The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth von Arnim
September 9th--I have been looking in the dictionary for the English word for Einquartierung, because that is what is happening to us just now, but I can find nothing satisfactory. My dictionary merely says (1) the quartering, (2) soldiers quartered, and then relapses into irrelevancy; so that it is obvious English people do without the word for the delightful reason that they have not got the thing. We have it here very badly; an epidemic raging at the end of nearly every summer, when cottages and farms swarm with soldiers and horses, when all the female part of the population gets engaged to be married and will not work, when all the male part is jealous and wants to fight, and when my house is crowded with individuals so brilliant and decorative in their dazzling uniforms that I wish sometimes I might keep a bunch of the tallest and slenderest for ever in a big china vase in a corner of the drawing-room.
This year the manoeuvres are up our way, so that we are blest with more than our usual share of attention, and wherever you go you see soldiers, and the holy calm that has brooded over us all the summer has given place to a perpetual running to and fro of officers' servants, to meals being got ready at all hours, to the clanking of spurs and all those other mysterious things on an officer that do clank whenever he moves, and to the grievous wailings of my unfortunate menials, who are quite beside themselves, and know not whither to turn for succour. We have had one week of it already, and we have yet another before us. There are five hundred men with their horses quartered at the farm, and thirty officers with their servants in our house, besides all those billeted on the surrounding villages who have to be invited to dinner and cannot be allowed to perish in peasant houses; so that my summer has for a time entirely ceased to be solitary, and whenever I flee distracted to the farthest recesses of my garden and begin to muse, according to my habit, on Man, on Nature, and on Human Life, lieutenants got up in the most exquisite flannels pursue me and want to play tennis with me, a game I have always particularly disliked.
There is no room of course for all those extra men and horses at the farm, and when a few days before their arrival (sometimes it is only one, and sometimes only a few hours) an official appears and informs us of the number to be billeted on us, the Man of Wrath has to have temporary sheds run up, some as stables, some as sleeping-places, and some as dining-rooms. Nor is it easy to cook for five hundred people more than usual, and all the ordinary business of the farm comes to a stand-still while the hands prepare barrowfuls of bacon and potatoes, and stir up the coffee and milk and sugar together with a pole in a tub. Part of the regimental band is here, the upper part. The base instruments are in the next village; but that did not deter an enthusiastic young officer from marching his men past our windows on their arrival at six in the morning, with colours flying, and what he had of his band playing their tunes as unconcernedly as though all those big things that make such a noise were giving the fabric its accustomed and necessary base. We are paid six pfennings a day for lodging a common soldier, and six pfennings for his horse--rather more than a penny in English money for the pair of them; only unfortunately sheds and carpentry are not quite so cheap. Eighty pfennings a day is added for the soldier's food, and for this he has to receive two pounds of bread, half a pound of meat, a quarter of a pound of bacon, and either a quarter of a pound of rice or barley or three pounds of potatoes. Officers are paid for at the rate of two marks fifty a day without wine; we are not obliged to give them wine, and if we do they are regarded as guests, and behave accordingly. The thirty we have now do not, as I could have wished, all go out together in the morning and stay out till the evening, but some go out as others come in, and breakfast is not finished till lunch begins, and lunch drags on till dinner, and all day long the dining-room is full of meals and officers, and we ceased a week ago to have the least feeling that the place, after all, belongs to us.
