The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth von Arnim
August 5th.--August has come, and has clothed the hills with golden lupins, and filled the grassy banks with harebells. The yellow fields of lupins are so gorgeous on cloudless days that I have neglected the forests lately and drive in the open, so that I may revel in their scent while feasting my eyes on their beauty. The slope of a hill clothed with this orange wonder and seen against the sky is one of those sights which make me so happy that it verges on pain. The straight, vigorous flower- spikes are something like hyacinths, but all aglow with a divine intensity of brightness that a yellow hyacinth never yet possessed and never will; and then they are not waxy, but velvety, and their leaves are not futile drooping things, but delicate, strong sprays of an exquisite grey-green, with a bloom on them that throws a mist over the whole field; and as for the perfume, it surely is the perfume of Paradise. The plant is altogether lovely--shape, growth, flower, and leaf, and the horses have to wait very patiently once we get among them, for I can never have enough of sitting quite still in those fair fields of glory. Not far from here there is a low series of hills running north and south, absolutely without trees, and at the foot of them, on the east side, is a sort of road, chiefly stones, but yet with patience to be driven over, and on the other side of this road a plain stretches away towards the east and south; and hills and plain are now one sheet of gold. I have driven there at all hours of the day--I cannot keep away--and I have seen them early in the morning, and at mid-day, and in the afternoon, and I have seen them in the evening by moonlight, when all the intensity was washed out of the colour and into the scent; but just as the sun drops behind the little hills is the supreme moment, when the splendour is so dazzling that you feel as though you must have reached the very gates of heaven. So strong was this feeling the other day that I actually got out of the carriage, being impulsive, and began almost involuntarily to climb the hill, half expecting to see the glories of the New Jerusalem all spread out before me when I should reach the top; and it came with quite a shock of disappointment to find there was nothing there but the prose of potato-fields, and a sandy road with home-going calves kicking up its dust, and in the distance our neighbour's Schloss, and the New Jerusalem just as far off as ever.
It is a relief to me to write about these things that I so much love, for I do not talk of them lest I should be regarded as a person who rhapsodizes, and there is no nuisance more intolerable than having somebody's rhapsodies thrust upon you when you have no enthusiasm of your own that at all corresponds. I know this so well that I generally succeed in keeping quiet; but sometimes even now, after years of study in the art of holding my tongue, some stray fragment of what I feel does occasionally come out, and then I am at once pulled up and brought to my senses by the well-known cold stare of utter incomprehension, or the look of indulgent superiority that awaits any exposure of a feeling not in the least understood. How is it that you should feel so vastly superior whenever you do not happen to enter into or understand your neighbour's thoughts when, as a matter of fact, your not being able to do so is less a sign of folly in your neighbour than of incompleteness in yourself? I am quite sure that if I were to take most or any of my friends to those pleasant yellow fields they would notice nothing except the exceeding joltiness of the road; and if I were so ill-advised as to lift up a corner of my heart, and let them see how full it was of wonder and delight, they would first look blank, and then decide mentally that they were in the unpleasant situation of driving over a stony road with that worst form of idiot, a bore, and so fall into the mood of self- commiseration which is such a solace to us in our troubles. Yet it is painful being suppressed for ever and ever, and I believe the torments of such a state, when unduly prolonged, are more keenly felt by a woman than a man, she having, in spite of her protestations, a good deal of the ivy nature still left in her, and an unhealthy craving for sympathy and support. When I drive to the lupins and see them all spread out as far as eye can reach in perfect beauty of colour and scent and bathed in the mild August sunshine, I feel I must send for somebody to come and look at them with me, and talk about them to me, and share in the pleasure; and when I run over the list of my friends and try to find one who would enjoy them, I am frightened once more at the solitariness in which we each of us live. I have, it is true, a great many friends-- people with whom it is pleasant to spend an afternoon if such afternoons are not repeated often, and if you are careful not to stir more than the surface of things, but among them all there is only one who has, roughly, the same tastes that I have; and even her sympathies have limitations, and she declares for instance with emphasis that she would not at all like to be a goose-girl. I wonder why. Our friendship nearly came to an end over the goose-girl, so unexpectedly inflaming did the subject turn out to be. Of all professions, if I had liberty of choice, I would choose to be a gardener, and if nobody would have me in that capacity I would like to be a goose-girl, and sit in the greenest of fields minding those delightfully plump, placid geese, whiter and more leisurely than the clouds on a calm summer morning, their very waddle in its lazy deliberation soothing and salutary to a fretted spirit that has been too long on the stretch. The fields geese feed in are so specially charming, so green and low-lying, with little clumps of trees and bushes, and a pond or boggy bit of ground somewhere near, and a profusion of those delicate field flowers that look so lovely growing and are so unsatisfactory and fade so quickly if you try to arrange them in your rooms. For six months of the year I would be happier than any queen I ever heard of, minding the fat white things. I would begin in April with the king-cups, and leave off in September with the blackberries, and I would keep one eye on the geese, and one on the volume of Wordsworth I should have with me, and I would be present in this way at the procession of the months, the first three all white and yellow, and the last three gorgeous with the lupin fields and the blues and purples and crimsons that clothe the hedges and ditches in a wonderful variety of shades, and dye the grass near the water in great patches. Then in October I would shut up my Wordsworth, go back to civilised life, and probably assist at the eating of the geese one after the other, with a proper thankfulness for the amount of edification I had from first to last extracted from them.
