The Story Of My Life From Childhood To Manhood by Georg Ebers
Chapter IV. The Journey to Holland to Attend the Golden Wedding.
The rattle of wheels and the blast of the postilion's horn closed the first period of my childhood. When I was four years old we went to my mother's home to attend my grandparents' golden wedding. If I wished to describe the journey in its regular order I should be forced to depend upon the statements of others. So little of all which grown people deem worth seeing and noting in Belgium, Holland, and on the Rhine has remained in my memory, that I cannot help smiling when I hear people say that they intend to take children travelling for their amusement and instruction. In our case we were put in the carriage because my mother would not leave us behind, and wanted to give our grandparents pleasure by our presence. She was right, but in spite of my inborn love of travel the month we spent on the journey seemed a period of very uncomfortable restlessness. A child realizes only a single detail of beauty--a flower, a radiant star, a human face. Any individual recollection of the journey to Holland, aside from what has been told me, is getting into the travelling carriage, a little green leather Bajazzo dressed in red and white given to me by a relative, and the box of candies bestowed to take on the trip by a friend of my mother.
Of our reception in the Belgian capital at the house of Adolphe Jones, the husband of my aunt Henriette, a sister of my mother, I retain many recollections.
Our pleasant host was a painter of animals, whom I afterward saw sharing his friend Verboeckhoven's studio, and whose flocks of sheep were very highly praised. At that time his studio was in his own house, and it seems as if I could still hear the call in my aunt's shrill voice, repeated countless times a day, "Adolphe!" and the answer, following promptly in the deepest bass tones, "Henriette!" This singular freak, which greatly amused us, was due, as I learned afterward, to my aunt's jealousy, which almost bordered on insanity.
In later years I learned to know him as a jovial artist, who in the days of his youth very possibly might have given the strait-laced lady cause for anxiety. Even when his locks were white he was ready for any pleasure; but he devoted himself earnestly to art, and I am under obligation to him for being the means of my mother's possessing the friendship of the animal painter, Verboeckhoven, and that greatest of more modern Belgian artists, Louis Gallait and his family, in whose society and home I have passed many delightful hours.
In recalling our arrival at the Jones house I first see the merry, smiling face--somewhat faunlike in its expression--of my six-foot uncle, and the plump figure of his wonderfully good and when undisturbed by jealousy--no less cheery wife. There was something specially winning and lovable about her, and I have heard that this lady, my mother's oldest sister, possessed in her youth the same dazzling beauty. At the famous ball in Brussels this so captivated the Duke of Wellington that he offered her his arm to escort her back to her seat. My mother also remembered the Napoleonic days, and I thought she had been specially favoured in seeing this great man when he entered Rotterdam, and also Goethe.
I remember my grandfather as a stately old gentleman. He, as well as the other members of the family, called me Georg Krullebol, which means curly-head, to distinguish me from a cousin called Georg von Gent. I also remember that when, on the morning of December 5th, St. Nicholas day, we children took our shoes to put on, we found them, to our delight, stuffed with gifts; and lastly that on Christmas Eve the tree which had been prepared for us in a room on the ground floor attracted such a crowd of curious spectators in front of the Jones house that we were obliged to close the shutters. Of my grandparents' day of honor I remember nothing except a large room filled with people, and the minutes during which I repeated my little verse. I can still see myself in a short pink skirt, with a wreath of roses on my fair curls, wings on my shoulders, a quiver on my back, and a bow in my hand, standing before the mirror very much pleased with my appearance. Our governess had composed little Cupid's speech, my mother had drilled me thoroughly in it, so I do not remember a moment of anxiety and embarrassment, but merely that it afforded me the purest, deepest pleasure to be permitted to do something.
I must have behaved with the utmost ease before the spectators, many of whom I knew, for I can still hear the loud applause which greeted me, and see myself passed from one to another till I fled from the kisses and pet names of grandparents, aunts, and cousins to my mother's lap. Of the bride and groom of this golden wedding I remember only that my grandfather wore short trousers called 'escarpins' and stockings reaching to the knee. My grandmother, spite of her sixty-six years--she married before she was seventeen--was said to look remarkably pretty. Later I often saw the heavy white silk dress strewn with tiny bouquets which she wore as a bride and again remodelled at her silver wedding; for after her death it was left to my mother. Modern wedding gowns are not treasured so long. I have often wondered why I recollect my grandfather so distinctly and my grandmother so dimly. I have a clear idea of her personal appearance, but this I believe I owe much more to her portrait which hung in my mother's room beside her husband's, and is now one of my own most cherished possessions. Bradley, one of the best English portrait painters, executed it, and all connoisseurs pronounce it a masterpiece.
