St. Nicholas/Volume 41/Number 1/The Singing Clock

3838759St. Nicholas — The Singing ClockKatherine Dunlap Cather


A legend of the Black Forest


Nowhere in all Germany were clocks made so well and in such numbers as at Kesselberg in the Black Forest, a village that stands high on the banks of the Rhine where it is swift and narrow as it surges across the border from its cradle in the Swiss mountains.

For a hundred and fifty years, the men had worked in the forest in the summer, cutting down trees and carefully drying the wood that, during the long winter, was to be made into clocks, for everybody in Kesselberg plied the same trade, and timepieces from this village marked the hours in homes of the rich all over the land.

But there came a time when the people grew tired of the old craft. Machine-made clocks had just come into use, and it became the fashion to use them instead of the hand-wrought ones. The price of Kesselberg wares came down, and some of the peasants, becoming discouraged at having to toil for the small income the work now yielded, went away to go into service in great houses in the cities. These sent word back of how much money they earned, and one after another the villagers left until only the aged remained at home, and it seemed that the ancient industry would die out. But the grand duke of the country was a wise man as well as a good one. He was proud of Kesselberg and its generations of clock-makers, and wanted the work to go on, that the village might be famous in the future as it had been in the past. So he offered a prize of five thousand marks to whoever should make the finest clock during the coming winter.

The word went like flame across an autumn field. Five thousand marks! That was over twelve hundred dollars, and more than a peasant could hope to earn in many years. News of the wonderful offer traveled far, until it reached the ears of all who had gone away, and there was wild excitement among them. They loved the Black Forest huts among the larch and hemlock trees far better than the great, strange houses in the cities, and the sighing of the wind in the woods was sweeter to them than the strains of cathedral organs: so back they went to their native mountains, to take up the work of their fathers. All summer long, axes flew in the woods, and the crash of falling trees sounded across the Rhine, and such preparations were made for a winter of clock-making as Kesselberg had never known.

At that time, there dwelt in. the village Gerther Walden, a goat boy. He was fourteen years old, and lived with his grandfather, Hans Gerber, who, in his younger days, was the most skilful clock-maker of the Black Forest. But sickness had kept him from work for several years, so Gerther made a scant living by herding goats in the summer, and helping a neighbor with his clock-making in the winter. The old man was growing strong again, and when word of the ducal offer went round, began to think of taking up his trade.

“But I have little hope of winning the prize,” he said to Gerther, as they ate their supper of black bread and goat’s milk one evening. “Younger men have become skilful during my months of illness, and Hans Gerber is no longer the best clock-maker of Kesselberg. Besides, we have no money to buy paint, and Chris Stuck is planning to put gold flowers and birds on his clock.”

Gerther did not reply. He knew his grandfather spoke the truth, and the thought made him sad. And that night as he lay unable to sleep, he kept trying to think of some way of getting the prize.

“If we could only win it,” he murmured, “we could have a new hut with a wooden floor instead of a ground one, and a cow to take the place of Brindle, who died last year.”

He thought for a long time, and at last fell asleep from sheer weariness. But over in the opposite corner of the room, Hans Gerber lay awake throughout the night, for he, too, thought about the prize, and wished, but hardly dared to hope, that it might come to him.

The next day, as Gerther went through the woods with his goats, he heard a cuckoo call.

“Cuckoo, cuckoo!” it sang as it flew in and out among the trees.

The boy listened, thinking how sweet it was, and asked, in a loud voice: “Cuckoo, how many years before I shall be rich?”

“Cuckoo!” the bird trilled again. Gerther laughed, for Black Forest peasants believe it can tell fortunes, and while they think it lazy because it will not make a nest for itself, but lays its eggs in the homes of other birds, they like it better than any other. Its call made Gerther glad, and he repeated the question.

“The truth, bird, the truth! How many years before I am rich?”

And again came the sweet sound, “Cuckoo!”

