From the Life of a Good-for-Nothing

Joseph von Eichendorff

Chapter Three

Here was a puzzle! It had never occurred to me that I did not know my way. Not a human being was to be seen in the quiet early morning whom I could question, and right before me the road divided into many roads, which went on far, far over the highest mountains, as though to the very end of the world - so that I actually grew giddy as I looked along them.

At last a peasant appeared, going to church I fancy, as it was Sunday, in an old-fashioned coat with large silver buttons, and swinging a long malacca cane with a massive silver head, which sparkled from afar in the sunlight.

I immediately asked him very politely, "Can you tell me which is the road to Italy?"

The fellow stood still, stared at me, thrust out his under lip reflectively, and stared at me again.

I began once more: "To Italy, where oranges grow."

"What do I care for your oranges!" said the peasant, and walked on sturdily. I should have credited the fellow with more politeness, for he really looked very fine.

What was to be done? Turn round and go back to my native village, Why, the folks would have jeered me, and the boys would have run after me crying, "Oh, indeed! you're welcome back from 'out in the world.' How does it look 'out in the world?' Haven't you brought us some ginger-nuts from 'out in the world?'"

The Porter with the High Roman nose, who certainly was familiar with Universal History, used often to say to me, "Respected Herr Receiver, Italy is a beautiful country; the dear God takes care of every one there. You can lie on your back in the sunshine and raisins drop into your mouth; and if a tarantula bites you, you dance with the greatest ease, although you never in your life before learned to dance."

"Ay, to Italy! to Italy!" I shouted with delight, and, heedless of any choice of roads, hurried on along the first that came.

After I had gone a little way I saw on the right a most beautiful orchard, with the morning sun shimmering on the trunks and through the tree-tops so brilliantly that it looked as if the ground were spread with golden rugs. As no one was in sight, I clambered over the low fence and lay down comfortably on the grass under an apple-tree; all my limbs were still aching from camping out in the tree on the previous night. From where I lay I could see far abroad over the country, and as it was Sunday the sound of the church-bells from the far distance came to me over the quiet fields, and gaily-dressed peasants were walking across the meadows and along the lanes to church. I was glad at heart; the birds sang in the tree overhead; I thought of my father's mill, and of the garden of the lovely Lady fair, and of how far, far away it all was - until I fell sound asleep.

I dreamed that the Lady fair came walking, or rather slowly flying, toward me from the lovely landscape to the music of the church-bells, in long white robes that waved in the rosy morning. Then again it seemed that we were not in a strange country, but in my native village, in the deep shade beside the mill. But everything was still and deserted, as it is when the people are all gone to church and only the solemn sounds of the organ wafted down through the trees break the stillness; I was oppressed with melancholy. But the Lady fair was very kind and gentle, and put her hand in mine and walked along with me, and sang, amid this solitude, the beautiful song that she used to sing to her guitar early in the morning at her open window, and in the placid mill-pool I saw her image, lovelier even than herself, except that the eyes were wondrous large and looked at me so strangely that I was almost afraid. Then suddenly the mill-wheel began to turn, at first slowly, then faster and more noisily; the pool became dark and troubled, the Lady fair turned very pale, and her robes grew longer and longer, and fluttered wildly in long strips like pennons of mist up toward the skies; the roaring of the mill-wheel sounded ever louder, and it seemed as though it were the Porter blowing upon his bassoon, so that I waked up with my heart throbbing violently.

In fact, a breeze had arisen, which was gently stirring the leaves of the apple-tree above me; but the noise and roaring came neither from the mill nor from the Porter's bassoon, but from the same peasant who had before refused to show me the way to Italy. He had taken off his Sunday coat and put on a white smock-frock.

"Oho!" he said, as I rubbed my sleepy eyes, "do you want to pick your oranges here, that you trample down all my grass instead of going to church, you lazy lout, you?"

