George Wharton Edwards ~ The Clavecin, Bruges

A silent, grass-grown market-place, upon the uneven stones of which the sabots of a passing peasant clatter loudly. A group of sleepy-looking soldiers in red trousers lolling about the wide portal of the Belfry, which rears aloft against the pearly sky

All the height it has
Of ancient stone.

As the chime ceases there lingers for a space a faint musical hum in the air; the stones seem to carry and retain the melody; one is loath to move for fear of losing some part of the harmony.

I feel an indescribable impulse to climb the four hundred odd steps; incomprehensible, for I detest steeple-climbing, and have no patience with steeple-climbers.

Before I realize it, I am at the stairs. “Hold, sir!” from behind me. “It is forbidden.” In wretched French a weazen-faced little soldier explains that repairs are about to be made in the tower, in consequence of which visitors are forbidden. A franc removes this military obstacle, and I press on.

At the top of the stairs is an old Flemish woman shelling peas, while over her shoulder peeps a tame magpie. A savory odor of stewing vegetables fills the air.

“What do you wish, sir?” Many shrugs, gesticulations, and sighs of objurgation, which are covered by a shining new five-franc piece, and she produces a bunch of keys. As the door closes upon me the magpie gives a hoarse, gleeful squawk.

… A huge, dim room with a vaulted ceiling. Against the wall lean ancient stone statues, noseless and disfigured, crowned and sceptered effigies of forgotten lords and ladies of Flanders. High up on the wall two slitted Gothic windows, through which the violet light of day is streaming. I hear the gentle coo of pigeons. To the right a low door, some vanishing steps of stone, and a hanging hand-rope. Before I have taken a dozen steps upward I am lost in the darkness; the steps are worn hollow and sloping, the rope is slippery—seems to have been waxed, so smooth has it become by handling. Four hundred steps and over; I have lost track of the number, and stumble giddily upward round and round the slender stone shaft. I am conscious of low openings from time to time—openings to what? I do not know. A damp smell exhales from them, and the air is cold upon my face as I pass them. At last a dim light above. With the next turn a blinding glare of light, a moment’s blankness, then a vast panorama gradually dawns upon me. Through the frame of stonework is a vast reach of grayish green bounded by the horizon, an immense shield embossed with silvery lines of waterways, and studded with clustering red-tiled roofs. A rim of pale yellow appears—the sand-dunes that line the coast—and dimly beyond a grayish film, evanescent, flashing—the North Sea.

Something flies through the slit from which I am gazing, and following its flight upward, I see a long beam crossing the gallery, whereon are perched an array of jackdaws gazing down upon me in wonder.

I am conscious of a rhythmic movement about me that stirs the air, a mysterious, beating, throbbing sound, the machinery of the clock, which some one has described as a “heart of iron beating in a breast of stone.”

I lean idly in the narrow slit, gazing at the softened landscape, the exquisite harmony of the greens, grays, and browns, the lazily turning arms of far-off mills, reminders of Cuyp, Van der Velde, Teniers, shadowy, mysterious recollections. I am conscious of uttering aloud some commonplaces of delight. A slight and sudden movement behind me, a smothered cough. A little old man in a black velvet coat stands looking up at me, twisting and untwisting his hands. There are ruffles at his throat and wrists, and an amused smile spreads over his face, which is cleanly shaven, of the color of wax, with a tiny network of red lines over the cheek-bones, as if the blood had been forced there by some excess of passion and had remained. He has heard my sentimental ejaculation. I am conscious of the absurdity of the situation, and move aside for him to pass. He makes a courteous gesture with one ruffled hand.

There comes a prodigious rattling and grinding noise from above—then a jangle of bells, some half-dozen notes in all. At the first stroke the old man closes his eyes, throws back his head, and follows the rhythm with his long white hands, as though playing a piano. The sound dies away; the place becomes painfully silent; still the regular motion of the old man’s hands continues. A creepy, shivery feeling runs up and down my spine; a fear of which I am ashamed seizes upon me.

“Fine pells, sare,” says the little old man, suddenly dropping his hands, and fixing his eyes upon me. “You sall not hear such pells in your countree. But stay not here; come wis me, and I will show you the clavecin. You sall not see the clavecin yet? No?”

I had not, of course, and thanked him.

“You sall see Melchior, Melchior t’e Groote, t’e magnif’.”

