DIVINE spring day filled the beautiful
Rhine valley with radiance and light.
The surface of the river glistened as if
strewn with thousands of diamonds. On the not far away "Sieben
hung a blue haze, like a fine transparent veil, not
concealing, but only beautifying and softening the rugged outlines of
the peaks. The island of Nonnenwerth, with its bright green foliage,
was set in the river like an emerald, and high above it on the left
bank gleamed the red ruins of the old castle of
It was Sunday. Near and far sounded the peal of bells. The crisp tones from the little chapels and village churches mingled harmoniously with the deep diapason of the great church bells in Bonn, and with their trembling vibrations filled the beautiful landscape, which seemed listening in prostrate devotion. Hardly any other sound than that of the bells could be distinguished. Even the little song-birds, which a short time before had chirped and twittered loudly and joyously, were now quiet. Sunday peace and Sunday silence rested upon city and plain.
A young man slowly walked along a path which leads from Bonn down to the Rhine, threading its way through fields and meadows. He was simply and somewhat shabbily but neatly clad. One forgot, however, his modest attire as one looked into the face of the wanderer and saw those eyes in which ever and anon bright gleams sparkled and revealed the holy fire in his spirit. For the moment he had no regard for the beauty of surrounding nature. He only listened. His soul was floating, as it were, in a sea of tones, which, now loudly, now softly, like the breaking of ocean waves on the shore, forced themselves upon his tensely strained nerves and filled him with emotion. For a time he gazed up into the bright blue sky with gleaming eyes, and folded his hands upon his breast, like one in ecstasy, as if thereby he could relieve this flood of rapture. Then he advanced a few steps, but again paused, and, muttering to himself some unintelligible exclamations, flung both hands suddenly and wildly about in the air.
He continued for a moment this strange action, which not only would have caused a quiet passerby to smile, but might have amazed him. His amazement, however, would have lasted only until he had seen the piercing eyes of the young man and the lofty expression upon his brow, around which hung thick, bushy hair like a lion's mane. His eyes and forehead saved him from the ridicule which his otherwise insignificant appearance might have excited, and made it, if not exalted, at least entitled to respect.
Softly the bells pealed on. Only a gentle and gradually dying away murmur trembled in the almost motionless air. The young man remained immovable, his head bowed upon his breast, until the last vibrations had died away. Then, like one awakening from a dream, he raised his head and looked around with a quiet, gentle glance. He was already within a few hundred steps of the Rhine, and on the opposite shore gleamed brightly and hospitably the houses of Königswinter, above which rose the lofty, huge, and majestic peaks of the Seven Mountains.
"I will go over there," he said to himself. "The day is so beautiful, one should improve it."
With quick steps he went down to the bank of the river and sprang into one of the boats lying there, saying to the boatman the single word, "Across."
Arrived on the other side, he threw the boatman a little silver piece and then took the first, best road he came to and went on at random. Soon he found himself in a shadowy beech wood, whose light green leaves rustled high above him. In one lighter spot he could see the blue sky through the foliage, and here and there a sunbeam found its way through the dense leaves and glistened at the young wanderer's feet like a sparkling jewel or a bright silver shield.
There were no people in the wood. The bustle of the world did not penetrate its dusky recesses, but, notwithstanding this, there was joyousness and liveliness in its broad, dark halls. Numberless songbirds swung on the slender branches or flew lightly from bough to bough. The finches warbled their lively, rollicking songs. The blackbirds and song thrushes sang their soft and yet full-toned strophes. In the distance the cuckoo intoned its name. The young wanderer heard and watched it all, and, filled with happy feelings, his face wore a more cheerful aspect. No sound in this beautiful solitude escaped his acute ears,—not the rustle of the leaves when a gentle breeze stirred them; not the light gurgling and splashing of the little brook along the bank of which his course led him; not the rush of the water when it plunged over rocks and made pretty little waterfalls; not the tapping of the woodpecker, whose strong bill pierced the bark of the tree that concealed insects and larvæ; not the sharp scream of a large bird of prey, high overhead; and, least of all, the ravishing song of a nightingale, which suddenly rose from a thicket close by the side of the lonely wanderer, so full, so tender, so pensive and heart-stirring, that he remained motionless and forgot all else that he might listen only to this wonderful, inspiring song.
