Caroline, Baroness de la Motte Fouque’: “The Castle of Scharfenstein”

Excerpt, “GERMAN STORIES:Selected From the Works of Hoffmann, De La Motte Fouque’, Pichler, Kruse, and Others.”By R.P. Gillies, Esq. in three Volumes.Vol. I.London:1826.



 Chapter I

Letter from Julius to Felix

29th January, 17__


o then, it is your opinion that Fortune has at last become reconciled to me, and that, for the future, we are to continue on good terms!On the contrary, this capricious queen-regent, has just now determined on exposing me to one of the severest trials of patience that I have for a long while encountered.You will say, no doubt, that my being stationed here is a mark of the Grand Duke’s favour, a special proof of the confidence he reposes in me, and so forth.However, if his Highness could find no better method of showing his good intentions, than that of forcing me away at my time of life from all the gaieties of the capital, to reside for – Heaven knows how long – in this desolate wilderness, only to watch over his insane brother, this is a step in the ladder of honour, which, for my own part, I should have been very glad to leave out altogether.
You may laugh perhaps at my discontent, but I can assure you, Felix, my present situation is one, which few people, whether old or young, would very calmly encounter.Shut up within these horrid dark walls, I feel as if I could scarcely breathe; even from the first moment that I beheld this ghastly old castle, — the prison of a maniac – I have been depressed in spirits to a degree for which I cannot well account, and such as I had never before experienced.
You know that we had been quartered for some time in the barracks at Marienthal.It was night, therefore, when we arrived in the neighborhood; — both men and horses were a good deal fatigued, and not without grumbling in our hearts, did we plod after our guide, through the trackless forest, while the wind swept lamentably through the heavy branches of the pine trees, that showered down snow and icicles on our heads.The men became at length so tired, that they gave over their catches and glees, by which they had for some time beguiled the way, and nothing was heard, except the rushing wind, and monotonous stamping of the horses; nothing visible, unless when a transient gleam of star-light caught on the burnished helmet of a trooper.
So we laboured on, always uphill, till we arrived at a level glade, where the ground was clear, and we could distinguish the grim old castle, in all its melancholy and loneliness.We were stopt at the outer portal (for the bridge was drawn up) and waited, till there came a grey-headed invalid, coughing and groaning, out of his ruinous wooden lodge.He held a lantern in his hand, and had a short stump of a tobacco-pipe in his mouth; as for his useless weapons, they were only visible, hung on the wall of his smoky cabin.
I produced the Prince’s written order, at sight of which, he pulled off his small skull-cap, such as old men wear under their hats, and in a hoarse croaking voice, gave the word for the bridge being let down, which was accomplished with a vile creaking of the rusty chains and hinges, and we trotted across the main portal, whose heavy wings were laboriously opened by another old man.I saddened at the death-like stillness which reigned around us when we entered the wide castle court.
No mortal appeared, not a step was heard, and the windows were then all dark, while the loud “hollah!” of our own troopers was reverberated from the gloomy walls.At length we perceived some spectral and shadowy-like movements through the windows, and after a tiresome interval, the castellan made his appearance on the great staircase, attended by two servants with lights in their hands.Impatiently I ran up the steps, commanded the astonished old man to show me a chamber suitable to the rank with which I was to be henceforth invested at the castle, and read over to him, as rapidly as possible, the Duke’s orders.
“How then?” cried he, staring at me as we stood on a landing-place, “and all those soldiers are to remain with us?The castle is at once to be so powerfully garrisoned, only for the sake of the poor sick Prince?If any inadvertence on my part has caused this new arrangement…”I would have tried to pacify him on that score, however, he added in a cool tone of confidence, “At all events, through the course of twenty-one years that I have been here, I am not conscious to myself of having committed any very great oversight!”