He started home with a light heart, and, as he drove his flock through the village, saw groups of peasants standing in the street. He knew they were talking about the prize, but without stopping to chat with them, he went straight on to his grandfather’s cabin, for he wanted to ask a question of the old clock-maker.

Grospapa!” he called as he bounded in at the door.

Hans Gerber was drawing plans on paper, but he turned from his work to listen.

“What is it, Gerther?” he asked.

“Could a clock be made that, instead of striking the hours, would sing them out the way the cuckoo does?”

The old man’s eyes brightened, as if he thought the idea a wonderful one.

“A singing clock!” he murmured. “Aye, aye. It is strange that the idea never came to me, for I am sure such a clock can be made. I believe that I can do it, because, when a boy, I worked with an organ-maker in Cologne, and the knowledge gained then may help me.”

They talked and drew plans until their last bit of paper was used up, and then scratched with a stick on the ground floor till the candle burned out and the hut was in darkness. Then they went to bed, strong in the belief that they could make a singing clock.

Autumn came, and the leaves on the forest trees were like gaily decked sprites. The villagers sang as they gathered in the wood, for the thought of the reward that spring might bring made them eager to begin the work. None were gayer than Hans Gerber and Gerther, for, although they knew the others had paint that they could not get, they were happy in the thought of a wonderful secret.

Fierce winds swept in from the Swiss mountains, and the Black Forest was carpeted with white. The Rhine froze over, and the village was shut in from the world. But little cared the people for the long, cold winter. In every house both young and old were busy. The women and girls did the housework, and when it was finished, took out knives and saws and wood. Even the children had a part in the work, for they carried the wood to the workers, or smoothed with sandpaper the pieces that were finished. The wind howled outside, and the snow drifted against the windows, but that did not matter. The well-fed fires kept the huts snug and warm, and the peasants sang and told stories as they worked.

But there was one hut where it was not cozy, where the fire burned so faintly that a chill crept over the man and boy within. For Gerther had been busy with the goats during the summer, and had no time for wood-cutting, so they had only a few dead branches that he had picked up in the forest, which had to be used very sparingly. But the work went on just as in the huts where the fire was well fed. When their fingers stiffened with cold, they clapped hands until the
surging blood made them warm. They carved out pieces, smoothed and fastened them in place, until, one day, Hans Gerber said: “The clock is finished!” And setting it on the table, he added: “Let us see if the cuckoo will call.”

Turning the hands so that they marked the hour, they waited. It was a breathless moment, for, if the cuckoo did not call, the winter’s work was a failure, and their only hope of winning the prize was gone. But there came a whirring sound, and from the door under the face a tiny bird popped out, calling, “Cuckoo, cuckoo!”

Gerther's eyes grew bright as stars, and Hans Gerber nodded his head and smiled.

“The singing clock is good, boy! We have done our work well.”

The lad could hardly wait for spring, for now that the clock was finished, the days seemed weeks long. and he thought the snow would never melt. But one afternoon, as he was bedding the goats, he heard what Black Forest peasants say is an unfailing sign that the cold weather is over. A pair of martens twittered in the woods and commenced building in the bird-house over the hut, and the next morning he found that the ice on the river was breaking.

Easter Monday was set for the exhibition, and great preparations were made for the event, as the grand duke himself, with the duchess and the young princess, was coming to inspect the work. The housewives made their finest fruit-bread and nut-cakes, while the men carried the clocks to the village inn, where they were arranged on tables according to size and beauty. Gerther and his grandfather went with the rest, but when the boy looked at the work of the others, his heart sank. All but the cuckoo-clock were painted. Some had the cases ornamented with flowers and birds, and one was enameled in blue and silver.

“I 'm afraid our clock won't take the prize,” he said to his grand- father as they walked home through the budding woods. “The others are so gay, and ours has not a bit of color.”

But Hans Gerber was old and wise, and knew that a clock may be very fine without, yet not half so good within, as one that is plain and unpainted. So he answered consolingly, “Don't let that worry you, boy. It 's the works that make a clock worth while, not a case that looks like Joseph's coat.”

