The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth von Arnim
June 3rd.--The Man of Wrath, I observe, is laying traps for me and being deep. He has prophesied that I will find solitude intolerable, and he is naturally desirous that his prophecy should be fulfilled. He knows that continuous rain depresses me, and he is awaiting a spell of it to bring me to a confession that I was wrong after all, whereupon he will make that remark so precious to the married heart, "My dear, I told you so." He begins the day by tapping the barometer, looking at the sky, and shaking his head. If there are any clouds he remarks that they are coming up, and if there are none he says it is too fine to last. He has even gone the length once or twice of starting off to the farm on hot, sunny mornings in his mackintosh, in order to impress on me beyond all doubt that the weather is breaking up. He studiously keeps out of my way all day, so that I may have every opportunity of being bored as quickly as possible, and in the evenings he retires to his den directly after dinner, muttering something about letters. When he has finally disappeared, I go out to the stars and laugh at his transparent wiles.
But how would it be if we did have a spell of wet weather? I do not quite know. As long as it is fine, rainy days in the future do not seem so very terrible, and one, or even two really wet ones are quite enjoyable when they do come--pleasant times that remind one of the snug winter now so far off, times of reading, and writing, and paying one's bills. I never pay bills or write letters on fine summer days. Not for any one will I forego all that such a day rightly spent out of doors might give me; so that a wet day at intervals is almost as necessary for me as for my garden. But how would it be if there were many wet days? I believe a week of steady drizzle in summer is enough to make the stoutest heart depressed. It is to be borne in winter by the simple expedient of turning your face to the fire; but when you have no fire, and very long days, your cheerfulness slowly slips away, and the dreariness prevailing out of doors comes in and broods in the blank corners of your heart. I rather fancy, however, that it is a waste of energy to ponder over what I should do if we had a wet summer on such a radiant day as this. I prefer sitting here on the verandah and looking down through a frame of leaves at all the rosebuds June has put in the beds round the sun-dial, to ponder over nothing, and just be glad that I am alive. The verandah at two o'clock on a summer's afternoon is a place in which to be happy and not decide anything, as my friend Thoreau told me of some other tranquil spot this morning. The chairs are comfortable, there is a table to write on, and the shadows of young leaves flicker across the paper. On one side a Crimson Rambler is thrusting inquisitive shoots through the wooden bars, being able this year for the first time since it was planted to see what I am doing up here, and next to it a Jackmanni clematis clings with soft young fingers to anything it thinks likely to help it up to the goal of its ambition, the roof. I wonder which of the two will get there first. Down there in the rose beds, among the hundreds of buds there is only one full-blown rose as yet, a Marie van Houtte, one of the loveliest of the tea roses, perfect in shape and scent and colour, and in my garden always the first rose to flower; and the first flowers it bears are the loveliest of its own lovely flowers, as though it felt that the first of its children to see the sky and the sun and the familiar garden after the winter sleep ought to put on the very daintiest clothes they can muster for such a festal occasion.
Through the open schoolroom windows I can hear the two eldest babies at their lessons. The village schoolmaster comes over every afternoon and teaches them for two hours, so that we are free from governesses in the house, and once those two hours are over they are free for twenty-four from anything in the shape of learning. The schoolroom is next to the verandah, and as two o'clock approaches their excitement becomes more and more intense, and they flutter up and down the steps, looking in their white dresses like angels on a Jacob's ladder, or watch eagerly among the bushes for a first glimpse of him, like miniature and perfectly proper Isoldes. He is a kind giant with that endless supply of patience so often found in giants, especially when they happen to be village schoolmasters, and judging from the amount of laughter I hear, the babies seem to enjoy their lessons in a way they never did before. Every day they prepare bouquets for him, and he gets more of them than a prima donna, or at any rate a more regular supply. The first day he came I was afraid they would be very shy of such a big strange man, and that he would extract nothing from them but tears; but the moment I left them alone together and as I shut the door, I heard them eagerly informing him, by way of opening the friendship, that their heads were washed every Saturday night, and that their hair-ribbons did not match because there had not been enough of the one sort to go round. I went away hoping that they would not think it necessary to tell him how often my head is washed, or any other news of a personal nature about me; but I believe by this time that man knows everything there is to know about the details of my morning toilet, which is daily watched with the greatest interest by the Three. I hope he will be more successful than I was in teaching them Bible stories. I never got farther than Noah, at which stage their questions became so searching as to completely confound me; and as no one likes being confounded, and it is especially regrettable when a parent is placed in such a position, I brought the course to an abrupt end by assuming that owl-like air of wisdom peculiar to infallibility in a corner, and telling them that they were too young to understand these things for the present; and they, having a touching faith in the truth of every word I say, gave three contented little purrs of assent, and proposed that we should play instead at rolling down the grass bank under the south windows--which I did not do, I am glad to remember.
