From the Life of a Good-for-Nothing

Joseph von Eichendorff

Chapter Four

Farewell, mill, and castle, and Porter! We went at such a pace that the wind nearly blew my hat off. Right and left, villages, towns, and vineyards flew past in a twinkling; behind me the two painters were seated in the carriage, before me were four horses and a gorgeous postilion, while I, seated high up on the box, bounced into the air from time to time.

It had happened thus: Arrived at B., while we were as yet in the outskirts a tall, thin, crusty gentleman in a green plush coat came to meet us, and, with many obeisances to the two painters, conducted us into the village, where, beneath the tall linden beside the post-station, stood a fine carriage with four post-horses. Herr Lionardo meanwhile insisted that I had outgrown my clothes, and in a trice he produced another suit from his portmanteau, and I had to put on a beautiful new dress-coat and vest; very fine to see, but they were too long and too wide for me, and absolutely fluttered about me. And I also had a brand-new hat, which shone in the sunlight as if it had been smeared with fresh butter. Then the crusty stranger gentleman took the bridles of the two horses which the painters had been riding, the painters themselves got into the carriage, I mounted upon the box, and we started, just as the postmaster poked his head out of the window, in his nightcap. The postilion blew his horn merrily, and we were off for Italy.

I led a magnificent existence up there, like a bird in the air, except that I did not need to fly. I had absolutely nothing to do but to sit on the box day and night, and bring out food and drink to the carriage from the inns, for the painters never alighted, and in the daytime they shut the carriage windows close, as if the sun would have killed them; only now and then Herr Guido put his pretty head out of the carriage window and chatted kindly with me laughing the while at Herr Lionardo, who always seemed to dislike these talks. Once or twice I nearly fell into disgrace with my master - the first time because on a clear starry night I began to play the fiddle up there on my box, and then because of my sleeping. It was strange! I longed to see all that I could of Italy, and opened my eyes wide every fifteen minutes. And yet, after I had gazed steadily about me for a while, the sixteen trotting feet before me would grow indistinct and dreamy, my eyes would gradually close, and at last I would fall into a slumber so profound and invincible that it was impossible to rouse me. Then day or night, rain or sunshine, Tyrol or Italy it was all the same. I swayed first to the right then to the left, then backward - nay, sometimes my head nodded down so low that my hat dropped off, and Herr Guido screamed aloud.

Thus we had passed, I hardly know how, half through the part of Italy that they call Lombardy, when on a fine evening we stopped at a country inn. The post-horses were to be ready for us at the neighboring station in a couple of hours, so the painters left the carriage, and were shown into a special apartment, to rest a little, and to write some letters. I was greatly pleased, and betook myself to the common room to eat and drink in comfort. Here everything looked rather disreputable: the maids were going about with their hair in disorder and their neckerchiefs awry, exposing their sallow skin; the men-servants were at their supper in blue smock-frocks, around a circular table, whence they glowered at me from time to time. They all wore their hair tied behind in a short, thick queue which looked quite dandified.

"Here you are," I said to myself as I ate my supper, "here you are in the country from which such queer people used to come to the Herr Pastor's with mouse-traps, and barometers, and pictures. How much a man learns who makes up his mind not to stick close to his own hearth-stone all his life!"

As I was thus eating my supper and meditating, a little man, who had been sitting in a dim corner of the room over a glass of wine, darted out of his nook at me like a spider. He was quite short and crooked, and he had a big ugly head, with a long hooked nose and sparse red whiskers, while his powdered hair stood on end all over his head as if a hurricane had swept over it. He wore an old-fashioned, threadbare dress-coat, short, plush breeches, and faded silk stockings. He had once been in Germany, and prided himself upon his knowledge of German. He sat down by me and asked a hundred questions, perpetually taking snuff the while - Was I the servitore? When did we arrive? Had we gone to Roma? All this I myself did not know, and really I could not understand his gibberish.

