(For a PDF version of this translation, go to The Worldview Annex).
Eckbert the Blond
In a district in the Harz Mountains lived a knight who by custom was called simply Eckbert the Blond. He was about forty years old, of barely average stature, and his pale, gaunt face was covered by a smooth, thick, ash-blond beard. He kept very peaceably to himself and never involved himself in his neighbors’ quarrels; moreover, he was only rarely seen beyond the outer walls of his modest little castle. His wife loved solitude just as much as he did, and the two of them seemed sincerely to love each other, although they were wont to lament that heaven had not seen fit to bless their union with any children.
Only rarely was Eckbert visited by anyone, and even on such occasions, almost nothing in his daily routine was altered for the guest’s benefit; frugality was a permanent lodger in his dwelling, and the spirit of thrift herself seemed to preside over his household. Eckbert was then merry and cheerful only when he was alone; others observed in him a certain reticence, a silent and reserved kind of melancholy.
Nobody came to the fortress as frequently as Philipp Walther, a man to whom Eckbert had attached himself because he found that this other man’s way of thinking was for the most part the same as his own. Walther officially lived in Franconia, but he often resided for more than half a year at a time in the neighborhood of Eckbert’s fortress, where he gathered herbs and stones, and busied himself with classifying and arranging them; he lived on a small income and was dependent on no one. Eckbert often accompanied him on his solitary walks, and over the years an intimate friendship between the two men came into being.
There are hours when it makes a person uneasy to think that he is keeping a secret from his friend, a secret that he has taken great pains to conceal until then; the soul then feels an irresistible urge to unbosom itself completely, to communicate its innermost core to the friend, in the hope that he will become all the more our friend as a result. At such moments tender souls surrender themselves to each other’s scrutiny, and it sometimes also happens that one of the souls recoils from the other’s acquaintance.
One misty early autumn evening, Eckbert was sitting with his friend and his wife Bertha before a roaring hearth-fire. The flames filled the room with bright light and played on the ceiling, pitch-black night peered in at the windows, and outside the cold, damp air set the trees shaking. Walther repined at the long walk home he had to look forward to, and Eckbert proposed that he should stay over: the first half of the night he could spend in continued familiar conversation, and afterwards he could sleep until morning in one of the spare rooms in the house. Walther accepted the proposal, whereupon wine and suppertime victuals were fetched in, the fire was made brighter with additional logs, and the friends’ conversation grew merrier and more intimate.
When the remains of the meal had been cleared away and the servants had retired from the room, Eckbert took Walther by the hand and said, “My friend, you really must
have my wife tell you the story of her younger days; it certainly is a curious enough tale.”
“That would be a pleasure,” said Walther, and they all resumed their seats before the hearth.
It was just after midnight; the moon could be glimpsed only intermittently through the clouds that fluttered past it. “You mustn’t think me too forward,” said Bertha; “my husband says that you are so noble-minded that it is wrong to conceal anything from you. But do not take my story for a fairy tale, however strange it may sound to you.
“I was born in a humble village; my father was a poor shepherd. My parents were not the most provident of housekeepers, and very often they did not know where our next loaf of bread was to come from. But what distressed me much more than our poverty was the fact that my father and my mother would often quarrel over it and would then hurl the bitterest reproaches at each other. The rest of the time I would hear them incessantly saying of me that I was a simple, stupid child who was incapable of carrying out the most insignificant tasks, and who was in fact ridiculously clumsy and utterly incompetent, that I dropped everything that came into my hands, that I had learnt neither to sew nor to spin, that I was of no use whatsoever around the house; but I understood very clearly what dire straits my parents were in. And so I would often sit in a corner and flood my imagination with fantasies of how I would help them if I suddenly became rich, how I would pour gold and silver by the bagful into their laps, and feast my eyes on their astonishment; then I would see spirits soaring up from beneath the floor and revealing to me the hiding places of secret subterranean treasure hordes, or handing me tiny pebbles that instantly metamorphosed into precious stones; in short, my mind was kept constantly busy by the most marvelous imaginings, and when filial duty required me to rise from my seat in order to lend a hand in doing or carrying something, I would perform the job all the more ineptly on account of the giddiness I was suffering thanks to all those curious visions swimming round in my head.
