Intimate Life of a Noble German Family: Part Ii
ACCORDING to German custom, B– took me to visit the neighboring gentry. The estates lie far apart, any one within twenty English miles being considered a neighbor. These visits were generally “ timed ” so that we might arrive at vespers, and we frequently remained until after Abendbrod. It appeared to me very much like the intercourse kept up between the families of Southern planters before the war. There is the same lavish hospitality and old-time courtesy, the same pride of station, and the same sensitiveness in regard to the condition of the peasantry which put the slaveholder on his mettle when a stranger showed too much inquisitiveness in regard to the “ institution.”
The residences are more like English mansions than our preconceived notions of a castle. There Was one magnificent place near us. The present owner has erected a spacious and splendid modern villa, leaving the old castle, which was a castle indeed and the residence of the family for centuries, to molder away beneath the touch of time. Family pride and a feeling of reverence have prevented any desecration of the venerable pile, and it rears its broken outlines against the grand old park beyond, more beautiful than in its prime. One could still enter, beneath a crumbling arch, into an open court, once gay with flowers and fountain-sprays. There are no flowers now but a few daisies and nameless weeds which have crept up to the broken basin, from whose centre a fir-tree has sprung, tall and graceful, towering far above the ruined walls. Arched doors and shattered stairways lead from the court into dim ivy-draped apartments, where one dare not enter. Out on the velvety lawns peacocks were preening their feathers, and under the great trees of the century-old park swans sailed about on dark, deep pools, whose banks were overhung with grass and ferns. The grass in the park looked dark and damp, and was mixed with moss and strange rank plants. There were seats hewn from solid blocks of granite bearing dates of the sixteenth century. The figures and arabesques were almost illegible, and the stone was covered with lichens and dark, suggestive stains. Adjoining the park there was a family burying-ground, where the stones lay flat, inches deep in dark moss and ivy. There rest, or rested, the mortal parts of the old Ritter and their stately dames, who have clashed their armor and rustled their satins and velvets through those dim aisles, and reclined on those carven seats ! Ah, how awfully poor and insignificant and modern it made me feel ! Beneath one stone of comparatively recent date rest the remains of one who had for forty years borne the burden of six Christian names, beside a family name of itself enough to consign an ordinary mortal to the dust: “Marie Julie Constanze Louise Henriette Xaviere B–n von C–c. Rube Sanft!”
At this place I saw the youngest female scion of the house, a little creature of six years, who as a probable type of the high and well born girl of the period is worthy of mention. She rejoiced in the name of Hildegarde (and how many more only her tomb-stone may reveal!). Does any one of my readers remember the little girl watching the “ busy bee improve the shining hours,” in Mrs. Barbauld’s Hymns for Infancy, I think ? This noble Fraülein was the exact reproduction of that figure, puffed sleeves, short waist, pinafore, long pantalettes, and all, complete. She never left the side of her Roman-nosed governess during our visit, but sat in one corner, with folded hands and a preternaturally grave and astonished countenance, watching the antics of my little Elsa, who fluttered about like an uncommonly lively butterfly.
The American child was evidently a revelation to the German child. When a stroll in the park was proposed, Elsa snapped the elastic of her sailor hat under her brown curls, and ran on before us, springing like a lamb, Fraülein Hilldegarde was made to don a large hat with broad ribbons, a linen frill was tied around her neck, and long linen mitts were drawn over her skinny little arms quite up to the short sleeves ; for a maiden of high degree may not allow those democratic wooers, Sun and Wind, to approach too near. Thus attired she minced along by the side of her unpleasant governess, still keeping her gaze fixed upon Elsa. All at once I noticed a faint glimmer in the little creature’s pale eyes, the phantom of a smile parted her thin lips, and she gave one funny little hop, like a galvanized rabbit. Then, looking very much scared and conscience-smitten, she immediately subsided into a dignified pace again.
