The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth von Arnim
July 1st.--I think that after roses sweet-peas are my favourite flowers. Nobody, except the ultra-original, denies the absolute supremacy of the rose. She is safe on her throne, and the only question to decide is which are the flowers that one loves next best. This I have been a long while deciding, though I believe I knew all the time somewhere deep down in my heart that they were sweet-peas; and every summer when they first come out, and every time, going round the garden, that I come across them, I murmur involuntarily, "Oh yes, you are the sweetest, you dear, dear little things." And what a victory this is, to be ranked next the rose even by one person who loves her garden. Think of the wonderful beauty triumphed over--the lilies, the irises, the carnations, the violets, the frail and delicate poppies, the magnificent larkspurs, the burning nasturtiums, the fierce marigolds, the smooth, cool pansies. I have a bed at this moment in the full glory of all these things, a little chosen plot of fertile land, about fifteen yards long and of irregular breadth, shutting in at its broadest the east end of the walk along the south front of the house, and sloping away at the back down to a moist, low bit by the side of a very tiny stream, or rather thread of trickling water, where, in the dampest corner, shining in the sun, but with their feet kept cool and wet, is a colony of Japanese irises, and next to them higher on the slope Madonna lilies, so chaste in looks and so voluptuous in smell, and then a group of hollyhocks in tenderest shades of pink, and lemon, and white, and right and left of these white marguerites and evening primroses and that most exquisite of poppies called Shirley, and a little on one side a group of metallic blue delphiniums beside a towering white lupin, and in and out and everywhere mignonette, and stocks, and pinks, and a dozen other smaller but not less lovely plants. I wish I were a poet, that I might properly describe the beauty of this bit as it sparkles this afternoon in the sunshine after rain; but of all the charming, delicate, scented groups it contains, none to my mind is so lovely as the group of sweet-peas in its north-west corner. There is something so utterly gentle and tender about sweet-peas, something so endearing in their clinging, winding, yielding growth; and then the long straight stalk, and the perfect little winged flower at the top, with its soft, pearly texture and wonderful range and combination of colours--all of them pure, all of them satisfying, not an ugly one, or even a less beautiful one among them. And in the house, next to a china bowl of roses, there is no arrangement of flowers so lovely as a bowl of sweet-peas, or a Delf jar filled with them. What a mass of glowing, yet delicate colour it is! How prettily, the moment you open the door, it seems to send its fragrance to meet you! And how you hang over it, and bury your face in it, and love it, and cannot get away from it. I really am sorry for all the people in the world who miss such keen pleasure. It is one that each person who opens his eyes and his heart may have; and indeed, most of the things that are really worth having are within everybody's reach. Any one who chooses to take a country walk, or even the small amount of trouble necessary to get him on to his doorstep and make him open his eyes, may have them, and there are thousands of them thrust upon us by nature, who is for ever giving and blessing, at every turn as we walk. The sight of the first pale flowers starring the copses; an anemone held up against the blue sky with the sun shining through it towards you; the first fall of snow in the autumn; the first thaw of snow in the spring; the blustering, busy winds blowing the winter away and scurrying the dead, untidy leaves into the corners; the hot smell of pines--just like blackberries--when the sun is on them; the first February evening that is fine enough to show how the days are lengthening, with its pale yellow strip of sky behind the black trees whose branches are pearled with raindrops; the swift pang of realisation that the winter is gone and the spring is coming; the smell of the young larches a few weeks later; the bunch of cowslips that you kiss and kiss again because it is so perfect, because it is so divinely sweet, because of all the kisses in the world there is none other so exquisite--who that has felt the joy of these things would exchange them, even if in return he were to gain the whole world, with all its chimney-pots, and bricks, and dust, and dreariness? And we know that the gain of a world never yet made up for the loss of a soul.
One day, in going round the head inspector's garden with his wife, whose care it is, I remarked with surprise that she had no sweet-peas. I called them Lathyrus odoratus, and she, having little Latin, did not understand. Then I called them wohlriechende Wicken, the German rendering of that which sounds so pretty in English, and she said she had never heard of them. The idea of an existence in a garden yet without sweet-peas, so willing, so modest, and so easily grown, had never presented itself as possible to my imagination. Ever since I can remember, my summers have been filled with them; and in the days when I sat in my own perambulator and they were three times as tall as I was, I well recollect a certain waving hedge of them in the garden of my childhood, and how I stared up longingly at the flowers so far beyond my reach, inaccessibly tossing against the sky. When I grew bigger and had a small garden of my own, I bought their seeds to the extent of twenty pfennings, and trained the plants over the rabbit-hutch that was the chief feature in the landscape. There were other seeds in that garden seeds on which I had laid out all my savings and round which played my fondest hopes, but the sweet-peas were the only ones that came up. The same thing happened here in my first summer, my gardening knowledge not having meanwhile kept pace with my years, and of the seeds sown that first season sweet-peas again were the only ones that came up. I should say they were just the things for people with very little time and experience at their disposal to grow. A garden might be made beautiful with sweet-peas alone, and, with hardly any labour, except the sweet labour of picking to prolong the bloom, be turned into a fairy bower of delicacy and refinement. Yet the Frau Inspector not only had never heard of them, but, on my showing her a bunch, was not in the least impressed, and led me in her garden to a number of those exceedingly vulgar red herbaceous peonies growing among her currant bushes, and announced with conviction that they were her favourite flower. It was on the tip of my tongue to point out that in these days of tree-peonies, and peonies so lovely in their silvery faint tints that they resemble gigantic roses, it is absolutely wicked to suffer those odious red ones to pervert one's taste; that a person who sees nothing but those every time he looks out of his window very quickly has his nice perception for true beauty blunted; that such a person would do well to visit my garden every day during the month of May, and so get himself cured by the sight of my peony bushes covered with huge scented white and blush flowers; and that he would, I was convinced, at the end of the cure, go home and pitch his own on to the dust-heap. But of what earthly use would it have been? Pointing out the difference between what is beautiful and what misses beauty to a Frau Inspector of forty, whose chief business it is to make butter, is likely to be singularly unprolific of good results; and, further, experience has taught me that whenever anything is on the tip of my tongue the best thing to do is to keep it there. I wonder why a woman always wants to interfere.
