Read CHAPTER XV - BRET HARTE AT CREFELD of The Life of Bret Harte With Some Account of the California Pioneers , free online book, by Henry Childs Merwin, on

The sums that Bret Harte received for his stories and lectures did not suffice to free him from debt, and he suffered much anxiety and distress from present difficulties, with no brighter prospects ahead. An additional misfortune was the failure of a new paper called “The Capital,” which had been started in Washington by John J. Piatt.

There is an allusion to this in a letter written by Bret Harte to his wife from Washington. “Thank you, dear Nan, for your kind, hopeful letter. I have been very sick, very much disappointed; but I’m better now, and am only waiting for some money to return. I should have, for the work that I have done, more than would help us out of our difficulties. But it doesn’t come, and even the money I’ve expected from the ‘Capital’ for my story is seized by its creditors. That hope and the expectations I had from the paper and Piatt in the future amount to nothing. I have found that it is bankrupt.

Can you wonder, Nan, that I have kept this from you? You have so hard a time of it there, and I cannot bear to have you worried if there is the least hope of a change in my affairs as they look, day by day. Piatt has been gone nearly a month, was expected to return every day, and only yesterday did I know positively of his inability to fulfil his promises. came here three days ago, and in a very few moments I learned from him that I need expect nothing for the particular service I had done him. Ive been vilified and abused in the papers for having received compensation for my services, when really and truly I have only received less than I should have got from any magazine or newspaper for my story. I sent you the fifty dollars by Mr. D , because I knew you would be in immediate need, and there is no telegraph transfer office on Long Island. It was the only fifty I have made since I’ve been here.

“I am waiting to hear from Osgood regarding an advance on that wretched story. He writes me he does not quite like it. I shall probably hear from him to-night. When the money comes I shall come with it. God bless you and keep you and the children safe for the sake of


Bret Harte’s friends, however, were aware of his situation, and they procured for him an appointment by President Hayes as United States Commercial Agent at Crefeld in Prussia. The late Charles A. Dana was especially active in this behalf. Bret Harte, much as he dreaded the sojourn in a strange country, gladly accepted the appointment, and leaving his family for the present at Sea Cliff, Long Island, he sailed for England in June, 1878, little thinking that he was never to return.

Crefeld is near the river Rhine, about thirty miles north of Cologne. Its chief industry is the manufacture of silks and velvets, in respect to which it is the leading city in Germany, and is surpassed by no other place in Europe except Lyons. This industry was introduced in Crefeld by Protestant refugees who fled thither from Cologne in the seventeenth century in order to obtain the protection of the Prince of Orange. A small suburb of Philadelphia was settled mainly by emigrants from Crefeld, and bears the same name.

The Prussian Crefeld is a clean, spacious place, with wide streets, substantial houses, and all the appearance of a Dutch town. At this time it contained about seventy-five thousand inhabitants. Bret Harte arrived at Crefeld on the morning of July 17, 1878, after a sleepless journey of twelve hours from Paris, and on the same day he wrote to his wife a very homesick letter.

I have audaciously travelled alone nearly four hundred miles through an utterly foreign country on one or two little French and German phrases, and a very small stock of assurance, and have delivered my letters to my predecessor, and shall take possession of the Consulate to-morrow. Mr. , the present incumbent, appears to me I do not know how I shall modify my impression hereafter as a very narrow, mean, ill-bred, and not over-bright Puritanical German. It was my intention to appoint him my vice-Consul an act of courtesy suggested both by my own sense of right and Mr. Leonard’s advice, but he does not seem to deserve it, and has even received my suggestion of it with the suspicion of a mean nature. But at present I fear I may have to do it, for I know no one else here. I am to all appearance utterly friendless; I have not received the first act of kindness or courtesy from any one, and I suppose this man sees it. I shall go to Bavaria to-morrow to see the Consul there, who held this place as one of his dependencies, and try to make matters straight."

