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Imaginary portraits, p.20

Imaginary Portraits, page 20

 

Imaginary Portraits
 


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he hastened now over the ground which lay between him and thebed of death, still trying, at quieter intervals, to snatch profit bythe way; peeping, at the most unlikely hours, on the objects of hiscuriosity, waiting for a glimpse of dawn through glowing [148] churchwindows, penetrating into old church treasuries by candle-light, taxingthe old courtiers to pant up, for "the view," to this or thatconspicuous point in the world of hilly woodland. From one such atlast, in spite of everything with pleasure to Carl, old Rosenmold wasvisible--the attic windows of the Residence, the storks on thechimneys, the green copper roofs baking in the long, dry German summer.The homeliness of true old Germany! He too felt it, and yearnedtowards his home.

  And the "beggar-maid" was there. Thoughts of her had haunted his mindall the journey through, as he was aware, not unpleased, graciouslyoverflowing towards any creature he found dependent upon him. The merefact that she was awaiting him, at his disposition, meekly, and asthough through his long absence she had never quitted the spot on whichhe had said farewell, touched his fancy, and on a sudden concentratedhis wavering preference into a practical decision. "King Cophetua"would be hers. And his goodwill sunned her wild-grown beauty intomajesty, into a kind of queenly richness. There was natural majesty inthe heavy waves of golden hair folded closely above the neck, built alittle massively; and she looked kind, beseeching also, capable ofsorrow.

  She was like clear sunny weather, with bluebells and the green leaves,between rainy days, and seemed to embody Die Ruh auf dem Gipfel--all[149] the restful hours he had spent of late in the wood-sides and onthe hilltops. One June day, on which she seemed to have withdrawn intoherself all the tokens of summer, brought decision to our lover ofartificial roses, who had cared so little hitherto for the like of her.Grand-duke perforce, he would make her his wife, and had alreadyre-assured her with lively mockery of his horrified ministers. "Gostraight to life!" said his new poetic code; and here was theopportunity;--here, also, the real "adventure," in comparison of whichhis previous efforts that way seemed childish theatricalities, fit onlyto cheat a little the profound ennui of actual life. In a hundredstolen interviews she taught the hitherto indifferent youth the art oflove.

  Duke Carl had effected arrangements for his marriage, secret, butcomplete and soon to be made public. Long since he had cast complacenteyes on a strange architectural relic, an old grange or hunting-lodgeon the heath, with he could hardly have defined what charm ofremoteness and old romance. Popular belief amused itself with reportsof the wizard who inhabited or haunted the place, his fantastictreasures, his immense age. His windows might be seen glittering afaron stormy nights, with a blaze of golden ornaments, said the moreadventurous loiterer. It was not because he was suspicious still, butin a kind of wantonness [150] of affection, and as if by way of givingyet greater zest to the luxury of their mutual trust that Duke Carladded to his announcement of the purposed place and time of the event apretended test of the girl's devotion. He tells her the story of theaged wizard, meagre and wan, to whom she must find her way alone forthe purpose of asking a question all-important to himself. The fierceold man will try to escape with terrible threats, will turn, or halfturn, into repulsive animals. She must cling the faster; at last thespell will be broken; he will yield, he will become a youth once more,and give the desired answer.

  The girl, otherwise so self-denying, and still modestly anxious for aprivate union, not to shame his high position in the world, had wishedfor one thing at least--to be loved amid the splendours habitual tohim. Duke Carl sends to the old lodge his choicest personalpossessions. For many days the public is aware of something on hand; afew get delightful glimpses of the treasures on their way to "the placeon the heath." Was he preparing against contingencies, should thegreat army, soon to pass through these parts, not leave the country asinnocently as might be desired?

  The short grey day seemed a long one to those who, for various reasons,were waiting anxiously for the darkness; the court people fretful andon their mettle, the townsfolk suspicious, [151] Duke Carl full ofamorous longing. At her distant cottage beyond the hills, Gretchenkept herself ready for the trial. It was expected that certain greatmilitary officers would arrive that night, commanders of a victorioushost making its way across Northern Germany, with no great respect forthe rights of neutral territory, often dealing with life and propertytoo rudely to find the coveted treasure. It was but one episode in acruel war. Duke Carl did not wait for the grandly illuminated supperprepared for their reception. Events precipitated themselves. Thoseofficers came as practically victorious occupants, shelteringthemselves for the night in the luxurious rooms of the great palace.The army was in fact in motion close behind its leaders, who (Gretchenwarm and happy in the arms, not of the aged wizard, but of the youthfullover) are discussing terms for the final absorption of the duchy withthose traitorous old councillors. At their delicate supper Duke Carlamuses his companion with caricature, amid cries of cheerful laughter,of the sleepy courtiers entertaining their martial guests in all theirpedantic politeness, like people in some farcical dream. A priest, andcertain chosen friends to witness the marriage, were to come erenightfall to the grange. The lovers heard, as they thought, the soundof distant thunder. The hours passed as they waited, and what came atlast was not the priest with [152] his companions. Could they havebeen detained by the storm? Duke Carl gently re-assures the girl--bidsher believe in him, and wait. But through the wind, grown to tempest,beyond the sound of the violent thunder--louder than any possiblethunder--nearer and nearer comes the storm of the victorious army, likesome disturbance of the earth itself, as they flee into the tumult, outof the intolerable confinement and suspense, dead-set upon them.

  The Enlightening, the Aufklaerung, according to the aspiration of DukeCarl, was effected by other hands; Lessing and Herder, brilliantprecursors of the age of genius which centered in Goethe, coming wellwithin the natural limits of Carl's lifetime. As precursors Goethegratefully recognised them, and understood that there had been athousand others, looking forward to a new era in German literature withthe desire which is in some sort a "forecast of capacity," awakeningeach other to the permanent reality of a poetic ideal in human life,slowly forming that public consciousness to which Goethe actuallyaddressed himself. It is their aspirations I have tried to embody inthe portrait of Carl.

  A hard winter had covered the Main with a firm footing of ice. Theliveliest social intercourse was quickened thereon. I was unfailingfrom early morning onwards; and, being lightly clad, found myself, whenmy mother drove up later [153] to look on, fairly frozen. My mothersat in the carriage, quite stately in her furred cloak of red velvet,fastened on the breast with thick gold cord and tassels.

  "Dear mother," I said, on the spur of the moment, "give me your furs, Iam frozen."

  She was equally ready. In a moment I had on the cloak. Falling belowthe knee, with its rich trimming of sables, and enriched with gold, itbecame me excellently. So clad I made my way up and down with acheerful heart.

  That was Goethe, perhaps fifty years later. His mother also relatedthe incident to Bettina Brentano;--"There, skated my son, like an arrowamong the groups. Away he went over the ice like a son of the gods.Anything so beautiful is not to be seen now. I clapped my hands forjoy. Never shall I forget him as he darted out from one arch of thebridge, and in again under the other, the wind carrying the trainbehind him as he flew." In that amiable figure I seem to see thefulfilment of the Resurgam on Carl's empty coffin--the aspiring soul ofCarl himself, in freedom and effective, at last.

  [THE END]

 
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