It not being the season for great festivities, I attended but few formal parties during my visit. But as birthdays occur regardless of time and season, and are celebrated in Germany with much display and effusion of sentiment, I had the pleasure of being present on several such occasions. A description of one will give an idea of all. The Geburtstagkind in this case was the Baroness S–, mother of a large family, and the party numbered all the relatives and friends who could be brought together. We drove for two hours through fields slowly ripening for the harvest, through many villages far prettier than Y–, and arrived at H– as usual in time for vespers. The host ran down the steps to the carriage door to meet us, a hearty and cordial custom of the province, and conducted us to the entrance-hall, where a large party of ladies and gentlemen were gathered. There was a great deal of kissing, hand-shaking, and gushing congratulations. A maid then conducted us to the dressingroom, and thence to the parlors, where coffee, cakes, etc., were served; immediately after which the gentlemen, all of them staid heads of families (there were absolutely no young men to be seen in the country), bowed themselves out of the ladies’ presence, and betook themselves to a distant apartment, through whose open windows floated subsequently a mingled sound of laughter and clinking glasses, which proved that they were not absolutely perishing with longing for the paradise they had just quitted. Left to themselves, the weaker sex wandered about the park and flower-garden, conversing in that brilliant style customary among women when abandoned to one another’s society. This being a formal occasion, the usual knitting and embroidery were dispensed with, and the ladies, as I fancied, appeared ill at ease and distrait in consequence. I amused myself by talking with two young girls, just from boarding-school, and anxious, like many others I met, to show what they did not know about the English language.
Let me say in this connection that B– spoke English almost faultlessly, which was all the more wonderful that she had learned it more than twenty years previously from her governess, since when she had had no opportunity for practice other than by reading aloud to herself. And she spoke genuine English, too, often saying laughingly that I spoke American. The young girls above alluded to afforded me limitless entertainment. They insisted upon calling me “ Mee ladee,” and propounded some absolutely startling questions in regard to America, of which they seemed to possess no knowledge whatever. I inferred that it must have been represented on their school maps by a blank space.
“ What shall be de costume of de American ladees ? ” inquired one gentle miss, with a glance at my dress, which was quite de rigueur. “ Have you newspapers in Amerikah ? ” asked another. “Have zey churches dere?” still another. While yet another, a married lady, blushingly remarked that “ it must be embarrassing to see so many naked black people running about.”
All this without any idea of quizzing. Our country is simply a subject too insignificant to occupy their time or attention. It is regarded at the most as a penal colony, where their “ bad boys ” are comfortably gotten rid of. I was disputing good-naturedly with one miss of a somewhat original turn, on one occasion, and remarked finally, “ I see, Fraülein, that you will come to America eventually.” “ I must first do something very bad! ” she promptly answered. Of course not every one I met was so ignorant. Some of the gentlemen had vague notions of our country geographically, but they all entertained many false opinions, which it was a waste of powder to combat. They will tell you plainly that our birds are songless, our flowers scentless, our fruit tasteless, and our people conscienceless. When you attempt to dispute these points, they will regard you courteously, but compassionately, and maintain their preconceived ideas with a tenacity worthy of a better cause.
But I have digressed too far. I have left those ungallant husbands too long in the card-room. After an hour or two these lords of creation did finally appear, breathing suggestive odors of the weed and the vine, and escorted us to the supper-table. The supper was profuse, heavy, and long drawn out. A perfect bouquet of different colored wineglasses was before each couvert. At least a dozen kinds of wine were served, over which the whole party, the ladies included, became dignifiedly hilarious. The conversation was, as usual, of the crops, local politics, and the dreadful doings of Bismarck, whom these conservative people regard with unmixed disapprobation. Of course everybody was duly toasted, from the corpulent and motherly Geburtstagskind up to the emperor, who was always spoken of with bated breath. When we had eaten and drunk ourselves into a comatose condition we returned to the parlors. Thereupon ensued the ceremony before described. Everybody wished everybody else, separately, “ gesegnete Mahlzeit,” the gentlemen bowing deeply, the ladies dropping queer little old-time courtesies. Fifty persons were present, therefore each had to repeat the ceremony fortynine times ! Multiply forty-nine by fifty and calculate the amount of muscular force expended. I resolved to go through with the ceremony or perish in the effort. I bowed and I bowed, until I panted like a hart, and the bowing and bobbing figures before me swam in a lurid haze. And still they came ! In the midst of it appeared B– ’s handsome roseate face.
She must have seen and comprehended the despair written upon my brow, for she whispered, “ You find this comical, do you not?” I gave her a glance in answer which sent her off laughing heartily (she was too bright not to realize how the ceremony must seem to an outside barbarian), and I bowed on and on. The carriages were announced soon after, and we rode home in a silence pleasantly diversified by falling asleep and rolling off the seats into one another’s arms.
