Intimate Life of a Noble German Family: Part Iii

I SHOULD mention a very charming dinner-party at the hunting-seat of the Duke of S—, a gentleman who, although of very distinguished French family on the paternal side, was himself a German subject.

It so happened that on the same day there was to be a “ missionary festival ” in the duke’s immediate neighborhood, and as B-makes it a point to attend punctiliously all occasions of a religious character within her reach, we went early, in order to be present. What there was of a “ festive ” nature about the affair would be hard to say, but I was obliged to believe that anything which draws a dozen or two people together is called, in Germany, a Pest. The church, like all I saw in the “rural districts,” was small, and rude to the last degree. It was closely packed with a congregation of peasantry, and the air, all windows being closed to avoid that bugbear of Germans, a draught, was positively suffocating. As a natural consequence, being in full dress, and therefore in possession of a fan (only used on full-dress occasions in this part of Germany), I began fanning myself vigorously, whereupon B-leaned forward and begged me in a horrified whisper to cease. “ We never fan ourselves in church ! ” she added.

I thought of an American church on a hot Sunday, with its numberless fluttering fans, and the minister himself fanning “ between times ” ! I hid my dismay under a calm exterior, and turned my attention to the missionary. He had just returned from Africa, and had with him a specimen convert, a Kaffre black as Erebus, whom he was taking about the country with him. When the missionary had delivered himself, the Kaffre rose, and favored us with a long discourse in his native tongue, which was duly translated into German by his mentor. He confessed to having had four wives, at which a thrill of horror swept through the congregation. It was touching to see the tenderness with which the missionary enveloped his tropical protege in shawls and mufflers, at the close of the service, and entertaining to observe the shrinking awe with which the humble worshipers deposited their contributions in his little box as they passed through the church door.

From this scene we were transported to the entrance of the park, where two of the duke’s retainers stood at each side of the gate, in brilliant uniforms and impressive attitudes. Half a dozen resplendent flunkeys received us at the door. No ladies of the family being present, we were received by a smart French housekeeper and two equally smart maids, and shown into a suite of dressing and sleeping rooms, fitted up exquisitely in French style. At the door of the grand salon the duke, a small, spare gentleman of the old school, received us, and presented to us many other guests. I was much exercised in my mind over the now-presentation of a magnificent young man, a handsome blonde fellow, who, in a rich dark green uniform almost covered with silvery embroidery and ornaments, threw all the other gentlemen present quite in the shade. While I was still wondering why this charming “ young officer ” hung about the door, with nothing to say to anybody, dinner was announced. Shades of my ancestors, what did I behold! That gorgeous creature in green and silver took his place behind the duke’s chair ! It was his highness’s Leibjäger, a sort of body servant! Thus rudely are one’s illusions dispelled in this muchuniformed and much-titled country.

The dinner was such a meal as divests eating of its grossness, saluting all the senses delightfully, refreshing, satisfying, even elevating. After the leisurely repast we enjoyed a drive until dark over the estate, — a possession to make one sigh, yet only one item in the duke’s great wealth. He was exceedingly polite, and made many pretty speeches about America, which showed that he, at least, was well-posted in regard to our peculiar institutions.

When we came away he presented me with his own hand a basket of hot-house flowers, and another mysterious basket was handed up to our coachman. After we were on our way home, B-informed me with empressement that the duke, having understood that Americans dote upon tomatoes, had sent a large basketful along for my delectation. As soon as we reached home I examined the basket, and found myself the happy possessor of about half a bushel of green tomatoes! I explained to B-that we eat them in a ripe state. “ What shall we do with them ?” she answered, despondingly. “ Pickles ! ” I replied ; and “ pickles ” it was. The ducal toma-

toes were sliced, mixed with a due proportion of pearl onions and mustard seed, and became pickles. I probably had the honor to be the first to introduce into the fatherland that palatable comestible known among us as tomato chow-chow.

The peasant life interested me much, but I found little opportunity for more than a casual and superficial glance, and on this account, and because restricted to one small place, my observations can have no great value. What I. did see and hear saddened more than it surprised me.