I was vexed that the boor should have waked me, and I started up and cried, "Hold your tongue! I have been a better gardener than you will ever be, and a Receiver, and if you had been driving to town, you would have had to take off your dirty cap to me, sitting at my door in my yellow-dotted, red dressing-gown - "

But the fellow was nothing daunted, and, putting his arms akimbo, merely asked, "What do you want here, eh! eh!" I saw that he was a short, stubbed, bow-legged fellow, with protruding goggle-eyes, and a red, rather crooked nose. And when he went on saying nothing but "Eh! eh!" and kept advancing toward me step by step, I was suddenly seized with so curious a sensation of disgust that I hastily jumped to my feet, leaped over the fence, and, without looking round, ran across country until my fiddle in my pocket twanged again.

When at last I stopped to take breath, the orchard and the whole valley were out of sight and I was in a beautiful forest. But I took little note of it, for I was downright provoked at the peasant's impertinence, and I fumed for a long time, to myself. I walked on quickly, going farther and farther from the high-road and in among the mountains. The plank-roadway which I had been following ceased, and before me was only a narrow, unfrequented foot-path. Not a soul was to be seen anywhere, and no sound was to be heard. But it was very pleasant walking; the trees rustled and the birds sang sweetly. I resigned myself to the guidance of heaven, and, taking out my violin, played all my favorite airs. Very joyous they sounded in the lonely forest.

I grew tired of playing after a while, for I stumbled every minute over the tiresome roots of the trees, and I began to grow very hungry, while the wood seemed endless. Thus I wandered for the entire day, until the sun's rays came aslant through the trunks of the trees, when at last I emerged on a little grassy vale shut in by the mountains and gay with red and yellow flowers, above which myriads of butterflies were fluttering in the golden light of the setting sun. It was as secluded here as though the world had been hundreds of miles away. The crickets chirped, and a shepherd lad lying among the tall grasses blew so melancholy an air upon his horn that it was enough to break one's heart. "Yes," thought I to myself, "who has as happy a lot as a lazy lout! Some of us, though, have to wander about among strangers, and be always on the go." As a lovely, clear stream separated me from him, I called to him to ask where the nearest village was. But he did not disturb himself to reply - only stretched his head a little out of the grass, pointed with his horn to the opposite wood, and coolly resumed his piping.

I marched on briskly, for twilight was at hand. The birds, which had made a great clatter while the sun was disappearing on the horizon, suddenly fell silent, and I began to feel almost afraid, so solemn was the perpetual rustling of the lonely forest. At last I heard dogs barking in the distance. I walked more quickly, the forest grew less and less dense, and in a little while I saw through the last trees a beautiful village-green, where a crowd of children were frolicking, and capering around a huge linden in the centre. Opposite me was an inn, and at a table before it were seated some peasants playing cards and smoking. On one side a number of lads and lasses were gathered in a group, the girls with their arms rolled in their aprons, and all gossiping together in the cool of the evening.

I took very little time for consideration, but, drawing my fiddle from my pocket, I played a merry waltz as I came out from the forest. The girls were surprised, and the old folks laughed so that the woods reechoed with their merriment. But when I reached the linden, and, leaning my back against it, went on playing gay waltzes, a whisper went round among the groups of young people to the right and left; the lads laid aside their pipes, each put his arm around his lass's waist, and in the twinkling of an eye the young folk were all waltzing around me; the dogs barked, skirts and coat-tails fluttered, and the children stood around me in a circle gazing curiously into my face and at my briskly-moving fingers.

When the first waltz was ended, it was easy to see how good music loosens the limbs. The peasant lads, who had before been restlessly shuffling about on the benches, with their pipes in their mouths and their legs stretched out stiffly in front of them, were positively transformed, and, with their gay handkerchiefs hanging from the buttonholes of their coats, capered about with the lasses so that it was a pleasure to look at them. One of them, who evidently thought a deal of himself, fumbled in his waistcoat pocket for a long while, that the others might see him, and finally brought out a little silver coin, which he tried to put into my hand. It irritated me, although I had not a stiver in my pocket. I told him to keep his pennies, I was playing only for joy, because I was glad to be among people once more. Soon afterward, however, a pretty girl came up to me with a great tankard of wine.