But the schoolmaster, after four weeks' teaching, has got them as far as Moses, and safely past the Noah's ark on which I came to grief, and if glibness is a sign of knowledge then they have learned the story very thoroughly. Yesterday, after he had gone, they emerged into the verandah fresh from Moses and bursting with eagerness to tell me all about it.
"Herr Schenk told us to-day about Moses," began the April baby, making a rush at me.
"Yes, and a boser, boser Konig who said every boy must be deaded, and Moses was the allerliebster."
"Talk English, my dear baby, and not such a dreadful mixture," I besought.
"He wasn't a cat."
"Yes, he wasn't a cat, that Moses--a boy was he."
"But of course he wasn't a cat," I said with some severity; "no one ever supposed he was."
"Yes, but mummy," she explained eagerly, with much appropriate hand- action, "the cook's Moses is a cat."
"Oh, I see. Well?"
"And he was put in a basket in the water, and that did swim. And then one time they comed, and she said--"
"Who came? And who said?"
"Why, the ladies; and the Konigstochter said, 'Ach hormal, da schreit so etwas.'"
"Yes, and then they went near, and one must take off her shoes and stockings and go in the water and fetch that tiny basket, and then they made it open, and that Kind did cry and cry and strampel so"--here both the babies gave such a vivid illustration of the strampeln that the verandah shook--"and see! it is a tiny baby. And they fetched somebody to give it to eat, and the Konigstochter can keep that boy, and further it doesn't go."
"Do you love Moses, mummy?" asked the May baby, jumping into my lap, and taking my face in both her hands--one of the many pretty, caressing little ways of a very pretty, caressing little creature.
"Yes," I replied bravely, "I love him."
"Then I too!" they cried with simultaneous gladness, the seal having thus been affixed to the legitimacy of their regard for him. To be of such authority that your verdict on every subject under heaven is absolute and final is without doubt to be in a proud position, but, like all proud positions, it bristles with pitfalls and drawbacks to the weak-kneed; and most of my conversations with the babies end in a sudden change of subject made necessary by the tendency of their remarks and the unanswerableness of their arguments. Happily, yesterday the Moses talk was brought to an end by the April baby herself, who suddenly remembered that I had not yet seen and sympathised with her dearest possession, a Dutch doll called Mary Jane, since a lamentable accident had bereft it of both its legs; and she had dived into the schoolroom and fished it out of the dark corner reserved for the mangled and thrust it in my face before I had well done musing on the nature and extent of my love for Moses--for I try to be conscientious--and bracing myself to meet the next question.
"See this poor Mary Jane," she said, her voice and hand quivering with tenderness as she lifted its petticoats to show me the full extent of the calamity, "see, mummy, no legs--only twowsers and nothing further."
