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The Wisdom of Father Brown By G. K. Chesterton Characters: 17916

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:03


Countess Gisela Niebuhr sat in the long dusk of Munich staring over at the beautiful park that in happier days had been famous in the world as the Englischer Garten, and deliberately recalled on what might be the last night of her life the successive causes that had led to her profound dissatisfaction with her country as a woman. She was so thoroughly disgusted with it as a German that personal grievances were far from necessary to fortify her for the momentous r?le she was to play with the dawn; but in this rare hour of leisure it amused her naturally introspective mind to rehearse certain episodes whose sum had made her what she was.

When she was fourteen and her sisters Lili and Elsa sixteen and eighteen they had met in the attic of their home in Berlin one afternoon when their father was automatically at his club and their mother taking her prescribed hour of rest, and solemnly pledged one another never to marry. The causes of this vital conclave were both cumulative and immediate. Their father, the Herr Graf, a fine looking junker of sixty odd, with a roving eye and a martial air despite a corpulence which annoyed him excessively, had transferred his lost authority over his regiment to his household. The boys were in their own regiments and rid of parental discipline, but the countess and the girls received the full benefit of his military, and Prussian, relish for despotism.

In his essence a kind man and fond of his women, he balked their every individual wish and allowed them practically no liberty. They never left the house unattended, like the American girls and those fortunate beings of the student class. Lili had a charming voice and was consumed with ambition to be an operatic star. She had summoned her courage upon one memorable occasion and broached the subject to her father. All the terrified family had expected his instant dissolution from apoplexy, and in spite of his petty tyrannies they loved him. The best instructor in Berlin continued to give her lessons, as nothing gave the Graf more pleasure of an evening than her warblings.

The household, quite apart from the Frau Gr?fin's admirable management, ran with military precision, and no one dared to be the fraction of a minute late for meals or social engagements. They attended the theater, the opera, court functions, dinners, balls, on stated nights, and unless the Kaiser took a whim and altered a date, there was no deviation from this routine year in and out. They walked at the same hour, drove in the Tiergarten with the rest of fashionable Berlin, started for their castle in the Saxon Alps not only upon the same day but on the same train every summer, and the electric lights went out at precisely the same moment every night; the count's faithful steward manipulated a central stop. They were encouraged to read and study, but not-oh, by no means-to have individual opinions. The men of Germany were there to do the thinking and they did it.

Perhaps the rebellion of the Niebuhr girls would never have crystallized (for, after all, their everyday experience was much like that of other girls of their class, merely intensified by their father's persistence of executive ardors) had it not been for two subtle influences, quite unsuspected by the haughty Kammerherr: they had an American friend, Kate Terriss, who was "finishing her voice" in Berlin, and their married sister, Mariette, had recently spent a fortnight in the paternal nest.

The count despised the entire American race, as all good Prussians did, but he was as wax to feminine blandishments outside of his family, and Miss Terriss was pretty, diplomatic, alluring, and far cleverer than he would have admitted any woman could be. She wound the old martinet round her finger, subdued her rampant Americanism in his society, and amused herself sowing the seeds of rebellion in the minds of "those poor Niebuhr girls." As the countess also liked her, she had been "in and out of the house" for nearly a year. The young Prussians had alternately gasped and wept at the amazing stories of the liberty, the petting, the procession of "good times" enjoyed by American girls of their own class, to say nothing of the invariable prerogative of these fortunate girls to choose their own husbands; who, according to the unprincipled Miss Terriss, invariably spoiled their wives, and permitted them to go and come, to spend their large personal allowances, as they listed. Gisela closed her beloved volume of Grimm's fairy tales and never opened it again.

But it was the visit of Mariette that had marshalled vague dissatisfactions to an ordered climax. She had left her husband in the garrison town she had married with the excellent young officer, making a trifling indisposition of her mother a pretext for escape. On the night before her departure the four girls huddled in her bed after the opera and listened to an incisive account of her brief but distasteful period of matrimony. Not that she suffered from tyranny. Quite the reverse. Of her several suitors she had cannily engineered into her father's favor a young man of pleasing appearance, good title and fortune, but quite without character behind his fierce upstanding mustache. Inheriting her father's rigid will, she had kept the young officer in a state of abject submission. She stroked his hair in public as if he had been her pet dachshund, and patted his hand at kindly intervals as had he been her dear little son.