Occasionally I would slip away from the Schloss, and following a little path which led behind the shrubbery, along the great blooming fields of rape and lupines, and at last through a shady lane into the village, I would seat myself under a hedge of wild roses and elder, and watch for an hour or two the village life before me.

The younger Women, the children of an age to labor, and the few young men not in the army were generally absent in the fields. Only very aged persons and small children were consequently left for my studies. Although the horrible Kauderwelsch which they spoke and my own perhaps too carefully spoken German somewhat obscured our conversation, the language of Pfennige (the smallest coin in use) was fully understood, and under its spell the little towheads became familiar and the old people friendly and communicative. The babies and their feathered and bristled comrades of dung-heap and puddle appeared to have a language of their own, and to be on the best of terms. The old women tottered back and forth with fagots or huge bundles of grass, which, viewed from behind, left only their bare brown legs visible. The little boys climbed the poplar-trees which bordered the chaussee and stripped off the leaves, which are stored up for sheep fodder in winter. They find a use for everything. One Sunday afternoon, — it was soon after my arrival, — I went to the village and found on the green a Carroussel in operation. I had seen a similar contrivance at German festivals in America. It corresponds, I think, to the “merrygo-round” of the English. This one was a cumbrous affair, consisting of four clumsy wooden effigies of the horse attached to a circular ring, which was made to turn by a crank in the hands of a grimy showman. For a Pfennig one was permitted to mount one of these foaming chargers, and revolve for five minutes to strains evolved by a disreputable-looking peasant woman from the inner consciousness of a fiendish organ. The people seemed to enjoy this exciting recreation, in a stolid sort of way. They were out en masse, and in their poor Sunday best. The attire of the men could hardly be called a “ costume,” but that of the women was rather picturesque, especially on the few young and comely girls I saw. The main features of this costume were the curiously arranged head-kerchiefs, one of white lawn, the other of black silk. The former is first bound about the head, covering the hair entirely, the two stiffly-starched corners standing out like wings behind the ears. Over this the black kerchief is tightly wound, and tied in a large bow, like the Alsatian, on the top of the head. Another mentionable feature is a superabundance of very full - gathered woolen skirts. To attain the number of fourteen, all worn at once, the longest beneath, that the edges of all may be seen and counted, is the desire which lies nearest every well - regulated peasant girl’s heart.

The people looked miserable and degraded. From all I could learn, nothing like morality is expected of them. We hear much in America of the sober, honest, beer-drinking peasant of Germany. In the section where I spent those months of which I write, intemperance raged fearfully. They manufacture and consume great quantities of a fiery liquor distilled from potatoes. This, with coarse bread and Quaak, a kind of sour-milk cheese, forms their sustenance. Men, women, and children reek with the fumes of this direful liquor. Meat they seldom taste, and though they have many ducks, geese, etc., these are kept only for their feathers and eggs. I once asked B-why no one endeavored to instruct and elevate them, or to introduce a better way of living. “ Oh, my dear,” was the answer, “ they have always lived so. New ideas would disturb them and render them unhappy. They are contented so. Let them remain in the condition where God has placed them!

Ah, if they only looked “contented” ! But I seldom saw a cheerful adult face. They pass to and fro in the fields, silent and downcast, or conversing in harsh, discordant tones. They toil for a miserable pittance in summer, and grovel through the long winters breathing the miasma of unventilated dwellings, and drowning their misery in fiery draughts of potato brandy. It must be said in extenuation of the situation that the soil is mostly very poor and the number of laborers very large, which keeps the wages pitifully low, and is doubtless the chief cause of their degradation. At the close of the harvest the people celebrated the harvest home. They came in the morning in a noisy crowd, with huge wreaths and bouquets for the Herrschaften, and expecting from each member of the family the everlasting Trinkgeld which they of course received, and departed to spend the day in all manner of rough sports and such dissipation as the place afforded. In the evening they had a dance in a hall over the brewery, which is situated in the court. It is customary for the Herrschaften to attend this dance, and the ladies of the family are expected to accept the harvest-king as a partner. B-absented herself on some diaphanous pretext or other, but I, accompanied by the governess and the lady’smaid, went to the scene of revelry. The low, dingy room was crowded; the air, what with the smoke of primitive oillamps and the fumes of liquor, absolutely suffocating. The women were mostly bare-legged, frightful creatures ; the men disgusting. All were decorated with garlands, and in a festive mood. Two fiddles and a flageolet furnished music for their gambols. The harvest-king, a dirty wretch with a faded garland on his head and another about his body, came immediately up to our party, and invited me to dance. I was suffering from a slight lameness, and excused myself. He accepted my refusal with so surly an air that Fraulein D——, the governess, dared not decline, and with ill-concealed disgust surrendered herself to his greasy embrace, and waltzed with him twice about the hall. It was an amusing contrast. Her stylish blonde puffs towered above his garlanded head; her voluminous pink drapery almost enveloped him. It was a dreadful moment for her.