I believe in England goose eating is held to be of doubtful refinement, and is left to one's servants. Here roast goose stuffed with apples is a dish loved quite openly and simply by people who would consider that the number of their quarterings raises them above any suspicion as to the refinement of their tastes, however many geese they may eat, and however much they may enjoy them; and I remember one lady, whose ancestors, probably all having loved goose, reached back up to a quite giddy antiquity, casting a gloom over a dinner table by removing as much of the skin or crackling of the goose as she could when it came to her, remarking, amidst a mournful silence, that it was her favourite part. No doubt it was. The misfortune was that it happened also to be the favourite part of the line of guests who came after her, and who saw themselves forced by the hard laws of propriety to affect an indifferent dignity of bearing at the very moment when their one feeling was a fierce desire to rise up and defend at all costs their right to a share of skin. She had, I remember, very pretty little white hands like tiny claws, and wore beautiful rings, and sitting opposite her, and free myself from any undue passion for goose, I had leisure to watch the rapid way in which she disposed of the skin, her rings and the whiteness of her hands flashing up and down as she used her knife and fork with the awful dexterity only seen in perfection in the Fatherland. I am afraid that as a nation we think rather more of our eating and drinking than is reasonable, and this no doubt explains why so many of us, by the time we are thirty, have lost the original classicality of our contour. Walking in the streets of a town you are almost sure to catch the word essen in the talk of the passers-by; and das Essen, combined, of course, with the drinking made necessary by its exaggerated indulgence, constitutes the chief happiness of the middle and lower classes. Any story-book or novel you take up is full of feeling descriptions of what everybody ate and drank, and there are a great many more meals than kisses; so that the novel-reader who expects a love-tale, finds with disgust that he is put off with menus. The upper classes have so many other amusements that das Essen ceases to be one, and they are as thin as all the rest of the world; but if the curious wish to see how very largely it fills the lives, or that part of their lives that they reserve for pleasure, of the middle classes, it is a good plan to go to seaside places during the months of July and August, when the schools close, and the bourgeoisie realises the dream in which it has been indulging the whole year, of hotel life with a tremendous dinner every day at one o'clock.
The April baby was a weak little creature in her first years, and the doctor ordered as specially bracing a seaside resort frequented solely by the middle classes, and there for three succeeding years I took her; and while she rolled on the sands and grew brown and lusty, I was dull, and fell to watching the other tourists. Their time, it appeared, was spent in ruminating over the delights of the meal that was eaten, and in preparing their bodies by gentlest exercise for the delights of the meal that was to come. They passed their mornings on the sands, the women doing fancy work in order that they might look busy, and the men strolling aimlessly about near them with field-glasses, and nautical caps, and long cloaks of a very dreadful pattern reaching to their heels and making them look like large women, called Havelocks,--all of them waiting with more or less open eagerness for one o'clock, the great moment to which they had been looking forward ever since the day before, to arrive. They used to file in when the bell rang with a sort of silent solemnity, a contemplative collectedness, which is best described by the word recueillement, and ate all the courses, however many there were, in a hot room full of flies and sunlight.