"Musicians are thirsty folk," she said, with a laugh that displayed her pearls of teeth gleaming so temptingly between her red lips that I should have liked to kiss her then and there.

She put the tankard to her charming mouth, and her eyes sparkled at me over its rim; she then handed it to me; I drained it to the bottom, and played afresh, till all were spinning merrily about me once more.

By and by the old peasants finished their game, and the young people grew tired and separated, so that gradually all was quiet and deserted in front of the inn. The girl who had brought me the wine also walked toward the village, but she went very slowly, and looked around from time to time as if she had forgotten something. At last she stopped and seemed to search for it on the ground, but as she stooped I saw her glance toward me from under her arm.

I had learned polite manners at the castle, so I sprang toward her and said, "Have you lost anything, my pretty ma'amselle?"

She blushed crimson. "Ah, no, "she said; "it was only a rose; will you have it?"

I thanked her, and stuck the rose in my button-hole.

She looked very kindly at me, and said, "You play beautifully."

"Yes," I replied, "it is a gift from God."

"Musicians are very rare in the country about here," she began again, then stammered, and cast down her eyes. "You might earn a deal of money here. My father plays the fiddle a little, and likes to hear about foreign countries - and my father is very rich." Then she laughed, and said, "If you only would not waggle your head so, when you play."

"My dearest girl," I said, "do not blush so - and as for the tremoloso motion of the head, we can't help it, great musicians all do it."

"Oh, indeed!" rejoined the girl. She was about to say more, when a terrible racket arose in the inn; the front door was opened with a bang, and a tall, lean fellow was shot out of it like a ramrod, after which it was slammed to behind him.

At the first sound the girl ran off like a deer and vanished in the darkness. The man picked himself up and began to rave against the inn with such volubility that it was a wonder to hear him.

"What!" he yelled, "I drunk! I not pay the chalk-marks on your smoky door? Rub them out! rub them out! Did I not shave you yesterday over a ladle, and cut you just under the nose so that you bit the ladle in two? Shaving takes off one mark; ladle, another mark; court-plaster on your nose, another. How many more of your dirty marks do you want to have paid? But all right - all right. I'll let the whole village, the whole world go unshaved. Wear your beards, for all I care, till they are so long that at the judgment-day the Almighty will not know whether you are Jews or Christians. Yes, hang yourselves with your beards, shaggy bears that you are!"

Here he burst into tears and, in a maudlin, falsetto voice, sobbed out, "Am I to drink water like a wretched fish? Is that loving your neighbor? Am I not a man and a skilled surgeon? Ah, I am beside myself today; my heart is full of pity, and of love for my fellow-creatures."

And then, finding that all was quiet in the house, he began to walk away. When he saw me, he came plunging toward me with outstretched arms. I thought the fellow was about to embrace me, and sprang aside, letting him stumble on in the darkness, where I heard him discoursing to himself for some time.

All sorts of fancies filled my brain. The girl who had given me the rose was young, pretty, and rich. I could make my fortune before one could turn round. And sheep and pigs, turkeys, and fat geese stuffed with apples - verily, I seemed to see the Porter strutting up to me: "Seize your luck, Receiver, seize your luck! 'Marry young, you're never wrong;' take home your bride, live in the country, and live well."

Plunged in these philosophical reflections, I sat me down on a stone, for, since I had no money, I did not venture to knock at the inn. The moon shone brilliantly, the forests on the mountain-side murmured in the still night; now and then a dog barked in the village which lay farther down the valley, buried, as it were, beneath foliage and moonlight. I gazed up at the heavens, where a few clouds were sailing slowly and now and then a falling star shot down from the zenith. Thus this same moon, thought I, is shining down upon my father's mill and upon his Grace's castle. Everything there is quiet by this time, the Lady fair is asleep, and the fountains and leaves in the garden are whispering just as they used to whisper, all the same whether I am there, or here, or dead. And the world seemed to me so terribly big, and I so utterly alone in it; that I could have wept from the very depths of my heart.