Now really it seems to me that I am a much-tried woman, and any peace I have enjoyed up to now is amply compensated for by my present torments. I believe even my stern friend the missionary would be satisfied if he could know how swiftly his prediction that sorrow and suffering would be sure to come, has been fulfilled. All day long I am giving out table linen, ordering meals, supporting the feeble knees of servants, making appropriate and amiable remarks to officers, presiding as gracefully as nature permits at meals, and trying to look as though I were happy; while out in the garden--oh, I know how it is looking out in the garden this golden weather, how the placid hours are slipping by in unchanged peace, how strong the scent of roses and ripe fruit is, how the sleepy bees drone round the flowers, how warmly the sun shines in that corner where the little Spanish chestnut is turning yellow--the first to turn, and never afterwards surpassed in autumn beauty; I know how still it is down there in my fir wood, where the insects hum undisturbed in the warm, quiet air; I know what the plain looks like from the seat under the oak, how beautiful, with its rolling green waves burning to gold under the afternoon sky; I know how the hawks circle over it, and how the larks sing above it, and I edge as near to the open window as I can, straining my ears to hear them, and forgetting the young men who are telling me of all the races their horses win as completely as though they did not exist. I want to be out there on that golden grass, and look up into that endless blue, and feel the ecstasy of that song through all my being, and there is a tearing at my heart when I remember that I cannot. Yet they are beautiful young men; all are touchingly amiable, and many of the older ones even charming--how is it, then, that I so passionately prefer larks?
We have every grade of greatness here, from that innocent being the ensign, a creature of apparent modesty and blushes, who is obliged to stand up and drain his glass each time a superior chooses to drink to him, and who sits on the hardest chairs and looks for the balls while we play tennis, to the general, invariably delightful, whose brains have carried him triumphantly through the annual perils of weeding out, who is as distinguished in looks and manners as he is in abilities, and has the crowning merit of being manifestly happy in the society of women. Nothing lower than a colonel is to me an object of interest. The lower you get the more officers there are, and the harder it is to see the promising ones in the crowd; but once past the rank of major the air gets very much cleared by the merciless way they have been weeded out, and the higher officers are the very flower of middle-aged German males. As for those below, a lieutenant is a bright and beautiful being who admires no one so much as himself; a captain is generally newly married, having reached the stage of increased pay which makes a wife possible, and, being often still in love with her, is ineffective for social purposes; and a major is a man with a yearly increasing family, for whose wants his pay is inadequate, a person continually haunted by the fear of approaching weeding, after which his career is ended, he is poorer than ever, and being no longer young and only used to a soldier's life, is almost always quite incapable of starting afresh. Even the children of light find it difficult to start afresh with any success after forty, and the retired officer is never a child of light; if he were, he would not have been weeded out. You meet him everywhere, shorn of the glories of his uniform, easily recognisable by the bad fit of his civilian clothes, wandering about like a ship without a rudder; and as time goes on he settles down to the inevitable, and passes his days in a fourth-floor flat in the suburbs, eats, drinks, sleeps, reads the Kreuzzeitung and nothing else, plays at cards in the day-time, grows gouty, and worries his wife. It would be difficult to count the number of them that have answered the Man of Wrath's advertisements for book- keepers and secretaries--always vainly, for even if they were fit for the work, no single person possesses enough tact to cope successfully with the peculiarities of such a situation. I hear that some English people of a hopeful disposition indulge in ladies as servants; the cases are parallel, and the tact required to meet both superhuman.