This festival lives in my memory like the fresh spring morning of a day whose noon is darkened by clouds, and which ends in a heavy thunderstorm.
Black clouds had gathered over the house adorned with garlands and flowers, echoing for days with the gay conversations, jests, and congratulations of the relatives united after long separation and the mirth of children and grandchildren. Not a loud word was permitted to be uttered. We felt that something terrible was impending, and people called it grandfather's illness. Never had I seen my mother's sunny face so anxious and sad. She rarely came to us, and when she did for a short time her thoughts were far away, for she was nursing her father.
Then the day which had been dreaded came. Wherever we looked the women were weeping and the eyes of the men were reddened by tears. My mother, pale and sorrowful, told us that our dear grandfather was dead.
Children cannot understand the terrible solemnity of death. This is a gift bestowed by their guardian angels, that no gloomy shadows may darken the sunny brightness of their souls.
I saw only that cheerful faces were changed to sad ones, that the figures about us moved silently in sable robes and scarcely noticed us. On the tables in the nursery, where our holiday garments were made, black clothes were being cut for us also, and I remember having my mourning dress fitted. I was pleased because it was a new one. I tried to manufacture a suit for my Berlin Jack-in-the-box from the scraps that fell from the dressmaker's table. Nothing amuses a child so much as to imitate what older people are doing. We were forbidden to laugh, but after a few days our mother no longer checked our mirth. Of our stay at Scheveningen I recollect nothing except that the paths in the little garden of the house we occupied were strewn with shells. We dug a big hole in the sand on the downs, but I retained no remembrance of the sea and its majesty, and when I beheld it in later years it seemed as if I were greeting for the first time the eternal Thalassa which was to become so dear and familiar to me.
My grandmother, I learned, passed away scarcely a year after the death of her faithful companion, at the home of her son, a lawyer in The Hague.
Two incidents of the journey back are vividly impressed on my mind. We went by steamer up the Rhine, and stopped at Ehrenbreitstein to visit old Frau Mendelssohn, our guardian's mother, at her estate of Horchheim. The carriage had been sent for us, and on the drive the spirited horses ran away and would have dashed into the Rhine had not my brother Martin, at that time eleven years old, who was sitting on the box by the coachman, saved us.
The other incident is of a less serious nature. I had seen many a salmon in the kitchen, and resolved to fish for one from the steamer; so I tied a bit of candy to a string and dropped it from the deck. The fish were so wanting in taste as to disdain the sweet bait, but my early awakened love of sport kept me patiently a long time in the same spot, which was undoubtedly more agreeable to my mother than the bait was to the salmon. As, protected by the guards, and probably watched by the governess and my brothers and sisters, I devoted myself to this amusement, my mother went down into the cabin to rest. Suddenly there was a loud uproar on the ship. People shouted and screamed, everybody rushed on deck and looked into the river. Whether I, too, heard the fall and saw the life-boat manned I don't remember; but I recollect all the more clearly my mother's rushing frantically from the cabin and clasping me tenderly to her heart as her rescued child. So the drama ended happily, but there had been a terrible scene.
Among the steamer's passengers was a crazy Englishman who was being taken, under the charge of a keeper, to an insane asylum. While my mother was asleep the lunatic succeeded in eluding this man's vigilance and plunged into the river. Of course, there was a tumult on board, and my mother heard cries of "Fallen into the river!"
"Save!" "He'll drown!" Maternal anxiety instantly applied them to the child-angler, and she darted up the cabin stairs. I need not describe the state of mind in which she reached the deck, and her emotion when she found her nestling in his place, still holding the line in his hand.
As the luckless son of Albion was rescued unharmed, we could look back upon the incident gaily, but neither of us forgot this anxiety--the first I was to cause my mother.
I have forgotten everything else that happened on our way home; but when I think of this first journey, a long one for so young a child, and the many little trips--usually to Dresden, where my grandmother Ebers lived--which I was permitted to take, I wonder whether they inspired the love of travel which moved me so strongly later, or whether it was an inborn instinct. If a popular superstition is correct, I was predestined to journey. No less a personage than Friedrich Froebel, the founder of the kindergarten system, called my attention to it; for when I met him for the first time in the Institute at Keilhau, he seized my curly hair, bent my head back, gazed at me with his kind yet penetrating eyes, and said: "You will wander far through the world, my boy; your teeth are wide apart."