From the Life of a Good-for-Nothing

Joseph von Eichendorff

Chapter Eight

I ran in a great hurry through the city to present myself immediately at the house, in the garden of which the Lady fair had been singing yesterday evening. The streets were full of people; gentlemen and ladies were enjoying the sunshine and exchanging greetings, elegant coaches rolled past, and the bells in all the towers were summoning to mass, making wondrous melody in the air above the heads of the swarming crowd. I was intoxicated with delight, and with the hubbub, and ran on in my joy until at last I had no idea where I was. It was like enchantment; the quiet Square with the fountain, and the garden and the house, seemed the fabric of a dream, which had vanished in the clear light of day.

I could not make any inquiries, for I did not know the name of the Square. At last it began to be very sultry; the sun's rays darted down upon the pavement like burning arrows, people crept into their houses, the blinds everywhere were closed, and the street became once more silent and dead. I threw myself down in despair in front of a fine, large house with a balcony resting upon pillars and affording a deep shade, and surveyed, first the quiet city which looked absolutely weird in its sudden noonday solitude, and anon the deep blue, perfectly cloudless sky, until, tired out, I fell asleep. I dreamed that I was lying in a lonely green meadow near my native village; a warm summer rain was falling and glittering in the sun, which was just setting behind the mountains, and whenever the raindrops fell upon the grass they turned into beautiful, bright flowers, so that I was soon covered with them.

What was my astonishment when I awoke to find a quantity of beautiful, fresh flowers lying upon me and beside me! I sprang up, but could see nothing unusual, except that in the house above me there was a window filled with fragrant shrubs and flowers, behind which a parrot talked and screamed incessantly. I picked up the scattered flowers, tied them together, and stuck the nosegay in my button-hole. Then I began to discourse with the parrot; it amused me to see him get up and down in his gilded cage with all sorts of odd twists and turns of his head, and always stepping awkwardly over his own toes. But before I was aware of it he was scolding me for a furfantel. Even though it were only a senseless bird, it irritated me. I scolded him back; we both got angry; the more I scolded in German, the more he abused me in Italian.

Suddenly I heard some one laughing behind me. I turned quickly, and perceived the painter of the morning. "What nonsense are you at now!" he said. "I have been waiting for you for half an hour. The air has grown cooler: we will go to a garden in the suburbs where you will find several fellow-countrymen, and perhaps learn something further of the German Countess."

I was charmed with this proposal, and we set out immediately, the parrot screaming out abuse of me as I left him.

After we had walked for a long while outside of the city, ascending by a narrow, stony pathway an eminence dotted with villas and vineyards, we reached a small garden very high up, where several young men and maidens were sitting in the open air about a round table. As soon as we made our appearance they all signed to us to keep silence, and pointed toward the other end of the garden, where in a large, vine-wreathed arbor two beautiful ladies were sitting opposite each other at a table. One was singing, while the other accompanied her on the guitar. Between them stood a pleasant-looking gentleman, who occasionally beat time with a small baton. The setting sun shone through the vine-leaves, upon the fruits and flasks of wine with which the table was provided, and upon the plump, white shoulders of the lady with the guitar. The other one grimaced so that she looked convulsed, but she sang in Italian in so extremely artistic a manner that the sinews in her neck stood out like cords.

Just as she was executing a long cadenza with her eyes turned up to the skies, while the gentleman beside her held his baton suspended in the air waiting the moment when she would fall into the beat again, the garden gate was flung open, and a girl looking very much heated, and a young man with a pale, delicate face, entered, quarreling violently. The conductor, startled, stood with raised baton like a petrified conjurer, although the singer had some time before snapped short her long trill and had arisen angrily from the table. All the others turned upon the new arrivals in a rage.

"You savage," some one at the round table called out, "you have interrupted the most perfect tableau of the description which the late Hoffmann gives on page 347 of the Ladies' Annual for 1816 of the finest of Hummel's pictures exhibited in the autumn of 1814 at the Berlin Art-Exposition!"

But it did no good.

"What do I care," the young man retorted, "for your tableau of tableaux! My picture any one may have; my sweetheart I choose to keep for myself. Oh, you faithless, false-hearted girl!" he went on to his poor companion, "you fine critic to whom a painter is nothing but a tradesman, and a poet only a money-maker; you care for nothing save flirtation! May you fall to the lot, not of an honest artist, but of an old Duke with a diamond-mine and beplastered with gold and silver foil! Out with the cursed note that you tried to hide from me! What have you been scribbling? From whom did it come, or to whom is it going."