This letter shows that the craving for sympathy and companionship, which is associated with artistic natures, was intensely felt by Bret Harte, more so, perhaps, than would have been expected in a man of his self-reliant character. His despondent tone is almost child-like. The letter goes on: “It’s been up-hill work ever since I left New York, but I shall try to see it through, please God! I don’t allow myself to think over it at all, or I should go crazy. I shut my eyes to it, and in doing so perhaps I shut out what is often so pleasant to a traveller’s first impressions; but thus far London has only seemed to me a sluggish nightmare through which I have waked, and Paris a confused sort of hysterical experience. I had hoped for a little kindness and rest here.... At least, Nan, be sure I’ve written now the worst; I think things must be better soon. I shall, please God, make some friends in good time, and will try and be patient. But I shall not think of sending for you until I see clearly that I can stay myself. If the worst comes to the worst I shall try to stand it for a year, and save enough to come home and begin anew there. But I could not stand it to see you break your heart here through disappointment, as I mayhap may do.”

The tone of this letter is so exaggerated that it might seem as if Bret Harte had been a little theatrical and insincere, that he had endeavored to create an impression which was partly false. But such a conjecture would be erroneous, for under the same date, with the addition of the word midnight, we find him writing a second letter to correct the effect of the first, as follows:

“MY DEAR NAN, I wrote and mailed you a letter this afternoon that I fear was rather disconsolate, so I sit down to-night to send another, which I hope will take a little of the blues out of the first. Since I wrote I have had some further conversation with my predecessor, Mr. , and I think I can manage matters with him. He has hauled in his horns considerably since I told him that the position I offered him so far as the honor of it went was better than the one he held. For the one thing pleasant about my office is that the dignity of it has been raised on my account. It was only a dependence a Consular Agency before it was offered to me.

“I feel a little more hopeful, too, for I have been taken out to a ’fest’ or a festival of one of the vintners, and one or two of the people were a little kind. I forced myself to go; these German festivals are distasteful to me, and I did not care to show my ignorance of their language quite so prominently, but I thought it was the proper thing for me to do. It was a very queer sight. About five hundred people were in an artificial garden beside an artificial lake, looking at artificial fireworks, and yet as thoroughly enjoying it as if they were children. Of course there were beer and wine. Here as in Paris everybody drinks, and all the time, and nobody gets drunk. Beer, beer, beer; and meals, meals, meals. Everywhere the body is worshipped. Beside them we are but unsubstantial spirits. I write this in my hotel, having had to pass through a mysterious gate and so into a side courtyard and up a pair of labyrinthine stairs, to my dim ‘Zimmer’ or chamber. The whole scene, as I returned to-night, looked as it does on the stage, the lantern over the iron gate, the inn strutting out into the street with a sidewalk not a foot wide. I know now from my own observation, both here and in Paris and London, where the scene-painters at the theatres get their subjects. Those impossible houses those unreal silent streets all exist in Europe.”

On one of those first, melancholy days at Crefeld, the new Consul, walking listlessly along the main street of the town, happened to throw a passing glance at the window of a bookseller’s shop, and there he saw on the back of a neat little volume the familiar words “Bret Harte.” It was a German translation of his stories, and it is easy to imagine how the sight refreshed and comforted the homesick exile. After that, he felt that to some extent, at least, he was living among friends. Translations of Bret Harte’s poems and stories had appeared before this in German magazines, and later his stories were reproduced in Germany, in book form, as fast as they were published in England. In fact, his books have been printed in every language of Europe, and translations of his stories have appeared in the “Revue des Deux Mondes,” in the “Moscow Gazette,” and in periodicals of Italy, Spain, Portugal, Denmark and Sweden. In 1878 a translation of six of Bret Harte’s tales was published in the Servian language, with an enthusiastic preface in German, by the translator, Ivan B. Popovitch.

The impression that Bret Harte received from Europe, and it is the one that every uncontaminated American must receive, may be gathered from a letter written by him to his younger son, then a small boy: “We drove out the other day through a lovely road, bordered with fine poplar trees, and more like a garden walk than a country road, to the Rhine, which is but two miles and a half from this place. The road had been built by Napoleon the First when he was victorious everywhere, and went straight on through everybody’s property, and even over their dead bones. Suddenly to the right we saw the ruins of an old castle, vine-clad and crumbling, exactly like a scene on the stage. It was all very wonderful. But Papa thought, after all, he was glad his boys live in a country that is as yet quite pure, and sweet and good; not in one where every field seems to cry out with the remembrance of bloodshed and wrong, and where so many people have lived and suffered, that to-night, under this clear moon, their very ghosts seemed to throng the road and dispute our right of way. Be thankful, my dear boy, that you are an American. Papa was never so fond of his country before, as in this land that has been so great, so powerful, and so very, very hard and wicked."

