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- The Story of My Life, Volume 1. - 3/9 -
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.
MY EARLIEST CHILDHOOD
My father died in Leipzigerstrasse, where, two weeks after, I was born. It is reported that I was an unusually sturdy, merry little fellow. One of my father's relatives, Frau Mosson, said that I actually laughed on the third day of my life, and several other proofs of my precocious cheerfulness were related by this lady.
So I must believe that--less wise than Lessing's son, who looked at life and thought it would be more prudent to turn his back upon it--I greeted with a laugh the existence which, amid beautiful days of sunshine, was to bring me so many hours of suffering.
Spring was close at hand; the house in noisy Leipzigerstrasse was distasteful to my mother, her soul longed for rest, and at that time she formed the resolutions according to which she afterward strove to train her boys to be able men. Her first object was to obtain pure air for the little children, and room for the larger ones to exercise. So she looked for a residence outside the gate, and succeeded in renting for a term of years No. 4 Thiergartenstrasse, which I have already mentioned.
The owner, Frau Kommissionsrath Reichert, had also lost her husband a short time before, and had determined to let the house, which stood near her own, stand empty rather than rent it to a large family of children.
Alone herself, she shrank from the noise of growing boys and girls. But she had a warm, kind heart, and--she told me this herself--the sight of the beautiful young mother in her deep mourning made her quickly forget her prejudice. "If she had brought ten bawlers instead of five," she remarked, "I would not have refused the house to that angel face."
We all cherish a kindly memory of the vigorous, alert woman, with her round, bright countenance and laughing eyes. She soon became very intimate with my mother, and my second sister, Paula, was her special favorite, on whom she lavished every indulgence. Her horses were the first ones on which I was lifted, and she often took us with her in the carriage or sent us to ride in it.
I still remember distinctly some parts of our garden, especially the shady avenue leading from our balcony on the ground floor to the Schafgraben, the pond, the beautiful flower-beds in front of Frau Reichert's stately house, and the field of potatoes where I--the gardener was the huntsman--saw my first partridge shot. This was probably on the very spot where for many years the notes of the organ have pealed through the Matthaikirche, and the Word of God has been expounded to a congregation whose residences stand on the playground of my childhood.
The house which sheltered us was only two stories high, but pretty and spacious. We needed abundant room, for, besides my mother, the five children, and the female servants, accommodation was required for the governess, and a man who held a position midway between porter and butler and deserved the title of factotum if any one ever did. His name was Kurschner; he was a big-boned, square-built fellow about thirty years old, who always wore in his buttonhole the little ribbon of the order he had gained as a soldier at the siege of Antwerp, and who had been taken into the house by our mother for our protection, for in winter our home, surrounded by its spacious grounds, was very lonely.
As for us five children, first came my oldest sister Martha--now, alas! dead--the wife of Lieutenant-Colonel Baron Curt von Brandenstein, and my brother Martin, who were seven and five years older than I.
They were, of course, treated differently from us younger ones.
Paula was my senior by three years; Ludwig, or Ludo--he was called by his nickname all his life--by a year and a half.
Paula, a fresh, pretty, bright, daring child, was often the leader in our games and undertakings. Ludo, who afterward became a soldier and as a Prussian officer did good service in the war, was a gentle boy, somewhat delicate in health--the broad-shouldered man shows no trace of it--and the best of playfellows. We were always together, and were frequently mistaken for twins. We shared everything, and on my birthday, gifts were bestowed on him too; on his, upon me.
Each had forgotten the first person singular of the personal pronoun, and not until comparatively late in life did I learn to use "I" and "me" in the place of "we" and "us."
The sequence of events in this quiet country home has, of course, vanished from my mind, and perhaps many which I mention here occurred in Lennestrasse, where we moved later, but the memories of the time we spent in the Thiergarten overlooked by our second home--are among the brightest of my life. How often the lofty trees and dense shrubbery of our own grounds and the beautiful Berlin Thiergarten rise before my mental vision, when my thoughts turn backward and I see merry children playing among them, and hear their joyous laughter!
FAIRY TALES AND FACT.
What happened in the holy of holies, my mother's chamber, has remained, down to the smallest details, permanently engraved upon my soul.
A mother's heart is like the sun--no matter how much light it diffuses, its warmth and brilliancy never lessen; and though so lavish a flood of tenderness was poured forth on me, the other children were no losers. But I was the youngest, the comforter, the nestling; and never was the fact of so much benefit to me as at that time.
My parents' bed stood in the green room with the bright carpet. It had been brought from Holland, and was far larger and wider than bedsteads of the present day. My mother had kept it. A quilted silk coverlet was spread over it, which felt exquisitely soft, and beneath which one could rest delightfully. When the time for rising came, my mother called me. I climbed joyfully into her warm bed, and she drew her darling into her arms, played all sorts of pranks with him, and never did I listen to more beautiful fairy tales than at those hours. They became instinct with life to me, and have always remained so; for my mother gave them the form of dramas, in which I was permitted to be an actor.
The best one of all was Little Red Riding Hood. I played the little girl who goes into the wood, and she was the wolf. When the wicked beast had disguised itself in the grandmother's cap I not only asked the regulation questions: "Grandmother, what makes you have such big eyes? Grandmother, why is your skin so rough?" etc., but invented new ones to defer the grand final effect, which followed the words, "Grandmother, why do you have such big, sharp teeth?" and the answer, "So that I can eat you," whereupon the wolf sprang on me and devoured me--with kisses.
Another time I was Snow-White and she the wicked step-mother, and also the hunter, the dwarf, and the handsome prince who married her.
How real this merry sport made the distress of persecuted innocence, the terrors and charm of the forest, the joys and splendours of the fairy realm! If the flowers in the garden had raised their voices in song, if the birds on the boughs had called and spoken to me--nay, if a tree had changed into a beautiful fairy, or the toad in the damp path of our shaded avenue into a witch--it would have seemed only natural.
It is a singular thing that actual events which happened in those early days have largely vanished from my memory; but the fairy tales I heard and secretly experienced became firmly impressed on my mind. Education and life provided for my familiarity with reality in all its harshness and angles, its strains and hurts; but who in later years could have flung wide the gates of the kingdom where everything is beautiful and good, and where ugliness is as surely doomed to destruction as evil to punishment? Even poesy in our times turns from the Castalian fount whose crystal-clear water becomes an unclean pool and, though reluctantly, obeys the impulse to make its abode in the dust of reality. Therefore I plead with voice and pen in behalf of fairy tales; therefore I tell them to my children and grandchildren, and have even written a volume of them myself.
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