“My father was always angry at me for being such a useless burden on the household; and so he treated me on the whole rather horribly, and he only rarely had a kind word for me. By then I was about eight years old, and serious plans to force me to do or learn something worthwhile were afoot. My father thought it was mere stubbornness or laziness on my part that made me while away my days so idly; he laid into me with the most indescribable threats, and when these proved ineffective, he began to beat me unmercifully, saying as he did so that he would repeat this punishment every day until I stopped being such an utterly useless creature.
“All that night I wept with heartfelt sadness; I felt utterly forsaken; I was so sorry for myself that I wanted to die. I dreaded the arrival of dawn; I had absolutely no notion of what it was I was supposed to start doing; I longed to be really skilled at doing something and could not fathom why I was so much more simple-minded than the other children I knew. I was on the brink of total despair.
“As dawn was beginning to break, I rose and, almost without realizing what I was doing, opened the door of our little hut and stepped outside. I soon found myself standing in an open field, and then, not long afterwards, in a forest into which the light of day was still only just beginning to peer. I kept on running, with my eyes fixed straight ahead all the while; I did not allow myself to feel a trace of fatigue, for I thought there was a very good chance that my father would catch up with me, and that in his anger at my flight he would treat me more horribly than ever before.
“When I emerged from the other side of the forest, the sun was already fairly high in the sky, and up ahead I saw something that was dark and shrouded in a dense fog at the top. Soon I was forced to scramble up and over several hills, then to follow a meandering pathway through some rocky crags, and at that point I surmised that I had to be somewhere on that nearby mountain, and in my solitude I began to feel truly terrified. For having always lived in the flatlands, I had never before seen a mountain, and indeed the very word ‘mountain’ had always had a horrifying ring to my infant ears. I did not have the heart to turn back, my fear drove me onwards; I often looked around in alarm when the wind streamed over my head as it passed through the trees, or the sound of an axe-blow struck by some faraway woodcutter broke the matutinal silence. And when at length colliers and mineworkers began crossing my path, and I heard them speaking in a strange accent, I very nearly fainted for sheer horror.
“I begged my way through several villages because I was now hungry and thirsty; whenever anybody asked me a question, I somehow muddled through a sufficiently convincing answer. I had been traveling in a single direction for about four days when I strayed on to a small footpath that carried me farther and farther away from the main road. By then the surrounding rock formations had assumed a different and altogether more peculiar shape. They were cliffs that were piled on top of each other so haphazardly that it looked as though they could be overturned and scattered by a single gust of wind. I could not make up my mind whether or not to press on. So far every night I had slept either outdoors, among the trees, for it was then the mildest part of the mildest season of the year, or in solitary shepherds’ huts; but here I had not seen a single human dwelling, and I had no reason to suppose I ever would stumble upon one in this barren and forbidding landscape; the cliffs became ever more fearsome, in my progress I must have often skirted the very brink of an abyss of vertiginous depth, and eventually the path petered out into nothing beneath my feet. I was utterly inconsolable; I wept and wailed, and in those cliff-lined valleys the echo of my own sobs took on a strange and horrifying timbre. Then night fell, and I found myself a patch of mossy ground to sleep on. But I could not fall asleep; all night long I heard the strangest sounds, which I alternately fancied were the cries of wild beasts, the plangent whistling of the wind among the cliff-faces, and the cawings of exotic birds. I took refuge in prayer, and I finally dozed off only just before dawn.
“I awoke to broad daylight beaming down on my face. Directly in front of me stood a steep rock face that I started scaling in the hope of descrying from its summit a path leading out of this wild country, and perhaps even catching sight of some houses or people. But the view from up top afforded no relief as far as the eye could see; the ground was blanketed in a foggy haze, the sky was overcast and gray, and I could not espy a single tree, a single patch of grassland, or even a single shrub apart from some solitary bushes that feebly sprouted here and there from the crannies among the rocks. I cannot describe to you how ardently I yearned even to catch a glimpse of a single human being, even one whose appearance portended nothing but danger to me. At the same time I was tormented by agonizing hunger pangs; I sat down on the bare ground and resolved to die. But by and by my delight in living got the upper hand of this resolution; I pulled myself together and amid much stifled sighing set off again and continued walking for the rest of the day; eventually, I almost lost consciousness; I was weary and exhausted; I scarcely cared to continue living, and yet I dreaded death.