"Brava, bravissima," he involuntarily exclaimed, as the lovely singer shook its pretty feathers, and then, following a gently alluring call, probably the cry of its mate, flew as swiftly as an arrow through the bushes. "The utmost that can be accomplished in a bird's throat is in thy song, charming Philomel; but the artist still must create the higher things,—so high that they bring him near to the divine. And this height I will and shall attain, with God's help."
The young man uttered these last words loudly in the wood, but hardly had he done so when a merry and mocking laugh came back in reply. For an instant he felt a little frightened, but immediately recovered himself, and angrily answered:
"Who laughs there? I hope no one here is making sport of me."
"I have taken the liberty to do so," said a young man, stepping forward from behind the trunk of a beech-tree and making a low bow with a slightly ironical smile. "If you wish to resent it, honorable sir, I herewith surrender myself to your merciful judgment."
The angry frown which his words had caused disappeared, and Beethoven good-naturedly extended his hand, which the stranger cordially shook.
"Very learned Franz Gerhard Wegeler, worthy student of medicine," he said, "what chance brought you into this solitude, where I fancied I was all alone and far from the human rabble?"
"Doubtless the same chance which brought my melodious friend here," replied the other. "Yes, my excellent master of tone, my Ludwig van Beethoven, it was the blue sky and golden sun which enticed me out of the dull study-room into God's glorious world, where at least one can get a breath of fresh air and enjoy the wonderful works of the Almighty. Was not that your object also, worthy pupil of Mistress Musica?"
Ludwig nodded assent. "For all that, it is a strange and remarkable chance that we should have met each other in this solitary wood," he said.
"Not altogether strange and not very wonderful, my dear fellow," replied Wegeler, "for in crossing the Rhine I engaged the same boatman who took you over. Knowing that we were old acquaintances, he told me that you had crossed scarcely half an hour before, and were roving about in this wood. As I would rather have company than walk alone, I followed your trail, found you lost in ecstasy over a nightingale, and finally learned, for you announced it in an exceedingly loud tone of voice, that you intended shortly to soar to the very Deity. That made me laugh; but you will excuse me when you reflect that the ascent to the Deity is a somewhat difficult performance for one of your years, unless you make what they call a 'salto mortale' (deadly leap). It is the easiest way in the world to break one's neck or bones."
Ludwig again frowned a little, but quickly smoothed his brow with his hand, as if wiping away all troubles and gloomy thoughts. "You are right," said he. "I was a fool to entertain such bold fancies and daring hopes. And this, too, in my melancholy circumstances and wretched plight! It is not possible. I was mad, that I was." With these last words such deep dejection manifested itself in his countenance that Wegeler suddenly felt the warmest sympathy for the young man.
"What is the matter? Why do you speak of wretchedness and melancholy, Ludwig?" he cordially said, as he threw his arm around his much younger friend and drew him affectionately toward him.
"Ah! you know not—no one knows—what it is that depresses and weighs me down," answered Ludwig. "Poverty is such a heavy burden. It rests like a load upon the pinions of the soul. Oh, it is awful to feel here, here in one's inmost soul, that one could accomplish the great and the beautiful, and yet not be able to do it because he lacks a few miserable gulden and kreuzers. It is hard, Wegeler."
Tears stood in young Beethoven's eyes, and his lips quivered in the effort to repress his emotions. Wegeler's eyes rested with an expression of deep sympathy upon the dejected figure which he had seen only a short time before exulting in the joyousness of hope.
"Ludwig," he said,—and his voice had an unusually tender tone,—"I pray you, open your heart to me, and do not conceal what troubles and oppresses you. I feel for you as for a true and sincere friend. Take me for your friend and then speak, for you know between true heart-friends there should be no restraint, no secrets."
"Friend!" said Ludwig. "Would you actually be my true friend?"
"To the last hour of my life. I swear it," said Wegeler, in such an honest manner that his sincerity could not be doubted.
Ludwig understood him and was comforted. With an exclamation of joy he embraced Wegeler and kissed him. "So we are friends, always friends," he cried. "Oh, how I have longed for a soul that could and would understand me, and lo, at last I have found one. Now you shall learn, dear, good Wegeler, what has disturbed my soul and checked its flights. I am not happy, and the cause of my unhappiness, alas, is my father's conduct. I have kept this melancholy secret deeply hidden in my breast, but here, where no one but the dear God and the little birds can hear, I will disclose it."
