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Elizabeth and her German Garden (Page 3)


"Another! another!" she shrieked, jumping up and down with redoubled energy, all her silvery curls flying.

I began about Noah and the flood.

"Did it rain so badly?" she asked with a face of the deepest concern and interest.

"Yes, all day long and all night long for weeks and weeks-- --"

"And was everybody so wet?"

"Yes--"

"But why didn't they open their umbwellas?"

Just then I saw the nurse coming out with the tea-tray.

"I'll tell you the rest another time," I said, putting her off my knee, greatly relieved; "you must all go to Anna now and have tea."

"I don't like Anna," remarked the June baby, not having hitherto opened her lips; "she is a stupid girl."

The other two stood transfixed with horror at this statement, for, besides being naturally extremely polite, and at all times anxious not to hurt any one's feelings, they had been brought up to love and respect their kind little nurse.

The April baby recovered her speech first, and lifting her finger, pointed it at the criminal in just indignation. "Such a child will never go into the Himmel," she said with great emphasis, and the air of one who delivers judgment.

September 15th.--This is the month of quiet days, crimson creepers, and blackberries; of mellow afternoons in the ripening garden; of tea under the acacias instead of the too shady beeches; of wood-fires in the library in the chilly evenings. The babies go out in the afternoon and blackberry in the hedges; the three kittens, grown big and fat, sit cleaning themselves on the sunny verandah steps; the Man of Wrath shoots partridges across the distant stubble; and the summer seems as though it would dream on for ever. It is hard to believe that in three months we shall probably be snowed up and certainly be cold. There is a feeling about this month that reminds me of March and the early days of April, when spring is still hesitating on the threshold and the garden holds its breath in expectation. There is the same mildness in the air, and the sky and grass have the same look as then; but the leaves tell a different tale, and the reddening creeper on the house is rapidly approaching its last and loveliest glory.

My roses have behaved as well on the whole as was to be expected, and the Viscountess Folkestones and Laurette Messimys have been most beautiful, the latter being quite the loveliest things in the garden, each flower an exquisite loose cluster of coral-pink petals, paling at the base to a yellow-white. I have ordered a hundred standard tea-roses for planting next month, half of which are Viscountess Folkestones, because the tea-roses have such a way of hanging their little heads that one has to kneel down to be able to see them well in the dwarf forms-- not but what I entirely approve of kneeling before such perfect beauty, only it dirties one's clothes. So I am going to put standards down each side of the walk under the south windows, and shall have the flowers on a convenient level for worship. My only fear is, that they will stand the winter less well than the dwarf sorts, being so difficult to pack up snugly. The Persian Yellows and Bicolors have been, as I predicted, a mistake among the tea-roses; they only flower twice in the season and all the rest of the time look dull and moping; and then the Persian Yellows have such an odd smell and so many insects inside them eating them up. I have ordered Safrano tea-roses to put in their place, as they all come out next month and are to be grouped in the grass; and the semicircle being immediately under the windows, besides having the best position in the place, must be reserved solely for my choicest treasures. I have had a great many disappointments, but feel as though I were really beginning to learn. Humility, and the most patient perseverance, seem almost as necessary in gardening as rain and sunshine, and every failure must be used as a stepping-stone to something better.

I had a visitor last week who knows a great deal about gardening and has had much practical experience. When I heard he was coming, I felt I wanted to put my arms right round my garden and hide it from him; but what was my surprise and delight when he said, after having gone all over it, "Well, I think you have done wonders." Dear me, how pleased I was! It was so entirely unexpected, and such a complete novelty after the remarks I have been listening to all the summer. I could have hugged that discerning and indulgent critic, able to look beyond the result to the intention, and appreciating the difficulties of every kind that had been in the way. After that I opened my heart to him, and listened reverently to all he had to say, and treasured up his kind and encouraging advice, and wished he could stay here a whole year and help me through the seasons. But he went, as people one likes always do go, and he was the only guest I have had whose departure made me sorry.