“Towards evening my surroundings took on a somewhat friendlier aspect; my thoughts, my desires, came back to life; delight in living awoke in every one of my veins and arteries. I now fancied I could hear the roaring of a mill in the distance, I doubled my paces, and to my immense relief and contentment, I soon found myself at the undeniably actual limit of the craggy wasteland; ahead I could once again behold nothing but fields and woodlands and gently rising distant hills. I felt as though I had just stepped out of hell and into paradise, and I no longer found my solitude and my helplessness frightening in the least.
“Instead of the hoped-for mill, I came upon a waterfall, which discovery admittedly diminished my joy a great deal; as I was scooping up a draught of water from the stream into my mouth with my bare hands, I suddenly thought I heard someone faintly coughing a short distance away. Never before had I been so overcome with pleasure as at that moment; I drew nearer to the coughing, and in a corner of the woods I caught sight of an old woman who seemed to be resting from some strenuous activity. She was dressed almost entirely in black, and a black cowl covered her head and a large portion of her face; in her hand she held a walking stick.
“I approached her and besought her aid; she let me sit down next to her and gave me bread and a bit of wine. While I was eating she sang a sacred song with a harsh and shrill intonation. When she had concluded she told me I could follow her if I wished.
“I was overjoyed by this proposal, so captivatingly odd did I find the woman’s very voice and demeanor. Thanks to her walking stick she moved fairly fleetly, and with each step she took her face contorted into a grimace that was so odd-looking that at first I could not help laughing at it. The craggy wilderness receded ever farther behind us; we traversed a fair meadow, and then a fairly lengthy stretch of woods. As we emerged from these woods, the sun was just setting, and I shall never forget the way things looked and the way I felt that evening. Everything had melted together into a single incomparably soothing mixture of red and gold; from top to root the trees stood bathed in the roseate glow of the evening twilight, in its cloudless purity the sky resembled a newly unlocked paradise, and from time to time the exuberant silence was broken by the wistfully joyous rippling of the springs and rustling of the trees. My young soul was now vouchsafed its first intimation of the wider world and the things that went on in it. I forgot about myself and my conductress; I had a mind and eyes only for thoughts and images of golden clouds.
“We now ascended a hill that was covered with birch-trees; from its top it afforded the view of a verdant valley full of birches, and in the middle of all these trees down below there stood a small cottage. A high-spirited yapping sound was drawing ever nearer to us, and by and by a small fleet-footed dog appeared and lunged at the old woman while wagging his tail; then he came up to me, inspected me from all sides, and returned with an ingratiating mien to the old woman.
“As we were descending the hill, I heard a marvelous song, like that of a bird, that seemed to be coming from the cottage; it went like this:
I joy to abide
Through tide after tide
What joy to abide
“This small cluster of words was endlessly repeated; if pressed to describe the sound of this repetition, I would say it was almost like that of a bugle and a shawm playing out of time with each other at a very great distance.
“My curiosity was stretched to its very limits; without waiting for the old woman’s permission to do so, I followed her into the cottage. Dusk had already begun to set in; everything was neat and tidy throughout the little house; a set of shelves held several ordinary goblets; on a table stood vessels of a more exotic make; in a lustrous metal cage hanging by the window was perched a bird—the very bird that had been singing the words quoted above. The old woman coughed and wheezed, she seemed quite unable to catch her breath; one minute she would pet the little dog, the next she would talk to the bird, which replied to her by singing its usual song—and incidentally, all this while she acted as though I simply were not present. I shuddered more than once as I stood there contemplating her, for her face was in such constant and violent motion—motion to which the palsy of old age seemed to contribute—that I found it literally impossible to discover what she actually looked like.
“Once she had finally recovered her breath, she lit some candles, set the minuscule dining table, and served supper. Now she took notice of me, and signed to me to take a seat in one of the wickerwork chairs at the tableside. So I now found myself sitting directly across from her, with the tiny table’s only candle standing between us. She folded her bony hands and said grace in a loud voice, all the while putting her face through its characteristic round of contortions, such that I once again could hardly refrain from laughing; but I took especial care to retain my composure for fear of making her angry.
“After supper she prayed again, and then she showed me to a bed in a cramped and shabby little chamber; she herself slept in the main room. Being practically stupefied with fatigue, I did not long remain awake; but a few times during the night I woke up, and at these moments I heard the old woman coughing and talking to the dog, and also, intermittently, the singing of the bird, who now seemed to be asleep and dreaming, as it only ever sang a snatch or two of its song at a time. These snatches combined with the rustling of the birch-trees against the window and the song of a distant nightingale produced such a marvelous mélange of sound that I never felt as though I had quite fully awoken; I felt as though I were merely passing from one fantastic dream into another.