Some of the impromptu gatherings were altogether pleasanter and brighter. There was little to stimulate the intellect in conversation, but through all the rather prosaic and monotonous tone ran that fine quality of gentle breeding which gives a charm to commonest themes. I expected more in the way of music. All the ladies learn music, but, like our own matrons, in most cases lay it aside after marriage for more practical occupations. My attainments in a musical way, and particularly my acquaintance with classical German composers, caused them great surprise. My own astonishment was no less intense when a gentleman asked me, on one occasion, to sing Kelly Bly !
I found, when I could recover my powers of speech, that he had heard it from an army comrade who had lived in America, and regarded it (perhaps rightly ?) as a true exponent of American art. Of American authors not much was known. Some of the better read knew Longfellow and Irving through translations, but the two books most frequently mentioned to me were Uncle Tom’s Cabin and — The Wide, Wide World !
I remember with unfading freshness a ride which I took with F–over the estates, one lovely midsummer morning.
Our road lay at first through forests of fir, beech, and oak; not the spontaneous growths of nature, but planted by the prudent hand of man, as doubtless will be done at no distant day in our own country. These artificial forests were in all stages, — some just started, others the growdh of many years, where the trees stand tall and straight, row upon row, like a vast army. The ground underneath was smooth, as if swept by the hand of a careful housewife, every fallen twig being gathered into fagots by the old women and children of the village. How different from our wild woods at home ! Not a mossy log, vineclad rock, or ferny nook to be seen ; only the arid sandy soil, with its sparse covering of pine-needles and deep, gloomy vistas, which surely none but evil gnomes and brownies would care to haunt. Emerging from the forest, we came upon the tiny village of J–, a wretched collection of hovels, with no church, but with a school-house, and a teacher who has a pretty cottage covered with climbing roses and honeysuckle. Here are extensive stables, poultry-yards, and dairies. The inhabitants are occupied entirely in caring for the vast herds of cattle, and for the flocks of fowl which set up a deafening noise as we drove through their midst. Hideous beldames, with voices scarcely less shrill, hobbled about after them, and scores of sunburnt, dirty children ran after our carriage to stare at the little American girl. Leaving the noisy village behind us, we drove on into the valley of the Oder. Here the soil is fertile, and the earth was teeming with a rich harvest, — acres upon acres of rye, ripe and ready for the sickle, its yellow gleaming blades mingled with lovely blue corn-flowers. As the wind swayed the broad golden surface the blue under-tint mingled with the yellow, producing an effect no pen or brush can portray. Then there were fields upon fields of barley, oats, and wheat, still of a vivid green, inlaid with scarlet poppies, another matchless effect of color. Here and there were long stretches of yellow-blossomed lupine and snowy buckwheat, patches of rose and white and purple poppies in full bloom, melting into each other in exquisite gradations. There were great pastures, where herds of cattle and flocks of sheep grazed ankle-deep in white clover, while the shepherd drowsed beneath some splendid oak, his big white dog keeping the herds within bounds; for there are no fences, and all these sheets of color simply merge themselves into one unbroken surface. In the ripe fields women in red skirts and white bodices were reaping the grain, while the men loaded it upon creaking carts. The midsummer sun steeped everything in clear, fervid light, and larks sprang from the rustling grain as our wheels rolled by, and darting upward into the blue showered their liquid notes down upon us like a benediction. It was like a Pastorale of Beethoven.
About this time a drought set in, and lasted almost two months. Water was poor and scarce, and the mystery of the padlocked cisterns was made clear to me. The sap seemed to dry out of everything except fruit, which flourished finely in the tropical atmosphere. The cherry crop was particularly fine. Let no one who has not eaten cherries outside of America fancy that he knows anything at all on the subject. Like the plums, which ripen later, their variety is infinite, their excellence surpasses description. Those small sour objects, with more stone than pulp, which one eats in our country gingerly and with a lurking suspicion of worms, are unworthy of the name. Coming as they did that season in the midst of a drought which turned the very milk of human kindness sour, and made one contemplate emigration to the arctic regions, those German cherries were a revelation indeed. We devoured them by the bushel, now the yellow, now the red, now the black, with vast, insatiable appetites. Sitting thus one afternoon at vespers, listless and bored, we saw a strange carriage enter the court. B–cast one eagle glance upon it, and cried, in awe-struck and delighted tones, “ The prince ! ” Then she plunged one look into the now empty coffeepot, sent it to the kitchen for replenishment, smoothed her ruffled plumage, and assumed an expression as if coffee-pots did not exist.
