Heimweh

SHE had been twenty-five years in this country, and had not acquired as many words of English. Her intercourse with the customers of the little dyehouse, with the daily hucksters and occasional peddlers, when they were not Germans, was limited to figures and to a few brief phrases, uttered on each occasion with the same timid hesitation as of one embarking for the first time on the perilous craft of a foreign language. For conversation she had absolutely no implements. When she understood that I was the friend of her absent daughter, thoughts, greetings, questionings, rushed forward to meet me ; but the door was locked. I had denied all knowledge of German. She tried to speak with me in English, but after a word or two she broke down, shook her head, smiled a disappointed smile, and laid her hand on mine, the only utterance she could find for all that eagerness and good will. But her face spoke a volume. It was the face of an old woman, and one that might, from its type, have been set down as belonging to the peasant class, though she came in reality of the kleine Bürger; it was rugged in outline, with the cheekbones high, the nose flat and broad, and the cheek covered with a faint stubble of down, white as the hair that lay like snow upon her head, and seemed a benediction upon her long, difficult life. But from this face a pair of deep-set gray eyes, dimmed by age, looked out with an expression of intent earnestness and a warm, sympathetic goodness that was solid and tangible, like the grasp of a hand.

Something had to be done. I unearthed on the spot, by a strenuous effort, a handful of forgotten German, sadly wanting in inflections, and we established a friendship which subsisted and throve thereafter by the interchange of that small coinage and her soft, voluble Suabian; for whether it were idleness, preoccupation, or the delight I found in that stammering intercourse, I learned no more. I am aware that it sounds limited and unsatisfactory, that our conversation would have cut a poor figure in print, and have lacked roundness, to say the least, to the ear of an outsider; but, like the cream of correspondence, it was not meant for outsiders. To me there came from those imperfect talks more sense of nearness, a larger gain and fullness of heart, than we ordinarily glean from whole acres of speech with persons whose native dictionary is identical with our own. After all, how little we understand each other, with only words to rely on ! They are marvelous, and one would almost say perfect instruments, but they have been put to so many makeshift and degraded uses in this nether world that it is often a relief to forget them, and come back to truer forms of expression; and in my firm, though perhaps unphilological belief, the best Volapük is sympathy.

“We had so grosses Heimweh when we came here, my sister and I,” the old lady said, “ we had no heart to learn the language. We always hoped to go back ; and then the years went on, and we had become too old to learn. My husband speaks English.”

“ And Lenore speaks both English and German.”

“ Oh, yes, High German. She is not confined to a dialect, like me, though she understands Suabian, and can speak it with her old mother.”

She was half ashamed of her Suabian, though she loved it, and no doubt in her heart thought it the sweetest of languages, just as, while alluding to her daughter as a “ nettes Kind, ” and taking an unexaggerated view of her talent, she knew her to be head and shoulders above all other girls, a very queen among maidens. And she was right a thousand times; for truth, after all, is divinely, not humanly measured, giving freely to each without that robbery of another which we would bring about with our comparisons, of which fact motherhood, the world over, is testimony and proof.

“ Have you heard from Lenore ? I have not seen her for nearly a year, and I have so grosses Heimweh for her! She has played at — what do you call it ? — Kansass Zity, at a musical festival, and was encored twice; and the people liked it so much. She has sent her photograph. I will show it to you.” She disappeared a moment, returning with a picture of the girl, violin in hand, looking strong, handsome, and hopeful, as I knew her, — the girl who was carrying her chosen instrument and a brave Suabian heart all over the great West, seeking, alone and unaided by money or influence, to make her way in the profession.

“ If you would come to us sometimes on Sunday afternoons; we are always at leisure then, and so alone, now that Lenore is away,” the old woman said, as we parted ; and many a time and oft I availed myself of the invitation. They lie before me now, those Sunday afternoons, like the Sabbaths of the holy poet, “threaded together on Time’s string.” Outside there were the unwonted silence and unusual stir which simultaneously take possession of our streets on that day of the week: people coming out to walk, with the air of not knowing where to go; girls strolling by twos and threes, smart in their finery and Sunday consciousness ; young men lounging at the corners; children on their way from Sunday - school. But within the little brown stucco house, that stood level with the pavement, and seemed to shrink a little from its high-stooped neighbors of painted brick, was an atmosphere as different as if an ocean had been crossed to reach it. In the livingroom, behind the shop, with its lightblue walls and dark woodwork, its small windows, where the light fell slantwise through the leafage of an overhanging grapevine, were Frau Lena and her sister, Frau Margarethe, who had interrupted, to give me a hearty “ Grüss Gott! ” the perusal of some illustrated papers, or a game of backgammon, played on a much-worn board with dice four times the usual size.

