Fragments Of An Autobiography Part 3

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I must have caught the loving mood from Oscar, or else some wood-nymphs or sprites must have been trying their hands on me, or perhaps I was only tired and lagged behind. Certain it is that a new sort of feeling came over me, a semi-conscious yearning for an unknown quant.i.ty that was waiting for me somewhere; and as I lay on my back under the trees, my imagination shot upwards, starting from the gnarled roots by my side, along the mast-like perpendiculars the pines, past jolly little squirrels, patches of moss and garlands of creepers, right to the top where the sky's blue eyes were winking at me. Nature was whispering some secret and I was dreaming my first Midsummer-Day's Dream.

All around there was humming and buzzing, piping and singing; mysterious sounds, joyous notes, and pensive ditties. Some bird with a flute-like voice sang a pretty little musical phrase, just a bar of five or six notes, and kept on repeating it at intervals. Another little bird, deep down in the forest, answered it--birds of a feather flirt together--only there were so many chirping chatterboxes about, enjoying themselves in their way, that the warbling flirtation was carried on under difficulties. For all that, the flute-like voice never tired of saying its say, and putting its question, pleased as it evidently was with its mate's reply. I dare say it knew a good deal better than I did at the time what it was all about, and what was the grand and glorious answer inexhaustible Nature held in store for it.

For my part, I gazed upward at the patches of ultramarine, and longed for them, but it was not till years afterwards that they vouchsafed to come down. Then, when they took the shape of a pair of real blue eyes, it all dawned upon me, and I knew what Nature had been whispering, and understood that stately pine-forests, jolly little squirrels, and loving little birds, were only created to guide and direct good little boys to realms of joy and happiness.

Whilst I was sitting on school-forms puzzling over nouns and verbs, or lying on the gra.s.s communing with the birds, things were happening in my London home that were once more to lead to a change in my surroundings.

Another pleasant day-dream, one that my father and his friend Mendelssohn had for some time past been indulging in, was about to be realised. The frequent correspondence between them, delightful as it was, the exchange of views, musical and personal, and the occasional meetings in England or Germany, had only more saliently brought out the points in favour of a long-cherished scheme which should enable them to live and work together in the same town.



Mendelssohn had for some time been planning the formation of a School of Music in Leipsic, and his letters of this period are full of the warmest and most eloquent appeals to my father to give up his position in England, and to take up his residence in Leipsic. The outcome of it was, that the Conservatorio in that city was founded, and that my father was offered a professors.h.i.+p. In answer to his a.s.sumption that Mendelssohn would act as director, the latter answers: "I am not, and never shall be the director of the school. I stand in precisely the same kind of position that it is hoped you may occupy. The duties of my department are the reading of compositions, &c., and as I was one of the founders of the school, and am acquainted with its weak points, I lend a hand here and there until we are more firmly established."

In the summer of 1846 my father migrated to Leipsic. He gave up his brilliant position in London, and, actuated by the love of his art and his desire to be in daily touch with Mendelssohn, he had no hesitation in accepting a salary of 800 thalers (120) per annum. In a letter to a relative he speaks of the dear and kind friends he leaves behind.

"Parting from them individually," he says, "and indeed from the English nation generally, will cost us a bitter pang, for twenty-four years of unswerving kindness have laid upon us obligations which we can only pay with life-long grat.i.tude."

And Mendelssohn wrote: "How could I tell you what it is to me, when I think you are really coming, that you are going to live here for good, you and yours, and that what seemed a castle in the air is about to become a tangible reality; that we shall be together, not merely to run through the dissipations of a season, but to enjoy an intimate and uninterrupted intercourse! I shall have a few houses painted rose-colour as soon as you really are within our walls. But it needs not that; your arrival alone will give the whole place a new complexion."

Not by such words only, but most practically did Mendelssohn show his friends.h.i.+p. With the precision of a courier and the foresight of a brother, he goes into the minutest details of the cost of living in the German city: "A flat, consisting of seven or eight rooms, with kitchen and appurtenances, varies from 300 to 350 thalers (45 to 50). For that sum it should be cheerful; and, as regards the situation, should leave nothing to be desired. Servants would cost 100 to 110 thalers per annum (15 to 16, 10s.), all depending, to be sure, on what you would require. Male servants are not much in demand here, their wages varying from 3 to 12 thalers per month (9s. to 1, 16s.). A good cook gets 40 thalers a year (6), a housemaid 32 (5). If you add to these a lady's-maid who could sew and make dresses, you would reach about the above-mentioned figure. Wood--that is fuel for kitchen, stoves, &c.--is dear, and may amount to 150 or 200 thalers (22, 10s. to 18) for a family of five with servants. Rates and taxes are next to nothing; eight or ten thalers a year would cover all."

