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Elizabeth and her German Garden (Page 4)


I had an awful reverence for my grandfather. He never petted, and he often frowned, and such people are generally reverenced. Besides, he was a just man, everybody said; a just man who might have been a great man if he had chosen, and risen to almost any pinnacle of worldly glory. That he had not so chosen was held to be a convincing proof of his greatness; for he was plainly too great to be great in the vulgar sense, and shrouded himself in the dignity of privacy and potentialities. This, at least, as time passed and he still did nothing, was the belief of the simple people around. People must believe in somebody, and having pinned their faith on my grandfather in the promising years that lie round thirty, it was more convenient to let it remain there. He pervaded our family life till my sixth year, and saw to it that we all behaved ourselves, and then he died, and we were glad that he should be in heaven. He was a good German(and when Germans are good they are very good) who kept the commandments, voted for the Government, grew prize potatoes and bred innumerable sheep, drove to Berlin once a year with the wool in a procession of waggons behind him and sold it at the annual Wollmarkt, rioted soberly for a few days there, and then carried most of the proceeds home, hunted as often as possible, helped his friends, punished his children, read his Bible, said his prayers, and was genuinely astonished when his wife had the affectation to die of a broken heart. I cannot pretend to explain this conduct. She ought, of course, to have been happy in the possession of so good a man; but good men are sometimes oppressive, and to have one in the house with you and to live in the daily glare of his goodness must be a tremendous business. After bearing him seven sons and three daughters, therefore, my grandmother died in the way described, and afforded, said my grandfather, another and a very curious proof of the impossibility of ever being sure of your ground with women. The incident faded more quickly from his mind than it might otherwise have done for its having occurred simultaneously with the production of a new kind of potato, of which he was justly proud. He called it Trost in Trauer, and quoted the text of Scripture Auge um Auge, Zabnum Zahn, after which he did not again allude to his wife's decease. In his last years, when my father managed the estate, and he only lived with us and criticised, he came to have the reputation of an oracle. The neighbours sent him their sons at the beginning of any important phase in their lives, and he received them in this very arbour, administering eloquent and minute advice in the deep voice that rolled round the shrubbery and filled me with a vague sense of guilt as I played. Sitting among the bushes playing muffled games for fear of disturbing him, I supposed he must be reading aloud, so unbroken was the monotony of that majestic roll. The young men used to come out again bathed in perspiration, much stung by mosquitoes, and looking bewildered; and when they had got over the impression made by my grandfather's speech and presence, no doubt forgot all he had said with wholesome quickness, and set themselves to the interesting and necessary work of gaining their own experience. Once, indeed, a dreadful thing happened, whose immediate consequence was the abrupt end to the long and close friendship between us and our nearest neighbour. His son was brought to the arbour and left there in the usual way, and either he must have happened on the critical half hour after the coffee and before the Kreuzzeitung, when my grandfather was accustomed to sleep, or he was more courageous than the others and tried to talk, for very shortly, playing as usual near at hand, I heard my grandfather's voice, raised to an extent that made me stop in my game and quake, saying with deliberate anger, "Hebe dich weg von mir, Sohn des Satans!" Which was all the advice this particular young man got, and which he hastened to take, for out he came through the bushes, and though his face was very pale, there was an odd twist about the corners of his mouth that reassured me.

This must have happened quite at the end of my grandfather's life, for almost immediately afterwards, as it now seems to me, he died before he need have done because he would eat crab, a dish that never agreed with him, in the face of his doctor's warning that if he did he would surely die. "What! am I to be conquered by crabs?" he demanded indignantly of the doctor; for apart from loving them with all his heart he had never yet been conquered by anything." Nay, sir, the combat is too unequal--do not, I pray you, try it again," replied the doctor. But my grandfather ordered crabs that very night for supper, and went in to table with the shining eyes of one who is determined to conquer or die, and the crabs conquered, and he died. "He was a just man," said the neighbours, except that nearest neighbour, formerly his best friend, "and might have been a great one had he so chosen." And they buried him with profound respect, and the sunshine came into our home life with a burst, and the birds were not the only creatures that sang, and the arbour, from having been a temple of Delphic utterances, sank into a home for slugs.

Musing on the strangeness of life, and on the invariable ultimate triumph of the insignificant and small over the important and vast, illustrated in this instance by the easy substitution in the arbour of slugs for grandfathers, I went slowly round the next bend of the path, and came to the broad walk along the south side of the high wall dividing the flower garden from the kitchen garden, in which sheltered position my father had had his choicest flowers. Here the cousins had been at work, and all the climbing roses that clothed the wall with beauty were gone, and some very neat fruit trees, tidily nailed up at proper intervals, reigned in their stead. Evidently the cousins knew the value of this warm aspect, for in the border beneath, filled in my father's time in this month of November with the wallflowers that were to perfume the walk in spring, there was a thick crop of--I stooped down close to make sure--yes, a thick crop of radishes. My eyes filled with tears at the sight of those radishes, and it is probably the only occasion on record on which radishes have made anybody cry. My dear father, whom I so passionately loved, had in his turn passionately loved this particular border, and spent the spare moments of a busy life enjoying the flowers that grew in it. He had no time himself for a more near acquaintance with the delights of gardening than directing what plants were to be used, but found rest from his daily work strolling up and down here, or sitting smoking as close to the flowers as possible. "It is the Purest of Humane pleasures, it is the Greatest Refreshment to the Spirits of Man," he would quote(for he read other things besides the Kreuzzeitung), looking round with satisfaction on reaching this fragrant haven after a hot day in the fields. Well, the cousins did not think so. Less fanciful, and more sensible as they probably would have said, their position plainly was that you cannot eat flowers. Their spirits required no refreshment, but their bodies needed much, and therefore radishes were more precious than wallflowers. Nor was my youth wholly destitute of radishes, but they were grown in the decent obscurity of odd kitchen garden corners and old cucumber frames, and would never have been allowed to come among the flowers. And only because I was not a boy here they were profaning the ground that used to be so beautiful. Oh, it was a terrible misfortune not to have been a boy! And how sad and lonely it was, after all, in this ghostly garden. The radish bed and what it symbolised had turned my first joy into grief. This walk and border me too much of my father reminded, and of all he had been to me. What I knew of good he had taught me, and what I had of happiness was through him. Only once during all the years we lived together had we been of different opinions and fallen out, and it was the one time I ever saw him severe. I was four years old, and demanded one Sunday to be taken to church. My father said no, for I had never been to church, and the German service is long and exhausting. I implored. He again said no. I implored again, and showed such a pious disposition, and so earnest a determination to behave well, that he gave in, and we went off very happily hand in hand. "Now mind, Elizabeth," he said, turning to me at the church door, "there is no coming out again in the middle. Having insisted on being brought, thou shalt now sit patiently till the end." "Oh, yes, oh, yes," I promised eagerly, and went in filled with holy fire. The shortness of my legs, hanging helplessly for two hours midway between the seat and the floor, was the weapon chosen by Satan for my destruction. In German churches you do not kneel, and seldom stand, but sit nearly the whole time, praying and singing in great comfort. If you are four years old, however, this unchanged position soon becomes one of torture. Unknown and dreadful things go on in your legs, strange prickings and tinglings and dartings up and down, a sudden terrifying numbness, when you think they must have dropped off but are afraid to look, then renewed and fiercer prickings, shootings, and burnings. I thought I must be very ill, for I had never known my legs like that before. My father sitting beside me was engrossed in the singing of a chorale that evidently had no end, each verse finished with a long-drawn-out hallelujah, after which the organ played by itself for a hundred years-- by the organist's watch, which was wrong, two minutes exactly-- and then another verse began. My father, being the patron of the living, was careful to sing and pray and listen to the sermon with exemplary attention, aware that every eye in the little church was on our pew, and at first I tried to imitate him; but the behaviour of my legs became so alarming that after vainly casting imploring glances at him and seeing that he continued his singing unmoved, I put out my hand and pulled his sleeve.

"Hal-le-lu-jah," sang my father with deliberation; continuing in a low voice without changing the expression of his face, his lips hardly moving, and his eyes fixed abstractedly on the ceiling till the organist, who was also the postman, should have finished his solo, "Did I not tell thee to sit still, Elizabeth?" "Yes, but-- --" "Then do it." "But I want to go home."

