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- The Story of My Life, Volume 1. - 6/9 -
For writing we used exclusively goose-quills, for though steel pens were invented soon after I was born, they were probably very imperfect; and, moreover, had to combat a violent prejudice, for at the first school we attended we were strictly forbidden to use them. So the penknife played an important part on every writing-desk, and it was impossible to imagine a good penman who did not possess skill in the art of shaping the quills.
What has been accomplished between 1837 and the present date in the way of means of communication I need not recapitulate. I only know how long a time was required for a letter from my mother's brothers--one was a resident of Java and the other lived as "Opperhoofd" in Japan--to reach Berlin, and how often an opportunity was used, generally through the courtesy of the Netherland embassy, for sending letters or little gifts to Holland. A letter forwarded by express was the swiftest way of receiving or giving news; but there was the signal telegraph, whose arms we often saw moving up and down, but exclusively in the service of the Government. When, a few years ago, my mother was ill in Holland, a reply to a telegram marked "urgent" was received in Leipsic in eighteen minutes. What would our grandparents have said to such a miracle?
We were soon to learn by experience the number of days required to reach my mother's home from Berlin, for there was then no railroad to Holland.
The remarkable changes wrought during my lifetime in the political affairs of Germany I can merely indicate here. I was born in despotic Prussia, which was united to Austria and the German states and small countries by a loosely formed league. As guardians of this wretched unity the various courts sent diplomats to Frankfort, who interrupted their careless mode of life only to sharpen distrust of other courts or suppress some democratic movement.
The Prussian nation first obtained in 1848 the liberties which had been secured at an earlier date by the other German states, and nothing gives me more cause for gratitude than the boon of being permitted to see the realization and fulfilment of the dream of so many former generations, and my dismembered native land united into one grand, beautiful whole. I deem it a great happiness to have been a contemporary of Emperor William I, Bismarck, and Von Moltke, witnessed their great deeds as a man of mature years, and shared the enthusiasm they evoked and which enabled these men to make our German Fatherland the powerful, united empire it is to-day.
The journey to Holland closes the first part of my childhood. I look back upon it as a beautiful, unshadowed dream out of doors or in a pleasant house where everybody loved me. But I could not single out the years, months, or days of this retrospect. It is only a smooth stream which bears us easily along. There is no series of events, only disconnected images--a faithful dog, a picture on the wall, above all the love and caresses of the mother lavished specially on me as the youngest, and the most blissful of all sounds in the life of a German child, the ringing of the little bell announcing that the Christmas tree is ready.
Only in after days, when the world of fairyland and legend is left behind, does the child have any idea of consecutive events and human destinies. The stories told by mother and grandmother about Snow-White, the Sleeping Beauty, the giants and the dwarfs, Cinderella, the stable at Bethlehem where the Christ-Child lay in the manger beside the oxen and asses, the angels who appeared to the shepherds singing "Glory to God in the Highest," the three kings and the star which led them to the Christ- Child, are firmly impressed on his memory. I don't know how young I was when I saw the first picture of the kings in their purple robes kneeling before the babe in its mother's lap, but its forms and hues were indelibly stamped upon my mental vision, and I never forgot its meaning. True, I had no special thoughts concerning it; nay, I scarcely wondered to see kings in the dust before a child, and now, when I hear the summons of the purest and noblest of Beings, "Suffer little children to come unto me," and understand the sacred simplicity of a child's heart, it no longer awakens surprise.
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
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