A German Idyl
( Originally Published 1887 )
Do you remember that little verse of Mrs. Browning — " The little birds sang east, The little birds sang west, And I smiled to think how God's greatness, Lies about our incompleteness, His rest about our restlessness " ? I cannot get it out of my mind these lovely spring days, particularly as we walk through the Thiergarten. There are many birds here, and singing constantly. Amidst the busy restlessness of the city, they trill on in their happy way. The people just live in the parks and this Thiergarten. Thiergarten is an ugly name, and means garden for animals ; but it is a beautiful place, a great forest, in the heart of the city. Fountains, lakes, floral spots, bridges, statues, avenues, — and so arranged that in every direction the eye meets a charming picture. There are fine statues of Queen Louise and her husband, Frederick Wilhelm III. How could he marry another woman, after having loved so beautiful and noble a woman as Louise ! The Germans have never forgiven him. It was a morganatic marriage, and he was obliged to build a separate palace for her, as she could never be admitted into the Hohenzollern Palais. The Schaper monument of Goethe is here, too. In these balmy spring days, we bring our books to the park, and at intervals take a row on the lake, or loiter about the flower-beds, or for the hundredth time admire the Sieges-Saule, a shaft made of burnished cannon taken from the French in '70 and '71, the column crowned with a shining, glorious figure of Victory. Wherever you stroll, the flashing wings of Victory, dazzling in the sun, can be seen. And how the nightingales sing in the park ! Early in the morning or late at night you hear the exquisite note of the nightingale. The ecstatic song, amidst the stillness, on the fresh morning air, thrills the heart with the fulness of spring.
The pine woods about here, with their spicy fragrance, are exhilarating to the students after the close work of the winter. Even the piano students relax their industry, and go to the pine woods in the German glad spring, —for never was spring so glad as here in Germany. Elizabeth and " little W." and I take long, long walks, — once a walk of nine miles, and not a feeling of fatigue. The pine forests are so regularly laid out that they seem made by man rather than nature. The smell of the pine is quickening ; we gather the wild flowers that thickly carpet the ground ; we mimic the cuckoo as it calls. We once stopped at an old ruin, kept by an old lady, and she told us she receives twenty-five pfennige a day for her services ! Families take coffee with them from the city, and warm it at the restaurants by the road-side. There are signs on all sides : "Hier konnen Familien Kaffee kochen." W. startled the Germans by telling them that in Africa the sign is reversed, and reads, " Hier können Kaffir Familien kochen." We are a happy crowd on our long walks, singing American college songs, and the American boys have composed a wonderful ditty, which shows well the genius in the American colony: -
" Tall girl,
Which is not meant as an offence to the German girl, but it is so ridiculous that it is sung on all occasions.
Our Sunday afternoon walks are changed from the quiet, sedate promenades to rambles in the graveyards ! You have no idea what interesting places these graveyards are! There are a number of them, scattered throughout the city, and we take one for exploration every Sabbath after-noon. They are in the midst of the city ; probably they were once in the suburbs, but the city has grown up all about them, and a huge, ugly wall encloses them. Within, the place is very crowded, with no lawns, no grass-plots or flower-beds, no room for any adornment. The graves are high above the ground, immense, square, high mounds, often overgrown thick with ivy or imbedded with flowers. Instead of monuments, there are iron crosses, with the inscription and a verse. They are painted black, but grow rusty. Wreaths are hung over these crosses. The place, with these high mounds, black crosses, and wreaths, seems very sombre and quaint ; in wet weather it is doleful. Mendelssohn's grave is the favorite with music students ; it is always covered with wreaths, the music students keep it remembered. These wreaths are of leaves, tied with ribbon, a bow and long streamers, white or black. Fanny Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, his beloved sister, lies beside him. These graves are marked by tombstones, —a score of music and an accompanying verse cut in the stone. Many of the students take slips of ivy, start them to growing to replant in America.