The people I love are always somewhere else and not able to come to me, while I can at any time fill the house with visitors about whom I know little and care less. Perhaps, if I saw more of those absent ones, I would not love them so well-- at least, that is what I think on wet days when the wind is howling round the house and all nature is overcome with grief; and it has actually happened once or twice when great friends have been staying with me that I have wished, when they left, I might not see them again for at least ten years. I suppose the fact is, that no friendship can stand the breakfast test, and here, in the country, we invariably think it our duty to appear at breakfast. Civilisation has done away with curl-papers, yet at that hour the soul of the Hausfrau is as tightly screwed up in them as was ever her grandmother's hair; and though my body comes down mechanically, having been trained that way by punctual parents, my soul never thinks of beginning to wake up for other people till lunch-time, and never does so completely till it has been taken out of doors and aired in the sunshine. Who can begin conventional amiability the first thing in the morning? It is the hour of savage instincts and natural tendencies; it is the triumph of the Disagreeable and the Cross. I am convinced that the Muses and the Graces never thought of having breakfast anywhere but in bed.

November 11th.--When the gray November weather came, and hung its soft dark clouds low and unbroken over the brown of the ploughed fields and the vivid emerald of the stretches of winter corn, the heavy stillness weighed my heart down to a forlorn yearning after the pleasant things of childhood, the petting, the comforting, the warming faith in the unfailing wisdom of elders. A great need of something to lean on, and a great weariness of independence and responsibility took possession of my soul; and looking round for support and comfort in that transitory mood, the emptiness of the present and the blankness of the future sent me back to the past with all its ghosts. Why should I not go and see the place where I was born, and where I lived so long; the place where I was so magnificently happy, so exquisitely wretched, so close to heaven, so near to hell, always either up on a cloud of glory, or down in the depths with the waters of despair closing over my head? Cousins live in it now, distant cousins, loved with the exact measure of love usually bestowed on cousins who reign in one's stead; cousins of practical views, who have dug up the flower-beds and planted cabbages where roses grew; and though through all the years since my father's death I have held my head so high that it hurt, and loftily refused to listen to their repeated suggestions that I should revisit my old home, something in the sad listlessness of the November days sent my spirit back to old times with a persistency that would not be set aside, and I woke from my musings surprised to find myself sick with longing.

It is foolish but natural to quarrel with one's cousins, and especially foolish and natural when they have done nothing, and are mere victims of chance. Is it their fault that my not being a boy placed the shoes I should otherwise have stepped into at their disposal? I know it is not; but their blamelessness does not make me love them more. "Noch ein dummes Frauenzimmer!" cried my father, on my arrival into the world-- he had three of them already, and I was his last hope,--and a dummes Frauenzimmer I have remained ever since; and that is why for years I would have no dealings with the cousins in possession, and that is why, the other day, overcome by the tender influence of the weather, the purely sentimental longing to join hands again with my childhood was enough to send all my pride to the winds, and to start me off without warning and without invitation on my pilgrimage.

I have always had a liking for pilgrimages, and if I had lived in the Middle Ages would have spent most of my time on the way to Rome. The pilgrims, leaving all their cares at home, the anxieties of their riches or their debts, the wife that worried and the children that disturbed, took only their sins with them, and turning their backs on their obligations, set out with that sole burden, and perhaps a cheerful heart. How cheerful my heart would have been, starting on a fine morning, with the smell of the spring in my nostrils, fortified by the approval of those left behind, accompanied by the pious blessings of my family, with every step getting farther from the suffocation of daily duties, out into the wide fresh world, out into the glorious free world, so poor, so penitent, and so happy! My dream, even now, is to walk for weeks with some friend that I love, leisurely wandering from place to place, with no route arranged and no object in view, with liberty to go on all day or to linger all day, as we choose; but the question of luggage, unknown to the simple pilgrim, is one of the rocks on which my plans have been shipwrecked, and the other is the certain censure of relatives, who, not fond of walking themselves, and having no taste for noonday naps under hedges, would be sure to paralyse my plans before they had grown to maturity by the honest horror of their cry, "How very unpleasant if you were to meet any one you know!" The relative of five hundred years back would simply have said, "How holy!"