"Unsinn." And the next verse beginning, my father sang louder than ever. What could I do? Should I cry? I began to be afraid I was going to die on that chair,so extraordinary were the sensations in my legs. What could my father do to me if I did cry? With the quick instinct of small children I felt that he could not put me in the corner in church, nor would he whip me in public, and that with the whole village looking on, he was helpless, and would have to give in. Therefore I tugged his sleeve again and more peremptorily, and prepared to demand my immediate removal in a loud voice. But my father was ready for me. Without interrupting his singing, or altering his devout expression, he put his hand slowly down and gave me a hard pinch--not a playful pinch, but a good hard unmistakeable pinch, such as I had never imagined possible, and then went on serenely to the next hallelujah. For a moment I was petrified with astonishment. Was this my indulgent father, my playmate, adorer, and friend? Smarting with pain, for I was a round baby, with a nicely stretched, tight skin, and dreadfully hurt in my feelings, I opened my mouth to shriek in earnest, when my father's clear whisper fell on my ear, each word distinct and not to be misunderstood, his eyes as before gazing meditatively into space, and his lips hardly moving, "Elizabeth, wenn du schreist, kneife ich dich bis du platzt." And he finished the verse with unruffled decorum--

"Will Satan mich verschlingen, So lass die Engel singen Hallelujah!"

We never had another difference. Up to then he had been my willing slave, and after that I was his.

With a smile and a shiver I turned from the border and its memories to the door in the wall leading to the kitchen garden, in a corner of which my own little garden used to be. The door was open, and I stood still a moment before going through, to hold my breath and listen. The silence was as profound as before. The place seemed deserted; and I should have thought the house empty and shut up but for the carefully tended radishes and the recent footmarks on the green of the path. They were the footmarks of a child. I was stooping down to examine a specially clear one, when the loud caw of a very bored looking crow sitting on the wall just above my head made me jump as I have seldom in my life jumped, and reminded me that I was trespassing. Clearly my nerves were all to pieces, for I gathered up my skirts and fled through the door as though a whole army of ghosts and cousins were at my heels, nor did I stop till I had reached the remote corner where my garden was. "Are you enjoying yourself, Elizabeth?" asked the mocking sprite that calls itself my soul: but I was too much out of breath to answer.

This was really a very safe corner. It was separated from the main garden and the house by the wall, and shut in on the north side by an orchard, and it was to the last degree unlikely that any one would come there on such an afternoon. This plot of ground, turned now as I saw into a rockery, had been the scene of my most untiring labours. Into the cold earth of this north border on which the sun never shone I had dug my brightest hopes. All my pocket money had been spent on it, and as bulbs were dear and my weekly allowance small, in a fatal hour I had borrowed from Fraulein Wundermacher, selling her my independence, passing utterly into her power, forced as a result till my next birthday should come round to an unnatural suavity of speech and manner in her company, against which my very soul revolted. And after all, nothing came up. The labour of digging and watering, the anxious zeal with which I pounced on weeds, the poring over gardening books, the plans made as I sat on the little seat in the middle gazing admiringly and with the eye of faith on the trim surface so soon to be gemmed with a thousand flowers, the reckless expenditure of pfennings, the humiliation of my position in regard to Fraulein Wundermacher,--all, all had been in vain. No sun shone there, and nothing grew. The gardener who reigned supreme in those days had given me this big piece for that sole reason, because he could do nothing with it himself. He was no doubt of opinion that it was quite good enough for a child to experiment upon, and went his way, when I had thanked him with a profuseness of gratitude I still remember, with an unmoved countenance. For more than a year I worked and waited, and watched the career of the flourishing orchard opposite with puzzled feelings. The orchard was only a few yards away, and yet, although my garden was full of manure, and water, and attentions that were never bestowed on the orchard, all it could show and ever did show were a few unhappy beginnings of growth that <94> either remained stationary and did not achieve flowers, or dwindled down again and vanished. Once I timidly asked the gardener if he could explain these signs and wonders, but he was a busy man with no time for answering questions, and told me shortly that gardening was not learned in a day. How well I remember that afternoon, and the very shape of the lazy clouds, and the smell of spring things, and myself going away abashed and sitting on the shaky bench in my domain and wondering for the hundredth time what it was that made the difference between my bit and the bit of orchard in front of me. The fruit trees, far enough away from the wall to be beyond the reach of its cold shade, were tossing their flower-laden heads in the sunshine in a carelessly well-satisfied fashion that filled my heart with envy. There was a rise in the field behind them, and at the foot of its protecting slope they luxuriated in the insolent glory of their white and pink perfection. It was May, and my heart bled at the thought of the tulips I had put in in November, and that I had never seen since. The whole of the rest of the garden was on fire with tulips; behind me, on the other side of the wall, were rows and rows of them,--cups of translucent loveliness, a jewelled ring flung right round the lawn. But what was there not on the other side of that wall? Things came up there and grew and flowered exactly as my gardening books said they should do; and in front of me, in the gay orchard, things that nobody ever troubled about or cultivated or noticed throve joyously beneath the trees,--daffodils thrusting their spears through the grass, crocuses peeping out inquiringly, snowdrops uncovering their small cold faces when the first shivering spring days came. Only my piece that I so loved was perpetually ugly and empty. And I sat in it thinking of these things on that radiant day, and wept aloud.

