THE WHITE APRON.
IT might be a curious question, worth asking and ascertaining, of persons whose names are famous in history or prominent among the heroic traditions of war, how large is the proportion composed of those who have greatness thrust upon them, compared to individuals who, by the virtues of true courage, perseverance, boldness, and sagacity, have achieved it for themselves?
It is at all events one that rises to the mind after hearing the story of Johanna Stegen, a fortunate milkmaid of Luneberg*, who, by no particular effort of her own, save a forced compliance, rose to fame, ultimate elevation in rank, and extreme prosperity.
In 1813 the French, greatly to the disgust of the conquered, still occupied Luneberg. A time however was at hand when the power that deemed itself all but omnipotent, was to totter, and presently fall down amidst the well-earned execrations of all Europe.
But it is the story of the fortunate milkmaid which is the object of this paper, not the progress and termination of the first Napoleon’s wars.
On the outskirts of Luneberg there stood then, and very possibly still remains, a little settlement of milch farm-houses. The inhabitants of this village, which is called Grimm, carried on a brisk trade by supplying the lacteal fluid in large quantities to Luneberg, which city depended mainly on these farms for that important article of diet.
Our heroine, Johanna, was employed in one of these rural dairies, and was, in short, just a milkmaid and nothing more. Truth compels her biographer to state that there was little enough of the picturesque in our Johanna’s personal appearance, and that she had even more than the usual bucolic attributes of robust health and florid bloom, charms accompanied moreover by locks whose redness was a fact above all contradiction.
But Fate, the mighty, can overcome all; and, for anything we know, could make even an empress, of a short, stout, red-headed dairy-woman.
Little indeed Johanna dreamed when — her milk-pails slung from her square shoulders — she issued forth on certain morning, the exact date of which the present biographer fairly owns to have been unable to ascertain ; little did she dream or think—supposing she was even in the habit of thinking, to which practice luckily for their health and vigour, milk-maids are not prone — that fortune was waiting slily, in no far-off nook, to invest her with all that the heart of woman is said—mind, only said – to love best, viz., rank, homage, wealth, and fame.
By Johanna’s side, on that memorable morning,came forth at the same time, similarly laden, a being, gentler and fairer, though in all likelihood no better nurtured or cultivated than her companion. This young person was an assistant dairymaid, and in this narrative, with the courteous reader’s leave, shall be caller “ Caroline.”
These girls were bound on their usual errand,taking to Luneberg supplies of rich creamy fluid.They chatted and sang and laughed on their road from Grimm to Luneberg, a distance of probably not more than a mile and a half. Suddenly, as they were nearing the city, Johanna halted.
“What dost thou stare at?” says Caroline, in her guttural German. “I see nothing.” (Ich sehe nichts)
“Canst hear neither, perhaps,” answered Johanna, raising her hand and pointing.
And now indeed Caroline heard sharp and loud reports, which gave her an idea, expressed curtly enough.
“Fighting, eh?” quoth Caroline.
“Come on,” answered Johanna; “the milk must go to Luneberg, if Boney himself be there! We’re late enough now, I tell you.”
For Caroline showed symptoms of turning back towards Grimm, a tendency to cowardism which plainly proves her to have had no pretensions to be a heroine, and which ought to reconcile us to her ultimate fate.
“Come on, I tell you, fool! they won’t hurt us!”
“No; but the bullets may. Hark! there they go — pop! pop! Johanna, never mind the milk — let the people want their breakfasts for once.”
But, arguing thus, they still walked on; and, as it proved, marched right into the lion’s mouth. When it was too late, even for women as they were, to retreat, they found themselves right in the midst of Prussian and Russian soldiers, who, up to that moment, had been pouring their fire against Luneberg.
There was, however, just then, a momentary forced cessation of hostilities on the side of the assaulting party, and, in fact, the French were rapidly gaining the advantage. An accident had occurred. Close before Johanna and Caroline, a cart laden with cartridges had been overturned, and its contents were strewed on the ground. No one was near it save a dead trooper or two, and one who was just expiring. Caroline, tender and thoughtful woman, ran up to this wretch, and held a draught of milk to his dying lips, but Johanna claps her hands, crying out:
”Rouleaux! rouleaux! Come quick, and help me, Caroline!”