But the girl resisted him steadfastly, and the more the other young men present tried to soothe and pacify the angry lover, the more he scolded and threatened; particularly as the girl herself did not restrain her little tongue, until at last she extricated herself, weeping aloud, from the confused coil, and unexpectedly threw herself into my arms for protection. I immediately assumed the correct attitude; but since the rest paid no attention to us, she suddenly composed her face and whispered hastily in my ear, "You odious Receiver! it is all on your account. There, stuff the wretched note into your pocket; you will find out from it where we live. When you approach the gate, at the appointed hour, turn into the lonely street on the right hand."

I was too much amazed to utter a word, for, now that I looked closely, I recognized her at once; actually it was the pert lady's-maid of the Castle who had brought me the flask of wine on that lovely Sunday afternoon. She never looked as pretty as now, when, heated by her quarrel, she leaned against my shoulder, and her black curls hung down over my arm. "But, dear ma'amselle," I said in astonishment, "how do you come - "

"For heaven's sake, hush! - be quiet!" she replied, and in an instant, before I could fairly collect myself, she had left me and had fled across the garden.

Meanwhile, the others had almost entirely forgotten the original cause of the turmoil, and now took a pleasing interest in proving to the young man that he was intoxicated - a great disgrace for an honorable painter. The stout, smiling gentleman from the arbor, who was - as I afterward learned - a great connoisseur and patron of Art, and who was always ready to lend his aid for the love of Science, had thrown aside his baton, and showed his broad face, fairly shining with good humor, in the midst of the thickest confusion, zealously striving to restore peace and order, but regretting between-whiles the loss of the long cadenza, and of the beautiful tableau which he had taken such pains to arrange.

In my heart all was as serenely bright as on that blissful Sunday when I had played on my fiddle far into the night at the open window where stood the flask of wine. Since the rumpus showed no signs of abating, I hastily pulled out my violin, and without more ado played an Italian dance, popular among the mountains, which I had learned at the old castle in the forest.

All turned their heads to listen. "Bravo! Bravissimo! A delicious idea!" cried the merry connoisseur of Art, running from one to another to arrange a rustic divertissement, as he called it. He made a beginning himself by leading out the lady who had played the guitar in the arbor. Thereupon he began to dance with extraordinary artistic skill, and describe all sorts of letters on the grass with the points of his toes, really trilling with his feet, and now and then jumping pretty high in the air. But he soon had enough of it, for he was rather corpulent. His jumps grew fewer and clumsier, until at last he withdrew from the circle, puffing violently, and mopping the moisture from his forehead with a snowy pocket-handkerchief. Meanwhile, the young man, who had regained his composure, brought from the inn some castanets, and before I was aware all were dancing merrily beneath the trees. The sun had set, but the crimson sky in the west cast bright reflections among the shadows, and upon the old walls and the half-buried columns covered with ivy in the depths of the garden, while below the vineyards we could see the Eternal City bathed in the evening glow. The dance in the still, clear air was charming, and my heart within me laughed to see how the slender girls and the lady's-maid glided among the trees with arms upraised like heathen wood nymphs, and kept time to the music with their castanets. At last I could no longer restrain myself; I joined their ranks, and danced away merrily, still fiddling all the time.

I had been hopping about thus for some minutes, not noticing that the others were beginning to be tired and were dropping out of the dance, when I felt some one twitch me by the coat-tail. It was the lady's-maid. "Don't be a fool, "she said under her breath; "you are jumping about like a kid! Read your note, and come soon; the beautiful young Countess awaits you." She slipped out of the garden in the twilight and vanished among the vineyards.

My heart beat fast; I longed to follow her. Fortunately, a waiter was just lighting the lantern over the garden gate. I took out my note, which contained a somewhat rudely penciled plan of the gate and the streets leading to it, just as I had been directed by the lady's-maid, and in addition the words "Eleven o'clock, at the little door."

Two long hours to wait! Nevertheless I should have set out immediately, for I could not stay still, had not the painter, who had brought me hither, rushed up.

"Did you speak to the girl?" he asked. "I cannot see her now. It was the German Countess's maid."

"Hush, hush! " I replied; "the Countess is still in Rome."

"So much the better," said the painter; "come then and drink her health." And in spite of all I could say he forced me to return to the garden with him.