“ Man muss doch etwas schaffe,” they said the first time, either fearing that games would appear to me childish, or aware that they were not in vogue on Sundays among Americans ; and it was not difficult to agree with them that even on that day one must be doing something.

“ To do ” and “to work” were comprised in one verb, in their Suabian vocabulary, schaffen having descended to these humble uses from its High German meaning, “ to create ; ” and the distinctions were pretty well obliterated in their daily lives. “To work “was the password of existence. Throughout the week they stood, hour by hour, ironing the fabrics as they came from the dyehouse; they kept the house in thrifty German fashion, and they filled up the chinks of time with knitting and sewing. Frau Margarethe’s knitting-needles were not always still on Sunday, but it was a holiday, nevertheless. They wore their black stuff dresses and little fichus knit in fine thread; they read the Gartenlaube and the books brought with them from Germany, and they liked a visitor to talk to. They had German relatives and friends, who came now and then from a distance, but in the neighborhood they were alone and apart.

They both suffered from this isolation, each in her own way. Frau Margarethe chafed under it, and lost temper a little. She was the widow of a Lutheran pastor, a tall, powerful woman, with strong aquiline features and front curls of yellow-white hair. She was an energetic worker, fond of bustle and activity, with an interest in news for the story’s sake, and a pleasure in now and then speaking her mind. “ Es kommt Niemand zu uns ” was a complaint in which, with her, there came to be, in time, a touch of acidity. Frau Lena’s loneliness had a deeper sadness in it, and a greater compensation as well, meaning, as it did, the absence of a loved one; for her the one who came not was Lenore. But in the concentration of her affections there was no touch of exclusiveness or of egoism. Her heart overflowed with kindness. She had the sort of wistful interest in her neighbors which belongs to certain lonely, good souls. She thought the Americans cold, but she watched the people who came and went, and liked to hear of their doings ; she was delighted to have news of weddings or other festivals, and the heartfelt sympathy which she expressed at any accident or misfortune to persons who were known to her only by sight or by name was the accent of one near to her fellow-beings in suffering, however remote from them in language. Some good women are made that way. Leading simple and retired lives, they feel keenly all the happenings of life, and have almost a personal joy or pain in the most remote human happiness or wound. When I think of the inexhaustible sweetness of such springs, and of the great human need, I marvel they should he so little frequented; but we all walk daily among things unseen, and what we call choice is often only another name for chance, whatever that means.

Never were Sundays more peaceful, more Sabbath-like, to me than in that house where religion was hardly mentioned, — was not so much denied as altogether ignored. Its best words were written in Frau Lena’s face ; as human love, it had entered into her heart, and mellowed all life with its light. We did not discuss the Infinite in our patchwork vocabulary, and our frequent recognition of the problems and difficulties of life left those of the mind untouched.

“ Es ist a harta Welt ! ” Frau Lena often exclaimed; but it never entered into her head that it could be a hard world to people with no work to do, and no daughter away in the distance. Yet her little room was nevertheless a confessional, where absolution of some sort covered the errors of the week, and was not of less effect for being unconsciously bestowed ; where vistas opened now and then through fogs of perplexity, unasked questions had their answer, and the struggle of youth was weathered with a little more ease. Even our gossip and stories, transferred from one apprehension to the other with indescribable difficulty, frequent misunderstandings, and much laughter, had in them something that was above every-day. We got hopelessly snarled at times, but some superior faculty must have come to the aid of our intelligences, for somehow the gist of all these conversations remains with me. I managed to discuss with her, again and again, Lenore’s journeys, plans, and prospects, and to get many a glimpse of old times and of life in the little Suabian town. Questions about Germany and their youth made the two old ladies’ faces beam and their tongues facile. They clung, as Würtembergers are apt to do, to Suabian ways and memories. A German visitor to the Caucasus, a few years ago, found there a colony of Suabians, who had built themselves houses after the pattern of the nests from which they had flown, with the beams and rafters crossed in the old fashion, and had preserved into new generations the traditional modes of living and the native dialect. It is the heart which refuses to adjust itself ; the deep-rooted attachment and homepain cling about limbs and tongue, and will not let them free.

“It was so sweet there,” I was told, who knows how often? — “so friendly in the evening, when the grandfather sat with his pipe in the chimney corner, and the brothers came in, and all the cousins, and we had a glass of wine, and talked together, and sang songs.”

“One had to work there too,” Frau Margarethe would say, with that mingled complaint of work and pride in it that we often find among those who have rubbed long in its harness; " no sewing-machines, no conveniences, in those days. My sister and I helped to spin the family linen, and made up our own marriage portion. I can show you things now that I had when I was married. Then we had seven brothers, and each had to have two dozen shirts spun and made for him as a wedding gift. But we did not finish them all, for the last one was in such a hurry to be married that he got only eighteen shirts, He said we could finish them afterwards ; but my sister was already betrothed, and we had little time, so we told him that was now the duty of his wife. It was no wonder he could not wait ; she was the prettiest girl in the town.”

“ It is better as you have it,” said Frau Lena. “Women do not have to work from morning till night. They buy the stuff for their clothes, and have machines to make them fast, and it leaves them more time to read. Nowadays people can know so much.”

Greater opportunities than her own had been it were easy to find ; but the spontaneous love of books is not too common. “ Es ist so schön, der Max und die Thekla ! ” she exclaimed, one day, looking up from the pages of a Schiller the size of a family Bible, over which I had found both white heads bowed together. Seventy years old, knocked and buffeted about the world, with her youth and her poetry lying fifty years and an ocean behind her, the story of Max and Thekla was still most beautiful to her! Schiller and Uhland, with Hermann Kurtz and a few other Suabian authors, comprised their library, and these she knew by heart. Goethe she considered cold, with an exception in favor of Hermann und Dorothea.

“ It was just like that in our village ; each one owned a little vineyard outside the wall, like the one to which Hermann went with his mother. I used to go there so often.”

It would not be just to Frau Lena to give the impression that our Sunday afternoon feasts were wholly those of reason and of soul. The tradition which clings most tenaciously to a good housewife is the code of hospitality as practiced in her youth. To receive an afternoon visit and offer no refreshments would have seemed to Frau Lena the very zero of ungraciousness; and to have refused her gentle hospitality, even on the plausible ground of having recently dined, would have been to strike sorrow to her heart. It was not to be thought of. The recollection was invariably laid aside, and the repast of bread and butter and beer, or of home-made jam and cakes, received unfailing justice. The appetite always came. At Christmas time she regularly set aside for me a liberal supply of the Sprengele, flavored with anise seed, and stamped with effigies representing the different trades, and of the Schnitzbrod belonging to the festivity. The Schnitz, a sort of dark conglomerate, with nuts, figs, dates, and pieces of citron preserved entire and imbedded in its depths, was not to be partaken of in large quantities without peril to the American digestion ; so the supply often lasted till it defied the attempts upon it of any weaker combination than the axe and the thirty-two chews associated with the name of Mr. Gladstone ; but eaten it was to the last crumb, and never were sweeter morsels. Everybody has his memorials of gormandizing, as Thackeray called them, — of menus which the peculiar skill of the cook, or some fortuitous joy of the appetite, has sculptured forever upon the tables of his memory. It is good to enjoy with the inner sense of intimacy the triumphs of any art whatever; it is pleasant to be rescued from starvation ; grateful to the footsore and hungry wayfarer is the welcome that awaits him at an inn. But the food which is most delicious to the palate, and remains longest a store of comfort to the heart, is the food that is offered in kindness. One would not like to forget how that tasted.