Bret Harte, though disclaiming any knowledge of music, had a real appreciation of it, and wrote as follows to his wife who was a connoisseur: “I have been several times to the opera at Dusseldorf, and I have been hesitating whether I should slowly prepare you for a great shock or tell you at once that musical Germany is a humbug. My first operatic experience was ‘Tannhaeuser.’ I can see your superior smile, Anna, at this; and I know how you will take my criticism of Wagner, so I don’t mind saying plainly, that it was the most diabolically hideous and stupidly monotonous performance I ever heard. I shall say nothing about the orchestral harmonies, for there wasn’t anything going on of that kind, unless you call something that seemed like a boiler factory at work in the next street, and the wind whistling through the rigging of a channel steamer, harmony.... But what I wanted to say was that even my poor uneducated ear detected bad instrumentation and worse singing in the choruses. I confided this much to a friend, and he said very frankly that I was probably right, that the best musicians and choruses went to America....

“Then I was awfully disappointed in ‘Faust,’ or, as it is known here in the playbills, ‘Marguerite.’ You know how I love that delicious idyl of Gounod’s, and I was in my seat that night long before the curtain went up. Before the first act was over I felt like leaving, and yet I was glad I stayed. For although the chorus of villagers was frightful, and Faust and Méphistophélès spouted and declaimed blank verse at each other whole pages of Goethe, yet the acting was superb. I have never seen such a Marguerite. But think of my coming to Germany to hear opera badly sung, and magnificently acted!"

Having put the affairs of the Consular office upon a proper footing, Bret Harte returned to England about the middle of August for a short vacation, which proved, however, to be a rather long one. His particular object was a visit to James Anthony Froude at his house in Devonshire. Bret Harte had a great admiration for Froude’s writings; and when the two men met they formed a friendship which was severed only by death.

From Froude’s home Bret Harte wrote to his wife as follows: “Imagine, if you can, something between ‘Locksley Hall,’ and the High Walled Garden, where Maud used to walk, and you have some idea of this graceful English home. I look from my windows down upon exquisite lawns and terraces, all sloping toward the sea wall, and then down upon the blue sea below.... I walk out in the long, high garden, past walls hanging with netted peaches and apricots, past terraces looking over the ruins of an old feudal castle, and I can scarcely believe I am not reading an English novel or that I am not myself a wandering ghost. To heighten the absurdity, when I return to my room I am confronted by the inscription on the door, ’Lord Devon’ (for this is the property of the Earl of Devon, and I occupy his favourite room), and I seem to have died and to be resting under a gilded mausoleum that lies even more than the average tombstone does. Froude is a connection of the Earl’s, and has hired the house for the Summer.

“But Froude dear old noble fellow is splendid. I love him more than I ever did in America. He is great, broad, manly, democratic in the best sense of the word, scorning all sycophancy and meanness, accepting all that is around him, yet more proud of his literary profession than of his kinship with these people whom he quietly controls. There are only a few literary men like him here, but they are kings. So far I’ve avoided seeing any company here; but Froude and I walk and walk, and talk and talk. They let me do as I want, and I have not been well enough yet to do aught but lounge. The doctor is coming to see me to-day, and if I am no better I shall return in a day or two to London, and then to Crefeld."

Bret Hartes health seems at all times to have been easily upset, and he was particularly subject to colds and sore throats. This letter was written in August, but it was the first week in November before he was on his way back to Crefeld. While in London he had arranged for a lecture tour in England during the next January (1879), and in that month a volume of his stories and poems was published in England with the following Introduction by the author:

“In offering this collection of sketches to the English public, the author is conscious of attaching an importance to them that may not be shared by the general reader, but which he, as an American writer on English soil, cannot fail to feel very sensibly. The collection is made by himself, the letter-press revised by his own hand, and he feels for the first time that these fugitive children of his brain are no longer friendless in a strange land, entrusted to the care of a foster-mother, however discreet, but are his own creations, for whose presentation to the public in this fashion he is alone responsible. Three or four having been born upon English soil may claim the rights of citizenship, but the others he must leave to prove their identity with English literature on their own merits.”

The lecture on the Argonauts, delivered the first time at the Crystal Palace, was very well received both by the hearers and the press; but financially it was a disappointment. Bret Harte was in England three weeks, lectured five times, and made only two hundred dollars over and above his expenses.

