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Chapter XXIII. The Hardest Time in the School of Life.

The period which now followed was the most terrible of my whole life. Even the faithful love that surrounded me could do little to relieve it.

Medicines did not avail, and I had not yet found the arcanum which afterwards so greatly benefitted my suffering soul.

The props which my mother and Middendorf had bestowed upon me when a boy had fallen; and the feeling of convalescence, which gives the invalid's life a sense of bliss the healthy person rarely knows, could not aid me, for the disease increased with wonderful speed.

When autumn came I was so much worse that Geheimrath von Ammon, a learned and experienced physician, recalled his advice that my mother and I should spend the winter in the south. The journey would have been fatal. The correctness of his judgment was proved by the short trip to Berlin which I took with my mother, aided by my brother Martin, who was then a physician studying with the famous clinical doctor Schonlein. It was attended with cruel suffering and the most injurious results, but it was necessary for me to return to my comfortable winter quarters. Our old friend and family physician, who had come to Hosterwitz in September to visit me, wished to have me near him, and in those days there was probably no one who deserved more confidence; for Heinrich Moritz Romberg was considered the most distinguished pathologist in nervous diseases in Germany, and his works on his own specialty are still valued.

In what a condition I entered the home which I had left so strong and full of youthful vigour! And Berlin did not receive me kindly; for the first months I spent there brought days of suffering with fever in the afternoon, and nights whose condition was no less torturing than pain.

But our physician had been present at my birth, he was my godfather, and as kind as if I were his son. He did everything in his power to relieve me, but the remedies he used were not much easier to bear than many a torturing disease. And hardest of all, I was ordered to keep perfectly still in bed. What a prospect! But when I had once resolved to follow the doctor's advice, I controlled with the utmost care every movement of my body. I, who had so often wished to fly, lay like my own corpse. I did not move, for I did not want to die, and intended to use every means in my power to defer the end. Death, which after the haemorrhage had appeared as the beautiful winged boy who is so easily mistaken for the god of love--Death, who had incited me to write saucy, defiant verses about him, now confronted me as a hollow-eyed, hideous skeleton.

In the guise of the most appalling figure among the apocalyptic riders of Cornelius, who had used me when a child for the model of a laughing angel, he seemed to be stretching his hand toward me from his emaciated steed. The poppy leaf was not to flutter toward the sky, but to wither in the dust.

Once, several weeks after our return home, I saw the eyes of my mother, who rarely wept, reddened with tears after a conversation with Dr. Romberg. When I asked my friend and physician if he would advise me to make my will, he said that it could do no harm.

Soon after Hans Geppert, who meanwhile had become a notary, arrived with two witnesses, odd-looking fellows who belonged to the working class, and I made my will in due form. The certainty that when I was no more what I possessed would be divided as I wished was a ray of light in this gloomy time.

No one knows the solemnity of Death save the person whom his cold hand has touched, and I felt it for weeks upon my heart.

What days and nights these were!

Yet in the presence of the open grave from which I shrank something took place which deeply moved my whole nature, gave it a new direction, led me to self-examination, and thence to a knowledge of my own character which revealed many surprising and unpleasing things. But I also felt that it was not yet too late to bring the good and evil traits, partly hereditary, partly acquired, into harmony with one another and render them of use to the same higher objects.

Yes, if I were permitted time to do so!

I had learned how quickly and unexpectedly the hour strikes which puts an end to all struggle towards a goal.

Besides, I now knew what would protect me from a relapse into the old careless waste of strength, what could aid me to do my utmost, for the mother's heart had again found the son's, fully and completely.

I had been forced to become as helpless as a child in order again to lay my head upon her breast and belong to her as completely as during the first years of life. During the long nights when fever robbed me of sleep she sat beside my bed, holding my hands in hers.

At last one came which contained hours of the most intense suffering, and in its course she asked, "Can you still pray?" The answer, which came from my inmost heart, was, "When you are with me, and with you, certainly."

We remained silent a long time, and whenever impatience, suffering, and faintness threatened to overpower me, I found, like Antaeus when he touched the earth that had given him birth, new strength in my mother's heart.

My old life seemed henceforward to lie far behind me.

I did not take up Feuerbach's writings again; his way could never again have been mine. In my suffering it had become evident from what an Eden he turns away and into what a wilderness he leads. But I still value this thinker as an honest, virile, and brilliantly gifted seeker after truth.

I also laid aside the other philosophers whose works I had been studying.

I never resumed Lotze, though later, with two other students, I attended Trendelenburg's difficult course, and tried to comprehend Kant's "critiques."

I first became familiar with Schopenhauer in Jena.

On the other hand, I again devoted many leisure hours to Egyptological works.

I felt that these studies suited my powers and would satisfy me. Everything which had formerly withheld me from the pursuits of learning now seemed worthless. It was as if I stood in a new relation to all things. Even the one to my mother had undergone a transformation. I realized for the first time what I possessed in her, how wrong I had been, and what I owed to her. One day during this period I remembered my Poem of the World, and instantly had the box brought in which I kept it among German favours, little pink notes, and similar trophies.

For the first time I perceived, in examining the fruits of the labour of so many days and nights, the vast disproportion between the magnitude of the subject and my untrained powers. One passage seemed faulty, another so overstrained and inadequate, that I flung it angrily back among the rest. At the same time I thought that the verses I had addressed to various beauties and the answers which I had received ought not to be seen by other eyes. I was alone with the servant, a bright fire was blazing in the stove, and, obedient to a hasty impulse, I told him to throw the whole contents of the box into the fire.

When the last fragment was consumed to ashes I uttered a sigh of relief.

Unfortunately, the flames also destroyed the greater part of my youthful poems. Even the completed acts of my tragedy had been overtaken by destruction, like the heroes of Panthea and Abradatus.

If I had formerly obeyed the physician's order to lie motionless, I followed it after the first signs of convalescence so rigidly that even the experienced Dr. Romberg admitted that he had not given me credit for so much self-control. Toward the end of the winter my former cheerfulness returned, and with it I also learned to use the arcanum I have formerly mentioned, which makes even the most bitter things enjoyable and lends them a taste of sweetness. I might term it "the practice of gratitude." Without intending it, I acquired the art of thankfulness by training my eyes to perceive the smallest trifle which gave cause for it. And this recognition of even the least favour of Fortune filled the rude wintry days with so much sunshine, that when children of my own were given me my first effort was to train them to gratitude, and especially to an appreciation of trifles.

The motto 'Carpe diem,' which I had found in my father's Horace and had engraved upon my seal ring, unexpectedly gained a new significance by no longer translating it "enjoy," but "use the day," till the time came when the two meanings seemed identical.

Georg Ebers

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