“Twenty-one years!”My very inmost heart seemed to re-echo the words.Twenty-one years of an abode like this!The thought was overpowering; and, more than ever discontented, I followed the old man, who was a grey-headed, shriveled, and stern-looking wretch, through the long half-dark corridor.There, when he opened the outer door of a suite of apartments that were to be mine, and, with a vile constrained motion of his arm, intimated that I should enter, the notions of an executioner, a prison, a scaffold, and so forth, rose all at once on my mind, so that my blood ran ice-cold in every vein, and I made a sign that this detestable conductor should retire.
I now found myself alone in a spacious chamber, and walked up and down for a long time, wondering at the strange fashion of the now faded, but once costly furniture, till a most suspicious-looking fellow (who is perhaps dumb, for I could not extract from him one syllable) came and lighted the fire in a large open chimney, for there are here no stoves.The castle had been furnished only for a hunting residence, that would be neglected all the rest of the year, after the season of the chase was over…And, yet, to have lived invariably here, like the poor insane Prince, for twenty-one years!There is somewhat like the scorn and mockery of Fate, in this contrast between what was intended, and what has really come to pass!
I had asked for writing implements, and have scribbled all this to you within the last half hour.If I speak aloud, the desolate walls seem to answer to my voice in a strange hollow echo, and I cannot bear to look on them.It is almost frightful to see the red damask hangings with their gilded borders glittering in the fire-light, for even in this I could imagine a kind of ghostly sarcasm.How long may it have been since even a human step was heard, — since a voice sounded or a heart beat, whether gladly or sorrowfully, within these apartments!
Over the doors, and elsewhere, are hung family portraits, and that which fronts me at this moment represents a young man in a hunting-dress, with a cheerful smiling countenance, on which it seems as if worldly care had never imprinted a single trace.His hair is, in the old mode, stiffly frizzled and powdered, and on his head, he wears a little three-cornered hat with a white feather.His coat, too, is cut in the most formal fashion, with turned up yellow lappelles, yet the expression of his countenance gives to the tout-ensemble an air of careless freedom, as with one arm turned back, he points over his shoulder towards the woods in the background, in which probably he has just performed some notable exploit in the boar or stag-hunt.If I am not mistaken this was the present Duke’s father.
Not far from this gay sportsman, over another door, I see the portrait of a lady done in crayons.The colours are of course somewhat faded, yet it is easy to distinguish the fine features of our present old Duchess, taken while she was yet in the bloom of her youth and beauty.She accompanied her husband in all his excursions, and this castle was perhaps the scene of her greatest happiness!In the portrait she is represented as Diana, with a hunting spear in her hand, and a crescent moon fixed on a little green hat, turned up smartly on one side with a band of pearls, which (the hat I mean) hangs archly enough over her left eyebrow.
This fantastic production (doubtless of a French artist), this Diana with her spear and her crescent, — reminds one of the with innocent self-delusions of children, who build fairy palaces of chairs and tables in the nursery, make themselves into kings and queens with spangles and peacocks’ feathers, and dwell there as in some far-famed Eldorado!The looks too of the Duchess are here so childlike and unconcerned;– she loved and was beloved; what more was wanting to her contentment in this world?If it were true that moods of mind are hereditary, how could she have given birth to sons whose dispositions are so dark, and so fearfully opposed to her own!
As to the unfortunate being who is now confined here, there certainly must be some deep mystery in his fate, which has not even been guessed at.You know there was of late a rumor spread about, that, in his lucid intervals, he had made vehement attempts to obtain his liberty, — that he wished to resume his former station in the capital, — and that, to his disordered imagination, nothing less seemed satisfactory, than bringing a legal accusation against the Duke for having kept him in confinement. In all this, however, I can assure you, that there was not one word of truth.In fact, it was a dream, — literally a mere dream, that led to my being sent hither, and this I have learned on the authority of the old physician, Leonardo.
During the night, after a grand masked ball at the house of the Prussian ambassador (who now inhabits the palace that belonged formerly to the insane Prince Charles), the Duke was taken ill.Leonardo, of course, was summoned, and found him under an attack of fever, — very restless, and talking so incoherently, that the old man pretends he could not remember a word of what his Highness had said.Towards morning he was exhausted, and fell into a deep slumber, not awaking till mid-day, when he arose, went to the window, and looked around him with a very strange and perturbed expression.