The dinner lasted a good hour and a half, and at the end of that time they would begin to straggle out again, flushed and using toothpicks as they strolled to the tables under the trees, where the exhausted waiters would presently bring them breakfast-cups of coffee and cakes. They lingered about an hour over this, and then gradually disappeared to their rooms, where they slept, I suppose, for from then till about six a death-like stillness reigned in the place and April and I had it all to ourselves. Towards six, slow couples would be seen crawling along the path by the shore and panting up into the woods, this being the only exercise of the day, and necessary if they would eat their suppers with appreciation; and April and I, peering through the bracken out of the nests of moss we used to make in the afternoons, could see them coming up through the trees after the climb up the cliff, the husband with his Havelock over his arm, a little in front, wiping his face and gasping, the wife in her tight silk dress, her bonnet strings undone, a cloak and an umbrella, and very often a small mysterious basket as well to carry, besides holding up her dress, very stout and very uncomfortable and very breathless, panting along behind; and however much she had to carry, and however fat and helpless she was, and however steep the hill, and however much dinner she had eaten, the idea that her husband might have taken her cloak and her umbrella and her basket and carried them for her would never have struck either of them. If it had by some strange chance entered his head, he would have reasoned that he was as stout as she was, that he had eaten as much dinner, that he was several years older, and that it was her cloak. Logic is so irresistible.
To go on eating long after you have ceased to be hungry has fascinations, apparently, that are difficult to withstand, and if it gives you so much pleasure that the resulting inability to move without gasping is accepted with the meekness of martyrs, who shall say that you are wrong? My not myself liking a large dinner at one o'clock is not a reason for my thinking I am superior to those who do. Their excesses, it is true, are not my excesses, but then neither are mine theirs; and what about the days of idleness I spend, doing nothing from early till late but lie on the grass watching clouds? If I were to murmur gluttons, could not they, from their point of view, retort with conviction fool? All those maxims about judging others by yourself, and putting yourself in another person's place, are not, I am afraid, reliable. I had them dinned into me constantly as a child, and I was constantly trying to obey them, and constantly was astonished at the unexpected results I arrived at; and now I know that it is a proof of artlessness to suppose that other people will think and feel and hope and enjoy what you do and in the same way that you do. If an officious friend had stood in that breathless couple's path and told them in glowing terms how much happier they would be if they lived their life a little more fully and from its other sides, how much more delightful to stride along gaily together in their walks, with wind enough for talk and laughter, how pleasant if the man were muscular and in good condition and the woman brisk and wiry, and that they only had to do as he did and live on cold meat and toast, and drink nothing, to be as blithe as birds, do you think they would have so much as understood him? Cold meat and toast? Instead of what they had just been enjoying so intensely? Miss that soup made of the inner mysteries of geese, those eels stewed in beer, the roast pig with red cabbage, the venison basted with sour cream and served with beans in vinegar and cranberry jam, the piled-up masses of vanilla ice, the pumpernickel and cheese, the apples and pears on the top of that, and the big cups of coffee and cakes on the top of the apples and pears? Really a quick walk over the heather with a wiry wife would hardly make up for the loss of such a dinner; and besides, might not a wiry wife turn out to be a questionable blessing? And so they would pity the nimble friend who wasted his life in taking exercise and missed all its pleasures, and the man of toast and early rising would regard them with profound disgust if simple enough to think himself better than they, and, if he possessed an open mind, would merely return their pity with more of his own; so that, I suppose, everybody would be pleased, for the charm of pitying one's neighbour, though subtle, is undeniable.
I remember when I was at the age when people began to call me Backfisch, and my mother dressed me in a little scarlet coat with big pearl buttons, and my eyes turned down because I was shy, and my nose turned up because I was impudent, one summer at the seaside with my governess we noticed in our walks a solitary lady of dignified appearance, who spoke to no one, and seemed for ever wrapped in distant and lofty philosophic speculations. "She's thinking about Kant and the nebular hypothesis," I decided to myself, having once heard some men with long beards talking of both those things, and they all had had that same far-away look in their eyes. "Qu'est-ce que c'est une hypothese nebuleuse, Mademoiselle?" I said aloud.
"Tenez-vous bien, et marchez d'une facon convenable," she replied sharply.
"Qu'est-ce que c'est une hypothese--"
"Vous etes trap jeune pour comprendre ces choses."
"Oh alors vous ne savez pas vous-meme!" I cried triumphantly, "Sans cela vous me diriez."
"Elisabeth, vous ecrirez, des que nous rentrons, leverbe Prier le bon Dieu de m'Aider a ne plus Etre si Impertinente."
She was an ingenious young woman, and the verbs I had to write as punishments were of the most elaborate and complicated nature-- Demander pardon pour Avoir Siffle comme un Gamin quelconque, Vouloir ne plus Oublier de Nettoyer mes Ongles, Essayer de ne pas tant Aimer les Poudings, are but a few examples of her achievements in this particular branch of discipline.
That very day at the table d'hote the abstracted lady sat next to me. A ragout of some sort was handed round, and after I had taken some she asked me, before helping herself, what it was.