A second lecture tour, however, carried out in March of the same year, was successful in every way. The audiences were enthusiastic, and the payment was liberal.

It was during this visit to England that Bret Harte became involved in a characteristic tangle. He had received the compliment of being asked to respond for Literature at the Royal Academy banquet in 1879, and, with his constitutional unwillingness to give a point-blank refusal, had promised or half-promised to be present. Meanwhile, he had returned to Crefeld, and the prospect of speaking at the dinner loomed more and more horrific in his imagination, while the uncertainty in which he left the matter was a source of vexation in London. Letters and telegrams from his friends remained unanswered, until finally, Sir Frederic Leighton, the President of the Academy, sent him a message, the reply to which was prepaid, saying, “In despair; cannot do without you. Please telegraph at once if quite impossible.”

This at last drew from Bret Harte a telegram stating that the pressure of official business would render it impossible for him to leave Crefeld. But the matter was not quite ended yet. In a day or two Bret Harte received a letter from Froude, good-naturedly reminding him that a note as well as a telegram was due to Sir Frederic Leighton. “The President of the Royal Academy,” he wrote, “is a sacred person with the state and honors of a sovereign on these occasions.” And after some further delay Bret Harte did write to Sir Frederic, and received in reply the following polite but possibly somewhat ironical note: “Dear Mr. Bret Harte, It was most kind of you to write to me after your telegram. I fully understand the impossibility of your leaving your post, and sincerely regret my loss.”

A year later, however, in 1880, Bret Harte answered the toast to Literature at the Royal Academy dinner, and his brief speech on that occasion is included in the volume of lectures by him recently published.

In October of this year, 1879, Bret Harte wrote to Washington stating that his health had suffered at Crefeld, and requesting leave of absence for sixty days in order that he might follow the advice of his physician, and seek a more favorable climate. He also asked for a reply by telegraph; and in the same letter he made application for a better Consular position, mentioning, as one reason for the exchange, that the business of the Agency at Crefeld had greatly increased during his tenure. His request for leave of absence was immediately granted, and in November he wrote to the State Department acknowledging the receipt of its telegram and letter, but adding, “Neither my affairs nor my health have enabled me yet to avail myself of the courtesy extended to me by the Department. When I shall be able to do so, I shall, agreeably to your instructions, promptly inform you.” He took this leave of absence in the following January and April.

So far as can be judged from his communications to the State Department, Bret Harte discharged the duties of the Agency in a very business-like manner. For one thing, he reduced the time consumed in passing upon invoices of goods intended for exportation to the United States from twenty-four hours to three hours, greatly to the convenience of the Crefeld manufacturers. The increase in the value of the silks and velvets shipped to this country during Bret Harte’s term amounted to about two hundred thousand dollars quarterly; but perhaps the demands of trade had something to do with this.

Two of the reports to the State Department from our Agent at Crefeld deserve to be rescued from their official oblivion. The first is dated, October 8, 1879, and it accompanies a table showing the rainfall, snowfall, and thunderstorms occurring in the district from July 1, 1878, to June 30, 1879. The Agent states:

“The table is compiled from the observations of a competent local meteorologist. In mitigation of the fact that it has rained in this district in the ratio of every other day in the year, it may be stated that the general gloom has been diversified and monotony relieved by twenty-nine thunderstorms and one earthquake.”

The second communication, dated October 10, 1879, is in response to an official inquiry. “In reference to the Department Circular dated August 27, 1879, I have the honor to report that upon careful inquiry of the local authorities of this district I find that there is not now and never has been any avowed Mormon emigration from Crefeld, nor any emigration of people likely to become converts to that faith. Its name as well as its tenets are unknown to the inhabitants, and only to officials through the Department Circular.

“The artisans and peasants of this district that class from which the Mormon ranks are supposed to be recruited are hard-working, thrifty, and home-loving. They are averse to emigration for any purpose, and as Catholics to any new revealed religion. A prolific household with one wife seems to exclude any polygamous instinct in the manly breast, while the woman, who works equally with her husband, evinces no desire to share any division of the affections or the profits. The like may be predicated of the manufacturers, with the added suggestion that a duty of 60 per cent ad valorem by engaging the fullest powers of the intellect in its evasion, leaves little room for the play of the lower passions. In these circumstances I did not find it necessary to report to the Legation at Berlin.”