After seeming to reflect for some time, he made a sign for the physician, who was in the room, to come nearer.“Mark you,” said he, in a tone of irony, “can you resolve this question?Is it certain that dreams are always the result of intemperance or disordered nerves, and that they may not be supernatural warnings of some evil to come?”
The physician hesitated, not knowing whether the Duke alluded to himself, or only started a subject, pour passer le tems?“Last night,” rejoined his Highness, “it is true, that contrary to custom, I supped heartily, not to excess, indeed, but yet without attending to my usual rules.At the same time I drank some glasses of strong Sicilian wine, after which I felt the blood circulating like fire through every vein, and it seemed, for a short interval, as if I had shaken the cumbrous load of years from my shoulders.All appeared to me as in days of yore.But for such moments of renewed youth, one, at my advanced age, must do penance afterwards.
I have had frightful dreams through the night, and methought, all the while, my insane brother Charles held me in his arms firmly embraced.”The Duke turned pale as he pronounced these words, and seemed, with difficulty, to regain self-possession. “Now,” added he, “if any credit is to be given to these fantasms of a heated brain, I should conclude from them, that some misfortune threatened us at the Castle of Scharfenstein.Just before I awoke, methought I was on a shooting excursion in the forest there, and saw a large bird wheeling in circles round its grey weather-beaten towers.
I raised my fowling-piece and took aim, but the distance was too great, and I did not fire.The bird descended, however, and lighted on the river.There I perceived that it was a noble white swan, — but as he coursedgracefully along the stream, methought his track was red with blood, and I felt, at that moment, as if some one plunged a dagger into my heart.”
Absurd as this dialogue with old Leonardo will seem to you, take notice, Felix, that, within two days after this, I received orders to repair to Scharfenstein.I was chosen, forsooth, for this service, because the Duke had before shown me favour, and because he had confidence in my prudence and fidelity.Well, no doubt he has been kind to me!My parents died when I was but a child, and his Highness paid for my education at a military college, and gave me afterwards a commission in his body guard.Such, it must be allowed, is the truth; but then, my father had been a faithful servant to this Duke’s father, and, for the most part, I have looked on the kindness shown to me but as a payment of a just debt, and scarcely thought that it demanded from me any very deep sense of gratitude; for probably I could have acquired for myself a livelihood in the world without his interference.
Heaven knows how it happens that I have never felt any special attachment to our Sovereign, and least of all, here.His conduct throughout is very strange; and many times there are suspicions that irresistibly force themselves on my mind, of some concealed guilt, of which the world has never dreamed.
The night is now very quiet, and the moon has risen.I had gone to the window, from whence is visible the river, just under the terrace, winding its way through the rocky cliffs, and gleaming in the silvery light.I could not help remembering the Duke’s vision, and imagining to myself the white swan bleeding as he sailed through the water.But who in the world can it be that here plays that flute?For a long time already I have been watching the protracted melancholy notes that come from an opposite wing of the building.How, if it were the madman?
The windows on that side are all firmly secured with iron-work; but they are dark too, as if no one were living there.If I have judged correctly, the tones are not steady in one place; they seem to advance and recede.Methinks I see a lonely exile moving slowly to and fro in his chamber, while that favourite instrument supplies an echo to his grief, and he breathes through it all those expressions of suffering and painful remembrance in which no one is allowed to share and sympathize.Unhappy prisoner!How the thoughts of your being so near oppress and affect me!
30th January
I have now seen him; but it is impossible, Felix, to describe to you adequately, the impression made on me by his looks.My heart still beats quick when I think of him.It was midday, and the guards fell to be relieved in the inner court.I was stationed at a window looking down upon them, when suddenly there opened on the opposite side of the quadrangle, a folding door, with glass panels, that leads into a balcony.The Prince soon came forward, and took his station, leaning on the front of the iron balustrade.Involuntarily I started and trembled at this apparition.