"Snails," I replied promptly, wholly unchastened by the prayers I had just been writing out in every tense.
"Snails! Ekelig." And she waved the waiter loftily away, and looked on with much superciliousness at the rest of us enjoying ourselves.
"What! You do not eat this excellent ragout?" asked her other neighbour, a hot man, as he finished clearing his plate and had time to observe the emptiness of hers. "You do not like calves' tongues and mushrooms? Sonderbar."
I still can see the poor lady's face as she turned on me more like a tigress than the impassive person she had been a moment before. "Sie unverschamter Backfisch!" she hissed. "My favourite dish--I have you to thank for spoiling my repast--my day!" And in a frenzy of rage she gripped my arm as though she would have shaken me then and there in the face of the multitude, while I sat appalled at the consequences of indulging a playful fancy at the wrong time.
Which story, now I come to think of it, illustrates less the tremendous importance of food in our country than the exceeding odiousness of Backfisch in scarlet coats.
August 10th.--My idea of a garden is that it should be beautiful from end to end, and not start off in front of the house with fireworks, going off at its farthest limit into sheer sticks. The standard reached beneath the windows should at least be kept up, if it cannot be surpassed, right away through, and the German popular plan in this matter quite discarded of concentrating all the available splendour of the establishment into the supreme effort of carpet-bedding and glass balls on pedestals in front of the house, in the hope that the stranger, carefully kept in that part, and on no account allowed to wander, will infer an equal magnificence throughout the entire domain; whereas he knows very well all the time that the landscape round the corner consists of fowls and dust-bins. Disliking this method, I have tried to make my garden increase in loveliness, if not in tidiness, the farther you get into it; and the visitor who thinks in his innocence as he emerges from the shade of the verandah that he sees the best before him, is artfully conducted from beauty to beauty till he beholds what I think is the most charming bit, the silver birch and azalea plantation down at the very end. This is the boundary of my kingdom on the south side, a blaze of colour in May and June, across which you see the placid meadows stretching away to a distant wood; and from its contemplation the ideal visitor returns to the house a refreshed and better man. That is the sort of person one enjoys taking round--the man (or woman) who, loving gardens, would go any distance to see one; who comes to appreciate, and compare, and admire; who has a garden of his own that he lives in and loves; and whose talk and criticisms are as dew to the thirsty gardening soul, all too accustomed in this respect to droughts. He knows as well as I do what work, what patience, what study and watching, what laughter at failures, what fresh starts with undiminished zeal, and what bright, unalterable faith are represented by the flowers in my garden. He knows what I have done for it, and he knows what it has done for me, and how it has been and will be more and more a place of joys, a place of lessons, a place of health, a place of miracles, and a place of sure and never-changing peace.
Living face to face with nature makes it difficult for one to be discouraged. Moles and late frosts, both of which are here in abundance, have often grieved and disappointed me, but even these, my worst enemies, have not succeeded in making me feel discouraged. Not once till now have I got farther in that direction than the purely negative state of not being encouraged; and whenever I reach that state I go for a brisk walk in the sunshine and come back cured. It makes one so healthy to live in a garden, so healthy in mind as well as body, and when I say moles and late frosts are my worst enemies, it only shows how I could not now if I tried sit down and brood over my own or my neighbour's sins, and how the breezes in my garden have blown away all those worries and vexations and bitternesses that are the lot of those who live in a crowd. The most severe frost that ever nipped the hopes of a year is better to my thinking than having to listen to one malignant truth or lie, and I would rather have a mole busy burrowing tunnels under each of my rose trees and letting the air get at their roots than face a single greeting where no kindness is. How can you help being happy if you are healthy and in the place you want to be? A man once made it a reproach that I should be so happy, and told me everybody has crosses, and that we live in a vale of woe. I mentioned moles as my principal cross, and pointed to the huge black mounds with which they had decorated the tennis-court, but I could not agree to the vale of woe, and could not be shaken in my belief that the world is a dear and lovely place, with everything in it to make us happy so long as we walk humbly and diet ourselves. He pointed out that sorrow and sickness were sure to come, and seemed quite angry with me when I suggested that they too could be borne perhaps with cheerfulness. "And have not even such things their sunny side?" I exclaimed. "When I am steeped to the lips in diseases and doctors, I shall at least have something to talk about that interests my women friends, and need not sit as I do now wondering what I shall say next and wishing they would go." He replied that all around me lay misery, sin, and suffering, and that every person not absolutely blinded by selfishness must be aware of it and must realise the seriousness and tragedy of existence. I asked him whether my being miserable and discontented would help any one or make him less wretched; and he said that we all had to take up our burdens. I assured him I would not shrink from mine, though I felt secretly ashamed of it when I remembered that it was only moles, and he went away with a grave face and a shaking head, back to his wife and his eleven children. I heard soon afterwards that a twelfth baby had been born and his wife had died, and in dying had turned her face with a quite unaccountable impatience away from him and to the wall; and the rumour of his piety reached even into my garden, and how he had said, as he closed her eyes, "It is the Will of God." He was a missionary.