My father had the same liking for pilgrimages--indeed, it is evident that I have it from him--and he encouraged it in me when I was little, taking me with him on his pious journeys to places he had lived in as a boy. Often have we been together to the school he was at in Brandenburg, and spent pleasant days wandering about the old town on the edge of one of those lakes that lie in a chain in that wide green plain; and often have we been in Potsdam, where he was quartered as a lieutenant, the Potsdam pilgrimage including hours in the woods around and in the gardens of Sans Souci, with the second volume of Carlyle's Frederick under my father's arm; and often did we spend long summer days at the house in the Mark, at the head of the same blue chain of lakes, where his mother spent her young years, and where, though it belonged to cousins, like everything else that was worth having, we could wander about as we chose, for it was empty, and sit in the deep windows of rooms where there was no furniture, and the painted Venuses and cupids on the ceiling still smiled irrelevantly and stretched their futile wreaths above the emptiness beneath. And while we sat and rested, my father told me, as my grandmother had a hundred times told him, all that had happened in those rooms in the far-off days when people danced and sang and laughed through life, and nobody seemed ever to be old or sorry.

There was, and still is, an inn within a stone's throw of the great iron gates, with two very old lime trees in front of it, where we used to lunch on our arrival at a little table spread with a red and blue check cloth, the lime blossoms dropping into our soup, and the bees humming in the scented shadows overhead. I have a picture of the house by my side as I write, done from the lake in old times, with a boat full of ladies in hoops and powder in the foreground, and a youth playing a guitar. The pilgrimages to this place were those I loved the best.

But the stories my father told me, sometimes odd enough stories to tell a little girl, as we wandered about the echoing rooms, or hung over the stone balustrade and fed the fishes in the lake, or picked the pale dog-roses in the hedges, or lay in the boat in a shady reed-grown bay while he smoked to keep the mosquitoes off, were after all only traditions, imparted to me in small doses from time to time, when his earnest desire not to raise his remarks above the level of dulness supposed to be wholesome for Backfische was neutralised by an impulse to share his thoughts with somebody who would laugh; whereas the place I was bound for on my latest pilgrimage was filled with living, first-hand memories of all the enchanted years that lie between two and eighteen. How enchanted those years are is made more and more clear to me the older I grow. There has been nothing in the least like them since; and though I have forgotten most of what happened six months ago, every incident, almost every day of those wonderful long years is perfectly distinct in my memory.

But I had been stiffnecked, proud, unpleasant, altogether cousinly in my behaviour towards the people in possession. The invitations to revisit the old home had ceased. The cousins had grown tired of refusals, and had left me alone. I did not even know who lived in it now, it was so long since I had had any news. For two days I fought against the strong desire to go there that had suddenly seized me, and assured myself that I would not go, that it would be absurd to go, undignified, sentimental, and silly, that I did not know them and would be in an awkward position, and that I was old enough to know better. But who can foretell from one hour to the next what a woman will do? And when does she ever know better? On the third morning I set out as hopefully as though it were the most natural thing in the world to fall unexpectedly upon hitherto consistently neglected cousins, and expect to be received with open arms.

It was a complicated journey, and lasted several hours. During the first part, when it was still dark, I glowed with enthusiasm, with the spirit of adventure, with delight at the prospect of so soon seeing the loved place again; and thought with wonder of the long years I had allowed to pass since last I was there. Of what I should say to the cousins, and of how I should introduce myself into their midst, I did not think at all: the pilgrim spirit was upon me, the unpractical spirit that takes no thought for anything, but simply wanders along enjoying its own emotions. It was a quiet, sad morning, and there was a thick mist. By the time I was in the little train on the light railway that passed through the village nearest my old home, I had got over my first enthusiasm, and had entered the stage of critically examining the changes that had been made in the last ten years. It was so misty that I could see nothing of the familiar country from the carriage windows, only the ghosts of pines in the front row of the forests; but the railway itself was a new departure, unknown in our day, when we used to drive over ten miles of deep, sandy forest roads to and from the station, and although most people would have called it an evident and great improvement, it was an innovation due, no doubt, to the zeal and energy of the reigning cousin; and who was he, thought I, that he should require more conveniences than my father had found needful? It was no use my telling myself that in my father's time the era of light railways had not dawned, and that if it had, we should have done our utmost to secure one; the thought of my cousin, stepping into my shoes, and then altering them, was odious to me. By the time I was walking up the hill from the station I had got over this feeling too, and had entered a third stage of wondering uneasily what in the world I should do next. Where was the intrepid courage with which I had started? At the top of the first hill I sat down to consider this question in detail, for I was very near the house now, and felt I wanted time. Where, indeed, was the courage and joy of the morning? It had vanished so completely that I could only suppose that it must be lunch time, the observations of years having led to the discovery that the higher sentiments and virtues fly affrighted on the approach of lunch, and none fly quicker than courage. So I ate the lunch I had brought with me, hoping that it was what I wanted; but it was chilly, made up of sandwiches and pears, and it had to be eaten under a tree at the edge of a field; and it was November, and the mist was thicker than ever and very wet-- the grass was wet with it, the gaunt tree was wet with it, I was wet with it, and the sandwiches were wet with it. Nobody's spirits can keep up under such conditions; and as I ate the soaked sandwiches, I deplored the headlong courage more with each mouthful that had torn me from a warm, dry home where I was appreciated, and had brought me first to the damp tree in the damp field, and when I had finished my lunch and dessert of cold pears, was going to drag me into the midst of a circle of unprepared and astonished cousins. Vast sheep loomed through the mist a few yards off. The sheep dog kept up a perpetual, irritating yap. In the fog I could hardly tell where I was, though I knew I must have played there a hundred times as a child. After the fashion of woman directly she is not perfectly warm and perfectly comfortable, I began to consider the uncertainty of human life, and to shake my head in gloomy approval as lugubrious lines of pessimistic poetry suggested themselves to my mind.

