Fragments Of An Autobiography Part 6
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Frida spent much of her time in the congenial atmosphere of my parents'
house. We had always been devoted to her; how much more now! She loved music, and that, with us, was a sort of staple commodity to be found as surely as the daily bread. It was not an easy task to divert her thoughts from her trouble. All her girlish brightness had vanished, and she seemed, without a warning, to have had womanhood, suffering womanhood, thrust upon her. But she loved to be soothed by music, and more than once I remember my father improvising strains of consolation on his grand Erard, that seemed to go straight to her heart and strengthen her.
"Will you sit for me, Frida?" I asked one evening. "I should like to draw a portrait of you."
I had known Frida for four or five years, and had never asked her to sit, so the question surprised her, and it startled my mother, who was seated at the other end of the drawing-room on a little raised platform, surrounded by palms and a variety of plants with curiously shaped and fancifully speckled leaves. Her spinning-wheel, that had been going round with the regularity of clockwork, suddenly stopped--perhaps the thread had snapped. Catching my eye she reproachfully signalled behind Frida's back: "How can you, my dear? Surely this is not the time to use the poor girl as a model?" Frida evidently thought so too; she was at a loss for an answer, and there was an awkward silence. For an instant I wished I had not spoken; my request, I felt, was really ill timed; but, once out, I adhered to it, insisting, "Do, Frida; if nothing else, it will keep me out of mischief this evening."
She knew the thought of mischief was for from my mind, and she simply answered:
"Very well, Felix, if you wish it, I will sit." And with that she gave me an encouraging look.
I was anxious to get her to sit, for a picture of that girl in her sadness had gradually been ripening in my mind; it was so complete that it seemed only to want putting down, and no more difficult of accomplishment than the writing out of any lines that I might have learnt by heart. It was a case of "Don't begin till it's finished." That I have often since found a good maxim, but one not so easily lived up to. The picture, then, such as I had conceived it, I was wedded to, for better or for worse. I must draw her all but full-face. The light from above, and slightly from the left, will model and bring out the delicate beauty of her features. It was all ready to be transcribed: the smooth hair with the black ribbon tied in a large symmetrical bow on the top of the head, the plain dress, the background, and, above all, that expression, reflecting the yearnings of a poor chilled soul. On the surface, bewilderment, helplessness; beneath, a substratum of trust, of faith; and far below, hope, the spark of life that glimmers and glows on, even under mountains of despair.
We got the lamp that had served my purpose more than once, and the two candles, with the little special shades I had brought from Paris (I have them still), and Frida sat. Not once, but often, for the more I drew the more I was eager to pursue that will-o'-the-wisp, the realisation of an idea. Many a time I had to point my crayons, Conte No. 2, and to blacken the little paper stumps, the cla.s.sical tortillons, before I could make up my mind to admit that I had finished.
And what was the result? Perhaps it was very poor; probably it was; certainly, if you like--but I don't want to know it if it was. I want to think it was good and true, like the knight that serves the lady. If it is an illusion, bear with me and let me keep it.
I had a grey mount put round it and a cheap little black frame; and then--may the G.o.ds forgive my presumption!--I felt as if the crayons and the humble tortillons might possibly have been working for the ends of Providence; I packed up the picture and sent it with all my love to the Magisterin.
"Try it," I said; "he may like it." And she tried it, and--to that poor little drawing of mine it was given to work a miracle--gradually, but surely, it rent asunder the veil that obscured my dear Magister's mental vision.
It was not till long afterwards that I learnt what had happened on that critical day. The Magisterin told me all as we sat on a stone bench in the garden at the back of their house. It was a hot day and the Magister was in s.h.i.+rt-sleeves, pruning and tending his rose-trees, perhaps removing the blight that had settled on some leaf to warp and waste it.
For once in the way the good Hausfrau vouchsafed to stop knitting, and took my hand as she began:--
"Your drawing came in the morning, my Lixchen. It was as I had fancied it, for Frida had well described it in her letters. It touched me deeply, but I could not even give a stray thought to my own feelings.
'Try it,' you had said, and a wild rush of conflicting emotions quite overcame me. How should I try it? I wished you were there, you or Reclam, to tell me what would be best. Might it not give him a shock and do him harm? I never felt as utterly helpless as all that morning. I waited. At one o'clock he was lying on the sofa and resting; he seemed to slumber more peacefully than usual. You know he had the desk with the little Mendelssohn bust sent from Leipsic; it was the only thing he had asked for. I stood the drawing up against it. He would be sure to see it when he awoke.
"Then I sat down and prayed.
"He rose as usual and seated himself at the table. Hours pa.s.sed. His face was turned away from me, but I could see his hands as they lay clasped before him. At last he got up and went to the bookcase. 'They have changed everything,' I heard him say to himself. 'Where is my Sophocles? Ah! to be sure, to be sure.'
"He sat down, but got up again directly, found paper and pen, and laid out everything, just as he used to do at the old writing-table before beginning work. He took up the pen, but he did not write; occasionally he pa.s.sed the quill over his forehead. I dared not move or speak. Oh, how long the hours seemed!
"The daylight was fading. Martha came home with the cows, and old Gunther made his rounds and bolted the front gate. After that all was quiet. Yes--all was quiet,--quite quiet for a while.
"Suddenly he rose. He turned round and stood still. He looked at me,--a look I knew. My heart beat fast and the clock ticked so loud.
"He looked, and, ach, mein Lixchen, he smiled at me, just a little feeble smile, and an instant afterwards he rushed up to me and he burst into a flood of tears as he buried his face in my lap.
"'O Hannerl, my heart's treasure, tell me: Where is my Frida? Why is she not with me?'"
The dear old Magisterin could say no more; tears of grat.i.tude choked her voice. I pressed her hand with my right, and with my left hand I brushed away something that had got between my eyelashes.
LEIPSIC IN 1847 AND 1848--MENDELSSOHN'S DEATH
I well remember that first year of my stay in Leipsic, when all our interests seemed to centre in the friend we were to lose so soon.
At all times I was proud of my G.o.dfather, inordinately so, perhaps, when conversation turned on the great kindness which Goethe had lavished on his young friend Felix. To know a man who had known Goethe seemed to me like knowing a man who had known Shakespeare, and I was accordingly proud of my G.o.dfather. It is not surprising that Goethe, the great dissector of human nature, should, with a few masterly touches, have portrayed the boy of twelve, and forecast the character of the man. "You know," he said to his friend Rellstab, "the doctrine of temperaments; every one has four in his composition, only in different proportions.
Well, this boy, I should say, possesses the smallest possible modic.u.m of phlegm, and the maximum of the opposite quality." Whatever that "opposite quality" was which Goethe had in his mind, it was one which kept Mendelssohn on the alert; it was the very essence of life that he was drawing on, alas! too prodigally.
Thus, of his own compositions he says in a letter to my father: "How I am to set about writing a calm and quiet piece (as you advised me to do last spring) I really do not know. All that pa.s.ses through my head in the shape of pianoforte music is about as calm and quiet as Cheapside; and when I sit down to start improvising ever so quietly, it is of no use--by degrees I fall back into the old ways."
But if Goethe noted the boy's extreme sensibility, he also appreciated his sound intellect. "He is so clear-headed about his own subjects," he says, "that I must learn a great deal from him." And Mendelssohn relates how, seated at the piano, he familiarises the poet with the work of Beethoven, how the grand old man is overwhelmed by the beauties and mysteries revealed, and sits all the while in a dark corner, like a Jupiter Tonans, with his eyes flas.h.i.+ng fire. "I felt," he says, "that this was the very Goethe of whom people will one day declare that he is not at all one person, but is made up of several smaller Goethes."
The house we lived in stood in its own grounds, and very picturesque they were; some parts delightfully kept, others still more delightfully neglected. Wild tangles blocked disused paths; weeds and creepers climbed up the legs of cla.s.sical statues, and wound round their arms when they had any. There was a Kiosk too, a little museum in which had been collected relics of the great battle which had raged furiously in those grounds. It was dedicated to Prince Poniatowski, who, during the disastrous retreat of the French army, was drowned with scores of other fugitives in that rapid little stream, the Elster, which flowed at the bottom of what was in my days called "Gerhard's Garten," the same stream in which I now used to take my daily swim.