But of what use is it telling a woman with a garden that she ought really to be ashamed of herself for being happy? The fresh air is so buoyant that it lifts all remarks of that sort away off you and leaves you laughing. They get wafted away on the scent of the stocks, and you stand in the sun looking round at your cheerful flowers, and more than ever persuaded that it is a good and blessed thing to be thankful. Oh a garden is a sweet, sane refuge to have! Whether I am tired because I have enjoyed myself too much, or tired because I have lectured the servants too much, or tired because I have talked to missionaries too much, I have only to come down the verandah steps into the garden to be at once restored to quiet, and serenity, and my real and natural self. I could almost fancy sometimes that as I come down the steps, gentle hands of blessing have been laid on my head. I suppose I feel so because of the hush that descends on my soul when I get out of the close, restless house into that silent purity. Sometimes I sit for hours in the south walk by the verandah just listening and watching. It is so private there, though directly beneath the windows, that it is one of my favourite places. There are no bedrooms on that side of the house, only the Man of Wrath's and my day-rooms, so that servants cannot see me as I stand there enjoying myself. If they did or could, I should simply never go there, for nothing is so utterly destructive to meditation as to know that probably somebody inquisitive is eyeing you from behind a curtain. The loveliest garden I know is spoilt to my thinking by the impossibility of getting out of sight of the house, which stares down at you, Argus-eyed and unblinking, into whatever corner you may shuffle. Perfect house and perfect garden, lying in that land of lovely gardens, England, the garden just the right size for perfection, not a weed ever admitted, every dandelion and daisy--those friends of the unaspiring-- routed out years ago, the borders exquisite examples of taste, the turf so faultless that you hardly like to walk on it for fear of making it dusty, and the whole quite uninhabitable for people of my solitary tendencies because, go where you will, you are overlooked. Since I have lived in this big straggling place, full of paths and copses where I am sure of being left alone, with wide fields and heath and forests beyond, and so much room to move and breathe in, I feel choked, oppressed, suffocated, in anything small and perfect. I spent a very happy afternoon in that little English paradise, but I came away quite joyfully, and with many a loving thought of my own dear ragged garden, and all the corners in it where the anemones twinkle in the spring like stars, and where there is so much nature and so little art. It will grow I know sweeter every year, but it is too big ever to be perfect and to get to look so immaculate that the diseased imagination conjures up visions of housemaids issuing forth each morning in troops and dusting every separate flower with feather brushes. Nature herself is untidy, and in a garden she ought to come first, and Art with her brooms and clipping-shears follow humbly behind. Art has such a good time in the house, where she spreads herself over the walls, and hangs herself up gorgeously at the windows, and lurks in the sofa cushions, and breaks out in an eruption of pots wherever pots are possible, that really she should be content to take the second place out of doors. And how dreadful to meet a gardener and a wheelbarrow at every turn--which is precisely what happens to one in the perfect garden. My gardener, whose deafness is more than compensated for by the keenness of his eyesight, very soon remarked the scowl that distorted my features whenever I met one of his assistants in my favourite walks, and I never meet them now. I think he must keep them chained up to the cucumber-frames, so completely have they disappeared, and he only lets them loose when he knows I am driving, or at meals, or in bed. But is it not irritating to be sitting under your favourite tree, pencil in hand, and eyes turned skywards expectant of the spark from heaven that never falls, and then to have a man appear suddenly round the corner who immediately begins quite close to you to tear up the earth with his fangs? No one will ever know the number of what I believe are technically known as winged words that I have missed bringing down through interruptions of this kind. Indeed, as I look through these pages I see I must have missed them all, for I can find nothing anywhere with even a rudimentary approach to wings.
