The Story Of My Life From Childhood To Manhood by Georg Ebers
Chapter V. Lennestrasse.--Lenne.--Early Impressions.
Lennestrasse is the scene of the period of my life which began with my return from Holland. If, coming from the Brandenburg Gate, you follow the Thiergarten and pass the superb statue of Goethe, you will reach a corner formed by two blocks of houses. The one on the left, opposite to the city wall, now called Koniggratz, was then known as Schulgartenstrasse. The other, on the right, whose windows overlooked the Thiergarten, bore the name in my childhood of Lennestrasse, which it owed to Lenne, the park superintendent, a man of great talent, but who lives in my memory only as a particularly jovial old gentleman. He occupied No. 1, and was one of my mother's friends. Next to Prince Packler, he may certainly be regarded as one of the most inventive and tasteful landscape gardeners of his time. He transformed the gardens of Sans-Souci and the Pfaueninsel at Potsdam, and laid out the magnificent park on Babelsberg for Emperor William I, when he was only "Prince of Prussia." The magnificent Zoological Garden in Berlin is also his work; but he prided himself most on rendering the Thiergarten a "lung" for the people, and, spite of many obstacles, materially enlarging it. Every moment of the tireless man's time was claimed, and besides King Frederick William IV, who himself uttered many a tolerably good joke, found much pleasure in the society of the gay, clever Rhinelander, whom he often summoned to dine with him at Potsdam. Lenne undoubtedly appreciated this honour, yet I remember the doleful tone in which he sometimes greeted my mother with, "Called to court again!"
Like every one who loves Nature and flowers, he was fond of children. We called him "Uncle Lenne," and often walked down our street hand in hand with him.
It is well known that the part of the city on the other side of the Potsdam Gate was called the "Geheimerath-Quarter." Our street, it is true, lay nearer to the Brandenburg Gate, yet it really belonged to that section; for there was not a single house without at least one Geheimerath (Privy Councillor).
Yet this superabundance of men in "secret" positions lent no touch of mystery to our cheerful street, shaded by the green of the forest. Franker, gayer, sometimes noisier children than its residents could not be found in Berlin. I was only a little fellow when we lived there, and merely tolerated in the "big boys'" sports, but it was a festival when, with Ludo, I could carry their provisions for them or even help them make fireworks. The old Rechnungsrath, who lived in the house owned by Geheimerath Crede, the father of my Leipsic colleague, was their instructor in this art, which was to prove disastrous to my oldest brother and bright Paul Seiffart; for--may they pardon me the treachery--they took one of the fireworks to school, where--I hope accidentally--it went off. At first this caused much amusement, but strict judgment followed, and led to my mother's resolution to send her oldest son away from home to some educational institution.
The well-known teacher, Adolph Diesterweg, whose acquaintance she had made at the house of a friend, recommended Keilhau, and so our little band was deprived of the leader to whom Ludo and I had looked up with a certain degree of reverence on account of his superior strength, his bold spirit of enterprise, and his kindly condescension to us younger ones.
After his departure the house was much quieter, but we did not forget him; his letters from Keilhau were read aloud to us, and his descriptions of the merry school days, the pedestrian tours, and sleigh-rides awakened an ardent longing in Ludo and myself to follow him.
Yet it was so delightful with my mother, the sun around which our little lives revolved! I had no thought, performed no act, without wondering what would be her opinion of it; and this intimate relation, though in an altered form, continued until her death. In looking backward I may regard it as a law of my whole development that my conduct was regulated according to the more or less close mental and outward connection in which I stood with her. The storm and stress period, during which my effervescent youthful spirits led me into all sorts of follies, was the only time in my life in which this close connection threatened to be loosened. Yet Fate provided that it should soon be welded more firmly than ever. When she died, a beloved wife stood by my side, but she was part of myself; and in my mother Fate seemed to have robbed me of the supreme arbitrator, the high court of justice, which alone could judge my acts.
In Lennestrasse it was still she who waked me, prepared us to go to school, took us to walk, and--how could I ever forget it?--gathered us around her "when the lamps were lighted," to read aloud or tell us some story. But nobody was allowed to be perfectly idle. While my sisters sewed, I sketched; and, as Ludo found no pleasure in that, she sometimes had him cut figures out; sometimes--an odd fancy--execute a masterpiece of crocheting, which usually shared the fate of Penelope's web.
