Old Time Tales - Lawton Evans

The Legend of the Strassburg Clock

The great cathedral at Strassburg was nearing its completion. It had taken nearly four hundred years to build, and already one could see it was to be among the most beautiful of all those great churches which adorn the capitals of Europe. The builders looked upon it with pride, and said, "The only thing this church needs is a wonderful clock that will not only keep time, but will be such a marvel in every other way that no other clock in the world will be like it."

The question was whom could they find to build a clock that would be so wonderful that it would accord well with the great building in which it was to stand and which would excite the admiration of all the world. High and low they searched for some clock-builder, but with all their diligence they could find no one to whom they could entrust the enterprise.

At last, an old man named Isaac Habich, who came from some foreign country, appeared before the builders and said to them, "I am a clock-builder and I know I can build one for this great cathedral that will be the world's marvel. No other clock will ever be like it or can ever be like it. I shall undertake the work for you if you so desire."

Habich told the builders what kind of clock he proposed to build, and the many beautiful things the clock would show. The builders were convinced that at last they had found the man for whom they were seeking, and so they engaged Habich to build the clock. In a few days he set to work. He took careful measurements of the space where the clock was to go, and set apart for himself a place in the cathedral where he could work undisturbed and unnoticed.

As the clock grew under his hands he added more and more marvels to it without saying anything to anybody about it, and the clock grew in size and in wonder under his masterful hands. Several years went by before the work was finished, and when it was uncovered for the admiration of all beholders, everyone was lost in wonder.

The builders and the people said, "This is indeed a marvelous clock. I do not see how it could be more wonderful than it is. Let us hope there never will be another clock in all the world like it."

The great face of the clock showed the hour of the day; there were places to indicate the day and month of the year; the rising and setting of the sun was also shown, as well as the appearance and eclipse of the moon and sun each time exactly as they occurred in nature; the change of the stars was also indicated and each constellation appeared in its appropriate place according to the astronomical calendar of the year.

In fact, there was not anything that related to time or change of seasons or the movements of the stars that this clock did not indicate. The master builder had so timed its works that everything ran with great smoothness and all one had to do was to look at the clock to find out anything he wanted to know about time.

In addition to this there were many mechanical devices that added to the attractiveness of the clock. One of the most remarkable things about it was the striking of the hours and the quarter-hours. When the time came to strike the quarters, the figure of Death appeared, who seized a hammer to strike the bell, but the figure of the Saviour arose and sent back Death, who was only allowed to strike the full hour with his hammer. At certain times the procession of the apostles also appeared in front of the face of the clock and bowed before the figure of the Saviour.

Of course all Strassburg gloried in the clock and called it the crowning wonder of the great cathedral. But nobody said anything about the poor old clock-maker, who, through all the years, had been busy in the great work. The people thought only of the clock.

One day the builders met and began to talk about their possession. One of them said, "We have the most wonderful clock in the world and we do not wish anyone else to have one like it. Suppose Habich should build another and even a better one than this for some other cathedral."

To this the others replied, "That would be a great calamity to our cathedral and should be prevented by all means."

They then put their heads together and decided upon measures to prevent Habich from ever building another clock. They hit upon the cruel design of putting out the eyes of the old man in order to make his skill useless thereafter. They said nothing of this cruel design to anyone, of course, bait went to Habich at his house in Strassburg, and after talking to him about the clock, they said to him, "For fear that you will build another clock like this and take away the glory of Strassburg, it is our intention now, in your own home, in the dead of this night, and before anyone can prevent it, to bind you here in your own room and put out your eyes. No one will believe that we did it, and we will then know that the clock of Strassburg will never find its equal."

To this horrible ingratitude Habich replied, "Is this the reward of all the work I have done for you and for Strassburg? Do you intend to deprive me in my old age of the means of livelihood? Do you intend to take away from me the glory of the sun and the sky and the earth because I have built a great clock to the glory of God and the Strassburg cathedral?"

To this appeal of the old man the builders replied, "Yes, that is our intention. It may seem cruel to you, but the glory of Strassburg is beyond mere human enjoyment and you must sacrifice your eyes because we cannot trust any promise that you may make."

Habich was alone in his house and was powerless, but the old man had wit as well as skill, and so he sadly replied to them, "Well, if that is your decision let me say that I can do no other than submit to your will, but I may as well let you know that the clock itself is not yet complete. There are several things yet to be done in the tower of the clock. Therefore I pray you, before I lose my eyes, let me finish the work which I have in mind; it will take but a few hours."

To this the builders finally consented, and taking the old man through the streets of Strassburg secretly, they entered the church and opened the door of the great clock and allowed the master to enter and climb the little stairs that led into the works where all the wheels were, of whose movements Habich alone possessed the secret.

There the old man stayed for a few hours, but instead of finishing the work as he had said, for it was already finished, he proceeded to take out several of the wheels and destroy certain movements of whose intricate workings he alone knew.

When he came back to where the builders were, he said to them, "The clock is now finished, and it is the last work that I ever expect to do, for now I am old and my days are spent. You may lead me back to my house and there carry out your cruel design."

In the house of the old clock-maker the builders bound him hand and foot and with red-hot irons seared his eyeballs so terribly that from that time he could not see.

"Now," they said to themselves, "the clock of Strassburg will never find its equal in the world, for it is finished, and the clock-maker can never see to build another one."

But listen to the end of this story. Habich, instead of finishing the clock, had taken out the wheels that made the movements of some of its most interesting features. The next day when the builders went to see the clock, behold, it did not work! In haste they went to Habich and cried out to him in alarm, "The clock will not work in all of its parts. It tells the time and a few other things, but the most beautiful part, that we admired so much, no longer works. What shall we do?"

Habich answered, "I cannot help you now. You have deprived me of my eyesight and I can no longer repair any damage that has been done to my masterpiece. You must find some one else, now, for I am old and blind and shall shortly die on account of the ingratitude of those I have served. When I entered the clock I destroyed the best part of the work I did. Now there is no one to repair it.

In a few weeks the old man was dead and the people of Strassburg mourned, not for him, but for their clock. It took many years to find anyone who could unravel the secrets of the wheels that had been destroyed, and for a long time the clock was silent, as if mourning for the master hand that had put it together.