She took the cartridges for rouleaux of coin, which they somewhat resemble. Johanna and her companion both wore large white aprons with big pockets, not like those of grisettes on the stage, but good substantial ones, fit to hold a half-quartern loaf. Johanna filled these as quickly as she could pick her spoil up, quite oblivious of the bullets from Luneberg, which hailed round her — as oblivious of them, in her thirst for getting quickly rich, as was Caroline, from a better, holier motive.
In after-times, I think the look of gratitude which beamed from the dying soldier’s eyes, the broken words of blessing which dropped from his white lips, must have been a dearer, more blessed memory to the heart of her, who, naturally timid, forgot that timidity under the influence of woman’s holiest promptings of tenderness and mercy, than the subsequent homage, the brilliant fortune showered on the being who, with eager eyes and avaricious grasp, was busily employed in cramming her pockets with that, which indeed ultimately proved more valuable towards her aggrandisement, than the gold for which she took the packages strewed around.
But Johanna’s career of greedy acquirement is speedily stopped. A Prussian colonel rides hastily up. He has no idea of the girl’s self-deception. He hastily dubs her in his mind — a mind heated by the excitement of action — as an ardent heroine aspiring to aid his troops in their temporary distress.
“My brave girl! those pockets will not hold enough; fill your apron. Quick, here, young woman!” (to Caroline, who still knelt by the dying), “do the same — as one goes, the other can come back!”
There was no murmur of disobedience possible. Here was the terrible Prussian flaming with loud voice, stern in command, indisputable in authority. Johanna was quite unconscious of the admiration with which the great man, whom she took for a general at least, viewed her. Fear alone, made the girl obey, and indeed, as her retreat was by this time cut off by a body of advancing troops, to go back was impossible, to go forward inadvisable. Her acceptance of the duty imposed, was, however, as prompt and ready as if the action had really emanated from herself.
She was always sturdy and bustling, and not less so now, when bullets whistled around, and she was in mortal fear. Quickly she filled her apron, and as quickly ran with her burden, to the poor fellows, who for want of them, were being rapidly picked off by the French fire, man by man.
As she returned, Caroline performed the same good office; so, backwards and forwards amidst a rattling fire, mid volleys of no less fiery oaths, midst blood, carnage, the groans of the dying, the carcasses of the dead, did Johanna Stegen, and Caroline Burger, carry pail after pail of cartridges, distributing them to the troops, till the day advanced, and the allies had gained the victory — gained it, as all to a man declared, by the heroic conduct of a woman — that woman, Johanna Stegen.
Caroline, her pale face heated by the danger and stern excitement of the scene, equally arduous, equally — even more generously — oblivious of danger, is permitted, unnoticed, unthanked, to make her way back as best she can to Grimm, there to amaze the pastoral inhabitants with the recital of that adventurous and bloodstained morning.
Our Johanna was not too much overpowered by bashfulness to remain on the field, waiting for applause and thanks. She had wit enough to see that she was appreciated beyond what she had merited. However, just then, every one was too busy with rejoicing and hopes of plunder, to notice her, whom they considered the victress of the day.
As, weary and disappointed, she was about to return to Grimm, the same colonel who had directed the milk-girl’s efforts, rode up to her, hot, and ready to drop off his horse with fatigue.
“My girl — quick — your apron — give to me. Not a word — off with it — that’s right — now, your name — Johanna — Johanna what? Johanna Stegen — So! Now, my lads, onward! Stragglers fall back!”
And thereupon, one of the stragglers, who could not comprehend what that grand, terrible, fierce soldier could want with her apron, now half dirty, stained with blood and the moisture of her weary brow, fell back at the word of command, and presently, changing her mind about Grimm, she slowly followed in the rear of the army, who acknowledged her as its preserver, and who by this time had hoisted her apron in front of the troops, as an ensign and emblem of how a great victory had been won.
