The Story Of My Life From Childhood To Manhood by Georg Ebers
Chapter I. Glancing Backward.
Though I was born in Berlin, it was also in the country. True, it was fifty-five years ago; for my birthday was March 1, 1837, and at that time the house--[No. 4 Thiergartenstrasse]--where I slept and played during the first years of my childhood possessed, besides a field and a meadow, an orchard and dense shrubbery, even a hill and a pond. Three big horses, the property of the owner of our residence, stood in the stable, and the lowing of a cow, usually an unfamiliar sound to Berlin children, blended with my earliest recollections.
The Thiergartenstrasse--along which in those days on sunny mornings, a throng of people on foot, on horseback, and in carriages constantly moved to and fro--ran past the front of these spacious grounds, whose rear was bounded by a piece of water then called the "Schafgraben," and which, spite of the duckweed that covered it with a dark-green network of leafage, was used for boating in light skiffs.
Now a strongly built wall of masonry lines the banks of this ditch, which has been transformed into a deep canal bordered by the handsome houses of the Konigin Augustastrasse, and along which pass countless heavily laden barges called by the Berliners "Zillen."
The land where I played in my childhood has long been occupied by the Matthaikirche, the pretty street which bears the same name, and a portion of Konigin Augustastrasse, but the house which we occupied and its larger neighbour are still surrounded by a fine garden.
This was an Eden for city children, and my mother had chosen it because she beheld it in imagination flowing with the true Garden of Paradise rivers of health and freedom for her little ones.
My father died on the 14th of February, 1837, and on the 1st of March of the same year I was born, a fortnight after the death of the man in whom my mother was bereft of both husband and lover. So I am what is termed a "posthumous" child. This is certainly a sorrowful fate; but though there were many hours, especially in the later years of my life, in which I longed for a father, it often seemed to me a noble destiny and one worthy of the deepest gratitude to have been appointed, from the first moment of my existence, to one of the happiest tasks, that of consolation and cheer.
It was to soothe a mother's heartbreak that I came in the saddest hours of her life, and, though my locks are now grey, I have not forgotten the joyful moments in which that dear mother hugged her fatherless little one, and among other pet names called him her "comfort child."
She told me also that posthumous children were always Fortune's favorites, and in her wise, loving way strove to make me early familiar with the thought that God always held in his special keeping those children whose fathers he had taken before their birth. This confidence accompanied me through all my after life.
As I have said, it was long before I became aware that I lacked anything, especially any blessing so great as a father's faithful love and care; and when life showed to me also a stern face and imposed heavy burdens, my courage was strengthened by my happy confidence that I was one of Fortune's favorites, as others are buoyed up by their firm faith in their "star."
When the time at last came that I longed to express the emotions of my soul in verse, I embodied my mother's prediction in the lines:
The child who first beholds the light of day After his father's eyes are closed for aye, Fortune will guard from every threatening ill, For God himself a father's place will fill.
People often told me that as the youngest, the nestling, I was my mother's "spoiled child"; but if anything spoiled me it certainly was not that. No child ever yet received too many tokens of love from a sensible mother; and, thank Heaven, the word applied to mine. Fate had summoned her to be both father and mother to me and my four brothers and sisters-one little brother, her second child, had died in infancy--and she proved equal to the task. Everything good which was and is ours we owe to her, and her influence over us all, and especially over me, who was afterward permitted to live longest in close relations with her, was so great and so decisive, that strangers would only half understand these stories of my childhood unless I gave a fuller description of her.
These details are intended particularly for my children, my brothers and sisters, and the dear ones connected with our family by ties of blood and friendship, but I see no reason for not making them also accessible to wider circles. There has been no lack of requests from friends that I should write them, and many of those who listen willingly when I tell romances will doubtless also be glad to learn something concerning the life of the fabulist, who, however, in these records intends to silence imagination and adhere rigidly to the motto of his later life, "To be truthful in love."
My mother's likeness as a young woman accompanies these pages, and must spare me the task of describing her appearance. It was copied from the life-size portrait completed for the young husband by Schadow just prior to his appointment as head of the Dusseldorf Academy of Art, and now in the possession of my brother, Dr. Martin Ebers of Berlin. Unfortunately, our copy lacks the colouring; and the dress of the original, which shows the whole figure, confirms the experience of the error committed in faithfully reproducing the fashion of the day in portraits intended for future generations. It never fully satisfied me; for it very inadequately reproduces what was especially precious to us in our mother and lent her so great a charm--her feminine grace, and the tenderness of heart so winningly expressed in her soft blue eyes.
No one could help pronouncing her beautiful; but to me she was at once the fairest and the best of women, and if I make the suffering Stephanus in Homo Sum say, "For every child his own mother is the best mother," mine certainly was to me. My heart rejoiced when I perceived that every one shared this appreciation. At the time of my birth she was thirty-five, and, as I have heard from many old acquaintances, in the full glow of her beauty.