I would like to give a prettier picture of peasant life, but I am dealing solely with facts, and writing of a very small portion of Germany. Elsewhere I know, and am glad indeed to know, that the condition of the peasantry is much superior to that which came within my own observations.

Among the guests whose visits at Y— deprived me of my precious siestas, and at the same time added to the pleasures of the summer, was the dear lady whose kind reception of me and mine in Berlin had left a lasting impress on my memory. She took possession of me absolutely and entirely immediately upon her arrival. She made me the companion of her daily walks; she appointed me her teacher in the English language, which she persisted in maltreating to an extent I have never heard surpassed; and it was besides my fate to support her each day through fourhanded struggles with the old composers. She exercised over me a gentle but persistent tyranny, against which I never rebelled, but how I rued the day I ever learned “ to play ” ! Dear, genial-hearted creature though she was, those hours at the ill-fated instrument were hours of rack and thumb-screw torture. She informed me, innocently, that a young girl whom she had once engaged to play duets with her two hours a day had become a hopeless, raving maniac after a few months’ experience. The old baroness ascribed her mental undoing to unrequited love, but I shall ever entertain a different opinion. All her own mistakes she ascribed to the luckless instrument, which she wrathfully belabored and loaded with opprobrious epithets. Being descended from a military stock and having married into “ les militaires,” the good creature’s opportunities for acquiring a choice vocabulary of overwhelming and unflattering epithets had been unusual, and had not. been unappreciated. I never realized the richness of the German tongue in this respect before. When I was quite convulsed with laughter, she would turn her eye-glasses upon me with a look of innocent amazement, and say in an irresistibly ludicrous manner, “You tink me foony, ya-as?”

Her character was in every way worthy of study. At one moment hurling fiery objurgations at republican principles, at the next you might have believed her the goriest of reds ; at one moment uttering intense scorn of a misalliance, at the next she would declare love the only sovereign, indisputable and supreme. She loved children to excess, and went about armed with a bonbonnière of choicest chocolat wherewith to purchase the favor of the small tyrants. She was in fact a big-hearted, spoiled child herself, bubbling over with fun, and abounding in whims and pranks. One day, just as we had started together for a walk to the nearest vineyard, we were overtaken by the boys, who were about to start for a drive in their donkeywagon. The old baroness immediately insisted upon ousting the little fellows, and riding herself at least to the foot of the vineyard. I looked from her to the diminutive beast, and ventured a remonstrance, which was resented with much spirit. “Mein Gott!” she cried shrilly, “ Is not von human mehr als von donkey ? ”

I felt that this particular human ” was more than two donkeys, but I did not venture on further remonstrance, and helped her ladyship into the little wagon, which settled down and creaked ominously beneath her. She not only filed it, but her azure drapery overflowed it on all sides. One of the boys urged on the poor beast, while the other and myself walked at either side and held the delicate frills away from the wheels. In this manner we toiled through the sand of the village, creating intense interest and excitement in its biped and quadruped inhabitants. We must have formed a spectacle for gods and men, but I could not see that the people found it funny. They simply looked gravely astonished. Perhaps, from force of habit, they never dream of laughing at the Herrschaften.