I wish they would speak English a little better. The pains I take to correct them and weed out the German words that crop up in every sentence are really untiring, and the results discouraging. Indeed, as they get older the German asserts itself more and more, and is threatening to swallow up the little English they have left entirely. I talk English steadily with them, but everybody else, including a small French nurse lately imported, nothing but German. Somebody told me the thing to do was to let children pick up languages when they were babies, at which period they absorb them as easily as food and drink, and are quite unaware that they are learning anything at all; whereupon I immediately introduced this French girl into the family, forgetting how little English they have absorbed, and the result has been that they pass their days delightfully in teaching her German. They were astonished at first on discovering that she could not understand a word they said, and soon set about altering such an uncomfortable state of things; and as they are three to one and very zealous, and she is a meek little person with a profile like a teapot with a twisted black handle of hair, their success was practically certain from the beginning, and she is getting on quite nicely with her German, and has at least already thoroughly learned all the mistakes. She wanders in the garden with a surprised look on her face as of one who is moving about in worlds not realised; and the three cling to her skirts and give her enthusiastic lessons all day long.
Poor Seraphine! What courage to weigh anchor at eighteen and go into a foreign country, to a place where you are among utter strangers, without a friend, unable to speak a word of the language, and not even sure before you start whether you will be given enough to eat. Either it is that saddest of courage forced on the timid by necessity, or, as Doctor Johnson would probably have said, it is stark insensibility; and I am afraid when I look at her I silently agree with the apostle of common sense, and take it for granted that she is incapable of deep feeling, for the altogether inadequate reason that she has a certain resemblance to a teapot. Now is it not hard that a person may have a soul as beautiful as an angel's, a dwelling-place for all sweet sounds and harmonies, and if nature has not thought fit to endow his body with a chin the world will have none of him? The vulgar prejudice is in favour of chins, and who shall escape its influence? I, for one, cannot, though theoretically I utterly reject the belief that the body is the likeness of the soul; for has not each of us friends who, we know, love beyond everything that which is noble and good, and who by no means themselves look noble and good? And what about all the beautiful persons who love nothing on earth except themselves? Yet who in the world cares how perfect the nature may be, how humble, how sweet, how gracious, that dwells in a chinless body? Nobody has time to inquire into natures, and the chinless must be content to be treated in something of the same good-natured, tolerant fashion in which we treat our poor relations until such time as they shall have grown a beard; and those who by their sex are for ever shut out from this glorious possibility will have to take care, should they be of a bright intelligence, how they speak with the tongues of men and of angels, nothing being more droll than the effect of high words and poetic ideas issuing from a face that does not match them.
I wish we were not so easily affected by each other's looks. Sometimes, during the course of a long correspondence with a friend, he grows to be inexpressibly dear to me; I see how beautiful his soul is, how fine his intellect, how generous his heart, and how he already possesses in great perfection those qualities of kindness, and patience, and simplicity, after which I have been so long and so vainly striving. It is not I clothing him with the attributes I love and wandering away insensibly into that sweet land of illusions to which our footsteps turn whenever they are left to themselves, it is his very self unconsciously writing itself into his letters, the very man as he is without his body. Then I meet him again, and all illusions go. He is what I had always found him when we were together, good and amiable; but some trick of manner, some feature or attitude that I do not quite like, makes me forget, and be totally unable to remember, what I know from his letters to be true of him. He, no doubt, feels the same thing about me, and so between us there is a thick veil of something fixed, which, dodge as we may, we never can get round.
"Well, and what do you conclude from all that?" said the Man of Wrath, who had been going out by the verandah door with his gun and his dogs to shoot the squirrels before they had eaten up too many birds, and of whose coat-sleeve I had laid hold as he passed, keeping him by me like a second Wedding Guest, and almost as restless, while I gave expression to the above sentiments.
"I don't know," I replied, "unless it is that the world is very evil and the times are waxing late, but that doesn't explain anything either, because it isn't true."
And he went down the steps laughing and shaking his head and muttering something that I could not quite catch, and I am glad I could not, for the two words I did hear were women and nonsense.
