From the Life of a Good-for-Nothing

Joseph von Eichendorff

Chapter Seven

I hurried on for the rest of the night and the next day, for there was a din in my ears for a long time, as if all the people from the castle were after me, shouting, waving torches, and brandishing long knives. On the way I learned that I was only five or six miles from Rome, whereat I could have jumped for joy. As a child at home I had heard wonderful stories of gorgeous Rome, and as I lay on my back in the grass on Sunday afternoons near the mill, and everything around was so quiet, I used to picture Rome out of the clouds sailing above me, with wondrous mountains and abysses, around the blue sea, with golden gates and lofty gleaming towers, where angels in shining robes were singing.

The night had come again, and the moon shone brilliantly, when at last I emerged from the forest upon a hilltop, and saw the city lying before me in the distance. The sea gleamed afar off, the heavens glittered with innumerable stars, and beneath them lay the Holy City, a long strip of mist, like a slumbering lion on the quiet earth, watched and guarded by mountains around like shadowy giants.

I soon reached an extensive, lonely heath, where all was gray and silent as the grave. Here and there a ruined wall was still standing, or some strangely-gnarled trunk of a tree; now and then night-birds whirred through the air, and my own shadow glided long and black in the solitude beside me. They say that a primeval city lies buried here, and that Frau Venus makes it her abode, and that sometimes the old pagans rise up from their graves and wander about the heath and mislead travelers. I cared nothing, however, for such tales, but walked on steadily, for the city arose before me more and more distinct and magnificent, and the high castles and gates and golden domes gleamed wondrously in the moonlight, as if angels in golden garments were actually standing on the roofs and singing in the quiet night.

At last I passed some humble houses, and then through a gorgeous gate-way into the famous city of Rome. The moon shone bright as day among the palaces, but the streets were empty, except for some lazy fellow lying dead asleep on a marble step in the warm night air. The fountains plashed in the silent squares, and from the gardens bordering the street the trees added their murmur, and filled the air with refreshing fragrance.

As I was sauntering on, not knowing - what with delight, moonlight, and fragrance - which way to turn, I heard a guitar touched in the depths of a garden. "Great heavens!" I thought, "the crazy student with his long surtout has been secretly following me all this time. " But in a moment a lady in the garden began to sing deliciously. I stood spellbound; it was the voice of the Lady fair! And the selfsame Italian song which she often used to sing at her open window!

Then the dear old time recurred so vividly to my mind that I could have wept bitterly; I saw the quiet garden before the castle in the early dawn, and thought how happy I had been among the shrubbery before that stupid fly flew up my nose. I could restrain myself no longer, but clambered over the gilded ornaments surmounting the grated gate-way and leaped down into the garden whence the song proceeded. As I did so I perceived a slender white figure standing in the distance behind a poplar-tree, looking at me in amazement; but in an instant it had turned and fled through the dim garden toward the house so quickly that in the moonlight it seemed to glide.

"It was she, herself!" I exclaimed, and my heart throbbed with delight; I recognized her on the instant by her pretty little fleet feet. It was unfortunate that in clambering over the gate I had slightly twisted my ankle, and had to limp along for a minute or two before I could run after her toward the house. In the meanwhile the doors and windows had been closed. I knocked modestly, listened, and then knocked again. I seemed to hear low laughter and whispering within the house, and once I was almost sure that a pair of bright eyes peeped between the jalousies in the moonlight. But finally all was silent.

"She does not know that it is I," I thought; I took out my fiddle, and promenaded to and fro on the path before the house and sang the song of the Lady fair and played over all my songs that I had been wont to play on lovely summer nights in the castle garden, or on the bench before the toll-house so that the sound should reach the castle windows. But it was all of no use; no one stirred in the entire house. Then I put away my fiddle sadly, and seated myself upon the door-step, for I was very weary with my long march. The night was warm; the flower-beds before the house sent forth a delicious fragrance, and a fountain somewhere in the depths of the garden plashed continuously. I thought dreamily of azure flowers, of dim, green, lovely, lonely spots where brooks were rippling and gay birds singing, until at last I fell sound asleep.

When I awoke the fresh air of morning was playing over me; the birds were already awake and twittering in the trees around, as if they were making game of me. I started up and looked about; the fountain in the garden was still playing, but nothing was to be heard within the house. I peeped through the green blinds into one of the rooms, where I could see a sofa and a large round table covered with gray linen. The chairs were all standing against the wall in perfect order; the blinds were down at all the windows, as if the house had been uninhabited for years.

On a sudden downright horror of the lonely house and garden and of the white figure of the preceding night possessed me, and I ran, without once turning to look back, through the silent paths and avenues until I reached the garden gate and clambered up. But there I paused in an ecstasy of delight, when from the top of the high gate-way I saw the magnificent city below me. The morning sun was glittering on the roofs and in the streets, and I shouted for joy as I sprang from my post of observation.

Whither should I turn in the great, foreign city? The strange night I had passed, and the Lady fair's Italian song which I had heard, confused me still. At last I sat down on the edge of the stone basin of a fountain in the centre of a lonely Square, and sang, as I bathed my face and eyes in the clear, fresh water -

Were I but a little bird,
I know full well what I'd be singing.
Had I but two little wings,
I know what flight I'd fain be winging.

"Ah, my merry fellow, you sing like a lark in the dawn!" A young man who had approached the fountain during my song suddenly addressed me thus.

When I heard my German tongue so unexpectedly it was as if the Sunday-morning bells of my native village were all at once echoing in my ears.

"God bless you, my dear fellow-countryman!" I exclaimed, starting up from the fountain. The young man smiled, and scanned me from head to foot.

"What are you doing here in Rome?" he asked at last.