There were only two houses in that "Garten." In one of them lived the Herr Legationsrath Gerhard, our landlord, a personal friend of the great Goethe, and himself a gifted poet, and so good a scholar, that he was able to make an admirable translation of Burns's poems. The good people of Leipsic appreciated his talents, but were very angry with him because he was unmistakably a poet with an eye to business, and he charged five neugroschen (sixpence) for admission to the historical site and to the Poniatowski Kiosk.
In the other house we occupied the second floor, and on the first lived Madame Mendelssohn's sister, Madame Schunck, and her family. The ground-floor was the private residence of a wealthy wine merchant; perhaps Schmidt was his name. The latter nearly got us into very serious trouble in the days when the tide of revolution, set in motion by the French rising in 1848, had swept all over Germany, and when even the Leipsickers, usually so peaceful, were up in arms. The standard of insurrection had been raised throughout the Fatherland, dynasties were threatened, and thrones shaken. Some of the Saxon patriots had gone to help their brothers in the Austrian capital, amongst others Robert Blum, one of the most popular leaders of the democratic party. The barricade he was defending was taken, and he was made a prisoner. Popular feeling in Leipsic ran high, and when the news came that he had been tried by court-martial and shot, it reached fever heat.
Interested as I always was in the doings of man, woman, or child, especially when they had come together in the name of mischief, I was naturally anxious to watch as closely as possible the process of history-making they were about to engage in. So I was to be found where the crowd was thickest and the mob most threatening.
An indignation meeting was improvised; the more rabid fire-eaters were hoisted on some handy box, or took possession of a pa.s.sing cart, from which they addressed the rioters. The Austrian rule, its Kaiser, and its leading statesmen, were held up to execration, and a shout was raised, "To the Consulate!" Sticks and stones appeared on the scene, one knew not whence, and soon we were on our way to the Consulate, where it did not take long to smash every window in the house. The arms of Austria were torn down and carried in triumph to the market-place, where they were ignominiously strung up to a lamp-post amidst yells of exultation.
The mob had by this time worked itself into a frantic state of excitement, and was thirsting for action. "What next?" was the cry. "To Gerhard's Garten," shouted a voice; "let us hang Schmidt next. He bragged that he would stand a dozen of his best champagne if it were true that Blum had been shot. We'll drink it to the scoundrel's health--to his perdition--hang the dog!"
"Save the dog," was naturally my first impulse, and I ran off at full speed to give warning. I arrived in time to raise an alarm, and the place was speedily prepared to resist at least a first a.s.sault; the ma.s.sive iron gates that protected us on the river-side were closed, and the heavy wooden doors on the land-side were barred and bolted. The rioters were soon on the spot, and threatened to make matchwood of them if they were not opened. In true mediaeval fas.h.i.+on the old Legationsrath parleyed with the enemy through a grated opening in the door, a.s.severating that the man wanted was not in the house or anywhere on the premises. He was so successful in his diplomatic efforts that a compromise was agreed to, and a few of the most clamorous were admitted to satisfy themselves that the object of their search was not in hiding.
The wine merchant had plenty of time to escape, the crowd, baffled of its prey, moved on to seek fresh fields of action, and our house escaped with only a few panes of broken gla.s.s. As for myself, I was warmly complimented on having acted the goose and saved the Capitol.
The next day matters wore a graver aspect, and attempts were made to raise barricades. During the short conflict which ensued, a friend of ours, Herr Gontard, was shot through the heart, as from his window he was pointing a rifle at the insurgents. He was a prominent citizen, and his death created a profound sensation. When a short time afterwards I accompanied my father to the house, to inquire after the bereaved family, we were shown by the servant into the room where his master lay in the stillness of death, a service which we were expected to acknowledge by handing him the customary "Trinkgeld," the tip which a German servant considers his due, whenever his master practises hospitality. On this occasion it was a weird entertainment we had been bidden to.