He has developed an unexpected passion for farming, much to my relief, and though we came down here at first only tentatively for a year, three have passed, and nothing has been said about going back to town. Nor will anything be said so long as he is not the one to say it, for no three years of my life can come up to these in happiness, and not even those splendid years of childhood that grow brighter as they recede were more full of delights. The delights are simple, it is true, and of the sort that easily provoke a turning up of the worldling's nose; but who cares for noses that turn up? I am simple myself, and never tire of the blessed liberty from all restraints. Even such apparently indifferent details as being able to walk straight out of doors without first getting into a hat and gloves and veil are full of a subtle charm that is ever fresh, and of which I can never have too much. It is clear that I was born for a placid country life, and placid it certainly is; so much so that the days are sometimes far more like a dream than anything real, the quiet days of reading, and thinking, and watching the changing lights, and the growth and fading of the flowers, the fresh quiet days when life is so full of zest that you cannot stop yourself from singing because you are so happy, the warm quiet days lying on the grass in a secluded corner observing the procession of clouds--this being, I admit, a particularly undignified attitude, but think of the edification! Each morning the simple act of opening my bedroom windows is the means of giving me an ever-recurring pleasure. Just underneath them is a border of rockets in full flower, at that hour in the shadow of the house, whose gables lie sharply defined on the grass beyond, and they send up their good morning of scent the moment they see me leaning out, careful not to omit the pretty German custom of morning greeting. I call back mine, embellished with many endearing words, and then their fragrance comes up close, and covers my face with gentlest little kisses. Behind them, on the other side of the lawn on this west side of the house, is a thick hedge of lilac just now at its best, and what that best is I wish all who love lilac could see. A century ago a man lived here who loved his garden. He loved, however, in his younger years, travelling as well, but in his travels did not forget this little corner of the earth belonging to him, and brought back the seeds of many strange trees such as had never been seen in these parts before, and tried experiments with them in the uncongenial soil, and though many perished, a few took hold, and grew, and flourished, and shade me now at tea-time. What flowers he had, and how he arranged his beds, no one knows, except that the eleven beds round the sun-dial were put there by him; and of one thing he seems to have been inordinately fond, and that was lilac. We have to thank him for the surprising beauty of the garden in May and early June, for he it was who planted the great groups of it, and the banks of it, and massed it between the pines and firs. Wherever a lilac bush could go a lilac bush went; and not common sorts, but a variety of good sorts, white, and purple, and pink, and mauve, and he must have planted it with special care and discrimination, for it grows here as nothing else will, and keeps his memory, in my heart at least, for ever gratefully green. On the wall behind our pew in church there is his monument, he having died here full of years, in the peace that attends the last hours of a good man who has loved his garden; and to the long Latin praises of his virtues and eminence I add, as I pass beneath it on Sundays, a heartiest Amen. Who would not join in the praises of a man to whom you owe your lilacs, and your Spanish chestnuts, and your tulip trees, and your pyramid oaks? "He was a good man, for he loved his garden"--that is the epitaph I would have put on his monument, because it gives one a far clearer sense of his goodness and explains it better than any amount of sonorous Latinities. How could he be anything but good since he loved a garden--that divine filter that filters all the grossness out of us, and leaves us, each time we have been in it, clearer, and purer, and more harmless?
June 16th.--Yesterday morning I got up at three o'clock and stole through the echoing passages and strange dark rooms, undid with trembling hands the bolts of the door to the verandah, and passed out into a wonderful, unknown world. I stood for a few minutes motionless on the steps, almost frightened by the awful purity of nature when all the sin and ugliness is shut up and asleep, and there is nothing but the beauty left. It was quite light, yet a bright moon hung in the cloudless grey-blue sky; the flowers were all awake, saturating the air with scent; and a nightingale sat on a hornbeam quite close to me, in loud raptures at the coming of the sun. There in front of me was the sun- dial, there were the rose bushes, there was the bunch of pansies I had dropped the night before still lying on the path, but how strange and unfamiliar it all looked, and how holy--as though God must be walking there in the cool of the day. I went down the path leading to the stream on the