Tall, dignified in demeanour, very pale, yet, with an aspect quite tranquil and rational, he regarded the unusual appearance of the soldiers.A smile, more of surprise than bitterness, stole over his features.He seemed comparing his recollections of the past with what now took place before him.It was as if he said to himself, “So then, such is the way of the world now-a-days!”
Gradually his features became more animated, and he seemed to take more interest in what was going forward.He wears still the uniform of his old cavalry regiment; a head-piece with a plume of feathers, military gloves, and field-officer’s boots; the left hand rested on his sword-hilt, and the right was pressed on his bosom, as if aided to support his frame, now thin and emaciated.On his appearance, the guard immediately grounded arms; but, with a courteous gesture, he intimated that he could dispense with this homage, and at that moment looked, indeed, like a king.
He stood for a while as if he were considering the uniform, the discipline and duty of the little troop, — then he raised his very beautiful eyes, and, with an expression of soul, which one must have beheld in order to appreciate, his regards were directed to the steep rocks of the fortress, and then away to the distant country, through which he never more might wander.– I shall never forget that gaze.Was this, perhaps, one of his lucid intervals?For, in truth, there was not once in his countenance the slightest trace of insanity.
In the course of this morning, I endeavoured to obtain a personal interview with the Prince, though, indeed, this formed no part of my commission; however, the castellan assured me that he never saw any one, and that, if a stranger offered him a visit, it was always rejected with indignation and vehemence.But he may have his own reasons for this.By whom have such visits been offered?To myself, however, it is of little consequence, for it is not impossible that within a month my services may be at an end; the Duke by that time may have forgotten his dream, and supplied its place with some new fancy, in which case, every thing here will be restored to the old footing.
How frightful!Have you ever fully considered the dark, deep, and maddening impression which is made on the heart of a prisoner, by the notion that his fate is utterly unchangeable, — that he is shut out from the pleasant walks of life forever?— The very idea of this is to me so overpowering, that I cannot dwell on the subject; indeed, I am very unfit for my station here.A wild lonely country proves by no means salutary to one of my disposition; for many strange and wayward feelings, which were repressed and kept under subjection, when I mixed with the busy world, are now roused to an undue strength, when aided by the gloomy influences of external nature. –
The gay imagery of real life is thrown into the back ground, and the dim dark phantoms of the mind are too powerfully developed.Among other thoughts, it recurs to me, that, even in my gayest moods, I have never been perfectly content or happy.Do not mistake me, Felix – I have not forgotten the many hours of merriment and careless dissipation that we have passed together, — but then, those were but fleeting intervals.Consistent happiness depends on domestic felicity in a family circle, and this I have never known.
I was only four or five years old when it happened that my attendants dressed me out in a full suit of black, and in a lamentable tone, I was given to understand that my father was dead, — that he had fallen in the field of battle.I wept as I saw others do, though without rightly knowing wherefore, for as to my father, I only recollected his having spoken to me once, when he was returning from parade on horseback, and his saying, “Mark you, Julius, so you will ride the great horse one day, when you grow taller.”Such was the meaning of his words, but what he then addressed to me was an absurd rhyme, that nurses use, when they rock a boisterous child on the knee.
Of course I thought of nothing afterwards but riding the great horse, as gentlemen’s sons should ride; but after my father’s death, my situation became sadly changed.One evening, my mother, who was a pale-visaged invalid, took me on her lap, and after we had sat for some time in silence, she pressed me to her heart, and in a tone of deepest affection, exclaimed, “Poor unfortunate child, what will now become of you?”These words, which I have never since forgotten, affected me even at that time, so that I burst into tears; it seemed as if there were in my mind dark anticipation of the hard fate that awaited me, and I was carried, still crying, to bed.