So Gerther went to sleep that night, and dreamed that they had a new hut, and that a cow with a star on her forehead stood in the barn, for it seemed their clock had won the prize.

The next day, a throng of villagers gathered in front of the village inn. Everybody was in

We have holiday dress. The girls and women had on their finest caps, and skirts, and bodices.

When Gerther and his grandfather came into the crowd, a peasant whispered, “Poor Hans Gerber! See his clock, without a speck of paint.”

While they talked, the sound of wheels and horses’ hoofs told that the ducal carriage was coming, and the peasants made an opening through which the royal party might pass. They bowed low as the duchess and the Princess Anna stepped out and went into the inn. Behind them walked the grand duke, looking very handsome in his military uniform with its gold epaulets.

Eager eyes were upon the great folk as they looked over the exhibit, and the crowd was so silent that there was the quiet of a deserted place about the inn. No one spoke, but all watched intently the expression of the nobleman’s face as he moved about the tables. Now he seemed to choose the clock with the bird-decked case, and now the blue and silver one made by the inn-keeper. Twice he went back to it, and the people murmured, “It will take the prize.” He did not seem to notice the unpainted one that stood at the end of the table, and, as Gerther watched, he felt that a stone was on his heart. If only he would wait until it struck the hour!

The grand duke turned to speak to the duchess, and hope rose in the boy’s heart, for every minute’s delay gave a chance to hear the cuckoo call before it was too late. It was ten minutes to three. Would he wait those ten minutes? But again the boy grew sick at heart, for he turned as if to announce his decision.

A thought came to Gerther, and like a flash he moved to act. Hastening to where the nobleman stood, he said timidly, “Please, Your Highness, may I make my clock strike?”

The grand duke looked at him kindly, but the peasants murmured in amazement.

“He must be crazy,” they exclaimed, “to think of winning a prize with that clock.”

But Gerther did not mind their remarks. In fact, he did not hear them. He thought only of the clock, and of making the cuckoo call.

“Which is yours?” the grand duke asked.

“This,” said the boy, pointing to the clock.

Perhaps the great man felt sorry for a boy whom he thought had no chance of winning the prize, for he answered very gently, “Yes, make it strike.”

Gerther turned the hands to three, and a whirring sound began. Then, from the door under the face a bird popped out, and called, “Cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo!”

The grand duke and duchess started. The peasants’ eyes grew big with wonder, and the Princess Anna clapped her hands.

“Oh!” she cried in delight. “A singing clock!”

“Yes,” answered the duke, “a singing clock. There are others more gay to look upon, but none so wonderful as this.”

Then, turning to Gerther, he asked: “Did you make it, boy?”’

“Grandfather and I,” came the reply. “I thought of putting the cuckoo in, and he planned and did most of the work.”

“Then to you and your grandfather belongs the prize!” And, turning to the table, he laid the purple winning-ribbon on the cuckoo-clock.

The peasants broke into cheers, and crowded around Hans Gerber and his grandson, for Black Forest folk have kind hearts, and though each had hoped to win the prize himself, he was glad it went to those who most deserved and needed it.

So Gerther’s dream came true. They had a new hut with a wooden floor, and a cow with a star on her forehead stood in the barn.

The story spread. From everywhere came orders for cuckoo-clocks, until the old man and the boy could not fill them, and soon all the villagers were at work under their direction. The rich in the cities paid so well for these timepieces that the peasants gave up all thought of going away, and were glad to stay in the woods and carry on the ancient industry. The wares of Kesselberg were shipped to every European land, and even across the sea to America.

Years passed. Gerther went to Heidelberg to study in the university, and became a great and wise man. But it was not his wisdom that made him most known and loved in the Fatherland, but the clock he helped to make when a boy, the cuckoo-clock which was the means of reviving an industry that was fast dying out, and made the clock-makers of the Black Forest famous even beyond the German lands.