( Originally Published Early 1900's )
To describe a night journey by rail is a difficult matter; you go like an arrow whistling through a cloud; it is traveling in the abstract. You cross provinces, kingdoms even, unawares. From time to time during the night, I saw through the window the comet, rushing down upon the earth, with lowered head and hair streaming far behind; suddenly glares of gaslight dazzled my eyes, sanded with the gold-dust of sleep; or the pale bluish radiance of the moon gave an air of fairy-land to scenes doubt-less poor enough by day. Conscientiously, this is all I can say from personal observation; and it would not be particularly amusing if I should transcribe from the railway guide the names of all the stations between Berlin and Hamburg.
It is 7 a.m., and here we are in the good Hanse town of Hamburg; the city is not yet awake, or at most is rubbing its eyes and yawning. While they are preparing my breakfast, I sally forth at random, as my custom is, without guide or cicerone, in pursuit of the unknown.
The hotel, at which I have been set down, is situated on the quay of the Alster, a basin as large as the Lac d'Enghien, which it still further resembles in being peopled with tame swans. On three sides, the Alster basin is bordered with hotels and handsome modern houses. An embankment planted with trees and commanded by a wind-mill in profile forms the fourth; beyond extends a great lagoon. From the most frequented of these quays, a cafe painted green and built on piles, makes out into the water, like that cafe of the Golden Horn where I have smoked so many chibouques; watching the sea-birds fly. At the sight of this quay, this basin, these houses, I experienced an inexplicable sensation: I seemed to know them already. Confused recollections of them arose in my memory; could I have been in Hamburg without being aware of it? Assuredly all these objects are not new to me, and yet I am seeing them for the first time. Have I preserved the impression made by some picture, some photograph?
While I was seeking philosophic explanations for this memory of the unknown, the idea of Heinrich Heine suddenly presented itself, and all became clear. The great poet had often spoken to me of Hamburg, in those plastic words he so well knew how to use—words that were equivalent to realities. In his "Reise bilder," he describes the scene—cafe basin, swans, and townsfolk upon the quays—Heaven knows what portraits he makes of them! He returns to it again in his poem, "Germania," and there is so much life to the picture, such distinctness, such relief, that sight itself teaches you nothing more.
I made the circuit of the basin, graciously accompanied by a snow-white swan, handsome enough to make one think it might be Jupiter in disguise, seeking some Hamburg Leda, and, the better to carry out the deception, snapping at the bread-crumbs offered him by the traveler. On the farther side of the basin, at the right, is a sort of garden or public promenade, having an artificial hillock, like that in the labyrinth in the "Jardin des Plantes." Having gone thus far, I turned and retraced my steps.
Every city has its fashionable quarter—new, expensive, handsome of which the citizens are proud, and through which the guide leads you with much complacency. The streets are broad and regular, and cut one another at right angles; there are sidewalks of granite, brick, or bitumen; there are lamp-posts in every direction. The houses are like palaces; their classically modern architecture, their irreproachable paint, their varnished doors and well-scoured brasses, fill with joy the city fathers and every lover of progress. The city is neat, orderly, salubrious, full of light and air, and resembles Paris or London. There is the Exchange ! It is superb—as fine as the Bourse in Paris ! I grant it; and, besides, you can smoke there, which is a point of superiority.
Farther on you observe the Palace of Justice, the bank, etc., built in the style you know well, adored by Philistines of every land. Doubtless that house must have cost enormously; it contains all possible luxury and comfort. You feel that the mollusk of such a shell can be nothing less than a millionaire. Permit me, however, to love better the old house with its overhanging stories, its roof of irregular tiles, and all its little characteristic details, telling of former generations. To be interesting, a city must have the air of having lived, and, in a sense, of having received from man a soul. What makes these magnificent streets built yesterday so cold and so tiresome, is that they are not yet impregnated with human vitality.
Leaving the new quarter, I penetrated' by degrees into the chaos of the old streets, and soon I had before my eyes a characteristic, picturesque Hamhurg; a genuine old city with a medieval stamp which would delight ;Bonington, Isabey or William Wyld. I walked slowly, stopping at every street-corner that I might lose no detail of the picture; and rarely has any promenade amused me so well.
Houses, whose gables are denticulated or else curved in volutes, throw out successive over-hanging stories, each composed of a row of windows, or, more properly, of one window divided into sections by carved uprights. Beneath each house are excavated cellars, subterranean recesses, which the steps leading to the front .door bestride like a drawbridge. Wood, brick, stone and slate, mingled in a way to content the eye of a colorist, cover what little space the windows leave on the outside of the house. All this is surmounted by a roof of red or violet tiles, or tarred plank, interrupted by openings to give light to the attics, and having an abrupt pitch. These steep roofs look well against the background of a northern sky; the rains run off them in torrents, the snow slips from them; they suit the climate, and do not require to be swept in winter. Some houses have doors ornamented with rustic columns, scroll-work, recessed pediments, chubby-cheeked caryatides, little angels and loves, stout rosettes and enormous shells, all glued over with whitewash renewed doubtless every year.
