Tuesday, August 26, 2008

more than their postilions

John Lothrop Motley to his Wife.

St. Petersburg, November 18th, 1841.

I wrote to you last from Hamburg; the next day I went in an abominable diligence to Berlin. Stayed there two days. Saw Mrs. Kirkland and George Cabot constantly, they were both perfectly well and perfectly tired of Berlin, but uncertain whether they should leave this winter or remain. Staying in the same house was young Welch, who has joined the university, I believe. I went with Cabot to the Fay's one evening (the Secretary of Legation); he and his wife are very agreeable people. Mr. Wheaton I called upon, and he upon me, but I did not see him, both being out. The next night left with my travelling companion, Mr. Elliot, for Konigsberg, a long pull of fifty-eight hours in a diligence. We had the cabriolet or front part, where one is very comfortable. The roads are excellent in Prussia, but the country most uninteresting, our whole route in fact, from Berlin to Petersburg, traversing a portion of that immense plain which reaches from the Netherlands to the Ural Mountains. It is a good country to travel at night in, because there is nothing to see and the roads having all the smoothness and directness of a railroad without its rapidity, you are able to sleep in the well-cushioned diligences very comfortably.

Prussia has no history--the reigning family is an ancient one; but the State is new, and an artificial patchwork, without natural coherence, mosaiced out of bought, stolen and plundered provinces, and only kept together by compression. A Prince of Hohenzollern-something-or-other-ingen bought the Mark of Brandenburg with the dignity of Elector of the Empire, and his successors, after having in the course of two or three centuries subjugated the barbarous Prussia Proper (already well hammered by the Teutonic Knights and the Polish kings), helped themselves to a slice of Poland, and stolen Silesia, had the pleasure at the beginning of the present century of seeing their ingeniously contrived kingdom completely sponged out of existence by Napoleon, and then repaired and put together again by the Cabinet-making of Vienna. Since then, Prussia is a camp, and its whole population drilled to the bayonet. It is the fashion to praise its good administration; but I have no sympathy with your good administrations.

Prussia is a mild despotism to be sure. 'Tis the homoeopathic tyranny--small doses, constantly administered, and strict diet and regimen. But what annoys you most is this constant dosing, this succession of infinitesimal Government pills which the patient subject bolts every instant. Everything, in fact, is regulated by the Government; the royal colours are black and white, and Government is written in black and white all over the kingdom. The turnpike-gates are black and white; the railings of the bridges are black and white, and so are the signs of the taverns, post-houses, etc., etc. In every inn a royal ordonnance stuck up against the wall informs you how much you have to pay for everything--for your dinner, your bed, your schnaps, or your glass of sugar-and-water. This is well enough for the traveller; but a sort of arrangement neither complimentary nor gratifying to the inhabitants. But what nonsense it is for me to be wasting all this time in such a tirade. I believe it is because I was annoyed at having to go back (after having walked down to the Berlin Post-office to take my place in the diligence) for the sake of having my passport put in order; for unless the American Minister, the Prussian Minister for Foreign Affairs, the police inspector, the Russian Minister, and the Lord knows who beside, all signify in writing their perfect approval of your taking a seat in the Schnell Post, the said seat in the Schnell Post is refused to you by the prigs of the Post-office.

At Konigsberg we waited a day--

"A town, whose greatest vaunt
Besides some mines of zinc and lead and copper
Has lately been the great Professor Kant;
But we, who cared not a tobacco-stopper
For metaphysics, still pursued our jaunt
Through Germany, whose somewhat tardy millions
Have princes who spur more than their postilions"--