Grace for Frau Lena’s banquets took the form of a prayer that the bread which she cast upon the waters, and of which hungrier guests than myself partook from time to time, might come back in friendliness and success to her wanderer in the West. Perhaps it was destined to do so in time, for Lenore had friend-winning qualities, but the days in which there seemed to be no return were many and long. “ You will never get on in the profession, Lenore,” a fellow-musician said to her one day; " you are altogether too good ; ” and though Lenore’s goodness was of a sensible, unconscious, every-day type, with no peculiar aspirations after sacrifice, it was hardly an equipment for the fray. Frau Lena would never herself have had the ambition to plan such a career for her only child. That belonged to her husband, a fiery, picturesque Pole, with a face chiseled in outline, and in hue rich as a Rembrandt portrait, and an impetuous torrent of speech which had cleft its way more or less ruggedly through several languages. He sometimes assisted at our conferences, pipe in mouth, sitting in the warm room with a fur cap on and a sheepskin spread over his knees. He was proud of Lenore. They had made every sacrifice for her musical education in Germany ; for her establishment in the profession nothing could be done ; that was expected to come of itself. It was not a case of exaggerated pretensions or a mistaken vocation. Lenore was not a genius, and even the parental adoration made no such claim for her ; but a marked talent for music had received careful cultivation ; she was prepared for the labor, and, as a matter of course, so they argued, for the reward. A little waiting, and all would come.

In a long period of waiting, the first days — or years — have a sort of rapture about them. The end is so clearly in view that it seems almost gained. A little advance towards the promised land is like a long leap ; a momentary brightness throws its ray far into the future. In those first years, there were long, happy hours passed in reading Lenore’s letters, with their accounts of new scenes and people, and the newspaper slips she sent, telling how the accomplished violiniste, Mlle. Lenore H—, had played such and such selections with excellent bowing, finished taste, and great delicacy of expression ; there was the winter’s tour to be studied out beforehand, and followed daily on the map ; there were its results to look forward to ; and when these proved less than was expected, there was the hope of a better engagement for next winter. Lenore had breathed in that spirit of Western exhilaration which makes all things seem possible to the mind, as the air of the mountains renders exertion easy and delightful to the body. Her energy and courage gladdened the home she had left; the little house was full of life, — a life that was being lived hundreds of miles away.

But as the years dropped, one by one, into the abyss ; as the gain, though more surely gain, proved more and more slow, and the larger earnings went to make up for a large deficit in the past; as, above all, it became evident that, her little successes having been scored in that far-off country, Lenore must stay to reap her harvest where she had sown her grain, then waiting became hard indeed to Frau Lena. Her dearest and most ambitious hope had been that Lenore would come home. She had dreamed of brilliant concert tours, which should have the home city for the centre of their revolution ; she had canvassed again and again, in her mind, the possibility of engagements in the city itself. If concerts did not pay there, could not pupils be found ? But it was not yet the fashion, as it has since become, to teach young girls the violin ; besides, there were so many other teachers. Lenore was practically a stranger in the city of her childhood, and she could not afford to pass there in idleness that residence of years which is one of the tests required for admission to its privileges. The West was more hospitable, and to the West she was bound more and more. Not all at once did this idea penetrate the mother’s mind: the changes of which I am speaking in a paragraph were slow in taking place ; the channel down which we float in an hour the stream took ages to hollow. Every spring Lenore’s return was talked of. She would take a holiday in the summer ; there would be nothing to do ; they would have her for three whole months ; and after that, who knows? — something might turn up near at hand. Frau Lena planned the whole as anxiously and as eagerly as if it had been a campaign. Lenore should practice every day in the parlor upstairs, — it would be so good to hear her once more ; they would make new concert dresses together. “ You don’t know how well she looked in the yellow one that we finished the day before she went away. She stood there to try it on. And the red and black dress, too, was so handsome, with a long train. They are getting shabby now, and we must make some more.” But when summer came, there were still no violin sounds in the house, no rustle or shimmer of concert dresses. Some engagement was offered for the summer months Avhich it would not do to refuse, or there were chances for the following winter that had to be watched ; the girl could not afford to turn away from an assured or probable advantage, and undertake the expensive journey home, with perhaps the chance of a long inaction. So the visit had to be given up, with the result of disappointment and weariness on both sides. And each time the disappointment was keener, albeit the hope had been less daring than at first.

Even Lenore’s Western spirit of buoyancy and confidence grew faint at times ; there were hours when the shadow was dark upon it. Many an anxiety the mother had, but did she realize, in her narrow existence, the bitterness of the affronts and rubs which the spirit gets in its contact with the machinery called life? Yet she scrutinized, poor woman, with eyes that tried to pierce both ignorance and distance, the possible faith or unfaith of a new manager. Her heart burned with indignation at the perfidy of such a one ; with gratitude at every indication of kindness or good will, even though the money which should have reinforced it was not forthcoming. “ Poor man, he has himself lost money ; but what a pity he should have undertaken to manage a troupe ! ” Again and again Lenore was asked to play at concerts where no payment was offered. “ They say it will make her known,” her mother said, “ but it is hard that all the money should go to those who are known and well off already.” The arithmetic of that testament of the stag to the stream is a recurrent puzzle.