Those were indeed the good old times, when the Fatherland was not yet weighed down by blood-and-iron taxes. The most gifted member of the International Arbitration and Peace a.s.sociation could not speak more eloquently than do those figures. A family of five with servants; 24s.

to 30s. a year would cover all rates and taxes!

Soon, then, the suitable flat was found and my father migrated to Leipsic, entered on his new duties at the Conservatorio, and became a good citizen and ratepayer. The "intimate and uninterrupted intercourse"

became a reality, and there was scarcely a day when the Mendelssohns and Moscheles did not meet. They could not do without me, however (remember I was an only son, and a well-beloved G.o.dson), so I was recalled and soon left Carlsruhe, I am afraid, with a wicked sense of ingrat.i.tude for all the care bestowed on me by Professor Schummelig and my other teachers.

It was terribly cold that winter, and travelling was fraught with difficulties, if not with dangers. Our diligence was a heavy one, and when it got stuck fast in the drifting snow, as it did more than once, the pa.s.sengers had to get out, whether it was by day or by night, and literally put their shoulders to the wheel. It was only thanks to a very kind and provident "conducteur," that my much-tried little spark of vitality was preserved. He kept a never-to-be-forgotten straw-plaited brandy flask suspended from his neck by a green cord, and when my spirits flagged, his did good office.

It was midnight a day or two before Christmas when we arrived at the "Post" in Leipsic. My luggage was put on a diminutive sledge and dragged along the snow-bound street, I running by its side to keep body and soul together. n.o.body knows till he has tried it how hot a run in the bitter cold can make one, particularly when one's heart beats at the thought of a welcome, and one's mind is all ablaze with the brilliant images of those one loves. There I was at last in the new home and folded in the old embrace.

Once settled, the question soon arose what was to be done with me next, and a decision was come to, to send me for a short time to the Bau Schule (School of Architecture). Those wooden bricks of my early boyhood, and the table with the many compartments, had gone the way of all good bricks and tables, but my love for architecture remained, and I now sometimes regret that I was not to continue my studies in that direction till I had had the regular cla.s.sical education; but so it was.

By the time I had learnt how to stretch a sheet of paper on a drawing-board, and how to handle the compa.s.ses and T-square, and just when I was getting to know something about the price of tiles and the mixing of mortar, I left the Bau Schule, and was entered at the Thomas Schule. That was a famous old inst.i.tution. The whole upper storey of the school was occupied by a number of free pupils, the "Thomaner"

choir-boys. They were celebrated throughout Germany as the best singers of sacred music, trained as they had originally been by no less a master than Johann Sebastian Bach, the famous "Cantor." His rooms in that building were now occupied by his successor, Hauptmann, who knew how to maintain the highest standard of excellence in his pupils. He was a man of learning and an erudite musician, and as such, one of the pillars of strength on which rested Leipsic's reputation, that city standing quite unrivalled as the centre towards which all musical aspirants gravitated.

He spoke little; but when he did, it was to say much. His criticisms could be severe, as when a new orchestral piece was being rehea.r.s.ed, he said, "That sounds quite Mendelssohnian, it must be by Sterndale Bennett."

His boys sang on many occasions--at church, at weddings, funerals, or birthdays. I made great friends with some of them, and formed a regular cla.s.s to teach them English; but although they were very willing pupils, I did not obtain as brilliant results in my line, as my predecessor, Johann Sebastian Bach, had achieved in his.

Herr Magister Hohlfeld, the Professor of Mathematics, was a wonderful old man--how old no one knew. He was a figure that belonged to the middle of the last century. Clad in a long grey cloth coat, which reached to his feet, he looked a curious relic of bygone times; cares and calculations, worldly and scientific, had worked deep furrows all over his lofty forehead, and had left their impress on every feature. A rich crop of white hair fell over his shoulders; his hands on his back, and his head slightly bent down, he would solemnly address the boards he was treading, as he paced up and down between the two lines of school-benches; it was given to few of us to catch the words of mathematical wisdom that fell from his lips.

