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- My Life, Volume I - 3/107 -


So far as I know, Jeannette Thome really owned the second storey, of which she inhabited only a modest apartment looking out on the courtyard. As, however, the King merely occupied the hired rooms for a few days in the year, Jeannette and her circle generally made use of his splendid apartments, and one of these staterooms was made into a bedroom for me.

The decorations and fittings of these rooms also dated from the days of Augustus the Strong. They were luxurious with heavy silk and rich rococo furniture, all of which were much soiled with age. As a matter of fact, I was delighted by these large strange rooms, looking out upon the bustling Leipzig market-place, where I loved above all to watch the students in the crowd making their way along in their old-fashioned 'Club' attire, and filling up the whole width of the street.

There was only one portion of the decorations of the rooms that I thoroughly disliked, and this consisted of the various portraits, but particularly those of high-born dames in hooped petticoats, with youthful faces and powdered hair. These appeared to me exactly like ghosts, who, when I was alone in the room, seemed to come back to life, and filled me with the most abject fear. To sleep alone in this distant chamber, in that old-fashioned bed of state, beneath those unearthly pictures, was a constant terror to me. It is true I tried to hide my fear from my aunt when she lighted me to bed in the evening with her candle, but never a night passed in which I was not a prey to the most horrible ghostly visions, my dread of which would leave me in a bath of perspiration.

The personality of the three chief occupants of this storey was admirably adapted to materialise the ghostly impressions of the house into a reality that resembled some strange fairy-tale.

Jeannette Thome was very small and stout; she wore a fair Titus wig, and seemed to hug to herself the consciousness of vanished beauty. My aunt, her faithful friend and guardian, who was also an old maid, was remarkable for the height and extreme leanness of her person. The oddity of her otherwise very pleasant face was increased by an exceedingly pointed chin.

My uncle Adolph had chosen as his permanent study a dark room in the courtyard. There it was that I saw him for the first time, surrounded by a great wilderness of books, and attired in an unpretentious indoor costume, the most striking feature of which was a tall, pointed felt cap, such as I had seen worn by the clown who belonged to the troupe of rope-dancers at Eisleben. A great love of independence had driven him to this strange retreat. He had been originally destined for the Church, but he soon gave that up, in order to devote himself entirely to philological studies. But as he had the greatest dislike of acting as a professor and teacher in a regular post, he soon tried to make a meagre livelihood by literary work. He had certain social gifts, and especially a fine tenor voice, and appears in his youth to have been welcome as a man of letters among a fairly wide circle of friends at Leipzig.

On a trip to Jena, during which he and a companion seem to have found their way into various musical and oratorical associations, he paid a visit to Schiller. With this object in view, he had come armed with a request from the management of the Leipzig Theatre, who wanted to secure the rights of Wallenstein, which was just finished. He told me later of the magic impression made upon him by Schiller, with his tall slight figure and irresistibly attractive blue eyes. His only complaint was that, owing to a well-meant trick played on him by his friend, he had been placed in a most trying position; for the latter had managed to send Schiller a small volume of Adolph Wagner's poems in advance.

The young poet was much embarrassed. to hear Schiller address him in flattering terms on the subject of his poetry, but was convinced that the great man was merely encouraging him out of kindness. Afterwards he devoted himself entirely to philological studios--one of his best-known publications in that department being his Parnasso Italiano, which ho dedicated to Goethe in an Italian poem. True, I have heard experts say that the latter was written in unusually pompous Italian; but Goethe sent him a letter full of praise, as well as a silver cup from his own household plate. The impression that I, as a boy of eight, conceived of Adolph Wagner, amid the surroundings of his own home, was that he was a peculiarly puzzling character.

I soon had to leave the influence of this environment and was brought back to my people at Dresden. Meanwhile my family, under the guidance of my bereaved mother, had been obliged to settle down as well as they could under the circumstances. My eldest brother Albert, who originally intended to study medicine, had, upon the advice of Weber, who had much admired his beautiful tenor voice, started his theatrical career in Breslau. My second sister Louisa soon followed his example, and became an actress. My eldest sister Rosalie had obtained an excellent engagement at the Dresden Court Theatre, and the younger members of the family all looked up to her; for she was now the main support of our poor sorrowing mother. My family still occupied the same comfortable home which my father had made for them. Some of the spare rooms were occasionally let to strangers, and Spohr was among those who at one time lodged with us. Thanks to her great energy, and to help received from various sources (among which the continued generosity of the Court, out of respect to the memory of my late stepfather, must not be forgotten), my mother managed so well in making both ends meet, that even my education did not suffer.

