THE DEVIL IN THE BELFRY
What o'clock is it?
EVERYBODY knows, in a general way, that the finest place in the world
is- or, alas, was- the Dutch borough of Vondervotteimittiss. Yet as it lies some distance
from any of the main roads, being in a somewhat out-of-the-way situation, there are
perhaps very few of my readers who have ever paid it a visit. For the benefit of those who
have not, therefore, it will be only proper that I should enter into some account of it.
And this is indeed the more necessary, as with the hope of enlisting public sympathy in
behalf of the inhabitants, I design here to give a history of the calamitous events which
have so lately occurred within its limits. No one who knows me will doubt that the duty
thus self-imposed will be executed to the best of my ability, with all that rigid
impartiality, all that cautious examination into facts, and diligent collation of
authorities, which should ever distinguish him who aspires to the title of historian.
By the united aid of medals, manuscripts, and inscriptions, I am
enabled to say, positively, that the borough of Vondervotteimittiss has existed, from its
origin, in precisely the same condition which it at present preserves. Of the date of this
origin, however, I grieve that I can only speak with that species of indefinite
definiteness which mathematicians are, at times, forced to put up with in certain
algebraic formulae. The date, I may thus say, in regard to the remoteness of its
antiquity, cannot be less than any assignable quantity whatsoever.
Touching the derivation of the name Vondervotteimittiss, I confess
myself, with sorrow, equally at fault. Among a multitude of opinions upon this delicate
point- some acute, some learned, some sufficiently the reverse- I am able to select
nothing which ought to be considered satisfactory. Perhaps the idea of Grogswigg- nearly
coincident with that of Kroutaplenttey- is to be cautiously preferred.- It runs:-
Vondervotteimittis- Vonder, lege Donder- Votteimittis, quasi und Bleitziz- Bleitziz
obsol:- pro Blitzen." This derivative, to say the truth, is still countenanced by
some traces of the electric fluid evident on the summit of the steeple of the House of the
Town-Council. I do not choose, however, to commit myself on a theme of such importance,
and must refer the reader desirous of information to the "Oratiunculae de Rebus
Praeter-Veteris," of Dundergutz. See, also, Blunderbuzzard "De
Derivationibus," pp. 27 to 5010, Folio, Gothic edit., Red and Black character,
Catch-word and No Cypher; wherein consult, also, marginal notes in the autograph of
Stuffundpuff, with the Sub-Commentaries of Gruntundguzzell.
Notwithstanding the obscurity which thus envelops the date of the
foundation of Vondervotteimittis, and the derivation of its name, there can be no doubt,
as I said before, that it has always existed as we find it at this epoch. The oldest man
in the borough can remember not the slightest difference in the appearance of any portion
of it; and, indeed, the very suggestion of such a possibility is considered an insult. The
site of the village is in a perfectly circular valley, about a quarter of a mile in
circumference, and entirely surrounded by gentle hills, over whose summit the people have
never yet ventured to pass. For this they assign the very good reason that they do not
believe there is anything at all on the other side.
Round the skirts of the valley (which is quite level, and paved
throughout with flat tiles), extends a continuous row of sixty little houses. These,
having their backs on the hills, must look, of course, to the centre of the plain, which
is just sixty yards from the front door of each dwelling. Every house has a small garden
before it, with a circular path, a sun-dial, and twenty-four cabbages. The buildings
themselves are so precisely alike, that one can in no manner be distinguished from the
other. Owing to the vast antiquity, the style of architecture is somewhat odd, but it is
not for that reason the less strikingly picturesque. They are fashioned of hard-burned
little bricks, red, with black ends, so that the walls look like a chess-board upon a
great scale. The gables are turned to the front, and there are cornices, as big as all the
rest of the house, over the eaves and over the main doors. The windows are narrow and
deep, with very tiny panes and a great deal of sash. On the roof is a vast quantity of
tiles with long curly ears. The woodwork, throughout, is of a dark hue and there is much
carving about it, with but a trifling variety of pattern for, time out of mind, the
carvers of Vondervotteimittiss have never been able to carve more than two objects- a
time-piece and a cabbage. But these they do exceedingly well, and intersperse them, with
singular ingenuity, wherever they find room for the chisel.