“In the morning the old woman roused me from sleep and very soon thereafter set me to work. I was required to spin thread, which I soon figured out how to do; in addition I had to look after the dog and the bird. I quickly learned to find my way about the house, and got to know all the objects that surrounded me; it now seemed to me as though everything had always been the way it was; it no longer occurred to me that there was anything particularly strange about the old woman, that the house was fantastically situated and remote from other human dwellings, that there was anything even slightly out of the ordinary about a bird that could sing actual words. Not that I ever failed to be struck anew by its beauty, for its feathers shone with every conceivable color; its throat and torso alternated between the loveliest sky blue and the most incandescent red, and whenever it sang, it would proudly puff itself up to a prodigious size that accentuated the splendor of its plumage.
“Often the old woman would go out and not return until evening; on such occasions I would run out, accompanied by the dog, to meet her, and she would address me as ‘child’ and ‘daughter.’ Eventually I became sincerely fond of her, for virtually anyone or anything can grow on a person, especially when that person is a child. In the evening hours she taught me to read; I picked up this skill very readily, and it subsequently became an endless source of enjoyment for me in my solitude, for the old woman owned several books written a long, long time ago—books full of marvelous stories.
“To this day the way I lived back then strikes me as very strange: I never received a visit from a single human soul; yet I was perfectly at home in my tiny family circle, for the dog and the bird had the very same effect on me as is produced by one’s oldest and dearest friends. I have never since been able to recall the very odd name of the dog, although at the time I called it by it constantly.
“I had been living in this manner with the old woman for four years, and I must have been about twelve years old, when she finally took me a bit further into her confidence, and let me in on a certain secret, namely that every day the bird laid an egg containing either a pearl or a precious stone. I had long ago noticed that the woman was always rummaging through the cage in a secretive manner, but I had never thought to ask myself exactly why she was doing this. She now entrusted me with the task of collecting these eggs during her absences and stowing them securely in the above-mentioned exotic vessels. She now left me to feed myself and stayed away for longer intervals—weeks and months; my little spinning-wheel whirred, the dog yapped, the marvelous bird sang, and at the same time everything outside the house was incredibly still and quiet; indeed, I cannot recall a single windstorm or thunderstorm passing through the area during the entire period I lived there. Not a single human being ever wandered into our little valley, and not a single deer ever came within sight of our little abode; I was perfectly content and allowed myself to be carried through one day after another by my daily round of household chores. Human beings would perhaps be truly happy if they were allowed to live out their lives in such a fashion.
“Out of the little I read I fashioned the most marvelous fantasies in which everything was derived from me and my circle of companions: when the books talked of cheerful people, I could not help picturing each one of these people as my little Pomeranian dog; I invariably imagined ladies in splendid dress as looking like the bird, and all old women as looking like my eldritch old woman. I had even read a little bit about love, and in my imagination I now began playing curious little storytelling games with myself. I pictured to myself the handsomest knight in the world; I adorned him with every excellence without really knowing whether or not he appreciated my pains; but I could always enjoy feeling heartily sorry for myself whenever I supposed him not reciprocating my love; on such occasions, I delivered lengthy and moving speeches, mostly silently to myself, occasionally aloud (and quite loudly)—speeches aimed at winning his heart. You are both smiling! Well, admittedly it has been a very long time since any of us was young.
“I now much preferred the intervals when I was alone, because at these times I was very much the mistress of the house. The dog loved me immensely and did everything I wished him to do, the bird replied to all my questions by singing its song, my little spinning wheel kept merrily spinning and spinning, and so I basically never felt the slightest whisper of a desire for anything to change. When the old woman returned from her extensive wanderings, she praised my attentiveness to my duties; she said that the house had gotten much tidier since I had taken charge of it; she exulted over how tall I had grown and how healthy I looked—in short, she carried on about me every bit as enthusiastically as if I really were her daughter.
