Before Christmas I will post one more favorite Christmas book but today I'm posting a short story that I wrote. My other Christmas book posts have been sweet and sentimental but this one is not.
This story, "Helena's German Christmas," is part of six prequels I've written when writing a novel I've worked on for years. As I wrote the novel I kept writing background stories for my main characters, three young girls, two sisters and their friend who grow up together. Those background stories became a novella and five short stories over the years.
This one is about the mother of the sisters' friend as she prepares to emigrate to America in 1892. My nine-page short story may show up quite long here and in a busy week before Christmas maybe only a few will read it, so this is for you.
I'm including three pictures of an old and very special German Christmas book that is a treasure--even though I can't read German. My mother's parents lived in a small German-American town, and her father's people were from Germany so I've always been interested in my German heritage. Here it is, and I won't indent paragraphs as I can't get it to work here.
Helena's German Christmas
Today I will board the SS La Bertagne, leave Le Havre and travel to America.
I will bid Father farewell. I doubt he will kiss me goodbye, although once he loved me, spoiled me even. Wilhelmina put a stop to that. Perhaps I cannot blame my stepmother entirely. Much of the blame is mine but does not the fact that I am only sixteen grant me some forgiveness? Do I deserve the punishment of being made to leave my home and family in Bavaria?
Is it justice for me to be forced to marry Auguste Fischesser, my father's bookkeeper and a man I loathe? A man who was in his twenties when I was born and who made up his mind to marry me when he first saw me in my cradle?
Could not my own brothers, Rudolph and Hermann, have saved me from this fate, persuaded our father otherwise? Is it guilt that kept them at their homes this week with not even one of them traveling to France with us? Why are even they afraid of Wilhelmina?
My stepmother claims they are needed in Nuremberg to mind the family business. Strober's Toys is about to take a giant leap into the future of mass production, and my brothers are responsible for negotiating the acquirement of the new lithograph process that will streamline the family business. No longer will Strober's employ the cottage craftsmen who hand paint our toys. The costly machinery will do away with the need for many of our employees.
I will think of my toy maker friends when I unpack my trunk in America. Wilhelmina scoffed at me for taking up space in my trunks with my old toy kitchen pieces that were made by my old friend the master mechanicus. When I see them and my dolls and my Noah's Ark set, I will remember the trips with my father, when I was a child, into the Thuringian Forest, watching as the craftsmen put the final touches of paint on each piece. That will all change in Bavaria now. The families who once made these old toys may go hungry when no one has need of them anymore.
Wilhelmina also has at last convinced my father to produce toys of weaponry, something he has formerly eschewed in favor of cheerful little German trains. And now, with the advent of guns and cannons being produced by Strober's Toys, all German toys will be stamped with a generic Made in Bavaria according to the new regulations.
I hope my stepmother will be happy when Strober's Toys become the premier toy manufacturer, ensuring that her coffers will fill as the toys begin to be sold in Europe and elsewhere.
Her hated stepdaughter banished, now she will have my father's attention all to herself. If only my mother had lived, not bled to death when I was born, how different my life might have been. Then I would have stayed home under my mother's care and not often been shuttled away to her younger sister in Berlin. I adore my Aunt Louisa but she adores parties and social occasions and was not always the most careful chaperone.
My Uncle Fritz, an officer in the Prussian Fusilier Guards, was much away, which meant that their daughter Clara and I were often left to our own entertainment when guests flocked to Aunt Louisa's parties, or when we traveled to one Schloss after another in the Tyrol for hunting parties, Clara's governess along to continue our lessons.
I first met him there, in the Tyrol. I was fourteen and Erich was seventeen.
He was the most handsome boy I had ever seen. His wavy hair was the color of a newly minted gold piece and his eyes were sapphire blue. When I glanced at our image as reflected in mirrors when we waltzed with a group of young people, I saw others watching us. Clara's eyes were on us, too, as she sat in a corner. My cousin did not inherit the pale flaxen hair and clear blue eyes that her mother and I did, but her sullen attitude did not draw young men to her either.