"The Frenchman" was another figure I look back to with interest. Not that there was anything remarkable in his appearance, but that, when judiciously roused to anger, he would never fail to make a fool of himself. He was not a Frenchman, but a German born and bred, who taught French, and happily for us he was so const.i.tuted, that it was a real pleasure, unchecked by any fear of possible consequences, to take advantage of his weaknesses. We did so, exercising our indiscretion whenever we had a chance. A good opportunity presented itself during the cherry season. We paved the particular part of the cla.s.s-room he was in the habit of promenading, with bad intentions in the shape of cherry-stones. After the first few steps he had taken, he stopped short, indignantly apostrophising us. "I tell you, boys, it's just a piece of impudence when the master treads on cherry-stones." We thought so, too, and howled with delight. At that time I had a beautiful big dog named Hector, and one afternoon I thought it might prove effective if I entered the cla.s.s-room with him when the French lesson had begun. I did so, to the terror of "the Frenchman," on whom Hector had at once made a friendly rush. The dog was expelled, and then I was severely taken to task. "Ah," said the Professor, "you think you can take liberties with me, but I tell you, sir, you can't take liberties with such a big dog."

But it must not be thought that I was always worrying poor innocent Magisters, and rejoicing in their discomfiture; some of my teachers I think of with grat.i.tude. There was Stallbaum, the rector himself a great man of learning: he took great pains to cram us with our full share of Latin and Greek, and to make us periodically contribute to the wealth of the cla.s.sical literature handed down to us, by writing essays and composing verses in the dead languages.

The love of fighting was early instilled into us by the works of Homer, Herodotus, Julius Caesar, and other historians; and if, as some think, my pugnacious instincts have not been satisfactorily developed, it was not the fault of the Rector. But he taught me to revere that grandest and most powerful of tragedians, Sophocles.

Nor must I forget to mention the lasting impression that Ovid's "Metamorphoses" made on me. The G.o.ds of mythology have ever remained dear to me; they are so accessible, so free and easy as they come down from Olympus quite unceremoniously, to roam about and make love; you meet them in the woods and on the waters, above ground and below ground, sometimes enjoying themselves at your expense, but mostly showing you, by their example, how you should enjoy life. To be sure the methods of a Jupiter or a Venus are quite inapplicable to the social restrictions, and generally to the changed conditions of the present day, but they were dear old G.o.ds and G.o.ddesses all the same, who condescended to be human, and sanctified our frailties. I, for one, am grateful to them, for they taught me the love of poetry and the poetry of love.

My first drawing-master, Herr Brauer, was a good old soul too: I owe him one of the foremost pleasures of my life, the exercise of my profession as a painter. His own work, although very clever in its way, was niggling and minute, but his ideas and teachings were broad, and whilst encouraging a taste for form which had made the study of architecture so attractive to me, he knew how to awaken a love of colour, that was eventually to lead me to the sister art.

The old masters, too, had their full share in making me long to paint.

There was a certain picture by Murillo, a Madonna and Child, in the Schletter Collection which afterwards formed the nucleus of the Leipsic Picture Gallery; that picture so filled my imagination that I was fired by the desire to go forth and do likewise.

I have since frequently found that that kind of _auch'io_ feeling is by no means confined to those in whom it would be justifiable. In a masterpiece the artist betrays no effort; all looks so easy that one fancies it _is_ easy. The lines of the composition flow so naturally, the colours strike so complete a chord, that one is deluded into the belief that it could not be otherwise, and that it is just what one would have done oneself had one been in the painter's place. So I was gradually settling in my mind that, as soon as I had pa.s.sed my Abiturienten Examen (equivalent to our matriculation), I would, without much delay, begin to paint like the old masters.

Of Mendelssohn and the many friends, musical and otherwise, who made my stay, and later on my visits to Leipsic, interesting, I must speak afterwards. But an incident which has left a lasting impression on my mind, finds its place here, as being connected partly with my school-days and partly with my art studies.

CHAPTER II

WILL YOU SIT FOR ME, FRIDA?

