From the Life of a Good-for-Nothing

Joseph von Eichendorff

Chapter Six

When I awoke, the beams of early morning were shining on the green curtains of my bed. At first I could not remember where I was. I seemed to be still driving in the coach, where I had been dreaming of a castle in the moonlight, and of an old witch and her pale daughter.

I sprang hastily out of bed, dressed myself, and, looking about my room, perceived in the wainscoting a small door, which I had not seen the night before. It was ajar; I opened it, and saw a pretty little room looking very fresh and neat in the early dawn. Some articles of feminine apparel were lying in disorder over the back of a chair, and in a bed beside it lay the girl who had waited upon me the evening before. She was sleeping soundly, her head resting upon her bare white arm, over which her black curls were straying. "How mortified she would be if she knew that the door was open!" I said to myself, and I crept back into my room, bolting the door after me, that the girl might not be horrified and ashamed when she awoke.

Not a sound was yet to be heard outside, except from an early robin that was singing his morning song, perched upon a spray growing out of the wall beneath my window. "No," said I, "you shall not shame me by singing all alone your early hymn of praise to God!" I hastily fetched my fiddle, which I had laid upon the table the night before, and left the room. Everything in the castle was silent as death, and I was a long while finding my way through the dim corridors out into the open air.

There I found myself in a large garden extending halfway down the mountain, its broad terraces lying one beneath the other like huge steps. But the gardening was slovenly. The paths were all grass-grown, the yew figures were not trimmed, but stretched long noses and caps a yard high into the air like ghosts, so that really they must have been quite fearsome at nightfall. Linen was hanging to dry on the broken marble statues of an unused fountain; here and there in the middle of the garden cabbages were planted beside some common flowers; everything was neglected, in disorder, and overgrown with tall weeds, among which glided varicolored lizards. On all sides through the gigantic old trees there was a distant, lonely prospect of range after range of mountains stretching as far as the eye could reach.

After I had been sauntering about through this wilderness for a while in the dawn, I descried upon the terrace below me, striding to and fro with folded arms, a tall, slender, pale youth in a long brown surtout. He seemed not to perceive me, and shortly seated himself upon a stone bench, took a book out of his pocket, read very loud from it, as if he were preaching, looked up to heaven at intervals, and leaned his head sadly upon his right hand. I looked at him for a long time, but at last I grew curious to know why he was making such extraordinary gestures, and I went hastily toward him. He had just heaved a profound sigh, and sprang up startled as I approached. He was completely confused, and so was I; we neither of us knew what to say, and we stood there bowing, until he made his escape, striding rapidly through the shrubbery.

Meanwhile, the sun had arisen over the forest; I mounted on the stone bench, and scraped my fiddle merrily, so that the quiet valleys reechoed. The old woman with the bunch of keys, who had been searching anxiously for me all through the castle to call me to breakfast, appeared upon the terrace above me, and was surprised that I could play the fiddle so well. The grim old man from the castle came too, and was as much amazed, and at last the maids came, and they all stood up there together agape, while I fingered away, and wielded my bow in the most artistic manner, playing cadenzas and variations until I was downright tired.

The castle was a mighty strange place! No one dreamed of journeying further. It was no inn or post-station, as I learned from one of the maids, but belonged to a wealthy count. When I sometimes questioned the old woman as to the count's name and where he lived, she only smirked as she had done on the evening of my arrival, and slyly pinched me and winked at me archly as if she were out of her senses. If on a warm day I drank a whole bottle of wine, the maids were sure to giggle when they brought me another; and once when I wanted to smoke a pipe, and informed them by signs of my desire, they all burst into a fit of foolish laughter.

But most mysterious of all was a serenade which often, and always upon the darkest nights, sounded beneath my window. A guitar was played fitfully, soft, low chords being heard from time to time. Once I imagined I heard some one down below call up, "Pst! pst!"

I sprang out of bed and, putting my head out of the window, called, "Holla! who's there?" But no answer came; I only heard the rustling of the shrubbery, as if some one were hastily running away. The large dog in the courtyard, roused by my shout, barked a couple of times, and then all was still again. After this the serenade was heard no more.

Otherwise my life here was all that mortal could desire. The worthy Porter knew well what he was talking about when he was wont to declare that in Italy raisins dropped into one's mouth of themselves. I lived in the lonely castle like an enchanted prince. Wherever I went the servants treated me with the greatest respect, though they all knew that I had not a farthing in my pocket. I had but to say, "Table, be spread," and lo, I was served with delicious viands, rice, wine, melons, and Parmesan cheese. I lived on the best, slept in the magnificent canopied bed, walked in the garden, played my fiddle, and sometimes helped with the gardening. I often lay for hours in the tall grass, and the pale youth in his long surtout - he was a student and a relative of the old woman's, and was spending his vacation here - would pace around me in a wide circle, muttering from his book like a conjurer, which was always sure to send me to sleep.