As he spoke we entered a room quite filled with curious machinery, a medley of levers, wires, and rope above; below, two large cylinders studded with shining brass points.

He sprang among the wires with a spidery sort of agility, caught one, pulled and hung upon it with, all his weight. There came a r-r-r-r-r-r of fans and wheels, followed by a shower of dust; slowly one great cylinder began to revolve; wires and ropes reaching into the gloom above began to twitch convulsively; faintly came the jangle of far-off bells. Then came a pause, then a deafening boom, that well nigh stunned me. As the waves of sound came and went, the little old man twisted and untwisted his hands in delight, and ejaculated, “Melchior you haf heeard, Melchior t’e Groote—t’e bourdon.”

I wanted to examine the machinery, but he impatiently seized my arm and almost dragged me away saying, “I will skow you—I will skow you. Come wis me.”

From a pocket he produced a long brass key and unlocked a door covered with red leather, disclosing an up-leading flight of steps to which he pushed me. It gave upon an octagon-shaped room with a curious floor of sheet-lead. Around the wall ran a seat under the diamond-paned Gothic windows. From their shape I knew them to be the highest in the tower. I had seen them from the square below many times, with the framework above upon which hung row upon row of bells.

In the middle of the room was a rude sort of keyboard, with pedals below, like those of a large organ. Fronting this construction sat a long, high-backed bench. On the rack over the keyboard rested some sheets of music, which, upon examination, I found to be of parchment and written by hand. The notes were curious in shape, consisting of squares of black and diamonds of red upon the lines. Across the top of the page was written, in a straggling hand, “Van den Gheyn Nikolaas.” I turned to the little old man with the ruffles. “Van den Gheyn!” I said in surprise, pointing to the parchment. “Why, that is the name of the most celebrated of carillonneurs, Van den Gheyn of Louvain.” He untwisted his hands and bowed. “Eet ees ma name, mynheer—I am the carillonneur.”

I fancied that my face showed all too plainly the incredulity I felt, for his darkened, and he muttered, “You not belief, Engelsch? Ah, I show you; then you belief, parehap,” and with astounding agility seated himself upon the bench before the clavecin, turned up the ruffles at his wrists, and literally threw himself upon the keys. A sound of thunder accompanied by a vivid flash of lightning filled the air, even as the first notes of the bells reached my ears. Involuntarily I glanced out of the diamond-leaded window—dark clouds were all about us, the housetops and surrounding country were no longer to be seen. A blinding flash of lightning seemed to fill the room; the arms and legs of the little old man sought the keys and pedals with inconceivable rapidity; the music crashed about us with a deafening din, to the accompaniment of the thunder, which seemed to sound in unison with the boom of the bourdon. It was grandly terrible. The face of the little old man was turned upon me, but his eyes were closed. He seemed to find the pedals intuitively, and at every peal of thunder, which shook the tower to its foundations, he would open his mouth, a toothless cavern, and shout aloud. I could not hear the sounds for the crashing of the bells. Finally, with a last deafening crash of iron rods and thunderbolts, the noise of the bells gradually died away. Instinctively I had glanced above when the crash came, half expecting to see the roof torn off.

“I think we had better go down,” I said. “This tower has been struck by lightning several times, and I imagine that discretion—”

I don’t know what more I said, for my eyes rested upon the empty bench, and the bare rack where the music had been. The clavecin was one mass of twisted iron rods, tangled wires, and decayed, worm-eaten woodwork; the little old man had disappeared. I rushed to the red leather-covered door; it was fast. I shook it in a veritable terror; it would not yield. With a bound I reached the ruined clavecin, seized one of the pedals, and tore it away from the machine. The end was armed with an iron point. This I inserted between the lock and the door. I twisted the lock from the worm-eaten wood with one turn of the wrist, the door opened, and I almost fell down the steep steps. The second door at[Pg 60] the bottom was also closed. I threw my weight against it once, twice; it gave, and I half slipped, half ran down the winding steps in the darkness.

Out at last into the fresh air of the lower passage! At the noise I made in closing the ponderous door came forth the old custode.

In my excitement I seized her by the arm, saying, “Who was the little old man in the black velvet coat with the ruffles? Where is he?”

She looked at me in a stupid manner. “Who is he,” I repeated—”the little old man who played the clavecin?”

“Little old man, sir? I don’t know,” said the crone. “There has been no one in the tower to-day but yourself.”

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