I well remember, and I shall ever remember with grat.i.tude, the man who in my German school-days helped me along the th.o.r.n.y paths of the Latin and Greek grammar, Herr Magister Dr. Traumann. I suppose I got into trouble, as much as any boy of sixteen, with the so-called regular, and those disgracefully irregular, verbs the old Greeks tolerated. But Dr.

Traumann was always kind and helpful; in fact, he was not only a first-rate teacher but a lovable man. I had, soon after my arrival in Leipsic, been put under his care, and thanks to his coaching, I got so well ahead of myself, that although my scholastic antecedents would really have fitted me more for the "Tertia" cla.s.s, I could be pitchforked into "Secunda."

During a temporary absence of my parents from Leipsic I was for some months staying in the Magister's house; three flights of stairs brought one to his door. I usually bounded up those stairs with the elastic step that leads to a happy home, but to-day--a certain to-day that seems but yesterday--my tread was slow and diffident. How could I face the Magister, the man above all others whom I had treated with disrespect--I had libelled! What reception awaited me? Whether I took two steps at a time or one at half-time, the result was much the same; I got upstairs, rang the bell, and went in.

This is what had happened during the morning's lesson at the Thomas-Schule. The learned doctor was expounding the subtle meaning of some lines in Virgil's "aeneid." I found that the top layer of the poet's meaning would do for me, but, as is the way with the erudite, Dr.

Traumann went down very deep, backed by an army of commentators; in fact so deep that I did not care to follow. So I took to a more congenial occupation, and, under the cover of a friendly desk, I began to compose what seemed to me an interesting subject. How long I was about it, I do not know. The Doctor had walked up and down dozens of times between the forms, when suddenly a hand reached behind the desk and quietly annexed and pocketed the composition. The hand was the Doctor's. He walked on quite unconcernedly, prodding and probing old Virgil's defunct thoughts as before. And all the while he had that wicked caricature of himself in his breast-pocket, and presently he would see it and read the legend that relegated him and the commentators to the Dantesque depths of their own seeking.

I was eating a green apple, to give myself courage, when the Magister came in. What would he say? How would he take it? Well--he took it just as if nothing had happened, and smiling pleasantly, he said, "Look here, Felix, I have got a splendid specimen to show you," and with that, he fumbled in his pocket and produced a small piece of quartz. "I have got another piece, so you can have this for your collection."

"Oh, thank you, Herr Magister," I said; "I am sure you are too kind.

I--I don't deserve it."

He cut me short with: "Not at all, my boy; we are just on a footing of exchange. 'Eine Hand wascht die andere,' as the proverb says."

What has become of my minerals I don't know, but to this day I often think, soap in hand, of the proverb that says, "One hand washes the other." As for the caricature, he never said anything about it, but I know now he treasured it and loved me all the more for being a bad one.

If he was kind, she was still kinder; she, the Frau Magisterin. I had by this time got initiated into the mysteries of German usage as regards the partic.i.p.ation of the wife in her husband's t.i.tular advantages.

Without an effort I could address Frau Schmidt as Mrs. Lettercarrieress, or Frau Muller as Madame Chimneysweeperess. So the "Frau Magisterin"

came quite naturally to me. She called me "Mein Lixchen," a tender variation on my name. In fact, tenderness prevailed between her and me from first to last, maternal on her side, filial on mine. She was under middle size and of slight build; her bright little eyes, beaming with benevolence, attracted you so much that you saw but little else in her face. Everything was small about her. A tight-fitting cap hid the best part of her hair, and the plain dress without puffs or ruffles, or any of the other digressions dictated by the fas.h.i.+ons of the day, seemed to make everything else subordinate to the love-beaming eyes. She was then in the prime of life. When I last saw her she was an old lady of fourscore years, and her dear little face had become so very small, that, although I am sure I did not mean to be irreverent in my thoughts, I could not help being reminded of the immortal Ches.h.i.+re cat, that vanished leaving naught behind but a smile. Time, I felt, might deal with her as is its wont, contract here and pinch there, lay out in folds and wrinkles what were round and smooth surfaces; but that particular twinkle that goes straight to the heart, the smile of the eye, would ever remain intact.