“‘You are exceedingly well-behaved, my child!’ she purred to me one day: ‘if you keep doing as you are doing now, things will always go well for you: but nobody who strays from the right path ever thrives; be it ever so tardily, waywardness is always punished.’ I paid no great mind to this warning as she was speaking it, for I was no less skittish in my thoughts than in my movements; but that night I remembered her words, and I could not figure out what she had meant by them. I pondered each one of them very carefully; I had of course read about money and riches, and eventually it occurred to me that the old woman’s pearls and precious stones might actually be worth a great deal. This suspicion soon sharpened into a conviction. But what could she mean by ‘the right path’? No matter how hard I tried, I could not manage to make the slightest sense of her words.
“I was now fourteen years old, and it is the misfortune of every human being to acquire understanding only at the cost of his spiritual innocence. I now knew full well that as soon as the old woman left again I would be able to carry off the bird and the treasure and explore the world that I had read so much about. Moreover, I thought that out there I might possibly encounter the supremely handsome knight who continued perpetually to haunt my daydreams.
“At first the thought of all this was just like any other thought, but eventually whenever I sat down at my spinning-wheel, the thought would come rushing back into my head quite against my will, and I would get so deeply lost in it that I fancied that I was already resplendently attired and surrounded by knights and princes. After having thus completely forgotten myself, I often became very sad upon looking up and finding myself still sitting in that pokey little cottage. What was more, after I finished my chores, the old woman would completely cease to take any notice of my existence.
“One day my hostess set off again and said to me that this time she was going to be away longer than usual, and that I should of course keep everything neat and tidy and not let time hang heavy on my hands. As I was saying goodbye to her I felt somewhat uneasy, for I sensed that I would never see her again.
“Never before had I cherished the dog and the bird with such ardor; they were now closer to my heart than they ever had been. The old woman had been gone a good few days when I rose from bed firmly resolved to leave the cottage with the bird in hand and to explore the so-called world. I felt stifled and hemmed in; I wanted to stay where I was, and yet the very idea of doing so was anathema to me; I felt as though two rebellious spirits were waging some bizarre war with each other inside me. One minute the placidity of solitude struck me as unsurpassably beautiful; the next I was again smitten by my imaginings of an entirely new world and all its manifold wonders.
“I hardly knew what to do with myself; the dog was jumping at me incessantly; the sunshine was gaily spreading itself over the fields; the green birch-trees were coruscating with the reflected light, and so I grabbed the little dog, tethered him securely in the main room, and took the cage with the bird in it under one arm. The dog cringed and whimpered in face of this unwontedly harsh treatment; he gazed at me with supplicating eyes, but I was afraid of what might happen if I took him with me. Still, I took one of the urns filled with precious stones and stuffed it into my pocket; the rest I left on the table.
“The bird turned its head around in an odd manner as I stepped out through the front doorway; the dog strained with all its might to follow me, but it had no choice but to stay behind.
“I avoided the road leading to the craggy wilderness and headed in the opposite direction. The dog began yapping and whimpering uninterruptedly, and I was deeply and sincerely moved by its plaint; the bird made a few attempts to start singing, but then it fell solemnly silent; it must have found singing irksome.
“The farther along I walked, the fainter the yapping grew, until finally it ceased completely. I wept and was almost on the point of turning back, but my yearning to see something new impelled me to keep going.
“I had already traversed some mountains and passed through several forests when dusk set in, and I was obliged to spend the ensuing night in a village. I entered the local inn very warily; I was shown to a room and a bed; I slept fairly peacefully, although I dreamt of nothing but the old woman, who menaced me with threats.
“My journey was fairly monotonous, but the farther I traveled the more painfully I was haunted by thoughts of the old woman and of the little dog; I reflected that without my help the dog would probably starve to death, and in the forest I often thought that at any moment I might suddenly cross paths with the old woman. So I continued walking amid many sighs and tears; whenever I stopped to rest and set the cage on the ground, the bird would sing its curious song, and I would quite vividly remember the lovely little domicile that I had left behind. As human nature is forgetful, I now fancied that the journey I had undertaken as a child had been less dispiriting than the one I was undertaking now; I yearned to be following the old path again.