Sometimes when I am in a critical mood and need all my faith to keep me patient, I shake my head at the unshornness of the garden as gravely as the missionary shook his head at me. The bushes stretch across the paths, and, catching at me as I go by, remind me that they have not been pruned; the teeming plant life rejoices on the lawns free from all interference from men and hoes; the pinks are closely nibbled off at the beginning of each summer by selfish hares intent on their own gratification; most of the beds bear the marks of nocturnal foxes; and the squirrels spend their days wantonly biting off and flinging down the tender young shoots of the firs. Then there is the boy who drives the donkey and water-cart round the garden, and who has an altogether reprehensible habit of whisking round corners and slicing off bits of the lawn as he whisks. "But you can't alter these things, my good soul," I say to myself. "If you want to get rid of the hares and foxes, you must consent to have wire-netting, which is odious, right round your garden. And you are always saying you like weeds, so why grumble at your lawns? And it doesn't hurt you much if the squirrels do break bits off your firs--the firs must have had that happening to them years and years before you were born, yet they still flourish. As for boys, they certainly are revolting creatures. Can't you catch this one when he isn't looking and pop him in his own water-barrel and put the lid on?"
I asked the June baby, who had several times noticed with indignation the culpable indifference of this boy in regard to corners, whether she did not think that would be a good way of disposing of him. She is a great disciplinarian, and was loud in her praise of the plan; but the other two demurred. "He might go dead in there," said the May baby, apprehensively. "And he is such a naughty boy," said April, who had watched his reckless conduct with special disgust, "that if he once went dead he'd go straight to the Holle and stay all the time with the diable."
That was the first French word I have heard them say: strange and sulphureous first-fruits of Seraphine's teaching!
We were going round the garden in a procession, I with a big pair of scissors, and the Three with baskets, into one of which I put fresh flowers, and into the others flowers that were beginning to seed, dead flowers, and seed-pods. The garden was quivering in heat and light; rain in the morning had brought out all the snails and all the sweetness, and we were very happy, as we always are, I when I am knee-deep in flowers, and the babies when they can find new sorts of snails to add to their collections. These collections are carried about in cardboard boxes all day, and at night each baby has hers on the chair beside her bed. Sometimes the snails get out and crawl over the beds, but the babies do not mind. Once when April woke in the morning she was overjoyed by finding a friendly little one on her cheek. Clearly babies of iron nerves and pellucid consciences.
"So you do know some French," I said as I snipped off poppy-heads; "you have always pretended you don't."
"Oh, keep the poppies, mummy," cried April, as she saw them tumbling into her basket; "if you picks them and just leaves them, then they ripes and is good for such a many things."
"Tell me about the diable" I said, "and you shall keep the poppies."
"He isn't nice, that diable," she said, starting off at once with breathless eloquence. "Seraphine says there was one time a girl and a boy who went for a walk, and there were two ways, and one way goes where stones is, but it goes to the lieber Gott; and the girl went that way till she came to a door, and the lieber Gott made the door opened and she went in, and that's the Himmel."
"And the boy?"
"Oh, he was a naughty boy and went the other way where there is a tree, and on the tree is written, 'Don't go this way or you'll be dead,' and he said, 'That is one betise,' and did go in the way and got to the Holle, and there he gets whippings when he doesn't make what the diable says."
"That's because he was so naughty," explained the May baby, holding up an impressive finger, "and didn't want to go to the Himmel and didn't love glory."
"All boys are naughty," said June, "and I don't love them."
"Nous allons parler Francais" I announced, desirous of finding out whether their whole stock was represented by diable and betise; "I believe you can all speak it quite well."
There was no answer. I snipped off sweet-pea pods and began to talk French at a great rate, asking questions as I snipped, and trying to extract answers, and getting none. The silence behind me grew ominous. Presently I heard a faint sniff, and the basket being held up to me began to shake. I bent down quickly and looked under April's sun-bonnet. She was crying great dreadful tears, and rubbing her eyes hard with her one free hand.
"Why, you most blessed of babies," I exclaimed, kneeling down and putting my arms round her, "what in the world is the matter?"
She looked at me with grieved and doubting eyes. "Such a mother to talk French to her child!" she sobbed.
I threw down the scissors, picked her up, and carried her up and down the path, comforting her with all the soft words I knew and suppressing my desire to smile. "That's not French, is it?" I whispered at the end of a long string of endearments, beginning, I believe, with such flights of rhetoric as priceless blessing and angel baby, and ending with a great many kisses.
"No, no," she answered, patting my face and looking infinitely relieved, "that is pretty, and how mummies always talks. Proper mummies never speak French--only Seraphines." And she gave me a very tight hug, and a kiss that transferred all her tears to my face; and I set her down and, taking out my handkerchief, tried to wipe off the traces of my attempt at governessing from her cheeks. I wonder how it is that whenever babies cry, streaks of mud immediately appear on their faces. I believe I could cry for a week, and yet produce no mud.
