The Old Church Bell


IN the German land of Wurtemberg, where the acacias bloom by the high road, and the apple trees and pear trees bend in autumn under their burden of ripe fruit, lies the little town of Marbach. Although this place can only be ranked among the smaller towns, it is charmingly situated on the Neckar stream, that flows on and on, hurrying past villages and old castles and green vineyards, to pour its waters into the proud Rhine.
It was late in autumn. The leaves still clung to the grape-vine, but they were already tinged with red. Rainy gusts swept over the country, and the cold autumn winds increased in violence and roughness. It was no pleasant time for poor folk.
The days became shorter and gloomier; and if it was dark out in the open air, in the little old-fashioned houses it was darker still. One of these houses was built with its gable end towards the street, and stood there, with its small narrow windows, humble and poor enough in appearance; the family was poor, too, that inhabited the little house, but good and industrious, and rich in a treasure of piety concealed in the depth of the heart. And they expected that God would soon give them another child: the hour had come, and the mother lay in pain and sorrow. Then from the church tower opposite the deep rich sound of the bell came to her. It was a solemn hour, and the song of the bell filled the heart of the praying woman with trustfulness and faith; the thoughts of her inmost heart soared upward towards the Almighty, and in the same hour she gave birth to a son. Then she was filled with a great joy, and the bell in the tower opposite seemed to be ringing to spread the news of her happiness over town and country. The clear child-eyes looked at her, and the infant's hair gleamed like gold. Thus was the little one ushered into the world with the ringing of the church bell on the dark November day. The mother and father kissed it, and wrote in their Bible: "On the 10th of November, 1759, God gave us a son;" and soon afterwards the fact was added that the child had been baptized under the name of "Johann Christoph Friedrich."
And what became of the little fellow, the poor boy in the pretty town of Marbach? Ah, at that time no one knew what would become of him, not even the old church bell that had sung at his birth, hanging so high in the tower, over him who was one day himself to sing the beautiful "Lay of the Bell."
"Well, the boy grew older, and the world grew older with him. His parents certainly removed to another town, but they had left dear friends in little Marbach; and thus it was that mother and son one day arose and drove over to Marbach on a visit. The lad was only six years old, but he already knew many things out of the Bible, and many a pious psalm; and many an evening he had sat on his little stool, listening while his father read aloud from "Gellert's Fables," or from the lofty "Messiah" of Klopstock; and he and his sister, who was his senior by two years, had wept hot tears of pity for Him who died on the cross that we might live eternally.
At the time of this first visit to Marbach the little town had not greatly changed; and indeed they had not long left it. The houses stood, as on the day of the family's departure, with their pointed gables, projecting walls, the higher storeys leaning over the lower, and their tiny windows; but there were new graves in the churchyard; and there, in the grass, hard by the wall, lay the old bell. It had fallen from its position, and had sustained such damage that it could sound no more, and accordingly a new bell had been put in its place.
Mother and son went into the churchyard. They stopped where the old bell lay, and the mother told the boy how for centuries this had been a very useful bell, and had rung at christenings, at weddings, and at burials; how it had spoken at one time to tell of feasts and of rejoicings, at another to spread the alarm of fire; and how it had, in fact, sung the whole life of man. And the boy never forgot what his mother told him that day. It resounded and echoed at intervals in his heart, until, when he was grown a man, he was compelled to sing it. The mother told him also how the bell had sung of faith and comfort to her in the time of her peril, that it had sung at the time when he, her little son, was born And the boy gazed, almost with a feeling of devotion, at the great old bell; and he bent over it and kissed it, as it lay all rusty and broken among the long grass and nettles.
The old bell was held in kindly remembrance by the boy, who grew up in poverty, tall and thin, with reddish hair and freckled face; yes, that's how he looked; but he had a pair of eyes, clear and deep as the deepest water. And what fortune had he? Why, good fortune, enviable fortune. We find him graciously received into the military school, and even in the department where sons of people in society were taught, and was that not honor and fortune enough? And they educated him to the words of command, "Halt! march! front!" and on such a system much might be expected.
Meanwhile the old church bell had been almost completely forgotten. But it was to be presumed that the bell would find its way into the furnace, and what would become of it then? It was impossible to say, and equally impossible to tell what sounds would come forth from the bell that kept echoing through the young heart of the boy from Marbach; but that bell was of bronze, and kept sounding so loud that it must at last be heard out in the wide world; and the more cramped the space within the school walls, and the more deafening the dreary shout of "March! halt! front!" the louder did the sound ring through the youth's breast; and he sang what he felt in the circle of his companions, and the sound was heard beyond the boundaries of the principality. But it was not for this they had given him a presentation to the military school, and board, and clothing. Had he not been already numbered and destined to be a certain wheel in the great watchwork to which we all belong as pieces of practical machinery? How imperfectly do we understand ourselves! and how, then, shall others, even the best men, understand us? But it is the pressure that forms the precious stone. There was pressure enough here; but would the world be able, some day, to recognize the jewel?
