Caroline, Baroness de la Motte Fouque’: “The Castle of Scharfenstein” 2
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.
THE CASTLE OF SCHARFENSTEIN
Julius to Felix
6th February 17__
He is not mad; or if he is so, then I too have lost my senses amid the gloom of these pine-tree forests.But you must hear, in the first place, what happened today.
We had one of those mild evenings that sometimes occur in the month of February, and which irresistibly entice us abroad by the pleasant promise and anticipation of approaching spring.I went down to walk on the terrace.The river murmured so soothingly in its ceaseless course! Great flocks of water birds were wheeling over the forest marshes; and the air was filled with humming insects.
Thus it seemed that Nature was unobserved and gradually preparing for her triumph over winter, and her approaching days of jubilee.I would have gladly taken a ramble out among the mountains; but, for reasons inscrutable, I felt as if spell-bound within the castle walls; and I cannot bring myself to hunt or shoot. Every such enjoyment of freedom seems like a cruel mockery of the unhappy prisoner.Therefore, I am contented for the present to walk up and down in the allee of trees on the outer rampart.Here, dark-green ivy in clustering thickets overspreads the castle walls and forms a complete mantling over a small chapel, whose lofty round cupola and shining cross, that still caught the twilight, seemed as if floating in the air and detached from the darkness.
I was quickly contemplating this building, when behold!The prince all of a sudden made his appearance on the terrace, attended by the castellan and two valets.He was visibly struck by my presence, and greeted me at first with an air of coldness and hauteur.This was but the effect of transient indignation against the mere passive instrument of tyranny; in another moment his wonted courtesy and bienveillance returned.
As if to make amends for his first coldness, he drew near to me, and, in a manner equally affable and polite, he said, “How sincerely do I regret, on your account, the melancholy retirement to which you are here condemned!Your time of life seems indeed ill adapted to such duty, — for one who still has claims on what is called the world, must have absolutely despair.”
“Prince,” answered I, “how narrow-minded and contemptible I must be, if, in this place, I could for a moment think of myself alone!”
During this discourse, we had begun to walk together on the terrace.The sky was now bright with stars and by their light the Prince seemed to be attentively scanning my figure and features.Was it the effect of my deep inwardemotion reflected in my countenance that interested him, or was he struck merely by the appearance of one who was at least so different from the gaoler to whom, for twenty-one years, he had been accustomed?However this might be, I could perceive, by a gleam of lingering twilight that came on his features as we turned a corner of the rampart, that his lips quivered, when, rather abruptly, he put the question. “Young soldier, what is your Christian name?”
I repeated it twice before he made any answer.“A son of the General?” said he.“But that cannot be; he had no children.How old are you?”I said that in a few months I should be twenty-one.“Aye, so,” answered he.“That indeed is possible, and Julius is your name?Julius … yes … I heard correctly.”Here a long pause occurred, and I was too much perplexed to speak, fearing that I might excite some attack of his malady.But he resumed in a quiet mournful tone.
“It is, perhaps, some confirmation of the soul’s divine origin, that Time, which destroys all things, has, as it were, no power over itself . I scarcely know what to say. But there are moments of recollection so vivid, that the gulf of years, which should lie betwixt us and our former existence, seems annihilated; as, for example, your presence has carried me back so completely into the sphere of old circumstances and connections, that every impression of that period is renewed as fresh and vividly, as if the events had happened but yesterday.I was well acquainted with your family, therefore you must forgive my questions.To young men, however, such details and retrospects are often very tiresome, and I must now bid you good night.”
With these words he turned, and was on the point of disappearing as suddenly as he had come, when, quite overpowered by the kind condescension of his manner and the plaintive tones of his voice, I stept up to him. “May it please your Highness not to think more unfavourably of me than I deserve. My time and attention are here wholly at your disposal.Through the few days that I have spent here, my only wish has been to prove to you how little my own feelings and inclination are in unison with the painful task that has here devolved on me.I begged that I might be permitted the honour of a personal interview, but was answered that your Highness never saw any visitors.”
The Prince here smiled bitterly.“No doubt, young man,” said he, “they have told you more than this.But enough for the present.It is needless to waste time on these circumstances which are now unchangeable.Good night … Julius.”He wished to have pronounced my name … but his voice faltered; he could not utter another syllable, and, with hurried steps, retired into the castle.
About an hour has passed since that interview, and I now hear him again playing the flute.Always the same deep melancholy, and longing notes!But how gentle and harmonious are the modulations!How rounded and correct are the pauses in his composition?For these notes are wholly his own, and, by Heaven, Felix, such music cannot be the result of madness!Though, indeed, it may be the natural effort at lamentation of a broken heart.What could he mean, however, by that excessive emotion, when he repeated the name of Julius?Was he at that moment under some delusion of his malady, which any external circumstance was sufficient to develop and exasperate?
Well, I must see him tomorrow again.I cannot bear this uncertainty, and not only the painful suspense under which I suffer, but the respect and attachment which I feel towards him render it indispensable that I should have another interview.
That accursed castellan!He never left us for a single moment; or, if he went, his place was supplied by one of those tall cut-throat-looking spies, dressed out in orange livery, who pretend to act as servants.Is this because the old fox wishes to hold the reins of power in his own clutches, or, out of sheer malevolence, he is resolved that the unhappy captive shall be debarred that slight consolation which he might derive from my presence and sympathy?However this may be, I shall not endure any continuance of double gaolership.Either he must be set aside, or I shall contrive my own dismissal from the castle.
By this commencement, Felix, you perceive that I have again been with the Prince.He received me in a handsome cheerful apartment, with windows looking out on the river.The walls are furnished with tall cases, having glass doors through which are visible many books; also guns, swords, pistols, and all sorts of accoutrements for the chase.In one of the windows is placed a spacious cage for singing birds divided into compartments; and shadowed over with exotic plants.In another, I saw a large grey parrot swinging about on his golden ring, who stretched his neck and turned his head expressively as he wondered at my presence.
The prince was reclining on a green moreen sofa. At his feet lay a roe-coloured greyhound.Before him stood a massive writing table on which was a confused heap of books and papers, a star and a ribbon, some withered flowers; but one object attracted my attention more than all the rest.This was a black mask – a kind of half vizor, such as ladies wear at a carnival assembly.And I looked at it – I know not why – with a kind of horror.
The Prince rose from the sofa, and came forward a few steps to meet me.“You perceive,” said he, “that my abode here is by no means so dull and melancholy as you might have supposed.In this room, I have collected round me all those objects which are likely to revive my best associations.If, by the tyranny of circumstances, one is shut out from the crowded walks of life.Yet the kingdom of the mind remains as free to him as ever.”He took his place again at the table, and made a sign that I should draw in a chair near him.
The fine old greyhound wakened up at my approach from his deep winter sleep, looked at me attentively for a while, then turned round to lick the hand which his master held out to him, as if he could say, “It is you alone that I know and confide in.”He composed himself as before for slumber, and the Prince said, almost in a faltering voice, “Sultan is an old faithful friend, and should he die before me, I should miss him sadly!”
At that moment, the parrot, having already uttered several inarticulate screams, pronounced in a clear intelligible voice, the words, “Pardon … oh pardon!”and, directly afterwards, “Farewell … farewell!”
“There,” said his Highness, “you now hear the only language to which I am accustomed, and it may sound strange enough in your ears.It is a real and impressive language, however, and thus it is that Nature, in a thousand different ways if we but make her our confidante, supplies the balm of sympathy, or diversion of thought in our affliction.
All this while my heart beat with such unwonted and unaccountable anxiety that I should certainly have exposed myself to the remarks of the castellan, had not the Prince, perceiving my disquietude, and, perhaps, agitated himself by painful impressions, turned the discourse by a determined effort to subjects ordinary and indifferent.He inquired if the horse which I had brought with me was a favourite – whether I was a lover of field sports, and why I had not taken advantage of the fine opportunity for shooting excursions which the woods round Scharfenstein afforded?
I followed his lead for some minutes, and answered his questions very calmly.However, he directed my attention to the book-cases, from which he took down a rare and curious fowling-piece which had belonged to his father, describing the grand hunting parties which had in former days been held at this castle, and the notable exploits that had been performed in the chase.The contrast between the diversions of which he spoke, and his own forlorn state, was to my feelings quite overpowering.I forgot all regular form of parlance, and exclaimed, “Good Heaven!Such was the mode of life once led here, and you are now…”
“Hush!”said he, with a warning look at the castellan, who just then presented his detestable visage at the door.“My brother,” added he, in a continued whisper,” has, no doubt, been much mistaken when he made choice of you for a confidant.You are, indeed, the most unfit person that could have been selected for his purposes.Be therefore on your guard, for your rash zeal might soon lead to your own destruction.”
I was confused, and ashamed of my inconsiderate conduct.He had now placed himself at a window, stood for a while with his arms folded, and then said, “Perhaps there is no one situated in the busy world whose life has afforded more varied sensations than I have experienced in this deep solitude.
There is no storm and conflict of passion that I have not encountered, and at last I have triumphed; for the bitterest hatred, and deepest sense of injury have declined into mild emotions of compassion and forgiveness.Now, then, my worthy young friend, you may be assured, that, even were it in my power, I would not willingly leave the secluded scene, where this existence, so monotonous in appearance, but so varied in reality, has been protracted for twenty long years.To me the world, with all its inhabitants and pleasures, is now dead – even as if I had never shared in its delusions.”
I have never, in the course of my life, felt so much respect and attachment towards any individual as for the Prince at that moment.I know not why this should be, but I could almost have thrown myself at his feet.Oftentimes he, too, seemed to be contending with his own recollections, and fixed his eyes on me with an expression of deep melancholy, so that methought they were even filled with tears.Is he determined never to trust any one with the secret history of his misfortune … or is it that he dare not speak?– Well, I shall not rest till I have tried every possible means of dispersing this cloud of mystery.I could not return to my former station in the capital with that weight which I now feel on my spirits.
This morning he has used some expressions to which I listened with horror!Would that it were possible for him to recall them!The prepossessions that I had cherished are now frightfully deranged, and my inward conflicts are worse than ever.Felix, he accused himself today as the greatest of criminals, adding, that he was thankful to Heaven for the mercy shown to him, inasmuch as he might thus be permitted to await in solitude and peace the natural end of his life!What crime, then, can possibly weigh upon his spirit, which is now evidently so pure and so blameless?Let the truth be what it may, even the transient allusion to these circumstances must have distressed him much; for he is at present very ill, and today I could not see him.
Indeed I have also become, for the first time in my life, an invalid, or, as you will say, un malade imaginaire.The atmosphere of this prison still oppresses me; and I shall for once take a long ride into the woods – and so, perhaps, my spirits will recover their wonted tone.Yet, after all, how is that possible?Who can even breathe freely in this abode of inscrutable mysteries, dark passions, and conflicting emotions?
If he, in truth, is a criminal, with those eyes so full of benign intelligence and affection … with that mildness and tone and demeanor as if he were at peace with all the world … who is then to be trusted?
I rode out as I intended, and have been, Heaven knows where!There are numberless roads through the forest, and I followed at haphazard the first that offered; but seems it not Felix, as if it were fortune’s especial pleasure and determination always to throw difficulties and riddles in my way, so that I can never get free from the nets by which I am entangled?
I had wandered about for some time without consideration whither I was going – I thought only of riding on chance through the lonely forest; till, having passed a high rocky eminence, I saw rising out of the fir woods a second old castle – another hunting seat, of whose existence I had never before heard, and indeed, it seemed to be almost in ruins.I determined to examine this mansion more narrowly; spurred my horse, rode up, and came in due time to an iron gateway.“Is it possible that any one lives here,” thought I, “or is the old building neglected and desolate in this frightful forest?”
I halted, of course, and, for a long time, remained gazing at the coat of arms that was carved in stone over the portal. When, to my surprise, the door of the inner keep was opened.I saw a lady descending the staircase.A boy was with her, and she had her hand on his shoulder, so that I perceived at once she was blind!She stood for some time in the doorway, as if to enjoy the mild noonday air, and I had time to watch her with attention.She was evidently no longer young; but her figure was still fine and graceful.I could not at first see her features as her head was bent forward, and shadowed by a large English straw hat.
Probably the child had informed her of my presence; for at last she turned her head towards me; seemed at the same time to ask him questions, and I doubted not that he was describing to her my appearance.Her large eyes were now visible; but there was no lustre; she could not behold me, and this look of anxious search, that could find no object, touched me to the heart.Now, Felix, was it merely that innate compassion and natural sympathy which one human being feels for another in distress, by which I was agitated … or what it an absurd wandering of imagination?I know not why my feelings that for many years have been more allied to careless levity, than to any deeper impressions, should now be at every moment so easily excited.
But I could not help believing that the features of this lady were well known to me.That it was the same incognito from whom I had received the book of moral maxims, and whose recollected voice yet sounds like sweet music to my ears.I strove against those ideas, believing that all was but delusion; till a faint smile came over her countenance – a smile that has often appeared to me in dreams, and could never be mistaken.My heart heaved, and I felt inspired by new and irresistible emotions.It was fortunate, perhaps, that the lady now returned into the castle, and the gate was closed after her, for in the end all has turned out but a fiction of my own brain.
Soon afterwards, a young chasseur came riding up, and I asked him if he knew who lived in that desolate ruin?He answered rather boorishly, as if sneering at my question.“Aye, forsooth, it is inhabited by a blind English lady, who likes to nestle with the bats and owls in old moldering walls.She has been there now for a long time, and it is said that she was not always blind; and that she thinks living among the green woods will perhaps restore her eyesight.
She is now quite used to the place, and will probably never leave it.What seems odd enough, is that, during the day, she never comes beyond the gate; but at night, even in all weathers, through the rain and snow storm, a little boy that stays with her must lead her out to yon high cliff near Scharfenstein, where she sits for hours together and listens to the mad prince that plays on the flute.”
An English lady!It is very strange.The recollection steals over me sometimes I used to see my mother reading letters, and weeping bitterly; then, if I inquired why she was so sad, she used to answer.“Your dear unhappy aunt in England has written to us again.”I knew not and know not yet the real history of this relation; but now, as in a dream, the thoughts of England, and the unfortunate aunt, collects like a melancholy cloud before the mind’s eye; and out of this cloud steps forward the tragical figure of the lady at the castle, altogether forming a most mysterious union of intricate associations.
But then, Felix, is not your heart also moved, when you reflect how the mournful notes of the midnight flute-player touch responsive chords in her bosom, who is thus by darkness shut out from the world?Can you feel how the two prisoners are attracted to each other in sad sympathy?“Even in all weathers, through the rain and snow storms,” said the unreflecting chasseur, who, of course, could never have understood how one could take as much trouble for the sake of listening to music, as he would do in order to capture a stag or wild boar.
Methinks I see her, as he described, at her station on the rocks.Oh how anxiously she watches every cadence, and accompanies every note with the deepest throbbings of her own heart!The Prince never fails to take his flute at the same hour.Who knows what unexplained intercourse of soul, what a bond of mutual aid and consolation may thus have been established betwixt her and the unfortunate Charles.”
To be continued…