Two Old Ladies of Germany

RICHARD SHARPE November 1 1934

Two Old Ladies of Germany

RICHARD SHARPE November 1 1934

Two Old Ladies of Germany


THEY WERE as much a landmark in the town as the Thirteenth Century cathedral with its celebrated and curious bas-reliefs of the doings of the devil, or even as the very lovely Residenz, upon the decoration

of which the Grand Dukes had lavished seventeen generations of taxes. The two old ladies had dwelt in the selfsame chambers and knitted the selfsame mittens at the centre windows for as long as any of the local residents could remember.

It seemed incredible that the Gräfin Jenny and the Baroness Max had once been the lovely von Gutenburg

sisters, who had taken the town by storm, fluttered all hearts, and carried off the two most dashing officers of the Ducal Guard as husbands. There was, however, a great old tin trunk divided into many compartments held shut by bows of black tape, stuck away in the back of a closet in their flat, which was brimful of fans and fripperies, nosegays and dance programmes, favors and black domino masks with little veils attached.

Years back, when staid grandparents had been puling brats, the two ladies, newly widowed, dressed in black, angry at wars and the stupidity of fights which forfeited them their husbands, had retired to their apartment on the second floor overlooking the park, and had remained there ever since. From that moment, with the inevitability of the surf, the rule of their life continued.

Daily at eleven, one sister or the other would emerge—

never both, and never the same one two days in succession —and be driven sedately in a barouche with a pair of spanking bays, to do the shopping and show the city that the Gutenburgs, even if no longer rich and fêted, still existed with a certain air.

On the second Wednesday of every month, irrevocable as the flow of radiance from the sun, their doors were open to the township great, and the street before their building was lined with equipages of the best and oldest families. There was no nonsense there about the rich. Paupers on foot were welcomed, had their names been enrolled at birth on the register of the Ducal Guard, but there was a famous instance when the gaudiest limousine in town was turned

Crystallized suddenly in the midst of life by double widowhood, childless, shattered from wealth and cut off from the

gaiety of which they had been the centre, they took the pattern of their preceding lives and wove it into solid mosaics of decorum, made from it a touchstone by which they judged all things. This good, this bad.

People said they were absurd. Perhaps they were, but they were magnificent. At a time when all things changed, they were adamant. In the chaos of a collapsing world, they and they alone were tangible and undismayed. Calmly and in sober black, they spun out the endless routine of their years. Servants died around them and were replaced by others of the selfsame type. One Joseph followed another on the carriage box. One horse replaced another, and the blanket of the departed was added to the growing row on the rack of the carriage house wall, but the only effect perceptible was of a slight retouching or perhaps a bit of

Their mourning gowns from Worth were copied, when necessity insisted, by a procession of similar seamstresses; and so proper black-were these garments, one never knew if the outer cover of the Gräfin or the Baroness was new that day or five years old.

Around them, everything changed.

VWTIEN FIRST they took up tenancy, their windows VV faced the fountains—secondhand Versailles—of the Pariserplatz, with its avenues of linden trees copied from Berlin. Eighteen-seventy was not then so remote in history that a German town could not enjoy its little bit of vanquished Paris.

After Victoria of England died, and Wilhelm II, who had always been a little frightened by his dowdy, dour grandmother, began to feel the glory of his mighty German Army, the burgesses changed the title of the little park and called it Kaiserplatz in compliment to him. It is not known if the ageing ladies knew it. Their cards read “No. 53 Koenigstrasse,” and the shifting name of a little park could not disturb them even there.

Over their deploring shrugs, electric lights and bells were added to their rooms. But the fixtures which had previously spouted gas were simply wired to hold electric lights, and the dim, huge rooms seemed more archaic than before when better seen.

The glories of the first great flush of victory of 1914-15 left them cold. Each morning, alternate old ladies would appear to take the air. One Wednesday in a month, they were “At Home” to the customary guests or their lineal descendants who still had faith or curiosity in the antique. Away from No. 53, the social structure of the city had altered utterly. New names and families, new fortunes and an almost absolute shuffle and re-deal. New heroes from the Army, Government officials, makers of munitions and profiteers in food and clothing for the war. Life was a round of balls of victory, and champagne (native naturally) drunk deeply, standing, to Der Kaiser and Der Tag.

From all of this, the Gräfin Jenny and the Baroness Max were conspicuously absent. They did not go to parties They were not asked for fear of snubs. They did not know the people. On their own Second Wednesdays they could well have been in the Nineteenth Century. There was not even mention of the new leaven which had become incorporated in the social bread.

The lean years of 1917-18 came when the impact of nation after nation, turned against the Germans, forced their armies back. The Kaiserplatz was nightly full of starving, homeless people. Money and food were scarce. There was laughter only in the houses of the wartime manufacturers. And, politely, of course, in the apartment of the two old ladies. Perhaps there was one less potato in the dish at lunch, and one less egg in the cake at tea. No more, no less. Their modest fortunes were scattered so world-wide in their investments, nothing less than the collapse of all civilization could make their poverty less than genteel. There was a Joseph, and bays for the carriage, a grey-faced seamstress and the usual entourage. Neither the

rise of Germany nor the rout of Germany made any difference in their lives. The ranks at their monthly afternoons were continually thinner, but with food so difficult to find even when one had the money, this was blessing more than tribulation.

There was one slight deviation from their course. They knitted more rapidly. Once a month, they sent the current Joseph down into the park with the fruits of their knitting, to bestow them on the more miserable and chillier looking of the unemployed. But they never bothered to watch this ritual from their windows, and for all the notice they took while they did their work of a morning or an afternoon, that wretched plaza might have been Elysia.

The younger people, who had felt their snubs most keenly, swore that the revolution would jolt the two old ladies from their trance. The Kaisers and the Kings, the Kronprinz and the regiment of Dukes and Grand Dukes fled away. There were riots in the streets. Inflation came in, and money became completely fantastic.

“Now watch the old crows squawk,” said a number of the wiseacres.

NOT THEY. In the lulls between the rattle of gunfire in the park, people swore they could distinctly hear the unbroken rhythm of the two old ladies’ knitting needles.

When the Kaiser abdicated, they drew their blinds for two weeks running and kept their house in a state of mourning. On the fifteenth day, life resumed. Promptly at eleven, the Baroness Max came out to take the air. She raised her lorgnon to look at shattered buildings and barricades where bloody struggles had happened in the streets, but her pale old eyes were unsurprised, and she only vouchsafed a deprecatory shaking of her head.

During inflation, the banks paid off their dividends in bales instead of neat small piles. Their fortunes mounted into the tens of millions. But it heartened even the most discouraged to see the Gräfin Jenny, shopping for her vegetables, followed by Joseph the Latest, staggering under a huge portmanteau stuffed to overflowing with 10,000 mark notes. She was seen to frown at times at the stacks of bills necessary for an egg, but never a word aloud did she say to anyone about it.

Years passed, and the two were a bit surprised to hear that the little von Hindenburg boy had been elected President. They remembered him as a rather stem child, with an absorbing predilection for playing with tin soldiers. So they sent him a little formal note with their congratulations, on their usual doubly coronetted notepaper with its thin black border; and if the old warhorse ever received it at all, he must have stared at it as he might have at a message from the dead.

The Grand Duke came back. The Ducal Guard was resurrected as a sort of honorary police, and thus managed to crawl with difficulty under the barred doorway of the Treaty of Versailles. The old ladies had now attained celebrity and a sort of chic for their solidarity through stress, and their Wednesdays now boasted rows of magnificent motor conveyances at their door. None but the right people emerged from those cars, however. The restrictions were still bounded by the registry of the Ducal Guard, and descendants of the leaders of the fashionable world of fifty years before.

Money became sane. Shopping was a matter of a few notes in a pocketbook rather than the distribution of entire editions of currency. Joseph at least was noticed to be relieved of the weight of the portmanteau.

VA^ITH THE KAISER resident in Doom, the park * V changed names again and became the Deutschlandplatz; but, as always, on the cards of the Gräfin Jenny and the Baroness Max there was written “No. 53 Koenigstrasse.” Across the linden trees, the fountain came down and an ultra-modem shaft of basalt commemorated the fallen dead. On the opposite street the whole block of ancient honored

residences vanished before the wreckers, and a row of enormous apartment houses reared their futuristic bastions on foundations of American borrowed dollars. The ladies continued to knit, but showed a faint sign of annoyance that they lost an hour’s sun in autumn thereby.

Bruening was Chancellor. Then communists reared their startling heads, and nowhere more successfully than in the shadow of the Grand Ducal Residenz, and across the greenness of the Deutschlandplatz. New parties marched and rioted and demonstrated. Staldhelm, Heimwehr and Nazi, Monarchists and communists. By 1929-30, the town was under martial law almost uninterruptedly. Orators shrieked and ranted, and exhorted mobs of thousands under the very window of No. 53. If the Gräfin or the Baroness heard a word, they deigned no sign. They knitted. That was the end of it.

Their little square became the stamping ground for all the riots of the town. May Day was bound to be a shambles every year. Never a month went by but the air was peppered by the motorcycle rattle of machine guns and the desultory cracks of snipers. As calmly as ever, mittens and mufflers flowed out from that door to the combatants.

Nineteen thirty-three burst in with the fury of pitched battle. Those futurist apartment houses, their bonds now in default, nevertheless commanded the whole town. To hold them was to control. There were literally armies at the three entrances of the Place. The linden trees had long since been blasted and withered, and the Unknown Soldier’s Constructivist physique was curiously pocked by bullets. There were demonstrations and mass massacres, attacks and guerilla warfare, all under the brilliant incurious eyes of the two old ladies at the window knitting. Most of the residents had long since fled to other sections, or had gone to the more salubrious climates of Switzerland or South America. In No. 53, only their floor had still retained its tenant.

Throughout a month of carnage there always seemed to be a lull, three times a week, at sharp eleven in the morning. Perhaps magical. Perhaps by mutual arrangement between the commanders of the contending mobs. The lull seemed prompted by the emergence of the Baroness Max or the Gräfin Jenny, when, driven by Joseph at breakneck speed in the old barouche, one of jthem would rattle away to shop and take the air. Admiration for the pair was not confined to any class. It was universal.

Their Second Wednesday was stranger still. There was an armistice. At dawn came sapping parties from all the contending factions, to police the square and collect the dead. It was very much as if they tidied up the park for the ladies’ day at home. Not a gun spoke from dawn till dusk, and a band of intrepid ancients and a few of the reckless young absorbed their tea and coffee, and heard a solo on a violin, and ate the cakes and buffets they were offered by their hostesses in perfect peace.

1 I 'HE SECOND month, the Nazis had their adversaries on the rim. Germany was Hitler’s, except for a few remaining sore spots. One of the sorest of all was the bank of apartments opposite the old ladies. The communists were enfortressed there; and without a state of siege or the entire demolition of the buildings, it was difficult to see how they were to be eradicated. The Deutschlandplatz bristled with guns, all pointed at the offending structures. Day and night, snipers picked off whoever was unwary enough to show his head. Once a stray bullet from the communists smashed a window near the Baroness.

“The horrors of war,” sighed the Baroness Max, clacked her tongue, and had Joseph paste a neatly fitted piece of cardboard across the hole.

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Next day a Nazi officer came to No. 53, and with dignity and solemnity offered the regrets of his party. It should not happen again. The miscreants would be punished. The Gräfin and the Baroness were gracious but gratified. With infinite courtliness, they sent down a Kuchen and a half dozen mufflers to the soldiers.

Presently the fighting was in the park itself. Gun emplacements were at every angle from the offending apartment house, except on a direct line toward No. 53. In its range, there was a sort of aisle. No. 49 had long since collapsed. No. 57 lay in smoking ruins. There were only a few nicks out of the house of the two old ladies.

There they sat and worked, seldom able to sleep at any time. They grew gaunt and pale from lack of sufficient food. But they did not admit it, even to each other. They talked, when they talked at all, of old days at the Residenz, the Great Ball of ’71, of the doings of the family of this or that member of the Ducal Guard.

Their shopping expeditions would have been suicidal. For the first time, they were unable to go out to take the air. But they did not starve. Early every morning, an orderly would arrive smartly from the Nazi commander, presenting himself with pomp at their door with what food could be spared from the general supply. When the electricity was disrupted by the demolition of No. 49, almost a dozen came bearing not only candles but candlesticks and candelabra, sconces and chandeliers, in crystal and gold and fluted bronze, snatched from no one knew what pillage of the houses round the park.

It was still going on when Second Wednesday came again. Perhaps its fury had even increased a little. There was a terrific “putsch” in motion to clean the town once and for all. Grenades were thrown incessantly. Small mortars bombarded the apartments. The din was terrific. But the windows of the Gräfin Jenny and the Baroness Max were wide open. It was their custom to have their windows on the park open in spring.

All through the town, those noncombatants who were not too raddled with excitement and patriotism to think at all, wondered about No. 53. It was, of course, the immemorial day. It had not faltered at other frenzied periods. But surely, with a miniature war boiling on their doorstep they could not persist. There was almost as much discussion about it as there was for the battle. In business houses, at the Residenz, people buzzed.

“It would be mad,” they agreed.

Noon passed.

A whole section of the apartment houses fell under a tremendous detonation. The dust of shattered concrete hazed the sun above the park, and the shrieks of the dying assaulted the ears of heaven. The acrid murk of tear gas curled through the débris. The Nazis pressed forward. More guns came up. Matters approached the climatic.

AT THEIR WINDOW, two incredibly old ladies rose from their knitting to retire to dress and freshen themselves for their guests. Water was too scarce for washing that day, but there were their old Cologne bottles in the dressing room.

News of their action somehow spread back to the city. Men and women stopped suddenly at thought of it. A few wondered what

to do. Ridiculous to try to get there. The whole section of the city was blocked off by the police. And yet, they had managed the last time. Would there be cakes and coffee anyway, and tea if you preferred? Old Sherry?

Caution detained them. Risking one’s life, to go to see two old ladies who were so rigid, so atrophied, they did not pay attention to a war. Again, the old things might have already been dead for days. After all, they were uncountably old.

Each urged another to go. Each hung back. But finally, by mid-afternoon, curiosity overcame common sense, and a little group timidly set out, feeling like fools and damning themselves for not persuading someone else to take their places.

They were barred from the park by lines of troops. Too dangerous. Impassable. Being important people of the oldest blood, they appealed directly to the Grand Duke, who, a Nazi now, was in command. He stared in amazement. Then he shrugged.

“I had forgotten the date,” he said. “I will go with you.”

The Nazi barrage was abated at his order. Like fugitives they raced, one by one, over back ways, across heaps of rubble still warm from their burning, under a whistle of shot, to the doorway of No. 53. One was struck in the shoulder and had to drop back. The others arrived.

Joseph admitted them. If he was afraid, he concealed it. As a lichen adopts the coloration of its rock, he was rigid and calm and reserved.

On the second landing, the two. Unshaken, ancient, black-clothed. They greeted the callers quietly and warmly, with their accustomed charm. There was a hushed peace. Suddenly, the park outside and the battle became the absurdity. Awed, even a little alarmed at the strangeness, the guests were ushered in.

Coffee and Kuchen today. No tea Sherry instead. “The water system is upset,” apologized the Gräfin. They listened to the laconic explanation, and stared. The ladies enquired about their healths, their friends. Outside, buildings fell and men died. It was too fantastic.

AT LAST it was insupportable. The Grand Duke spoke :

“Gräfin Jenny. Baroness Max. We admire your courage. It is magnificent, but it is mad. Outside your windows, Germany is at a crisis. Within, you sip coffee and chat, because you have always sipped coffee and chatted on this day. I have no doubt you will presently ask Frieda to oblige with a solo on the violin. She has not brought it. We have only arrived here at the risk of our lives. We ask that you go with us to safety, that you abandon this—” He paused. He could not truthfully say “farce.”

The Baroness, startled, looked promptingly at the Gräfin Jenny. Jenny sighed, rose, and made a slight curtsy to the Grand Duke.

“Your Grace,” she said very quietly in her queer cracked voice, “from this window we have seen death and life, poverty and wealth. We have seen a nation tower up, and we have seen that nation founder. We have not moved. We shall not move. Do not concern yourself for us, your Grace. Like all the other things we have seen through this window, this, too, will pass.”

There was silence.

Good News for Farmers

WHILE ITS owner sits comfortably on his porch, a new farm tractor operated by radio control plows his field for him. Radio impulses governing the tractor’s movements are supplied by an automatic radio transmitter, and are picked

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