Erich and I were together constantly that week in the Tyrol, reading together in the library, walking the many trails, on sleigh rides with the other young people to the local village. Talking, always talking.
But it was after the boar hunt that things changed. My cousin was not allowed to attend the hunt as she had the sniffles, and she was very angry. Angry enough to hurt me.
The morning after the boar hunt, Erich's mother, a princess of Prussia, kept him by her side, charmingly but ever so carefully announcing their immediate departure for Berlin to take place when breakfast was over. Two years later I found out that Clara had vengefully whispered to Erich's mother that she regretted having to say that her cousin was a wanton of low morals, planning to trap the princess' son into matrimony. For two years I wondered what I had done to make Erich withdraw from me.
At home again, I was even ruder to my father's bookkeeper than ever before as he fawned over me. Wilhelmina overheard me telling him not to touch me one day when he tried to take my arm. She lashed out at me in his presence, saying that his bravery during the Franco-German war when he was a young man, and his brilliant aptitude for numbers that had helped keep Strober's Toys solvent, made him much more valuable to the family than a shallow headstrong stepdaughter who was ungrateful to her parents.
Two years later, upon an invitation from my aunt and uncle to spend Christmas in Berlin with them, I was packed off once again, and gladly went. After I was there two weeks I stopped looking for Erich at parties and sporting events and entered into the family's Christmas festivities. Between school lessons from Clara's new English governess, hired to improve our English, and the many parties, Clara and I helped with the baking in the kitchen, spices perfuming the air as pan after pan of Springerle, Spekulatius, and Pfeffernüse went into the cookstove. We also helped drape evergreens over doorways, and I discovered I had an aptitude for helping my aunt arrange vases of Christmas red roses and green fern throughout their large Berlin apartment. On Christmas Eve I helped the family hang glass baubles on the Christmas tree and clip tiny silver candlesticks to the branches and fill them with white wax candles.
My uncle carefully lighted the candles and Miss Wiggins, the governess, sat down to the piano where we circled around her to sing carols. And then it was off to bed and sleep before Kris Kringle came.
After breakfast on Christmas Day there were gifts from family as well as from Kris Kringle, almost as many for me as for Clara. I missed my father and brothers and I missed the times as a child when I had gone with my father to the Christ Child Market where my brothers were selling Strober's Toys, but I did not miss my stepmother or Auguste Fischesser's ingratiating presence.
I was happy to be in the home of my aunt and uncle. I wished that I need never return to Bavaria and my stepmother's constant faultfinding. I believed that my aunt must have had all of my own mother's charm and love of gaiety, had I but known her myself. And Aunt Louisa often told me stories of my mother. These I memorized by heart and comforted myself with them when loneliness overwhelmed me.
It was one of my most pleasant Christmas Days ever. That night we all dressed for my aunt's annual Maskenball. I wore a simple white silk gown with puffed sleeves. Aunt Louisa insisted that Clara wear white too but agreed to have hers made up in velvet. Her gown probably cost three times more than my own, but I was content with mine and felt I had never looked more grown up. Aunt Louisa's own maid arranged Clara's hair but I wore mine in the simple smooth coronet of braids that I had worn ever since I was old enough to put up my hair.
I stood just past Clara herself when receiving guests that night and everyone was kind to me. I danced continuously, both with young and older men, with little boys, and with my uncle. Towards midnight my cheeks were rosy from the dancing, when a familiar face appeared in the crowd, a head with burnished gold hair. It was Erich, accompanied by a circle of uniformed male friends.
He had not been invited but a Prussian prince needs no invitation. He goes where he wishes and dances with whom he pleases.
Eventually he danced with me, but then very properly danced with Clara and every female there. Between dances, wine continued to be served, even Clara and I were allowed to have a half glass and join in the Prosit that rang around the room.