While I was thus sitting there, suddenly I heard the sound of horses' hoofs in the forest. I held my breath and listened as the sound came nearer and nearer, until I could hear the horses snorting. Soon afterward two horsemen appeared under the trees, but paused at the edge of the woods, and talked together in low, very eager tones, as I could see by the moving shadows which were thrown across the bright village-green, and by their long dark arms pointing in various directions. How often at home, when my mother, now dead, had told me of savage forests and fierce robbers, had I privately longed to be a part of such a story! I was well paid now for my silly, rash longings. I reached up the linden-tree, beneath which I was sitting, as high as I could, unobserved, until I clasped the lowest branch, and then I swung myself up. But just as I had got my body half across the branch, and was about to drag my legs up after it, one of the horsemen trotted briskly across the green toward me. I shut my eyes tight amid the thick foliage, and did not stir.

"Who is there?" a voice called directly under me.

"Nobody!" I yelled in terror at being detected, although I could not but laugh to myself at the thought of how the rogues would look when they should turn my empty pockets inside out.

"Aha!" said the robber, "whose are these legs, then, hanging down here!"

There was no help for it. "They are," I replied, "only a couple of legs of a poor, lost musician." And I hastily let myself drop, for I was ashamed to hang there any longer like a broken fork.

The rider's horse shied when I dropped so suddenly from the tree. He patted the animal's neck, and said, laughing, "Well, we too are lost, so we are comrades; perhaps you can help us to find the road to B. You shall be no loser by it. "

I assured him that I knew nothing about the road to B., and said that I would ask in the inn, or would conduct them to the village. But the man would not listen to reason; he drew from his girdle a pistol, the barrel of which glittered in the moonlight.

"My dear fellow," he said in a very friendly tone, as he wiped off the glittering barrel and then ran his eye along it - "my dear fellow, you will have the kindness to go yourself before us to B."

Verily, I was in a scrape. If I chanced to hit the right road, I should certainly get into the midst of the robber band and be beaten because I had no money; if I did not find the road, I should be beaten of course. I wasted very little thought upon the matter, but took the first road at hand, the one past the inn which led away from the village. The horseman galloped back to his companion, and both followed me slowly at some distance. Thus we wandered on foolishly enough at hap-hazard through the moonlit night. The road led through forests on the side of a mountain. Sometimes we could see, above the tops of the pines stirring darkly beneath us, far abroad into the deep, silent valleys; now and then a nightingale burst into song; the dogs bayed in the distant villages. A brook babbled ceaselessly from the depths below us, and here and there glistened in the moonlight. The hush was disturbed by the monotonous tramp of the horses and by the stir and movement of their riders, who talked together incessantly in a foreign tongue, and the bright moonlight contrasted sharply with the long shadows of the trees, which swept across the figures of the horsemen, making them appear now black, now light, now dwarfish, and anon gigantic. My thoughts grew strangely confused, as though in a dream from which I could not waken, but I marched straight ahead. We certainly must reach the end of the forest and of the night too, I thought.

At last long, rosy streaks hushed the horizon here and there but faintly, as when one breathes upon a mirror, and a lark began to sing high up above the peaceful valley. My heart at once grew perfectly light at the approach of dawn, and all fear left me. The two horsemen stretched themselves, looked around, and seemed for the first time to suspect that we might not have taken the right road. They chatted much, and I could perceive that they were talking of me; it even seemed to me that one of them began to mistrust me, as though I were a rogue trying to lead them astray in the forest. This amused me mightily, for the lighter it grew the greater grew my courage, until we emerged upon a fine, spacious opening. Here I looked about me quite savagely, and whistled once or twice through my fingers, as scoundrels always do when they wish to signal one another.