"I'll tell you what I'll do, babies," I said, anxious to restore complete serenity on such a lovely day, and feeling slightly ashamed of my uncalled-for zeal--indeed, April was right, and proper mothers leave lessons and torments to somebody else, and devote all their energies to petting--"I'll give a ball after tea."
"Yes!" shouted three exultant voices, "and invite all the babies!"
"So now you must arrange what you are going to wear. I suppose you'd like the same supper as usual? Run away to Seraphine and tell her to get you ready."
They seized their baskets and their boxes of snails and rushed off into the bushes, calling for Seraphine with nothing but rapture in their voices, and French and the diable quite forgotten.
These balls are given with great ceremony two or three times a year. They last about an hour, during which I sit at the piano in the library playing cheerful tunes, and the babies dance passionately round the pillar. They refuse to waltz together, which is perhaps a good thing, for if they did there would always be one left over to be a wallflower and gnash her teeth; and when they want to dance squares they are forced by the stubbornness of numbers to dance triangles. At the appointed hour they knock at the door, and come in attired in the garments they have selected as appropriate (at this last ball the April baby wore my shooting coat, the May baby had a muff, and the June baby carried Seraphine's umbrella), and, curtseying to me, each one makes some remark she thinks suitable to the occasion.
"How's your husband?" June asked me last time, in the defiant tones she seems to think proper at a ball.
"Very well, thank you."
"Oh, that is nice."
"Mine isn't vely well," remarked April, cheerfully.
"No, he has got some tummy-aches."
"He was coming else, and had such fine twowsers to wear--pink ones with wibbons."
After a little more graceful conversation of this kind the ball begins, and at the end of an hour's dancing, supper, consisting of radishes and lemonade, is served on footstools; and when they have cleared it up even to the leaves and stalks of the radishes, they rise with much dignity, express in proper terms their sense of gratitude for the entertainment, curtsey, and depart to bed, where they spend a night of horror, the prey of the awful dreams naturally resulting from so unusual a combination as radishes and babies. That is why my balls are rare festivals--the babies will insist on having radishes for the supper, and I, as a decent parent with a proper sense of my responsibilities, am forced accordingly to restrict my invitations to two, at the most three, in a year.
When this last one was over I felt considerably exhausted, and had hardly sufficient strength to receive their thanks with civility. An hour's jig-playing with the thermometer at 90 leaves its marks on the most robust; and when they were in bed, and the supper beginning to do its work, I ordered the carriage and the kettle with a view to seeking repose in the forest, taking the opportunity of escaping before the Man of Wrath should come in to dinner. The weather has been very hot for a long time, but the rain in the morning had had a wonderful effect on my flowers, and as I drove away I could not help noticing how charming the borders in front of the house were looking, with their white hollyhocks, and white snapdragons, and fringe of feathery marigolds. This gardener has already changed the whole aspect of the place, and I believe I have found the right man at last. He is very young for a head gardener, but on that account all the more anxious to please me and keep his situation; and it is a great comfort to have to do with somebody who watches and interprets rightly every expression of one's face and does not need much talking to. He makes mistakes sometimes in the men he engages, just as I used to when I did the engaging, and he had one poor young man as apprentice who very soon, like the first of my three meek gardeners, went mad. His madness was of a harmless nature and took a literary form; indeed, that was all they had against him, that he would write books. He used to sit in the early morning on my special seats in the garden, and strictly meditate the thankless muse when he ought to have been carting manure; and he made his fellow-apprentices unspeakably wretched by shouting extracts from Schiller at them across the intervening gooseberry bushes. Let me hasten to say that I had never spoken to him, and should not even have known what he was like if he had not worn eyeglasses, so that the Man of Wrath's insinuation that I affect the sanity of my gardeners is entirely without justification. The eyeglasses struck me as so odd on a gardener that I asked who he was, and was told that he had been studying for the Bar, but could not pass the examinations, and had taken up gardening in the hope of getting back his health and spirits. I thought this a very sensible plan, and was beginning to feel interested in him when one day the post brought me a registered packet containing a manuscript play he had written called "The Lawyer as Gardener," dedicated to me. The Man of Wrath and I were both in it, the Man of Wrath, however, only in the list of characters, so that he should not feel hurt, I suppose, for he never appeared on the scenes at all. As for me, I was represented as going about quoting Tolstoi in season and out of season to the gardeners--a thing I protest I never did. The young man was sent home to his people, and I have been asking myself ever since what there is about this place that it should so persistently produce books and lunacy?
