The highroad was close on one side of the castle garden, and separated from it only by a high wall. A very pretty little toll-house with a red-tiled roof stood near, with a gay little flower-garden inclosed by a picket-fence behind it. A breach in the wall connected this garden with the most secluded and shady part of the castle garden itself. The toll-gate keeper who occupied the cottage died suddenly, and early one morning, when I was still sound asleep, thc Secretary from the castle waked me in a great hurry and bade me come immediately to the Bailiff. I dressed myself as quickly as I could and followed the brisk Secretary, who, as we went, plucked a flower here and there and stuck it into his button-hole, made scientific lunges in the air with his cane, and talked steadily to me all the while, although my eyes and ears were so filled with sleep that I could not understand anything he said.
When we reached the office, where as yet it was hardly light, the Bailiff, behind a huge inkstand and piles of books and papers, looked at me from out of his huge wig like an owl from out its neck, and began: " What's your name! Where do you come from? Can you read, write, and cipher!" And when I assented, he went on, "Well, her Grace, in consideration of your good manners and extraordinary merit, appoints you to the vacant post of Receiver of Toll."
I hurriedly passed in mental review the conduct and manners that had hitherto distinguished me, and was forced to admit that the Bailiff was right. And so, before I knew it, I was Receiver of Toll.
I took possession of my dwelling, and was soon comfortably established there. The deceased toll-gate keeper had left behind him for his successor various articles, which I appropriated, among others a magnificent scarlet dressing-gown dotted with yellow, a pair of green slippers, a tasseled nightcap, and several long-stemmed pipes. I had often wished for these things at home, where I used to see our village pastor thus comfortably provided. All day long, therefore - I had nothing else to do - I sat on the bench before my house in dressing-gown and nightcap, smoking the longest pipe from the late toll-gate keeper's collection, and looking at the people walking, driving, and riding on the high-road. I only wished that some of the folks from our village, who had always said that I never would be worth anything, might happen to pass by and see me thus. The dressing-gown became my complexion, and suited me extremely well. So I sat there and pondered many things - the difficulty of all beginnings, the great advantages of an easier mode of existence, for example - and privately resolved to give up travel for the future, save money like other people, and in time do something really great in the world. Meanwhile, with all my resolves, anxieties, and occupations, I in no wise forgot the Lady fair.
I dug up and threw out of my little garden all the potatoes and other vegetables that I found there, and planted it instead with the choicest flowers, which proceeding caused the Porter from the castle with the big Roman nose - who since I had been made Receiver often came to see me, and had become my intimate friend - to eye me askance as a person crazed by sudden good fortune. But that did not deter me, for from my little garden I could often hear feminine voices not far off in the castle garden, and among them I thought I could distinguish the voice of my Lady fair, although, because of the thick shrubbery, I could see nobody. And so every day I plucked a nosegay of my finest flowers, and when it was dark in the evening, I climbed over the wall and laid it upon a marble table in an arbor near by, and every time that I brought a fresh nosegay the old one was gone from the table.
One evening all the castle inmates were away hunting; the sun was just setting, flooding the landscape with flame and color, the Danube wound toward the horizon like a band of gold and fire, and the vine-dressers on all the hills throughout the country were glad and gay. I was sitting with the Porter on the bench before my cottage, enjoying the mild air and the gradual fading to twilight of the brilliant day. Suddenly the horns of the returning hunting party sounded on the air; the notes were tossed from hill to hill by the echoes. My soul delighted in it all, and I sprang up and exclaimed, in an intoxication of joy, "That is what I ought to follow in life, the huntsman's noble calling!"
But the Porter quietly knocked the ashes out of his pipe and said, "You only think so; I've tried it. You hardly earn the shoes you wear out, and you're never without a cough or a cold from perpetually getting your feet wet."
I cannot tell how it was, but upon hearing him speak thus, I was seized with such a fit of foolish rage that I fairly trembled. On a sudden the entire fellow, with his bedizened coat, his big feet, his snuff, his big nose, and everything about him, became odious to me. Quite beside myself, I seized him by the breast of his coat and said, "Home with you, Porter, on the instant, or I'll send you there in a way you won't like!"
At these words the Porter was more than ever convinced that I was crazy. He gazed at me with evident fear, extricated himself from my grasp, and went without a word, looking reproachfully back at me, and striding toward the castle, where he reported me as stark, staring mad.