Then an apprentice came by, a youth who had often seen me busily digging, and noticing the unusual tears, and struck perhaps by the difference between my garden and the profusion of splendour all around, paused with his barrow on the path in front of me, and remarked that nobody could expect to get blood out of a stone. The apparent irrelevance of this statement made me weep still louder, the bitter tears of insulted sorrow; but he stuck to his point, and harangued me from the path, explaining the connection between north walls and tulips and blood and stones till my tears all dried up again and I listened attentively, for the conclusion to be drawn from his remarks was plainly that I had been shamefully taken in by the head gardener, who was an unprincipled person thenceforward to be for ever mistrusted and shunned. Standing on the path from which the kindly apprentice had expounded his proverb, this scene rose before me as clearly as though it had taken place that very day; but how different everything looked, and how it had shrunk! Was this the wide orchard that had seemed to stretch away, it and the sloping field beyond, up to the gates of heaven? I believe nearly every child who is much alone goes through a certain time of hourly expecting the Day of Judgment, and I had made up my mind that on that Day the heavenly host would enter the world by that very field, coming down the slope in shining ranks, treading the daffodils under foot, filling the orchard with their songs of exultation, joyously seeking out the sheep from among the goats. Of course I was a sheep, and my governess and the head gardener goats, so that the results could not fail to be in every way satisfactory. But looking up at the slope and remembering my visions, I laughed at the smallness of the field I had supposed would hold all heaven.

Here again the cousins had been at work. The site of my garden was occupied by a rockery, and the orchard grass with all its treasures had been dug up, and the spaces between the trees planted with currant bushes and celery in admirable rows; so that no future little cousins will be able to dream of celestial hosts coming towards them across the fields of daffodils, and will perhaps be the better for being free from visions of the kind, for as I grew older, uncomfortable doubts laid hold of my heart with cold fingers, dim uncertainties as to the exact ultimate position of the gardener and the governess, anxious questionings as to how it would be if it were they who turned out after all to be sheep, and I who--? For that we all three might be gathered into the same fold at the last never, in those days, struck me as possible, and if it had I should not have liked it.

"Now what sort of person can that be," I asked myself, shaking my head, as I contemplated the changes before me, "who could put a rockery among vegetables and currant bushes? A rockery, of all things in the gardening world, needs consummate tact in its treatment. It is easier to make mistakes in forming a rockery than in any other garden scheme. Either it is a great success, or it is great failure; either it is very charming, or it is very absurd. There is no state between the sublime and the ridiculous possible in a rockery." I stood shaking my head disapprovingly at the rockery before me, lost in these reflections, when a sudden quick pattering of feet coming along in a great hurry made me turn round with a start, just in time to receive the shock of a body tumbling out of the mist and knocking violently against me.

It was a little girl of about twelve years old.

"Hullo!" said the little girl in excellent English; and then we stared at each other in astonishment.

"I thought you were Miss Robinson," said the little girl, offering no apology for having nearly knocked me down. "Who are you?"