On the outskirts of the forest, where shafts of dusty sunlight slanted through the trees, children were picking wortleberries for market as I passed last night, with hands and faces and aprons smudged into one blue stain. I had decided to go to a water-mill belonging to the Man of Wrath which lies far away in a clearing, so far away and so lonely and so quiet that the very spirit of peace seems to brood over it for ever; and all the way the wortleberry carpet was thick and unbroken. Never were the pines more pungent than after the long heat, and their rosy stems flushed pinker as I passed. Presently I got beyond the region of wortleberry-pickers, the children not caring to wander too far into the forest so late, and I jolted over the roots into the gathering shadows more and more pervaded by that feeling that so refreshes me, the feeling of being absolutely alone.
A very ancient man lives in the mill and takes care of it, for it has long been unused, a deaf old man with a clean, toothless face, and no wife to worry him. He informed me once that all women are mistakes, especially that aggravated form called wives, and that he was thankful he had never married. I felt a certain delicacy after that about intruding on his solitude with the burden of my sex and wifehood heavy upon me, but he always seems very glad to see me, and runs at once to his fowlhouse to look for fresh eggs for my tea; so perhaps he regards me as a pleasing exception to the rule. On this last occasion he brought a table out to the elm-tree by the mill stream, that I might get what air there was while I ate my supper; and I sat in great peace waiting for the kettle to boil and watching the sun dropping behind the sharp forest me, and all the little pools and currents into which the stream just there breaks as it flows over mud banks, ablaze with the red reflection of the sky. The pools are clothed with water-lilies and inhabited by eels, and I generally take a netful of writhing eels back with me to the Man of Wrath to pacify him after my prolonged absence. In the lily time I get into the miller's punt and make them an excuse for paddling about among the mud islands, and even adventurously exploring the river as it winds into the forest, and the old man watches me anxiously from under the elm. He regards my feminine desire to pick water-lilies with indulgence, but is clearly uneasy at my affection for mud banks, and once, after I had stuck on one, and he had run up and down in great agitation for half an hour shouting instructions as to getting off again, he said when I was safely back on shore that people with petticoats (his way of expressing woman) were never intended for punts, and their only chance of safety lay in dry land and keeping quiet. I did not this time attempt the punt, for I was tired, and it was half full of water, probably poured into it by a miller weary of the ways of women; and I drank my tea quietly, going on at the same time with my interrupted afternoon reading of the Sorrows of Werther, in which I had reached a part that has a special fascination for me every time I read it--that part where Werther first meets Lotte, and where, after a thunderstorm; they both go to the window, and she is so touched by the beauties of nature that she lays her hand on his and murmurs "Klopstock,"--to the complete dismay of the reader, though not of Werther, for he, we find, was so carried away by the magic word that he flung himself on to her hand and kissed it with tears of rapture.
I looked up from the book at the quiet pools and the black line of trees, above which stars were beginning to twinkle, my ears soothed by the splashing of the mill stream and the hooting somewhere near of a solitary owl, and I wondered whether, if the Man of Wrath were by my side, it would be a relief to my pleasurable feelings to murmur "Klopstock," and whether if I did he would immediately shed tears of joy over my hand. The name is an unfortunate one as far as music goes, and Goethe's putting it into his heroine's mouth just when she was most enraptured, seems to support the view I sometimes adopt in discoursing to the Man of Wrath that he had no sense of humour. But here I am talking about Goethe, our great genius and idol, in a way that no woman should. What do German women know of such things? Quite untrained and uneducated, how are we to judge rightly about anybody or anything? All we can do is to jump at conclusions, and, when we have jumped, receive with meekness the information that we have jumped wrong. Sitting there long after it was too dark to read, I thought of the old miller's words, and agreed with him that the best thing a woman can do in this world is to keep quiet. He came out once and asked whether he should bring a lamp, and seemed uneasy at my choosing to sit there in the dark. I could see the stars in the black pools, and a line of faint light far away above the pines where the sun had set. Every now and then the hot air from the ground struck up in my face, and afterwards would come a cooler breath from the water. Of what use is it to fight for things and make a noise? Nature is so clear in her teaching that he who has lived with her for any time can be in little doubt as to the "better way." Keep quiet and say one's prayers--certainly not merely the best, but the only things to do if one would be truly happy; but, ashamed of asking when I have received so much, the only form of prayer I would use would be a form of thanksgiving.