We listened with glowing cheeks to Robinson Crusoe and the Arabian Nights, Gulliver's Travels and Don Quixote, both arranged for children, the pretty, stories of Nieritz and others, descriptions of Nature and travel, and Grimm's fairy tales.
On other winter evenings my mother--this will surprise many in the case of so sensible a woman--took us to the theatre. Two of our relatives, Frau Amalie Beer and our beloved Moritz von Oppenfeld, subscribed for boxes in the opera-house, and when they did not use them, which often happened, sent us the key.
So as a boy I heard most of the operas produced at that time, and I saw the ballets, of which Frederick William IV was especially fond, and which Taglioni understood how to arrange so admirably.
Of course, to us children the comic "Robert and Bertram," by Ludwig Schneider, and similar plays, were far more delightful than the grand operas; yet even now I wonder that Don Giovanni's scene with the statue and the conspiracy in the Huguenots stirred me, when a boy of nine or ten, so deeply, and that, though possessing barely the average amount of musical talent, Orpheus's yearning cry, "Eurydice!" rang in my ears so long.
That these frequently repeated pleasures were harmful to us children I willingly admit. And yet--when in after years I was told that I succeeded admirably in describing large bodies of men seized by some strong excitement, and that my novels did not lack dramatic movement or their scenes vividness, and, where it was requisite, splendour--I perhaps owe this to the superb pictures, interwoven with thrilling bursts of melody, which impressed themselves upon my soul when a child.
Fortunately, the outdoor life at Keilhau counteracted the perils which might have arisen from attending theatrical performances too young. What I beheld there, in field and forest, enabled me in after life, when I desired a background for my stories, not to paint stage scenes, but take Nature herself for a model.
I must also record another influence which had its share in my creative toil--my early intercourse with artists and the opportunity of seeing their work.
The statement has been made often enough, but I should like to repeat it here from my own experience, that the most numerous and best impulses which urge the author to artistic development come from his childhood. This law, which results from observing the life and works of the greatest writers, has shown itself very distinctly in a minor one like myself.
There was certainly no lack of varied stimulus during this early period of my existence; but when I look back upon it, I become vividly aware of the serious perils which threaten not only the external but the internal development of the children who grow up in large cities.
Careful watching can guard them from the transgressions to which there are many temptations, but not from the strong and varying impressions which life is constantly forcing upon them. They are thrust too early from the paradise of childhood into the arena of life. There are many things to be seen which enrich the imagination, but where could the young heart find the calmness it needs? The sighing of the wind sweeping over the cornfields and stirring the tree-tops in the forest, the singing of the birds in the boughs, the chirping of the cricket, the vesper-bells summoning the world to rest, all the voices which, in the country, invite to meditation and finally to the formation of a world of one's own, are silenced by the noise of the capital. So it happens that the latter produces active, practical men, and, under favorable circumstances, great scholars, but few artists and poets. If, nevertheless, the capitals are the centers where the poets, artists, sculptors, and architects of the country gather, there is a good reason for it. But I can make no further digression. The sapling requires different soil and care from the tree. I am grateful to my mother for removing us in time from the unrest of Berlin life.
FIRST STUDIES.--MY SISTERS AND THEIR FRIENDS.
My mother told me I was never really taught to read. Ludo, who was a year and a half older, was instructed in the art. I sat by playing, and one day took up Speckter's Fables and read a few words. Trial was then made of my capability, and, finding that I only needed practice to be able to read things I did not know already by heart, my brother and I were thenceforth taught together.
At first the governess had charge of us, afterward we were sent to a little school kept by Herr Liebe in the neighbouring Schulgarten (now Koniggratz) Strasse. It was attended almost entirely by children belonging to the circle of our acquaintances, and the master was a pleasant little man of middle age, who let us do more digging in his garden and playing or singing than actual study.
His only child, a pretty little girl named Clara, was taught with us, and I believe I have Herr Liebe to thank for learning to write. In summer he took us on long walks, frequently to the country seat of Herr Korte, who stood high in the estimation of farmers.
From such excursions, which were followed by others made with the son and tutor of a family among our circle of friends, we always brought our mother great bunches of flowers, and often beautiful stories, too; for the tutor, Candidate Woltmann, was an excellent story-teller, and I early felt a desire to share with those whom I loved whatever charmed me.
It was from this man, who was as fond of the beautiful as he was of children, that I first heard the names of the Greek heroes; and I remember that, after returning from one of these walks, I begged my mother to give us Schwab's Tales of Classic Antiquity, which was owned by one of our companions. We received it on Ludo's birthday, in September, and how we listened when it was read to us--how often we ourselves devoured its delightful contents!