Rahel von Hargen von Euse, so brilliant in the salon, the peer in conversation of Jean Paul Richter and Goethe, with whom she passed many hours, also lies here. The grave is uncared-for — perhaps forgotten. However, there is little care and attention paid to any of the cemeteries. There cannot be that pride in the cemetery that is known by even our smallest towns, as these are so crowded, — yet what another pride is here — the dust of the Great ! Ground is so expensive, and there is such a heavy tax on monuments or the most simple stones, that the people are content with the iron crosses, and then regularly or on holidays wreathe them with wreaths of leaves or immortelles.
In another part is the old burying-ground de-voted apparently to architects and sculptors. We found there Schinkel, Schadow, Ranch, Stüler, Hitzig. The philosophers Fichte and Hegel are here; and the old philosophers of the present time, and the scholars bring wreaths to these mounds. There is something beautiful in the devotion to the memory of these dead philosophers, whose thoughts live on, and to whom we owe so much. Near here is the burial-place of soldiers and noble-men. In the Jewish cemetery are buried Auerbach, Meyerbeer, Moses Mendelssohn. We went here one Friday afternoon, just after services in the synagogue. I believe this is the finest synagogue in the world. It is Moorish, Byzantine style, and magnificent in its oriental effects. The windows are painted wonderfully, and the place is lighted by lights behind them, from the outside, so that the light within the sanctuary is touched with these royal colors and gold. The colors of the marble pillars are thus brought out also, and the whole is oriental glory. It is Solomon's glory.
They appear to keep up the old Jewish forms, — the outer court for women, the body of the church for the men. We were walking right into the main part, but the officer stopped us with "Hier sitzen Manner blos," and made us go up in the gallery where the women sit. There was a strange ceremony during the service. The priest walked to the door, during the grand music, and received there a number of gentlemen, shaking hands with them, and conducting them to their pew, while the congregation arose. We thought they must be distinguished strangers, but, upon inquiry, we learned that this was the usual ceremony for receiving a family after the purification after a death in the family. When we went over to the Jewish cemetery, we met this same group. They looked very sombre in their mourning at this dreary spot, and the whole afternoon was a mingling of glory and gloom, — a bit of ancient time in the oriental land.
Nature alone would make the heart glad in the spring ; but this is the holiday time in Germany, which adds to the pleasure of the season. As though the " still week " and Easter were not enough to remind the nation of its religion, especially as Pentecost is only six weeks later, the Emperor has added to the Church festival days, and between Easter and Ascension has instituted a Busz Tag, a day for repentance and prayer. It is really a day for spring pleasure, after the morning service. Mrs. M. brought me an invitation for that day, which she half feared I would not accept. It was to take coffee at the home of the Braut of a poor Kandidat. The Kandidat is a theologue. This one was near the time of his final examination, — there are several severe tests, — and was already Hilfs Prediger, or under assistant, at the Dom, in Berlin. I was only too glad to accept the invitation to see the little Braut (a betrothed girl is always called "bride" in Germany), glad to take coffee in an old fashioned, humble German family, glad of the opportunity to talk with the Kandidat on the Church affairs of Germany.
The Fest day was as ideal as one could desire. All the city had assumed what we would call its " Sabbath attire," and the business world was at a stand-still. The soft spring air wooed the city dwellers to the open fields, and, as we walked through the streets, it seemed as though there was a common picnic.
On the way, Mrs. M. narrated the story of the young Kandidat. He was a poor young fellow, of the very humblest class in Berlin, and it is rare that a preacher comes from this class. It happened that this boy was remarkably bright in the confirmation class, and the attention of the teachers had been drawn toward him. The most influential of the court preachers, Koegel and Frommel, had become interested in him, and, through their influence, he had been led into the ministry. They had not only helped him to secure an education, but, won by his spirit, had made a special friend of him, and allowed him frequent intercourse with them, requiring his help in pastoral work frequently. He was quite proud of these friendships, and loved to talk of his benefactors, so that, if we could start him on his favorite theme, we could learn much of these greatest preachers of Germany.
We were going to the home of his Brant. In the confirmation class he had met a young girl, of the same class of society as himself, and their friendship had resulted in a betrothal. Notwithstanding his advanced position, and his future prospects, he had clung faithfully to this early love.