After it had been decided that my sister Clara, owing to her exceedingly beautiful voice, should also go on the stage, my mother took the greatest care to prevent me from developing any taste whatever for the theatre. She never ceased to reproach herself for having consented to the theatrical career of my eldest brother, and as my second brother showed no greater talents than those which were useful to him as a goldsmith, it was now her chief desire to see some progress made towards the fulfilment of the hopes and wishes of my step-father, 'who hoped to make something of me.' On the completion of my eighth year I was sent to the Kreuz Grammar School in Dresden, where it was hoped I would study! There I was placed at the bottom of the lowest class, and started my education under the most unassuming auspices.

My mother noted with much interest the slightest signs I might show of a growing love and ability for my work. She herself, though not highly educated, always created a lasting impression on all who really learnt to know her, and displayed a peculiar combination of practical domestic efficiency and keen intellectual animation. She never gave one of her children any definite information concerning her antecedents. She came from Weissenfels, and admitted that her parents had been bakers [FOOTNOTE: According to more recent information--mill owners] there. Even in regard to her maiden name she always spoke with some embarrassment, and intimated that it was 'Perthes,' though, as we afterwards ascertained, it was in reality 'Bertz.' Strange to say, she had been placed in a high-class boarding-school in Leipzig, where she had enjoyed the advantage of the care and interest of one of 'her father's influential friends,' to whom she afterwards referred as being a Weimar prince who had been very kind to her family in Weissenfels. Her education in that establishment seems to have been interrupted on account of the sudden death of this 'friend.' She became acquainted with my father at a very early age, and married him in the first bloom of her youth, he also being very young, though he already held an appointment. Her chief characteristics seem to have been a keen sense of humour and an amiable temper, so we need not suppose that it was merely a sense of duty towards the family of a departed comrade that afterwards induced the admirable Ludwig Geyer to enter into matrimony with her when she was no longer youthful, but rather that he was impelled to that step by a sincere and warm regard for the widow of his friend. A portrait of her, painted by Geyer during the lifetime of my father, gives one a very favourable impression of what she must have been. Even from the time when my recollection of her is quite distinct, she always had to wear a cap owing to some slight affection of the head, so that I have no recollection of her as a young and pretty mother. Her trying position at the head of a numerous family (of which I was the seventh surviving member), the difficulty of obtaining the wherewithal to rear them, and of keeping up appearances on very limited resources, did not conduce to evolve that tender sweetness and solicitude which are usually associated with motherhood. I hardly ever recollect her having fondled me. Indeed, demonstrations of affection were not common in our family, although a certain impetuous, almost passionate and boisterous manner always characterised our dealings. This being so, it naturally seemed to me quite a great event when one night I, fretful with sleepiness, looked up at her with tearful eyes as she was taking me to bed, and saw her gaze back at me proudly and fondly, and speak of me to a visitor then present with a certain amount of tenderness.

What struck me more particularly about her was the strange enthusiasm and almost pathetic manner with which she spoke of the great and of the beautiful in Art. Under this heading, however, she would never have let me suppose that she included dramatic art, but only Poetry, Music, and Painting. Consequently, she often even threatened me with her curse should I ever express a desire to go on the stage. Moreover, she was very religiously inclined. With intense fervour she would often give us long sermons about God and the divine quality in man, during which, now and again, suddenly lowering her voice in a rather funny way, she would interrupt herself in order to rebuke one of us. After the death of our stepfather she used to assemble us all round her bed every morning, when one of us would read out a hymn or a part of the Church service from the prayer-book before she took her coffee. Sometimes the choice of the part to be read was hardly appropriate, as, for instance, when my sister Clara on one occasion thoughtlessly read the 'Prayer to be said in time of War,' and delivered it with so much expression that my mother interrupted her, saying: 'Oh, stop! Good gracious me! Things are not quite so bad as that. There's no war on at present!'

In spite of our limited means we had lively and--as they appeared to my boyish imagination--even brilliant evening parties sometimes. After the death of my stepfather, who, thanks to his success as a portrait painter, in the later years of his life had raised his income to what for those days was a really decent total, many agreeable acquaintances of very good social position whom he had made during this flourishing period still remained on friendly terms with us, and would occasionally join us at our evening gatherings. Amongst those who came were the members of the Court Theatre, who at that time gave very charming and highly entertaining parties of their own, which, on my return to Dresden later on, I found had been altogether given up.


My Life, Volume I - 3/107

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