He told in passionate words how his father's temper had made him suffer from the days of his childhood, of that father's insatiable craving for drink, and how, on that account, the family often had to go without the necessaries of life.
"Though my father naturally is good-natured," he went on, "this craving makes him exceedingly irritable and sometimes violent. His habits drive him to extremes. At one moment he is a tender father, at the next a cruel tyrant. The despair of it all is that when necessity and trouble press hardest he has no patience to bear, but seeks consolation and forgetfulness in wine. This is my heaviest burden, for, so long as he cannot resist drinking, there is no hope of better conditions for our family. My mother, my good, true, tender mother, secretly weeps, and bears her hard lot with Christian calmness. But I and my two younger brothers suffer unspeakably, and many a time I have been tempted to throw myself into the Rhine and end all my miseries."
"Calm yourself, dear boy," said Wegeler soothingly. "Don't be so vehement. I am free to acknowledge that your situation is bad and gloomy enough, but bad as it is, some relief will be found. Let me think it over. For the present banish your sad thoughts, and let us enjoy the delicious atmosphere, the blue sky, the green woods, and the sparkling sunshine. This is not a day for melancholy. Cheer up! Let us go farther into the wood and visit my good friends, the monks of the Heisterbach cloister. We shall be well received there, and in any case find a good breakfast, which doubtless we shall greatly relish after the morning tramp."
Ludwig was ready to accept his friend's guidance. They sprang up from the mossy bank upon which they had been sitting during their conversation, and followed a small, scarcely perceptible footpath that led through the wood. Wegeler chattered about everything possible, told his new friend many humorous and pleasant stories, and quickly succeeded in cheering him up. When they reached the Heisterbach cloister, shortly before noon, Ludwig's melancholy had given place to a somewhat defiant but still good humor.
At the entrance to the grounds sat the Father Doorkeeper, apparently basking in the sunshine. He regarded the new-comers with a pleasant smile on his broad, rosy face. "Welcome, Herr Studiosus," he said to Wegeler,—for he had made his acquaintance in previous visits. "Have you been here long? The Abbot and the others also will be glad to see you again. Enter without any ceremony—that way—but you already know the way to the refectory."
"God's greeting for your friendly reception, Father Doorkeeper," replied Wegeler. "We come hungry and thirsty, and kindly ask you for a cordial."
"Apply to the chief cook. You may be certain he knows no greater pleasure than feeding the hungry and providing a strengthening cordial."
Wegeler bowed and proceeded with Ludwig through the forecourt, which, with its flower-beds, fountains, and cleanly kept gravel walks, looked like a garden. Arrived at the abbey, they were cordially greeted anew and escorted to the refectory,—a cool hall, with great Gothic window recesses, in which, so roomy were they, tables with stone slabs were standing. The monk cordially invited them to be seated at one of these tables and then left to announce in kitchen and cellar that two beloved guests laid claim to hospitality. In reply to the Father Chief Cook he gave the name of the student Wegeler, and at once several ministering spirits actively began to prepare food and drink in abundance for the welcome strangers. Hardly ten minutes after the arrival of Wegeler and Ludwig a hearty breakfast was served upon the side table, which was covered with a neat cloth, and then came the Father Cellar-Master striding along, under each arm a carafe of costly, sparkling golden wine, from which he filled the glasses of his guests.
Wegeler and Ludwig thoroughly enjoyed the pleasure of this large-hearted hospitality, and paid it due honor by partaking abundantly of the food and emptying more than one glass of the delicious wine. The monks asked for the latest news in Bonn, the cream of which Wegeler was giving them, when the Abbot himself, with his friend the Father Lector, appeared, and greeted his guests with the same friendliness the other inmates of the abbey had shown. Naturally he was somewhat reserved with Ludwig, as he did not yet know him, and only recognized him with a nod of the head; but he was soon engaged in a lively conversation with Wegeler about the affairs of the new university at Bonn, in which the venerable man showed a special interest.
As Ludwig could take no part in this conversation, and as the attention of all the other cloister brothers was also devoted to the Abbot and Wegeler, he found time hanging heavily. He arose, slipped out of the refectory unnoticed, and enjoyed himself strolling around the abbey and the grounds, observing and admiring notable and interesting objects. While thus wandering about at pleasure, he came to the beautiful church of the abbey, and at once noticed its large handsome organ, which naturally had a greater attraction for him as a musician than anything else. He went up into the choir, scrutinized the organ closely, and admired its beautiful construction.