But after all I burst into a hearty laugh, glad in fact to be rid of the pompous fellow, for it was just the hour when I was wont to carry my nosegay to the arbor. I clambered over the wall, and was just about to place the flowers on the marble table, when I heard the sound of a horse's hoofs at some distance. There was no time for escape; my Lady fair was riding slowly along the avenue in a green hunting habit, apparently lost in thought. All that I had read in an old book of my father's about the beautiful Magelona came into my head - how she used to appear among the tall forest trees when horns were echoing and evening shadows were flitting through the glades. I could not stir from the spot. She started when she perceived me and paused involuntarily. I was as if intoxicated with intense joy, dread, - and the throbbing of my heart, and when I saw that she actually wore at her breast the flowers I had left yesterday, I could no longer keep silent, but said in a rapture, "Fairest Lady fair, accept these flowers too, and all the flowers in my garden, and everything I have! Ah, if I could only brave some danger for you!"
At first she had looked at me so gravely, almost angrily, that I shivered, but then she cast down her eyes, and did not lift them while I was speaking. At that moment voices and the tramp of horses were heard in the distance. She snatched the flowers from my hand, and without saying a word, swiftly vanished at the end of the avenue.
After this evening I had neither rest nor peace. I felt continually, as I had always felt when spring was at hand, restless and merry, and as if some great good fortune or something extraordinary were about to befall me. My wretched accounts in especial never would come right, and when the sunshine, playing among the chestnut boughs before my window, cast golden-green gleams upon my figures, illuminating "Brought over" and "Total," my addition grew sometimes so confused that I actually could not count three. The figure "eight" always looked to me like my stout, tightly-laced lady with the gay head-dress, and the provoking "seven" like a finger-post pointing the wrong way, or a gallows. The "nine" was the queerest, suddenly, before I knew what it was about, standing on its head to look like "six," whilst "two" would turn into a pert interrogation point, as if to ask me, "What in the world is to become of you, you poor zero? Without the others, the slender 'one' and all the rest, you never can come to anything!"
I had no longer any ease in sitting before my door. I took out a stool to make myself more comfortable, and put my feet upon it; I patched up an old parasol, and held it over me like a Chinese pleasure-dome. But all would not do. As I sat smoking and speculating, my legs seemed to stretch to twice their size from weariness, and my nose lengthened visibly as I looked down at it for hours.
And when sometimes, before daybreak, an express drove up, and I went out, half asleep, into the cool air, and a pretty face, but dimly seen in the dawning except for its sparkling eyes, looked out at me from the coach window and kindly bade me good-morning, while from the villages around the cock's clear crow echoed across the fields of gently-waving grain, and an early lark, high in the skies among the flushes of morning, soared here and there, and the Postilion wound his horn and blew, and blew - as the coach drove off, I would stand looking after it, feeling as if I could not but start off with it on the instant into the wide, wide world.
I still took my flowers every day, when the sun had set, to the marble table in the dim arbor. But since that evening all had been over. Not a soul took any notice of them, and when I went to look after them early the next morning, there they lay as I had left them, gazing sadly at me with their heads hanging, and the dew-drops glistening upon their fading petals as if they were weeping. This distressed me, and I plucked no more flowers. I let the weeds grow in my garden as they pleased, and the flowers stayed on their stalks until the wind blew them away. Within me there were the same desolation and neglect.
In this critical state of affairs it happened once that, as I was leaning out of my window gazing dully into vacancy, the lady's-maid from the castle came tripping across the road.
When she saw me she came and stood just outside the window. "His Grace returned from his travels yesterdays," she remarked, hurriedly.
"Indeed!" I said, surprised, for I had taken no interest in anything for several weeks, and did not even know that his Grace had been traveling. "Then his lovely daughter will be very glad."
The maid looked at me with a strange expression of face, so that I began to wonder whether I had said anything especially stupid. "He knows absolutely nothing!" she said at last, turning up her little nose. "Well," she resumed, "there is to be a ball and masquerade this evening at the castle in honor of his Grace. My lady is to be dressed as a flower-girl - understand, as a flower-girl. And she has noticed that you have particularly pretty flowers in your garden."
"That's strange," I thought to myself; "there is hardly a flower to be seen there for the weeds!"
But she continued: "And since my lady needs perfectly fresh flowers for her costume, you are to bring her some this evening, and wait under the big pear-tree in the castle garden when it is dark until she comes for the flowers herself."
I was completely dazed with joy at this intelligence, and in my rapture I leaped out of the window and ran after the maid.