I slipped away to check on my hair, loosened from the dancing, Miss Wiggins having called my attention to it. I left my chamber and was on the landing when Erich called to me from the doorway of a small sitting room.
What happened next is a memory I will never forget. Recalling it may save my sanity in the future, for no matter what happens in America, I will know that once I experienced the height of lovemaking. Erich told me he had never forgotten me and then drew me against the fine wool of his dress uniform and looked into my eyes lovingly and kissed me.
He closed the door and led me to a sofa, pulled a small portrait of himself from his pocket, telling me never to forget him, that one day when I was old enough he would come for me and ask my father for my hand in marriage.
I smiled at him, my heart pounding, and promised. He kissed me again, then made love to me, his gentleness and tenderness leading me through the first pain. Strangely, I felt no fear, only trust in Erich. I don't think I completely understood what was happening but my senses swept me away and I never even thought of asking him to stop.
Afterwards I righted my clothing at Erich's concern that we must rejoin the party. But before we could leave the room, my cousin Clara walked in.
Erich squeezed my hand, glared at my cousin as he walked past her and through the open door. Her crooked smile towards me was triumphant and for the first time I felt shame as I passed within inches of her to leave the room. Miss Wiggins was on the landing and she reached for my arm as I started to run after Erich. She looked at me with pity, smoothed my hair with her hands, turned me around to check my dress and then whispered to me, "Please, Miss Helena, don't go after him. Come into my chamber with me."
I was sent home the following day, a letter from my aunt to my father in my reticule. Upon leaving, Aunt Louisa kissed my brow and, with much tenderness, explained to me that I could never expect an offer of marriage from Erich. He had been betrothed since infancy to a princess of Saxony.
For two months I was confined to my room at home while outside my window snow fell. The plans my stepmother had for my eventual marriage to the younger son of a count whose elder son was an invalid with no heir would never come to pass. He wanted a virgin bride and I thanked the grüB Gott that I was not one. He was arrogant and ugly and known for mistreating his horses and his servants, and even his elder brother. That had mattered not to my stepmother.
After I went two months without bleeding coming, my world fell apart. A marriage contract was arranged with my father's bookkeeper. There were startling conditions from my stepmother, a condition that we emigrate to America. Auguste accepted this condition as his brother Joseph lives in New Bayern, South Carolina and is a prosperous farmer, and two maiden aunts who also had emigrated. His brother had written often that he was sure to find work as a clerk in the bank there in New Bayern if he would come.
Auguste had two conditions of his own. One was that I was to reside under his roof with no more than a total of thirty days' absence in a year. His second condition was that I agree to accept his husbandly rights to my body.
I felt as a cornered rat must feel and stood up and refused, threatening to leave and go to Aunt Louisa's. My father pushed my stepmother from the room as she railed at me, turned back as if to say something but hung his head and left. Later Wilhelmina returned to my room and explicitly told me that if I did not sign the contract, I would be turned out on the street after my child was born and the child, mine and Erich's child, would be placed in an orphanage.
Beaten down at last, I agreed to sign the contract but only if the conjugal visits were specified to be limited to once a week, with a promise that I would always have a bedchamber to myself. The contract was duly signed, a reasonable settlement made to Auguste. Nothing to me except the promise of a Paris wardrobe before we sailed. After two weeks in Paris we took a train to Le Havre and have been staying in an inn while arrangements have been made.
And so I am about to depart. The captain of the ship has agreed to marry us once we are in open waters. Before night falls. Before Auguste will claim me as his wife.
That is my sordid story. At sixteen I have a sordid story.
Time to leave. I pick up my bonnet, stand before the mirror and put my hands on my stomach. Then I open the door and leave to go to America.
There it is, my Christmas story, neither sweet nor sentimental. But back soon with another Favorite Christmas Books post, one by Elizabeth Goudge.
Have a safe and blessed week before Christmas!