The Magister and his wife were a truly happy and devoted couple, and closely wound around their hearts were Bella and Frida, their two daughters; one was about sixteen, the other fourteen, at the time I was staying with them, good girls and pretty, with brown hair inclined to curl on Bella's head, very smooth and Priscilla-like on Frida's. With a view to securing for them the best possible education under the maternal eye, cla.s.ses had been formed at their home, and consequently a bevy of young girls came up and went down those three flights of stairs on certain days and at given hours. I was always interested in curious coincidences, and so, to bring them about, I frequently found myself in the way at the given hours. On such occasions I tried to look unconcerned, or surprised at the meeting, but unfortunately I was yet too honest and truthful, so I signally failed and blushed like a girl.

Not like those girls though; they didn't seem to blush, the little fiends. With the exception of just one, they t.i.ttered right over the banisters, whispered, and shook locks and dangled satchels until I was quite discomfited. I suppose they thought it rich fun, for they knew, long before I was aware of it myself, that I was desperately in love with Helene. It was the t.i.ttering, I am sure, that finally put me on the track, and the whispering that opened my eyes to the blindness I was stricken with. That was one day when those rosy, mischievous, young amorettes must have said something particularly unkind to their sister, for she bounded past me and her tormentors, like a deer, to get rid of the lot of us. After this I felt an ever-growing desire to see Helene, but took a dislike to the staircase as a meeting-place.

About this time, as luck would have it, I came across her two brothers, fair chubby boys about my age. We struck up a sort of friends.h.i.+p, and I took care the sort should be improved upon, interested as I was in securing their good-will. It was, above all, important to get reliable information as to where and when _she_ could be met out skating, and my new friends, I found, were particularly sympathetic and communicative when under the influence of a certain kind of "apfelkuchen," an open apple tart, dispensed on most advantageous terms in the Barfussga.s.schen.

There the Frau Bakermistress often had to open for me a little shutter in a shutter and hand out, on a piece of newspaper, large segments of the Kuchen, bidding it G.o.d-speed with a parting jerk of the perforated tin sugar-box. Perhaps to show that there was no bribery or corruption in my standing treat, and, perhaps too, as one's appet.i.te at the age of sixteen is rather stimulated than blunted by love, I took my fair share of the segments. These symposia led, in the most natural of ways, to our making appointments to meet on this or that frozen pond or river, and I was sure to be punctual, knowing as I did, from information received, that Helene would be there. More than once I skated along that narrow river, the Pleisse, for miles, pus.h.i.+ng before me the "Stuhlschlitten,"

with its precious many-locked burden. Helene was comfortably ensconced in that elementary specimen of a sledge, a sort of easy-chair on skates, and was wrapped up in furs and covers, every inch of her carefully protected, excepting her little nose and lips, which would get linked to her veil by cobweb threads of ice, as King Frost welcomed her cherished breath. And didn't his Majesty just rule supreme that year!

I may have been a fair example of a boy lover, but I fear a diary which I kept and have preserved goes far to prove that I was a most precocious--you might call it priggish--young meteorologist, making his observations with pedantic regularity, morn, noon, and night, on thermometer and ombrometer, and publis.h.i.+ng the results in his own name with the proud prefix of "Herr Gymnasiast." We often hear of exceptional winters, but the one I speak of beats the record. Siberian cold visited us all through January; on the 21st of that month I find noted:

8 A. M. 12.M. 10.P. M.

-19. -14.2 -21.4 Reaumur; equal to 35, 26, and 39 degrees Fahrenheit below freezing-point.

A bitter cruel time to many;--a very G.o.dsend to hardy skaters. I was of the latter. Off with overcoat and on we went--left, right--left, right--in long curved lines, the sledge flying ahead on the frozen waters of that puny river that had swallowed up thousands of Napoleon's followers on their retreat after the lost battle of Leipsic. On we went till we landed on the very spot where one of the last decisive encounters took place, and there we, some dozens of us, fought bravely for an adequate supply of coffee and Kaffeekuchen (you know by this time that "Kuchen" means cake, and that it meant a good deal to us in those days). In the meanwhile the girls of our fancies had time to thaw, and usually came in a melting mood to the little tables at which they would graciously accept the chivalrous attentions dear to the bread-and-b.u.t.ter Miss.

Fragments Of An Autobiography Part 3

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