Of all the officers here the only ones with whom I can find plenty to talk about are the generals. On what subject under heaven could one talk to a lieutenant? I cannot discuss the agility of ballet-dancers or the merits of jockeys with him, because these things are as dust and ashes to me; and when forced for a few moments by my duties as hostess to come within range of his conversation I feel chilly and grown old. In the early spring of this year, in those wonderful days of hope when nature is in a state of suppressed excitement, and when any day the yearly recurring miracle may happen of a few hours' warm rain changing the whole world, we got news that a lieutenant and two men with their horses were imminent, and would be quartered here for three nights while some occult military evolutions were going on a few miles off. It was specially inopportune, because the Man of Wrath would not be here, but he comforted me as I bade him good-bye, my face no doubt very blank, by the assurance that the lieutenant would be away all day, and so worn out when he got back in the evening that he probably would not appear at all. But I never met a more wide-awake young man. Not once during those three days did he respond to my pressing entreaties to go and lie down, and not all the desperate eloquence of a woman at her wit's end could persuade him that he was very tired and ought to try and get some sleep. I had intended to be out when he arrived, and to remain out till dinner time, but he came unexpectedly early, while the babies and I were still at lunch, the door opening to admit the most beautiful specimen of his class that I have ever seen, so beautiful indeed in his white uniform that the babies took him for an angel--visitant of the type that visited Abraham and Sarah, and began in whispers to argue about wings. He was not in the least tired after his long ride he told me, in reply to my anxious inquiries, and, rising to the occasion, at once plunged into conversation, evidently realising how peculiarly awful prolonged pauses under the circumstances would be. I took him for a drive in the afternoon, after having vainly urged him to rest, and while he told me about his horses, and his regiment, and his brother officers, in what at last grew to be a decidedly intermittent prattle, I amused myself by wondering what he would say if I suddenly began to hold forth on the themes I love best, and insist that he should note the beauty of the trees as they stood that afternoon expectant, with all their little buds only waiting for the one warm shower to burst into the glory of young summer. Perhaps he would regard me as the German variety of a hyena in petticoats--the imagination recoils before the probable fearfulness of such an animal--or, if not quite so bad as that, at any rate a creature hysterically inclined; and he would begin to feel lonely, and think of his comrades, and his pleasant mess, and perhaps even of his mother, for he was very young and newly fledged. Therefore I held my peace, and restricted my conversation to things military, of which I know probably less than any other woman in Germany, so that my remarks must have been to an unusual degree impressive. He talked down to me, and I talked down to him, and we reached home in a state of profoundest exhaustion--at least I know I did, but when I looked at him he had not visibly turned a hair. I went upstairs trying to hope that he had felt it more than he showed, and that during the remainder of his stay he would adopt the suggestion so eagerly offered of spending his spare time in his room resting.
At dinner, he and I, quite by ourselves, were both manifestly convinced of the necessity, for the sake of the servants, of not letting the conversation drop. I felt desperate, and would have said anything sooner than sit opposite him in silence, and with united efforts we got through that fairly well. After dinner I tried gossip, and encouraged him to tell me some, but he had such an unnatural number of relations that whoever I began to talk about happened to be his cousin, or his brother- in-law, or his aunt, as he hastily informed me, so that what I had intended to say had to be turned immediately into loud and unqualified praise; and praising people is frightfully hard work--you give yourself the greatest pains over it, and are aware all the time that it is not in the very least carrying conviction. Does not everybody know that one's natural impulse is to tear the absent limb from limb? At half-past nine I got up, worn out in mind and body, and told him very firmly that it had been a custom in my family from time immemorial to be in bed by ten, and that I was accordingly going there. He looked surprised and wider awake than ever, but nothing shook me, and I walked away, leaving him standing on the hearthrug after the manner of my countrymen, who never dream of opening a door for a woman.
The next day he went off at five in the morning, and was to be away, as he had told me, till the evening. I felt as though I had been let out of prison as I breakfasted joyfully on the verandah, the sun streaming through the creeperless trellis on to the little meal, and the first cuckoo of the year calling to me from the fir wood. Of the dinner and evening before me I would not think; indeed I had a half-formed plan in my head of going to the forest after lunch with the babies, taking wraps and provisions, and getting lost till well on towards bedtime; so that when the angel-visitant should return full of renewed strength and conversation, he would find the casket empty and be told the gem had gone out for a walk. After I had finished breakfast I ran down the steps into the garden, intent on making the most of every minute and hardly able to keep my feet from dancing. Oh, the blessedness of a bright spring morning without a lieutenant! And was there ever such a hopeful beginning to a day, and so full of promise for the subsequent right passing of its hours, as breakfast in the garden, alone with your teapot and your book! Any cobwebs that have clung to your soul from the day before are brushed off with a neatness and expedition altogether surprising; never do tea and toast taste so nice as out there in the sun; never was a book so wise and full of pith as the one lying open before you; never was woman so clean outside and in, so refreshed, so morally and physically well-tubbed, as she who can start her day in this fashion. As I danced down the garden path I began to think cheerfully even of lieutenants. It was not so bad; he would be away till dark, and probably on the morrow as well; I would start off in the afternoon, and by coming back very late would not see him at all that day--might not, if Providence were kind, see him again ever; and this last thought was so exhilarating that I began to sing. But he came back just as we had finished lunch.
