Story type: Essay
The first night we sat down at the inn table for supper I lost my heart to Ingo! Ingo was just ten years old. He wore a little sailor suit of blue and white striped linen; his short trousers showed chubby brown calves above his white socks; his round golden head cropped close in the German fashion. His blue eyes were grave and thoughtful. By great good fortune we sat next each other at table, and in my rather grotesque German I began a conversation. How careful Ingo was not to laugh at the absurdities of my syntax! How very courteous he was!
Looking back into the mysterious panorama of pictures that we call memory, I can see the long dining room of the old gasthaus in the Black Forest, where two Americans on bicycles appeared out of nowhere and asked for lodging. They were the first Americans who had ever been seen in that remote valley, and the Gasthaus zur Krone (“the Crown Inn”) found them very amusing. Perhaps you have never seen a country tavern in the Schwarzwald? Then you have something to live for. A long, low building with a moss-grown roof and tremendous broad eaves sheltering little galleries; and the barn under the same roof for greater warmth in winter. One side of the house was always strong with an excellent homely aroma of cow and horse; one had only to open a door in the upper hall, a door that looked just like a bedroom entrance, to find oneself in the haymow. There I used to lie for hours reading, and listening to the summer rain thudding on the shingles. Sitting in the little gallery under the eaves, looking happily down the white road where the yellow coach brought the mail twice a day, one could see the long vista of the valley, the women with bright red jackets working in the fields, and the dark masses of forest on the hillside opposite. There was much rain that summer; the mountains were often veiled all day long in misty shreds of cloud, and the two Americans sat with pipes and books at the long dining table, greeted by gales of laughter on the part of the robust landlord’s niece when they essayed the native idiom. “Sie arbeiten immer!” she used to say; “Sie werden krank!” (“You’re always working; you’ll be ill!”)
There is a particular poignance in looking back now on those happy days two years before the war. Nowhere in all the world, I suppose, are there more cordial, warmhearted, simple, human people than the South Germans. On the front of the inn there was a big yellow metal sign, giving the military number of the district, and the mobilization points for the Landsturm and the Landwehr, and we realized that even here the careful organization of the military power had numbered and ticketed every village. But what did it mean to us? War was a thing unthinkable in those days. We bicycled everywhere, climbed, mountains, bathed in waterfalls, chatted fluent and unorthodox German with everyone we met, and played games with Ingo.
Dear little Ingo! At the age when so many small boys are pert, impudent, self-conscious, he was the simplest, happiest, gravest little creature. His hobby was astronomy, and often I would find him sitting quietly in a corner with a book about the stars. On clear evenings we would walk along the road together, in the mountain hush that was only broken by the brook tumbling down the valley, and he would name the constellations for me. His little round head was thrilled through and through by the immense mysteries of space; sometimes at meal times he would fall into a muse, forgetting his beef and gravy. Once I asked him at dinner what he was thinking of. He looked up with his clear gray-blue eyes and flashing smile: “Von den Sternen!” (“Of the stars.”)
The time after supper was reserved for games, in which Wolfgang, Ingo’s smaller brother (aged seven), also took part. Our favourite pastimes were “Irrgarten” and “Galgenspiel,” in which we found enormous amusement. Galgenspiel was Ingo’s translation of “Hangman,” a simple pastime which had sometimes entertained my own small brother on rainy days; apparently it was new in Germany. One player thinks of a word, and sets down on paper a dash for each letter in this word. It is the task of the other to guess the word, and he names the letters of the alphabet one by one. Every time he mentions a letter that is contained in the word you must set it down in its proper place in the word, but every time he mentions a letter that is not in the word you draw a portion of a person depending from a gallows; the object of course being for him to guess the word before you finish drawing the effigy. We played the game entirely in German, and I can still see Ingo’s intent little face bent over my preposterous drawings, cudgelling his quick and happy little brain to spot the word before the hangman could finish his grim task. “Quick, Ingo!” I would cry. “You will get yourself hung!” and he would laugh in his own lovable way. There was never a jollier way of learning a foreign language than by playing games with Ingo.
