From the Life of a Good-for-Nothing

Joseph von Eichendorff

Chapter Five

We drove on now over hill and dale, day and night. I had no time for reflection, for wherever we arrived the horses were standing ready harnessed. I could not talk with the people, and my signs and gestures were of no use; often just in the midst of a fine dinner the postilion wound his horn, and I had to drop knife and fork and spring into the carriage again without knowing whither I was going, or why or wherefore I was obliged to hurry on at such a rattling pace.

Otherwise the life was not unpleasant. I reclined upon the soft cushions first in one corner of the carriage and then in the other, and took note of countries and people, and when we drove through the villages I leaned both arms on the window of the carriage, and acknowledged the courtesy of the men who took off their hats to me, or else I kissed my hand like an old acquaintance to the young girls at the windows, who looked surprised, and stared after me as long as the carriage was in sight.

But a day came when I was in a terrible fright. I had never counted the money in the purse left for me, and I had to pay a great deal to the postmasters and innkeepers everywhere, so that before I was aware, the purse was empty. When I first discovered this I had an idea of jumping out of the carriage and making my escape, the next time we drove through a lonely wood. But I could not make up my mind to give up the beautiful carriage and leave it all alone, when, if it were possible, I would gladly have driven in it to the end of the world.

So I sat buried in thought, not knowing what to do, when all at once we turned aside from the highway. I shouted to the postilion to ask him where he was going, but, shout as I would, the fellow never made any answer save "Si, si, Signore!" and on he drove over stock and stone till I was jolted from side to side in the carriage.

I was not at all pleased, for the high-road ran through a charming country, directly toward the setting sun, which was bathing the landscape in a sea of splendor, while before us, when we turned aside, lay a dreary hilly region, broken by ravines, where in the gray depths darkness had already set in. The further we drove, the lonelier and drearier grew the road. At last the moon emerged from the clouds, and shone through the trees with a weird, unearthly brilliancy. We had to go very slowly in the narrow rocky ravines, and the continuous, monotonous rattle of the carriage reechoed from the walls on either side, as if we were driving through a vaulted tomb. From the depths of the forest came a ceaseless murmur of unseen water-falls, and the owlets hooted in the distance "Come too! come too!"

As I looked at the driver, I noticed for the first time that he wore no uniform and was not a postilion; he seemed to be growing restless, turning his head and looking behind him several times. Then he began to drive quicker, and as I leaned out of the carriage a horseman came out of the shrubbery on one side of the road, crossed it at a bound directly in front of our horses, and vanished in the forest on the other side. I felt bewildered; as far as I could see in the bright moonlight the rider was that very same crooked little man who had so pecked at me with his hooked nose in the inn, and mounted, too, on the same white horse. The driver shook his head and laughed aloud at such horsemanship, then quickly turned to me and said a great deal very eagerly, not a word of which did I understand, and then he drove on more rapidly than ever.

I was rejoiced soon afterward when I perceived a light glimmering in the distance. Gradually more and more lights appeared, and at last we passed several smoke-dried huts clinging like swallows' nests to the rocks. As the night was warm, the doors stood open, and I could see into the lighted rooms, and all sorts of ragged figures gathered about the hearths. We rattled on through the quiet night, along a steep, stony road leading up a high mountain. Soon lofty trees and hanging vines arched completely over us, and anon the heavens became visible, and we could overlook in the depths a distant circle of mountains, forests, and valleys. On the summit of the mountain stood a grand old castle, its many towers gleaming in the brilliant moonlight. "God be thanked!" I exclaimed, greatly relieved, and on the tiptoe of expectation as to whither I was being conducted.

A good half-hour passed, however, before we reached the gate-way of the castle. It led under a broad round tower, the summit of which was half ruined. The driver cracked his whip three times, so that the old castle reechoed, and a flock of startled rooks flew forth from every sheltered nook and careered wildly overhead with hoarse caws. Then the carriage rolled on through the long, dark gate-way. The iron shoes of the horses struck fire upon the stone pavement, a large dog barked, the wheels thundered along the vaulted passage, the rooks' hoarse cries resounded, and amidst all this horrible hubbub we reached a small, paved court-yard.

"A queer post-station this," I thought, when the coach stopped. The coach door was opened, and a tall old man with a small lantern scanned me grimly from beneath his bushy eyebrows. He then took my arm and helped me to alight from the coach as if I had been a person of quality. Outside, before the castle door, stood a very ugly old woman in a black camisole and petticoat, with a white apron and a black cap, the long point of which in front almost touched her nose. A large bunch of keys hung on one side of her waist, and she held in her hand an old-fashioned candelabrum with two lighted wax candles. As soon as she saw me she began to duck and curtsey and to talk volubly. I did not understand a word, but I scraped innumerable bows, and felt very uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, the old man had peered into every corner of the coach with his lantern, and grumbled and shook his head upon finding no trace of trunk or luggage. The driver, without asking for the usual pour-boire proceeded to put up the coach in an old shed on one side of the court-yard, while the old woman by all sorts of courteous signs invited me to follow her. She showed the way with her wax candles through a long, narrow passage, and up a little stone staircase. As we passed the kitchen a couple of maids poked their heads inquisitively through the half-open door, and stared at me, as they winked and nodded furtively to each other, as if they had never in all their lives seen a man before. At last the old woman opened a door, and for a moment I was quite dazed; the apartment was spacious and very handsome, the ceiling decorated with gilded carving and the walls hung with magnificent tapestry portraying all sorts of figures and flowers. In the centre of the room stood a table spread with cutlets, cakes, salad, fruit, wine, and confections, enough to make one's mouth water. Between the windows hung a tall mirror, reaching from the floor to the ceiling.

I must say that all this delighted me. I stretched myself once or twice, and paced the room to and fro with much dignity, after which I could not resist looking at myself in such a large mirror. Of a truth Herr Lionardo's new clothes became me well, and I had caught an ardent expression of eye from the Italians, but otherwise I was just such a whey-face as I had been at home, with only a soft down on my upper lip.

Meanwhile, the old woman ground away with her toothless jaws, as if she were actually chewing the end of her long nose. She made me sit down, chucked me under the chin with her lean fingers, called me "poverino," and leered at me so roguishly with her red eves that one corner of her mouth twitched half-way up her cheek as she at last left the room with a low courtesy.

I sat down at the table, and a young, pretty girl came in to wait on me. I made all sorts of gallant speeches to her, which she did not understand, but watched me curiously while I applied myself to the viands with evident enjoyment; they were delicious. When I had finished and rose from table, she took a candle and conducted me to another room, where were a sofa, a small mirror, and a magnificent bed with green silk curtains. I inquired by signs whether I were to sleep there. She nodded assent, but I could not undress while she stood beside me as if she were rooted to the spot.

At last I went and got a large glass of wine from the table in the next room, drank it off, and wished her "Felicissima notte!" for I had managed to learn that much Italian. But while I was emptying the glass at a draught she suddenly burst into a fit of suppressed giggling, grew very red, and went into the next room, closing the door behind her. "What is there to laugh at!" thought I in a puzzle. "I believe Italians are all crazy."

Still in anxiety lest the postilion should begin to blow his horn again, I listened at the window, but all was quiet outside. "Let him blow!" I thought, undressed myself, and got into the magnificent bed, where I seemed to be fairly swimming in milk and honey! The old linden in the court-yard rustled, a rook now and then flew off the roof, and at last, completely happy, I fell asleep.

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