QUITE in contrast with Baden near Zurich in Switzerland is Baden-Baden in Germany. Nature has endowed each with its peculiar charm. From the hills around the Swiss town we can see the snow mountains of Switzerland. But the same hills which afford such a far view, being of a rocky character, crowd the rushing river, and the space allowed to the town and the springs is very limited.
In Baden-Baden the springs are much less effective. There is no rushing river, but only a trifling little bit of smooth water, flowing down flat like the sandy-colored hair of a lady, and where it enters the town it is narrowed into a small compass, like a lady’s tresses, while many bridges span it like ribbons. But this dainty little coquette, however shallow, rolls in wealth, since every foot of the land on its banks is so precious that the golden coins required to purchase it would almost cover its surface. This babbling little brook is dignified with the title of the Oos River.
The hills around Baden-Baden are not so crowded together as those at the Swiss Baden, where they seem like the rugged feet of the not far-distant giants. The German bathing-place too glistens in the sun, enjoying, as it were, a sun-bath in the vast basin, stretching up its spires and domes amid great trees of rare beauty, and expanding into fresh lawns. It is an inter-national place, as the Russian and Greek church cupolas and the hard lines of the English Episcopal churches indicate. White Russian horses, with their long manes and tails, are driven about at a dashing speed by outre-looking drivers in fur-trimmed liveries, the aristocratic owners meanwhile sitting inside with frozen dignity which seems to disdain all the surroundings. The most gorgeous villas, with their great parks, belong to Russian princes, and many of that international class of people who pass their winters in London, Paris, Berlin, or Italy have their spring and fall residences here, living, nevertheless, a retired, private kind of a life. Parts of the lawns are fitted up for English games, although perhaps Homburg is more popular with the insular nation than Baden-Baden.
The Lichtenstein Allee is a famous promenade, bordered with gnarled old oaks, pines, and maples, one of which was struck by the bullet fired at Emperor William in 1861. Here the ladies show their toilets in the afternoon, after spending the morning in the brilliant shops and magasins. Three times a day a band plays in front of the great Kurhaus, which is now comparatively little used. Originally erected for gambling purposes, it is preserved just as it was left when the edict went forth abolishing gambling, thus keeping undisturbed in its gorgeous halls the memories of the exciting times of twenty years ago, when the enormous mirrors, lighted by thousands of candles, showed many faces excited with the passions of loss and gain.
Here might have been seen not only some poor musician risking his hard-earned francs, but, side by side with the poor, princes and dukes have staked their fortunes, and generally lost, since the chances of the game were so much against the players that the owners were able to spend millions of dollars for the embellishment of Baden-Baden and its surroundings, in order to draw hither the luxury-loving people of the whole world. Here for a long series of years extravagant scenes of revelry and excitement were enacted all through the gay season. If these walls could speak they would tell tales of hope and despair that would almost curdle the blood in one’s veins. Many a young scion of nobility, when, in the hot excitement, the tide had turned against him, and he had perhaps staked the last of his possessions and lost all, has in despair blown out his brains on the spot.
The happy owner of a villa here now enjoys the benefit of all those millions spent in the gambling times. Much of the money won in the ” trente et quarante,” either by the bank holder or the players, remained in Baden-Baden. There is no doubt that the possession of many a graceful villa has often turned upon the casting of the dice, and you see by the lavish way the money has been thrown upon the walls, so to say, that the owners were afraid to trust themselves another day, lest they should lose it, as they had won it, at the gaming table.
At present another class of people live in some of these villas, enjoying the fairy-like treasures which were created by fortunes lasting but a day. It seems almost as if the whole of Baden-Baden had passed through the hands of the sheriff before coming into the possession of its present owners, many of whom are retired capitalists or officials who had means enough at their command to enable them to step into these empty mansions, left by the Vanity Fair that had been previously enacted here.