"But Karl has the soul of a sheep," she informed the breathless trio. "You might not be so fortunate. Far, far from it. How can any one more than guess before one is fairly married and done for? Look at papa. Does he not pass in society as quite a charming person? The women like him, and if poor mama died he could get another quick as a wink. But at the best, my dear girls, matrimony-in Germany, at least-is an unmitigated bore. And in a garrison town! Literally, there is no liberty, even with one's husband under the thumb. We live by rote. Every afternoon I have to take coffee at some house or other, when all those tiresome women are not at my own. And what do you suppose they talk about-but invariably? Love!" (With ineffable disdain.) "Nothing else, barring gossip and scandal; as if they got any good out of love! But they are stupid for the most part and gorged with love novels. They discuss the opera or the play for the love element only, or the sensual quality of the music. Let me tell you that although I married to get rid of papa, if I had it to do over I should accept parental tyranny as the lesser evil. Not that I am not fond of Karl in a way. He is a dear and would be quite harmless if he were not in love with me. But garrison society-Gott, how German wives would rejoice in a war! Think of the freedom of being a Red Cross nurse, and all the men at the front. Officers would be your fate, too. Papa would not look at a man who was not in the army. He despises men who live on their estates. So take my advice while you may. Sit tight, as the English say. Even German fathers do not live forever. The lime in our soil sees to that. I notice papa's face gets quite purple after dinner, and when he is angry. His arteries must have been hardening for twenty years."

Lili and Elsa were quite aghast at this naked ratiocination, but Gisela whispered: "We might elope, you know."

"With whom? No Englishman or American ever crosses the threshold, and Kate has no brothers. The students have no money and no morals, and, what is worse, no baths. A burgess or a professional would be quite as intolerable, and no man of our class would consent to an elopement. Germans may be sentimental but they are not romantic when it comes to settlements. Now take my advice."

They were taking it on this fateful day in the attic. They vowed never to marry even if their formidable papa locked them up on bread and water.

"Which would be rather good for us," remarked the practical Elsa. "I am sure we eat too much, and Gisela has a tendency to plumpness. But your turn will not come for four years yet, dear child. It is poor us that will need all our vows."

After some deliberation they concluded to inform their mother of their grim resolve. Naturally sympathetic, a pregnant upheaval had taken place in that good lady's psychology during the past year. Her marriage, although arranged by the two families, had been a love match on both sides. The Graf was a handsome dashing and passionate lover and she a beautiful girl, lively and companionable. Disillusion was slow in coming, for she had been brought up on the soundest German principles and believed in the natural superiority of the male as she did in the House of Hohenzollern and the Lutheran religion.

But she suspected, during her thirties, that she was, after all, the daughter of a brilliant father as well as of an obsequious mother, and that she had possibilities of mind and spirit th

at clamored for development and fired the imagination, while utterly without hope. In other words she was, like many another German woman, in her secret heart, an individual. But she was not a rebel; her social code forbade that. She manufactured interests for herself as rapidly, and as various, as possible, preserved her good looks in spite of her eight children (the two that followed Gisela died in infancy), dressed far better than most German women, cultivated society, gave four notable musicales a season, and was devoted to her sons and daughters, although she never opposed her husband's stern military discipline of those seemingly typical m?dchens. It was her policy to keep the martinet in a good humor, and after all-she had condemned herself not to think-what better destiny than to be a German woman of the higher aristocracy? They might have been born into the middle class, where there were quite as many tyrants as in the patrician, and vastly fewer compensations. At the age of forty-four she believed herself to be a philosopher.

Six months before Mariette's marriage and shortly after the birth and death of her last child, Frau von Niebuhr suddenly returned to her bed, prostrate, on the verge of collapse. The count raged that any wife of his should dare to be ill or absent (when not fulfilling patriotic obligations), consult her own selfish whims by having nerves and lying speechless in bed. But he had a very considerable respect for Herr Doktor Meyers-a rank plebeian but the best doctor in Berlin-and when that family adviser, as autocratic as himself, ordered the Frau Gr?fin to go to a sanatorium in the Austrian Dolomites-but alone, mind you!-and remain as long as he-I, myself, Herr Graf!-deemed advisable, with no intercourse, personal or chirographical with her family, the Head of the House of Niebuhr angrily gave his consent and sent for a sister to chaperon his girls.

The countess remained until the eve of Mariette's wedding, and she passed those six months in one of the superlatively beautiful mountain resorts of Austria. She was solitary, for the most part, and she did an excessive amount of thinking. She returned to her duties with a deep disgust of life as she knew it, a cynical contempt for women, and a profound sense of revolt. Her natural diplomacy she had increased tenfold.

When the three girls, their eyes very large, and speaking in whispers, although their father was at a yearly talk-fest with his old brothers in arms, confided to their mother their resolution never in any circumstances to adopt a household tyrant of their own, she nodded understandingly.

"Leave it to me," she said. "Your father can be managed, little as he suspects it. I'll find the weak spot in each of the suitors he brings to the house and set him against all of them."

