Winter In Frankfort - A Fair - An Inundation And A Fire
( Originally Published 1889 )
After New Year, the Main, just above the city, and the lakes in the promenades, were frozen over. The ice was tried by the police, and having been found of sufficient thickness, to the great joy of the schoolboys, permission was given to skate. The lakes were soon covered with merry skaters, and every afternoon the banks were crowded with spectators. It was a lively sight to see two or three hundred persons darting about, turning and crossing like a flock of crows, while, by means of arm-chairs mounted on runners, the ladies were enabled to join in the sport, and whirl around among them. Some of the broad meadows near the city, which were covered with water, were the resort of the schools. I went there often in my walks, and always found two or three schools, with the teachers, all skating together, and playing their winter games on the ice. I have often seen them on the meadows along the Main; the teachers generally made quite as much noise as the scholars in their sports.
In the Art Institute I saw the picture of " Huss before the Council of Constance, by the painter Lessing. It contains upwards of twenty figures. The artist has shown the greatest skill in the ex-pression and grouping of these. Bishops and Cardinals in their splendid robes are seated around a table, covered with parchment folios, and before them stands Huss alone. His face, pale and thin with long imprisonment, he has lain one hand on his breast, while with the other he has grasped one of the volumes on the table; there is an air of majesty, of heavenly serenity on his lofty forehead and calm eye. One feels instinctively that he has truth on his side. There can be no deception, no falsehood in those noble features. The three Italian cardinals before him appear to be full of passionate rage ; the bishop in front, who holds the imperial pass given to Huss, looks on with an expression of scorn, and the priests .around have an air of mingled curiosity and hatred. There is one, however, in whose mild features and tearful eye is expressed sympathy and pity for the prisoner. It is said this picture has had a great effect upon Catholics who have seen it, in softening the bigotry with which they regarded the early reformers; and if so, it is a triumphant proof how much art can effect in the cause of truth and humanity. I was much interested in a cast of the statue of St. George, by the old Italian sculptor Donatello. It is a figure full of youth and energy, with a countenance that seems to breathe. Donatello was the teacher of Michael Angelo, and when the young sculptor was about setting off for Rome, he showed him the statue, his favorite work. Michael gazed at it long and intensely, and at length, on parting, said to Donatello, "It wants but one thing." The artist pondered long over this expression, for he could not imagine in what could fail the matchless figure. At length, after many years, Michael Angelo, in the noon of his renown, visited the death-bed of his old master. Donatello begged to know, before he died, what was wanting to his St. George. Angelo answered "the gift of speech!" and a smile of triumph lighted the old man's face, as he closed his eyes forever.
The Eschernheim Tower, at the entrance of one of the city gates, is universally admired by strangers, on account of its picturesque appearance, overgrown with ivy and terminated by the little pointed turrets, which one sees so often in Germany, on buildings three or four centuries old. There are five other watch-towers of similar form, which stand on different sides of the city, at the distance of a mile or two, and generally upon an eminence overlooking the country. They were erected several centuries ago, to discern from afar the approach of an enemy, and protect the caravans of merchants, which at that time travelled from city to city, from the attacks of robbers. The Eschernheim Tower is interesting from another circumstance, which, whether true or not, is universally believed. When Frankfort was under the sway of a prince, a Swiss hunter, for some civil offence, was condemned to die. He begged his life from the prince, who granted it only on condition that he should fire the figure 9 with his rifle through the vane of this tower. He agreed, and did it ; and at the present time, one can distinguish a rude 9 on the vane, as if cut with bullets, while two or three marks at the side appear to be from shots that failed.
The promise of spring which lately visited us, was not destined for fulfilment. Shortly afterwards it grew cold again, with a succession of snows and sharp northerly winds. Such weather at the commencement of spring is not uncommon at home; but here they say there has not been such a winter known for 150 years. In the north of Prussia many persons have been starved to death on account of provisions be-coming scarce. Among the Hartz also, the suffering is very great. We saw nothing of the misery even here. It was painful to walk through the streets and see so many faces bearing plainly the marks of want, so many pale, hollow-eyed creatures, with suffering written on every feature. We were assailed with petitions for help which could not be relieved, though it pained and saddened the heart to deny. The women, too, labor like brutes, day after day. Many of them appear cheerful and contented, and are no doubt, tolerably happy, for the Germans have all true, warm hearts, and are faithful to one another, as far as poverty will permit; but one cannot see old, gray-headed women, carrying loads on their heads as heavy as themselves, exposed to all kinds of weather and working from morning till night, without pity and indignation.
