Intimate Life of a Noble German Family: Part I
IT was on a fine day in the latter part of May, 187—, when, with a little one clinging to either hand, I stepped from the gang-plank of the small transfer steamer at Bremerhaven. Of course it was not from sentimental motives that, after a tedious voyage of eighteen days, we were allowed to step out upon this green and flowery bank instead of the crowded, unsightly wharf where the Lloyd steamer N—g discharged her freight, etc. ; but nevertheless one could only feel grateful for the privilege. I wonder if my feet will ever touch earth again with such a mingled sense of reverence and exultation ! Right at the first step a surprise awaited me, for scores, yes, hundreds of well-known faces crowded up to give me welcome. There they were, the darlings of my childhood and girlhood, — buttercups, clover, dandelions, and one new yet strangely familiar face, the daisy’s, “ wee, modest, crimsontipped,”— smiling up at me from the greensward ! It was like an unexpected greeting in the English language. Some little flaxen-braided German girls were picking nosegays near by ; a flock of geese gabbled excitedly and fled at our approach ; and a motherly nanny, who, with a brace of dappled kids, was tethered on the hill-side, gave us one grave, comprehensive glance, imparted her impressions to her offspring in a brief staccato note, and resumed her in terrupted meal.
An hour of confusion at the depot, and we were huddled indiscriminately into dirty second and third class cars, and placed under lock and key. The two hours’ journey to Bremen gave us a succession of pretty pictures, although the country is flat and the scenery by no means remarkable. We passed many villages, all to the fleeting glance charming and picturesque, the peak-roofed cottages of each clustering about a small, ivy-grown church with low, square tower. On every eminence a windmill waved its ponderous arms. The orchards were white and rosy with bloom. Peasant women in big hats and muchcurtailed petticoats were at work in the fields, and turned invariably to stare at the passing train with as much interest as if it were the first of locomotives on its trial trip. I was childishly excited over everything, and when at last I saw a pair of veritable storks in a meadow, poising on one long leg to regard the whizzing train with a blasé and knowing air, then indeed I realized that I was in Germany.
We arrived without adventure in Berlin, just at sunset. I knew that a friend of B—’s was to receive us here, — a baroness with an awe-inspiring title and a jaw-breaking name. I descended from the coupé, therefore, with considerable trepidation, expecting to meet a grande dame whose magnificence and hauteur would crush me to the earth. I had hardly taken a dozen steps when I met the gaze of a very short, very fat, very much dressed old lady who was advancing towards me, a carte-de-visite in her hand. After a hasty scrutiny of my person and a glance at the photograph, she rushed up to us with the abandon of a school-girl, and showered upon us words of welcome in a shrill voice and the funniest German-English I ever listened to : —
“ So ! you have camed allein mit two shilderns von Amerikah ! Nein, dat ish not posseeble ! How you are live ? Poor tings, came mit me ! I have all arrange, alles in ordnung! ”— and much more in the same style, and in the kindliest, motberliest manner imaginable. She gave orders to her resplendent footman, and we were soon on our way to the Hôtel de France, where, as the good soul explained with pardonable frankness, she had engaged us rooms for the night, her husband, the general, being very old, nervös, and unused to the presence of children. How kind, how good, she was ; and how valiantly she struggled with the English language, merely from principle, as I assured her from the first moment that it was unnecessary in my case ! She insisted also on going with us to our rooms, and in the lack of an elevator toiled pantingly up to the fifth story, where they were situated. She ordered our supper, and turning down the covers of the beds rigidly examined them.
“ Mein Gott! ” she cried, “ de bedcloths are humid! ” and then summoning the chambermaid she scolded her roundly in her shrillest tones, and fussed and fumed and fluttered about, with the best of intentions, until I, too, was utterly disgusted with rooms, beds, and supper, which were not so bad after all in quality, although meagre in quantity. The dear lady had never possessed children of her own, but her capacious bosom evidently harbored maternal love enough for a large brood, and her heart seemed to open very warmly to my little girls, whose father she had known from his infancy. She told me much of the place and people to whom I was going, and was loud in her praises of B—, whom she declared emphatically to be “ one angle.” As we were to leave next morning at a very early hour, she bade us good-by, or rather “ auf wiedersehn,” as she was to visit Y—in the course of the summer.