"And my voice?" asked Lili timidly. But the Frau Gr?fin shook her head. "There I cannot help you. He thinks an artistic career would disgrace his family, and that is the end of it. Moreover, he regards women of any class in public life as a disgrace to Germany. My assistance must be passive-apparently. It will be enough to have no worse. Take my word and Mariette's for that."

The Gr?fin, true to her word, quietly disposed of the several suitors approved by her husband, and although the autocrat sputtered and raged-the Gr?fin, her youngest daughter shrewdly surmised, rather encouraged these exciting tempers-arguing that these three girls bade fair to remain on his hands for ever, he ended always by agreeing that the young officers were unworthy of an alliance with the ancient and honorable House of Niebuhr.

The battles ended abruptly when Gisela was eighteen and a fat Lieutenant of Uhlans, suing for the hand of the youngest born, and vehemently supported by the Graf, had just been turned adrift. The Graf dropped dead in his club. He left a surprisingly small estate for one who had presented so pompous a front to the world. But not only had his sons been handsomely portioned when they entered the army, and Mariette when she married, but the excellent count, to relieve the increasing monotony of days no longer enlivened by maneuvers and boudoirs, had amused himself on the stock exchange. His judgment had been singularly bad and he had dropped most of his capital and lived on the rest.

The town house must be sold and the countess and her daughters retire to her castle in the Saxon Alps. As there were no portions for the girls, the haunting terrors of matrimony were laid.

The four women took their comparative poverty with equanimity. The countess had been as practical and economical as all German housewives, even when relieved by housekeepers and stewards, and she calculated that with a meager staff of servants and two years of seclusion she should be able to furnish a flat in Berlin and pay a year's rent in advance. Then by living for half the year on her estate she should save enough for six highly agreeable months in the capital. Perhaps she might let her castle to some rich brewer or American; and this she eventually did.

Lili was given permission to study for the operatic stage and spend the following winter in Dresden, where Mariette's husband was now quartered. It was just before they moved to the country that the Gr?fin said to her girls as they sat at coffee in the dismantled house:

"You shall have all that I never had, fulfil all the secret ambitions of my younger heart. If you are individuals, prove it. You may go on the stage, write, paint, study law, medicine, what you will. You have been bred aristocrats and aristocrats you will remain. It is not liberty that vulgarizes. Don't hate men. They have charming phases and moods; but avoid entangling alliances until you are thirty. After that you will know them well enough to avoid that fatal initial submergence. The whole point is to begin with your eyes open and your campaign clearly thought out.

"I, too, purpose to get a great deal out of life now that my fate is in my own hands. By the summer we shall even be able to travel a little. Third-class, yet that will be far more amusing than stuffed into one of those plush carriages with the windows closed and forbidden to speak with any one in the corridor. And forced to carry all the hand-luggage off the train (when your father had an economical spasm and would not take a footman) while he stalked out first as if we did not exist. I shall never marry again-Gott in Himmel, no!-but I shall gather about me all the interesting men I never have been able to have ten minutes' conversation with alone; and, so far as is humanly possible, do exactly as I please. My ego has been starved. I shall always be your best friend-but think for yourselves."

Gisela had no gift that she was aware of, but she was intellectual and had longed to finish her education at one of the great universities. As she was not strong, however, she was content to spend a year in the mountains; and then, robust, and on a meager income, she went to Munich to attend the lectures on art and literature and to perfect herself in French and English. She took a small room in an old tower near the Frauenkirche and lived the students' life, probably the freest of any city in the world. She dropped her title and name lest she be barred from that socialistic community as well as discovered by horrified relatives, and called herself Gisela D?ring. After she had taken her degree she passed a month in Berlin with her mother, who already had established a salon, but she was determined to support herself and see the world at the same time. Herr Doktor Meyers found her a position as governess with a wealthy American patient, and, under her assumed name, she sailed immediately for New York.

The Bolands had a house in upper Fifth Avenue and others at Newport, Aiken and Bar Harbor; and when not occupying these stations were in Europe or southern California. The two little girls passed the summer at Bar Harbor with their governess.

It took Gisela some time to accustom herself to the position of upper servant in that household of many servants, but she possessed humor and she had had governesses herself. Her salary was large, she had one entire day in the week to herself, except at Bar Harbor, and during her last summer in the United States Mrs. Boland had a violent attack of "America first" and took her children and their admirable governess not only to California but to the Yellowstone Park, the Grand Ca?on and Canada. They traveled in a private car, and Gisela, who could enjoy the comfortless quarters of a student flat in Munich with all that life meant in the free and beautiful city by the Isar, could also revel in luxury; and this wonderful summer, following as it did the bitter climax of her first serious love affair, seemed to her all the consolation that a mere woman could ask. At all events she felt for it an intense and lasting gratitude.

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