"Halt!" exclaimed one of the horsemen, so suddenly that I jumped. When I looked round I saw that both had alighted and had tied their horses to a tree. One of them came up to me rapidly, stared me full in the face, and then burst into a fit of immoderate laughter. I must confess this senseless merriment irritated me. But he said, "Why, it is actually the gardener - I should say the Receiver, from the castle!"

I stared at him in turn, but could not remember who he was; indeed, I should have had enough to do to recognize all the young gentlemen who came and went at the castle.

He kept up an eternal laughter, however, declaring, "This is magnificent! You're taking a holiday, I see; we are just in want of a servant; stay with us and you will have a perpetual holiday."

I was dumbfounded, and said at last that I was just on my way to visit Italy.

"Italy?" the stranger rejoined. "That is just where we wish to go!"

"Ah, if that be so!" I exclaimed, and, taking out my fiddle, I tuned up so that all the birds in the wood awaked. The young fellow immediately threw his arm around his companion, and they waltzed about the meadow like mad.

Suddenly they stood still. "By heavens," exclaimed one, "I can see the church-tower of B.! We shall soon be there." He took out his watch and made it repeat, then shook his head, and made the watch strike again. "No," he said, "it will not do; we should arrive too early, and that might be very bad. "

Then they brought out from their saddle-bags cakes, cutlets, and bottles of wine, spread a gay cloth on the grass, stretched themselves beside it, and feasted to their hearts' content, sharing all generously with me, which I greatly enjoyed, seeing that for some days I had not had over and above enough to eat.

"And let me tell you," one of them said to me - "but you do not know us yet?" I shook my head. "Then let me tell you. I am the painter Lionardo, and my friend here is a painter also, called Guido. "

I could see the two painters more clearly in the dawning morning. Herr Lionardo was tall, brown, and slender, with merry, ardent eyes. The other was much younger, smaller, and more delicate, dressed in antique German style, as the Porter called it, with a white collar and bare throat, about which hung dark brown curls, which he was often obliged to toss aside from his pretty face. When he had breakfasted, he picked up my fiddle, which I had laid on the grass beside me, seated himself upon the fallen trunk of a tree, and strummed the strings. Then he sang in a voice clear as a wood-robin's, so that it went to my very heart -

When the earliest morning ray
Through the valley finds its way,
Hill and forest fair awaking,
All who can their flight are taking.

And the lad who's free from care
Shouts, with cap flung high in air,
Song its flight can aye be winging;
Let me, then, be ever singing.

As he sang, the ruddy rays of morning exquisitely illumined his pale face and dark, love-lit eyes. But I was so tired that the words and notes of his song mingled and blended strangely in my ears, until at last I fell sound asleep.

When, by and by, I began gradually to awaken, I heard, as in a dream, the two painters talking together beside me, and the birds singing overhead, while the morning sun shining through my closed eyelids produced the sensation of looking toward the light through red curtains.

"Come è bello! " I heard some one exclaim close to me. I opened my eyes, and saw the younger painter bending over me in the clear morning light, so near that I seemed to see only his large black eyes between his drooping curls.

I sprang up hastily, for it was broad day. Herr Lionardo seemed cross - he had two angry furrows on his brow - and hastily made ready to move on. But the other painter shook his curls away from his face and quietly hummed an air to himself as he was bridling his steed, until at last Lionardo burst into a sudden fit of laughter, picked up a bottle standing on the grass, and poured the contents into a couple of glasses.

"To our happy arrival!" he exclaimed, as the two clinked their glasses melodiously. Whereupon Lionardo tossed the empty bottle high in the air, and it sparkled brilliantly.

At last they mounted their horses, and I marched on beside them. Just at our feet lay a valley in measureless extent, into which our road descended. How clear and fresh and bright and jubilant were all the sights and sounds around! I was so cool, so happy, that I felt as if I could have flown from the mountain out into the glorious landscape.

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