east side of the garden, brushing aside the rockets that were bending across it drowsy with dew, the larkspurs on either side of me rearing their spikes of heavenly blue against the steely blue of the sky, and the huge poppies like splashes of blood amongst the greys and blues and faint pearly whites of the innocent, new-born day. On the garden side of the stream there is a long row of silver birches, and on the other side a rye-field reaching across in powdery grey waves to the part of the sky where a solemn glow was already burning. I sat down on the twisted, half-fallen trunk of a birch and waited, my feet in the long grass and my slippers soaking in dew. Through the trees I could see the house with its closed shutters and drawn blinds, the people in it all missing, as I have missed day after day, the beauty of life at that hour. Just behind me the border of rockets and larkspurs came to an end, and, turning my head to watch a stealthy cat, my face brushed against a wet truss of blossom and got its first morning washing. It was wonderfully quiet, and the nightingale on the hornbeam had everything to itself as I sat motionless watching that glow in the east burning redder; wonderfully quiet, and so wonderfully beautiful because one associates daylight with people, and voices, and bustle, and hurryings to and fro, and the dreariness of working to feed our bodies, and feeding our bodies that we may be able to work to feed them again; but here was the world wide awake and yet only for me, all the fresh pure air only for me, all the fragrance breathed only by me, not a living soul hearing the nightingale but me, the sun in a few moments coming up to warm only me, and nowhere a single hard word being spoken, or a single selfish act being done, nowhere anything that could tarnish the blessed purity of the world as God has given it us. If one believed in angels one would feel that they must love us best when we are asleep and cannot hurt each other; and what a mercy it is that once in every twenty-four hours we are too utterly weary to go on being unkind. The doors shut, and the lights go out, and the sharpest tongue is silent, and all of us, scolder and scolded, happy and unhappy, master and slave, judge and culprit, are children again, tired, and hushed, and helpless, and forgiven. And see the blessedness of sleep, that sends us back for a space to our early innocence. Are not our first impulses on waking always good? Do we not all know how in times of wretchedness our first thoughts after the night's sleep are happy? We have been dreaming we are happy, and we wake with a smile, and stare still smiling for a moment at our stony griefs before with a stab we recognise them.
There were no clouds, and presently, while I watched, the sun came up quickly out of the rye, a great, bare, red ball, and the grey of the field turned yellow, and long shadows lay upon the grass, and the wet flowers flashed out diamonds. And then as I sat there watching, and intensely happy as I imagined, suddenly the certainty of grief, and suffering, and death dropped like a black curtain between me and the beauty of the morning, and then that other thought, to face which needs all our courage--the realisation of the awful solitariness in which each of us lives and dies. Often I could cry for pity of our forlornness, and of the pathos of our endeavours to comfort ourselves. With what an agony of patience we build up the theories of consolation that are to protect, in times of trouble, our quivering and naked souls! And how fatally often the elaborate machinery refuses to work at the moment the blow is struck.
I got up and turned my face away from the unbearable, indifferent brightness. Myriads of small suns danced before my eyes as I went along the edge of the stream to the seat round the oak in my spring garden, where I sat a little, looking at the morning from there, drinking it in in long breaths, and determining to think of nothing but just be happy. What a smell of freshly mown grass there was, and how the little heaps into which it had been raked the evening before sparkled with dewdrops as the sun caught them. And over there, how hot the poppies were already beginning to look--blazing back boldly in the face of the sun, flashing back fire for fire. I crossed the wet grass to the hammock under the beech on the lawn, and lay in it awhile trying to swing in time to the nightingale's tune; and then I walked round the ice-house to see how Goethe's corner looked at such an hour; and then I went down to the fir wood at the bottom of the garden where the light was slanting through green stems; and everywhere there was the same mystery, and emptiness, and wonder. When four o'clock drew near I set off home again, not desiring to meet gardeners and have my little hour of quiet talked about, still less my dressing-gown and slippers; so I picked a bunch of roses and hurried in, and just as I softly bolted the door, dreadfully afraid of being taken for a burglar, I heard the first water-cart of the day creaking round the corner. Fearfully I crept up to my room, and when I awoke at eight o'clock and saw the roses in a glass by my side, I remembered what had happened as though it had been years ago.
