The Story Of My Life From Childhood To Manhood by Georg Ebers
Chapter XXVI. Continuance of Convalescence and the First Novel.
The remainder of the summer I spent half with my mother, half with my aunt, and pursued the same course during the subsequent years, until from 1862 I remained longer in Berlin, engaged in study, and began my scientific journeys.
There were few important events either in the family circle or in politics, except the accession to the throne of King William of Prussia and the Franco-Austrian war of 1859. In Berlin the "new era" awakened many fair and justifiable hopes; a fresher current stirred the dull, placid waters of political life.
The battles of Magenta and Solferino (June 4 and 24, 1859) had caused great excitement in the household of my aunt, who loved me as if I were her own son, and whose husband was also warmly attached to me. They felt the utmost displeasure in regard to the course of Prussia, and it was hard for me to approve of it, since Austria seemed a part of Germany, and I was very fond of my uncle's three nearest relatives, who were all in the Austrian service.
The future was to show the disadvantage of listening to the voice of the heart in political affairs. Should we have a German empire, and would there be a united Italy, if Austria in alliance with Prussia had fought in 1859 at Solferino and Magenta and conquered the French?
At Hosterwitz I became more intimately acquainted with the lyric poet, Julius Hammer. The Kammergerichtrath-Gottheiner, a highly educated man, lived there with his daughter Marie, whose exquisite singing at the villa of her hospitable sister-in-law so charmed my heart. Through them I met many distinguished men-President von Kirchmann, the architect Nikolai, the author of Psyche, Privy Councillor Carus, the writer Charles Duboc (Waldmuller) with his beautiful gifted wife, and many others.
Many a Berlin acquaintance, too, I met again at Hosterwitz, among them the preacher Sydow and Lothar Bucher.
To the friendship of this remarkable man, whom I knew just at the time he was associated with Bismarck, I owe many hours of enjoyment. Many will find it hardly compatible with the reserved, quiet manner of the astute, cool politician, that during a slight illness of my mother he read Fritz Reuter's novels aloud to her--he spoke Plattdeutsch admirably--as dutifully as a son.
So there was no lack of entertainment during leisure hours, but the lion's share of my time was devoted to work.
The same state of affairs existed during my stay with my aunt, who occupied a summer residence on the estate of Privy-Councillor von Adelsson, which was divided into building lots long ago, but at that time was the scene of the gayest social life in both residences.
The owner and his wife were on the most intimate terms with my relatives, and their daughter Lina seemed to me the fairest of all the flowers in the Adelsson garden. If ever a girl could be compared to a violet it was she. I knew her from childhood to maidenhood, and rejoiced when I saw her wed in young Count Uexkyll-Guldenbrand a life companion worthy of her.
There were many other charming girls, too, and my aunt, besides old friends, entertained the leaders of literary life in Dresden.
Gutzkow surpassed them all in acuteness and subtlety of intellect, but the bluntness of his manner repelled me.
On the other hand, I sincerely enjoyed the thoughtful eloquence of Berthold Auerbach, who understood how to invest with poetic charm not only great and noble subjects, but trivial ones gathered from the dust. If I am permitted to record the memories of my later life, I shall have more to say of him. It was he who induced me to give to my first romance, which I had intended to call Nitetis, the title An Egyptian Princess.
The stars of the admirable Dresden stage also found their way to my aunt's.
One day I was permitted to listen to the singing of Emmy La Gruas, and the next to the peerless Schroder-Devrient. Every conversation with the cultured physician Geheimerath von Ammon was instructive and fascinating; while Rudolf von Reibisch, the most intimate friend of the family, whose great talents would have rendered him capable of really grand achievements in various departments of art, examined our skulls as a phrenologist or read aloud his last drama. Here, too, I met Major Serre, the bold projector of the great lottery whose brilliant success called into being and insured the prosperity of the Schiller Institute, the source of so much good.