It is a pity, nevertheless, that this lady should be so wanting in the aesthetic instinct, for her garden is full of possibilities. It lies due south, sheltered on the north, east, and west by farm buildings, and is rich in those old fruit-trees and well-seasoned gooseberry bushes that make such a good basis for the formation of that most delightful type of little garden, the flower-and-fruit-and-vegetable-mixed sort. She has, besides, an inestimable slimy, froggy pond, a perpetual treasure of malodorous water, much pined after by thirsty flowers; and then does she not live in the middle of a farmyard flowing with fertilising properties that only require a bucket and a shovel to transform them into roses? The way in which people miss their opportunities is melancholy.
This pond of hers, by the way, is an object of the liveliest interest to the babies. They do not seem to mind the smell, and they love the slime, and they had played there for several days in great peace before the unfortunate accident of the June baby's falling in and being brought back looking like a green and speckled frog herself, revealed where it was they had persuaded Seraphine to let them spend their mornings. Then there was woe and lamentation, for I was sure they would all have typhoid fever, and I put them mercilessly to bed, and dosed them, as a preliminary, with castor oil--that oil of sorrow, as Carlyle calls it. It was no use sending for the doctor because there is no doctor within reach; a fact which simplifies life amazingly when you have children. During the time we lived in town the doctor was never out of the house. Hardly a day passed but one or other of the Three had a spot, or, as the expressive German has it, a Pickel, and what parent could resist sending for a doctor when one lived round the corner? But doctors are like bad habits--once you have shaken them off you discover how much better you are without them; and as for the babies, since they inhabit a garden, prompt bed and the above-mentioned simple remedy have been all that is necessary to keep them robust. I admit I was frightened when I heard where they had been playing, for when the wind comes from that quarter even sitting by my rose beds I have been reminded of the existence of the pond; and I kept them in bed for three days, anxiously awaiting symptoms, and my head full of a dreadful story I had heard of a little boy who had drunk seltzer water and thereupon been seized with typhoid fever and had died, and if, I asked myself with a power of reasoning unusual in a woman, you die after seltzer water, what will you not do after frog-pond? But they did nothing, except be uproarious, and sing at the top of their voices, and clamour for more dinner than I felt would be appropriate for babies who were going to be dangerously ill in a few hours; and so, after due waiting, they were got up and dressed and turned loose again, and from that day to this no symptoms have appeared. The pond was at first strictly forbidden as a playground, but afterwards I made concessions, and now they are allowed to go to a deserted little burying-ground on the west side of it when the wind is in the west; and there at least they can hear the frogs, and sometimes, if they are patient, catch a delightful glimpse of them.
The graveyard is in the middle of a group of pines that bounds the Frau Inspector's garden on that side, and has not been used within the memory of living man. The people here love to make their little burying-grounds in the heart of a wood if they can, and they are often a long way away from the church to which they belong because, while every hamlet has its burying-ground, three or four hamlets have to share a church; and indeed the need for churches is not so urgent as that for graves, seeing that, though we may not all go to church, we all of us die and must be buried. Some of these little cemeteries are not even anywhere near a village, and you come upon them unexpectedly in your drives through the woods-- bits of fenced-in forest, the old gates dropping off their hinges, the paths green from long disuse, the unchecked trees casting black, impenetrable shadows across the poor, meek, pathetic graves. I try sometimes, pushing aside the weeds, to decipher the legend on the almost speechless headstones; but the voice has been choked out of them by years of wind, and frost, and snow, and a few stray letters are all that they can utter--a last stammering protest against oblivion.
The Man of Wrath says all women love churchyards. He is fond of sweeping assertions, and is sometimes curiously feminine in his tendency to infer a general principle from a particular instance. The deserted little forest burying-grounds interest and touch me because they are so solitary, and humble, and neglected, and forgotten, and because so many long years have passed since tears were shed over the newly made graves. Nobody cries now for the husband, or father, or brother buried there; years and years ago the last tear that would ever be shed for them was dried--dried probably before the gate was reached on the way home--and they were not missed. Love and sorrow appear to be flowers of civilisation, and most to flourish where life has the broadest margin of leisure and abundance. The primary instincts are always there, and must first be satisfied; and if to obtain the means of satisfying them you have to work from morning till night without rest, who shall find time and energy to sit down and lament? I often go with the babies to the enclosure near the Frau Inspector's pond, and it seems just as natural that they should play there as that the white butterflies should chase each other undisturbed across the shadows. And then the place has a soothing influence on them, and they sober down as we approach it, and on hot afternoons sit quietly enough as close to the pond as they may, content to watch for the chance appearance of a frog while talking to me about angels.