Now here I have had an experience that I shall not soon forget, something very precious, and private, and close to my soul; a feeling as though I had taken the world by surprise, and seen it as it really is when off its guard--as though I had been quite near to the very core of things. The quiet holiness of that hour seems all the more mysterious now, because soon after breakfast yesterday the wind began to blow from the northwest, and has not left off since, and looking out of the window I cannot believe that it is the same garden, with the clouds driving over it in black layers, and angry little showers every now and then bespattering its harassed and helpless inhabitants, who cannot pull their roots up out of the ground and run for their lives, as I am sure they must long to do. How discouraging for a plant to have just proudly opened its loveliest flowers, the flowers it was dreaming about all the winter and working at so busily underground during the cold weeks of spring, and then for a spiteful shower of five minutes' duration to come and pelt them down, and batter them about, and cover the tender, delicate things with irremediable splashes of mud! Every bed is already filled with victims of the gale, and those that escape one shower go down before the next; so I must make up my mind, I suppose, to the wholesale destruction of the flowers that had reached perfection--that head of white rockets among them that washed my face a hundred years ago--and look forward cheerfully to the development of the younger generation of buds which cannot yet be harmed.
I know these gales. We get them quite suddenly, always from the north- west, and always cold. They ruin my garden for a day or two, and in the summer try my temper, and at all seasons try my skin; yet they are precious because of the beautiful clear light they bring, the intensity of cold blue in the sky and the terrific purple blackness of the clouds one hour and their divine whiteness the next. They fly screaming over the plain as though ten thousand devils with whips were after them, and in the sunny intervals there is nothing in any of nature's moods to equal the clear sharpness of the atmosphere, all the mellowness and indistinctness beaten out of it, and every leaf and twig glistening coldly bright. It is not becoming, a north-westerly gale; it treats us as it treats the garden, but with opposite results, roughly rubbing the softness out of our faces, as I can see when I look at the babies, and avoid the further proof of my own reflection in the glass. But there is life in it, glowing, intense, robust life, and when in October after weeks of serene weather this gale suddenly pounces on us in all its savageness, and the cold comes in a gust, and the trees are stripped in an hour, what a bracing feeling it is, the feeling that here is the first breath of winter, that it is time to pull ourselves together, that the season of work, and discipline, and severity is upon us, the stern season that forces us to look facts in the face, to put aside our dreams and languors, and show what stuff we are made of. No one can possibly love the summer, the dear time of dreams, more passionately than I do; yet I have no desire to prolong it by running off south when the winter approaches and so cheat the year of half its lessons. It is delightful and instructive to potter among one's plants, but it is imperative for body and soul that the pottering should cease for a few months, and that we should be made to realise that grim other side of life. A long hard winter lived through from beginning to end without shirking is one of the most salutary experiences in the world. There is no nonsense about it; you could not indulge in vapours and the finer sentiments in the midst of its deadly earnest if you tried. The thermometer goes down to twenty degrees of frost Reaumur, and down you go with it to the realities, to that elementary state where everything is big--health and sickness, delight and misery, ecstasy and despair. It makes you remember your poorer neighbours, and sends you into their homes to see that they too are fitted out with the armour of warmth and food necessary in the long fight; and in your own home it draws you nearer than ever to each other. Out of doors it is too cold to walk, so you run, and are rewarded by the conviction that you cannot be more than fifteen; or you get into your furs, and dart away in a sleigh over the snow, and are sure there never was music so charming as that of its bells; or you put on your skates, and are off to the lake to which you drove so often on June nights, when it lay rosy in the reflection of the northern glow, and all alive with myriads of wild duck and plovers, and which is now, but for the swish of your skates, so silent, and but for your warmth and jollity, so forlorn. Nor would I willingly miss the early darkness and the pleasant firelight tea and the long evenings among my books. It is then that I am glad I do not live in a cave, as I confess I have in my more godlike moments wished to do; it is then that I feel most capable of attending to the Man of Wrath's exhortations with an open mind; it is then that I actually like to hear the shrieks of the wind, and then that I give my heartiest assent, as I warm my feet at the fire, to the poet's proposition that all which we behold is full of blessings.
But what dreariness can equal the dreariness of a cold gale at midsummer? I have been chilly and dejected all day, shut up behind the streaming window-panes, and not liking to have a fire because of its dissipated appearance in the scorching intervals of sunshine. Once or twice my hand was on the bell and I was going to order one, when out came the sun and it was June again, and I ran joyfully into the dripping, gleaming garden, only to be driven in five minutes later by a yet fiercer squall. I wandered disconsolately round my pillar of books, looking for the one that would lend itself best to the task of entertaining me under the prevailing conditions, but they all looked gloomy, and reserved, and forbidding. So I sat down in a very big chair, and reflected that if there were to be many days like this it might be as well to ask somebody cheerful to come and sit opposite me in all those other big chairs that were looking so unusually gigantic and empty. When the Man of Wrath came in to tea there were such heavy clouds that the room was quite dark, and he peered about for a moment before he saw me. I suppose in the gloom of the big room I must have looked rather lonely, and smaller than usual buried in the capacious chair, for when he finally discovered me his face widened into an inappropriately cheerful smile.
"Well, my dear," he said genially, "how very cold it is."
"Did you come in to say that?" I asked.
"This tempest is very unusual in the summer," he proceeded; to which I made no reply of any sort.
"I did not see you at first amongst all these chairs and cushions. At least, I saw you, but it is so dark I thought you were a cushion."
Now no woman likes to be taken for a cushion, so I rose and began to make tea with an icy dignity of demeanour.
"I am afraid I shall be forced to break my promise not to invite any one here," he said, watching my face as he spoke. My heart gave a distinct leap--so small is the constancy and fortitude of woman. "But it will only be for one night." My heart sank down as though it were lead. "And I have just received a telegram that it will be to-night." Up went my heart with a cheerful bound.
"Who is it?" I inquired. And then he told me that it was the least objectionable of the candidates for the living here, made vacant by our own parson having been appointed superintendent, the highest position in the Lutheran Church; and the gale must have brought me low indeed for the coming of a solitary parson to give me pleasure. The entire race of Lutheran parsons is unpleasing to me,--whether owing to their fault or to mine, it would ill become me to say,--and the one we are losing is the only one I have met that I can heartily respect, and admire, and like. But he is quite one by himself in his extreme godliness, perfect simplicity, and real humility, and though I knew it was unlikely we should find another as good, and I despised myself for the eagerness with which I felt I was looking forward to seeing a new face, I could not stop myself from suddenly feeling cheerful. Such is the weakness of the female mind, and such the unexpected consequences of two months' complete solitude with forty-eight hours' gale at the end of them.
We have had countless applications during the last few weeks for the living, as it is a specially fat one for this part of the country, with a yearly income of six thousand marks, and a good house, and several acres of land. The Man of Wrath has been distracted by the difficulties of choice. According to the letters of recommendation, they were all wonderful men with unrivalled powers of preaching, but on closer inquiry there was sure to be some drawback. One was too old, another not old enough; another had twelve children, and the parsonage only allows for eight; one had a shrewish wife, and another was of Liberal tendencies in politics--a fatal objection; one was in money difficulties because he would spend more than he had, which was not surprising when one heard what he did have; and another was disliked in his parish because he and his wife were too close-fisted and would not spend at all; and at last, the Man of Wrath explained, the moment having arrived when if he did not himself appoint somebody his right to do so would lapse, he had written to the one who was coming, and invited him down that he might look at him, and ask him searching questions as to the faith which is in him.
I forgot my gloom, and my half-formed desperate resolve to break my vow of solitude and fill the house with the frivolous, as I sat listening to the cheerful talk of the little parson this evening. He was so cheerful, yet it was hard to see any cause for it in the life he was leading, a life led by the great majority of the German clergy, fat livings being as rare here as anywhere else. He told us with pleasant frankness all about himself, how he lived on an income of two thousand marks with a wife and six children, and how he was often sorely put to it to keep decent shoes on their feet. "I am continually drawing up plans of expenditure," he said, "but the shoemaker's bill is always so much more than I had expected that it throws my calculations completely out."
His wife, of course, was ailing, but already his eldest child, a girl of ten, took a great deal of the work off her mother's shoulders, poor baby. He was perfectly natural, and said in the simplest way that if the choice were to fall on him it would relieve him of many grinding anxieties; whereupon I privately determined that if the choice did not fall on him the Man of Wrath and I would be strangers from that hour.
"Have you been worrying him with questions about his principles?" I asked, buttonholing the Man of Wrath as he came out from a private conference with him.
"Principles? My dear Elizabeth, how can he have any on that income?"
"If he is not a Conservative will you let that stand in his way, and doom that little child to go on taking work off other people's shoulders?"
"My dear Elizabeth," he protested, "what has my decision for or against him to do with dooming little children to go on doing anything? I really cannot be governed by sentiment."
"If you don't give it to him--" and I held up an awful finger of warning as he retreated, at which he only laughed.
When the parson came to say good-night and good-bye, as he was leaving very early in the morning, I saw at once by his face that all was right. He bent over my hand, stammering out words of thanks and promises of devotion and invocations of blessings in such quantities that I began to feel quite pleased with myself, and as though I had been doing a virtuous deed. This feeling I saw reflected on the Man of Wrath's face, which made me consider that all we had done was to fill the living in the way that suited us best, and that we had no cause whatever to look and feel so benevolent. Still, even now, while the victorious candidate is dreaming of his trebled income and of the raptures of his home-coming to-morrow, the glow has not quite departed, and I am dwelling with satisfaction on the fact that we have been able to raise eight people above those hideous cares that crush all the colour out of the lives of the genteel poor. I am glad he has so many children, because there will be more to be made happy. They will be rich on the little income, and will no doubt dismiss the wise and willing eldest baby to appropriate dolls and pinafores; and everybody will have what they never yet have had, a certain amount of that priceless boon, leisure--leisure to sit down and look at themselves, and inquire what it is they really mean, and really want, and really intend to do with their lives. And this, I may observe, is a beneficial process wholly impossible on 100 pounds a year divided by eight.
But I wonder whether they will be thin-skinned enough ever to discover that other and less delightful side of life only seen by those who have plenty of leisure. Sordid cares may be very terrible to the sensitive, and make them miss the best of everything, but as long as they have them and are busy from morning till night keeping up appearances, they miss also the burden of those fears, and dreads, and realisations that beset him who has time to think. When in the morning I go into my sausage-room and give out sausages, I never think of anything but sausages. My horizon is bounded by them, every faculty is absorbed by them, and they engross me, while I am with them, to the exclusion of the whole world. Not that I love them; as far as that goes, unlike the effect they produce on most of my country-men, they leave me singularly cold; but it is one of my duties to begin the day with sausages, and every morning for the short time I am in the midst of their shining rows, watching my Mamsell dexterously hooking down the sleekest with an instrument like a boat-hook, I am practically dead to every other consideration in heaven or on earth. What are they to me, Love, Life, Death, all the mysteries? The one thing that concerns me is the due distribution to the servants of sausages; and until that is done, all obstinate questionings and blank misgivings must wait. If I were to spend my days in their entirety doing such work I should never have time to think, and if I never thought I should never feel, and if I never felt I should never suffer or rapturously enjoy, and so I should grow to be something very like a sausage myself, and not on that account, I do believe, any the less precious to the Man of Wrath.
I know what I would do if I were both poor and genteel--the gentility should go to the place of all good ilities, including utility, respectability, and imbecility, and I would sit, quite frankly poor, with a piece of bread, and a pot of geraniums, and a book. I conclude that if I did without the things erroneously supposed necessary to decency I might be able to afford a geranium, because I see them so often in the windows of cottages where there is little else; and if I preferred such inexpensive indulgences as thinking and reading and wandering in the fields to the doubtful gratification arising from kept- up appearances (always for the bedazzlement of the people opposite, and therefore always vulgar), I believe I should have enough left over to buy a radish to eat with my bread; and if the weather were fine, and I could eat it under a tree, and give a robin some crumbs in return for his cheeriness, would there be another creature in the world so happy? I know there would not.