“I had sold a few precious stones, and now after several days I arrived at another village. The moment I set foot in it I felt the strangest sensation; I was terrified and did not know why, but I soon realized it was because this was the very village in which I had been born. How overwhelmed I was! How violently my cheeks were inundated with tears elicited by a thousand eldritch memories! Much had changed; several new houses had sprung up, while others that had only just been built when I left were now badly dilapidated; I even noticed a few fire-gutted ruins; everything was much smaller, much more crowded together, than I had expected. I was overjoyed at the prospect of seeing my parents again after so many years; I located the little house, with its instantly recognizable front doorstep; even the door-handle was exactly the same as it had been before; I felt as though I had last let go of it only yesterday; my heart was throbbing violently; I flung open the door only to behold a roomful of unfamiliar faces staring at me in mute incomprehension. I asked where Martin the shepherd was, and I was told that he and his wife had both been dead for three years. I hastily withdrew from the house and ran sobbing out of the village.
“I had thought it would be so lovely to overwhelm them with riches; by a curious stroke of luck the object of my childhood dreams had become a reality—but all for naught, for my parents could not share in my joy, and the thing that I had most hoped for in all my life was now beyond my reach for ever.
“In a pleasant little town I rented a small house and hired a charwoman. The world did not seem as wondrous as I had supposed it would be, but as I had more or less forgotten the old woman and my former abode, I was quite genuinely content. The bird had long since ceased singing completely; I therefore was not a little alarmed when one night it suddenly began to sing again, and what was more, to sing a different song from the old one. It sang: ‘Sylvan solitude How vainly thour’t wooed! Thine absence is rued Through time’s amplitude. My sole joy pursued, Sylvan solitude!’
“I could not sleep at all that night; all the old memories came flooding back into my mind, and more than ever before I felt that I had done something wrong. Upon rising from bed I found the very sight of the bird repellent; it kept staring at me, and its presence made me nervous. Having resumed singing with this new song, it continued to sing it unremittingly, and much more loudly and shrilly than it had been accustomed to sing in the old days. The more I contemplated it, the more frightened it made me; finally, I opened the cage, stuck my hand in, grabbed the bird by the throat, and gave it a hearty squeeze; the bird gazed back at me imploringly; I let go of it, but it was already dead. I buried it in the garden.
“From this point onwards I was often seized by a dread of my charwoman; I reflected on my own past conduct and concluded that she was bound someday to rob me of my treasure or even to murder me. At long last I met a young knight whom I found exceedingly attractive; I offered him my hand in marriage—and with that marriage my story ends, Master Walther."
“You should have seen her back then,” Eckbert hastily chimed in: “her youth, her beauty, and the indescribable charm that had been imparted to her by her solitary upbringing. She appeared before me like a miracle, and I loved her quite beyond all measure. I had no income, but thanks to her love I came into my present affluence; we moved into this house, and not for a moment since has either of us regretted being bound in marriage to the other.”
“But enough of our chit-chat,” Bertha chimed back in: “it’s gotten quite late indeed; we really should be getting to bed.”
She stood up and began walking towards her room. Walther bade her good night while kissing her hand, and added: “Noble lady, I thank you; in my mind’s eye I can clearly picture you carrying that strange bird and feeding your little Strohmian.”
Walther, too, retired to bed; only Eckbert remained awake, pacing restlessly up and down in the banqueting room. “Are we mortal men and women not fools?” he eventually cried out; “it was my idea for my wife to tell him her story, and now how keenly I regret having taken him into our confidence! Will he not somehow exploit what he has learned? Will he not perchance—for such is human nature—be seized by an unfortunate avaricious craving for our precious stones, and scheme and dissemble in the hope of acquiring them?"
It struck him that Walther had not taken leave of him as warmly as someone who had just been vouchsafed such a secret naturally would have done. When the soul is first roused to suspicion, it espies confirmations of its worst fears in the most trifling circumstances. Eckbert reproached himself for his ignoble mistrust of his valiant friend, and yet he could not manage to let go of it. He wrestled with these imaginings throughout the night and got very little sleep.
Next morning Bertha was ill and could not appear at the breakfast table; Walter did not seem to be particularly worried on her account, and he also parted company with the
knight fairly lackadaisically. Eckbert could not comprehend his conduct; he called on his spouse; she was bedridden with a powerful fever, and she said that this condition could have been brought on only by the strain of telling her story.
After this visit Walther seldom called at his friend’s castle, and even when he did come he would always set off again after uttering a few words of no significance. Eckbert was distressed to the utmost degree by Walther’s conduct; to be sure, he gave no hint of the cause of his pain to Bertha or Walther; but no one could have failed to see that something was making him deeply uneasy.