This simple-hearted yet energetic man taught me how genuine enthusiasm and the devotion of a whole personality to a cause can win victory under the most difficult circumstances. True, his clever wife shared her husband's enthusiasm, and both understood how to attract the right advisers. I afterwards met at their beautiful estate, Maxen, among many distinguished people, the Danish author Andersen, a man of insignificant personal appearance, but one who, if he considered it worth while and was interested in the subject, could carry his listeners resistlessly with him. Then his talk sparkled with clever, vivid, striking, peculiar metaphors, and when one brilliant description of remarkable experiences and scenes followed another he swiftly won the hearts of the women who had overlooked him, and it seemed to the men as if some fiend were aiding him.
During the first years of my convalescence I could enjoy nothing save what came or was brought to me. But the cheerful patience with which I appeared to bear my sufferings, perhaps also the gratitude and eagerness with which I received everything, attracted most of the men and women for whom I really cared.
If there was an entertaining conversation, arrangements were always made that I should enjoy it, at least as a listener. The affection of these kind people never wearied in lightening the burden which had been laid upon me. So, during this whole sad period I was rarely utterly wretched, often joyous and happy, though sometimes the victim to the keenest spiritual anguish.
During the hours of rest which must follow labour, and when tortured at night by the various painful feelings and conditions connected even with convalescence from disease, my restrictions rose before me as a specially heavy misfortune. My whole being rebelled against my sufferings, and--why should I conceal it?--burning tears drenched my pillows after many a happy day. At the time I was obliged to part from Nenny this often happened. Goethe's "He who never mournful nights" I learned to understand in the years when the beaker of life foams most impetuously for others. But I had learned from my mother to bear my sorest griefs alone, and my natural cheerfulness aided me to win the victory in the strife against the powers of melancholy. I found it most easy to master every painful emotion by recalling the many things for which I had cause to be grateful, and sometimes an hour of the fiercest struggle and deepest grief closed with the conviction that I was more blessed than many thousands of my fellow-mortals, and still a "favourite of Fortune." The same feeling steeled my patience and helped to keep hope green and sustain my pleasure in existence when, long after, a return of the same disease, accompanied with severe suffering, which I had been spared in youth, snatched me from earnest, beloved, and, I may assume, successful labour.
The younger generation may be told once more how effective a consolation man possesses--no matter what troubles may oppress him--in gratitude. The search for everything which might be worthy of thankfulness undoubtedly leads to that connection with God which is religion.
When I went to Berlin in winter, harder work, many friends, and especially my Polish fellow-student, Mieczyslaw helped me bear my burden patiently.
He was well, free, highly gifted, keenly interested in science, and made rapid progress. Though secure from all external cares, a worm was gnawing at his heart which gave him no rest night or day--the misery of his native land and his family, and the passionate longing to avenge it on the oppressor of the nation. His father had sacrificed the larger portion of his great fortune to the cause of Poland, and, succumbing to the most cruel persecutions, urged his sons, in their turn, to sacrifice everything for their native land. They were ready except one brother, who wielded his sword in the service of the oppressor, and thus became to the others a dreaded and despised enemy.
Mieczyslaw remained in Berlin raging against himself because, an intellectual epicurean, he was enjoying Oriental studies instead of following in the footsteps of his father, his brothers, and most of his relatives at home.
My ideas of the heroes of Polish liberty had been formed from Heinrich Heine's Noble Pole, and I met my companion with a certain feeling of distrust. Far from pressing upon me the thoughts which moved him so deeply, it was long ere he permitted the first glimpse into his soul. But when the ice was once broken, the flood of emotion poured forth with elementary power, and his sincerity was sealed by his blood. He fell armed on the soil of his home at the time when I was most gratefully rejoicing in the signs of returning health--the year 1863. I was his only friend in Berlin, but I was warmly attached to him, and shall remember him to my life's end.