In Dresden the insurrection was of a much more serious character. Civil war raged fiercely in the streets of that capital, and the Saxon army proving insufficient to subdue the people, the a.s.sistance of the Prussians was invoked or had to be accepted.
Great was the excitement when the first batch of soldiers pa.s.sed through Leipsic, but it led to no demonstration. By this time the restless spirits knew that the cause of liberty was lost. The new _Zundnadel Gewehr_ just introduced into the Prussian army, a rifle that was shortly to prove its superiority in the Danish campaign, seemed a very strange-looking piece of mechanism to us. What would be the English for _Zundnadel Gewehr_ I do not know, nor will I ascertain, for I object to showing an interest in lethal weapons manufactured for fratricidal purposes.
Richard Wagner's active partic.i.p.ation in the revolutionary movement was at the time severely commented upon by many of his friends, for he had every reason to be personally grateful to the king, who, it was said, had acted very liberally towards him, and had generally distinguished and befriended him. Accounts varied as to the actual part he took in the fighting, but at any rate he had to flee the country, and took refuge first in Paris and then in Zurich.
After a prolonged conflict the barricades were taken; from the front they had been made all but impregnable, so the Prussian troops cut themselves a road through the party walls of the adjoining houses, and attacked them in the rear; they did terrible execution, and it was once more crowned autocracy which scored a victory over struggling democracy.
When all was over, a deputation of so-called loyal subjects waited upon the King of Prussia to do homage to the victor.
"I wish all my subjects were now here before me, to do justice to my august sentiments," were the concluding words in his Majesty's answer.
And the royal utterance was suitably quoted beneath a drawing published shortly afterwards, in which the king stands, fuse in hand, by the cannon, ready to fire a well-directed charge of grape-shot into the midst of his faithful subjects.
All this happened some months after Mendelssohn's death, and it was well he was spared experiences which would have made the most painful impression on his sensitive nature. Indeed, so impressionable was he, that even trifling incidents would sometimes visibly affect him, and then he could make it very trying for those who had the misfortune to incur his displeasure. He had strong likes and dislikes, and would not always take the trouble to conceal them; as on one occasion, when he very pointedly showed his dislike to Miss F., an Irish girl, who was studying at the Conservatorio in Leipsic. I think he was prejudiced against her because she had a ma.s.s of fluffy reddish hair, which would break away from the rule of the hairpin and escape in a spirit of rebellion; just the sort of thing we admire nowadays, but that was thought positively improper then.
She once appealed to me, when my mother was reading her a homily on the wicked ways of that hair. "Now, Felix, you who have an artist's eye; is it really so dreadful?" she asked. To be sure I told her that I, for one, thought it mighty fine, and she triumphed, but I was ever after chaffed as the one who had "an artist's eye."
There were tears shed on the evening of the Pupils' concert at the Gewandhaus. When Miss F.'s turn came, it was found she had forgotten her music, and Mendelssohn, behind the scenes, was in a rage. There was an awkward pause whilst the music was being fetched and the audience was waiting, but my father called up the tuner to officiate and fill the gap, and so appearances were saved. But Mendelssohn never forgave poor Miss F.
A pa.s.sage in a letter to my mother, dated September 3, 1832, I must transcribe, if only because I think it my duty to quote it as a warning to such bachelors as may be inclined to make rash vows of celibacy.
Mendelssohn, who was then twenty-three, wrote of his friend Klingemann: "If Klingemann flirts, he is only doing the correct thing, and wisely too; what else are we born for? But, if he gets married, I shall just die with laughter; only fancy Klingemann a married man! But you predict it, and I know you can always tell by people's faces what they are going to say or to do. If I wanted bread at dinner, you used to say in an undertone, 'Some bread for Mr. Mendelssohn;' and perhaps your matrimonial forecast might be equally true. But on the other hand, I too am a prophet in matrimonial matters, and maintain exactly the reverse.
Fragments Of An Autobiography Part 6
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