"The Herr Lieutenant is here," announced the servant, "and has gone to wash his hands. The Herr Lieutenant has not yet lunched, and will be down in a moment."
"I want the carriage at once," I ordered--I could not and would not spend another afternoon tete-a-tete with that young man,--"and you are to tell the Herr Lieutenant that I am sorry I was obliged to go out, but I had promised the pastor to take the children there this afternoon. See that he has everything he wants."
I gathered the babies together and fled. I could hear the lieutenant throwing things about overhead, and felt there was not a moment to lose. The servant's face showed plainly that he did not believe about the pastor, and the babies looked up at me wonderingly. What is a woman to do when driven into a corner? The father of lies inhabits corners--no doubt the proper place for such a naughty person.
We ran upstairs to get ready. There was only one short flight on which we could meet the lieutenant, and once past that we were safe; but we met him on that one short flight. He was coming down in a hurry, giving his moustache a final hasty twist, and looking fresher, brighter, lovelier, than ever.
"Oh, good morning. You have got back much sooner than you expected, have you not?" I said lamely.
"Yes, I managed to get through my part quickly," he said with a briskness I did not like.
"But you started so early--you must be very tired?"
"Oh, not in the least, thank you."
Then I repeated the story about the expectant parson, adding to my guilt by laying stress on the inevitability of the expedition owing to its having been planned weeks before. April and May stood on the landing above, listening with surprised faces, and June, her mind evidently dwelling on feathers, intently examined his shoulders from the step immediately behind. And we did get away, leaving him to think what he liked, and to smoke, or sleep, or wander as he chose, and I could not but believe he must feel relieved to be rid of me; but the afternoon clouded over, and a sharp wind sprang up, and we were very cold in the forest, and the babies began to sneeze and ask where the parson was, and at last, after driving many miles, I said it was too late to go to the parson's and we would turn back. It struck me as hard that we should be forced to wander in cold forests and leave our comfortable home because of a lieutenant, and I went back with my heart hardened against him.
That second evening was worse a great deal than the first. We had said all we ever meant to say to each other, and had lauded all our relations with such hearty goodwill that there was nothing whatever to add. I sat listening to the slow ticking of the clock and asking questions about things I did not in the least want to know, such as the daily work and rations and pay of the soldiers in his regiment, and presently--we having dined at the early hour usual in the country--the clock struck eight. Could I go to bed at eight? No, I had not the courage, and no excuse ready. More slow ticking, and more questions and answers about rations and pipeclay. What a clock! For utter laziness and dull deliberation there surely never was its equal--it took longer to get to the half-hour than any clock I ever met, but it did get there at last and struck it. Could I go? Could I? No, still no excuse ready. We drifted from pipeclay to a discussion on bicycling for women--a dreary subject. Was it becoming? Was it good for them? Was it ladylike? Ought they to wear skirts or--? In Paris they all wore--. Our bringing-up here is so excellent that if we tried we could not induce ourselves to speak of any forked garments to a young man, so we make ourselves understood, when we desire to insinuate such things, by an expressive pause and a modest downward flicker of the eyelids. The clock struck nine. Nothing should keep me longer. I sprang to my feet and said I was exhausted beyond measure by the sharp air driving, and that whenever I had spent an afternoon out, it was my habit to go to bed half an hour earlier than other evenings. Again he looked surprised, but rather less so than the night before, and he was, I think, beginning to get used to me. I retired, firmly determined not to face another such day and to be very ill in the morning and quite unable to rise, he having casually remarked that the next one was an off day; and I would remain in bed, that last refuge of the wretched, as long as he remained here.
