not give a farthing. Therefore, in my distress, I said "yes" to the maid, keeping my eyes fixed the while upon the portentous figure pacing the hall to and fro like the pendulum of a clock in a church-tower, appearing from the background with imposing majesty and with unfailing regularity.

At last a gardener came, muttering something about boors and vagabonds, and led me off to the garden, preaching me a long sermon on the way about my being diligent and industrious and never loitering about the world any more, and how, if I would give up all my idle and foolish ways, I might come to some good in the end. There was a great deal of exhortation in this strain, very good and useful, but I have since forgotten it nearly all. In fact, I really hardly know how it all came about; I went on saying "yes" to everything, and I felt like a bird with its wings clipped. But, thank God, in the end I was earning my living!

I found life delightful in that garden. I had a hot dinner every day and plenty of it, and more money than I needed for my glass of wine, only, unfortunately, I had quite a deal to do. The pavilions, and arbors, and long green walks delighted me, if I could only have sauntered about and talked pleasantly like the gentlemen and ladies who came there every day. Whenever the gardener was away and I was alone, I took out my short tobacco-pipe, sat down, and thought of all the beautiful, polite things with which I could have entertained that lovely young lady who had brought me to the castle, had I been a cavalier walking beside her. Or on sultry afternoons I lay on my back on the grass, when all was so quiet that you could hear the bees humming, and I gazed up at the clouds sailing away toward my native village, and around me at the waving grass and flowers, and thought of the lovely lady; and it sometimes chanced that I really saw her in the distance walking in the garden, with her guitar or a book, tall and beautiful as an angel, and I was only half conscious whether I were awake or dreaming.

Thus, once as I was passing a summer-house on my way to work, I was singing to myself -

"I gaze around me, going
By forest, dale, and lea,
O'er heights where streams are flowing,
My every thought bestowing,
Ah, Lady fair, on thee!" -

when, through the half-opened lattice of the cool, dark summer-house buried amid flowers, I saw the sparkle of a pair of beautiful, youthful eyes. I was so startled that I could not finish my song, but passed on to my work without looking round.

In the evening - it was Saturday - and, in joyous anticipation of the coming Sunday, I was standing, fiddle in hand, at the window of the gardener's house, still thinking of the sparkling eyes - the lady's-maid came tripping through the twilight.

"The gracious Lady fair sends you this to drink her health, and a 'Good-Night' besides!" And in a twinkling she put a flask of wine on the window-sill and vanished among the cowers and shrubs like a lizard.

I stood looking at the wonderful flask for a long time, not knowing what to think. And if before I played the fiddle merrily, I now played it ten times more so, and I sang the song of the Lady fair all through, and all the other songs that I knew, until the nightingales wakened outside and the moon and stars lit up the garden. Ah, that was a lovely night!

No cradle-song tells the child's future; a blind hen finds many a grain of wheat; he laughs best who laughs last; the unexpected often happens; man proposes, God disposes: thus did I meditate the next day, sitting in the garden with my pipe, and as I looked down at myself I seemed to myself to be a downright dunce. Contrary to all my habits hitherto, I now rose betimes every day, before the gardener and the other assistants were stirring. It was most beautiful then in the garden. The flowers, the fountains, the rose-bushes, the whole place, glittered in the morning sunshine like pure gold and jewels. And in the avenues of huge beeches it was as quiet, cool, and solemn as a church, only the little birds fluttered around and pecked in the gravel paths.

In front of the castle, just under the windows, there was a large bush in full bloom. Thither I used to go in the early morning, and crouch down beneath the branches where I could watch the windows, for I had not the courage to appear in the open. Thence I sometimes saw the Lady fair in a snow-white robe come, still drowsy and warm, to the open window. She would stand there braiding her dark-brown hair, gazing abroad over the garden and shrubbery, or she would tend and water the flowers upon her window-sill, or would rest her guitar upon her white arm and sing out into the clear air so wondrously that to this day my heart faints with sadness when one of her songs recurs to me. And ah, it was all so long ago!

So my life passed for a week and more. But once - she was standing at the window and all was quiet around - a confounded fly flew directly up my nose, and I was seized with an interminable fit of sneezing. She leaned far out of the window and discovered me cowering in the shrubbery. I was overcome with mortification and did not go there again for many a day.