My father had been one of the Berlin gentlemen to whose spirit of self-sacrifice and taste for art the Konigstadt Theater owed its prosperity, and was thus brought into intimate relations with Carl von Holtei, who worked for its stage both as dramatist and actor. When, as a young professor, I told the grey-haired author in my mother's name something which could not fail to afford him pleasure, I received the most eager assent to my query whether he still remembered her. "How I thank your admirable mother for inducing you to write!" ran the letter. "Only I must enter a protest against your first lines, suggesting that I might have forgotten her. I forget the beautiful, gentle, clever, steadfast woman who (to quote Shakespeare's words) 'came adorned hither like sweet May,' and, stricken by the hardest blows so soon after her entrance into her new life, gloriously endured every trial of fate to become the fairest bride, the noblest wife, most admirable widow, and most faithful mother! No, my young unknown friend, I have far too much with which to reproach myself, have brought from the conflicts of a changeful life a lacerated heart, but I have never reached the point where that heart ceased to cherish Fanny Ebers among the most sacred memories of my chequered career. How often her loved image appears before me when, in lonely twilight hours, I recall the past!"
Yes, Fate early afforded my mother an opportunity to test her character. The city where shortly before my birth she became a widow was not her native place. My father had met her in Holland, when he was scarcely more than a beardless youth. The letter informing his relatives that he had determined not to give up the girl his heart had chosen was not regarded seriously in Berlin; but when the lover, with rare pertinacity, clung to his resolve, they began to feel anxious. The eldest son of one of the richest families in the city, a youth of nineteen, wished to bind himself for life--and to a foreigner--a total stranger.
My mother often told us that her father, too, refused to listen to the young suitor, and how, during that time of conflict, while she was with her family at Scheveningen, a travelling carriage drawn by four horses stopped one day before her parents' unpretending house. From this coach descended the future mother-in-law. She had come to see the paragon of whom her son had written so enthusiastically, and to learn whether it would be possible to yield to the youth's urgent desire to establish a household of his own. And she did find it possible; for the girl's rare beauty and grace speedily won the heart of the anxious woman who had really come to separate the lovers. True, they were required to wait a few years to test the sincerity of their affection. But it withstood the proof, and the young man, who had been sent to Bordeaux to acquire in a commercial house the ability to manage his father's banking business, did not hesitate an instant when his beautiful fiancee caught the smallpox and wrote that her smooth face would probably be disfigured by the malignant disease, but answered that what he loved was not only her beauty but the purity and goodness of her tender heart.
This had been a severe test, and it was to be rewarded: not the smallest scar remained to recall the illness. When my father at last made my mother his wife, the burgomaster of her native city told him that he gave to his keeping the pearl of Rotterdam. Post-horses took the young couple in the most magnificent weather to the distant Prussian capital. It must have been a delightful journey, but when the horses were changed in Potsdam the bride and groom received news that the latter's father was dead.
So my parents entered a house of mourning. My mother at that time had only the slight mastery of German acquired during hours of industrious study for her future husband's sake. She did not possess in all Berlin a single friend or relative of her own family, yet she soon felt at home in the capital. She loved my father. Heaven gave her children, and her rare beauty, her winning charm, and the receptivity of her mind quickly opened all hearts to her in circles even wider than her husband's large family connection. The latter included many households whose guests numbered every one whose achievements in science or art, or possession of large wealth, had rendered them prominent in Berlin, and the "beautiful Hollander," as my mother was then called, became one of the most courted women in society.
Holtei had made her acquaintance at this time, and it was a delight to hear her speak of those gay, brilliant days. How often Baron von Humboldt, Rauch, or Schleiermacher had escorted her to dinner! Hegel had kept a blackened coin won from her at whist. Whenever he sat down to play cards with her he liked to draw it out, and, showing it to his partner, say, "My thaler, fair lady."
My mother, admired and petted, had thoroughly enjoyed the happy period of my father's lifetime, entertaining as a hospitable hostess or visiting friends, and she gladly recalled it. But this brilliant life, filled to overflowing with all sorts of amusements, had been interrupted just before my birth.
The beloved husband had died, and the great wealth of our family, though enough remained for comfortable maintenance, had been much diminished.
Such changes of outward circumstances are termed reverses of fortune, and the phrase is fitting, for by them life gains a new form. Yet real happiness is more frequently increased than lessened, if only they do not entail anxiety concerning daily bread. My mother's position was far removed from this point; but she possessed qualities which would have undoubtedly enabled her, even in far more modest circumstances, to retain her cheerfulness and fight her way bravely with her children through life.
The widow resolved that her sons should make their way by their own industry, like her brothers, who had almost all become able officials in the Dutch colonial service. Besides, the change in her circumstances brought her into closer relations with persons with whom by inclination and choice she became even more intimately associated than with the members of my father's family--I mean the clique of scholars and government officials amid whose circle her children grew up, and whom I shall mention later.
Our relatives, however, even after my father's death, showed the same regard for my mother--who on her side was sincerely attached to many of them--and urged her to accept the hospitality of their homes. I, too, when a child, still more in later years, owe to the Beer family many a happy hour. My father's cousin, Moritz von Oppenfeld, whose wife was an Ebers, was also warmly attached to us. He lived in a house which he owned on the Pariser Platz, now occupied by the French embassy, and in whose spacious apartments and elsewhere his kind heart and tender love prepared countless pleasures for our young lives.