It was short work to squeeze all the poetry out of this group

The afternoon was lovely, when, passing the conical and castle-crowned steep of Godisberg, we approached the hills, where the road for the first time runs on the immediate borders of the stream. Opposite to us were the Seven mountains, topped by the ruins of the Drachenfels, crag and masonry wearing the appearance of having mouldered together under the slow action of centuries; and, a little in advance, the castle of Rolandseck peered above the wooded rocks on our own side of the river. Two low islands divided the stream, and on one of them stood the capacious buildings of a convent. Every one at all familiar with the traditions of the Rhine, has heard the story of the crusader, who, returning from the wars, found his betrothed a nun in this asylum. It would seem that lies were as rife before the art of printing had been pressed into their service, or newspapers known, as they are to-day, for she had been taught to think him dead or inconstant; it was much the same to her. The castle which overlooked the island was built for his abode, and here the legend is prudently silent. Although one is not bound to believe all he hears; we are all charmed with the images which such tales create, especially when, as in this case, they are aided by visible and tangible objects in the shape of good stone walls. As we trotted along under the brow of the mountain that upholds the ruins of the castle of Charlemagne’s nephew, my eye rested musingly on the silent pile of the convent. “That convent,” I called out to the postilion, “is still inhabited?” “Ja, mein Herr, es ist ein gasthaus.” An inn!—the thing was soon explained. The convent, a community of Benedictines, had been suppressed some fifteen or twenty years, and the buildings had been converted into one of your sentimental taverns. With the closest scrutiny I could not detect a soul near the spot, for junketing in a ruin is my special aversion. A hamlet stood on the bank at no great distance above the island; the postilion grinned when I asked if it would be possible to get horses to this place in the morning, for it saved him a trot all the way to Oberwinter. He promised to send word in the course of the night to the relay above, and the whole affair was arranged in live minutes. The carriage was housed and left under the care of François on the main land, a night sack thrown into a skiff, and in ten minutes we were afloat on the Rhine. Our little bark whirled about in the eddies, and soon touched the upper point of the island.

We found convent, gasthaus, and sentiment, without any pre-occupants. There was not a soul on the island, but the innkeeper, his wife, a child, a cook, a crone who did all sorts of work, and three Prussian soldiers, who were billeted on the house, part of a detachment that we had seen scattered along the road, all the way from Bonn. I do not know which were the most gladdened by the meeting, ourselves or the good people of the place; we at finding anything like retirement in Europe, and they at seeing anything like guests. The man regretted that we had come so late, for a large party had just left him; and we felicitated ourselves that we had not come any sooner, for precisely the same reason. As soon as he comprehended our tastes, he very frankly admitted that every room in the convent was empty. “There is no one, but these, on the island. Not a living being, herr graf” for these people have made a count of me, whether or not. Here then were near two hundred acres, environed by the Rhine, prettily disposed in wood and meadow, absolutely at our mercy. You can readily imagine, with what avidity a party of young Parisiennes profited by their liberty, while I proceeded forthwith to inspect the ladder, and then to inspect the cloisters. Sooth to say, sentiment had a good deal to do with two of the courses of a dinner at Nonnenswerth, for so is the island called. The buildings were spacious, and far from mean; and it was a pleasant thing to promenade in cloisters that had so lately been trodden by holy nuns, and see your dinner preparing in a convent kitchen. I could do no less than open a bottle of “Liebfraumilch” in such a place, but it proved to be a near neighbour to bonny-clabber.

As the evening closed we took possession of our rooms. Our parlour had been that of the lady abbess, and A—— had her bed-chamber. These were spacious rooms and well furnished. The girls were put into the cells, where girls ought never to be put. Jetty had another near them, and, these dispositions made, I sallied forth alone, in quest of a sensation.

The intense heat of the day had engendered a gust. The thunder was muttering among the “seven mountains,” and occasionally a flash of lightning illumined the pitchy darkness of the night. I walked out into the grounds, where the wind was fiercely howling through the trees. A new flash illumined the hills, and I distinctly saw the naked rock of the Drachenfels, with the broken tower tottering on the half-ruined crag, looked fearful and supernatural. By watching a minute, another flash exposed Rolandseck, looking down upon me with melancholy solicitude. Big drops began to patter on the leaves, and, still bent on sensations, I entered the buildings.

The cloisters were gloomy, but I looked into the vast, smoked, and cavern-like kitchen, where the household were consuming the fragments of our dinner. A light shone from the door of a low cell, in a remote corner of the cloisters, and I stole silently to it, secretly hoping it would prove to be a supernatural glimmering above some grave. The three Prussians were eating their cheese-parings and bread, by the light of a tallow candle, seated on a stone floor. It was short work to squeeze all the poetry out of this group.