Bright and early the footman was on hand, with many messages from his mistress, lunch for the journey, and bonbons for the children. How pleasant was that early ride to the depot ! The great city was just beginning to stir uneasily in its slumbers, and the fever of traffic and pleasure would evidently soon set in ; but now everything was cool, fresh, and quiet. We soon left the splendid city behind us, and sped on to D—, where we were to change cars and B—was to meet us. We alighted, and were immediately greeted by a plainly-dressed little woman, whose face was radiant with sweetness and nobility.
“ Thank God that you are here ! ” she exclaimed, in a cordial voice and most excellent English.
Such a welcome broke down every barrier, and in a few minutes we were chatting, over cups of smoking bouillon, as if we had known each other for years. Two hours more of railway travel and we reached W—, where the family carriage awaited us. A short drive over the rough cobble-stones of the queer, slow little city, a half-hour’s drive over a fine chaussée bordered all the way with cherry-trees, and we reached the tiny village of Y—, where the residence of F— is situated. Lots of funny little peasants, real Oscar Pletsch children, ran out to stare at us ; geese, ducks, and pigs were thrown into a violent state of agitation, and plunged precipitantly into their puddles ; while withered old men and women hobbled out and peered from under their shaking hands at “ the Americans,” whose advent had probably been known and talked of for months previously. I have no doubt they expected to see us either black or copper-colored, and in a costume consisting principally of a feather head-dress and a pair of moccasins. At the further end of the village we turned from the chaussée into the Hof (courtyard), around which the buildings appertaining to the estate are situated. Across this court-yard, opposite the entrance, stands the Schloss, or castle, before whose door the members of the family were gathered to receive us ; and what a welcome it was ! F—, grave, dignified, but with such gentle, genuine manners; the little boys, fair, rosy, manly fellows, who hung shyly back at first, but came forward when bidden, and greeted us in pretty, formal German phrases.
All the servants of the household came to pay their respects, also : the men with deep obeisances ; the women, from the lady’s-maid to my own newly-installed little Kindermädchen, kissing our hands and showering admiring epithets on the two Contesseinen, as my little girls were henceforth called. I heard myself spoken of habitually among tire Dienerschaft as the Frau Gräfin unten, to distinguish me from B— who was the Frau Gräfin oben ; ” in plain English, the “ down - stairs ” and the “ upstairs ” countesses.
The village of Y— is only one of the thousands with which the country is literally peppered. It possesses most of the qualities, good, bad, and otherwise, which they share in common, at least in this province. At a distance they are picturesque, but if one desires to preserve one’s illusions one must not come too near. They do look well in pictures, — rude cottages, filthy puddles, and all; but then artists cannot, and would not, paint the smells. This particular village consists of a hundred or so small cottages, built of rough stone, the old thatched with straw, the new with tiles. They are not unsightly in themselves, especially in summer, nestling in orchards, hedges, and gardens, but their surroundings are abominable. Before each door is a huge dung-hill (mit Respect zu sagen), where hens and swine dispute the territory, and evil-smelling, green puddles, where geese, ducks, and dirty children whose hair is bleached white with exposure to the sun, paddle together in placid bliss from morn till dewy eve. So far from trying to keep such necessary adjuncts of agricultural life as dung-hills, etc., etc., out of sight, as is our American custom, they are here given the place d'honneur, and I fancy the family pretensions to rank are gauged in accordance with the more or less rapid accumulations of these manure heaps.
Old men and women, beyond more active service, sit in the door-ways and keep the feathered and unfeathered bipeds within bounds. Their faces are brown and wrinkled, like dried pears, their bodies bent and shriveled, but their tongues wag vigorously, and they knit incessantly, both sexes, upon coarse woolen socks. There is no church at Y—, the people attending service at a neighboring village. The dignitary of the place seemed to be the schoolmaster, whose cottage was distinguishable from the rest by an air of superior neatness and the presence of a pretty garden full of well-cared-for flowers. There is here, as in all villages, a green where the peasants meet for recreation, windmills on every little hill-top, and a well-filled, dreary old churchyard, which for barrenness would vie with any New England country burying-ground. There are no shops, not even a bakery, all purchases being made in the distant town.
On entering the Hof, a stranger marks with surprise that here as elsewhere, the stables, granaries, etc., are situated at the very entrance, a custom which produces an unpleasant effect on more senses than one. These buildings are of stone, roughly plastered, one being surmounted by a weather-cock, a bell to be rung in case of fire, and a discouraged-looking old clock, which refuses utterly, or did when I was there, to record the passage of time. Half-way up the court, on the right, is the dwelling of the inspector, a low, thatched, charming cottage under a spreading linden. Opposite this, sandwiched between a granary and a carriage-house, is another dwelling, called the Schlösschen, or little castle, of which more hereafter, and at the extreme end of the court stands the Schloss itself, alalmost concealed from view by a row of magnificent horse-chestnuts. At the time of our arrival these trees were in full bloom, opulent with fan-like foliage and great spikes of rose-colored flowers. The ground beneath was spread inchdeep with a brilliant carpet of their fallen petals.
The Schloss is a plain, substantial structure, without the least pretension to architectural beauty, being in fact only a comfortable country mansion, called a “castle” out of courtesy. Still, it had for me an oddly pleasant look, with its steep, red-tiled roof and arched windows peeping out from the dark foliage and rosy bloom of the grand old trees. The grounds are not extensive, but well laid out, with an abundance of flower-beds, shrubbery, shaded walks, and summer-houses furnished with green and white painted chairs and tables, where the family spend a greater part of the long summer days. In the centre of the court is a basin and a fountain with a languid jet, and there are beautiful old trees everywhere. The whole place, though by no means lordly, is pleasant and home-like. I found most of the home flowers and shrubs here, and others new to me. The roses are fine, the bushes being trimmed into the shape of trees, and growing as high and often higher than an average person’s height. Against the sunnier walls apricots and peaches are trained upon espaliers.
The bachelor uncle from whom F— inherited this and two adjoining estates passed only a few weeks here, during the hunting season. He seems to have regarded this property merely as a milch cow to be drained for the expenses of his city pleasures. Being left for many years in the hands of one dishonest inspector after another, things were in a deplorable state when F— took possession. He told me that the very cattle Were starving in their stalls. Under his thrifty and scientific management everything is flourishing now, and I heard plans discussed for the erection of a magnificent new Schloss and the laying out of a park worthy of the family name and position. The uncle referred to was of a festive turn, and whenever he came, on hunting bent, brought with him a host of congenial spirits. But from some whim he built for his own personal convenience the little residence before mentioned, the Schlösschen, which is quite a bijou of an affair. The Schloss itself was given over to the guests, though they all dined together in the stately hall of the Schlösschen. Now the case is just reversed, F—’s family occupying the Schloss, and the little castle being reserved for guests. I, however, was installed in a spacious apartment on the ground-floor of the family dwelling.
The first thing which struck me on entering the Schloss was the odd contrasts of simplicity and magnificence seen on every hand. One enters a broad hall which leads directly through the house, another crossing it midway from end to end. The floors of these halls and of the adjoining kitchens are paved with tiles, and the walls are lined with massive mahogany presses, containing household stores. On this floor, besides the kitchens, are the governess’s, footmen’s, and lady’s-maids’ looms, and a few guest rooms. Above are the diningroom, salons, and private rooms of the family.
In all these rooms the floors are bare : those in the salons waxed and strewn with rugs; the rest, plain, well-scoured deal. The furniture is mostly of mahogany and rose-wood, much of it carved and inlaid with ivory, ebony, etc. I saw some pieces, two hundred years old, which would set an American collector frantic with vain longings. In nearly all the rooms were oil-paintings, many of them really good. There were originals of Tintoretto, Titian, Holbein, Paul Veronese, — or at least what purported to be originals. There was much bricabrac lying about, and book-cases stored with classic lore. I saw no modern books in any tongue. They told me a good story of the manner in which a portion of the paintings came into the old count’s hands. They belonged formerly to an old and impoverished nobleman, who proposed to him to take the entire collection, paying him therefor a moderate annuity for the rest of his life. The count assented, no doubt with many a secret chuckle, for their owner was apparently tottering on the very brink of the grave. But those laugh best who laugh last. The old fellow seemed endowed with a new lease of life. He lived on and on, until the full value of the pictures had been paid twice over. The story is told by their present owner with a mingling of humor and chagrin which my bare recital cannot impart.