I think the story of the Trojan War made a deeper impression upon me than even the Arabian Nights. Homer's heroes seemed like giant oaks, which far overtopped the little trees of the human wood. They towered like glorious snow mountains above the little hills with which my childish imagination was already filled; and how often we played the Trojan War, and aspired to the honor of acting Hector, Achilles, or Ajax!
Of Herr Liebe, our teacher, I remember only three things. On his daughter's birthday he treated us to cake and wine, and we had to sing a festal song composed by himself, the refrain of which changed every year:
"Clara, with her fair hair thick, Clara, with her eyes like heaven, Can no more be called a chick, For to-day she's really seven."
I remember, too, how when she was eight years old we had to transpose the words a little to make the measure right. Karl von Holtei had a more difficult task when, after the death of the Emperor Francis (Kaiser Franz), he had to fit the name of his successor, Ferdinand, into the beautiful "Gotterhalte Franz den Kaiser," but he got cleverly out of the affair by making it "Gott erhalte Ferdinandum."--[God save the Emperor Francis.]
My second recollection is, that we assisted Herr Liebe, who was a churchwarden and had the honour of taking up the collection, to sort the money, and how it delighted us to hear him scold--with good reason, too--when we found among the silver and copper pieces--as, alas! we almost always did--counters and buttons from various articles of clothing.
In the third place, I must accuse Herr Liebe of having paid very little attention to our behaviour out of school. Had he kept his eyes open, we might have been spared many a bruise and our garments many a rent; for, as often as we could manage it, instead of going directly home from the Schulgartenstrasse, we passed through the Potsdam Gate to the square beyond. There lurked the enemy, and we sought them out. The enemy were the pupils of a humbler grade of school who called us Privy Councillor's youngsters, which most of us were; and we called them, in return, 'Knoten,' which in its original meaning was anything but an insult, coming as it does by a natural philological process from "Genote," the older form of "Genosse" or comrade.
But to accuse us of arrogance on this account would be doing us wrong. Children don't fight regularly with those whom they despise. Our "Knoten" was only a smart answer to their "Geheimrathsjoren." If they had called us boobies we should probably have called them blockheads, or something of that sort.
This troop, which was not over-well-dressed even before the beginning of the conflict, was led by some boys whose father kept a so-called flower cellar--that is, a basement shop for plants, wreaths, etc.--at the head of Leipzigerstrasse. They often sought us out, but when they did not we enticed them from their cellar by a particular sort of call, and as soon as they appeared we all slipped into some courtyard, where a battle speedily raged, in which our school knapsacks served as weapons of offence and defence. When I got into a passion I was as wild as a fighting cock, and even quiet Ludo could deal hard blows; and I can say the same of most of the "Geheimrathsjoren" and "Knoten." It was not often that any decided success attended the fight, for the janitor or some inhabitant of the house usually interfered and brought it all to an untimely end. I remember still how a fat woman, probably a cook, seized me by the collar and pushed me out into the street, crying: "Fie! fie! such young gentlemen ought to be ashamed of themselves."
Hegel, however, whose influence at that time was still great in the learned circles of Berlin, had called shame "anger against what is natural," and we liked what was natural. So the battles with the "Knoten" were continued until the Berlin revolution called forth more serious struggles, and our mother sent us away to Keilhau.
Our sisters went to school also, a school kept by Fraulein Sollmann in the Dorotheenstrasse. And yet we had a tutor, I do not really know why. Whether our mother had heard of the fights, and recognized the impossibility of following us about everywhere, or whether the candidate was to teach us the rudiments of Latin after we went to the Schmidt school in the Leipziger Platz, at the beginning of my tenth year, I neglected to inquire.
The Easter holidays always brought Brother Martin home. Then he told us about Keilhau, and we longed to accompany him there; and yet we had so many good schoolmates and friends at home, such spacious playgrounds and beautiful toys! I recall with especial pleasure the army of tin soldiers with which we fought battles, and the brass cannon that mowed down their ranks. We could build castles and cathedrals with our blocks, and cooking was a pleasure, too, when our sisters allowed us to act as scullions and waiters in white aprons and caps.
Martha, the eldest, was already a grown young lady, but so sweet and kind that we never feared a rebuff from her; and her friends, too, liked us little ones.