Now it is clearly a desirable plan, if you want to do anything, to do it in the way consecrated by custom, more especially if you are a woman. The rattle of a carriage along the road just behind me, and the fact that I started and turned suddenly hot, drove this truth home to my soul. The mist hid me, and the carriage, no doubt full of cousins, drove on in the direction of the house; but what an absurd position I was in! Suppose the kindly mist had lifted, and revealed me lunching in the wet on their property, the cousin of the short and lofty letters, the unangenehme Elisabeth! "Die war doch immer verdreht," I could imagine them hastily muttering to each other, before advancing wreathed in welcoming smiles. It gave me a great shock, this narrow escape, and I got on to my feet quickly, and burying the remains of my lunch under the gigantic molehill on which I had been sitting, asked myself nervously what I proposed to do next. Should I walk back to the village, go to the Gasthof, write a letter craving permission to call on my cousins, and wait there till an answer came? It would be a discreet and sober course to pursue; the next best thing to having written before leaving home. But the Gasthof of a north German village is a dreadful place, and the remembrance of one in which I had taken refuge once from a thunderstorm was still so vivid that nature itself cried out against this plan. The mist, if anything, was growing denser. I knew every path and gate in the place. What if I gave up all hope of seeing the house, and went through the little door in the wall at the bottom of the garden, and confined myself for this once to that? In such weather I would be able to wander round as I pleased, without the least risk of being seen by or meeting any cousins, and it was after all the garden that lay nearest my heart. What a delight it would be to creep into it unobserved, and revisit all the corners I so well remembered, and slip out again and get away safely without any need of explanations, assurances, protestations, displays of affection, without any need, in a word, of that exhausting form of conversation, so dear to relations, known as Redensarten! The mist tempted me. I think if it had been a fine day I would have gone soberly to the Gasthof and written the conciliatory letter; but the temptation was too great, it was altogether irresistible, and in ten minutes I had found the gate, opened it with some difficulty, and was standing with a beating heart in the garden of my childhood.

Now I wonder whether I shall ever again feel thrills of the same potency as those that ran through me at that moment. First of all I was trespassing, which is in itself thrilling; but how much more thrilling when you are trespassing on what might just as well have been your own ground, on what actually was for years your own ground, and when you are in deadly peril of seeing the rightful owners, whom you have never met, but with whom you have quarrelled, appear round the corner, and of hearing them remark with an inquiring and awful politeness "I do not think I have the pleasure--?" Then the place was unchanged. I was standing in the same mysterious tangle of damp little paths that had always been just there; they curled away on either side among the shrubs, with the brown tracks of recent footsteps in the centre of their green stains, just as they did in my day. The overgrown lilac bushes still met above my head. The moisture dripped from the same ledge in the wall on to the sodden leaves beneath, as it had done all through the afternoons of all those past Novembers. This was the place, this damp and gloomy tangle, that had specially belonged to me. Nobody ever came to it, for in winter it was too dreary, and in summer so full of mosquitoes that only a Backfisch indifferent to spots could have borne it. But it was a place where I could play unobserved, and where I could walk up and down uninterrupted for hours, building castles in the air. There was an unwholesome little arbour in one dark corner, much frequented by the larger black slug, where I used to pass glorious afternoons making plans. I was for ever making plans, and if nothing came of them, what did it matter? The mere making had been a joy. To me this out-of-the-way corner was always a wonderful and a mysterious place, where my castles in the air stood close together in radiant rows, and where the strangest and most splendid adventures befell me; for the hours I passed in it and the people I met in it were all enchanted.