"Ugh, what an ugly dressing-gown!" she exclaimed, when she saw me with my fluttering robe in the open air. This vexed me, but, not to be behindhand in gallantry, I capered gaily after her to give her a kiss. Unluckily, my feet became entangled in my dressing-gown, which was much too long for me, and I fell flat on the ground. When I had picked myself up the maid was gone, and I heard her in the distance laughing fit to kill herself.
Now I had delightful food for my reflections. After all, she still remembered me and my flowers! I went into my garden and hastily tore up all the weeds from the beds throwing them high above my head into the sunlit air, as if with the roots I were eradicating all melancholy and annoyance from my life. Once more the roses were like her lips, the sky-blue convolvulus was like her eyes, the snowy lily with its pensive, drooping head was her very image. I put them all tenderly in a little basket; the evening was calm and lovely, not a speck of a cloud in the sky. Here and there a star appeared; the murmur of the Danube was heard afar over the meadows; in the tall trees of the castle garden countless birds were twittering to one another merrily. Ah, I was so happy!
When at last night came I took my basket on my arm and set out for the large garden. The flowers in the little basket looked so gay, white, red, blue, and smelled so sweet, that my very heart laughed when I peeped in at them.
Filled with joyous thoughts, I walked in the lovely moonlight over the trim paths strewn with gravel, across the little white bridge, beneath which the swans were sleeping on the bosom of the water, and past the pretty arbors and summer-houses. I soon found the big pear-tree; it was the same under which, while I was gardener's boy, I used to lie on sultry afternoons.
All around me here was dark and lonely. A tall aspen quivered and kept whispering with its silver leaves. The music from the castle was heard at intervals, and now and then there were voices in the garden; sometimes they passed quite near me, and then all would be still again.
My heart beat fast. I had a strange uncomfortable sensation as if I were a robber. I stood for a long time stock still, leaning against the tree and listening; but when no one appeared I could bear it no longer. I hung my basket on my arm and clambered up into the pear-tree to breathe a purer air.
The music of the dance floated up to me over the treetops. I overlooked the entire garden and gazed directly into the brilliantly illuminated windows of the castle. Chandeliers glittered there like galaxies of stars; a multitude of gaily-dressed gentlemen and ladies wandered and waltzed and whirled about unrecognizable, like the gay figures of a magic-lantern; at times some of them leaned out of the windows and looked down into the garden. In front of the castle the brilliant light gilded the grass, the shrubbery, and the trees, so that the flowers and the birds seemed to be aroused by it. All around and below me, however, the garden lay black and still.
"She is dancing there now," I thought to myself up in the tree, "and has long since forgotten you and your flowers. All are gay; not a human being cares for you in the least. And thus it is with me, always and everywhere. Every one has his little nook marked out for him on this earth, his warm hearth, his cup of coffee, his wife, his glass of wine in the evening, and is perfectly happy; even the Porter with his big nose is content. For me there is no place, I seem to be just too late everywhere; the world has not a bit of need of me."
As I was philosophizing thus, I suddenly heard something rustle on the grass below me. Two soft voices were speaking together in a low tone. In a moment the foliage of the shrubbery was parted, and the lady's-maid's little face appeared among the leaves, peering about on all sides. The moonlight sparkled in her saucy eyes as they peeped out. I held my breath and stared down at her. Before long the flower-girl did actually appear among the trees, just as the maid had described her to me yesterday. My heart throbbed as if it would burst. She had on a mask, and seemed to be gazing around in surprise. Somehow she did not look to me as slender and graceful as she had been. At last she reached the tree, and took off her mask. It was the other - the elder lady!
How glad I was, when I had recovered from the first shock, that I was up here in safety! How in the world did she chance to come here? If the dear, lovely Lady fair should happen to come at this instant for her flowers, there would be a fine to-do. I could have cried for vexation at the whole affair.
Meanwhile the disguised flower-girl beneath me began: "It is so stifling hot in the ball-room, I had to come out to cool myself in this lovely open air. " Thereupon she fanned herself with her mask and puffed and blew. In the bright moonlight I could plainly see how swollen were the cords of her neck; she looked very angry and quite scarlet in the face. The lady's maid was all the while searching behind every bush, as if she were looking for a lost pin.
"I do so need more fresh flowers for my character," the flower-girl continued. "Where can he be?"
The maid went on searching, and kept chuckling to herself.
"What did you say, Rosetta? " the flower-girl asked, shrewishly.
