1857

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A modern world may find these characters hard to grasp. We may recognize the penny-pinching Prince of Prussia, young Frederick William’s father, who always changes his trousers to an old pair before going somewhere like the opera where there will be a lot of sitting, and sees to it that partly drunk bottles of champagne are frugally recorked. We try hard to seize the idea of the salon , such as the cousin and ex-lady-friend of Napoleon, Princesse Mathilde, holds in Paris, attended by the artists, the politicians, the writers of the times, Théophile Gautier, Edmond de Concourt, Dumas fils. These salons , it is certain, see nothing of Honoré Daumier, whose savage caricatures penetrate the poverty and the false front of the France of Napoleon the Little, nor of Charles Baudelaire, whose heated poems published this year, called Les Fleurs du Mal , spare no explicit detail of love and are officially suppressed as soon as they are printed.

The great beauty of the day, and a legend as well, is the Countess de Castiglione, a Piedmontese lady of rank, wealth, and superb conceit, who has borne one child, to her distaste, and refuses again to allow nature to disturb the silhouette of art. Her husband never appears, and the exquisite creature lives alone in Paris with her amour-propre . Reserved, calm to the point of abstraction, this cool goddess likes to robe herself, according to her fancy of the night, in costumes of other epochs, or in pure white or sable. The admirers impatiently crowd her anterooms, but arranged artistically or. her couch, every fold in place, she will receive them only one at a time, refusing any favor, frequently, indeed, refusing speech. It is recorded, though, that one suitor, more demanding than the rest, denouncing her for her coldness, for her failure to requite his passion, at last wrung words from her.

“You can look at me,” said the beauty softly. “Is that not enough?”

Soon, of course, the Emperor becomes a caller, has little soupers-à-deux with her, and at last, casting caution to the winds, brings the Countess to a costume ball at the Tuileries. She is dressed as the Queen of Hearts, her skirt caught revealingly above the knee by a jewelled heart, audacity of high degree in 1857. So attired and resting on Napoleon’s arm, she encounters the frowning Empress. “Do you not admire the costume of the Countess?” asks Napoleon.

“Exceedingly,” replies the Empress, biting each word. ” Vous mettez votre coeur bien bas, Madame .”

But it is beyond the Rhine that this monarchical system, this really ancien régime , reaches its height of the ridiculous. Germany stirs with writers, great musicians, thinkers, and inventors, but she lingers far behind the rest of Europe in political organization. While other nations grew centralized, Germany was the cockpit of religious wars, and indeed still bears the scars of the Thirty Years War two hundred years before, which reduced her population to one third of what it had been and left vast areas to be the habitation of wolves.

The map of Germany in 1857 looks like something created by a roomful of young children left to play with the contents of a paint shop. Over it are splattered thirty-nine different independent sovereignties. They represent an improvement over the situation in the days before Napoleon, when there were over three hundred, and this achievement can never be taken away from the Congress of Vienna; but it does make for confusion. There are, counting Austria in its alter ego as a German state, six kingdoms, plus four free cities and a swarm of gemütlich grand duchies, duchies, and principalities, of which only two, the grand duchy of Luxembourg and the tiny principality of Liechtenstein, survive at this writing.

It might be supposed that it would be no harder to memorize a map like this, perhaps a little easier, than it would be to acquire a working knowledge of the layout of the states of the American union. But this overlooks the fact that most duchies are amalgamations, by marriage, purchase, or inheritance, of a great many former sovereignties, so that the usual one consists of two or three main sections, generally not connected with each other geographically, plus an average of eight enclaves, or smaller sections, scattered around within neighboring states. Imagine Delaware, for example, cut into three sizable separate chunks by strips of Maryland and Virginia. Then take twenty-four smaller bits of the state and sprinkle them through Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia. Now drop into the three big pieces of Delaware some chunks of nearby states. The result is a fairly exact parallel to the layout of the i ,397 square miles of the grand duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, where Goethe, Schiller, and Liszt flourished not long ago.

And this is only one of four Saxon duchies. There is also Saxe-Altenburg (two big parts, twelve enclaves), 511 square miles of brick, sausage, and music-box factories, the birthplace of the card game skat, and a land where a whimsical inheritance law passes property to the youngest son. Its present duke got Saxe-Altenburg quite recently, in a swap, having tired of his previous duchy.