When we arrived in town we were told, by the owner of the hotel we selected, that we could not be accommodated in the hotel itself, being rather a large party, but, if it pleased us, we could occupy a neighboring villa and take our meals at the hotel, whereupon we followed him on a tour of inspection. He led us through a garden to a spacious building with an imposing portico. We put our hand on our purse, determining to keep cool and act with due de-liberation. The walls of the ample hall were covered with genuine Gobelin tapestry representing the most stirring scenes in Roman history. We passed it, to find ourselves in a great high salon, which seemed of enormous size through the reflection of immense mirrors on all sides, and from the walls of which, between the mirrors, angels and demons carved in wood smiled or grinned at us, like personifications of the different moods of the former owner, who, we imagine, must have been one of those whose money rolled on the green table of the Kurhaus.
Before us the door opened upon a terrace leading to the front garden, filled with magnolias, palms, and all the variety of trees, plants, and flowers that thrive in the mild climate of Baden-Baden. Beyond the grounds runs swiftly, with its cunning laugh, the little coquette of a river, a fit representative of the shallow minds of those Parisian ladies who used to receive in their laps the golden coins showered upon them by the gamesters. Beyond the river the soft hills give such repose to the eye that we cannot help hoping that even the past owner enjoyed its calmness from time to time in the midst of his revels.
But it is not only under the above conditions that villas change hands quickly. Even the more settled class of people tire of this kind of property quicker than they expected to when they were first charmed by the beauties of it ; most likely become weary of the ponderous machinery required for the running of such gorgeous establishments, while easy accommodations await them on every hand at far less expense and trouble. Besides, people of ,the present generation, with their weak nerves, need continuous change of surroundings to stimulate their weary minds.
Here, in this old villa, we are spending our two weeks, enjoying the beautiful and, to us, novel surroundings. Especially delightful was a visit to the old castle Hohenbaden, which, from the twelfth century until the construction of the new castle, several hundred feet below, was the seat of the margraves, and is now a very extensive group of ruins. The walls of the main building have withstood the action of the elements for many centuries, and stand erect more than three stories high. All the floors, ceilings, and partition walls have fallen to the ground and crumbled into dust, while the gay cavaliers who once made them merry have been buried and forgotten. Inside of these giant walls, protected by them from the wind, great trees have grown up, themselves hundreds of years old. In the windows above, amid the clustering ivy, Aeolian harps have been placed, whose strings when swept by the wind give voice to the old ruins, and seem to tell of those who have lived and died here.
Light galleries lead us up to the highest of the windows, so that we may look out through them over the broad valley of the Rhine to our right, over the town of Baden-Baden to the left, and over the Black Forest all round, which, from this point southward, fills the great curve of the Rhine with its sombre beauty.
It is our good fortune, shortly after viewing these ruins, which have become a part of the surrounding nature, to see the castle of Heidelberg, which, erected in 1556, is much younger, better preserved in consequence, and still possesses great importance as a work of art, being the finest example of Renaissance architecture in Germany. It yet shows nearly all the statues in the niches of its richly ornamented façade, many of them with smiling faces and flowing garments, and even the graver faces among them seem to indicate no more formidable intent than the stern determination to empty, even at the cost of their lives, the great tan in the cellar beneath, in spite of its capacity of fifty thousand gallons. This tun is empty now. Whether the statues were erected to those who especially contributed to this end we cannot in truth tell, but we are rather inclined to doubt it, since some of the faces bear a resigned expression, which may have been caused by their failure in this respect. The most happy consumer seems to have been the dwarf court jester, whose wooden image stands beside the great tun, smiling in consciousness of his unbeaten record of four gallons a day. In fact, this grimly smiling dwarf by the tun may be considered the true patron saint of Heidelberg, where the study of consuming wine and beer is perhaps foremost of all.
We chance to be intimately acquainted with a gentleman who thoroughly knows the life of Heidelberg students, and from his descriptions we are inclined to infer that their stern determination is to revive those mediaeval times when the monster tun was built. Thus it happens that these young Germans of to-day, living in the midst of a civilized country, remind us in their ways and customs of the cowboys of our wild prairies. As the latter enter the Western towns, shooting out the lights through the windows in a spirit of dare-devil recklessness, so the young Teutons drive with mad speed through the crowded streets, followed by their immense dogs, who leap and jump wildly about, clearing the pavement of all the frightened citizens. The inhabitants of Heidelberg, as well as those of the Western towns, tolerate the extravagances of the desperate young fellows because they spend their money so freely among them.