Standing there and looking round with happy eyes, I forgot the existence of the cousins. I could have cried for joy at being there again. It was the home of my fathers, the home that would have been mine if I had been a boy, the home that was mine now by a thousand tender and happy and miserable associations, of which the people in possession could not dream. They were tenants, but it was my home. I threw my arms round the trunk of a very wet fir tree, every branch of which I remembered, for had I not climbed it, and fallen from it, and torn and bruised myself on it uncountable numbers of times? and I gave it such a hearty kiss that my nose and chin were smudged into one green stain, and still I did not care. Far from caring, it filled me with a reckless, Backfisch pleasure in being dirty, a delicious feeling that I had not had for years. Alice in Wonderland, after she had drunk the contents of the magic bottle, could not have grown smaller more suddenly than I grew younger the moment I passed through that magic door. Bad habits cling to us, however, with such persistency that I did mechanically pull out my handkerchief and begin to rub off the welcoming smudge, a thing I never would have dreamed of doing in the glorious old days; but an artful scent of violets clinging to the handkerchief brought me to my senses, and with a sudden impulse of scorn, the fine scorn for scent of every honest Backfisch, I rolled it up into a ball and flung it away into the bushes, where I daresay it is at this moment. "Away with you," I cried, "away with you, symbol of conventionality, of slavery, of pandering to a desire to please--away with you, miserable little lace-edged rag!" And so young had I grown within the last few minutes that I did not even feel silly.

As a Backfisch I had never used handkerchiefs-- the child of nature scorns to blow its nose--though for decency's sake my governess insisted on giving me a clean one of vast size and stubborn texture on Sundays. It was stowed away unfolded in the remotest corner of my pocket, where it was gradually pressed into a beautiful compactness by the other contents, which were knives. After a while, I remember, the handkerchief being brought to light on Sundays to make room for a successor, and being manifestly perfectly clean, we came to an agreement that it should only be changed on the first and third Sundays in the month, on condition that I promised to turn it on the other Sundays. My governess said that the outer folds became soiled from the mere contact with the other things in my pocket, and that visitors might catch sight of the soiled side if it was never turned when I wished to blow my nose in their presence, and that one had no right to give one's visitors shocks. "But I never do wish-- --" I began with great earnestness. "Unsinn," said my governess, cutting me short.

After the first thrills of joy at being there again had gone, the profound stillness of the dripping little shrubbery frightened me. It was so still that I was afraid to move; so still, that I could count each drop of moisture falling from the oozing wall; so still, that when I held my breath to listen, I was deafened by my own heart-beats. I made a step forward in the direction where the arbour ought to be, and the rustling and jingling of my clothes terrified me into immobility. The house was only two hundred yards off; and if any one had been about, the noise I had already made opening the creaking door and so foolishly apostrophising my handkerchief must have been noticed. Suppose an inquiring gardener, or a restless cousin, should presently loom through the fog, bearing down upon me? Suppose Fraulein Wundermacher should pounce upon me suddenly from behind, coming up noiselessly in her galoshes, and shatter my castles with her customary triumphant "Fetzt halte ich dich aber fest!" Why, what was I thinking of? Fraulein Wundermacher, so big and masterful, such an enemy of day-dreams, such a friend of das Praktische, such a lover of creature comforts, had died long ago, had been succeeded long ago by others, German sometimes, and sometimes English, and sometimes at intervals French, and they too had all in their turn vanished, and I was here a solitary ghost. "Come, Elizabeth," said I to myself impatiently, "are you actually growing sentimental over your governesses? If you think you are a ghost, be glad at least that you are a solitary one. Would you like the ghosts of all those poor women you tormented to rise up now in this gloomy place against you? And do you intend to stand here till you are caught?" And thus exhorting myself to action, and recognising how great was the risk I ran in lingering, I started down the little path leading to the arbour and the principal part of the garden, going, it is true, on tiptoe, and very much frightened by the rustling of my petticoats, but determined to see what I had come to see and not to be scared away by phantoms.

