The devil in the belfry by Edgar Allan Poe

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by Edgar Allan Poe


What o’clock is it?
Old Saying.

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
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 quiz.
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 resolutions:
“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 leather-bottomed arm-chairs.
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 steeple.
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
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
“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
“Eleven!” said the big one.
“Eleben!” assented the little ones.
“Twelve!” said the bell.
“Dvelf!” they replied perfectly satisfied, and dropping their
“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 o’clock!!”
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 hour!”
“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
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.

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