The dwellings are as much alike inside as out, and the furniture is all
upon one plan. The floors are of square tiles, the chairs and tables of black-looking wood
with thin crooked legs and puppy feet. The mantelpieces are wide and high, and have not
only time-pieces and cabbages sculptured over the front, but a real time-piece, which
makes a prodigious ticking, on the top in the middle, with a flower-pot containing a
cabbage standing on each extremity by way of outrider. Between each cabbage and the
time-piece, again, is a little China man having a large stomach with a great round hole in
it, through which is seen the dial-plate of a watch.
The fireplaces are large and deep, with fierce crooked-looking
fire-dogs. There is constantly a rousing fire, and a huge pot over it, full of sauer-kraut
and pork, to which the good woman of the house is always busy in attending. She is a
little fat old lady, with blue eyes and a red face, and wears a huge cap like a
sugar-loaf, ornamented with purple and yellow ribbons. Her dress is of orange-colored
linsey-woolsey, made very full behind and very short in the waist- and indeed very short
in other respects, not reaching below the middle of her leg. This is somewhat thick, and
so are her ankles, but she has a fine pair of green stockings to cover them. Her shoes- of
pink leather- are fastened each with a bunch of yellow ribbons puckered up in the shape of
a cabbage. In her left hand she has a little heavy Dutch watch; in her right she wields a
ladle for the sauerkraut and pork. By her side there stands a fat tabby cat, with a gilt
toy-repeater tied to its tail, which "the boys" have there fastened by way of a
The boys themselves are, all three of them, in the garden attending the
pig. They are each two feet in height. They have three-cornered cocked hats, purple
waistcoats reaching down to their thighs, buckskin knee-breeches, red stockings, heavy
shoes with big silver buckles, long surtout coats with large buttons of mother-of-pearl.
Each, too, has a pipe in his mouth, and a little dumpy watch in his right hand. He takes a
puff and a look, and then a look and a puff. The pig- which is corpulent and lazy- is
occupied now in picking up the stray leaves that fall from the cabbages, and now in giving
a kick behind at the gilt repeater, which the urchins have also tied to his tail in order
to make him look as handsome as the cat.
Right at the front door, in a high-backed leather-bottomed armed chair,
with crooked legs and puppy feet like the tables, is seated the old man of the house
himself. He is an exceedingly puffy little old gentleman, with big circular eyes and a
huge double chin. His dress resembles that of the boys- and I need say nothing farther
about it. All the difference is, that his pipe is somewhat bigger than theirs and he can
make a greater smoke. Like them, he has a watch, but he carries his watch in his pocket.
To say the truth, he has something of more importance than a watch to attend to- and what
that is, I shall presently explain. He sits with his right leg upon his left knee, wears a
grave countenance, and always keeps one of his eyes, at least, resolutely bent upon a
certain remarkable object in the centre of the plain.
This object is situated in the steeple of the House of the Town
Council. The Town Council are all very little, round, oily, intelligent men, with big
saucer eyes and fat double chins, and have their coats much longer and their shoe-buckles
much bigger than the ordinary inhabitants of Vondervotteimittiss. Since my sojourn in the
borough, they have had several special meetings, and have adopted these three important
"That it is wrong to alter the good old course of things:"
"That there is nothing tolerable out of Vondervotteimittiss:" and-
"That we will stick by our clocks and our cabbages."
Above the session-room of the Council is the steeple, and in the
steeple is the belfry, where exists, and has existed time out of mind, the pride and
wonder of the village- the great clock of the borough of Vondervotteimittiss. And this is
the object to which the eyes of the old gentlemen are turned who sit in the
The great clock has seven faces- one in each of the seven sides of the
steeple- so that it can be readily seen from all quarters. Its faces are large and white,
and its hands heavy and black. There is a belfry-man whose sole duty is to attend to it;
but this duty is the most perfect of sinecures- for the clock of Vondervotteimittis was
never yet known to have anything the matter with it. Until lately, the bare supposition of
such a thing was considered heretical. From the remotest period of antiquity to which the
archives have reference, the hours have been regularly struck by the big bell. And, indeed
the case was just the same with all the other clocks and watches in the borough. Never was
such a place for keeping the true time. When the large clapper thought proper to say
"Twelve o'clock!" all its obedient followers opened their throats
simultaneously, and responded like a very echo. In short, the good burghers were fond of
their sauer-kraut, but then they were proud of their clocks.
All people who hold sinecure offices are held in more or less respect,
and as the belfry- man of Vondervotteimittiss has the most perfect of sinecures, he is the
most perfectly respected of any man in the world. He is the chief dignitary of the
borough, and the very pigs look up to him with a sentiment of reverence. His coat-tail is
very far longer- his pipe, his shoe- buckles, his eyes, and his stomach, very far bigger-
than those of any other old gentleman in the village; and as to his chin, it is not only
double, but triple.
I have thus painted the happy estate of Vondervotteimittiss: alas, that
so fair a picture should ever experience a reverse!
There has been long a saying among the wisest inhabitants, that
"no good can come from over the hills"; and it really seemed that the words had
in them something of the spirit of prophecy. It wanted five minutes of noon, on the day
before yesterday, when there appeared a very odd-looking object on the summit of the ridge
of the eastward. Such an occurrence, of course, attracted universal attention, and every
little old gentleman who sat in a leather-bottomed arm-chair turned one of his eyes with a
stare of dismay upon the phenomenon, still keeping the other upon the clock in the
By the time that it wanted only three minutes to noon, the droll object
in question was perceived to be a very diminutive foreign-looking young man. He descended
the hills at a great rate, so that every body had soon a good look at him. He was really
the most finicky little personage that had ever been seen in Vondervotteimittiss. His
countenance was of a dark snuff-color, and he had a long hooked nose, pea eyes, a wide
mouth, and an excellent set of teeth, which latter he seemed anxious of displaying, as he
was grinning from ear to ear. What with mustachios and whiskers, there was none of the
rest of his face to be seen. His head was uncovered, and his hair neatly done up in
papillotes. His dress was a tight-fitting swallow-tailed black coat (from one of whose
pockets dangled a vast length of white handkerchief), black kerseymere knee-breeches,
black stockings, and stumpy-looking pumps, with huge bunches of black satin ribbon for
bows. Under one arm he carried a huge chapeau-de-bras, and under the other a fiddle nearly
five times as big as himself. In his left hand was a gold snuff-box, from which, as he
capered down the hill, cutting all manner of fantastic steps, he took snuff incessantly
with an air of the greatest possible self-satisfaction. God bless me!- here was a sight
for the honest burghers of Vondervotteimittiss!
To speak plainly, the fellow had, in spite of his grinning, an
audacious and sinister kind of face; and as he curvetted right into the village, the old
stumpy appearance of his pumps excited no little suspicion; and many a burgher who beheld
him that day would have given a trifle for a peep beneath the white cambric handkerchief
which hung so obtrusively from the pocket of his swallow-tailed coat. But what mainly
occasioned a righteous indignation was, that the scoundrelly popinjay, while he cut a
fandango here, and a whirligig there, did not seem to have the remotest idea in the world
of such a thing as keeping time in his steps.
The good people of the borough had scarcely a chance, however, to get
their eyes thoroughly open, when, just as it wanted half a minute of noon, the rascal
bounced, as I say, right into the midst of them; gave a chassez here, and a balancez
there; and then, after a pirouette and a pas-de-zephyr, pigeon-winged himself right up
into the belfry of the House of the Town Council, where the wonder-stricken belfry-man sat
smoking in a state of dignity and dismay. But the little chap seized him at once by the
nose; gave it a swing and a pull; clapped the big chapeau de-bras upon his head; knocked
it down over his eyes and mouth; and then, lifting up the big fiddle, beat him with it so
long and so soundly, that what with the belfry-man being so fat, and the fiddle being so
hollow, you would have sworn that there was a regiment of double-bass drummers all beating
the devil's tattoo up in the belfry of the steeple of Vondervotteimittiss.
There is no knowing to what desperate act of vengeance this unprincipled attack might have
aroused the inhabitants, but for the important fact that it now wanted only half a second
of noon. The bell was about to strike, and it was a matter of absolute and pre-eminent
necessity that every body should look well at his watch. It was evident, however, that
just at this moment the fellow in the steeple was doing something that he had no business
to do with the clock. But as it now began to strike, nobody had any time to attend to his
manoeuvres, for they had all to count the strokes of the bell as it sounded.
"One!" said the clock.
"Von!" echoed every little old gentleman in every
leather-bottomed arm-chair in Vondervotteimittiss. "Von!" said his watch also;
"von!" said the watch of his vrow; and "von!" said the watches of the
boys, and the little gilt repeaters on the tails of the cat and pig.
"Two!" continued the big bell; and
"Doo!" repeated all the repeaters.
"Three! Four! Five! Six! Seven! Eight! Nine! Ten!" said the bell.
"Dree! Vour! Fibe! Sax! Seben! Aight! Noin! Den!" answered the others.
"Eleven!" said the big one.
"Eleben!" assented the little ones.
"Twelve!" said the bell.
"Dvelf!" they replied perfectly satisfied, and dropping their voices.
"Und dvelf it is!" said all the little old gentlemen, putting up their watches.
But the big bell had not done with them yet.
"Thirteen!" said he.
"Der Teufel!" gasped the little old gentlemen, turning pale, dropping their
pipes, and putting down all their right legs from over their left knees.
"Der Teufel!" groaned they, "Dirteen! Dirteen!!- Mein Gott, it is Dirteen
Why attempt to describe the terrible scene which ensued? All Vondervotteimittiss flew at
once into a lamentable state of uproar.
"Vot is cum'd to mein pelly?" roared all the boys- "I've been ongry for dis
"Vot is com'd to mein kraut?" screamed all the vrows, "It has been done to
rags for this hour!"
"Vot is cum'd to mein pipe?" swore all the little old gentlemen, "Donder
and Blitzen; it has been smoked out for dis hour!"- and they filled them up again in
a great rage, and sinking back in their arm-chairs, puffed away so fast and so fiercely
that the whole valley was immediately filled with impenetrable smoke.
Meantime the cabbages all turned very red in the face, and it seemed as
if old Nick himself had taken possession of every thing in the shape of a timepiece. The
clocks carved upon the furniture took to dancing as if bewitched, while those upon the
mantel-pieces could scarcely contain themselves for fury, and kept such a continual
striking of thirteen, and such a frisking and wriggling of their pendulums as was really
horrible to see. But, worse than all, neither the cats nor the pigs could put up any
longer with the behavior of the little repeaters tied to their tails, and resented it by
scampering all over the place, scratching and poking, and squeaking and screeching, and
caterwauling and squalling, and flying into the faces, and running under the petticoats of
the people, and creating altogether the most abominable din and confusion which it is
possible for a reasonable person to conceive. And to make matters still more distressing,
the rascally little scape-grace in the steeple was evidently exerting himself to the
utmost. Every now and then one might catch a glimpse of the scoundrel through the smoke.
There he sat in the belfry upon the belfry-man, who was lying flat upon his back. In his
teeth the villain held the bell-rope, which he kept jerking about with his head, raising
such a clatter that my ears ring again even to think of it. On his lap lay the big fiddle,
at which he was scraping, out of all time and tune, with both hands, making a great show,
the nincompoop! of playing "Judy O'Flannagan and Paddy O'Rafferty."
Affairs being thus miserably situated, I left the place in
disgust, and now appeal for aid to all lovers of correct time and fine kraut.
Let us proceed in a body to the borough, and restore the ancient order of things
in Vondervotteimittiss by ejecting that little fellow from the steeple.