like the respectable Don Juan, who went to Petersburg by the same route that we did. We, however, killed one lion there, and the only one worth killing--the old cathedral, a building five hundred years old, as the sexton said: built by the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, and containing several tombs, monuments, and rude portraits of the old Grand Masters by whom Konigsberg and "Prussia Proper" (I like that expression, because all Prussia is so extremely proper) was governed in old times. One of the monuments, rudely representing a knight in a reclining position and dying, with some singular devices scattered about, attracted my attention, and the old sexton insisted upon giving me a long legend about it, which had a strong resemblance to the story of the maid and the magpie. This story, in three words, was that the knight lost a favourite ring from his finger--circumstances convinced him that his favourite servant had stolen it, and so he incontinently cut off his head; afterwards, a raven's nest was- found with the ring in it, and the dead servant's innocence being thus demonstrated, the knight had nothing for it but to die himself. So, upon Tristram Shandy's principle, "that man bears pain best in a horizontal position," he threw himself at length upon his elbow with his toes to heaven and so died. "So Johnny Pringle he laid down and died." A device of a raven with a ring in his mouth, and a servant with his head cut off, and other quaint devices, decorate the monument.. The church itself is venerable from its age, but very plain. The windows are the narrow lancet-shaped ones, without tracery, which in England are called the Early English; but there is very little of ornament in any part of the building none of that elaborate carving, that needlework in stone, that sculptured Brussels lace, which is the charm and the wonder of the more splendid Gothic cathedrals.

The same night we went to Tilsit, twelve hours from Konigsberg (if you take any post map of Europe or even any common map, you may easily trace our route), a place where Napoleon dictated peace upon a raft in the river Memel to the Emperors of Russia and Austria and remarkable for nothing else, where we stopped a day and night--these stoppages by the way were owing to our having neglected to inform ourselves at Berlin about the diligence hours of starting from, the different places. If we had used due diligence in using the diligence we might have shortened the time four or five days. However as that would not have shortened the road, and as our fatigue was the less, it was of no great consequence.

From Tilsit, we went to Tauroggen on the Russian frontier, passing through the custom-house so much dreaded by travellers unscathed and untouched, thanks to our diplomatic capacity (which, by the way, has carried us through every custom-house with flying colours). At Tauroggen we stopped a day and night, the inn or post-house most comfortable, giving one an agreeable impression of Russian arrangements. The next morning at ten, we took our seats in the Russian mail for Petersburg; these carriages are without exception the best public conveyances in Europe; they carry four persons only, and the vehicle consists of two coupes or chariots, one placed behind the other, and each containing two persons; they were filled with spring cushions, leather padded pillows, lamps to read by in the night, and in fact as comfortable as a private carriage.

The road from Tauroggen to Petersburg is 14 wersts, and half of it is what is called in Europe very bad, and what we should call pretty good in America. We got stuck in the mud regularly every night, but as we were only passengers we did not mind, and slept comfortably until they lifted us out; this lasted only two or three nights. At Eiga, the capital of Livonia, we got our first snow storm, after which the weather became very cold (13 of Reaumur one night (the 12th of November), equal to about zero of Fahrenheit, but "it was fine times for those who were well wrapped up, as the ice bear said when he met the gentleman a skating," and I was uncommonly well wrapped up. I was immersed to the hips in a pair of fur boots (furred on both sides), without which an attempt to make such a journey would have been a bootless undertaking, and had a pelisse lined with fur reaching from my eyelashes to my heels: thus attired I was independent of the weather. It was, however, not very cold long. The weather in fact, since the 12th of November, has been like our average weather in January and February. How it will be later you shall know as soon as I do.

I have nothing more to say of the journey. The country is dull and uninteresting beyond all description, and as we had sixteen hours of dark to eight of daylight, " the whole of its tediousness was not inflicted on us." I had provided myself at Berlin with some new novels of Balzac and Paul de Kock, and passed most of the time in reading, slept very well every night, and breakfasted, dined and supped very comfortably at the stations or post-houses along the road, which are in general very well regulated establishments. The villages through which we pass are all of wood, generally log huts thatched; the houses in the towns are mostly of wood, painted of a dark colour and sometimes stuccoed, and the people dirty, long-haired, long-bearded, sheepskin-shirted savages. We reached St. Petersburg, the 17th of November, at half-past two in the morning.

This letter I consider both entertaining and instructive, unfortunately it is illegible. It will puzzle the spies at the post office, if they undertake to read it.
J. L. M.

-from The Correspondence of John Lothrop Motley edited by George Williams Curtis 2nd edition (London: John Murray, 1889) vol. 1, pp. 69-74.

No comments: