THE COUNTRY HOUSE ON THE RHINE.*
THIS new book, by a well-known and popular author, affords-, curious proof of the difficulty of basing an interesting romance on • The Country House on the Rhine. By Berthold Auerbach. London: Blehara Bentley. 1870.
as moral question. The Country House on the Rhine is worth read- ing by an intelligent reader on many grounds ; but as a story, it is profoundly dull. We do not care in the least whether the hero marries the heroine ; whether the villain dies in his bed or commits suicide ; and when the greater part of the -dramatis persona embark for America, it is a matter of pro- found indifference whether they will or will not come back. The skeleton of the plot is a remarkably good one, but Herr Auerbach's thoughtful philosophic mind lacks the dramatic power to turn it to account. He is too good to project his villain forcibly from the fiat ground of his own imagination. Sonnenkamp would have jeered at such a hazy portrait of himself.
Sonnenkamp, whose real name is James Henry Banfield, is a eetired slavedealer ; and in his commercial career certain ugly -episodes have occurred which we are asked to believe in, but which Auerbach's imagination evidently shrinks from realizing. The writer walks at a respectful distance round about his monster, And the monster is remarkably clean-shaved, wears a high collar, -and is scrupulously polite to his wife. He has two lovely children, girl and boy ; and his whole aim is to create for them another name, another home, thousands of miles away from the scene of his exploits. He is a German Pole by birth ; so he takes his .mother's name of Sonnenkamp, and retires with uncounted millions to a lovely villa on the Rhine, not very far from the Drachenfels.
The frustration of his plans, and the final swallowing up of the novel in the American civil war, is told in a way that is at once -dull and natural ; natural because it reads like a domestic diary which has somehow or other got into a newspaper, dull because we -do not care about the writers thereof.
But if, leaving the mere story aside, we come to examine the book by other lights, we shall find plenty to cause much reflection.
Auerbach has done his best to give us a picture of the Germany -of to-day, face to face with the problems of modern life ; and his hero Eric Dournay is the model German, half-soldier, half-philo- sopher, " Captain Doctor " in one. Dournay is the son of a pro- fessor and a lady of rank, who when she sank the Von and became plain Frau Dournay, was assured by her friends that they should -not cease to regard her as of old, which assurance really meant that she had fallen immeasurably in their esteem. All through 'the book the German •intense appreciation of rank is dwelt on, -and many fine quiet touches of irony are elicited. Auerbach is here in his own province. Young Dournay enters the army ; the happiest day of his life hitherto was that whereon he donned his uniform, but it was surpassed by that on which some few years -later he took it off again. Disgust at the profession of arms is one great feature of the hero's character.
Before we are through the first volume, Eric Dournay and his 'mother are attached to the household of the rich villain, Sonnen- iramp,—Eric as tutor to the boy Roland, Frau Dournay living in -a cottage in the park, as friend and adviser to Manna, the daugh- ter. Eric devotes himself to Roland, not for the sake of the tutor's pay, but that he may train this "rich youth" to be a blessing to the land. Mother and son know that Sonnenkamp has been a planter and has owned slaves ; neither of them dreams that he has been a great deal worse, and is indeed so black that Herr Auer- bach catches and holds him out for inspection, much as St. Dunstan did the Devil, at the extreme end of a pair of tongs.
As a means of white-washing his past, and making things easy 'for his son Roland, Sonnenkamp desires rank, and to this end sets -on foot negotiations which are admirably described. A real bit of -German life painted by a German brush is this, and as such, it stands forth amidst the wastes of dialogue. Sonnenkamp in his .Rhine Villa has a wealthy and titled neighbour, Count Clodwig Von Wolfsgarten, an old man of sixty-five, who has been ambas- sador at Rome, and is full of all refined and antiquarian tastes.