This is their favourite topic of conversation in this particular place. Just as I have special times and places for certain books, so do they seem to have special times and places for certain talk. The first time I took them there they asked me what the mounds were, and by a series of adroit questions extracted the information that the people who had been buried there were now angels (I am not a specialist, and must take refuge in telling them what I was told in my youth), and ever since then they refuse to call it a graveyard, and have christened it the angel- yard, and so have got into the way of discussing angels in all their bearings, sometimes to my confusion, whenever we go there.
"But what are angels, mummy?" said the June baby inconsequently this afternoon, after having assisted at the discussions for several days and apparently listening with attention.
"Such a silly baby!" cried April, turning upon her with contempt, "don't you know they are lieber Gott's little girls?"
Now I protest I had never told those babies anything of the sort. I answer their questions to the best of my ability and as conscientiously as I can, and then, when I hear them talking together afterwards, I am staggered by the impression they appear to have received. They live in a whole world of independent ideas in regard to heaven and the angels, ideas quite distinct from other people's, and, as far as I can make out, believe that the Being they call lieber Gott pervades the garden, and is identical with, among other things, the sunshine and the air on a fine day. I never told them so, nor, I am sure, did Seraphine, and still less Seraphine's predecessor Miss Jones, whose views were wholly material; yet if, on bright mornings, I forget to immediately open all the library windows on coming down, the April baby runs in, and with quite a worried look on her face cries, "Mummy, won't you open the windows and let the lieber Gott come in?"
If they were less rosy and hungry, or if I were less prosaic, I might have gloomy forebodings that such keen interest in things and beings celestial was prophetic of a short life; and in books, we know, the children who talk much on these topics invariably die, after having given their reverential parents a quantity of advice. Fortunately such children are confined to books, and there is nothing of the ministering child--surely a very uncomfortable form of infant--about my babies. Indeed, I notice that in their conversations together on such matters a healthy spirit of contradiction prevails, and this afternoon, after having accepted April's definition of angels with apparent reverence, the June baby electrified the other two (always more orthodox and yielding) by remarking that she hoped she would never go to heaven. I pretended to be deep in my book and not listening; April and May were sitting on the grass sewing ("needling" they call it) fearful-looking woolwork things for Seraphine's birthday, and June was leaning idly against a pine trunk, swinging a headless doll round and round by its one remaining leg, her heels well dug into the ground, her sun-bonnet off, and all the yellow tangles of her hair falling across her sunburnt, grimy little face.
"No," she repeated firmly, with her eyes fixed on her sisters' startled faces, "I don't want to. There's nothing there for babies to play with."
"Nothing to play with?" exclaimed the other two in a breath--and throwing down their needle-work they made a simultaneous rush for me.
"Mummy, did you hear? June says she doesn't want to go into the Himmel!" cried April, horror-stricken.
"Because there's nothing to play with there, she says," cried May, breathlessly; and then they added with one voice, as though the subject had long ago been threshed out and settled between them, "Why, she can play at ball there with all the Sternleins if she likes!"
The idea of the June baby striding across the firmament and hurling the stars about as carelessly as though they were tennis-balls was so magnificent that it sent shivers of awe through me as I read.
"But if you break all your dolls," added April, turning severely to June, and eyeing the distorted remains in her hand, "I don't think lieber Gott will let you in at all. When you're big and have tiny Junes--real live Junes--I think you'll break them too, and lieber Gott doesn't love mummies what breaks their babies."
"But I must break my dolls," cried June, stung into indignation by what she evidently regarded as celestial injustice; "lieber Gott made me that way, so I can't help doing it, can I, mummy?"
On these occasions I keep my eyes fixed on my book, and put on an air of deep abstraction; and indeed, it is the only way of keeping out of theological disputes in which I am invariably worsted.
July 15th.--Yesterday, as it was a cool and windy afternoon and not as pleasant in my garden as it has lately been, I thought I would go into the village and see how my friends the farm hands were getting on. Philanthropy is intermittent with me as with most people, only they do not say so, and seize me like a cold in the head whenever the weather is chilly. On warm days my bump of benevolence melts away entirely, and grows bigger in proportion as the thermometer descends. When the wind is in the east it is quite a decent size, and about January, in a north- easterly snowstorm, it is plainly visible to the most casual observer. For a few weeks from then to the end of February I can hold up my head and look our parson in the face, but during the summer, if I see him coming my mode of progression in getting out of the way is described with perfect accuracy by the verb "to slink."
The village consists of one street running parallel to the outer buildings of the farm, and the cottages are one-storied, each with rooms for four families--two in front, looking on to the wall of the farmyard, which is the fashionable side, and two at the back, looking on to nothing more exhilarating than their own pigstyes. Each family has one room and a larder sort of place, and shares the kitchen with the family on the opposite side of the entrance; but the women prefer doing their cooking at the grate in their own room rather than expose the contents of their pots to the ill-natured comments of a neighbour. On the fashionable side there is a little fenced-in garden for every family, where fowls walk about pensively and meditate beneath the scarlet- runners (for all the world like me in my garden), and hollyhocks tower above the drying linen, and fuel, stolen from our woods, is stacked for winter use; but on the other side you walk straight out of the door on to manure heaps and pigs.
The street did not look very inviting yesterday, with a lowering sky above, and the wind blowing dust and bits of straw and paper into my face and preventing me from seeing what I knew to be there, a consoling glimpse of green fields and fir woods down at the other end; but I had not been for a long while--we have had such a lovely summer--and something inside me had kept on saying aggressively all the morning, "Elizabeth, don't you know you are due in the village? Why don't you go then? When are you going? Don't you know you ought to go? Don't you feel you must? Elizabeth, pull yourself together and go" Strange effect of a grey sky and a cool wind! For I protest that if it had been warm and sunny my conscience would not have bothered about me at all. We had a short fight over it, in which I got all the knocks, as was evident by the immediate swelling of the bump alluded to above, and then I gave in, and by two o'clock in the afternoon was lifting the latch of the first door and asking the woman who lived behind it what she had given the family for dinner. This, I was instructed on my first round by the Frau Inspector, is the proper thing to ask; and if you can follow it up by an examination of the contents of the saucepan, and a gentle sniff indicative of your appreciation of their savouriness, so much the better. I was diffident at first about this, but the gratification on their faces at the interest displayed is so unmistakable that I never now omit going through the whole business. This woman, the wife of one of the men who clean and feed the cows, has arrived at that enviable stage of existence when her children have all been confirmed and can go out to work, leaving her to spend her days in her clean and empty room in comparative dignity and peace. The children go to school till they are fourteen, then they are confirmed, are considered grown up, and begin to work for wages; and her three strapping daughters were out in the fields yesterday reaping. The mother has a keen, shrewd face, and everything about her was neat and comfortable. Her floor was freshly strewn with sand, her cups and saucers and spoons shone bright and clean from behind the glass door of the cupboard, and the two beds, one for herself and her husband and the other for her three daughters, were more mountainous than any I afterwards saw. The size and plumpness of her feather beds, the Frau Inspector tells me, is a woman's chief claim to consideration from the neighbours. She who can pile them up nearest to the ceiling becomes the principal personage in the community, and a flat bed is a social disgrace. It is a mystery to me, when I see the narrowness of the bedsteads, how so many people can sleep in them. They are rather narrower than what are known as single beds, yet father and mother and often a baby manage to sleep very well in one, and three or four children in the opposite corner of the room in another. The explanation no doubt is that they do not know what nerves are, and what it is to be wakened by the slightest sound or movement in the room and lie for hours afterwards, often the whole night, totally unable to fall asleep again, staring out into the darkness with eyes that refuse to shut. No nerves, and a thick skin--what inestimable blessings to these poor people! And they never heard of either.
I stood a little while talking, not asked to sit down, for that would be thought a liberty, and hearing how they had had potatoes and bacon for dinner, and how the eldest girl Bertha was going to be married at Michaelmas, and how well her baby was getting through its teething.
"Her baby?" I echoed, "I have not heard of a baby?"
The woman went to one of the beds and lifted up a corner of the great bag of feathers, and there, sure enough, lay a round and placid baby, sleeping as sweetly and looking as cherubic as the most legitimate of its contemporaries.
"And he is going to marry her at Michaelmas?" I asked, looking as sternly as I could at the grandmother.
"Oh yes," she replied, "he is a good young man, and earns eighteen marks a week. They will be very comfortable."
"It is a pity," I said, "that the baby did not make its appearance after Michaelmas instead of before. Don't you see yourself what a pity it is, and how everything has been spoilt?"
She stared at me for a moment with a puzzled look, and then turned away and carefully covered the cherub again. "They will be very comfortable," she repeated, seeing that I expected an answer; "he earns eighteen marks a week."
What was there to be said? If I had told her her daughter was a grievous sinner she might perhaps have felt transiently uncomfortable, but as soon as I had gone would have seen for herself, with those shrewd eyes of hers, that nothing had been changed by my denunciations, that there lay the baby, dimpled and healthy, that her daughter was making a good match, that none of her set saw anything amiss, and that all the young couples in the district had prefaced their marriages in this way.
Our parson is troubled to the depths of his sensitive soul by this custom. He preaches, he expostulates, he denounces, he implores, and they listen with square stolid faces and open mouths, and go back to their daily work among their friends and acquaintances, with no feeling of shame, because everybody does it, and public opinion, the only force that could stop it, is on their side. The parson looks on with unutterable sadness at the futility of his efforts; but the material is altogether too raw for successful manipulation by delicate fingers.
"Poor things," I said one day, in answer to an outburst of indignation from him, after he had been marrying one of our servants at the eleventh hour, "I am so sorry for them. It is so pitiful that they should always have to be scolded on their wedding day. Such children--so ignorant, so uncontrolled, so frankly animal--what do they know about social laws? They only know and follow nature, and I would from my heart forgive them all."
"It is sin" he said shortly.
"Then the forgiveness is sure."
"Not if they do not seek it."
I was silent, for I wished to reply that I believed they would be forgiven in spite of themselves, that probably they were forgiven whether they sought it or not, and that you cannot limit things divine; but who can argue with a parson? These people do not seek forgiveness because it never enters their heads that they need it. The parson tells them so, it is true, but they regard him as a person bound by his profession to say that sort of thing, and are sharp enough to see that the consequences of their sin, foretold by him with such awful eloquence, never by any chance come off. No girl is left to languish and die forsaken by her betrayer, for the betrayer is a worthy young man who marries her as soon as he possibly can; no finger of scorn is pointed at the fallen one, for all the fingers in the street are attached to women who began life in precisely the same fashion; and as for that problematical Day of Judgment of which they hear so much on Sundays, perhaps they feel that that also may be one of the things which after all do not happen.
The servant who had been married and scolded that morning was a groom, aged twenty, and he had met his little wife, she being then seventeen, in the place he was in before he came to us. She was a housemaid there, and must have been a pretty thing, though there were few enough traces of it, except the beautiful eyes, in the little anxious face that I saw for the first time immediately after the wedding, and just before the weary and harassed parson came in to talk things over. I had never heard of her existence until, about ten days previously, the groom had appeared, bathed in tears, speechlessly holding out a letter from her in which she said she could not bear things any longer and was going to kill herself. The wretched young man was at his wit's end, for he had not yet saved enough to buy any furniture and set up housekeeping, and she was penniless after so many months out of a situation. He did not know any way out of it, he had no suggestions to offer, no excuses to make, and just stood there helplessly and sobbed.
I went to the Man of Wrath, and we laid our heads together. "We do not want another married servant," he said.
"No, of course we don't," said I.
"And there is not a room empty in the village."
"No, not one."
"And how can we give him furniture? It is not fair to the other servants who remain virtuous, and wait till they can buy their own."
"No, certainly it isn't fair."
There was a pause.
"He is a good boy," I murmured presently.
"A very good boy."
"And she will be quite ruined unless somebody--"
"I'll tell you what we can do, Elizabeth," he interrupted; "we can buy what is needful and let him have it on condition that he buys it back gradually by some small monthly payment."
"So we can."
"And I think there is a room over the stables that is empty."
"So there is."
"And he can go to town and get what furniture he needs and bring the girl back with him and marry her at once. The sooner the better, poor girl."
And so within a fortnight they were married, and came hand in hand to me, he proud and happy, holding himself very straight, she in no wise yet recovered from the shock and misery of the last few hopeless months, looking up at me with eyes grown much too big for her face, eyes in which there still lurked the frightened look caught in the town where she had hidden herself, and where fingers of scorn could not have been wanting, and loud derision, and utter shame, besides the burden of sickness, and hunger, and miserable pitiful youth.
They stood hand in hand, she in a decent black dress, and both wearing very tight white kid gloves that refused to hide entirely the whole of the rough red hands, and they looked so ridiculously young, and the whole thing was so wildly improvident, that no words of exhortation would come to my lips as I gazed at them in silence, between laughter and tears. I ought to have told them they were sinners; I ought to have told them they were reckless; I ought to have told them by what a narrow chance they had escaped the just punishment of their iniquity, and instead of that I found myself stretching out hands that were at once seized and kissed, and merely saying with a cheerful smile, "Nun Kinder, liebt Euch, und seid brav." And so they were dismissed, and then the parson came, in a fever at this latest example of deadly sin, while I, with the want of moral sense so often observable in woman, could only think with pity of their childishness. The baby was born three days later, and the mother very nearly slipped through our fingers; but she was a country girl, and she fought round, and by and by grew young again in the warmth of married respectability; and I met her the other day airing her baby in the sun, and holding her head as high as though she were conscious of a whole row of feather beds at home, every one of which touched the ceiling.
In the next room I went into an old woman lay in bed with her head tied up in bandages. The room had not much in it, or it would have been untidier; it looked neglected and gloomy, and some dirty plates, suggestive of long-past dinners, were piled on the table.
"Oh, such headaches!" groaned the old woman when she saw me, and moved her head from side to side on the pillow. I could see she was not undressed, and had crept under her feather bag as she was. I went to the bedside and felt her pulse--a steady pulse, with nothing of feverishness in it.
"Oh, such draughts!" moaned the old woman, when she saw I had left the door open.
"A little air will make you feel better," I said; the atmosphere in the shut-up room was so indescribable that my own head had begun to throb.
"Oh, oh!" she moaned, in visible indignation at being forced for a moment to breathe the pure summer air.
"I have something at home that will cure your headache," I said, "but there is nobody I can send with it to-day. If you feel better later on, come round and fetch it. I always take it when I have a headache"-- ("Why, Elizabeth, you know you never have such things!" whispered my conscience, appalled. "You just keep quiet," I whispered back, "I have had enough of you for one day.")--"and I have some grapes I will give you when you come, so that if you possibly can, do."
"Oh, I can't move," groaned the old woman, "oh, oh, oh!" But I went away laughing, for I knew she would appear punctually to fetch the grapes, and a walk in the air was all she needed to cure her.
How the whole village hates and dreads fresh air! A baby died a few days ago, killed, I honestly believe, by the exceeding love of its mother, which took the form of cherishing it so tenderly that never once during its little life was a breath of air allowed to come anywhere near it. She is the watchman's wife, a gentle, flabby woman, with two rooms at her disposal, but preferring to live and sleep with her four children in one, never going into the other except for the christenings and funerals which take place in her family with what I cannot but regard as unnecessary frequency. This baby was born last September in a time of golden days and quiet skies, and when it was about three weeks old I suggested that she should take it out every day while the fine weather lasted. She pointed out that it had not yet been christened, and remembering that it is the custom in their class for both mother and child to remain shut up and invisible till after the christening, I said no more. Three weeks later I was its godmother, and it was safely got into the fold of the Church. As I was leaving, I remarked that now she would be able to take it out as much as she liked. The following March, on a day that smelt of violets, I met her near the house. I asked after the baby, and she began to cry. "It does not thrive," she wept, "and its arms are no thicker than my finger."
"Keep it out in the sun as much as you can," I said; "this is the very weather to turn weak babies into strong ones."
"Oh, I am so afraid it will catch cold if I take it out," she cried, her face buried in what was once a pocket-handkerchief.
"When was it out last?"
"Oh--" she stopped to blow her nose, very violently, and, as it seemed to me, with superfluous thoroughness. I waited till she had done, and then repeated my question.
"Oh--" a fresh burst of tears, and renewed exhaustive nose-blowing.
I began to suspect that my question, put casually, was of more importance than I had thought, and repeated it once more.
"I--can't t-take it out," she sobbed, "I know it--it would die."
"But has it not been out at all, then?"
She shook her head.
"Not once since it was born? Six months ago?"
She shook her head.
"Poor baby!" I exclaimed; and indeed from my heart I pitied the little thing, perishing in a heap of feathers, in one close room, with four people absorbing what air there was. "I am afraid," I said, "that if it does not soon get some fresh air it will not live. I wonder what would happen to my children if I kept them in one hot room day and night for six months. You see how they are out all day, and how well they are."
"They are so strong," she said, with a doleful sniff, "that they can stand it."
I was confounded by this way of looking at it, and turned away, after once more begging her to take the child out. She plainly regarded the advice as brutal, and I heard her blowing her nose all down the drive. In June the father told me he would like the doctor; the child grew thinner every day in spite of all the food it took. A doctor was got from the nearest town, and I went across to hear what he ordered. He ordered bottles at regular intervals instead of the unbroken series it had been having, and fresh air. He could find nothing the matter with it, except unusual weakness. He asked if it always perspired as it was doing then, and himself took off the topmost bag of feathers. Early in July it died, and its first outing was to the cemetery in the pine woods three miles off.
"I took such care of it," moaned the mother, when I went to try and comfort her after the funeral; "it would never have lived so long but for the care I took of it."
"And what the doctor ordered did no good?" I ventured to ask, as gently as I could.
"Oh, I did not take it out--how could I--it would have killed it at once--at least I have kept it alive till now." And she flung her arms across the table, and burying her head in them wept bitterly.
There is a great wall of ignorance and prejudice dividing us from the people on our place, and in every effort to help them we knock against it and cannot move it any more than if it were actual stone. Like the parson on the subject of morals, I can talk till I am hoarse on the subject of health, without at any time producing the faintest impression. When things are very bad the doctor is brought, directions are given, medicines made up, and his orders, unless they happen to be approved of, are simply not carried out. Orders to wash a patient and open windows are never obeyed, because the whole village would rise up if, later on, the illness ended in death, and accuse the relatives of murder. I suppose they regard us and our like who live on the other side of the dividing wall as persons of fantastic notions which, when carried into effect among our own children, do no harm because of the vast strength of the children accumulated during years of eating in the quantities only possible to the rich. Their idea of happiness is eating, and they naturally suppose that everybody eats as much as he can possibly afford to buy. Some of them have known hunger, and food and strength are coupled together in their experience--the more food the greater the strength; and people who eat roast meat (oh, bliss ineffable!) every day of their lives can bear an amount of washing and airing that would surely kill such as themselves. But how useless to try and discover what their views really are. I can imagine what I like about them, and am fairly certain to imagine wrong. I have no real conception of their attitude towards life, and all I can do is to talk to them kindly when they are in trouble, and as often as I can give them nice things to eat. Shocked at the horrors that must surround the poor women at the birth of their babies, I asked the Man of Wrath to try and make some arrangement that would ensure their quiet at those times. He put aside a little cottage at the end of the street as a home for them in their confinements, and I furnished it, and made it clean and bright and pretty. A nurse was permanently engaged, and I thought with delight of the unspeakable blessing and comfort it was going to be. Not a baby has been born in that cottage, for not a woman has allowed herself to be taken there. At the end of a year it had to be let out again to families, and the nurse dismissed.
"Why wouldn't they go?" I asked the Frau Inspector, completely puzzled. She shrugged her shoulders. "They like their husband and children round them," she said, "and are afraid something will be done to them away from home--that they will be washed too often, perhaps. The gracious lady will never get them to leave their homes."
"The gracious lady gives it up," I muttered.
When I opened the next door I was bewildered by the crowd in the room. A woman stood in the middle at a wash-tub which took up most of the space. Every now and then she put out a dripping hand and jerked a perambulator up and down for a moment, to calm the shrieks of the baby inside. On a wooden bench at the foot of one of the three beds a very old man sat and blinked at nothing. Crouching in a corner were two small boys of pasty complexion, playing with a guinea-pig and coughing violently. The loveliest little girl I have seen for a very long while lay in the bed nearest the door, quite silent, with her eyes closed and her mouth shut tight, as though she were trying hard to bear something. As I pulled the door open the first thing I saw, right up against it, was this set young face framed in tossed chestnut hair. "Why, Frauchen," I said to the woman at the tub, "so many of you at home to-day? Are you all ill?" There was hardly standing room for an extra person, and the room was full of steam.
"They have all got the cough I had," she answered, without looking up, "and Lotte there is very bad."
I took Lotte's rough little hand--so different from the delicate face-- and found she was in a fever.
"We must get the doctor," I said.
"Oh, the doctor--" said the mother with a shrug, "he's no use."
"You must do what he tells you, or he cannot help you."
"That last medicine he sent me all but killed me," she said, washing vigorously. "I'll never take any more of his, nor shall any child of mine."
"What medicine was it?"
She wiped her hand on her apron, and reaching across to the cupboard took out a little bottle. "I was in bed two days after it," she said, handing it to me--"as though I were dead, not knowing what was going on round me." The bottle had contained opium, and there were explicit directions written on it as to the number of drops to be taken and the length of the intervals between the taking.
"Did you do exactly what is written here?" I asked.
"I took it all at once. There wasn't much of it, and I was feeling bad."
"But then of course it nearly killed you. I wonder it didn't quite. What good is it our taking all the trouble we do to send that long distance for the doctor if you don't do as he orders?"
"I'll take no more of his medicine. If it had been any good and able to cure me, the more I took the quicker I ought to have been cured." And she scrubbed and thumped with astounding energy, while Lotte lay with her little ashen face a shade more set and suffering. The wash-tub, though in the middle of the room, was quite close to Lotte's bed, because the middle of the room was quite close to every other part of it, and each extra hard maternal thump must have hit the child's head like a blow from a hammer. She was, you see, only thirteen, and her skin had not had time to turn into leather.
"Has this child eaten anything to-day?"
"Is she not thirsty?"
"She won't drink coffee or milk."
"I'll send her something she may like, and I shall send, too, for the doctor."
"I'll not give her his stuff."
"Let me beg you to do as he tells you."
"I'll not give her his stuff."
"Was it absolutely necessary to wash to-day?"
"It's the day."
"My good woman," said I to myself, gazing at her with outward blandness, "I'd like exceedingly to tip you up into your wash-tub and thump you as thoroughly as you are thumping those unfortunate clothes." Aloud I said in flute-like tones of conciliation, "Good afternoon."
"Good afternoon," said she without looking up.
Washing days always mean tempers, and I ought to have fled at the first sight of that tub, but then there was Lotte in her little yellow flannel night-gown, suffering as only children can suffer, helpless, forced to patience, forced to silent endurance of any banging and vehemence in which her mother might choose to indulge. No wonder her mouth was shut like a clasp and she would not open her eyes. Her eyebrows were reddish like her hair, and very straight, and her eyelashes lay dusky and long on her white face. At least I had discovered Lotte and could help her a little, I thought, as I departed down the garden path between the rows of scarlet-runners; but the help that takes the form of jelly and iced drinks is not of a lasting nature, and I have but little sympathy with a benevolence that finds its highest expression in gifts of the kind. There have been women within my experience who went down into the grave accompanied by special pastoral encomiums, and whose claims to lady- bountifulness, on closer inquiry, rested solely on a foundation of jelly. Yet nothing in the world is easier than ordering jelly to be sent to the sick, except refraining from ordering it. What more, however, could I do for Lotte than this? I could not take her up in my arms and run away with her and nurse her back to health, for she would probably object to such a course as strongly as her mother; and later on, when she gets well again, she will go back to school, and grow coarse and bouncing and leathery like the others, affording the parson, in three or four years' time, a fresh occasion for grief over deadly sin. "If one could only get hold of the children!" I sighed, as I went up the steps into the schoolhouse; "catch them young, and put them in a garden, with no older people of their own class for ever teaching them by example what is ugly, and unworthy, and gross."
Afternoon school was going on, and the assistant teacher was making the children read aloud in turns. In winter, when they would be glad of a warm, roomy place in which to spend their afternoons, school is only in the morning; and in summer, when the thirstiest after knowledge are apt to be less keen, it is both morning and afternoon. The arrangement is so mysterious that it must be providential. Herr Schenk, the head master, was away giving my babies their daily lessons, and his assistant, a youth in spectacles but yet of pugnacious aspect, was sitting in the master's desk, exercising a pretty turn for sarcasm in his running comments on the reading. A more complete waste of breath and brilliancy can hardly be imagined. He is not yet, however, married, and marriage is a great chastener. The children all stood up when I came in, and the teacher ceased sharpening his wits on a dulness that could not feel, and with many bows put a chair for me and begged me to sit on it. I did sit on it, and asked that they might go on with the lesson, as I had only come in for a minute on my way down the street. The reading was accordingly resumed, but unaccompanied this time by sarcasms. What faces! What dull, apathetic, low, coarse faces! On one side sat those from ten to fourteen, with not a hopeful face among them, and on the other those from six to ten, with one single little boy who looked as though he could have no business among the rest, so bright was he, so attentive, so curiously dignified. Poor children--what could the parson hope to make of beings whose expressions told so plainly of the sort of nature within? Those that did not look dull looked cunning, and all the girls on the older side had the faces of women. I began to feel dreadfully depressed. "See what you have done," I whispered angrily to my conscience--"made me wretched without doing anybody else any good." "The old woman with the headache is happy in the hopes of grapes," it replied, seeking to justify itself, "and Lotte is to have some jelly." "Grapes! Jelly! Futility unutterable. I can't bear this, and am going home." The teacher inquired whether the children should sing something to my graciousness; perhaps he was ashamed of their reading, and indeed I never heard anything like it. "Oh yes," I said, resigned, but outwardly smiling kindly with the self-control natural to woman. They sang, or rather screamed, a hymn, and so frightfully loud and piercingly that the very windows shook. "My dear," explained the Man of Wrath, when I complained one Sunday on our way home from church of the terrible quality and volume of the music, "it frightens Satan away."
Our numerous godchildren were not in school because, as we have only lived here three years, they are not yet old enough to share in the blessings of education. I stand godmother to the girls, and the Man of Wrath to the boys, and as all the babies are accordingly named after us the village swarms with tiny Elizabeths and Boys of Wrath. A hunchbacked woman, unfit for harder work, looks after the babies during the day in a room set apart for that purpose, so that the mothers may not be hampered in their duties at the farm; they have only to carry the babies there in the morning, and fetch them away again in the evening, and can feel that they are safe and well looked after. But many of them, for some reason too cryptic to fathom, prefer to lock them up in their room, exposed to all the perils that surround an inquiring child just able to walk, and last winter one little creature was burnt to death, sacrificed to her mother's stupidity. This mother, a fair type of the intelligence prevailing in the village, made a great fire in her room before going out, so that when she came back at noon there would still be some with which to cook the dinner, left a baby in a perambulator, and a little Elizabeth of three loose in the room, locked the door, put the key in her pocket, and went off to work. When she came back to get the dinner ready, the baby was still crowing placidly in its perambulator, and the little Elizabeth, with all the clothes burnt off her body, was lying near the grate dead. Of course the mother was wild with grief, distracted, raving, desperate, and of course all the other women were shocked and horrified; but point the moral as we might, we could not bring them to see that it was an avoidable misfortune with nothing whatever to do with the Finger Gottes, and the mothers who preferred locking their babies up alone to sending them to be looked after, went on doing so as undisturbed as though what had occurred could in no wise be a lesson to themselves. "Pray, Herr Lehrer, why are those two little boys sitting over there on that seat all by themselves and not singing?" I asked at the conclusion of the hymn.
"That, gracious lady, is the vermin bench. It is necessary to keep--"
"Oh yes, yes--I quite understand--good afternoon. Good-bye, children, you have sung very nicely indeed."
"Now," said I to myself, when I was safely out in the street again, "I am going home."
"Oh, not yet," at once protested my unmanageable conscience; "your favourite old woman lives in the next cottage, and surely you are not going to leave her out?"
"I see plainly," I replied, "that I shall never be quite comfortable till I have got rid of you" and in I went to the next house.
The entrance was full of three women--the entrances here are narrow, and the women wide--and they all looked more cheerful than seemed reasonable. They stood aside to let me pass, and when I opened the door I found the room equally full of women, looking equally happy, and talking eagerly.
"Why, what is happening?" I asked the nearest one. "Is there a party?"
She turned round, grinning broadly in obvious delight. "The old lady died in her sleep," she said, "and was found this morning dead in her bed. I was in here only yesterday, and she said--" I turned abruptly and went out again. All those gloating women, hovering round the poor body that was clothed on a sudden by death with a wonderful dignity and nobleness, made me ashamed of being a woman. Not a man was there,-- clearly a superior race of beings. In the entrance I met the Frau Inspector coming in to arrange matters, and she turned and walked with me a little way.
"The old lady was better off than we thought," she remarked, "and has left a very good black silk dress to be buried in."
"A black silk dress?" I repeated.
"And everything to match in goodness--nice leather shoes, good stockings, under-things all trimmed with crochet, real whalebone corsets, and a quite new pair of white kid gloves. She must have saved for a long time to have it all so nice."
"But," I said, "I don't understand. I have never had anything to do yet with death, and have not thought of these things. Are not people, then, just buried in a shroud?"
"A shroud?" It was her turn not to understand.
"A sheet sort of thing."
She smiled in a highly superior manner. "Oh dear, no," she said, "we are none of us quite so poor as that."
I glanced down at her as she walked beside me. She is a short woman, and carries weight. She was smiling almost pityingly at my ignorance of what is due, even after death, to ourselves and public opinion.
"The very poorest," she said, "manage to scrape a whole set of clothes together for their funerals. A very poor couple came here a few months ago, and before the man had time to earn anything he died. The wife came to me (the gracious lady was absent), and on her knees implored me to give her a suit for him--she had only been able to afford the Sterbehemd, and was frantic at the thought of what the neighbours would say if he had nothing on but that, and said she would be haunted by shame and remorse all the rest of her life. We bought a nice black suit, and tie, and gloves, and he really looked very well. She will be dressed to-night," she went on, as I said nothing; "the dressers come with the coffin, and it will be a nice funeral. I used to wonder what she did with her pension money, and never could persuade her to buy herself a bit of meat. But of course she was saving for this. They are beautiful corsets."
"What utter waste!" I ejaculated.
"Yes--utter waste and foolishness. Foolishness, not to have bought a few little comforts, waste of the money, and waste of the clothes. Is there any meaning, sense, or use whatever in burying a good black silk dress?"
"It would be a scandal not to be buried decently," she replied, manifestly surprised at my warmth, "and the neighbours respect her much more now that they know what nice clothes she had bought for her funeral. Nothing is wanting. I even found a box with a gold brooch in it, and a bracelet."
"I suppose, then, as many of her belongings as will go into the coffin will be buried too, in order to still further impress the neighbours?" I asked--"her feather bed, for instance, and anything else of use and value?"
"No, only what she has on, and the brushes and combs and towels that were used in dressing her."
"How ugly and how useless!" I said with a shiver of disgust.
"It is the custom," was her tranquil reply.
Suddenly an unpleasant thought struck me, and I burst out emphatically, "Nothing but a shroud is to be put on me."
"Oh no," she said, looking up at me with a face meant to be full of the most reassuring promises of devotion, "the gracious lady may be quite certain that if I am still here she will have on her most beautiful ball dress and finest linen, and that the whole neighbourhood shall see for themselves how well Herrschaften know what is due to them."
"I shall give directions," I repeated with increased energy, "that there is only to be a shroud."
"Oh no, no," she protested, smiling as though she were humouring a spoilt and eccentric child, "such a thing could never be permitted. What would our feelings be when we remembered that the gracious lady had not received her dues, and what would the neighbours say?"
"I'll have nothing but a shroud!" I cried in great wrath--and then stopped short, and burst out laughing. "What an absurd and gruesome conversation," I said, holding out my hand. "Good-bye, Frau Inspector, I am sure you are wanted in that cottage."
She made me a curtsey and turned back. I walked out of the village and through the fir wood and the meadow as quickly as I could, opened the gate into my garden, went down the most sheltered path, flung myself on the grass in a quiet nook, and said aloud "Ugh!"
It is a well-known exclamation of disgust, and is thus inadequately expressed in writing.