The literary product of Bret Harte’s two years at Crefeld was A Legend of Sammtstadt, in which there is a pleasant blending of the romantic and the humorous, The Indiscretion of Elsbeth, the Views from a German Spion, and Unser Karl. Unser Karl, however, was not written, or at least was not published, until several years later.

Perhaps the most valuable impression which Bret Harte carried away from Crefeld was that of the German children. Children always interested him, and in Prussia he found a new variety, which he described in the Views from a German Spion: “The picturesqueness of Spanish and Italian childhood has a faint suspicion of the pantomime and the conscious attitudinizing of the Latin races. German children are not exuberant or volatile; they are serious, a seriousness, however, not to be confounded with the grave reflectiveness of age, but only the abstract wonderment of childhood. These little creatures I meet upon the street whether in quaint wooden shoes and short woollen petticoats, or neatly booted and furred, with school knapsacks jauntily borne on little square shoulders all carry likewise in their round chubby faces their profound wonderment and astonishment at the big busy world into which they have so lately strayed. If I stop to speak with this little maid, who scarcely reaches to the top-boots of yonder cavalry officer, there is less of bashful self-consciousness in her sweet little face than of grave wonder at the foreign accent and strange ways of this new figure obtruded upon her limited horizon. She answers honestly, frankly, prettily, but gravely. There is a remote possibility that I might bite; and with this suspicion plainly indicated in her round blue eyes, she quietly slips her little red hand from mine, and moves solemnly away.”

The Continental practice of making the dog a beast of burden shocked Bret Harte, as it must shock any lover of the animal. “Perhaps it is because I have the barbarian’s fondness for dogs, and for their lawless, gentle, loving uselessness that I rebel against this unnatural servitude. It seems as monstrous as if a child were put between the shafts and made to carry burdens; and I have come to regard those men and women, who in the weakest, perfunctory way affect to aid the poor brute by laying idle hands on the barrow behind, as I would unnatural parents.... I fancy the dog seems to feel the monstrosity of the performance, and, in sheer shame for his master, forgivingly tries to assume it is play; and I have seen a little collie running along, barking and endeavoring to leap and gambol in the shafts, before a load that any one out of this locality would have thought the direst cruelty. Nor do the older or more powerful dogs seem to become accustomed to it.”

And then comes an example of that extraordinary keenness of observation with which Bret Harte was gifted: “I have said that the dog was generally sincere in his efforts. I recall but one instance to the contrary. I remember a young collie who first attracted my attention by his persistent barking. Whether he did this, as the plough-boy whistled, ’for want of thought,’ or whether it was a running protest against his occupation, I could not determine, until one day I noticed that, in barking, he slightly threw up his neck and shoulders, and that the two-wheeled barrow-like vehicle behind him, having its weight evenly poised on the wheels by the trucks in the hands of its driver, enabled him by this movement to cunningly throw the centre of gravity and the greater weight on the man, a fact which the less sagacious brute never discerned.... I cannot help thinking that the people who have lost this gentle, sympathetic, characteristic figure from their domestic life and surroundings have not acquired an equal gain through his harsh labors.”

Of his Consular experiences at Crefeld the following is the only one which found its way into literature: “The Consul’s chief duty was to uphold the flag of his own country by the examination and certification of divers invoices sent to his office by the manufacturers. But, oddly enough, these messengers were chiefly women, not clerks, but ordinary household servants, and on busy days the Consulate might have been mistaken for a female registry office, so filled and possessed it was by waiting Maedchen. Here it was that Gretchen, Liebchen, and Clarchen, in the cleanest of gowns, and stoutly but smartly shod, brought their invoices in a piece of clean paper, or folded in a blue handkerchief, and laid them, with fingers more or less worn and stubby from hard service, before the Consul for his signature. Once, in the case of a very young Maedchen, that signature was blotted by the sweep of a flaxen braid upon it as the child turned to go; but generally there was a grave, serious business instinct and sense of responsibility in these girls of ordinary peasant origin, which, equally with their sisters of France, were unknown to the English or American woman of any class.”

Bret Harte remained nearly two years at Crefeld, but his wife did not join him there, and, so far as the world knows, they never met again. In May, 1880, he was transferred to the much more lucrative and more desirable Consulship at Glasgow. It was one of the last cases in which government bestowed public office as a reward for literary excellence, a custom so hallowed by age and association that every lover of literature will look back upon it with fond regret.