In the capital of the prince of the country, a great festival was being celebrated. Thousands of candles and lamps gleamed brightly, and rockets flew towards the heavens in streams of fire. The splendor of that day yet lives in the remembrance of men, but it lives through him, the young scholar of the military school, who was trying in sorrow and tears to escape unperceived from the land: he was compelled to leave all mother, native country, those he loved unless he could resign himself to sink into the stream of oblivion among his fellows.
The old bell was better off than he, for the bell would remain peaceably by the churchyard wall in Marbach, safe, and almost forgotten. The wind whistled over it, and might have told a fine tale of him at whose birth the bell had sounded, and over whom the wind had but now blown cold in the forest of a neighboring land, where he had sunk down, exhausted by fatigue, with his whole wealth, his only hope for the future, the written pages of his tragedy "Fiesco" the wind might have told of the youth's only patrons, men who were artists, and who yet slunk away to amuse themselves at skittles while his play was being read: the wind could have told of the pale fugitive, who sat for weary weeks and months in the wretched tavern, where the host brawled and drank, and coarse boozing was going on while he sang of the ideal. Heavy days, dark days! The heart must suffer and endure for itself the trials it is to sing.
Dark days and cold nights also passed over the old bell. The iron frame did not feel them, but the bell within the heart of man is affected by gloomy times. How fared it with the young man? How fared it with the old bell? The bell was carried far away, farther than its sound could have been heard from the lofty tower in which it had once hung. And the youth? The bell in his heart sounded farther that his eye should ever see or his foot should ever wander; it is sounding and sounding on, over the ocean, round the whole earth. But let us first speak of the belfry bell. It was carried away from Marbach, was sold for old metal, and destined for the melting furnace in Bavaria. But when and how did this happen? In the capital of Bavaria, many years after the bell had fallen from the tower, there was a talk of its being melted down, to be used in the manufacture of a memorial in honor of one of the great ones of the German land. And behold how suitable this war, how strangely and wonderfully things happened in the world! In Denmark, on one of those green islands where the beech woods rustle, and the many Hun's Graves are to be seen, quite a poor boy had been born. He bad been accustomed to walk about in wooden shoes, and to carry a dinner wrapped in an old handkerchief to his father, who carved figure-heads on the ship-builder's wharves; but this poor lad had become the pride of his country, for Thorwaldsen knew bow to hew marble blocks into such glorious shapes as made the whole world wonder, and to him bad been awarded the honorable commission that be should fashion of clay a noble form that was to be cast in bronze a statue of him whose name the father in Marbach had inscribed in the old Bible as Johann Christoph Friedrich.
And the glowing metal flowed into the mould. The old belfry bell of whose home and of whose vanished sounds no one thought this very old bell flowed into the mould, and formed the head and bust of the figure that was soon to be unveiled, which now stands in Stuttgard, before the old palace a representation of him who once walked to and fro there, striving and suffering, harassed by the world without he, the boy of Marbach, the pupil of the "Karlschule," the fugitive, Germany's great immortal poet, who sang of the liberator of Switzerland and of the Heaven-inspired Maid of Orleans.
It was a beautiful sunny day; flags were waving from roofs and steeples in the royal city of Stuttgard; the bells rang for joy and festivity; one bell alone was silent, but it gleamed in another form in the bright sunshine it gleamed from the head and breast of the statue of honor. On that day, exactly one hundred years bad elapsed since the day on which the bell at Marbach had sung comfort and peace to the suffering mother, when she bore her son, in poverty, in the humble cottage him who was afterwards to become the rich man, whose treasures enriched the world, the poet who sang of the noble virtues of woman, who sang of all that was great and glorious Johann Christoph Friedrich Schiller.

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The Stories on this site were compiled from the following historical publications and others.

Hans Christian Andersen
Andersen's Fairy Tales
Chicago - New York - San Francisco
Belford, Clarke & Co.

Hans Christian Andersen
Hans Christian Andersen's
for the
Copyrighted 1893, McLoughlin Bros.

Hans Christian Andersen
Hans Christian Andersen
Camden Press
Dalziel Bros. Engravers and Printers Copyright Unknown, est. 1870

Hans Christian Andersen
Hans Christian Andersen
E.P. Dutton and Co.
© 1906-1907

Hans Christian Andersen
Hans Christian Andersen
The Century Company,
The DeVinne Press
Copyright 1900