The upper hall of the Schloss is decorated with all manner of trophies of the chase ; handsome rugs of deer and fox skins lie before the doors. In every room is one of those great stoves of white, gray, or pink-tinted porcelain, gilded and battlemented. Great, dignified-looking arm-chairs, in which one would never dream of lolling, are everywhere about, but never a rocking-chair ! That seems to be looked upon by our German sisters as a promoter of idleness and vanity.
Best of all I liked F—’s own rooms. A piquant flavor of old bachelorhood still hung about them, which the ten years’ presence of a wife, where no wife had ever been seen before, had failed to dissipate. The very chairs wore a more genial expression there, and seemed to say, “ Come, you may lounge and idle in me. I am used to it.” Scattered about were odd bits of furniture, china, and bronze, smacking of masculine use and masculine tastes; among the former some very pretty chairs constructed of antlers and covered with foxes’ skins, head and brush complete. Some of the best but most startling of the paintings were in these rooms. Before several of these the discreet B— had hung little curtains of green silk. And over all and through all the delicate odor of the very choicest Havanas was perceptible.
My own room was large, lofty, and cheerful. Three great windows, hung with snowy curtains, opened upon the kitchen garden and some quaint outbuildings draped with magnificent ivy. The floor was scoured white, and strewn with rich, faded old rugs. The furniture was heavy and handsome. I had one of the great porcelain stoves, a grand affair, surmounted by a swan with goldtipped wings and beak ; also a capacious and inviting sofa, and a perfect jewel of a writing-desk, full of unexpected little drawers and pigeon-holes. At the further end of the room, behind an immense screen, were the toilet arrangements and three of those small plethoric beds for which Germany is famous. The linen was simply exquisite, and all the appointments of the beds quite elegant; but oh, those plumeaux! How many times did I wake up in the cool June nights to find all three of us uncovered and shivering! Finally, I implored B— to take the slippery things away and give us some English blankets, which, with much wondering at our strange tastes, she immediately did.
The routine of life was quiet, even monotonous, but to an American woman, fresh from the “ fitful fever ” of American housekeeping, sweet and restful. The servants were numerous and well trained, and performed their duties with little noise, and at the right time and in the right manner. It must be said in passing that it took ten men and women to do the work which half that number would be required to perform in an American household. Then, on the other hand, it must be stated that they have not half our conveniences. Their utensils are primitive and cumbrous, and they have much to “ fetch and carry ; ” but, looking at results, one can only indulge in an envious and useless sigh. The absence of those pests of American housekeeping, the weekly washing and ironing days, is one reason why the German servants are able to go about their work with so much more regularity and thoroughness. In Germany the family wash is done no oftener than once a month, — in many places not oftener than once in three or six months, — and then is done by extra help hired for the occasion. On Monday of the week devoted to this work, according to my observations, the women came and began preparations. The clothes, etc., were sorted under the supervision of the lady’s-maid or housekeeper; the wood laid ready for lighting under the great boiler in the wash-house, and every tub, hogshead, etc., filled with water. The water was pumped laboriously, and brought from some distance in cumbrous buckets. The carriers wore upon their shoulders for this purpose heavy wooden yokes, like ox-yokes, with a chain and hook at each end, to which the full buckets were attached. The next morning at three o’clock they were at work, busy as bees, and out-chattering the swallows in the ivy which grew about the wash-house eaves. Wash-boards, those instruments of destruction, were unknown, all rubbing being done between their horny knuckles. The ironing is done in Germany by means of a mangle, where possible, and the clothes are beautifully smooth and clean.