The last winter of imprisonment also saw me industriously at work. I had already, with Mieczyslaw, devoted myself eagerly to the history of the ancient East, and Lepsius especially approved these studies. The list of the kings which I compiled at that time, from the most remote sources to the Sassanida, won the commendation of A. von Gutschmid, the most able investigator in this department. These researches led me also to Persia and the other Asiatic countries. Egypt, of course, remained the principal province of my work. The study of the kings from the twenty-sixth dynasty--that is, the one with which the independence of the Pharaohs ended and the rule of the Persians under Cambyses began in the valley of the Nile--occupied me a long time. I used the material thus acquired afterward for my habilitation essay, but the impulse natural to me of imparting my intellectual gains to others had induced me to utilize it in a special way. The material I had collected appeared in my judgment exactly suited for a history of the time that Egypt fell into the power of Persia. Jacob Burckhardt's Constantine the Great was to serve for my model. I intended to lay most stress upon the state of civilization, the intellectual and religious life, art, and science in Egypt, Greece, Persia, Phoenicia, etc., and after most carefully planning the arrangement I began to write with the utmost zeal.
While thus engaged, the land of the Pharaohs, the Persian court, Greece in the time of the Pisistratidae and Polycrates grew more and more distinct before my mental vision. Herodotus's narrative of the false princess sent by Pharaoh Amasis to Cambyses as a wife, and who became the innocent cause of the war through which the kingdom of the Pharaohs lost its independence, would not bear criticism, but it was certainly usable material for a dramatic or epic poem. And this material gave me no peace.
Yes, something might certainly be done with it. I soon mastered it completely, but gradually the relation changed and it mastered me, gave me no rest, and forced me to try upon it the poetic power so long condemned to rest.
When I set to work I was not permitted to leave the house in the evening. Was it disloyal to science if I dedicated to poesy the hours which others called leisure time? The question was put to the inner judge in such a way that he could not fail to say "No." I also tried successfully to convince myself that I merely essayed to write this tale to make the material I had gathered "live," and bring the persons and conditions of the period whose history I wished to write as near to me as if I were conversing with them and dwelling in their midst. How often I repeated to myself this well-founded apology, but in truth every instinct of my nature impelled me to write, and at this very time Moritz Hartmann was also urging me in his letters, while Mieczyslaw and others, even my mother, encouraged me.
I began because I could not help it, and probably scarcely any work ever stood more clearly arranged, down to the smallest detail, in its creator's imagination, than the Egyptian Princess in mine when I took up my pen. Only the first volume originally contained much more Egyptian material, and the third I lengthened beyond my primary intention. Many notes of that time I was unwilling to leave unused and, though the details are not uninteresting, their abundance certainly impairs the effect of the whole.
As for the characters, most of them were familiar.
How many of my mother's traits the beautiful, dignified Rhodopis possessed! King Amasis was Frederick William IV, the Greek Phanes resembled President Seiffart. Nitetis, too, I knew. I had often jested with Atossa, and Sappho was a combination of my charming Frankfort cousin Betsy, with whom I spent such delightful days in Rippoldsau, and lovely Lina von Adelsson. Like the characters in the works of the greatest of writers--I mean Goethe--not one of mine was wholly invented, but neither was any an accurate portrait of the model.
I by no means concealed from myself the difficulties with which I had to contend or the doubts the critics would express, but this troubled me very little. I was writing the book only for myself and my mother, who liked to hear every chapter read as it was finished. I often thought that this novel might perhaps share the fate of my Poem of the World, and find its way into the fire.
No matter. The greatest success could afford me no higher pleasure than the creative labour. Those were happy evenings when, wholly lifted out of myself, I lived in a totally different world, and, like a god, directed the destinies of the persons who were my creatures. The love scenes between Bartja and Sappho I did not invent; they came to me. When, with brow damp with perspiration, I committed the first one to paper in a single evening, I found the next morning, to my surprise, that only a few touches were needed to convert it into a poem in iambics.
This was scarcely permissible in a novel. But the scene pleased my mother, and when I again brought the lovers together in the warm stillness of the Egyptian night, and perceived that the flood of iambics was once more sweeping me along, I gave free course to the creative spirit and the pen, and the next morning the result was the same.