"Miss Robinson? Miss Robinson?" I repeated, my eyes fixed on the little girl's face, and a host of memories stirring within me. "Why, didn't she marry a missionary, and go out to some place where they ate him?"

The little girl stared harder. "Ate him? Marry? What, has she been married all this time to somebody who's been eaten and never let on? Oh, I say, what a game!" And she threw back her head and laughed till the garden rang again.

"O hush, you dreadful little girl!" I implored, catching her by the arm, and terrified beyond measure by the loudness of her mirth. "Don't make that horrid noise--we are certain to be caught if you don't stop-- --"

The little girl broke off a shriek of laughter in the middle and shut her mouth with a snap. Her eyes, round and black and shiny like boot buttons, came still further out of her head. "Caught?" she said eagerly. "What, are you afraid of being caught too? Well, this is a game!" And with her hands plunged deep in the pockets of her coat she capered in front of me in the excess of her enjoyment, reminding me of a very fat black lamb frisking round the dazed and passive sheep its mother.

It was clear that the time had come for me to get down to the gate at the end of the garden as quickly as possible, and I began to move away in that direction. The little girl at once stopped capering and planted herself squarely in front of me. "Who are you?" she said, examining me from my hat to my boots with the keenest interest.

I considered this ungarnished manner of asking questions impertinent, and, trying to look lofty, made an attempt to pass at the side.

The little girl, with a quick, cork-like movement, was there before me.

"Who are you?" she repeated, her expression friendly but firm. " Oh, I--I'm a pilgrim," I said in desperation.

"A pilgrim!" echoed the little girl. She seemed struck, and while she was struck I slipped past her and began to walk quickly towards the door in the wall. "A pilgrim!" said the little girl, again, keeping close beside me, and looking me up and down attentively. "I don't like pilgrims. Aren't they people who are always walking about, and have things the matter with their feet? Have you got anything the matter with your feet?"

"Certainly not," I replied indignantly, walking still faster.

"And they never wash, Miss Robinson says. You don't either, do you?"

"Not wash? Oh, I'm afraid you are a very badly brought-up little girl--oh, leave me alone--I must run--"

"So must I," said the little girl, cheerfully, "for Miss Robinson must be close behind us. She nearly had me just before I found you." And she started running by my side.

The thought of Miss Robinson close behind us gave wings to my feet, and, casting my dignity, of which, indeed, there was but little left, to the winds, I fairly flew down the path. The little girl was not to be outrun, and though she panted and turned weird colours, kept by my side and even talked. Oh, I was tired, tired in body and mind, tired by the different shocks I had received, tired by the journey, tired by the want of food; and here I was being forced to run because this very naughty little girl chose to hide instead of going in to her lessons.

"I say--this is jolly--" she jerked out.

"But why need we run to the same place?" I breathlessly asked, in the vain hope of getting rid of her.

"Oh, yes--that's just--the fun. We'd get on--together--you and I--"

"No, no," said I, decided on this point, bewildered though I was.

"I can't stand washing--either--it's awful--in winter-- and makes one have--chaps."

"But I don't mind it in the least," I protested faintly, not having any energy left.

"Oh, I say!" said the little girl, looking at my face, and making the sound known as a guffaw. The familiarity of this little girl was wholly revolting.

We had got safely through the door, round the corner past the radishes, and were in the shrubbery. I knew from experience how easy it was to hide in the tangle of little paths, and stopped a moment to look round and listen. The little girl opened her mouth to speak. With great presence of mind I instantly put my muff in front of it and held it there tight, while I listened. Dead silence, except for the laboured breathing and struggles of the little girl.

"I don't hear a sound," I whispered, letting her go again. "Now what did you want to say?" I added, eyeing her severely.

"I wanted to say," she panted, "that it's no good pretending you wash with a nose like that."

"A nose like that! A nose like what?" I exclaimed, greatly offended; and though I put up my hand and very tenderly and carefully felt it, I could find no difference in it. "I am afraid poor Miss Robinson must have a wretched life," I said, in tones of deep disgust.

The little girl smiled fatuously, as though I were paying her compliments. "It's all green and brown," she said, pointing. "Is it always like that?"

Then I remembered the wet fir tree near the gate, and the enraptured kiss it had received, and blushed.