The storm thickened, and I mounted to the gallery, or the corridor above the cloisters, which communicated with our own rooms. Here I paced back and forth, a moment, in obscurity, until, by means of a flash, I discovered a door, at one extremity of the passage. Bent on adventure, I pushed and it opened. As there were only moments when anything could be seen, I proceeded in utter darkness, using great caution not to fall through a trap. Had it been my happy fortune to be a foundling, who had got his reading and writing “by nature,” I should have expected to return from the adventure a Herzog, at least, if not an Erz-Herzog. Perhaps, by some inexplicable miracle of romance, I might have come forth the lawful issue of Roland and the nun!

As it was, I looked for no more than sensations, of which the hour promised to be fruitful. I had not been a minute in the unknown region, before I found that, if it were not the abode of troubled spirits, it at least was worthy to be so. You will remember that I am not now dealing in fiction, but truth, and that, unlike those who “read when they sing, and sing when they read,” I endeavour to be imaginative in poetry and literal in my facts. I am now dealing strictly with the latter, which I expect will greatly enhance the interest of this adventure.

After taking half-a-dozen steps with extreme caution, I paused a moment, for the whole air appeared to be filled by a clatter, as if ten thousand bats’ wings were striking against glass. This was evidently within the convent, while, without, the wind howled even louder than ever. My hand rested on something, I knew not what. At first I did not even know whether I was in the open air, or not, for I felt the wind, saw large spaces of dim light, and yet could distinguish that something like a vault impended over my head. Presently a vivid flash of lightning removed all doubt. It flickered, seemed extinguished, and flared up again, in a way to let me get some distinct ideas of the locus in quo. I had clearly blundered into the convent chapel; not upon its pavement, which was on a level with the cloisters below, but into an open gallery, that communicated with the apartments of the nuns, and my hand was on the chair of the lady abbess, the only one that remained. The dim light came from the high arched windows, and the bats’ wings were small broken panes rattling in the gale. But I was not alone. By the transient light I saw several grim figures, some kneeling, others with outstretched arms, bloody and seared, and one appeared to be in the confessional. At the sight of these infernal spectres, for they came and went with the successive flashes of the lightning, by a droll chain of ideas, I caught myself shouting, rather than singing—”Ship ahoy! ship ahoy!—what cheer, what cheer?” in a voice loud as the winds. At last, here was a sensation! Half-a-dozen flashes rendered me familiar with the diabolical-looking forms, and as I now knew where to look for them, even their grim countenances were getting to be familiar. At this moment, when I was about to address them in prose, the door by which I had entered the gallery opened slowly, and the withered face of an old woman appeared in a flash. The thunder came next, and the face vanished—”Ship ahoy! ship ahoy!—what cheer, what cheer?” There was another pause—the door once more opened, and the face re-appeared. I gave a deep and loud groan; if you ask me why, I can only say, because it seemed to be wanting to the general effect of the scene and place. The door slammed, the face vanished, and I was alone again with the demons. By this time the gust was over I groped my way out of the gallery, stole through the corridor into my own room, and went to bed. I ought to have had exciting dreams, especially after the Liebfraumilch, but, contrary to all rule, I slept like a postilion in a cock-loft, or a midshipman in the middle watch.

The next morning at breakfast, A—— had a melancholy tale to relate; how the poor old crone, who has already been mentioned, had been frightened by the gust—how she stole to the chapel to mutter a prayer—how she opened the door of the gallery—how she heard strange sounds, and particularly certain groans—how she had dropped the candle—how the door had blown to, and she, miserable woman, had stolen to the bed of her (A——’s) maid, whom she had implored to give her shelter and protection for the night! We went in a body to look at the chapel, after breakfast, and it was admitted all round, that it was well suited to produce a sensation, in a thunder-storm, of a dark night, and that it was no wonder Jetty’s bed-fellow had been frightened. But now everything was calm and peaceful. The glass hung in fragments about the leaden sashes; the chair and prière-dieu of the lady abbess had altogether an innocent and comfortable air, and the images, of which there were several, as horrible as a bungling workman and a bloody imagination could produce, though of a suffering appearance, were really insensible to pain. While we were making this reconnoissance a bugle sounded on the main, and looking out, we saw the Oberwinter postilion coming round the nearest bend in the river. On this hint, we took our leave of the island, not forgetting to apply a little of the universal salve to the bruised spirit of the old woman whose dread of thunder had caused her to pass so comfortless a night.

(aus: James Fenimore Cooper, A residence in France; with an excursion up the Rhine, and a second visit to Switzerland; Paris, 1836)


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