I sat by the window in my room till late, looking out at the moonlight in the quiet garden, with a feeling as though I were stuffed with sawdust--a very awful feeling--and thinking ruefully of the day that had begun so brightly and ended so dismally. What a miserable thing not to be able to be frank and say simply, "My good young man, you and I never saw each other before, probably won't see each other again, and have no interests in common. I mean you to be comfortable in my house, but I want to be comfortable too. Let us, therefore, keep out of each other's way while you are obliged to be here. Do as you like, go where you like, and order what you like, but don't expect me to waste my time sitting by your side and making small-talk. I too have to get to heaven, and have no time to lose. You won't see me again. Good-bye."
I believe many a harassed Hausfrau would give much to be able to make some such speech when these young men appear, and surely the young men themselves would be grateful; but simplicity is apparently quite beyond people's strength. It is, of all the virtues, the one I prize the most; it is undoubtedly the most lovable of any, and unspeakably precious for its power of removing those mountains that confine our lives and prevent our seeing the sky. Certain it is that until we have it, the simple spirit of the little child, we shall in no wise discover our kingdom of heaven.
These were my reflections, and many others besides, as I sat weary at the window that cold spring night, long after the lieutenant who had occasioned them was slumbering peacefully on the other side of the house. Thoughts of the next day, and enforced bed, and the bowls of gruel to be disposed of if the servants were to believe in my illness, made my head ache. Eating gruel pour la galerie is a pitiable state to be reduced to--surely no lower depths of humiliation are conceivable. And then, just as I was drearily remembering how little I loved gruel, there was a sudden sound of wheels rolling swiftly round the corner of the house, a great rattling and trampling in the still night over the stones, and tearing open the window and leaning out, there, sitting in a station fly, and apparelled to my glad vision in celestial light, I beheld the Man of Wrath, come home unexpectedly to save me.
"Oh, dear Man of Wrath," I cried, hanging out into the moonlight with outstretched arms, "how much nicer thou art than lieutenants! I never missed thee more--I never longed for thee more--I never loved thee more --come up here quickly that I may kiss thee!--"
October 1st.--Last night after dinner, when we were in the library, I said, "Now listen to me, Man of Wrath."
"Well?" he inquired, looking up at me from the depths of his chair as I stood before him.
"Do you know that as a prophet you are a failure? Five months ago to-day you sat among the wallflowers and scoffed at the idea of my being able to enjoy myself alone a whole summer through. Is the summer over?"
"It is," he assented, as he heard the rain beating against the windows.
"And have I invited any one here?"
"No, but there were all those officers."
"They have nothing whatever to do with it."
"They helped you through one fortnight."
"They didn't. It was a fortnight of horror."
"Well. Go on."
"You said I would be punished by being dull. Have I been dull?"
"My dear, as though if you had been you would ever confess it."
"That's true. But as a matter of fact let me tell you that I never spent a happier summer."
He merely looked at me out of the corners of his eyes.
"If I remember rightly," he said, after a pause, "your chief reason for wishing to be solitary was that your soul might have time to grow. May I ask if it did?"
"Not a bit."
He laughed, and, getting up, came and stood by my side before the fire. "At least you are honest," he said, drawing my hand through his arm.
"It is an estimable virtue."
"And strangely rare in woman."
"Now leave woman alone. I have discovered you know nothing really of her at all. But I know all about her."
"You do? My dear, one woman can never judge the others."
"An exploded tradition, dear Sage."
"Her opinions are necessarily biassed."
"Venerable nonsense, dear Sage."
"Because women are each other's natural enemies."
"Obsolete jargon, dear Sage."
"Well, what do you make of her?"
"Why, that she's a dear, and that you ought to be very happy and thankful to have got one of her always with you."
"But am I not?" he asked, putting his arm round me and looking affectionate; and when people begin to look affectionate I, for one, cease to take any further interest in them.
And so the Man of Wrath and I fade away into dimness and muteness, my head resting on his shoulder, and his arm encircling my waist; and what could possibly be more proper, more praiseworthy, or more picturesque?