So unusually severe has been the weather, that the deer and hares in the mountains near, came nearly starved and tamed down by hunger, into the villages to hunt food. The people fed them every day, and also carried grain into the fields for the partridges and pheasants, who flew up to them like domestic fowls. The poor ravens made me really sorry; some lay dead in the fields and many came into the city perfectly tame, flying along the Main with wings hardly strong enough to bear up their skeleton bodies. The storks came at the usual time, but went back again. I hope the year's blessing has not departed with them, according to the old German superstition.
March 26.-We have hopes of spring at last. Three days ago the rain began and has continued with little intermission till now. The air is warm, the snow goes fast, and everything seems to announce that the long winter is breaking up. The Main rises fast, and goes by the city like an arrow, whirling large masses of ice upon the banks. The hills around are coming out from under the snow, and the lilac-buds in the promenades begin to expand for the second time.
The Fair has now commenced in earnest, and it is a most singular and interesting sight. The open squares are filled with booths, leaving narrow streets between them, across which canvas is spread. Every booth is open and filled with a dazzling display of wares of all kinds. Merchants assemble from all parts of Europe. The Bohemians come with their gorgeous crystal ware; the Nurembergers with their toys, quaint and fanciful as the old city itself; men from the Thuringian forest, with minerals and canes, and traders from Berlin, Vienna, Paris and Switzer-land, with dry goods and wares of all kinds. Near the Exchange are two or three companies of Tyrolese, who attract much of my attention. Their costume is exceedingly picturesque. The men have all splendid manly figures, and honor and bravery are written on their countenances. One of the girls is a really handsome mountain maiden, and with her pointed, broad-brimmed black hat, as romantic looking as one could de-sire. The musicians have arrived, and we are entertained the whole day long by wandering bands, some of whom play finely. The best, which is also the favorite company, is from Saxony, called " The Mountain Boys." They are now playing in our street, and while I write, one of the beautiful choruses from Norma comes up through the din of the crowd. In fact, music is heard over the whole city, and the throngs that fill every street with all sorts of faces and dresses, somewhat relieve the monotony that was beginning to make Frankfort tiresome.
We have an ever-varied and interesting scene from our window. Besides the motley crowd of passers-by, there are booths and tables thick be-low. One man in particular is busily engaged in selling his store of blacking in the auction style, in a manner that would do credit to a real Down-easter. He has flaming certificates exhibited, and prefaces his calls to buy with a high-sounding description of its wonderful qualities. He has a bench in front, where he tests it on the shoes of his customers, or if none of these are disposed to try it, he rubs it on his own, which shine like mirrors. So he rattles on with amazing fluency in French, German and Italian, and this, with his black beard and mustache and his polite, graceful manner, keeps a crowd of customers around him, so that the wonderful blacking goes off as fast as he can supply it.
April 6.-Old Winter's gates are shut close behind us, and the sun looks down with his summer countenance. The air, after the long cold rain, is like that of Paradise. All things are gay and bright, and everybody is in motion. Spring commenced with yesterday in earnest, and lo! before night the roads were all dry and fine as if there had been no rain for a month; and the gardeners dug and planted in ground which, eight days before, was covered with snow !