Arrived at Luneberg, our milkmaid — who, as yet, knew not she might place the adjective fortunate before her name — went at once to the house of her mother, who (a poor widow) gained hard bread and little enough salt by charing and washing. She feared, perhaps, to return to Grimm, where heroism was likely to kick the beam when weighed against the loss of sundry pails of milk, wasted or seized by thirsty fellows as lawful spoil, and for which she had not the means of paying.
She claimed the shelter of the maternal roof, and related her adventure to her mother, not without many reproaches on the part of that virtuous matron, for interfering amongst a parcel of rapscallion soldiers, who ate, drank, and devoured that night at the expense of Luneberg.
But Johanna’s triumph rose next day with the sun. The King of Prussia took possession of the city, and the first act of royalty, was to make a proclamation for the owner of the White Apron, who was by no means backward in creeping forth from her obscurity. That night a grand banquet was held at the Schloss Luneberg, and Johanna sat at the monarch’s right hand. Robust and florid as she was, no belle attracted such universal notice or admiration as this fortunate milkmaid. Her glowing hair was called golden, her ruddy cheeks blooming, and her form was admired for its strength, if it was not exactly extolled for grace. Success is your true beautifier – the elixir which bestows youth and beauty, and which fails in its effect only when the sun of Fortune sets.
The girdle of Good Luck once thrown round the thickest waist, it becomes to every beholder as slender as Venus’s own, and those whom the blind goddess has
mystified by the bandage of her own eyes, are, at any time, ready to swear black is white, or, as in Johanna’s case, red is yellow. And amidst all this, Caroline’s name was not heard.
One heart at least was captivated by this heroine in spite of herself. The big Prussian colonel must have his fancy captivated by this close approximation to the heroic maid of his heated brain. Among the toasts drank to Johanna Stegen, his response was the loudest, his praise the most broadly expressed.
But — every medal has its reverse side — what a pity!
In the midst of all these rejoicings, and just as great things were in contemplation for Johanna, who seems to have been regarded as a second Joan of Arc, just when one may suppose the Prussian colonel was beginning to find leisure to prosecute his romantic suit — Lo! the French returned and retook Luneberg.
Dire event! which the poor Lunebergers deplored, and which was positive ruin to our heroine, whose temporary elevation had served to point her out as a mark for the vengeance of the infuriated French soldiery.
Johanna, thrown down from her lofty pedestal, was, metaphorically speaking, obliged to grovel in the mud, and literally, might have been trampled to death, except for hiding herself, which she did for many days, in a dark dismal cellar, indebted for sustenance solely to the good offices of neighbours, and to Caroline, who brought her in milk from Grimm, and who, unnoticed and unrewarded, was no doubt much happier than the heroine cowering in her dismal cellar, expecting hourly death — or worse.
But this terrible condition, which lasted many bitter days, was terminated at length by the report of a large body of Prussians advancing on Luneberg,; and now, as the French at last evacuated Luneberg, our heroine once more emerged from her obscurity, and threw herself at the king’s feet.
Her sorrows ended there. Her merits were at once recognised; she was patronised by some of the female connections of her Prussian admirer. Following the army subsequently into Prussia, she was at once placed on the full-pay of a colonel, and sent to a pension to be educated for her future rank in life — a Prussian nobleman’s spouse. Henceforth the life of Johanna Stegen became one of uninterrupted prosperity. At the close of the war she married the man, whose peremptory orders were in reality the cause of her being famous. History tells us no more of her.
Did education refine her? Did she ever think of Caroline Burger, in the latter’s obscurity, or aid the comrade who shared her peril, but not her good fortune? It is believed not. She whom we have called Caroline lived and died, obscure and humble, perhaps not less happy; even her real name was not known by the old inhabitant of the Schloss Luneberg, from whose lips this little narrative was gathered years ago, and who could boast of having both seen and spoken to, the famous heroine of Luneberg, Johanna Stegen, by no means the first, nor in all likelihood the last, to whom fortune has called in a fit of caprice, and loaded with unmerited favours.
Author: H. J.
*Lüneberg or Lueneberg