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
ingers 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


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


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


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 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."