At last I ventured to return to my post, but the window remained closed. I hid in the bushes for four, five, six mornings, but she did not appear. Then I grew tired of my hiding-place and came out boldly, and every morning promenaded bravely beneath all the windows of the castle. But the lovely Lady fair was not to be seen. At a window a little farther on I saw the other lady standing; I had never before seen her so distinctly. She had a fine rosy face. and was plump, and as gorgeously attired as a tulip. I always made her a low bow, and she acknowledged it, and her eyes twinkled very kindly and courteously. Once only, I thought I saw the Lady fair standing behind the curtain at her window, peeping out.

Many days passed and I did not see her, either in the garden or at the window. The gardener scolded me for laziness; I was out of humor, tired of myself and of all about me.

I was lying on the grass one Sunday afternoon, watching the blue wreaths of smoke from my pipe, and fretting because I had not chosen some other trade which would not have bored me so day after day. The other fellows had all gone off to the dance in the neighboring village. Every one was strolling about in Sunday attire, the houses were gay, and there was melody in the very air. But I walked off and sat solitary, like a bittern among the reeds, by a lonely pond in the garden, rocking myself in a little skiff tied there, while the vesper bells sounded faintly from the town and the swans glided to and fro on the placid water a sadness as of death possessed me.

On a sudden I heard, in the distance, voices talking gaily, and bursts of merry laughter. They sounded nearer and nearer, and red and white kerchiefs and hats and feathers were visible through the shrubbery. A party of gentlemen and ladies were coming from the castle, across the meadow, directly toward me, and my two ladies among them.

I stood up and was about to retire, when the elder perceived me. "Aha, you are just what we want!" she called to me, smiling. "Row us across the pond to the other side."

The ladies cautiously took their seats in the boat, assisted by the gentlemen, who made quite a parade of their familiarity with the water. When all the ladies were seated, I pushed off from the shore. One of the young gentlemen who stood in the prow began, unperceived, to rock the boat. The ladies looked frightened, and one or two screamed. The Lady fair, who had a lily in her hand, and was sitting well in the centre of the skiff, looked down with a quiet smile into the clear water, touching the surface of the pond now and then with a lily, her image, amid the reflections of the clouds and trees, appearing like an angel soaring gently through the deep blue skies.

As I was gazing at her, the other of my two ladies, the plump, merry one, suddenly took it into her head that I must sing as we glided along. A very elegant young gentleman with an eye-glass, who sat beside her, instantly turned to her, and, as he kissed her hand, said, "Thanks for the poetic idea! A folk-song sung by one of the people in the open air is an Alpine rose, upon the very Alps - the Alpine horns are nothing but herbaria - the soul of the national consciousness."

But I said I did not know anything fine enough to sing to such great people.

Then the pert lady's-maid, who was beside me with a basket of cups and bottles, and whom I had not perceived before, said, "He knows a very pretty little song about a lady fair."

"Yes, yes, sing that one!" the lady exclaimed.

I felt hot all over, and the Lady fair lifted her eyes from the water and gave me a look that went to my very soul. So I did not hesitate any longer, but took heart and sang with all my might:

I gaze around me, going
By forest, dale, and lea,
O'er heights where streams are flowing,
My every thought bestowing,
Ah, Lady fair, on thee!

And in my garden, finding
Bright flowers fresh and rare,
While many a wreath I'm binding,
Sweet thoughts therein I'm winding
Of thee, my Lady fair.

For me 'twould be too daring To lay them at her feet. They'll soon away be wearing, But love beyond comparing Is thine, my Lady sweet.

In early morning waking, I toil with ready smile, And though my heart be breaking, I'll sing to hide its aching, And dig my grave the while.

The boat touched the shore, and all the party got out; many of the young gentlemen, as I had perceived, had made game of me in whispers to the ladies while I was singing. The gentleman with the eye-glass took my hand as he left the boat, and said something to me, I do not remember what, and the elder of my two ladies gave me a kindly glance. The Lady fair had never raised her eyes all the time I was singing, and she went away without a word.

As for me, before my song was ended the tears stood in my eyes; my heart seemed like to burst with shame and misery. I understood now for the first time how beautiful she was, and how poor and despised and forsaken I, and when they had all disappeared behind the bushes I could contain myself no longer, but threw myself down on the grass and wept bitterly.

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© 1994-1999 Robert Godwin-Jones
Virginia Commonwealth University
Department of Foreign Languages