After having lived through the longest winter here, for one hundred and fifty years, we were destined to witness the greatest flood for sixty, and little lower than any within the last three hundred years. On the 28th of March the river overflooded the high pier along the Main, and rising higher and higher, began to come into the gates and alleys. Before night the whole bank was covered and the water intruded into some of the booths in the Rômerberg. When I went there the next morning, it was a sorrowful sight. Persons were inside the gate with boats; so rapidly had it risen, that many of the merchants had no time to move their wares, and must suffer great damage. They were busy rescuing what property could be seized in the haste, and constructing passages into the houses which were surrounded. No one seemed to think of buying or selling, but only on the best method to escape the danger. Along the Main it was still worse. From the measure, it had risen seventeen feet above its usual level, and the arches of the bridge were filled nearly to the top. At the Upper-Main gate, every thing was flooded-houses, gardens, workshops, the water had even overrun the meadows Above and attacked the city from behind, so that a part of the beautiful promenades lay deep under water. On the other side, we could see houses standing in it up to the" roof. It came up through the sewers into the middle of Frank-fort; a large body of men were kept at work constructing slight bridges to walk on, and transporting boats to places where they were needed. This was all done at the expense of the city; the greatest readiness was everywhere manifested to render all possible assistance. In the Fischergasse, I saw them taking provisions to the people in boats; one man even fastened a loaf of bread to the end of a broomstick and reached it across the narrow street from an upper story window, to the neighbor opposite. News came that Hansen, a village towards the Taunus, about two miles distant, was quite under water, and that the people clung-to the roofs and cried for help; but it was fortunately false. About noon, cannon shots were heard, and twenty boats were sent out from the city.
In the afternoon I ascended the tower of the Cathedral, which commands a wide view of the valley, up and down. Just above the city the whole plain was like a small lake-between two and three miles wide. A row of new-built houses stretched into it like a long promontory, and in the middle, like an island, stood a country-seat with large out-buildings. The river sent a long arm out below, that reached up through the meadows behind the city, as if to clasp it all and bear it away together. A heavy storm was raging along the whole extent of the Taunus; but a rainbow stood in the eastern sky. I thought of its promise, and hoped, for the sake of the hundreds of poor people who were suffering by the waters, that it might herald their fall.
We afterwards went over to Sachsenhausen, which was, if possible, in a still more unfortunate condition. The water had penetrated the passages and sewers, and from these leaped and rushed up into the streets, as out of a fountain. The houses next to the Main, which were first - filled, poured torrents out of the doors and windows into the street below. These people were nearly all poor, and could ill afford the loss of time and damage of property it occasioned them. The stream was filled with wood and boards, and even whole roofs, with the tiles on, went floating down. The bridge was crowded with people; one saw everywhere mournful countenances, and heard lamentations over the catastrophe. After sunset, a great cloud, filling half the sky, hung above; the reflection of its glowing crimson tint, joined to the brown hue of the water, made it seem like a river of fire.
What a difference a little sunshine makes ! I" could have forgotten the season the next day, but for the bare trees and swelling Main, as I threaded my way through the hundreds of people who thronged its banks. It was that soft warmth that comes with the first spring days, relaxing the body and casting a dreamy hue over the mind. I leaned over the bridge in the full enjoyment of it, and listening to the roaring of the water under the arches, forgot every thing else for a time. It was amusing to walk up and down the pier and look at the countenances passing by, while the phantasy was ever ready, weaving a tale for all. My favorite Tyrolese were there, and I saw a Greek leaning over the stone balustrade, wearing the red cap and the white frock, and with the long dark hair and fiery eye of the Orient. I could not but wonder, as he looked at the dim hills of the Odenwald, along the eastern horizon, whether they called up in his mind the purple isles of his native Archipelago,
The general character of a nation is plainly stamped on the countenances of its people. One who notices the faces in the streets, can soon distinguish, by the glance he gives in going by, the Englishman or the Frenchman from the German, and the Christian from the Jew. Not less striking is the difference of expression between the Germans themselves; and in places where all classes of people are drawn together, it is interesting to observe how accurately these distinctions are drawn. The boys have generally handsome, intelligent faces, and like all boys, they are full of life and spirit, for they know nothing of the laws by which their country is chained down, and would not care for them, if they did. But with the exception of the students, who talk, at least, of Liberty and Right, the young men lose this spirit and at last settle down into the calm, cautious, lethargic citizen. One distinguishes an Englishman, and I should think an American, also, in this respect, very easily; the former, moreover, by a certain cold stateliness and reserve. There is something, however, about a Jew, whether English or German, which marks him from all others. However different their faces, there is a family character which runs through the whole of them. It lays principally in their high cheek-bones, prominent nose and thin, compressed lips ; which, especially in elderly men, gives a peculiar miserly expression that is unmistakable.