"Won't it come off?" persisted the little girl.

"Of course it will come off," I answered, frowning.

"Why don't you rub it off? "

Then I remembered the throwing away of the handkerchief, and blushed again.

"Please lend me your handkerchief," I said humbly, "I--I have lost mine."

There was a great fumbling in six different pockets, and then a handkerchief that made me young again merely to look at it was produced. I took it thankfully and rubbed with energy, the little girl, intensely interested, watching the operation and giving me advice. "There--it's all right now--a little more on the right--there-- now it's all off."

"Are you sure? No green left?" I anxiously asked.

"No, it's red all over now," she replied cheerfully. "Let me get home," thought I, very much upset by this information, "let me get home to my dear, uncritical, admiring babies, who accept my nose as an example of what a nose should be, and whatever its colour think it beautiful." And thrusting the handkerchief back into the little girl's hands, I hurried away down the path. She packed it away hastily, but it took some seconds for it was of the size of a small sheet, and then came running after me. "Where are you going?" she asked surprised, as I turned down the path leading to the gate.

"Through this gate," I replied with decision.

"But you mustn't--we're not allowed to go through there-- --"

So strong was the force of old habits in that place that at the words not allowed my hand dropped of itself from the latch; and at that instant a voice calling quite close to us through the mist struck me rigid.

"Elizabeth! Elizabeth!" called the voice, "Come in at once to your lessons--Elizabeth! Elizabeth!"

"It's Miss Robinson," whispered the little girl, twinkling with excitement; then, catching sight of my face, she said once more with eager insistence, "Who are you?"

"Oh, I'm a ghost!" I cried with conviction, pressing my hands to my forehead and looking round fearfully.

"Pooh," said the little girl.

It was the last remark I heard her make, for there was a creaking of approaching boots in the bushes, and seized by a frightful panic I pulled the gate open with one desperate pull, flung it to behind me, and fled out and away down the wide, misty fields.

The Gotha Almanach says that the reigning cousin married the daughter of a Mr. Johnstone, an Englishman, in 1885, and that in 1886 their only child was born, Elizabeth.

November 20th.--Last night we had ten degrees of frost(Fahrenheit), and I went out the first thing this morning to see what had become of the tea-roses, and behold, they were wide awake and quite cheerful--covered with rime it is true, but anything but black and shrivelled. Even those in boxes on each side of the verandah steps were perfectly alive and full of buds, and one in particular, a Bouquet d'Or, is a mass of buds, and would flower if it could get the least encouragement. I am beginning to think that the tenderness of tea-roses is much exaggerated, and am certainly very glad I had the courage to try them in this northern garden. But I must not fly too boldly in the face of Providence, and have ordered those in the boxes to be taken into the greenhouse for the winter, and hope the Bouquet d'Or, in a sunny place near the glass, may be induced to open some of those buds. The greenhouse is only used as a refuge, and kept at a temperature just above freezing, and is reserved entirely for such plants as cannot stand the very coldest part of the winter out of doors. I don't use it for growing anything, because I don't love things that will only bear the garden for three or four months in the year and require coaxing and petting for the rest of it. Give me a garden full of strong, healthy creatures, able to stand roughness and cold without dismally giving in and dying. I never could see that delicacy of constitution is pretty, either in plants or women. No doubt there are many lovely flowers to be had by heat and constant coaxing, but then for each of these there are fifty others still lovelier that will gratefully grow in God's wholesome air and are blessed in return with a far greater intensity of scent and colour.

We have been very busy till now getting the permanent beds into order and planting the new tea-roses, and I am looking forward to next summer with more hope than ever in spite of my many failures. I wish the years would pass quickly that will bring my garden to perfection! The Persian Yellows have gone into their new quarters, and their place is occupied by the tearose Safrano; all the rose beds are carpeted with pansies sown in July and transplanted in October, each bed having a separate colour. The purple ones are the most charming and go well with every rose, but I have white ones with Laurette Messimy, and yellow ones with Safrano, and a new red sort in the big centre bed of red roses. Round the semicircle on the south side of the little privet hedge two rows of annual larkspurs in all their delicate shades have been sown, and just beyond the larkspurs, on the grass, is a semicircle of standard tea and pillar roses.

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