Thus day after day passed, until, what with the good eating and drinking, I began to grow quite melancholy. My limbs became limp from perpetually doing nothing, and I felt as if I should fall to pieces from sheer laziness.

One sultry afternoon, I was sitting in the boughs of a tall tree that overhung the valley, gently rocking myself above its quiet depths. The bees were humming among the leaves around me; all else was silent as the grave; not a human being was to be seen on the mountains, and below me on the peaceful meadows the cows were resting in the high grass. But from afar away the note of a post-horn floated across the wooded heights, at first scarcely audible, then clearer and more distinct. On the instant my heart reechoed an old song which I had learned when at home at my father's mill from a traveling journeyman, and I sang:

Whenever abroad you are straying,
Take with you your dearest one;
While others are laughing and playing,
A stranger is left all alone.

And what know these trees, with their sighing,
Of an older, a lovelier day!
Alas, o'er yon blue mountains lying,
Thy home is so far, far away!

The stars in their courses I treasure,
My pathway to her they shone o'er;
The nightingale's song gives me pleasure,
It sang nigh my dearest one's door.

When starlight and dawn are contending,
I climb to the mountain-tops clear;
Thence gazing, my greeting I'm sending
To Germany, ever most dear.

It seemed as if the post-horn in the distance would fain accompany my song. While I was singing, it came nearer and nearer among the mountains, until at last I heard it in the castle court-yard; I got down from the tree as quickly as possible, in time to meet the old woman with an opened packet coming toward me.

"Here is something too for you," she said, and handed me a neat little note.

It was without address; I opened it hastily, and on the instant flushed as red as a peony, and my heart beat so violently that the old woman observed my agitation. The note was from - my Lady fair, whose handwriting I had often seen at the bailiff's. It was short: "All is well once more; all obstacles are removed. I take a private opportunity to be the first to write you the good news. Come, hasten back. It is so lonely here, and I can scarcely bear to live since you left us. Aurelia."

As I read, my eyes grew dim with rapture, alarm, and ineffable delight. I was ashamed in presence of the old woman, who began to smirk and wink odiously, and I flew like an arrow to the loneliest nook of the garden. There I threw myself on the grass beneath the hazel-bushes and read the note again, repeating the words by heart, and then re-reading them over and over, while the sunlight danced between the leaves upon the letters, so that they were blended and blurred before my eyes like golden and bright green and crimson blossoms. "Is she not married, then," I thought; "was that young officer her brother, perhaps, or is he dead, or am I crazy, or - but no matter!" I exclaimed at last, leaping to my feet. "It is clear enough, she loves me! she loves me!"

When I crept out of the shrubbery the sun was near its setting. The heavens were red, the birds were singing merrily in the woods, the valleys were full of a golden sheen, but in my heart all was a thousand times more beautiful and more glad.

I shouted to them in the castle to serve my supper out in the garden. The old woman, the grim old man, the maids - I made them all come and sit at table with me under the trees. I brought out my fiddle and played, and ate and drank between-whiles. Then they all grew merry; the old man smoothed the grim wrinkles out of his face, and emptied glass after glass, the old woman chattered away - heaven knows about what, and the maids began to dance together on the green-award.

At last the pale student approached inquisitively, cast a scornful glance at the party, and was about to pass on with great dignity. But I sprang up in a twinkling, and, before he knew what I was about, seized him by his long surtout and waltzed merrily round with him. He actually began to try to dance after the latest and most approved fashion, and footed it so nimbly that the moisture stood in beads upon his forehead, his long coat flew round like a wheel, and he looked at me so strangely withal, and his eyes rolled so, that I began to be really afraid of him, and suddenly released him.

The old woman was very curious to know the contents of the note, and why I was so very merry of a sudden. But the matter was far too intricate for me to be able to explain it to her. I merely pointed to a couple of storks that were sailing through the air far above our heads, and said that so must I go, far, far away.

At this she opened her bleared eyes wide, and cast a sinister glance first at me and then at the old man. After that, I noticed as often as I turned away that they put their heads together and talked eagerly, glancing askance toward me from time to time.

This puzzled me. I pondered upon what scheme they could be hatching, and I grew more quiet. The sun had long set, so I wished them all good night and betook myself thoughtfully to my bedroom.