“ A prince ! ” To confess the truth I had had a surfeit of counts and barons, “ and such small deer.” They had begun to pall upon my taste. But now a veritable prince would greet my vision. Oh, dazzling prospect! I stayed not on the order of my going, but went at once in search of my offspring. I found them seated in the donkey-wagon (eating cherries, of course), as dirty as chimney-sweeps and correspondingly happy. I seized them remorselessly, and hurried through devious ways to the back entrance of the Schloss and into my room, where, with my handmaid’s assistance, they were soon made beautiful in white and azure, and-sent into the august presence. While dressing I got into quite a flutter of uncertainty as to the form of address to be used in the coming interview. One says “ Herr Graf ” or “ Herr Baron,” but it would not do at all to say “Herr Priuz”! That I knew. It must be “ Durchlaut ” ! Great was my relief when B–came in to tell me that I could converse with the visitors in my mother tongue, addressing them simply as prince and princess.
When presentable I went out, and was introduced, not to the crown prince, as the reader may have imagined, nor yet to any prince of the blood royal, but simply to his highness the Prince von H–c, his wife and three daughters. The prince was very tall and good-looking, but oh how seedy! his wife a small, dowdy, pleasant-faced woman ; and the young princesses far behind the average American girl in point of looks and style. They were dressed like “ sweet girl graduates,” in white muslin and blue sashes, very simply fashioned. All were near-sighted, the eldest quite blind. She was a pale, gentle creature, and appeared to be the pet and idol of the family. She took a fancy to me, and held my hand all the time I was walking with them. The prince was very genial, almost boyish, in his manners. He escorted me to the table at supper, and we chatted away in English in the most familiar style. He had a way of laughing uproariously at the most feeble witticisms which was very amusing. When they went away the blind girl put up her lips and kissed me most affectionately. We returned this visit later in the season. The H–c family inhabit a veritable castle, a vestige of feudal times, which I was wild to get a fair view of. My disappointment was great when I found that from our closed carriage I could obtain absolutely no view of it at all. We drove up to the moat, now dry and half filled with weeds and débris, and spanned by a small stone bridge. Here we waited while our footman went in to announce our arrival, as is the custom here. He returned, and we drove under a grand carved archway into an open court, where, at the foot of a stately stairway, the prince received us. I fear my manner was distrait, for I was eagerly scanning the old, timestained walls and the grotesquely carved windows and door-ways which opened upon the court. The pavement was full of wheel ruts, the stairs worn into hollows by the feet of generations. The wife of the prince received us in a splendid lofty apartment. The ceiling of this room was peculiar. The centre represented the surface of a river or lake, being one broad sheet of rippling waves. The border, or cornice, represented reeds and all manner of aquatic plants, among which sported water nymphs and baby boys astride of dolphins, blowing vigorously upon conch-shells. The whole was in pure white stucco. The effect was fine. The blind princess was present, but her two sisters did not appear till later, and
B–told me afterwards that, in the scarcity of servants, they had been picking the fine late strawberries with which we were subsequently regaled. She had seen the stains upon their lily fingers.
A flavor of mild decay was perceptible everywhere, which spoke of shrunken revenues and a struggle to maintain the establishment. Servile and weak-minded creature that I am, these evidences of reduced fortune were painful to me. The good prince was so absolutely charming ! Anything like his sweetness toward his wife and daughters I never saw. He was enthusiastic in his enjoyment of the music at which it was my pleasure to assist, going down upon his knees to get nearer to the notes, a proceeding rendered necessary by his immense height and near-sightedness. The blind princess sang in a sweet, quavering voice, which seemed groping its way among the notes as she, poor girl, is doomed to go through life. Supper was served in an immense vaulted hall, where our voices echoed and reëchoed, like the voices of the vanished guests of centuries past who had sat at this same board. How I longed, with the ardor of an unsophisticated American, to go over the grand old place, and ask questions ! But I fear that on the first suspicion of being “ interviewed ” the genial old gentleman would have retreated into his castle and let down the portcullis.