The whole atmosphere of the place was peaceful and drowsy. Pigeons cooed, swallows twittered, from morn until night. These, and the musical baying of the hounds, the lowing of distant cattle, and the muffled rumble of wagons upon the chaussée, were the sounds to which the ear became attuned. The occasional shriek of a locomotive was the only reminder of a world outside this Sleepy Hollow of a place.
I was told that the railroad company offered to establish a station near Y— for the accommodation of the leading families of the neighborhood, — an offer which was unanimously refused, they preferring the numerous inconveniences connected with their isolation to the influx of new elements and the confusion incident to a depot in their midst. This fact, as an indication of the exclusive and conservative spirit of the “privileged class,” seems to me very striking.
Hurry, bustle, excitement, those foes to peace which follow us from the cradle to the grave, are almost unknown there. Repose, — everywhere repose ! One reason, perhaps the reason, is that the Germans are an eminently systematic people. Everything is made to work by rule. Gradgrind himself could not exceed them in the importance attached to bare facts and figures. They never say it is hot or cold, but it is “ so many degrees Réaumur.” A thermometer was hung outside the window of each room, as well as inside. These were closely watched, and the windows shut as soon as the mercury indicated a higher temperature outside than inside. They were opened only towards evening, when the case was reversed. Fresh air was a secondary consideration and a draft was believed absolutely fatal.
The precautions observed in bathing were very extensive. In the absence of bath-rooms, tubs were brought to the room, and filled with water whose temperature was carefully adjusted by means of a thermometer. The fresh body linen was wrapped around stone bottles filled with hot water, as was also the large sheet to be used in drying off. After the bath, every one lies in bed for an hour or so before dressing. This renders bathing an elaborate and consequently a less frequent process than with us.
Communication with the world was kept up by means of that primitive institution known as the Botenfrau, — a peasant woman who trudges every morning to the town and back, bearing on her shoulders a large oblong basket, in which she carries the mail-bag, and brings the white bread and cakes for the family and any other small portable articles required by them or the villagers. Nearly all our small shopping was done through the Botenfrau by means of samples. She presented herself immediately after breakfast for orders, which she faithfully executed, returning about noon, ordinarily while we were at the dinner-table. The little mail-bag was handed in, and the contents distributed at the close of the meal. Her arrival was for me the event of the day. The sound of her bare feet on the stairs, the creak of her heavy basket, always threw me into a tremor of expectation. I can see her now, this humble beast of burden, as she invariably was found when we left the dining-room, standing in the hall awaiting us. Her dusty feet, pathetic, sunburnt face, and air of patience always touched my heart. A kind word brought a cheery smile into her face ; an extra Dreier (three-penny piece) filled her with delight.
Five meals a day were served. The family breakfasted very early, previously to which religious services were held, when all the household were expected to be present. I, however, took my breakfast — the simple German one of coffee and bread without butter — in my own room whenever I chose to rise. At ten o’clock a second breakfast, consisting of cold meats, fruit, beer, etc., was served; at half past twelve dinner; at four o’clock vespers a lunch of coffee, cakes, and fruit, always, when possible, in the open air; and at seven Abendbrod (supper), which was a heavy and often luxurious meal. It can be seen from this that one has never the smallest chance of becoming really hungry. Before dinner grace was said by the elder son of the house, and at the close thanks returned by the younger. Then all rose, and according to a time-honored custom a mutual hand-shaking and wishing each other “ gesegnete Mahlzeit ” (blessed repast) ensued. So much has been said in regard to the German cuisine that I can hope to offer nothing new, but my experience both in America and Germany has made me an enthusiastic convert.
In the family where I was guest the menu was always excellent, — full of delicate surprises for the palate, created often by simplest means used with admirable skill and knowledge. But then B —’s cook was an artist. A tiny old woman, with a keen, refined face, she presided over her intricate cookingrange and innumerable porcelain saucepans like a beneficent fairy. A month’s experience of her cookery inspired me with admiring awe. I remember on one occasion of hearing a great commotion in the kitchen, in which the children’s voices were so conspicuous that I ran to see what was going on. I found the little old cook in a lively struggle with a monster fish, almost as large as herself, — a horrible fellow, with big, square head, goggle eyes, wide mouth, and bristling horns. It must be mentioned en passant that all fish for the table are purchased alive, and brought to the kitchen in tubs of water, to be slaughtered by the cook. Knife in hand, an expression worthy of St. George attacking the dragon on her wrinkled face, the little woman was struggling valiantly with the slippery, flopping monster, endeavoring to give him the fatal stroke. Whether she would finally succeed, or herself disappear in his capacious maw, seemed for a while doubtful; but at last, to the relief of the spectators, the monster’s blood deepened the red hue of the tiled floor, and old Paulinchen retired, flushed and triumphant, from the gory field, muttering as she wiped her victorious blade, “ Das war aber ein Iverl ! ” At dinner the fish was served entire, reclining in a graceful curve upon an immense trencher, which required two servants to present.
B — kindly decreed that I should sleep every day after dinner, a rule at which I felt no disposition to rebel. Finding that, from the situation of my room, I could not sleep without interruption, she gave me every day the keys of the Schlösschen, and there, upon a comfortable couch in the stately dining-hall, I slept away the drowsy summer afternoons, until a servant summoned me to vespers.
This small establishment interested me a great deal. Below, through the centre, an arched passage for carriages leads from the chaussée to the court. On one side is an immense apartment, used now as a store-room ; on the other is a perfectly arranged kitchen and a broad stone staircase leading to the upper story. The doors above consist of solid mahogany, with handles of carved ivory. The ceilings are frescoed, the walls hung with rich damask paper, the floors inlaid with vari-colored woods. There are handsome vases, and rich furniture in all the rooms. Such paintings as were too forbidding in subject for B—’s taste remain here in lonely oblivion. One sleeping-room was filled with lumber-boxes of doubtful literature ; portfolios of engravings of an equally dubious nature, although artistically of much value ; odd bits of furniture ; and stuffed birds and beasts, among the latter a veritable two-headed calf, born on the estate, and preserved for the wondering eyes of future generations. The first time I went over alone for my post-prandial nap, I confess I found the place somewhat uncanny. The key of the outer door, a huge, rusty, mysteriouslooking affair, gave out a hoarse, suggestive sound as I put it into the mouth of the bronze dolphin which served as lock, — a sound to make the flesh creep. The great valves closed of themselves behind me with a bang which rang dismally through the empty passage. The door which opened upon the stair-way creaked ominously, and my foot-falls awoke unpleasant echoes on the stairs. Before lying down I locked the door upon the stuffed calf and his associates, whose glassy eyes followed me maliciously. These siestas became almost a necessity of my existence, and when the arrival of guests, later in the season, put an end to them, I found it difficult to resign myself to the change. In fact, I had begun to regard the Schlösschen as my own exclusive domain ; for in addition to the undisturbed slumbers it had afforded me, the piano, too, stood there, out of regard to F—’s tympanum, which had never recovered from the tortures of his governess days.
That piano deserves more than a passing word. When I arrived at Y—no such institution existed. All F—’s predecessors had been bachelors, and, neither he nor his wife being " musical,” F— had declared, with stinging memories of his own early struggles, that his boys should not learn music. Therefore, to my dismay, no piano, as I have said, was to be found. But after long consultations, elaborate correspondence, and the lapse of weeks, an instrument was procured in a distant town, which was, unfortunately, not on the line of the railway. It took a cart, four horses, and two men all day to get it to Y—. Its arrival created a profound sensation. Men and beasts remained over night and nearly all the next day. To hear those men deliberate how to get that instrument up one flight of broad, easy stairs would have consigned an American dealer to a lunatic asylum. They began early in the morning. All the available help on the place was put in requisition. By dint of much gesticulation, oft-repeated “ Potztausends ” and “ Donnerwetters,” much groaning and perspiring, and the united powers of strong arms, ropes, pulleys, and braces, the work was finally accomplished; men and beasts ate, rested, and departed. The next day the school-master of a distant village was sent for to put the instrument in tune. He, too, remained to dinner, vespers, and Abendbrod, and I began to think he would stay all night, but he packed up his little carpet-sack at dusk, and “ silently stole away.”