"It is too bad the organ-blower is not here," he said aloud, for he did not suppose there was any one else in the church. "It would be the greatest pleasure to me to try such a splendid organ."
"Ho! ho! who is talking there?" said an entirely unexpected voice, and out of the organ-blower's closet stepped a serving brother, who regarded Ludwig with astonishment. "How is this?" he went on. "Did I not hear something about Monsieur wishing he could play the organ? Are you the Monsieur who wanted an organ-blower?"
"Certainly, it must have been I, since no one else but ourselves is at present in the church," replied Ludwig.
"But," said the man in amazement, and looking somewhat doubtfully at the short, thick-set figure of Beethoven, "does Monsieur say that he can play the organ?"
"Certainly," replied Ludwig; "I could easily convince you if only there were a blower at hand who was willing to serve me."
"I am the organ-blower," said the man, shaking his head and still somewhat doubtful. "If you are really in earnest about playing the organ I will right gladly offer my service."
"That is fine, perfectly splendid," cried Ludwig exultantly. "To your post, worthy colleague. We will both take the utmost pains and each one of us do his best."
Still dubiously and suspiciously shaking his head, the organ-blower took his place, but left the door ajar so that no tone of the young man's playing should escape him. Ludwig seated himself, struck the keys with his strong hands, and evoked from the splendid instrument a stream, a full volume of tones, such as had never been heard in the church before. Majestically they rang through the church like the thunder of the Lord. Then suddenly there were soft and gentle tones like the vibrations of the harp, a heavenly melody, sung as it were by the voices of angels, anon pealing out grandly in a majestic hymn, like a song of praise from the heavens and the earth, glorifying the Eternal, the only God, the Almighty Creator of heaven and earth. Powerful as the solemn tones had been, they died away again to a soft and lovely piano, until at the close the last sound exhaled itself like a breath and seemed softly to disappear among the lofty columns of the choir.
Beethoven, who had sat like one entranced during his wonderful playing, and had looked upwards with fixed, wide-open eyes, now came to himself, wiped the perspiration from his heated brow, and drew a deep sigh.
"Young man, who taught you to play like that?" said a man in the dress of the order, advancing out of the dusk of the organ-loft. "Truly, you play magnificently. I have never heard such execution before. Who taught you this?"
"I taught myself," Beethoven replied curtly and somewhat aggressively.
"Then be doubly greeted and doubly welcome, noble disciple of the art, who sometime will make a high and mighty eagle's flight," said the monk with deep earnestness as he grasped the young man's hand. "Turn not away from me. I am also a member of the great guild which has devoted its lifework to Mistress Musica. I am the Father Organist of the abbey, and hence I am qualified to appreciate and admire your wonderful art."
Beethoven's darkening countenance quickly lightened up as he recognized in the venerable monk not an officious, inquisitive person, but a colleague, and he warmly returned the grasp of his hand.
"I thank you for your kindness, Father," he gently replied, "but you praise me too highly. I am not yet worthy of it, but I hope and shall strive to deserve it sometime. But now, what can I do to show my gratitude for your gracious words?"
"Repeat what you have just played, my son," said the father. "Your playing has touched my old heart powerfully. Those were not earthly tones; they were the harmonies and melodies of heaven."
"No, no; that was only a free Fantasie of my own," said Ludwig. "To repeat it would be somewhat of a task, but I will gladly play something else for you, if you will wait a moment."
The father nodded assent and retired to a dark corner, where he could abandon himself to his anticipated enjoyment without any danger of being disturbed. Beethoven ran his fingers over the keys several times, as if searching for a theme, until he found a soft old melody, which he played through in simple, noble style, and then varied with marvellous skill and ingenuity. As the ravishing tones powerfully and ever more powerfully rang out, the church gradually filled up. The monks slipped in in groups. The Father Head Cook left his kitchen and the Father Doorkeeper his door to listen to the young man's playing, reports of which had quickly spread through the abbey. The Abbot and the Father Lector also came, in Wegeler's company, went up into the organ-loft, and seated themselves just behind Beethoven, who, lost in inspiration, was not aware of their presence. He continued playing variations until the theme was completely exhausted, and then, weary and exhausted himself, bowed his head upon his breast.
A unanimous "Brava, brava," resounded through the church. The Abbot stepped forward, tapped him gently on the shoulder, and said with emotion: "Those were indeed sounds from another world, and they have penetrated my very soul. Accept my thanks, my young friend. You are truly a master, and a great future lies before you if God preserve your life and health, which I doubt not He will do."
The Lector also spoke words of praise to the young man. The Father Organist bowed low before him. The organ-blower emerged from his closet and with astonishment regarded the young man who had accomplished such prodigies and unprecedented feats in his art. "Truly," said the homely old man, "if he played the organ here I would never get tired. My old arms would work the bellows from morning to night."
Beethoven in the meantime accepted these praises somewhat coolly and indifferently, and contented himself by expressing his thanks with an awkward bow.
"He is always thus, your reverence," said Wegeler, as he seated himself again with the Abbot and the Father Lector at the wine in the cool refectory—"a sound kernel in a rough shell; a jewel of the purest water, which needs only a little polish to glisten at its real value. He is not to blame for it so much as his unhappy domestic conditions. How can he have politeness and ease of manner when there is not even daily bread in the house? I beg you therefore to treat him with gracious indulgence."
"It is entirely unnecessary to intercede for this young genius," replied the Abbot. "His magnificent playing has impressed me so deeply that I can overlook his lack of courtesy, though really his deportment is a little awkward. One must bear with everything in a great genius,—and such he is, for, after what we have heard, there cannot be the slightest doubt of it. I should greatly like to talk with him a little while."
"I should not be surprised if he had already slipped out of the church and were again roving about the wood," said Wegeler smiling. "I know his ways. He does not crave praise like many other musicians. It is absolutely painful to him to be commended to his face. He prefers to escape from it and bury himself in solitude. He is always that way, and one must take him as one finds him. The rich treasures of his soul make thousand-fold compensation for his external roughness."
"Well, we shall have to acquiesce in his absence," replied the Abbot; "but promise me, dear Wegeler, that you will soon bring this wonderful artist here again."
"With the greatest pleasure," answered Wegeler. "Ludwig can do his best in the company of cultivated and sympathetic persons only, and I hope I shall succeed in introducing him into a circle of dear friends in Bonn where he will surely find a second home. But now, your reverence, it is time for me to take my departure and hunt up my young runaway friend, so that we may get back to Bonn in good season."
Once again the glasses were filled, and they were clinked for the last time with the wish for an early and happy "Wiedersehen," and Wegeler begged to be kept in affectionate remembrance. He then hastened in the direction of Bonn, and had been gone hardly a quarter of an hour when he found his friend Beethoven sitting upon a stump on the side of the road, lost in deep thought.
"Well, my fine fellow," said Wegeler to him, "what induced you to run away from the abbey so secretly and without saying good-bye?"
Beethoven turned about with an abrupt motion of resentment and shook his thick, curly hair, which fell about his neck like the mane of a lion. "I could not stay any longer and indulge in empty chattering after the Genius of Art in the church had struggled with me and bidden me to soar. I had to get away from it and out into the open air, into the solitude, where, as I know by experience, I can most easily find my way back to the common places of life."
"But the Abbot regretted that he could not speak with you again," said Wegeler.
"Some other time," replied Beethoven. "He is a kind, friendly man, whom I appreciate and esteem; but he must let me go my way, undisturbed, if I am to visit him again."
"And he will do that, stubborn-headed one," replied Wegeler, laughingly. "Only play for him a little from time to time and he will always be a benevolent patron and have all possible patience with your caprices. We do not always know how, when, or where such a man may be of service to us. A visit with him is always a genuine recreation and a comfort to the heart. We will soon revisit Heisterbach, will we not, Ludwig?"
Beethoven nodded assent. "But it is time now to go home. The sun is already low, and I have a presentiment that things are not as they should be at home. Let us hasten, Wegeler."
They quickened their pace. Soon they reached the Rhine, crossed it, and went on to Bonn, which was already growing dim in the gathering twilight. When their ways separated they parted from one another, but Wegeler promised he would certainly visit Beethoven the next evening, and hoped that he would bring him some good and cheering news. With a last cordial shake of the hand they separated, and Beethoven flew rather than walked through the streets, that he might reach his dwelling in the narrow and gloomy Bonn Gasse as quickly as possible; for it was already late, and the house door might be closed with the coming of darkness.