I then took Julius Hammer into my confidence, and he thought that I had given expression to the overflowing emotion of two loving young hearts in a very felicitous and charming way.
While my friends were enjoying themselves in ball-rooms or exciting society, Fate still condemned me to careful seclusion in my mother's house. But when I was devoting myself to the creation of my Nitetis, I envied no man, scarcely even a god.
So this novel approached completion. It had not deprived me of an hour of actual working time, yet the doubt whether I had done right to venture on this side flight into fairer and better lands during my journey through the department of serious study was rarely silent.
At the beginning of the third volume I ventured to move more freely.
Yet when I went to Lepsius, the most earnest of my teachers, to show him the finished manuscript, I felt very anxious. I had not said even a word in allusion to what I was doing in the evening hours, and the three volumes of my large manuscript were received by him in a way that warranted the worst fears. He even asked how I, whom he had believed to be a serious worker, had been tempted into such "side issues."
This was easy to explain, and when he had heard me to the end he said: "I might have thought of that. You sometimes need a cup of Lethe water. But now let such things alone, and don't compromise your reputation as a scientist by such extravagances."
Yet he kept the manuscript and promised to look at the curiosity.
He did more. He read it through to the last letter, and when, a fortnight later; he asked me at his house to remain after the others had left, he looked pleased, and confessed that he had found something entirely different from what he expected. The book was a scholarly work, and also a fascinating romance.
Then he expressed some doubts concerning the space I had devoted to the Egyptians in my first arrangement. Their nature was too reserved and typical to hold the interest of the unscientific reader. According to his view, I should do well to limit to Egyptian soil what I had gained by investigation, and to make Grecian life, which was familiar to us moderns as the foundation of our aesthetic perceptions, more prominent. The advice was good, and, keeping it in view, I began to subject the whole romance to a thorough revision.
Before going to Wildbad in the summer of 1863 I had a serious conversation with my teacher and friend. Hitherto, he said, he had avoided any discussion of my future; but now that I was so decidedly convalescing, he must tell me that even the most industrious work as a "private scholar," as people termed it, would not satisfy me. I was fitted for an academic career, and he advised me to keep it in view. As I had already thought of this myself, I eagerly assented, and my mother was delighted with my resolution.
How we met in Wildbad my never-to-be-forgotten friend the Stuttgart publisher, Eduard von Hallberger; how he laid hands upon my Egyptian Princess; and how the fate of this book and its author led through joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, I hope, ere my last hour strikes, to communicate to my family and the friends my life and writings have gained.
When I left Berlin, so far recovered that I could again move freely, I was a mature man. The period of development lay behind me. Though the education of an aspiring man ends only with his last breath, the commencement of my labours as a teacher outwardly closed mine, and an important goal in life lay before me. A cruel period of probation, rich in suffering and deprivations, had made the once careless youth familiar with the serious side of existence, and taught him to control himself.
After once recognizing that progress in the department of investigation in which I intended to guide others demanded the devotion of all my powers, I succeeded in silencing the ceaseless longing for fresh creations of romance. The completion of a second long novel would have imperilled the unity with myself which I was striving to attain, and which had been represented to me by the noblest of my instructors as my highest goal in life. So I remained steadfast, although the great success of my first work rendered it very difficult. Temptations of every kind, even in the form of brilliant offers from the most prominent German publishers, assailed me, but I resisted, until at the end of half a lifetime I could venture to say that I was approaching my goal, and that it was now time to grant the muse what I had so long denied. Thus, that portion of my nature which was probably originally the stronger was permitted to have its life. During long days of suffering romance was again a kind and powerful comforter.
Severe suffering had not succeeded in stifling the cheerful spirit of the boy and the youth; it did not desert me in manhood. When the sky of my life was darkened by the blackest clouds it appeared amid the gloom like a radiant star announcing brighter days; and if I were to name the powers by whose aid I have again and again dispelled even the heaviest clouds which threatened to overshadow my happiness in existence, they must be called gratitude, earnest work, and the motto of blind old Langethal, "Love united with the strife for truth."