The next morning I had the pleasure of producing the first strains of piano music, at least, which had ever woke the echoes of the Schlösschen. The instrument defies description. It was “ grand ” in form, and constructed of cherry-wood. Its legs were fearfully attenuated, its tone faint and ghost-like. It had quite the air of a high-born spinster of the last century. When I say that the present owner bought it from a lady who inherited it from her grand-mother, who bought it second hand at an auction, the reader can imagine the rest.
One thing which caused me much perplexity was the effort I was constantly making to reconcile the de facto German countess with that haughty creature who, wearing a coronet of diamonds on her lofty brow, trails her velvet robes through her ancestral halls, — on the stage and in Marlitt’s novels. The ancestral halls are certainly there, and the coronet, in some form or other, is omnipresent. One sees it carved upon the furniture, engraved upon the plate, embroidered upon every conceivable article from a handkerchief to a dust-cloth, embossed upon every button of every male servant’s livery, and branded conspicuously upon the wooden shovels and buckets in use about the place. I should not have been surprised to see it in repoussé upon the shells of the eggs served at Abendbrod. In short, it is everywhere except upon the place it was originally intended to adorn, where it appears only on occasions of state.
But the German countess, according to my observation, is a plain, domestic creature, who trots briskly about during the forenoon hours, attired in a simple short dress, with big apron and snowy cap, a heavy key-basket jingling in her hand. She arranges to the minutest detail the meals of the family, the servants of the house, and the laborers in the court, all of whom receive a separate bill of fare. Every article required in the preparation of these meals, even to the salt, is carefully weighed out. Each servant has so much sugar, tea, and coffee per week, which he can consume at his pleasure. That this alone is a laborious task every housekeeper will admit. At dinner the countess appears freshly, but still simply, dressed. After dinner she is seen with knitting in hand, or a great basket of mending by her side, working with as much assiduity as any American housewife, hardly allowing herself as much time for reading or recreation. Each napkin, towel, etc., is held up against the light, and rigidly inspected; each thin place, even in the coarsest crash towel for kitchen use, is carefully darned. I was much amused, at one place where I visited, to see the daughter of the house, fresh from boarding-school, going through this process with a great basket of linen, under the supervision of her mother. I remarked, rather in the way of self-congratulation, that in America we made ourselves less trouble.
“ What! ” exclaimed the lady. “ You do not mend your linen ? ”
“ Not the kitchen towels, at all events,” I ventured to answer.
“ Oh, Frau S—! ” exclaimed the young girl, with melodramatic fervor. “ Take me to America with you ! A land where one need not darn the kitchen towels must be heavenly ! ”
I think our American girls are unconscious of their blessings.
As in this, so in all other matters, the most vigilant economy is observed. It would be simply incomprehensible to an American reader should I attempt to describe the extent to which this idea is carried. Everything eatable, drinkable, or stealable is kept under lock and key, even down to the contents of the cisterns and rain-barrels. If there be anything a true American woman holds in utter scorn, it is keys, and I saw with ill-concealed triumph that this rigid key system frequently caused confusion even in the ranks of those to the manner born. Whenever I saw the servants rushing about with panic-stricken faces and wild gesticulations, I knew a key had been misplaced. On one occasion B— departed on a visit, leaving her key-basket at home, but safely locked in a drawer, whose key she took with her. During her absence visitors came, and the usual refreshments, which had been previously “given out,” of course, were served. On her return her first question was, “ What did you offer them ? ” “ An empty sugar-bowl! ” was the stern reply of her irritated spouse. She had forgotten (unpardonable levity!) to fill it. Soon after my arrival B—— solemnly confided to my keeping, for my own private use, a silver sugar-bowl, with cover, lock, and key. I was requested to keep it locked, for fear that my little maid might steal the sugar ; and for fear that somebody else might be tempted to purloin the bowl itself, an heir-loom and a beauty, I kept it locked in my bureau. Frequently, when seated by the open window, with my delicious coffee, thick cream, and rolls before me, I would remember that the sugar was in the bureau, the key of the bureau in a dress pocket, the dress in the wardrobe, the key of the wardrobe in the writing-desk, and the writing-desk — somewhere, anywhere!