Bertha’s illness grew more and more alarming; the doctor grew apprehensive; the redness of her cheeks had vanished, and her eyes were growing more and more inflamed. One morning she summoned her husband to her bedside; the maidservants were obliged to withdraw.
“Dear husband,” she began, “I must reveal to you something that has almost unhinged my mind and that is shattering my health, however trifling and insignificant it might appear. You know that whenever I spoke of my childhood I was always unable, despite the most strenuous efforts, to remember the name of the little dog I spent so much time with; now, on taking leave of me the night I told my story, Walther suddenly said to me, 'In my mind’s eye I can clearly picture you feeding your little Strohmian.' Is it a coincidence? Did he happen to guess the correct name, or did he know it already and mention it deliberately? And if so, how is this man’s destiny intertwined with my own? Sometimes I try to force myself to believe that I am only imagining the whole bizarre thing, but it is certain, all too certain: I really did shudder with unspeakable dread at that moment because and only because I was really being introduced to my own memories by a total stranger. What do you make of this, Eckbert?"
Eckbert gazed at his suffering spouse with profound sympathy; he held his tongue while he pondered what to say, then he uttered a few words of consolation and left the room. In a remote chamber of the castle, he paced up and down in indescribable disquietude. For many years Walther had been his only friend, and yet now this same friend was the only person in the world whose existence was a torment and a burden to him. It seemed to him as if he would be happy and carefree if only this single individual could be gotten out of his way. He took up his crossbow and went outside to distract himself with a bit of hunting.
It was a raw and blustery winter day; thick snow blanketed the mountain-tops and weighed down the branches of the trees. He roamed aimlessly about; beads of sweat stood on his forehead; he failed to catch sight of a single deer, and this increased his discontent. Suddenly he saw something moving in the distance; it was Walther, who was gathering moss from the trees; without realizing what he was doing, he took aim at him; Walther turned round and silently shook his fist at him, but by then the arrow was already flying through the air, and Walther fell to the ground.
Eckbert felt light-hearted and becalmed, and yet at the same time a thrill of apprehension impelled him to head back to his fortress; he had a great distance to cover, for he had wandered deep into the forest. When he got home, Bertha was already dead; before she died she had said a great deal more about Walther and the old woman.
Eckbert now lived for a long time in extreme solitude; even before Bertha’s death he had been continuously heavy-hearted on account of the unease occasioned to him by her curious story, and had lived in dread that something terrible would happen; but now his inner tumult divided him even from himself. His murder of his friend unremittingly haunted him; he lived in a state of perpetual self-accusation.
To distract himself, he traveled to the nearest large town, where he attended numerous banquets and assemblies. He longed to fill the void in his soul by making friends with somebody, anybody, but whenever he thought back on Walther he recoiled from the very notion of seeking out a friend, for he was convinced that any friendship he entered into was bound to end in misfortune. He had dwelt with Bertha in such sunny tranquility and delighted in Walther’s friendship for so many years, and now death had deprived him of them both so suddenly that at many moments he felt as though he were living through some strange fairy tale rather than the life of an actual person.
A young knight, Hugo, began tagging along with the silent Eckbert and seemed to feel genuine affection for him. Eckbert was most strangely taken aback by this, for he seemed to have been graced by the knight’s friendship all the more quickly for having not been on the lookout for it. The two of them were now frequently together; the stranger did Eckbert every conceivable kindness; only very seldom now did either man ever go out on horseback unaccompanied by the other; they conversed between themselves at all the assemblies; in short, they seemed inseparable.
Eckbert was only ever cheerful for a few moments at a time, for he distinctly felt that his companion loved him only out of some misapprehension; Hugo did not know him and was unacquainted with his history, and once again Eckbert felt the urge to confide unreservedly in another person, to tell Hugo everything about himself by way of assuring himself that the young man was truly his friend. But this urge was invariably checked by certain scruples and a fear of being reviled and execrated. Sometimes he was so thoroughly convinced of his own worthlessness that he believed that nobody to whom he was not a complete stranger could deem him worthy of respect. But eventually his resistance crumbled; one day when just the two of them were out taking the air on horseback, he told his friend his entire story and then asked him if he was really capable of loving a murderer. Hugo was moved and tried to soothe him; with a lightened heart Eckbert followed him back into town.