The other favourite pastime was drawing mazes on paper, labyrinths of winding paths which must be traversed by a pencil point. The task was to construct a maze so complicated that the other could not find his way out, starting at the middle. We would sit down at opposite ends of the room to construct our mysteries of blind alleys and misleading passages, then each one would be turned loose in the “irrgarten” drawn by the other. Ingo would stand at my side while I tried in obstinate stupidity to find my way through his little puzzle; his eager heart inside his sailor blouse would pound like a drum when I was nearing the dangerous places where an exit might be won. He would hold his breath so audibly, and his blue eyes would grow so anxious, that I always knew when not to make the right turning, and my pencil would wander on in hopeless despair until he had mercy on me and led me to freedom.
After lunch every day, while waiting for the mail-coach to come trundling up the valley, Ingo and I used to sit in the little balcony under the eaves, reading. He introduced me to his favourite book Till Eulenspiegel, and we sped joyously through the adventures of that immortal buffoon of German folk-lore. We took turns reading aloud: every paragraph or so I would appeal for an explanation of something. Generally I understood well enough, but it was such a delight to hear Ingo strive to make the meaning plain. What a puckering of his bright boyish forehead, what a grave determination to elucidate the fable! What a mingling of ecstatic pride in having a grown man as pupil, with deference due to an elder. Ingo was a born gentleman and in his fiercest transports of glee never forgot his manners! I would make some purposely ludicrous shot at the sense, and he would double up with innocent mirth. His clear laughter would ring out, and his mother, pacing a digestive stroll on the highway below us, would look up crying in the German way, “Gott! wie er freut sich!” The progress of our reading was held up by these interludes, but I could never resist the temptation to start Ingo explaining.
Ingo having made me free of his dearest book, it was only fair to reciprocate. So one day Lloyd and I bicycled down to Freiburg, and there, at a heavenly “bookhandler’s,” I found a copy of ‘Treasure Island’ in German. Then there was revelry in the balcony! I read the tale aloud, and I wish R.L.S. might have seen the shining of Ingo’s eyes! Alas, the vividness of the story interfered with the little lad’s sleep, and his mother was a good deal disturbed about this violent yarn we were reading together. How close he used to sit beside me as we read of the dark doings at the Admiral Benbow: and how his face would fall when, clear and hollow from the sounding-board of the hills, came the quick clop, clop of the mail-man’s horses.
I don’t know anything that has ever gone deeper in my memory than those hours spent with Ingo. I have a little snapshot of him I took the misty, sorrowful morning when I bicycled away to Basel and left the Gasthaus zur Krone in its mountain valley. The blessed little lad stands up erect and stiff in the formal German way, and I can see his blue eyes alight with friendliness, and a little bit unhappy because his eccentric American comrade was gomg away and there would be no more afternoons with Till Eulenspiegel on the balcony. I wonder if he thinks of me as often as I do of him? He gave me a glimpse into the innocent heaven of a child’s heart that I can never forget. By now he is approaching sixteen, and I pray that whatever the war may take away from me it will spare me my Ingo. It is strange and sad to recall that his parting present to me was a drawing of a Zeppelin, upon which he toiled manfully all one afternoon. I still have it in my scrapbook.
And I wonder if he ever looks in the old copy of “Hauff’s Maerchen” that I bought for him in Freiburg, and sees the English words that he was to learn how to translate when he should grow older! As I remember them, they ran like this:
For Ingo to learn English will very easy be
If someone is as kind to him as he has been to me;
Plays games with him, reads fairy tales, corrects all his mistakes,
And never laughs too loudly at the blunders that he makes–
Then he will find, as I did, how well two pleasures blend:
To learn a foreign language, and to make a foreign friend.
If I love anybody in the world, I love Ingo. And that is why I cannot get up much enthusiasm for hymns of hate.
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