Elizabeth and her German Garden (Page 7)
She proposed, first of all, to teach us a dance called, I think, the Washington Post, and which was, she said, much danced in England; and, to induce us to learn, she played the tune to us on the piano. We remained untouched by its beauties, each buried in an easy-chair toasting our toes at the fire. Amongst those toes were those of the Man of Wrath, who sat peaceably reading a book and smoking. Minora volunteered to show us the steps, and as we still did not move, danced solitary behind our chairs. Irais did not even turn her head to look, and I was the only one amiable or polite enough to do so. Do I deserve to be placed in Minora's list of disagreeable people side by side with Irais? Certainly not. Yet I most surely am.
"It wants the music, of course," observed Minora breathlessly, darting in and out between the chairs, apparently addressing me, but glancing at the Man of Wrath.
No answer from anybody.
"It is such a pretty dance," she panted again, after a few more gyrations.
"And is all the rage at home."
"Do let me teach you. Won't you try, Herr Sage?"
She went up to him and dropped him a little curtesy. It is thus she always addresses him, entirely oblivious to the fact, so patent to every one else, that he resents it.
"Oh come, put away that tiresome old book," she went on gaily, as he did not move; "I am certain it is only some dry agricultural work that you just nod over. Dancing is much better for you."
Irais and I looked at one another quite frightened. I am sure we both turned pale when the unhappy girl actually laid hold forcibly of his book, and, with a playful little shriek, ran away with it into the next room, hugging it to her bosom and looking back roguishly over her shoulder at him as she ran. There was an awful pause. We hardly dared raise our eyes. Then the Mall of Wrath got up slowly, knocked the ashes off the end of his cigar, looked at his watch, and went out at the opposite door into his own rooms, where he stayed for the rest of the evening. She has never, I must say, been skittish since.
"I hope you are listening, Miss Minora," said Irais, "because this sort of conversation is likely to do you good."
"I always listen when people talk sensibly," replied Minora, stirring her grog.
Irais glanced at her with slightly doubtful eyebrows. "Do you agree with our hostess's description of women?" she asked after a pause.
"As nobodies? No, of course I do not."
"Yet she is right. In the eye of the law we are literally nobodies in our country. Did you know that women are forbidden to go to political meetings here?"
"Really?" Out came the note-book.
"The law expressly forbids the attendance at such meetings of women, children, and idiots."
"Children and idiots--I understand that," said Minora; "but women-- and classed with children and idiots?"
"Classed with children and idiots," repeated Irais, gravely nodding her head. "Did you know that the law forbids females of any age to ride on the top of omnibuses or tramcars?"
"Do you know why?"
"I can't imagine."
"Because in going up and down the stairs those inside might perhaps catch a glimpse of the stocking covering their ankles."
"Did you know that the morals of the German public are in such a shaky condition that a glimpse of that sort would be fatal to them? "
"But I don't see how a stocking--"
"With stripes round it," said Irais.
"And darns in it," I added.
--could possibly be pernicious? "
"'The Pernicious Stocking; or, Thoughts on the Ethics of Petticoats,'" said Irais. "Put that down as the name of your next book on Germany."
"I never know," complained Minora, letting her note-book fall, "whether you are in earnest or not."
"Don't you?" said Irais sweetly.
"Is it true," appealed Minora to the Man of Wrath, busy with his lemons in the background, "that your law classes women with children and idiots?"
"Certainly," he answered promptly, "and a very proper classification, too."
We all looked blank. "That's rude," said I at last.
"Truth is always rude, my dear," he replied complacently. Then he added, "If I were commissioned to draw up a new legal code, and had previously enjoyed the privilege, as I have been doing lately, of listening to the conversation of you three young ladies, I should make precisely the same classification."
Even Minora was incensed at this.
"You are telling us in the most unvarnished manner that we are idiots," said Irais.
"Idiots? No, no, by no means. But children,--nice little agreeable children. I very much like to hear you talk together. It is all so young and fresh what you think and what you believe, and not of the least consequence to any one.
"Not of the least consequence?" cried Minora. "What we believe is of very great consequence indeed to us."
"Are you jeering at our beliefs?" inquired Irais sternly.
"Not for worlds. I would not on any account disturb or change your pretty little beliefs. It is your chief charm that you always believe every-thing. How desperate would our case be if young ladies only believed facts, and never accepted another person's assurance, but preferred the evidence of their own eyes! They would have no illusions, and a woman without illusions is the dreariest and most difficult thing to manage possible."
"Thing?" protested Irais.
The Man of Wrath, usually so silent, makes up for it from time to time by holding forth at unnecessary length. He took up his stand now with his back to the fire, and a glass of Glubwein in his hand. Minora had hardly heard his voice before, so quiet had he been since she came, and sat with her pencil raised, ready to fix forever the wisdom that should flow from his lips.
"What would become of poetry if women became so sensible that they turned a deaf ear to the poetic platitudes of love? That love does indulge in platitudes I suppose you will admit." He looked at Irais.
"Yes, they all say exactly the same thing," she acknowledged.
"Who could murmur pretty speeches on the beauty of a common sacrifice, if the listener's want of imagination was such as to enable her only to distinguish one victim in the picture, and that one herself? "
Minora took that down word for word,--much good may it do her.
"Who would be brave enough to affirm that if refused he will die, if his assurances merely elicit a recommendation to diet himself, and take plenty of outdoor exercise? Women are responsible for such lies, because they believe them. Their amazing vanity makes them swallow flattery so gross that it is an insult, and men will always be ready to tell the precise number of lies that a woman is ready to listen to. Who indulges more recklessly in glowing exaggerations than the lover who hopes, and has not yet obtained He will, like the nightingale, sing with unceasing modulations, display all his talent, untiringly repeat his sweetest notes, until he has what he wants, when his song, like the nightingale's, immediately ceases, never again to be heard."
"Take that down," murmured Irais aside to Minora--unnecessary advice, for her pencil was scribbling as fast as it could.
"A woman's vanity is so immeasurable that, after having had ninety-nine object-lessons in the difference between promise and performance and the emptiness of pretty speeches, the beginning of the hundredth will find her lending the same willing and enchanted ear to the eloquence of flattery as she did on the occasion of the first. What can the exhortations of the strong-minded sister, who has never had these experiences, do for such a woman? It is useless to tell her she is man's victim, that she is his plaything, that she is cheated, down-trodden, kept under, laughed at, shabbily treated in every way--that is not a true statement of the case. She is simply the victim of her own vanity, and against that, against the belief in her own fascinations, against the very <169> part of herself that gives all the colour to her life, who shall expect a woman to take up arms?"
"Are you so vain, Elizabeth?" inquired Irais with a shocked face, "and had you lent a willing ear to the blandishments of ninety-nine before you reached your final destiny?"
"I am one of the sensible ones, I suppose," I replied, "for nobody ever wanted me to listen to blandishments."
"I like to hear you talk together about the position of women," he went on, "and wonder when you will realise that they hold exactly the position they are fitted for. As soon as they are fit to occupy a better, no power on earth will be able to keep them out of it. Meanwhile, let me warn you that, as things now are, only strong-minded women wish to see you the equals of men, and the strong-minded are invariably plain. The pretty ones would rather see men their slaves than their equals."
"You know," said Irais, frowning, "that I consider myself strong-minded."
"And never rise till lunch-time?"
Irais blushed. