How does Ludwig Tieck’s “The Fair-Haired Eckbert” destabilize meaning (what we know and how we know)?
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The Fair-Haired Eckbert
By Johann Ludwig Tieck (1773–1853)
Translation of Thomas Carlyle
IN a district of the Harz dwelt a knight, whose common designation in that quarter was the Fair-haired Eckbert. He was about forty years of age, scarcely of middle stature; and short, light-colored locks lay close and sleek round his pale and sunken countenance. He led a retired life, had never interfered in the feuds of his neighbors; indeed, beyond the outer wall of his castle he was seldom to be seen. His wife loved solitude as much as he; both seemed heartily attached to one another; only now and then they would lament that Heaven had not blessed their marriage with children.
Few came to visit Eckbert; and when guests did happen to be with him, their presence made but little alteration in his customary way of life: Temperance abode in his household, and Frugality herself appeared to be the mistress of the entertainment. On these occasions, Eckbert was always cheerful and lively; but when he was alone, you might observe in him a certain mild reserve—a still, retiring melancholy.
His most frequent guest was Philip Walther; a man to whom he had attached himself, from having found in him a way of thinking like his own. Walther’s residence was in Franconia; but he would often stay for half a year in Eckbert’s neighborhood, gathering plants and minerals and then sorting and arranging them. He lived on a small independency, and was connected with no one. Eckbert frequently attended him in his sequestered walks; year after year, a closer friendship grew betwixt them….
It was late in the autumn, when Eckbert, one cloudy evening, was sitting with his friend and his wife Bertha, by the parlor fire. The flame cast a red glimmer through the room, and sported on the ceiling; the night looked sullenly in through the windows, and the trees without rustled in wet coldness. Walther complained of the long road he had to travel; and Eckbert proposed to him to stay where he was, to while away half of the night in friendly talk, and then to take a bed in the house till morning. Walther agreed, and the whole was speedily arranged; by-and-by wine and supper were brought in; fresh wood was laid upon the fire; the talk grew livelier and more confidential.
The cloth being removed, and the servants gone, Eckbert took his friend’s hand, and said to him: “Now you must let my wife tell you the history of her youth; it is curious enough, and you should know it.”—“With all my heart,” said Walther; and the party again drew round the hearth.
It was now midnight; the moon looked fitfully through the breaks of the driving clouds. “You must not reckon me a babbler,” began the lady. “My husband says you have so generous a mind that it is not right in us to hide aught from you. Only do not take my narrative for a fable, however strangely it may sound.
“I was born in a little village; my father was a poor herdsman. Our circumstances were not of the best: often we knew not where to find our daily bread. But what grieved me more than this were the quarrels which my father and mother often had about their poverty, and the bitter reproaches they cast on one another. Of myself too I heard nothing said but ill: they were forever telling me I was a silly, stupid child, that I could not do the simplest turn of work; and in truth I was extremely inexpert and helpless: I let things fall, I neither learned to sew nor spin, I could be of no use to my parents; only their straits I understood too well. Often I would sit in a corner and fill my little heart with dreams how I would help them if I should all at once grow rich; how I would overflow them with silver and gold, and feast myself on their amazement; and then spirits came hovering up, and showed me buried treasures, or gave me little pebbles which changed into precious stones. In short, the strangest fancies occupied me; and when I had to rise and help with anything, my inexpertness was still greater, as my head was giddy with these motley visions.
“My father in particular was always very cross to me: he scolded me for being such a burden to the house; indeed he often used me rather cruelly, and it was very seldom that I got a friendly word from him. In this way I had struggled on to near the end of my eighth year; and now it was seriously fixed that I should begin to do or learn something. My father still maintained that it was nothing but caprice in me, or a lazy wish to pass my days in idleness; accordingly he set upon me with furious threats, and as these made no improvement, he one day gave me a most cruel chastisement, and added that the same should be repeated day after day, since I was nothing but a useless sluggard.
“That whole night I wept abundantly: I felt myself so utterly forsaken; I had such a sympathy with myself that I even longed to die. I dreaded the break of day; I knew not on earth what I was to do or try. I wished from my very heart to be clever, and could not understand how I should be worse than the other children of the place. I was on the border of despair.
“At the dawn of day I rose, and scarcely knowing what I did, unfastened the door of our little hut. I stept upon the open field; next minute I was in a wood, where the light of the morning had yet hardly penetrated. I ran along, not looking round; for I felt no fatigue, and I still thought my father would catch me, and in his anger at my flight, would beat me worse than ever.
“I had reached the other side of the forest, and the sun was risen a considerable way; I saw something dim lying before me, and a thick fog resting over it. Ere long my path began to mount, as one time I was climbing hills, at another wending among rocks; and I now guessed that I must be among the neighboring mountains,—a thought that made me shudder in my loneliness. For, living in the plain country, I had never seen a hill; and the very word mountains, when I heard talk of them, had been a sound of terror to my young ear. I had not the heart to go back,—my fear itself drove me on; often I looked round affrighted when the breezes rustled over me among the trees, or the stroke of some distant woodman sounded far through the still morning. And when I began to meet with charcoal-men and miners, and heard their foreign way of speech, I had nearly fainted for terror.
“I passed through several villages: begging now and then, for I felt hungry and thirsty; and fashioning my answers as I best could when questions were put to me. In this manner I had wandered on some four days, when I came upon a little footpath, which led me farther and farther from the highway. The rocks about me now assumed a different and far stranger form. They were cliffs so piled on one another that it looked as if the first gust of wind would hurl them all this way and that. I knew not whether to go on or stop. Till now I had slept by night in the woods,—for it was the finest season of the year,—or in some remote shepherd’s hut; but here I saw no human dwelling at all, and could not hope to find one in this wilderness. The crags grew more and more frightful; I had many a time to glide along by the very edge of dreadful abysses; by degrees my footpath became fainter, and at last all traces of it vanished from beneath me. I was utterly comfortless: I wept and screamed; and my voice came echoing back from the rocky valleys with a sound that terrified me. The night now came on, and I sought out a mossy nook to lie down in. I could not sleep: in the darkness I heard the strangest noises; sometimes I took them to proceed from wild beasts, sometimes from wind moaning through the rocks, sometimes from unknown birds. I prayed; and did not sleep till towards morning.
“When the light came upon my face I awoke. Before me was a steep rock; I clomb up, in the hope of discovering some outlet from the waste, perhaps of seeing houses or men. But when I reached the top there was nothing still, as far as my eye could reach, but a wilderness of crags and precipices: all was covered with a dim haze; the day was gray and troubled, and no tree, no meadow, not even a bush could I find,—only a few shrubs shooting up stunted and solitary in the narrow clefts of the rocks. I cannot utter what a longing I felt but to see one human creature, any living mortal, even though I had been afraid of hurt from him. At the same time I was tortured by a gnawing hunger; I sat down, and made up my mind to die. After a while, however, the desire of living gained the mastery; I roused myself, and wandered forward amid tears and broken sobs all day: in the end I hardly knew what I was doing; I was tired and spent, I scarcely wished to live, and yet I feared to die.
“Towards night the country seemed to grow a little kindlier; my thoughts, my desires revived, the wish for life awoke in all my veins. I thought I heard the rushing of a mill afar off; I redoubled my steps; and how glad, how light of heart was I, when at last I actually gained the limits of the barren rocks, and saw woods and meadows lying before me, with soft green hills in the distance! I felt as if I had stept out of a hell into a paradise; my loneliness and helplessness no longer frightened me.
“Instead of the hoped-for mill, I came upon a waterfall, which in truth considerably damped my joy. I was lifting a drink from it in the hollow of my hand, when all at once I thought I heard a slight cough some little way from me. Never in my life was I so joyfully surprised as at this moment; I went near, and at the border of the wood I saw an old woman sitting resting on the ground. She was dressed almost wholly in black; a black hood covered her head, and the greater part of her face; and in her hand she held a crutch.
“I came up to her and begged for help; she made me sit by her, and gave me bread and a little wine. While I ate, she sang in a screeching tone some kind of spiritual song. When she had done, she told me I might follow her.
“The offer charmed me, strange as the old woman’s voice and look appeared. With her crutch she limped away pretty fast, and at every step she twisted her face so oddly that at first I was like to laugh. The wild rocks retired behind us more and more; I never shall forget the aspect and the feeling of that evening. All things were as molten into the softest golden red; the trees were standing with their tops in the glow of the sunset; on the fields lay a mild brightness; the woods and the leaves of the trees were standing motionless; the pure sky looked out like an opened paradise; and the gushing of the brooks, and from time to time the rustling of the trees, resounded through the serene stillness as in pensive joy. My young soul was here first taken with a forethought of the world and its vicissitudes. I forgot myself and my conductress: my spirit and my eyes were wandering among the shining clouds.
“We now mounted an eminence planted with birch-trees: from the top we looked into a green valley, likewise full of birches; and down below, in the middle of them, was a little hut. A glad barking reached us, and immediately a little nimble dog came springing round the old woman, fawned on her, and wagged its tail; it next came to me, viewed me on all sides, and then turned back with a friendly look to its old mistress.
“On reaching the bottom of the hill, I heard the strangest song, as if coming from the hut, and sung by some bird. It ran thus:—
‘Alone in wood so gay
’Tis good to stay,
Morrow like to-day,
For ever and aye;
Oh, I do love to stay,
Alone in wood so gay.’
“These few words were continually repeated; and to describe the sound, it was as if you heard forest horns and shalms sounded together from a far distance.
“My curiosity was wonderfully on the stretch; without waiting for the old woman’s orders, I stept into the hut. It was already dusk: here all was neatly swept and trimmed; some bowls were standing in a cupboard, some strange-looking casks or pots on a table; in a glittering cage, hanging by the window, was a bird, and this in fact proved to be the singer. The old woman coughed and panted; it seemed as if she never would get over her fatigue: she patted the little dog, she talked with the bird, which only answered her with its accustomed song; and for me, she did not seem to recollect that I was there at all. Looking at her so, many qualms and fears came over me, for her face was in perpetual motion; and besides, her head shook from old age, so that for my life I could not understand what sort of countenance she had.
“Having gathered strength again she lit a candle, covered a small table, and brought out supper. She now looked round for me, and bade me take a little cane chair. I was thus sitting close fronting her, with the light between us. She folded her bony hands, and prayed aloud, still twisting her countenance, so that I was once more on the point of laughing; but I took strict care that I might not make her angry.
“After supper she again prayed, then showed me a bed in a low, narrow closet; she herself slept in the room. I did not watch long, for I was half stupefied; but in the night I now and then awoke, and heard the old woman coughing, and between whiles talking with her dog and her bird,—which last seemed dreaming, and replied with only one or two words of its rhyme. This with the birches rustling before the window, and the song of a distant nightingale, made such a wondrous combination that I never fairly thought I was awake, but only falling out of one dream into another still stranger.
“The old woman awoke me in the morning, and soon after gave me work. I was put to spin, which I now learned very easily; I had likewise to take charge of the dog and the bird. I soon learned my business in the house: I now felt as if it all must be so; I never once remembered that the old woman had so many singularities, that her dwelling was mysterious and lay apart from all men, and that the bird must be a very strange creature. His beauty, indeed, always struck me: for his feathers glittered with all possible colors, the fairest deep blue and the most burning red alternated about his neck and body; and when singing, he blew himself proudly out, so that his feathers looked still finer.
“My old mistress often went abroad, and did not come again till night; on these occasions I went out to meet her with the dog, and she used to call me child, and daughter. In the end I grew to like her heartily; as our mind, especially in childhood, will become accustomed and attached to anything. In the evenings she taught me to read; and this was afterwards a source of boundless satisfaction to me in my solitude, for she had several ancient-written books, that contained the strangest stories.
“The recollection of the life I then led is still singular to me: visited by no human creature, secluded in the circle of so small a family; for the dog and the bird made the same impression on me which in other cases long-known friends produce. I am surprised that I have never since been able to recall the dog’s name,—a very odd one,—often as I then pronounced it.
“Four years I had passed in this way (I must now have been nearly twelve), when my old dame began to put more trust in me, and at length told me a secret. The bird, I found, laid every day an egg, in which there was a pearl or a jewel. I had already noticed that she often went to fettle privately about the cage, but I had never troubled myself farther on the subject. She now gave me charge of gathering these eggs in her absence, and carefully storing them up in the strange-looking pots. She would leave me food, and sometimes stay away longer,—for weeks, for months. My little wheel kept humming round, the dog barked, the bird sang; and withal there was such a stillness in the neighborhood that I do not recollect of any storm or foul weather all the time I staid there. No one wandered thither; no wild beast came near our dwelling: I was satisfied, and worked along in peace from day to day. One would perhaps be very happy could he pass his life so undisturbedly to the end.
“From the little that I read, I formed quite marvelous notions of the world and its people; all taken from myself and my society. When I read of witty persons, I could not figure them but like the little shock; great ladies, I conceived, were like the bird; all old women, like my mistress. I had read somewhat of love too; and often in fancy I would play strange stories with myself. I figured out the fairest knight on earth; adorned him with all perfections, without knowing rightly, after all my labor, how he looked: but I could feel a hearty pity for myself when he ceased to love me; I would then, in thought, make long melting speeches, or perhaps aloud, to try if I could win him back. You smile! These young days are in truth far away from us all.
“I now liked better to be left alone, for I was then sole mistress of the house. The dog loved me, and did all I wanted; the bird replied to all my questions with his rhyme; my wheel kept briskly turning, and at bottom I had never any wish for change. When my dame returned from her long wanderings, she would praise my diligence; she said her house, since I belonged to it, was managed far more perfectly; she took a pleasure in my growth and healthy looks: in short, she treated me in all points like her daughter.
“‘Thou art a good girl, child,’ said she once to me, in her creaking tone; ‘if thou continuest so, it will be well with thee: but none ever prospers when he leaves the straight path; punishment will overtake him, though it may be late.’ I gave little heed to this remark of hers at the time, for in all my temper and movements I was very lively; but by night it occurred to me again, and I could not understand what she meant by it. I considered all the words attentively; I had read of riches, and at last it struck me that her pearls and jewels might perhaps be something precious. Ere long this thought grew clearer to me. But the straight path, and leaving it? What could she mean by this?
“I was now fourteen: it is the misery of man that he arrives at understanding through the loss of innocence. I now saw well enough that it lay with me to take the jewels and the bird in the old woman’s absence, and go forth with them and see the world I had read of. Perhaps too it would then be possible that I might meet the fairest of all knights, who forever dwelt in my memory.
“At first this thought was nothing more than any other thought: but when I used to be sitting at my wheel, it still returned to me against my will; and I sometimes followed it so far, that I already saw myself adorned in splendid attire, with princes and knights around me. On awakening from these dreams, I would feel a sadness when I looked up and found myself still in the little cottage. For the rest, if I went through my duties, the old woman troubled herself little about what I thought or felt.
“One day she went out again, telling me that she should be away on this occasion longer than usual; that I must take strict charge of everything, and not let the time hang heavy on my hands. I had a sort of fear on taking leave of her, for I felt as if I should not see her any more. I looked long after her, and knew not why I felt so sad: it was almost as if my purpose had already stood before me, without myself being conscious of it.
“Never did I tend the dog and the bird with such diligence as now: they were nearer to my heart than formerly. The old woman had been gone some days, when I rose one morning in the firm mind to leave the cottage, and set out with the bird to see this world they talked so much of. I felt pressed and hampered in my heart: I wished to stay where I was, and yet the thought of that afflicted me; there was a strange contention in my soul, as if between two discordant spirits. One moment my peaceful solitude would seem to me most beautiful; the next the image of a new world, with its many wonders, would again enchant me.
“I knew not what to make of it: the dog leaped up continually about me; the sunshine spread abroad over the fields; the green birch-trees glittered: I kept feeling as if I had something I must do in haste; so I caught the little dog, tied him up in the room, and took the cage with the bird under my arm. The dog writhed and whined at this unusual treatment; he looked at me with begging eyes, but I feared to have him with me. I also took one pot of jewels, and concealed it by me; the rest I left.
“The bird turned its head very strangely when I crossed the threshold; the dog tugged at his cord to follow me, but he was forced to stay.
“I did not take the road to the wild rocks, but went in the opposite direction. The dog still whined and barked, and it touched me to the heart to hear him: the bird tried once or twice to sing; but as I was carrying him, the shaking put him out.
“The farther I went, the fainter grew the barking, and at last it altogether ceased. I wept, and had almost turned back; but the longing to see something new still hindered me.
“I had got across the hills, and through some forests, when the night came on, and I was forced to turn aside into a village. I blushed exceedingly on entering the inn: they showed me to a room and bed; I slept pretty quietly, only that I dreamed of the old woman, and her threatening me.
“My journey had not much variety. The further I went, the more I was afflicted by the recollection of my old mistress and the little dog; I considered that in all likelihood the poor shock would die of hunger, and often in the woods I thought my dame would suddenly meet me. Thus amid tears and sobs I went along; when I stopped to rest, and put the cage on the ground, the bird struck up his song, and brought but too keenly to my mind the fair habitation I had left. As human nature is forgetful, I imagined that my former journey, in my childhood, had not been so sad and woeful as the present; I wished to be as I was then.
“I had some jewels; and now, after wandering on for several days, I reached a village. At the very entrance I was struck with something strange: I felt terrified, and knew not why; but I soon bethought myself, for it was the village where I was born! How amazed was I! How the tears ran down my cheeks for gladness, for a thousand singular remembrances! Many things were changed: new houses had been built; some, just raised when I went away, were now fallen, and had marks of fire on them; everything was far smaller and more confined than I had fancied. It rejoiced my very heart that I should see my parents once more after such an absence: I found their little cottage, the well-known threshold; the door-latch was standing as of old—it seemed to me as if I had shut it only yesternight. My heart beat violently, I hastily lifted the latch; but faces I had never seen before looked up and gazed at me. I asked for the shepherd Martin: they told me that his wife and he were dead three years ago. I drew back quickly, and left the village weeping aloud.
“I had figured out so beautifully how I would surprise them with my riches: by the strangest chance, what I had only dreamed in childhood was become reality; and now it was all in vain,—they could not rejoice with me, and that which had been my first hope in life was lost forever.
“In a pleasant town I hired a small house and garden, and took myself a maid. The world, in truth, proved not so wonderful as I had painted it; but I forgot the old woman and my former way of life more and more, and on the whole I was contented.
“For a long while the bird ceased to sing; I was therefore not a little frightened when one night he suddenly began again, with a different rhyme. He sang:—
‘Alone in wood so gay,
Ah, far away!
But thou wilt say
Some other day,
’Twere best to stay
Alone in wood so gay.’
“Throughout the night I could not close an eye: all things again occurred to my remembrance; and I felt more than ever that I had not acted rightly. When I rose, the aspect of the bird distressed me greatly; he looked at me continually, and his presence did me ill. There was now no end to his song; he sang it louder and more shrilly than he had been wont. The more I looked at him, the more he pained and frightened me: at last I opened the cage, put in my hand, and grasped his neck; I squeezed my fingers hard together; he looked at me: I slackened them; but he was dead. I buried him in the garden.
“After this there came a fear over me for my maid: I looked back upon myself, and fancied she might rob or murder me. For a long while I had been acquainted with a young knight, whom I altogether liked. I bestowed on him my hand.—And with this, Sir Walther, ends my story.”
“Ay, you should have seen her then,” said Eckbert warmly; “seen her youth, her loveliness, and what a charm her lonely way of life had given her. I had no fortune; it was through her love these riches came to me: we moved hither, and our marriage has at no time brought us anything but good.”
“But with our tattling,” added Bertha, “it is growing very late; we must go to sleep.”
She rose, and proceeded to her chamber; Walther, with a kiss of her hand, wished her good night, saying: “Many thanks, noble lady; I can well figure you beside your singing bird, and how you fed poor little Strohmian.”
Walther likewise went to sleep; Eckbert alone still walked in a restless humor up and down the room. “Are not men fools?” said he at last. “I myself occasioned this recital of my wife’s history, and now such confidence appears to me improper! Will he not abuse it? Will he not communicate the secret to others? Will he not—for such is human nature—cast unblessed thoughts on our jewels, and form pretext and lay plans to get possession of them?”
It now occurred to his mind that Walther had not taken leave of him so cordially as might have been expected after such a mark of trust. The soul once set upon suspicion finds in every trifle something to confirm it. Eckbert, on the other hand, reproached himself for such ignoble feelings to his worthy friend; yet still he could not cast them out. All night he plagued himself with such uneasy thoughts, and got very little sleep.
Bertha was unwell next day, and could not come to breakfast; Walther did not seem to trouble himself much about her illness, but left her husband also rather coolly. Eckbert could not comprehend such conduct. He went to see his wife, and found her in a feverish state; she said her last night’s story must have agitated her.
From that day Walther visited the castle of his friend but seldom; and when he did appear, it was but to say a few unmeaning words and then depart. Eckbert was exceedingly distressed by this demeanor: to Bertha or Walther he indeed said nothing of it; but to any person his internal disquietude was visible enough.
Bertha’s sickness wore an aspect more and more serious; the doctor grew alarmed: the red had vanished from his patient’s cheeks, and her eyes were becoming more and more inflamed. One morning she sent for her husband to her bedside; the nurses were ordered to withdraw.
“Dear Eckbert,” she began, “I must disclose …