"I say what I always have said," the maid replied, putting on a very serious, honest face; "the Receiver is a lazy fellow; of course he is lying behind some bush sound asleep. "
My blood tingled with longing to jump down and defend my reputation, when on a sudden a burst of music and loud shouts were heard from the castle.
The flower-girl could stay no longer. "The people are cheering his Grace," she said passionately. "Come, we shall be missed!"
And she slapped on her mask in a hurry, and ran in a rage with the maid toward the castle. The trees and bushes seemed to point after her with long, derisive fingers, the moonlight danced nimbly up and down over her stout figure as though over the keyboard of a piano, and thus to the sound of trumpets and kettle-drums she made her exit, like many a singer whom I have seen upon the stage.
I, seated above in my tree, was downright bewildered, and gazed fixedly at the castle; a circle of tall torches upon the steps of the entrance cast a strange glare upon the glittering windows and deep into the garden; the assembled servants were to serenade their master. In the midst of them stood the gorgeous Porter, like a minister of state, before a music-stand, working away busily at a bassoon.
Just as I had settled myself to listen to the beautiful serenade, the folding-doors leading to the balcony above the entrance parted. A tall gentleman, very handsome and dignified, in uniform and glittering with orders, stepped out on the balcony, leading by the hand the lovely young Lady fair, dressed in white like a lily in the night, or like the moon in the clear skies.
I could not take my eyes from her, and garden, trees, and fields disappeared before me, as she stood there tall and slender, so wondrously illuminated by the torch-light, now speaking with such grace to the young officer, and now nodding down kindly to the musicians. The people below were beside themselves with delight, and at last I too could restrain myself no longer, and joined in the cheers with all my might.
But when, soon after, she disappeared from the balcony, one after another the torches below were extinguished and the music-stands cleared away, and the garden around was once more dark, and the trees rustled as before - then it all became clear to me; I saw that it was really only the aunt who had ordered the flowers of me, that the Lady fair never thought of me and had been married long ago, and that I myself was a big fool.
All this plunged me into an abyss of reflection. I rolled myself round like a hedgehog on the prickles of my own thoughts. Snatches of music still reached me now and then from the ball-room - the clouds floated lonely away above the dim garden. And there I sat, all through the night, up in the tree, like a night-owl, amid the ruins of my happiness.
The cool breeze of morning aroused me at last from my dreamings. I was startled as I looked about me. The music and dancing had long since ceased, and everything around the castle and on the lawn, and the marble steps and columns, all looked quiet, cool, and solemn; the fountain alone plashed on before the entrance. Here and there in the boughs near me the birds were awaking, shaking their bright feathers, and as they stretched their little wings, peering curiously and amazed at their strange fellow-sleeper. The joyous rays of morning flashed across my breast and over the garden.
I stood erect in my tree, and for the first time for a long while looked far abroad over the country, to where the ships glided down the Danube among the vineyards, and the high-roads, still deserted, stretched like bridges across the gleaming landscape and far over the distant hills and valleys.
I cannot tell how it was, but all at once my former love of travel took possession of me, all the old melancholy, and delight, and ardent expectation And at the same moment I thought of the Lady fair over in the castle sleeping among flowers, beneath silken coverlets, with an angel surely keeping watch beside her bed in the silence of the dawn. "No!" I cried aloud. "I must go away from here, far, far away - as far as the sky stretches its blue arch!"
As I uttered the words I tossed my basket high into the air, so that it was beautiful to see how the flowers fell among the branches and lay in gay colors on the green sod below. Then I got down as quickly as possible, and went through the quiet garden to my dwelling. I paused many times at spots where I had seen her pass, or where I had lain in the shade and thought of her.
In and about my cottage all was just as I had left it the day before. The garden was torn up and laid waste, the big account-book lay open on the table in my room, my fiddle, which I had almost clean forgotten, hung dusty on the wall; a ray of morning light glittered upon the strings. It struck a chord in my heart. "Yes," I said, "come here, thou faithful instrument! Our kingdom is not of this world!"
So I took the fiddle from the wall, and leaving behind me the account-book, dressing-gown, slippers, pipes, and parasol, I walked out of my cottage, as poor as when I entered it, and down along the gleaming high-road.
I looked back often and often; I felt very strange, sad, and yet merry, like a bird escaping from his cage. And when I had walked some distance I took out my fiddle and sang -
I wander on, in God confiding,
The castle, the garden, and the spires of Vienna vanished behind me in the morning mists; far above me countless larks exulted in the air; thus, past gay villages and hamlets and over green hills, I wandered on toward Italy.