"Parlez-vous français?" I asked him at last in my distress. He shook his big head, and I was very glad, for neither did I speak French. But it was of no use, he had taken me in hand, and went on asking question after question: the more we parleyed the less we understood each other, until at last we both grew angry, and I actually thought the Signor would have liked to peck me with his hooked beak, until the maids, who had been listening to our confusion of tongues, laughed heartily at us. I put down my knife and fork and went out of doors; for in this strange land I, with my German tongue, seemed to have sunk down fathoms deep into the sea, where all sorts of unfamiliar, crawling creatures were gliding about me, peopling the solitude and glaring and snapping at me.

Outside, the summer night was warm and inviting. From the distant vineyards a laborer's song now and then fell on the ear; there was lightning low on the horizon, and the landscape seemed to tremble and whisper in the moonlight. Sometimes I thought I perceived a tall, dim figure gliding behind the hazel hedge in front of the house and peeping through the twigs, and then all would be motionless. Suddenly Herr Guido appeared on the balcony above me. He did not see me, and began to play with great skill on a zither which he must have found in the house, singing to it like a nightingale:

When the yearning heart is stilled
As in dreams, the forest sighing,
To the listening earth replying
Tells the thoughts with which 'twas filled:
Days long vanished, soothing sorrow -
From the Past a light they borrow.
And the heart is gently thrilled.

I do not know whether he sang any more, for I had stretched myself on a bench outside the door, and I fell asleep in the warm air from sheer exhaustion.

A couple of hours must have passed, when I was roused by the winding of a post-horn, which sounded merrily in my dreams for a while before I fully recovered consciousness. At last I sprang up; day was already dawning on the mountains, and I felt through all my limbs the freshness of the morning. Then it occurred to me that by this time we ought to be far on our way.

"Aha!" I thought, "now it is my turn to laugh. How Herr Guido will shake his sleepy, curly head when he hears me outside!" So I went close beneath the window in the little garden at the back of the house, stretched my limbs well in the morning air and sang merrily -

If the cricket's chirp we hear,
Then be sure the day is near;
When the sun is rising - then
'Tis good to go to asleep again.

The window of the room where my masters were stood open, but all within was quiet; the breeze alone rustled the leaves of the vine that clambered into the window itself.

"What does this mean?" I exclaimed in surprise, and ran into the house, and through the silent corridors, to the room. But when I opened the door my heart stood still with dismay; the room was perfectly empty; not a coat, not a hat, not a boot, anywhere. Only the zither upon which Herr Guido had played was hanging on the wall, and on the table in the centre of the room lay a purse full of money, with a card attached to it. I took it to the window, and could scarcely trust my eyes when I read, in large letters, "For the Herr Receiver!"

But what good could it all do me if I could not find my dear, merry masters again, I thrust the purse into my deep coat-pocket, where it plumped down as into a well and almost pulled me over backward. Then I rushed out, and made a great noise, and waked up all the maids and men in the house. They could not imagine what was the matter, and thought I must have gone crazy. But they were not a little amazed when they saw the empty nest. No one knew anything of my masters. One maid only had observed - so far as I could make out from her signs and gesticulations - that Herr Guido, when he was singing on the balcony on the previous evening, had suddenly screamed aloud, and had then rushed back into the room to the other gentleman. And once, when she waked in the night afterward, she had heard the tramp of a horse. She peeped out of the little window of her room, and saw the crooked Signor, who had talked so much to me, on a white horse, galloping so furiously across the field in the moonlight that he bounced high up from his saddle; and the maid crossed herself, for he looked like a ghost riding upon a three-legged horse. I did not know what in the world to do.

Meanwhile, however, our carriage was standing before the door ready to start, and the impatient postilion blew his horn fit to burst, for he had to be at the next station at a certain hour, because everything had been ordered with great exactitude in the way of changing horses. I ran once more through all the house, calling the painters, but no one made answer; the inn-people stared at me, the postilion cursed, the horses neighed, and at last, completely dazed, I sprang into the carriage, the hostler shut the door behind me, the postilion cracked his whip, and away I went into the wide world.

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