When we arrived at the foot of the vineyard, I extorted a promise from the baroness to return on foot, and we dismissed the equipage, to the rapture of our youthful escort. We walked slowly up the sunny hill-side, where the grapes were nearly ripe. There were many heavily loaded plum-trees, whose purple fruit women were gathering in barrows and wheeling off to the court, where it is slowly dried in great ovens, and sent to all parts of the world. One who knows these plums only in their mummified condition can have no conception of their wholesome, delicious qualities. On the top of the hill was a little hut of interwoven branches, for the accommodation of the night-watch. The vineyards, as well as the miles of road-side cherry and pear trees, must be protected against thieves during the ripening season.

Descending, we tasted the grapes, hardly ripe enough for eating then, but later proving most excellent. Wine is produced abundantly, and of a quality celebrated in the inexhaustible drinkingsongs of the fatherland as Dreimännerwein, it being said to require three men for its consumption, — one to swallow it, a second to hold him during the process, and a third to pour it down. Of the justice of this cruel satire I leave those more competent than myself to judge.

During the summer I made several flying visits to cities not too far distant, — to Berlin, Dresden, etc. ; but it is not my purpose to go over ground already familiar to reader and traveler. A visit of a few days to O——, the family seat of F——’s ancestors, offers, perhaps, a glimpse into a life and scenes of fresher interest.

We arrived at O—— early one summer evening. The stately castle and its picturesque surroundings lay in a sea of moonlight. The widow of F——’s brother resides here, holding the estate in trust for her two boys. She, together with other members of the family and several guests, was awaiting us at the door. This lady was of a striking figure, with quite a masculine voice and bearing. She seemed to me a woman of remarkable mental power, — what we should call a strong-minded woman of the highest type. She was said to bear her great responsibilities with astonishing ease, and to manage her affairs as administrator and guardian with manly shrewdness and energy. She leaves her duties as housewife in competent hands (although, one could see at a glance, still under her own supervision), and spends a large part of each day riding over her vast estate, looking after every detail with keen and observant eyes. She wore at such times a plain linen gown, broad-brimmed hat, and gloves. When the hat was removed, you noticed at once, on each side of her face, a stripe of white, untanned skin, where the broad ribbons passed under her chin. At dinner she appeared in silk and lace, affable, witty, but always a little cold and haughty.

The estate comprises five villages within its bounds, whose inhabitants, excepting the smaller land-owners, derive their existence from their labors in its vast fields and vineyards. It seemed to me that everything of use or value which the earth produces was raised here. The wool, honey, and fruit are quite famous. The Schloss itself I found to be, as B—— had often assured me, a lordly mansion, although more imposing than beautiful. The outer walls are six feet thick, the inner at least three. About forty immense rooms are in present use, the whole of the upper story being given over to dust and silence. The rooms are frescoed and handsomely furnished with mingled modern and ancient furniture. Paintings, statues, busts, tapestry, china, carvings, are everywhere about, with no evident attempt at a “ collection or at any effective disposal. Still the eyes find at every point something agreeable or curious to rest upon. The establishment is kept up in grand style, the five daily meals sumptuously served by richly-liveried lackeys.

The grounds are extensive and beautiful, with parterres aud beds of flowers, fountains and statuary, and what old, old trees in the park ! They looked as if they had always been there, and as if they could never die. There were hothouses for grapes, oranges, lemons, pineapples, melons, peaches, and strawberries. Wandering about the garden, I came upon a spot which I recognized at once from a description given me in years gone by. It was a chef d'œuvre of the gardener, — the monogram of F——’s parents surmounted by a coronet, etc., laid out on a great scale, and planted in box. Tins was done perhaps forty years ago, on some festal occasion, and is to-day as green and fresh and carefully kept as in the first year, while its designer and those in whose honor it was planned, together with most of the children born to them, are long since dust.

On the second floor of the Schloss is an immense apartment, whose vaulted ceiling reaches to the roof. It is the Rittersaal, or hall of knights, and is used only upon very grand occasions, such as a wedding or a funeral. The ceiling is frescoed with scenes from the Nibelungen and surrounded by a broad cornice of gilded stucco. The first night of my visit the countess, followed by a maid with candles, escorted me to my room. The way led through this hall, and in the flickering candle-light the gods, warriors, dwarfs, nymphs, and valkyrias, struggling and bleeding on the painted dome, seemed endowed with motion. The effect was splendid, but not soothing. When left alone I found, to my dismay, that there were no fastenings on either of the doors of my apartment, the one leading into the chamber of horrors just left, the other into a great empty room with a few ghastly portraits on its walls, — a room which appeared to me eminently fitted to he haunted.