“ Don’t say anything of it at home,” I read in Lenore’s letters. But the message had traveled there by telegraph ; it came again to me in the translation, “ Don’t tell Lenore.” For into the blue-walled sitting-room behind the shop there had come a gradual, but no less perceptible change. Hope had worn itself out; Frau Lena fell back upon patience, but her husband’s stock was exhausted. Frau Margarethe, always skeptical as to the benefits of any departure from the daily routine and labor of a German Hausfrau, had brought deeper and sounder convictions to the reinforcement of her intuitions. To the mother disappointed ambition was nothing to that pang of separation which gnawed deeper and deeper. “ I could be content with so little,” she would say, pleading, as it were, with fate, “ if I only had my Lenore ! ”

They were getting old. Frau Lena, whose back was bent and rounded by work, had never been so strong as her sister, but Frau Margarethe’s broad, muscular shoulders began first to give way; she caught cold, and was confined to her room all winter by an illness, the first she had known in her life. Frau Lena, in carrying something upstairs to her, lost her footing, and fell down the steep, narrow staircase. She was terribly bruised and shaken, but she made light of it, and in a day or two was about again, waiting on her sister, and going through the old round of duties which they had shared for so long. It was a dreary winter. There was still a little gayety on our Sunday afternoons. We talked of Germany and of Lenore ; we dwelt purposely on the pleasant side of things, and made the most of the present. Sometimes, as we sat there in Frau Margarethe’s room, it seemed almost the same as of old. But when I took leave, and Frau Lena followed me down the stairs and out through the shop, the mask which she had worn with an effort in the sick-room would suddenly fall, and her face, old and pale, would reveal the grief she had tried to hide. “ I am so homesick for my Lenore ! If I could only have my child ! ” and tears, the difficult tears of age, moistened her cheeks. Short, stifled sobs came while I held her hand, and tried to whisper a comfort that was, somehow, robbed of its strength. " Ach, mein Liebchen,” she would say, drying her eyes, “es ist a harta Welt! ” I did not contradict her, and, looking back through the years, I cannot do so now.

Yet, discouraging as things seemed to us all, Lenore was really gaining ground. The difficulties which they had ignored at first had become more apparent; her own long-sustained joy in struggle had flagged; her naturally robust health had been heavily taxed; but, in spite of drawbacks, she had acquired more confidence in her powers, had made friends, and was becoming known. It was a great deal for the girl to have achieved such a position as she had gained single-handed, but it had been a gradual achievement, and it culminated in no moment of triumph that could make good all the past. Lenore’s tour during that winter, which proved so weary a one to her mother, was longer and involved harder work than any she had undertaken, but it was more successful, and when it closed her holiday was secured. She made arrangements to go home for the summer, and even before she got there had news to send which gladdened Frau Lena’s heart. With what pride and pleasure she communicated it! " Lenore ist Braut! ” She had consented to join her fate to that of a fellow-musician, whose sympathy and kindness had done much to lighten the discouragements and to enhance the successes of the last months. He was to accompany her to the East, and they would be married in the fall. So the clouds lifted at last from the old woman’s life, and a ray from the crimsoned sunset fell across the snow of her head.

Nobody could be happier than was Frau Lena in those days. Waiting was once more a joy to her. And at last she had her daughter again, with a son besides, and could watch their happiness from the standpoint of a joy that was hardly less radiant. But it was only for a farewell. She had told nobody of the sinister effects left by her fall. The suffering, concealed so long, was stronger than she; perhaps the long period of anxiety had been a harder strain even than we knew ; perhaps the joy itself was too much for her. Within a week of Lenore’s return the summons came. Medical aid could do nothing. She smiled once more through her pain at her loved ones ; then the light faded softly from the worn, patient face, leaving only its peace. “ If I die here, away from my own country,” she had said once, “ I should like a little black cross over my grave, like the one on my mother’s, at home.” Did her loving heart apprehend, then, that the Heimweh might last into the beyond ?

Sophia Kirk.