The tobacco sellers in Hamburg can not be counted. At every third step you behold a. bare-chested negro cultivating the precious leaf or a Grand Seigneur, attired like the theatrical Turk, smoking a colossal pipe. Boxes of cigars, with their more or less fallacious vignettes and labels; figure, symmetrically disposed, in the ornamentation of the shop-fronts. There must be very little tobacco left at Havana, if we can have faith in these displays, so rich in famous brands.
As I have said, it was early morning. Servant-maids, kneeling on the steps or standing on the window-sills, were going on with the Saturday scrubbing. Notwithstanding the keen air, they made a display of robust arms bare to the shoulder, tanned and sunburned, red with that astonishing vermilion that we see in some of Rubens' paintings, which is the joint result of the biting of the north wind and the action of water upon these blond skins; little girls belonging to the poorer classes, with braided hair, bare arms, and low-necked frocks, were going out to obtain articles of food; I shivered in my paletot, to see them so lightly clad. There is something strange about this; the women of northern countries cut their dresses out in the neck, they go about bare-headed and bare-armed, while the women of the South cover themselves with vests, haicks, pelisses, and warm garments of every description.
Walking on, still at random, I came to the maritime part of the city, where canals take the place of streets. As yet it was low water, and vessels lay aground in the mud, showing their hulls, and careening over, in a way to rejoice a water-color painter. Soon the tide came up, and everything began to be in motion. I would suggest Hamburg to artists following in the track of Canaletto, Guardi, or Joyant; they will find, at every step, themes as picturesque as and more new than those which they go to Venice in search of.
This forest of salmon-colored masts, with their maze of cordage and their yellowish-brown sails drying in the sun, these tarred sterns with apple-green decks, these lateen-yards threatening the windows of the neighboring houses, these derricks standing under plank roofs shaped like pagodas, these tackles lifting heavy packages out of vessels and landing them in houses, these bridges opening to give passage to vessels, these clumps of trees, these gables overtopped here and there by spires and belfries; all this bathed in smoke, traversed by sunlight and here and there re-turning a glitter of polished metal, the far-off distance blue and misty, and the foreground full of vigorous color, produced effects of the most brilliant and piquant novelty. A church-tower, covered with plates of copper, -springing from this curious medley of rigging and of houses, recalled to me by its odd green color the tower of Galata, at Constantinople.
As the hour advanced, the crowd became more numerous, and it was largely composed of women. In Hamburg they seem to enjoy great license. Very young girls come and go alone without anyone's noticing it, and—a remarkable thing!—children go to school by themselves, little basket on the arm, and slate in hand; in Paris, left to their own free will, they will run off to play marbles, tag, or hop-scotch.
Dogs are muzzled in Hamburg all the week, but on Sundays they are left at liberty to bite whom they please. They are tweed, and appear to be esteemed; but' the cats are sad and unappreciated. Recognizing in me a friend, they, cast melancholy glances at me, saying in their feline language, to which long use has given me the key:
"These Philistines, busy with their money-getting, despise us; and yet our eyes are as yellow as their louis d'or. Stupid men that they are, they believe us good for nothing but to catch rats; we, the wise, the meditative, the independent, who have slept upon the prophet's sleeve, and lulled his ear with the whir of our mysterious wheel! Pass your hand over our backs full of electric sparkles—we allow you this liberty, and say to Charles Baudelaire that he must write a fine sonnet, deploring our woes."
As the Lubeck boat was not to leave until the morrow, I went to Wilkin's to get my sup-per. This famous establishment occupies a low-heeled basement, which is divided into cabinets ornamented with more show than taste. Oysters, turtle-soup, a traffied filet, and a bottle of Veuve Cliquot iced, composed my simple bill of fare. The place was filled, after the Hamburg fashion, with edibles of all sorts; things early and things out of season, dainties not yet in existence or having long ceased to exist, for the common crowd. In the kitchen they showed us, in great tanks, huge sea-turtles which lifted their scaly heads above the water, resembling snakes caught between two platters. Their little horny eyes looked with uneasiness at the light which was held near them, and their flippers, like oars of some disabled galley, vaguely moved up and down, as seeking some impossible escape. I trust that the personnel of the exhibition changes occasionally.
In the morning I went for my breakfast to an English restaurant, a sort of pavilion of glass, whence I had a magnificent panoramic view. The river spread out majestically through a forest of vessels with tall masts, of every build and tonnage. Steam-tugs were beating the water, towing sailing-vessels out to sea; others, moving about freely, made their way hither and thither, with that precision which makes a steam-boat seem like a conscious being, endowed by a will of its own, and served by sentient organs. From the elevation the Elbe is seen, spreading broadly like all great rivers as they near the sea. Its waters, sure of arriving at last, are in no haste; placid as a lake, they flow with an almost invisible motion. The low opposite shore was covered with verdure, and dotted with red houses half-effaeed by the smoke from the chimneys. A golden bar of sunshine shot across the plain; it was grand, luminous, superb.