Not long after, we journeyed from our town residence to a remote village among the mountains, — where the country was very beautiful – and we took up our abode in the clergyman’s house.At such an early age, one soon becomes accustomed to any change in circumstances.I played with his children, and rambled about very contentedly, while my mother had gone back to the capital, in order to take the situation offered to her of gouvernante to the young Princess, with whom she went into Italy, where, after a few years, she died.
The pleasure which I had taken at first in my childish plays, was soon embittered by the scanty food, and other discomforts of the family with whom I was boarded.Scarcely separated from the servants of the household, I was doomed to hear their rough language and noisy disputes every hour of the day; while their talk was of swine, geese, sheep, and oxen – but never, by any chance, of fine horses or young gentlemen learning to ride.In the very house itself, there was established a large crib for poultry, and we children were called on to assist in much menial drudgery, in which I acquitted myself so ill, that I was often heartily scolded.As to good clothes and fine linen, to which I was also partial, as well as to horses, I was never allowed to wear them.
The clergyman’s wife, if I complained on that score, used to answer tartly, that for the trifling pension which I paid, it was not in her power to afford those luxuries.The kind-hearted old preacher used at such times to pat me on the cheek, and gave me in secret some bits of his sugar which had been allowed him for his own morning coffee, telling me to be good and patient.He himself bore his cross in silence.Yet I could not help becoming every day more fretful and discontented, not being able to understand why I was to remain so very long in that small and ill-appointed house.
One evening, I was sitting on the threshold, cutting a large tube of elder tree, which I laboured to fashion into a post-boy’s horn, endeavouring to make it sound like a bugle which I had heard just before in the forest, where some travelers were passing by.Heaven knows what mysterious longing that signal had awoke in my heart!About an hour afterwards, there came a lady in a very plain dress, like that of a citizen’s wife or daughter, — with a covered basket on her arm, who entered by the court gateway, and directly made up to me.
Milord, the large mastiff dog who was chained in the court, rushed out in great wrath from his wooden camp, and snapped at her dress; however, I started forward between them, – struck Milord heartily with my bugle horn of elder-tree, and expecting that the lady must have something very fine in her basket, I was eager to lead her into the house.She looked at me for a few moments without saying a word, and, perceiving that she trembled, I believed that she was still afraid of the mastiff – I took her hand therefore, and brought her into the parlour, in which we found the old clergyman, while, in order to offer some apology for her coming, she had drawn the cover from her basket, in which there was a great collection of Nürnberg toys, men on horseback, coaches and horses, guns, swords, and beasts of all shapes and sizes.
Of course, all the children who had now burst into the room, gathered round her in admiration; but the clergyman’s wife soon put an end to their hopes.“Nothing – nothing, good woman, we have no need for such things here.”With these words she spread out both her broad hands over the basket, that we might no longer be tempted by the sight of treasures which we were not to possess.At this, the strange lady smiled a little, and in a soft and genteel tone of voice, to which I had been here but little accustomed, she said, “Nay, nay, – but my goods are very cheap; allow every one of the young people to take something from my stores.
I shall not demand any money, but only a cast-off piece of dress from the youngest who is here present, for he is just about the same age with my own boy.If I might beg also a lock of his hair, it would be better still, for he reminds me so of one whom I shall not see for a long while again, and he has been so kind in protecting me from your great watch-dog!”All hands had already been plunged into the basket, and, much against her own inclinations, the old lady was forced to go to the wardrobe, and bring into the room the worst and most useless of my worn-out dresses.
By that time, I stood triumphant with a blue painted saber, and a bronze-coloured fowling piece.The stranger looked at me for a while, seeming to rejoice in my feelings, then she took the clothes and ringlet of hair that were now offered in return for her goods, examined them, folded them up, and took them down again as if unwilling to depart; — at last, turning to me, stroked my forehead to part my wild straggling locks, said, in a voice scarcely audible, “God be with you dearest child,” and abruptly retiring, she disappeared.