Passing from the business streets, then far from the better part of the city, across the Spree, into the old quarters, we at length entered an open court, and, ascending stone steps, came upon a spot that drew from both of us exclamations of surprise and delight. We found ourselves in a delightful garden —a sort of hanging gardens — elevated from the front court,. and just in the heart of a crowded, closely built up city. In the midst of the noisy, close Berlin, this little oasis of freshness and beauty ! The Kandidat was walking among the trees, book in hand, and came forward with joy to greet us. Then the Schwäger papa and mama (the father and the mother of the Braut) were introduced, with evident pride on both sides. The garden was displayed as the work of mama, and each plant had its history: this from a seed, that a shoot, this a present, that a bargain ! and so on through the pansies, forget-me-nots, lilies-of-the-valley, fragrant wall-flowers. Next, the chickens were shown as the special joy of papa. Each answered to its name. And so we, as an admiring group, stood about them. A true picture of the German child-nature, that brings them so much happiness.
Then came the " gemüthliche Stunde " (social hour). The little Braut appeared with the tray and coffee. Smiling, trembling, happy, she was brought forward by the Kandidat to meet his friends. She was not pretty, but had a gentle beauty of manner that brings abiding beauty, flowing from a pure spirit. We seated ourselves in the garden, about the little green table, and the Braut gave us coffee in silver rimmed cups, while the Kandidat, after our questioning, was soon launched on his favorite theme, and the family listened with wonder and admiration. Indeed, all the hope and love of the family seemed centred in him, and he returned all with a devotion charming to see. The whole episode was ideal. As we thus sat in conversation, people would pass through the garden to another street, and, in the most friendly way, each one would greet us with " Guten appetit."
The whole family loves Frommel. A favorite at court, still he seeks the poor. This family told now with so much happiness of his presence at their silver wedding, how the Kandidat had arranged all as a surprise, and how Frommel had hid himself until the hour came when he appeared in his clerical robes to perform the service. Several pictures of him were in their humble house : and truly one could feel how he had blessed the family. Mrs. A. once said of Frommel, in speaking of how strong and comforting he is to those in deepest trial, that such men are given to the world in its trial, like chloroform when an operation is to be performed.
Koegel, too, was spoken of the first court preacher. Stern, severe, intellectual, not so much loved, but ever honored and trusted. It is said that church attendance is on the increase; nevertheless, but two per cent of the population are in regular attendance. All these things were spoken of, and, before we knew it, the northern sun was sinking. The Fest clay was closed. The Kandidat and his Braut accompanied us to the gate, leaving in our hands a bunch of flowers. We have laid them away as a memento ever to speak of that Fest clay as a charming, sweet German idyl.
The time has come to leave the place we have learned to love. One by one the colony has been losing, and our turn is at hand. My last visit to Mrs. M. was the final poem of the many that have made the winter so beautiful. As I came through one of the poor quarters of the city, where once before I had met Mrs. M., I saw ahead of me Dr. and Mrs. M., watching a group of poor little fellows gazing longingly into the show window of a miserable little bonbon-shop. They were a patched and ragged-looking set, but a wistful-eyed crowd. Dr. M. walked through their midst, entered the shop, and soon returned with an immense paper full of the sweets, and distributed these among them. There were such a rush and clamor the Dr. and Mrs. M. fairly ran for their lives. A few hours after, at their home, I asked for my share of the bonbons, and the doctor colored as though rather ashamed of his sport. I secured mine, however, in the shape of an evening drive in the Thiergarten. I found out that in the afternoon they had been to visit a poor consumptive girl, and that Mrs. M. had celebrated her own birthday with the invalid, taking her birthday cake with her, and the girl had been very happy. The remembrance and influence of the afternoon seemed to make the evening happier, although we were sad at the breaking up of our companionship. The Thiergarten was in its most alluring beauty, the trees and vines in that delicate, fresh, misty green seen only in the spring-time. "The fountains were splashing, the brooks gurgling ; the tramp of the horses and click of spurs on the riding-path, the melody of birds, the fresh evening breeze, — there is rarely so happy a combination ! Then Dr. M. placed a pile of groschen -ten-pfennige pieces on the seat, and threw one at every beggar and every lame person we passed. What a waving of hats in gratitude, and what smiles of surprised delight !