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Imaginary portraits, p.16

Imaginary Portraits, page 16

 

Imaginary Portraits
 


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above the tallest roofs of the old grand-ducal town,very distinctly outlined, on that day, in deep fluid grey against a skystill heavy with coming rain. No treasure, indeed, was forthcomingamong the masses of fallen stone. But the tradition was so farverified, that the bones had rich golden ornaments about them; and forthe minds of some long-remembering people their discovery set at restan old query. It had never been precisely known what was become of theyoung Duke Carl, who disappeared from the world just a century before,about the time when a great army passed over those parts, at apolitical crisis, one result of which was the final absorption of hissmall territory in a neighbouring dominion. Restless, romantic,eccentric, had he passed on with the victorious host, and taken thechances of an obscure soldier's life? Certain old letters hinted at adifferent ending--love-letters which provided for a secret meeting,preliminary perhaps to the final departure of the young Duke (who, bythe usage of his realm, could only with extreme difficulty go whither,or marry whom, he pleased) to whatever worlds he had chosen, not of hisown people. The minds of those still interested in the matter were nowat last made up, the disposition of the remains suggesting to them thelively picture of a sullen night, the unexpected passing of the greatarmy, [121] and the two lovers rushing forth wildly at the suddentumult outside their cheerful shelter, caught in the dark and trampledout so, surprised and unseen, among the horses and heavy guns.

  Time, at the court of the Grand-duke of Rosenmold, at the beginning ofthe eighteenth century might seem to have been standing still almostsince the Middle Age--since the days of the Emperor Charles the Fifth,at which period, by the marriage of the hereditary Grand-duke with aprincess of the Imperial house, a sudden tide of wealth, flowingthrough the grand-ducal exchequer, had left a kind of goldenarchitectural splendour on the place, always too ample for itspopulation. The sloping Gothic roofs for carrying off the heavy snowsstill indented the sky--a world of tiles, with space uncurtailed forthe awkward gambols of that very German goblin, Hans Klapper, on thelong, slumberous, northern nights. Whole quarryfuls of wrought stonehad been piled along the streets and around the squares, and were nowgrown, in truth, like nature's self again, in their rough, time-wornmassiveness, with weeds and wild flowers where their decay accumulated,blossoming, always the same, beyond people's memories, every summer, asthe storks came back to their platforms on the remote chimney-tops.Without, all was as it had been on the eve of the Thirty Years' War:the venerable dark-green mouldiness, priceless pearl of architecturaleffect, was unbroken [122] by a single new gable. And within, humanlife--its thoughts, its habits, above all, its etiquette--had been putout by no matter of excitement, political or intellectual, ever at all,one might say, at any time. The rambling grand-ducal palace was fullto overflowing with furniture, which, useful or useless, was allornamental, and none of it new. Suppose the various objects,especially the contents of the haunted old lumber-rooms, duly arrangedand ticketed, and their Highnesses would have had a historic museum,after which those famed "Green Vaults" at Dresden would hardly havecounted as one of the glories of Augustus the Strong. An immenseheraldry, that truly German vanity, had grown, expatiating, florid,eloquent, over everything, without and within--windows, house-fronts,church walls, and church floors. And one-half of the male inhabitantswere big or little State functionaries, mostly of a quasi decorativeorder--the treble-singer to the town-council, the court organist, thecourt poet, and the like--each with his deputies and assistants,maintaining, all unbroken, a sleepy ceremonial, to make the hours justnoticeable as they slipped away. At court, with a continuous round ofceremonies, which, though early in the day, must always take placeunder a jealous exclusion of the sun, one seemed to live in perpetualcandle-light.