The room I occupied was immense. It was furnished as rooms for the occupancy of two persons are always furnished in Germany, namely, with every article in duplicate, from bed and wardrobe down to the minutest detail. In this case all that was wanting to make two separate rooms was a partition. The floor was covered with faded tapestry ; the furniture dark with age and rich with carvings and inlaid work. The beds were dressed out in pillows and plumeaux of scarlet satin, and over these were thrown great spreads of richly embroidered yellow old lace. On retiring, I lay awake a long time before I could summon courage to extinguish the candles, which lighted fitfully a small place around my bed, and left the distant corners full of lurking shadows; and after I had done so I lay awake a long time, listening with beating heart to strange echoes, sounds like deep-drawn sighs and rustling garments. Not until the closing of doors in some remote part of the castle and subsequent silence told me that all had retired did I succeed in sleeping, and then only to be followed by troubled visions. How foolish it all seemed when, on rising in the morning, I threw open the great casement looking out upon the park, and let in a flood of sweet air, sunshine, and song of bird !

In one of the walks which I took in company with the ladies of the family, we came to a wooden pavilion crowning a small but steep eminence beyond the village. While seated there enjoying a very pretty view, one of the young ladies told me the following story : The Schloss of O—— was built two hundred years before by a nobleman with an altogether unspellahle and unpronounceable name. Tradition says he was a knight of the genuine feudal style, fierce, tyrannical, God-and-man defying. Some years previous to his death he caused to be built, upon the place where we were sitting, a pavilion, and beneath it a vault for the reception of his much-abused body when it could no longer serve him. Adjoining this vault he had excavated an apartment wdiere, up to the time of his death at an advanced age, he held nightly revels with his godless comrades. He also made a will, in which he decreed that the peasantry should hold annual dances in the pavilion above his tomb. He died, and his body, attired in rich uniform, including boots with spurs of solid gold, was consigned to its destined place of rest; but the tomb was broken into by robbers, and the corpse despoiled of its rich ornaments. The boots containing the detached limbs of the wretched old sinner were found next day upon the highway. After that the body was inclosed in a stone coffin surrounded with a grating of iron, and moldered henceforth in peace. The annual dance was kept up until the estate passed into more pious hands. The pavilion has been constantly repaired on account of the fine view it offers.

The story, told as it was by a pair of rosy lips, amid my own exclamations of horror and much consequent laughter at my expense, threw a shadow over the beautiful, peaceful landscape around us, I went, with secret slirinkings, but under an impulse not to be conquered, down the rough stone steps to take a look at the vaulted hall of revelry. It was dark, moldy, and full of rubbish. A drunken peasant, with unconscious observance of the eternal fitness of things, was sleeping off his debauch upon a pile of straw in one corner. I peered through the rusty grating into the tomb, where, with not unpleasant thrills, I saw the dim outline of the great coffin and the faint gleam of a white crucifix upon its lid. After that, the blue sky and green trees and yellow wheat fields outside wore an added loveliness.

While at O—— I drove with the countess for several hours from one part of her domains to the other. The condition of the peasantry here is superior in all respects to that of the people at Y——, probably because, the soil being richer, wages are higher. Not an acre of the vast plain but was made to produce something. The countess seemed cognizant of everything transpiring throughout the whole estate. She stopped now and then on our route to hold brief conferences with inspectors, foresters, etc. She inquired after all diseased cattle and horses, weakly calves and lambs, and, in exactly the same tone, after the women in child-bed, disabled men, and sick babies of the different villages through which we passed. Her bearing towards all was that of a sovereign, though a benignant one. The people conducted themselves in her presence with respect, not to say servility. I knew not at which to marvel most. This queen of a petty province was evidently troubled by no misgivings. It has always been so. It seems to her that it will always remain so. Will the little blue-eyed fellow who sat at our feet in the carriage, gravely observant of what passed before him, — will he, too, on reaching man’s estate, rest equally secure ?