How regretfully did I think at that moment of the petticoats of my youth, so short, so silent, and so woollen! And how convenient the canvas shoes were with the india rubber soles, for creeping about without making a sound! Thanks to them I could always run swiftly and unheard into my hiding-places, and stay there listening to the garden resounding with cries of "Elizabeth! Elizabeth! Come in at once to your lessons!" Or, at a different period, "Ou etes-vous donc, petite sotte?" Or at yet another period, "Warte nur, wenn ich dich erst habe!" As the voices came round one corner, I whisked in my noiseless clothes round the next, and it was only Fraulein Wundermacher, a person of resource, who discovered that all she needed for my successful circumvention was galoshes. She purchased a pair, wasted no breath calling me, and would come up silently, as I stood lapped in a false security lost in the contemplation of a squirrel or a robin, and seize me by the shoulders from behind, to the grievous unhinging of my nerves. Stealing along in the fog, I looked back uneasily once or twice, so vivid was this disquieting memory, and could hardly be reassured by putting up my hand to the elaborate twists and curls that compose what my maid calls my Frisur, and that mark the gulf lying between the present and the past; for it had happened once or twice, awful to relate and to remember, that Fraulein Wundermacher, sooner than let me slip through her fingers, had actually caught me by the long plait of hair to whose other end I was attached and whose English name I had been told was pigtail, just at the instant when I was springing away from her into the bushes; and so had led me home triumphant, holding on tight to the rope of hair, and muttering with a broad smile of special satisfaction, "Diesmal wirst du mir aber nicht entschlupfen!" Fraulein Wundermacher, now I came to think of it, must have been a humourist. She was certainly a clever and a capable woman. But I wished at that moment that she would not haunt me so persistently, and that I could get rid of the feeling that she was just behind in her galoshes, with her hand stretched out to seize me.

Passing the arbour, and peering into its damp recesses, I started back with my heart in my mouth. I thought I saw my grandfather's stern eyes shining in the darkness. It was evident that my anxiety lest the cousins should catch me had quite upset my nerves, for I am not by nature inclined to see eyes where eyes are not. "Don't be foolish, Elizabeth," murmured my soul in rather a faint voice, "go in, and make sure." "But I don't like going in and making sure," I replied. I did go in, however, with a sufficient show of courage, and fortunately the eyes vanished. What I should have done if they had not I am altogether unable to imagine. Ghosts are things that I laugh at in the daytime and fear at night, but I think if I were to meet one I should die. The arbour had fallen into great decay, and was in the last stage of mouldiness. My grandfather had had it made, and, like other buildings, it enjoyed a period of prosperity before being left to the ravages of slugs and children, when he came down every afternoon in summer and drank his coffee there and read his Kreuzzeitung and dozed, while the rest of us went about on tiptoe, and only the birds dared sing. Even the mosquitoes that infested the place were too much in awe of him to sting him; they certainly never did sting him, and I naturally concluded it must be because he had forbidden such familiarities. Although I had played there for so many years since his death, my memory skipped them all, and went back to the days when it was exclusively his. Standing on the spot where his armchair used to be, I felt how well I knew him now from the impressions he made then on my child's mind, though I was not conscious of them for more than twenty years. Nobody told me about him, and he died when I was six, and yet within the last year or two, that strange Indian summer of remembrance that comes to us in the leisured times when the children have been born and we have time to think, has made me know him perfectly well. It is rather an uncomfortable thought for the grown-up, and especially for the parent, but of a salutary and restraining nature, that though children may not understand what is said and done before them, and have no interest in it at the time, and though they may forget it at once and for years, yet these things that they have seen and heard and not noticed have after all impressed themselves for ever on their minds, and when they are men and women come crowding back with surprising and often painful distinctness, and away frisk all the cherished little illusions in flocks.

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