I felt so happy and so restless that for a long while I paced the apartment to and fro. Outside, the wind was driving black, heavy clouds high above the castle-tower; the nearest mountain-summit could be scarcely discerned in the thick darkness. Then I thought I heard voices in the garden below. I put out my candle and sat down at the window. The voices seemed to come nearer, speaking in low tones, and suddenly a long ray of light shot from a small lantern concealed under the cloak of a dark figure. I instantly recognized the grim old steward and the old housekeeper. The light flashed in the face of the old woman, who looked to me more hideous than ever, and upon the blade of a long knife which she held in her hand. I could plainly see that both of them were looking up at my window. Then the steward folded his cloak more closely, and all was dark and silent.

"What do they want," I thought, "out in the garden, at this hour!" I shuddered; I could not help recalling all the stories of murders that I had ever heard - all the tales of witches and robbers who slaughtered people that they might devour their hearts. Whilst I was filled with such thoughts, I heard footsteps coming up the stairs softly, then very softly along the narrow passage directly to my door; and at the same time I thought I heard voices whispering together. I ran hastily to the other end of the room and behind a large table, which I could lift and bang against the door as soon as anything stirred outside. But in the darkness I upset a chair, which made a tremendous crash. In an instant all was profound silence outside. I listened behind the table, staring at the door as if I could pierce it with my eyes, which felt as if they were starting from my head. When I had kept so quiet for a while that the buzzing of a fly could have been plainly heard, I distinguished the sound of a key softly put into the keyhole of my door on the outside. I was just about to make a demonstration with my table, when the key was turned slowly three times round in the lock, and then cautiously withdrawn, after which the footsteps retreated along the passage and down the staircase.

I took a long breath. "Oho!" I thought, "they have locked me up that all may be easy when I am sound asleep. I tried the door, and found it looked, as was also the other door, behind which the pale maid slept. This had never been so before since I had been at the castle.

Here was I imprisoned in a foreign land! The Lady fair undoubtedly was even now standing at her window and looking across the quiet garden toward the high-road, to see if I were not coming from the toll-house with my fiddle. The clouds were scudding across the sky; time was passing - and I could not get away. Ah, but my heart was sore; I did not know what to do. And if the leaves rustled outside, or a rat gnawed behind the wainscot, I fancied I saw the old woman gliding in by a secret door and creeping softly through the room, with that long knife in hand.

As, given over to such fancies, I sat on the side of my bed, I heard, the first time for a long while, the music beneath my window. At the first twang of the guitar a ray of light darted into my soul. I opened the window, and called down softly, that I was awake. "Pst, pst!" was the answer from below. Without more ado, I thrust the note into my pocket, took my fiddle, got out of the window, and scrambled down the ruinous old wall, clinging to the vines growing from the crevices. One or two crumbling stones gave way, and I began to slide faster and faster, until at last I came down upon my feet with such a sudden bump that my teeth rattled in my head.

Scarcely had I thus reached the garden when I felt myself embraced with such violence that I screamed aloud. My kind friend, however, clapped a hand on my mouth, and, taking my arm, led me through the shrubbery to the open lawn. Here, to my astonishment, I recognized the tall student, who had a guitar slung around his neck by a broad silk ribbon.

I explained to him as quickly as possible that I wished to escape from the garden. He seemed perfectly aware of my wishes, and conducted me by various covert pathways to the lower door in the high garden wall. But when we reached it, it was fast locked! The student, however, seemed to be quite prepared for this; he produced a large key and cautiously unlocked it.

When we found ourselves in the forest, and I was about to inquire of him the best road to the nearest town, he suddenly fell upon one knee before me, raised a hand aloft, and began to curse and to swear in the most horrible manner. I could not imagine what he wanted; I could hear frequent repetitions of "Idio " and "cuore " and "amore " and "furore!" But when he began hobbling close up to me on both knees, I grew positively terrified, I perceived clearly that he had lost his wits, and I fled into the depths of the forest without looking back.

I heard the student behind me shouting like one possessed, and soon afterward a rough voice from the castle shouting in reply. I was sure they would pursue me. The road was entirely unknown to me; the night was dark; I should probably fall into their hands. Therefore I climbed up into a tall tree to await my opportunity to escape.

From here I could distinguish one voice after another calling in the castle. Several links appeared in the garden, and cast a weird lurid light over the old walls and down the mountain out into the black night. I commended my soul to the Almighty, for the confused uproar grew louder and nearer. At last the student, bearing aloft a torch, ran past my tree below me so fast that the skirt of his surtout flew out behind him in the wind. After this the tumult gradually retreated to the other side of the mountain; the voices sounded more and more distant, and at last the wind alone sighed through the silent forest. I then descended from my tree and ran breathless down into the valley and out into the night.

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