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- The Story of My Life, Volume 1. - 7/9 -
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."
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.
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