I really did not know what answer to make, for I could not tell him that I was in pursuit of the lovely Lady fair.

"I am sauntering about," I replied, "to see a little of the world."

"Indeed!" rejoined the young man. "'Tis a mighty fine calling. I am doing the same thing, and painting a little between-whiles."

"What! a painter!" I exclaimed joyfully, for I thought of Herr Lionardo and Herr Guido.

But before I got any further the young man interposed: "Come and breakfast with me, and I'll paint your portrait so that it will delight you."

I readily consented, and walked along with the painter through the empty streets, where a few window-shutters were being opened, and where here and there a pair of white arms or a pretty, sleepy face peeped forth into the fresh morning air.

The young man conducted me hither and thither through a labyrinth of dark, narrow streets until at last we reached an old smoke-dried house. Here we ascended first one dark staircase, and then another, until we seemed to be aspiring to the skies. We stopped before a door under the roof, and the painter began to search his pockets in a great hurry. But he had forgotten to lock his door when he left the room, and the key was inside, for, as he had informed me as we walked, he had been out since daybreak to watch the effects of sunrise. He only shook his head, and pushed the door open with his foot.

We entered a very long and large apartment, spacious enough to dance in if the floor had not been so littered up. But there lay books, papers, clothes, overturned paint-pots, all huddled together; in the middle of the room were some large frames like those used for picking pears, and pictures were leaning against the walls. On a long wooden table was a plate, upon which were some bread and butter and a paint-brush, with a bottle of wine.

"Now, first of all, let us eat and drink, fellow-countryman, " said the painter.

I would gladly have spread myself a slice of bread and butter, but there was no knife. We rummaged for a long time among the papers on the table, and found a knife at last under a sketch-book. The painter opened the window, so that the fresh morning breeze swept through the room, and we could enjoy the glorious prospect of the city and of the surrounding hills where the morning sun glittered upon the white villas and the green vineyards.

"All hail to our cool, green Germany behind the mountains there! " said the painter, taking a drink from the wine flask, which he then handed to me. I politely followed his example, with many a loving thought of my fair, distant home.

Meanwhile, the painter had arranged near the window one of the frames upon which a large piece of paper was stretched. An old hovel was cleverly drawn in charcoal upon the paper, and within it sat the Blessed Virgin with a lovely, happy face, upon which there was withal a shade of melancholy. At her feet in a little nest of straw lay the Infant Jesus - very lovely, with large serious eyes. Without, upon the threshold of the open door were kneeling two shepherd lads with staff and wallet.

"You see," said the painter, "I am going to put your head upon one of these shepherds, and so people will know your face and, please God, take pleasure in it long after we are both under the sod, and are ourselves kneeling happily before the Blessed Mother and her Son like those shepherd lads."

Then he seized an old chair, the back of which came off in his hand as he lifted it. He soon fitted it into its place again, however, pushed it in front of the frame, and I had to sit down on it, and turn my face sideways to him. I sat thus for some minutes perfectly still, without stirring. After a while, however - I am sure I do not know why - I felt that I could endure it no longer; every part of me began to twitch, and besides, there hung directly in front of me a piece of broken looking-glass into which I could not help glancing perpetually, making all sorts of grimaces from sheer weariness. The painter, noticing this, burst into a laugh, and waved his hand to signify that I might leave my chair. My face upon the paper was already finished, and was so exactly like me that I was immensely pleased with it.

The young man went on painting in the cool morning, singing as he worked, and sometimes looking from the open window at the glorious landscape. I, in the meantime, spread myself another piece of bread and butter, and walked up and down the room, looking at the pictures leaning against the wall. Two of them pleased me especially.

"Did you paint these, too?" I asked the painter.

"Not exactly," he replied. "They are by the famous masters Leonardo da Vinci and Guido Reni; but you know nothing about them."

I was nettled by the conclusion of his remark.

"Oh," I rejoined very composedly, "I know those two masters as well as I know myself."

He opened his eyes at this.

"How so?" he asked hastily.

"Well," said I, "I traveled with them day and night, on horseback, on foot, and driving at a pace that made the wind whistle in my ears, and I lost them both at an inn, and then traveled post alone in their coach, which went bumping on two wheels over the rocks, and - "

"Oho! oho!" the painter interrupted me, staring at me as if he thought me mad. Then he suddenly burst into a fit of laughter. "Ah," he cried, "now I begin to understand. You traveled with two painters called Guido and Leonardo?" When I assented, he sprang up and looked me all over from head to foot. "I verily believe," he said "that actually - Can you play the violin?" I struck the pocket of my coat so that my fiddle gave forth a tone, and the painter went on: "There was a Countess here lately from Germany, who made inquiries in every nook and corner of Rome for those two painters and a young musician with a fiddle."

"A young Countess from Germany!" I cried in an ecstasy. "Was the Porter with her?"

"Ah, that I do not know," replied the painter. "I saw her only once or twice at the house of one of her friends, who does not live in the city. Do you know this face?" he went on, suddenly lifting the covering from a large picture standing in a corner.

In an instant I felt as we do when in a dark room the shutters are opened and the rising sun flashes in our eyes. It was - the lovely Lady fair! She was standing in the garden, in a black velvet gown, lifting her veil from her face with one hand, and looking abroad over a distant and beautiful landscape. The longer I looked the more vividly did it seem to be the castle garden, and the flowers and boughs waved in the wind, while in the depths of green I could see my little toll-house, and the high-road, and the Danube, and in the distance the blue mountains.

"'Tis she! 'tis she!" I exclaimed at last, and, seizing my hat, I ran out of the door and down the long staircase while the astonished painter called after me to come back toward evening and we might perhaps learn something more.

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