It looked quite deserted. The merry company had departed, and were sauntering toward Rome, each lad with his lass upon his arm. We could hear them talking and laughing among the vineyards in the quiet evening, until at last their voices died away in the valley below, lost in the rustling of the trees and the murmur of the stream. I stayed with my painter and Herr Eckbrecht, which was the name of the other young painter who had been quarreling with the maid. The moon shone brilliantly through the tall, dark evergreens; a candle on the table before us flickered in the breeze and gleamed over the wine spilled copiously around it. I had to sit down with my companions, and my painter chatted with me about my native village, my travels, and my plans for the future. Herr Eckbrecht had seated upon his knee the pretty girl who had brought us our wine, and was teaching her the accompaniment of a song on the guitar. Her slender fingers soon picked out the correct chords, and they sang together an Italian song; first he sang a verse, and then the girl sang the next; it sounded deliciously, in the clear, bright evening.

When the girl was called away, Herr Eckbrecht, taking no further notice of us, leaned back on his bench with his feet on a low stool and played and sang many an exquisite song. The stars glittered; the landscape turned to silver in the moonlight; I thought of the Lady fair, and of my far-off home, and quite forgot the painter at my side. Herr Eckbrecht had occasionally to tune his instrument; whereat he grew downright angry, and at last he screwed a string so tight that it broke, whereupon he tossed aside the guitar and sprang to his feet, noticing for the first time that my painter had laid his head on his arm upon the table and was fast asleep. He hastily wrapped around him a white cloak which hung on a bough near by, then suddenly paused, glanced keenly at my painter, and then at me severa1 times, then seated himself on the table directly in front of me, cleared his throat, settled his cravat, and instantly began to hold forth to me.

"Beloved hearer and fellow-countryman," he said, "since the bottles are nearly empty, and morality is indisputably the first duty of a citizen when the virtues are on the wane, I feel myself moved, out of sympathy for a fellow-countryman, to present for your consideration a few moral axioms. It might be supposed," he went on, "that you are a mere youth, whereas your coat has evidently seen its best years; it might be supposed that you had leaped about like a satyr; nay, some might maintain that you are a vagabond, because you are out here in the country and play the fiddle; but I am influenced by no such superficial considerations; I form my judgment on your delicately chiseled nose; I take you for a strolling genius. "

His ambiguous phrases irritated me; I was about to retort sharply. But he gave me no chance to speak.

"Observe," he said, "how you are puffed up by a modicum of praise. Retire within yourself and ponder upon your perilous vocation. We geniuses - for I am one too - care as little for the world as it cares for us; without any ado, in the seven-league boots which we bring into the world with us, we stride on directly into eternity. A most lamentable, inconvenient straddling position this - one leg in the future, where nothing is to be discerned but the rosy morn and the faces of future children, the other leg still in the middle of Rome, in the Piazza del Popolo, where the entire present century would fain seize the opportunity to advance, and clings to the boot tight enough to pull the leg off! And then all this restlessness, wine-bibbing, and hunger solely for an immortal eternity! And look you at my comrade there on the bench, another genius; his time hangs heavy on his hands here and now, what under heaven is he to do in eternity? Yes, my highly-esteemed comrade, you and I and the sun rose early together this morning, and have pondered and painted all day long, and it was all beautiful - and now the drowsy night passes its furred sleeve over the world and wipes out all the colors." He kept on talking for a long while, his hair all disheveled with dancing and drinking, and his face looking deadly pale in the moonlight.

But I was seized with a horror of him and of his wild talk, and when he turned and addressed the sleeping painter I took advantage of the opportunity and slipped round the table, without being perceived by him, and out of the garden. Thence, alone and glad at heart, I descended through the vine-trellises into the wide moonlit valley.

The clocks in the city were striking ten. Behind me, in the quiet night, I still heard an occasional note of the guitar, and at times the voices of the two painters, going home at last, were audible. I ran on as quickly as possible, that they might not overtake me.

At the city-gate I turned into the street on the right hand, and hurried on with a throbbing heart among the silent houses and gardens. To my amazement, I suddenly found myself in the very Square with the fountain, for which, by daylight, I had vainly searched. There stood the solitary summer-house again in the glorious moonlight, and again the Lady fair was singing the same Italian song as on the evening before. In an ecstasy I tried first the low door, then the house door, and at last the big garden gate, but all were locked. Then first it occurred to me that eleven had not yet struck. I was irritated by the slow flight of time, but good manners forbade my climbing over the garden gate as I had done yesterday. Therefore I paced the lonely Square to and fro for a while, and at last again seated myself upon the basin of the fountain and resigned myself to meditation and calm expectancy.