But it seemed to be Eckbert’s cursed luck always to form suspicions about people immediately after securing their confidence, for no sooner had Hugo and he entered the assembly hall, than by the light of its many candles, Eckbert descried something that did not please him in the expression on his friend’s face. He fancied he could detect a derisive smile playing about Hugo’s lips; and he noticed that whereas the young man spoke to certain other people in attendance a great deal, he would address him, Eckbert, only occasionally, as if he no longer thought very highly of him. Among those present was a certain elderly knight who had always shown himself to be Eckbert’s adversary and had been in the habit of asking peculiar questions about the whereabouts of his wife and the source of his wealth; tonight Hugo clove close to him, and the two of them conversed furtively about Eckbert, pointing at him every now and then as they talked. Eckbert saw in this scene the confirmation of his suspicions; he believed that he had been betrayed, and a terrible rage took hold of him. While he was staring at Hugo, he suddenly saw Walther’s face; in all its lineaments and all the expressions it assumed, Hugo’s countenance was exactly identical to the familiar one of Eckbert’s dead friend; the longer he stared, the more firmly convinced he became that the old knight’s interlocutor was none other than Walther. His horror was indescribable; in a state of utter distraction, he lunged out of the hall, fled the town while it was still dark, and stumbled along a succession of tortuous side-roads back to his fortress.
Like a restless spirit he raced through chamber after chamber of the castle; the briefest of rational trains of thought was no match for his terror; he plunged ever downwards from one assortment of horrifying visions to another that was yet more horrifying, and all the while sleep eluded his eyes. He often thought that he had gone mad, and that the entire affair was merely a figment of his demented imagination; but then he would recall once again the moment when he had beheld Walther’s features on Hugo’s face, and everything would seem more mysterious to him than ever before. He decided to embark on a journey in the hope of recomposing his disordered imagination; by now he had permanently renounced every thought of friendship and all desire for the company of other people.
He rode about far and wide without pursuing any fixed itinerary; indeed he seldom bothered to take notice even of the lie of the land immediately ahead of him. When he had been traveling at a furious trot for a few days, he suddenly realized that he was lost in a labyrinth of rocks with no discernible way out. At length he encountered an elderly peasant, who indicated to him a path that bypassed a waterfall that stood in his way; he offered him a few coins of trifling denomination by way of thanks, but the man refused to take them. “But never mind that,” said Eckbert to himself, “because once again I could swear I just saw a person who was none other than Walther.” And sure enough, when he turned round and took another look at the peasant, he discovered him to be none other than Walther.
Eckbert spurred his steed to gallop as fast as it possibly could, on and on, through fields and forests, until it finally collapsed underneath him. Unperturbed by this mishap, he continued his journey on foot.
In a daze he presently found himself ascending a hill; he fancied he heard first a kind of high-spirited yapping sound interspersed with the soughing of birch-trees, and then the most hauntingly otherworldly voice singing a song that went like this:
My joy’s by thee renewed;
No woe’s by me rued;
No envy’s here viewed;
My joy’s by thee renewed:
This was altogether too much for Eckbert’s consciousness, his sensorium, to cope with; he could not manage to work out whether he was now dreaming or had himself been dreamt up long ago by a woman named Bertha; the most miraculous phenomena were commingled with the most commonplace; without all was governed by the inscrutable laws of some magic spell, and within he was master of nary a thought nor a memory.
Now a stooped, crookbacked old woman with a walking stick came stalking up the hill. “Have you brought me my bird? My pearls? My dog?” she screamed in his face. “You see how injustice punishes itself. Your friend Walther and your other friend Hugo were both none other than me.”
“Good Lord above!” Eckbert softly exclaimed: “What appalling solitude I have been living in all along!”
“And Bertha was your sister.”
Eckbert fell to the ground.
“Why did she so perfidiously desert me? If she had stayed everything would have ended happily and beautifully; her period of probation was already over. She was the daughter of a knight, your father, who entrusted her upbringing to a shepherd.”
“Why does my discovery of this horrible state of affairs not come quite as a surprise to me?” cried Eckbert.
“Because as a boy you once heard your father talking about it; for his wife’s sake he would not allow this daughter to be raised in his own house, because he had sired her by another woman.”
Eckbert lay on the ground in a mortal delirium; in the torpor and confusion of his final moments he heard the old woman talking, the dog yapping, and the bird launching once again into its song.
Translation ©2014 by Douglas Robertson