I regret to say, one looks almost in vain, in Germany, for a handsome female countenance: Here and there, perhaps, is a woman with regular features, but that intellectual expression, which gives such a charm to the most common face, is wanting. I have seen more beautiful women in one night, in a public assembly, in America, than during the seven months I have been on the Continent, Some of the young Jewesses, in Frankfort, are considered hand-some, but their features soon become too strongly marked. In a public walk the number of positively ugly faces is really astonishing.
About ten o'clock that night, I heard a noise of persons running in the street, and going to the Rômerberg, found the water had risen, all at once, much higher, and was still rapidly increasing. People were setting up torches and lengthening the rafts, which had been already formed. The lower part of the city was a real Venice the streets were full of boats and people could even row about in their own houses; though it was not quite so bad as the flood in Georgia, where they went up stairs to bed in boats ! I went to the bridge. Persons were calling around-" The water! the water! it rises continually! The river rushed through the arches, foaming and dashing with a noise like thunder, and the red light of the torches along the shore cast a flickering glare on the troubled waves. It was then twenty-one feet above its usual level. Men were busy all around, carrying boats and ladders to the places most threatened, or emptying cellars into which it was penetrating. The sudden swelling was occasioned by the coming down of the floods from the mountains of Spessart.
Part of the upper quay cracked next morning and threatened to fall in, and one of the projecting piers of the bridge sunk away from the main body three or four inches. In Sachsenhausen the desolation occasioned by the flood is absolutely- frightful ; several houses have fallen into total ruin. All business was stopped for the day; the Exchange was even shut up. As the city depends almost entirely on pumps for its supply of water, and these were filled with the flood, we have been drinking the muddy current of the Main ever since. The damage to goods is very great, The fair was stopped at once, and the loss in this respect alone, must be several millions of florins. The water began to fall on the 1st, and has now sunk about ten feet, so that most of the houses are again re-leased, though in a bad condition.
Yesterday afternoon, as I was sitting in my room, writing, I heard all at once an explosion like a cannon in the street, followed by loud and continued screams. Looking out the window, I saw the people rushing by with goods in their arms, some wringing their hands and crying, others running in all directions. Imagining that it was nothing less than the tumbling down of one of the old houses, we ran down and saw a store a few doors distant in flames. The windows were bursting and flying out, and the mingled mass of smoke and red flame reached half way across the street. We learned after-wards it was occasioned by the explosion of a jar of naphtha, which instantly enveloped the whole room in fire, the people barely escaping in time. The persons who had booths near were standing still in despair, while the flames were beginning to touch their property. A few butchers who first came up, did almost every-thing. A fire engine arrived soon, but it was ten minutes before it began to play, and by that time the flames were coining out of the upper stories. Then the supply of water soon failed, and though another engine came up shortly after, it was sometime before it could be put in order, so that by the time they got fairly to work, the fire had made its way nearly through the house. The water was first brought in barrels drawn by horses, till some officer came and opened the fire plug. The police were busy at work seizing those who came by and setting them to work; and as the alarm had drawn a great many together, they at last began to effect something. All the military are obliged to be out, and the officers appeared eager to use their authority while they could, for every one was ordering and commanding, till all was a, scene of perfect confusion and uproar. I could not help laughing heartily, so ludicrous did the scene appear. There were little, miserable engines, not much bigger than a hand-cart, and looking as if they had not been used for half a century, the horses running backwards and for-wards, dragging barrels which were emptied into tubs, after which the water was finally dipped up in buckets, and emptied into the engines! These machines can only play into the second or third story, after which the hose was taken up in the houses on the opposite side of the street, and made to play across. After four hours the fire was overcome, the house being thoroughly burnt out; it happened to have double fire walls, which prevented those adjoining from catching easily.