This system of restraint and repression lies at the very root of things. It begins with the new-born babe, which, lest it be accidentally disjointed, is tightly swathed and bound to an oblong hair cushion, from which it has no relief, day or night, during the first three months of its existence, excepting, of course, while its toilet is in process. I do not believe an American baby would submit to it! It grieved me to the core to see B—’s nearest neighbor’s fine boy baby thus trammeled, and sweltering beneath a big silken plumeau through the hottest summer weather. That he was often cross and restless while in that position, and that he became immediately quiet and joyous when released for a few minutes from his bonds, the young mother naïvely confessed.
“ Do you not do the same in America ? ” she asked me, with wide-open eyes, when I expressed my sympathy for the poor baby. “ The Indians do,” I answered. She gazed pensively at my own fine, active girls. “ Merkwürdig,” she remarked, with a puzzled shake of the head. I explained to her that the American nation has doubtless more “ backbone ” than European nations, at which she looked still more puzzled, but uttered no demurrer. When they leave the Wickelküssen behind them their limbs are free, to be sure, but the restraint system is applied to every impulse of their natures. They dare not express a choice of food at table; they dare not leave a spoonful of anything upon their plates. It is the same with everything, — their childish peculiarities and tastes are studiously ignored, or crushed out. Although every possible means is furnished to boys of all classes in Germany for physical and mental development and varied recreation, there is a constant espionage exercised, and a blind submission to petty rules required, which must make their very pleasures a bore.
Although parental love and tenderness are nowhere deeper or more demonstrative than in Germany, yet the home discipline seemed to me needlessly severe. I am willing to confess, however, that we Americans err in the other extreme.
It was with utter astonishment that I saw hanging on the wall of the boys’ room two specimens of that ancient preserver of domestic authority, the traditional “rod” of Scripture. Not, dear reader, a slender “ tickler,” but a carefully selected and well-tied bundle of twigs, such as I had hitherto seen only in pictures. I could not imagine For B-using it upon their own wellbeloved sons, but the occasional sound of boyish voices lifted up in anguish convinced me against my will that the rod was here no empty symbol.
The imposition of fines levied upon them little treasure-boxes, and deprivations and humiliations of various sorts, were modes of punishment most frequently employed, however. One of the latter sort was quite efficacious. It consisted in exile from the family board for a season, the culprit being compelled to eat at a small, plainly furnished table, called derisively the Katzentisch (cat’s table). At one time the elder boy occupied such a table a whole week. He bore it with equanimity until guests arrived, when he begged piteously for a reprieve, but found no mercy.
It is an undisputed fact that when they leave home for the gymnasium or other educational institution, and are able to shake off their shackles in a measure, the German youth lead the van in extravagance and dissipation.
As for the high and well born German girls, poor things, I fancy nothing could be tamer and flatter than the life they lead. They are educated precisely alike, the range of study being very limited. The common branches, French, sometimes English, and a few petty “ ornamentals” comprise the list. They must know enough arithmetic to keep the household accounts and weigh out the sugar, coffee, etc., for weekly use, and that suffices. My statement that American girls study the higher branches of mathematics, wade boldly into the physical sciences, and learn both Greek and Latin, if they choose, was met with ill-repressed surprise. Latin and Greek are considered immoral — for the feminine mind. The traditions and prejudices of their class are carefully inculcated. Any woman who dares think or act in opposition to the conventional standard is looked upon with distrust.
Almost every family has at least one son in the army, and I think I am justified in saying that in very many instances his excesses reduce the family fortune and seriously diminish the dowries of his sisters. Without a handsome dowry no girl need expect to find a husband, — “ die mussen sitzen bleiben ; ” and how many of those “ lone, ungathered roses ” I saw ! Yet no worm seemed preying on their plump cheeks. They looked complacent and resigned, and as much alike as the gilt ancestral cups from which they partook of their frequent coffee.