It is not the great bulk of the students we now speak of, but of a small minority well organized in societies, ready at any moment to stake their lives for the pleasure of feeling entirely unrestrained, and to run into debt, to an extent which might ruin their fathers, for the pleasure of turning topsy-turvy all Heidelberg.
These societies arrange among themselves every week, without any provocation, a series of duels. On these occasions the vital parts are protected, the throat by a padded bandage and the eyes by wrought-iron spectacles. Their arms, bandaged too, are raised before their heads, so as to allow only the points of the swords to take effect. Thus, as a rule, these duels without provocation do not prove fatal. They are scenes of butchery, nevertheless. The young fellows appointed by the superiors of their respective societies as enemies stand bleeding opposite to each other for fifteen minutes, not allowed to drop their arms for any such a trifle as the slashing of an ear, the nose, lip, or cheek. Whenever a hit is made the seconds stop the fight just long enough for the umpire to record the point and for the physician to examine the wound, meanwhile holding up the arms of the combatants, but not interfering with the blood running down their half-naked bodies. The young fellows, priding themselves upon the scars resulting from this agreeable entertain-ment, take special care to keep them red, drinking an abundance of their favorite beverage during the process of healing.
Sometimes a fellow gets the knack of inflicting mortal, or at least very dangerous, wounds on the skull of his adversary, even though only the point of the sword is available for this purpose. Our informant tells us of one such student, who, proud of his exceptional skill, challenged a whole society to cross swords with him, one after the other, and succeeded in breaking up the health of two or three of these splendid young fellows until the police interfered with his bloody workalways managing to appear on the battle-field whenever one of his contests was impending, though they are less zealous in interfering with the ordinary deeds of the students. Nevertheless, these latter have always to be on the watch, ever shifting the scene and keeping secret the hour, besides putting out sentinels sufficiently distant to give timely warning, providing a ready hiding-place for the weapons in case of a surprise, so that the police, when-ever they appear, would find them sitting around a table drinking beer.
In former times the members of these societies occupied themselves to some extent with politics and intellectual pursuits, but now they have degenerated into sheer drinking and fighting organizations. Notwithstanding, they enjoy the patronage of the highest officials in Germany, who, in their youth having been members, look back on those times of unrestrained liberty as paradise on earth, and do not disdain to appear on special occasions and sit as so-called ” alte herren ” side by side with the younger generations. So it is often ambition which induces the young men to enter these societies. The warlike spirit which is kept up by this habit of duelling makes these young fellows extremely thin-skinned and daring, so that more serious duels often result from their aggressive moodsa fact of which many a tomb-stone in the Heidelberg cemetery bears testimony.
The same young man who had challenged the whole society had taken on such an irritating bearing that he had before long, whether he desired it or not, at all times some duel pending. One day he was walking on the promenade in a gray suit, and another young student who followed him .was overcome by such irrepressible hatred towards him that he exclaimed, for the purpose of provocation, ” Gray is the color of the donkey.” The other turned around and asked for an explanation, which was refused. Some days afterwards several carriages drove out to one of the most remote ruins in the neighborhood of Heidelberg. The champion in gray, in a generous mood, fired his first bullet into the air, but the hatred of his opponent could not be quenched, so with his second bullet the champion killed the other who had missed him with his first.
When a regiment of the army comes into a town like Heidelberg a series of duels usually ensues, and lives are lost on no more serious provocation than brushing slightly against each other at the entrance of a store. It is apparent that such indulgence in aggressiveness is quite incompatible with a spirit of tolerance, and is quite a strange peculiarity in the otherwise liberal German character. But this peculiarity has been largely developed of late by the great wars, as well as by the example of the great statesman, Bismarck, himself, who, in his time, was a member of such a society. Through his whole life he has always been ready to challenge a political opponent. In his unrestrained, irritable temper often crops out the mood of the student who will not allow any one to look straight into his face, and measures like clearing the pavement with big dogs are not at all foreign to his character.