What was the name of that village on the penultimate morning, and where was it? West of Vienna, and certainly higher; but all the other details have gone. It was Saturday; everybody was free; we drove there in two motor-cars and feasted in an inn perched on the edge of a beech forest. Then, tingling with glühwein and himbeergeist, we toiled in high spirits and with the snow halfway up our shanks down a long forest ride. . .
It was dark when we drove back, talking and singing with the prospect of a cheerful last evening ahead. Prompted by my recent preoccupations, perhaps, the conversation veered to Charles V’s grandfather, the first Maximilian: The Last of the Knights, as we was called, half-landsknecht, and, until you looked more carefully at Dürer’s drawing, half playing-card monarch. Someone was describing how he used to escape from the business of the Empire now and then by retiring to a remote castle in the Tyrolese or Styrian forests. Scorning muskets and crossbows and armed only with a long spear, he would set out for days after stag, and wild boar. It was during one of these holidays that he composed a four-line poem, and inscribed it with chalk, or in lampblack, on the walls of the castle cellar. It was still there, the speaker said.
Who told us all this? Einer? One of the Austrian couple who were with us? Probably not Robin or Lee or Basset . . . I’ve forgotten, as I’ve forgotten the place we were coming from and the name of the castle. Whoever it was, I must have asked him to write it out, for here it is, transcribed inside the cover of a diary I began a fortnight later – frayed and battered now – with the old Austrian spelling painstakingly intact. There was something talismanic about these lines, I thought.
Leb, waiss nit wie lang
Und stürb, waiss nit wann
Muess fahren, waiss nit wohin
Mich wundert, das ich so frelich bin.
[Live, don’t know how long,
And die, don’t know when;
Must go, don’t know where;
I am astonished I am so cheerful]
Patrick Leigh Fermor in A Time of Gifts (1977), recalling a day in 1934, when he was nineteen, three months into his walk to Constantinople
A Tang dynasty poem in prose and verse. Snow, camaraderie, glühwein. A bygone era recalled on a bygone day. And that eternal enigma…