Kindly courteous to his inferiors, devoted to sculpture, to coins and enedals, to poetic literature, and to the diplomacy of the past, Count Clodwig is a charming type of the man born to rank and wealth, And is delicately contrasted with the active moral natures of Dournay and Weidmann (a philanthropic agriculturist), both of whom are equally true to life. Now Clodwig, little suspecting what a dreadful character he was entertaining as a neighbour, is brought to favour Sonnenkamp's ennoblement and to recommend it to the Prince. The latter high and mighty potentate had to be delicately dealt with, he liked "to rule alone, especially in all matters which were left to his decision without the inter- ference of the constitutional estates, such as the distribution of orders and admission to rank. He had two favourite interests, the theatre and the wealth of the capital ; he liked rich people to settle in the capital for the sake of the gain they brought to it. He had, therefore, done one great thing ; he had modified the strict laws of the ceremonial ; strangers who were not by position admitted to the Court found a ready entrance if they expended much on the town, and were introduced by their ambassadors. The Prince did this out of pure good-nature for the welfare of his people, for he called all the inhabitants of the capital my people,' not excepting the inflexible Democrats, who were, it is true, impertinent, but still ' my people.'" So, in consideration of the American's enormous wealth, and expressed intention of building a large palace in the said capital, "which was to be so situated that it would be an ornament to the Royal park, as the front would face an avenue that now required a vista," Sonnenkamp is to be created Baron von Lichtenburg, and named after a castle which he is busily restoring on the Rhine. But there is a certain wicked Democratic Professor Crutius, who edits a newspaper for the benefit of " my people ;" and he has got hold of a certain Dr. Fritz, an abolitionist from Boston ; and Dr. Fritz has recognized in Sonnenkamp the notorious James Henry Banfield, and lets the secret out to Crutius, and the wicked Democratic Professor of course finds it a great card to play.
On the appointed day Sonnenkamp goes to the palace to receive his diploma of nobility, and the Prince receives him alone, and preaches him an exquisite sermon on the dignity he is about to receive. Poor good Prince! Auerbach paints him from the life, —so queerly behind his age, so earnest at his post. He "did everything as became a man of duty ; he considered it suitable to state the motives in order to exhort the man to still more noble actions. He seemed at this moment to be a priest consecrating a novice in a private chapel in the Temple,—he was himself agitated." He had made a joke on the occasion of the last elevation, and had reproached himself for it. " Therefore, on this occasion, he had determined to be very solemn," and he stretched out some- times one hand, sometimes the other, and sometimes both. " Sonnenkamp expected that the Prince was going to place both his hands on his head and bless him, and although the prince was younger than he, he would have received the blessing modestly and humbly, for this man had been consecrated from generation to generation to dispense honours."
But, alas ! just as the roll, covered with blue velvet, which con- tained the diploma of nobility is on the very point of presentation, in comes a messenger from his Excellency the Minister with a packet enclosing a printed paper ; " a red stroke ran along the side like a bloody vein ;" it was the newspaper of the wicked Democratic Professor, Crutius, with the story of Sonnenkamp, alias Banfield's misdeeds ! And, worse and worse, as the outraged Prince with- draws, a huge black negro rushes in through a glass door, and pounces on Banfield like a wild beast upon his prey. Needless to say that he was a former victim, a slave who had in some miracu- lous manner escaped when he, with a whole cargo of negroes, had been thrown overboard to lighten a slaver.
How the story is noised abroad as a dreadful commentary on Professor Crutius' paper ; how the villa on the Rhine becomes too hot to hold its master ; how the two children nobly bear the bitter knowledge of their father's shameful career, and expiate it by renouncing all the wealth acquired in the slave trade, and by devoting themselves to the Northern side in the civil war, is told with a certain prosy truth. To us the real interest of the book lies in Eric Dournay's character, and the typical aspect which it wears. He is honest, industrious, and full of yearning after a singularly undefined ideal, in which Christianity bears no part. He attends Clodwig Von Wolfsgarten's death-bed, and the gentle old man expires talking of a " new belief, a new confession, which will come And revive the world. This new religion will not praise men nor flatter them,—it will expect something from them, it will demand something from them, it will be strict,
hard, severe towards them Men will assemble in countless masses, and will travel to some high moun- tain to set up their standard. I see you as you stood that day under the blossoming apple tree, a messenger. You were bearing the standard, and on it was written, ' Free Work! and now sleep well. Good night."
Thus said Clodwig to Eric, and then the type of German noblemen, the last of the Wolfsgartens, died. As to Eric, he marries Manna, goes to the United States, and writes home to Weidmann, " We Germans carry our poets, our philosophers,
and our musicians through the whole world In the midst of the tumult of political and private life, immortal minds are holding their sway, and are producing a devotion, a repose, and a peculiar temple-like calmness." and so on. To the same philanthropic agriculturist he writes, still from the States which he is shortly about to leave, the following remarkable sen- tence, which we will leave to be digested by our readers. "Be- publicanism, democracy, and pantheism stand opposed to monarchism, aristocracy, and monotheism ; they are three different names for three forms of the same principle." It is to be hoped that the philanthropic agriculturist did not communicate this theory to the wicked Democratic Professor Crutius and his newspaper, or the Prince would on several grounds have objected to Eric's return among " my people," with whom monarchism and monotheism yet remained as wholesome relics of the past !