I remember well that through that whole evening, I sat retired in a corner with my newly purchased toys, — in a very perplexed mood; I knew not whether to laugh or weep, but felt a confused impression, that I was now quite forsaken and alone in the world.It was the sword perhaps that made me think of former days, and awoke manifold associations which I was altogether unable to arrange or interpret.
This had happened on a Saturday evening, and next day, the family and all the servants were at church.My playmates were roving about in the fields, and I was left sitting on a stone under a lime tree, at some distance from the village.I happened to be gazing intently in that direction, when I saw the stranger lady that had given us the toys come out of an inn, and walk for some time along the high road, till at last, on perceiving me, she turned from it, and came up to the place where I was stationed.“So, Julius,” said she in a low timid voice, “I have found you alone! – Yesterday, O could not thank you, my dearest child, for your kindness to me, but, in token of my gratitude, I must beg that you accept this small remembrance.”
She now gave me a beautiful book, in a red binding, with a gold claps fashioned into the shape of two hands joined together, with an engraved motto, “Trust in God.”On touching a spring, the volume flew open, and I found that it contained a great number of separate blank leaves, of the finest French paper, all embossed, and with some religious or moral maxim inscribed on each.“Look you, Julius,” said she, “these leaves are intended for a journal, and there are just as many of them as there are days in the year.You can supply their places, however, with others, to fit the volume, in case any of these should be lost or written out.
Above all, do not forget the maxims; — read one of them as a lesson every morning, and ask yourself at night whether you have remembered and fulfilled through the day the admonition contained therein.Then, under the original inscription, add, in your own hand, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – or any other remark which your own conscience may dictate.In order to act up to our duties in the world, it is necessary that one should use some method of this kind – that we should have some outward as well as inward monitor.Do not neglect, Julius, to take such precautions now when you are young; thus in early life, you will rend self-examination a regular habit, instead of having to acquire it afterwards by laborious effort.Wilt thou do this my dear child?”
Every word of her address was uttered in tones of the most heartfelt affection.She seated herself beside me on the grass, and took me in her arms; I wept, and was confounded by that kindness, such as I had never experienced since my mother’s departure.Suddenly and abruptly she let me go, and in the next moment had disappeared in the neighbouring wood.I was terrified; I started up and ran after her; but, notwithstanding all my endeavours, my cries and lamentations, she was absolutely gone.I threw myself on the ground in an agony of grief; and, not long after, when I heard the notes of a bugle again sounding from the woods, till they died away into the blue realms of distance, my agitation increased almost to distraction.
Time, that blunts all feelings, at length weakened the impression even of this adventure.Yet, though weakened, it could not be effaced.Amid the cold and heartless goings-on of the world, it was then only that I had felt as if there were some one could take a real interest in my fate, — who looked on me with affection, and sympathized in my distresses.– It was more from instinctive feeling than from reflection, that I was afterwards induced to keep a strict silence as to what has passed.The book which I had received from the lady was placed every night on my pillow, and by day it carried it in my bosom.
It was my companion, too, at the military school to which the Duke’s recollection of my father’s services soon afterwards induced him to send me.Oftentimes, indeed, I forgot to consult the leaves at the hours appointed; but frequently, too, a single glance at them completely roused my faculties, when indolence was ready to steal upon me; and the natural obstinacy of my heart was softened when I read over some of the moral rhymes, which I could never do without remembering the gentle and musical tones of the Unknown, which inseparably blended with the words.No doubt, I might have neglected all my studies, and given myself up to dissipation, had it not been that Providence had supplied me with this means of self-warning and guidance.
Now, in this wilderness, where I find another heart as lonely and suffering as mine has been, and where, as I have already said, the gloomy influences of external nature break the habits that social life had induced, all my old feelings of perplexity and harassing reflections are awoke.Uncalled and unsought for emotions crowd upon my mind; some, indeed, welcome and pleasant, but many that bring along with them bitterness and discontent.Indeed, one is in solitude too much occupied with himself, and yet it is only by means of this intermediate conflicts, that he can again obtain tranquility and a better mood of mind.
To be continued…