  It was in a delightful rummaging of one of those lumber-rooms, escapedfrom that candle-light [123] into the broad day of the uppermostwindows, that the young Duke Carl laid his hand on an old volume of theyear 1486, printed in heavy type, with frontispiece, perhaps, by AlbertDuerer--Ars Versificandi: The Art of Versification: by Conrad Celtes.Crowned poet of the Emperor Frederick the Third, he had the right tospeak on that subject; for while he vindicated as best he might oldGerman literature against the charge of barbarism, he did also a man'spart towards reviving in the Fatherland the knowledge of the poetry ofGreece and Rome; and for Carl, the pearl, the golden nugget, of thevolume was the Sapphic ode with which it closed--To Apollo, prayingthat he would come to us from Italy, bringing his lyre with him: AdApollinem, ut ab Italis cum lyra ad Germanos veniat. The god of light,coming to Germany from some more favoured world beyond it, over leaguesof rainy hill and mountain, making soft day there: that had ever beenthe dream of the ghost-ridden yet deep-feeling and certainly meekGerman soul; of the great Duerer, for instance, who had been the friendof this Conrad Celtes, and himself, all German as he was, like a gleamof real day amid that hyperborean German darkness--a darkness whichclave to him, too, at that dim time, when there were violent robbers,nay, real live devils, in every German wood. And it was precisely theaspiration of Carl himself. Those verses, coming to the boy's hand atthe [124] right moment, brought a beam of effectual day-light to awhole magazine of observation, fancy, desire, stored up from the firstimpressions of childhood. To bring Apollo with his lyre to Germany! Itwas precisely that he, Carl, desired to do--was, as he might flatterhimself, actually doing.

  The daylight, the Apolline aurora, which the young Duke Carl claimed tobe bringing to his candle-lit people, came in the somewhat questionableform of the contemporary French ideal, in matters of art andliterature--French plays, French architecture, Frenchlooking-glasses--Apollo in the dandified costume of Lewis theFourteenth. Only, confronting the essentially aged and decrepit gracesof his model with his own essentially youthful temper, he invigoratedwhat he borrowed; and with him an aspiration towards the classicalideal, so often hollow and insincere, lost all its affectation. Hisdoating grandfather, the reigning Grand-duke, afforded readily enough,from the great store of inherited wealth which would one day be thelad's, the funds necessary for the completion of the vast unfinishedResidence, with "pavilions" (after the manner of the famous Mansard)uniting its scattered parts; while a wonderful flowerage ofarchitectural fancy, with broken attic roofs, passed over and beyondthe earlier fabric; the later and lighter forms being in part carvedadroitly out of the [125] heavy masses of the old, honest, "stumpGothic" tracery. One fault only Carl found in his French models, andwas resolute to correct. He would have, at least within, real marblein place of stucco, and, if he might, perhaps solid gold for gilding.There was something in the sanguine, floridly handsome youth, with hisalertness of mind turned wholly, amid the vexing preoccupations of anage of war, upon embellishment and the softer things of life, whichsoothed the testy humours of the old Duke, like the quiet physicalwarmth of a fire or the sun. He was ready to preside with all ceremonyat a presentation of Marivaux's Death of Hannibal, played in theoriginal, with such imperfect mastery of the French accent as thelovers of new light in Rosenmold had at command, in a theatre copiedfrom that at Versailles, lined with pale yellow satin, and with apicture, amid the stucco braveries of the ceiling, of the SeptentrionalApollo himself, in somewhat watery red and blue. Innumerable wax lightsin cut-glass lustres were a thing of course. Duke Carl himself, attiredafter the newest French fashion, played the part of Hannibal. The oldDuke, indeed, at a council-board devoted hitherto to matters of state,would nod very early in certain long discussions on matters ofart--magnificent schemes, from this or that eminent contractor, forspending his money tastefully, distinguishings of the rococo [126] andthe baroque. On the other hand, having been all his life in closeintercourse with select humanity, self-conscious and arrayed forpresentation, he was a helpful judge of portraits and the variousdegrees of the attainment of truth therein--a phase of fine art whichthe grandson could not value too much. The sergeant-painter and thedeputy sergeant-painter were, indeed, conventional performers enough;as mechanical in their dispensation of wigs, finger-rings, ruffles, andsimpers, as the figure of the arm
ed knight who struck the bell in theResidence tower. But scattered through its half-deserted rooms, statebed-chambers and the like, hung the works of more genuine masters,still as unadulterate as the hock, known to be two generations old, inthe grand-ducal cellar. The youth had even his scheme of inviting theillustrious Antony Coppel to the court; to live there, if he would,with the honours and emoluments of a prince of the blood. Theillustrious Mansard had actually promised to come, had not his suddendeath taken him away from earthly glory.

  And at least, if one must forgo the masters, masterpieces might be hadfor their price. For ten thousand marks--day ever to be remembered!--agenuine work of "the Urbinate," from the cabinet of a certaincommercially-minded Italian grand-duke, was on its way to Rosenmold,anxiously awaited as it came over rainy mountain-passes, and along therough German [127] roads, through
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