Martha's contemporaries formed a peculiarly charming circle. There was the beautiful Emma Baeyer, the daughter of General Baeyer, who afterward conducted the measuring of the meridian for central Europe; pretty, lively Anna Bisting; and Gretchen Bugler, a handsome, merry girl, who afterward married Paul Heyse and died young; Clara and Agnes Mitscherlich, the daughters of the celebrated chemist, the younger of whom was especially dear to my childish heart. Gustel Grimm, too, the daughter of Wilhelm Grimm, was often at our house. The queen of my heart, however, was the sister of our playmate, Max Geppert, and at this time the most intimate friend of my sister Paula. The two took dancing lessons together, and there was no greater joy than when the lesson was at our house, for then the young ladies occasionally did us the favour of dancing with us, to Herr Guichard's tiny violin.
Warm as was my love for the beautiful Annchen, my adored one came near getting a cold from it, for, rogue that I was, I hid her overshoes during the lesson on one rainy Saturday evening, that I might have the pleasure of taking them to her the next morning.
She looked at that time like the woman with whom I celebrated my silver wedding two years ago, and certainly belonged to the same feminine genre, which I value and place as high above all others as Simonides von Amorgos preferred the beelike woman to every other of her sex: I mean the kind whose womanliness and gentle charm touch the heart before one ever thinks of intellect or beauty.
Our mother smiled at these affairs, and her daughters, as girls, gave her no great trouble in guarding their not too impressionable hearts.
There was only one boy for whom Paula showed a preference, and that was pretty blond Paul, our Martin's friend, comrade, and contemporary, the son of our neighbour, the Privy-Councillor Seiffart; and we lived a good deal together, for his mother and ours were bosom friends, and our house was as open to him as his to us.
Paul was born on the same November day as my sister, though several years earlier, and their common birthday was celebrated, while we were little, by a puppet-show at the neighbour's, conducted by some master in the business, on a pretty little stage in the great hall at the Seiffarts' residence.
I have never forgotten those performances, and laugh now when I think of the knight who shouted to his servant Kasperle, "Fear my thread!" (Zwirn), when what he intended to say was, "Fear my anger!" (Zorn). Or of that same Kasperle, when he gave his wife a tremendous drubbing with a stake, and then inquired, "Want another ounce of unburned wood-ashes, my darling?"
Paula was very fond of these farces. She was, however, from a child rather a singular young creature, who did not by any means enjoy all the amusements of her age. When grown, it was often with difficulty that our mother persuaded her to attend a ball, while Martha's eyes sparkled joyously when there was a dance in prospect; and yet the tall and slender Paula looked extremely pretty in a ball dress.
Gay and active, indeed bold as a boy sometimes, so that she would lead in taking the rather dangerous leap from a balcony of our high ground floor into the garden, clever, and full of droll fancies, she dwelt much in her own thoughts. Several volumes of her journal came to me after our mother's death, and it is odd enough to find the thirteen-year-old girl confessing that she likes no worldly pleasures, and yet, being a very truthful child, she was only expressing a perfectly sincere feeling.
It was touching to read in the same confessions: "I was in a dreamy mood, and they said I must be longing for something--Paul, no doubt. I did not dispute it, for I really was longing for some one, though it was not a boy, but our dead father." And Paula was only three years old when he left us!
No one would have thought, who saw her delight when there were fireworks in the Seiffarts' garden, or when in our own, with her curls and her gown flying, her cheeks glowing, and her eyes flashing, she played with all her heart at "catch" or "robber and princess," or, all animation and interest, conducted a performance of our puppet-show, that she would sometimes shun all noisy pleasure, that she longed with enthusiastic piety for the Sunday churchgoing, and could plunge into meditation on subjects that usually lie far from childish thoughts and feelings.
Yet who would fancy her thoughtless when she wrote in her journal: "Fie, Paula! You have taken no trouble. Mother had a right to expect a better report. However, to be happy, one must forget what cannot be altered."
In reality, she was not in the least "featherheaded." Her life proved that, and it is apparent, too, in the words I found on another page of her journal, at thirteen: "Mother and Martha are at the Drakes; I will learn my hymn, and then read in the Bible about the sufferings of Jesus. Oh, what anguish that must have been! And I? What do I do that is good, in making others happy or consoling their trouble? This must be different, Paula! I will begin a new life. Mother always says we are happy when we deny self in order to do good. Ah, if we always could! But I will try; for He did, though He might have escaped, for our sins and to make us happy."