The stars twinkled in the skies; the Square was quiet and deserted; I listened with delight to the song of the Lady fair, as it mingled with the ripple of the fountain. All at once I perceived a white figure approach from the opposite side of the Square and go directly toward the little garden door. I peered eagerly through the dazzling moonlight - it was the queer painter in his white cloak. He drew forth a key quickly, unlocked the door, and, before I knew it, was within the garden.

I had from the first entertained a special dislike of this painter on account of his nonsensical talk. But now I fell into a rage with him. "The low fellow is certainly intoxicated again," I thought; "he has got the key from the maid, and intends to surprise, and perhaps to assault, the Lady fair." And I rushed precipitately through the low door, which was still open, into the garden.

When I entered, all was quiet and lonely. The folding doors of the summer-house were open, and a ray of lamplight issuing from it played upon the grass and flowers near. Even from a distance I could see the interior. In a magnificent apartment, hung with green and partially illumined by a lamp with a white shade, the lovely Lady fair with her guitar was reclining on a silken lounge, never dreaming, in her innocence, of the danger without.

I had not much time, however, to look, for I perceived the white figure among the shrubbery, stealthily approaching the summer-house from the opposite side, while the song floating on the air from the house was so melancholy that it went to my very soul. I therefore took no long time for reflection, but broke off a stout bough from a tree, and rushed at the white-cloaked figure, shouting "Murder!" so that the garden rang again.

The painter when he beheld me appear thus unexpectedly took to his heels, screaming frightfully. I screamed louder still. He ran toward the house, and I after him, and I had very nearly caught him, when I became entangled in some plaguy trailing vines, and measured my length upon the ground just before the front door.

"So it is you, is it, you fool!" I heard some one say above me. "You frightened me nearly to death." I picked myself up, and when I had wiped my eyes clear of dust, I saw before me the lady's-maid, from whose shoulders the white cloak was just falling.

"But," said I, in confusion, "was not the painter here?"

"He was," she replied, saucily; "at least his cloak was, which he put around me when I met him at the gate, because I was cold."

The Lady fair, hearing the noise, sprang up from the lounge and came out to us. My heart beat as if it would burst; but what was my dismay when I looked at her, and instead of the lovely Lady fair saw an entire stranger!

She was a rather tall, stout lady, with a haughty, hooked nose and high-arched black eyebrows, very beautiful and imposing. She looked at me so majestically out of her big, glittering eyes that I was overwhelmed with awe. So confused was I that I could only make bow after bow, and at last I attempted to kiss her hand. But she snatched it from me, and said something in Italian to her maid which I could not understand.

Meanwhile, the racket I had made had aroused the entire neighborhood. Dogs barked, children screamed, and men's voices were heard, approaching the garden. The Lady gave me another glance, as though she would have liked to pierce me through and through with fiery bullets, then turned hastily and went into the room, with a haughty, forced laugh, slamming the door directly in my face. The maid seized me by the sleeve and pulled me toward the garden gate.

"Your stupidity is beyond belief!" she said in the most spiteful way as we went along. I too was furious.

"What the devil did you mean," I said, "by telling me to come here?"

"That's just it!" exclaimed the girl. "My Countess favored you so - first threw flowers out of the window to you, sang songs and this is her reward! But there is absolutely nothing to be done with you; you positively throw away your luck. "

"But," I rejoined, "I meant the Countess from Germany, the lovely Lady fair - "

"Oh," she interrupted me, "she went back to Germany long ago, with your crazy passion for her. And you'd better run after her! No doubt she is pining for you, and you can play the fiddle together and gaze at the moon, only for pity's sake let me see no more of you!"

All was confusion about us by this time. People from the next garden were climbing over the fence armed with clubs, others were searching among the paths and avenues; frightened faces in nightcaps appeared here and there in the moonlight; it seemed as if the devil had let loose upon us a mob of evil spirits. The lady's-maid was nowise daunted.

"There, there goes the thief!" she called out to the people, pointing across the garden. Then she pushed me out of the gate and clapped it to behind me.

There I stood once more beneath the stars in the deserted Square, as forlorn as when I had seen it first the day before. The fountain, which had but now seemed to sparkle as merrily in the moonlight as if cherubs were flitting up and down in it, splashed on, but all joy and happiness were buried beneath its waters. I determined to turn my back forever on treacherous Italy, with its crazy painters, its oranges, and its lady's-maids, and that very hour I wandered forth through the gate.

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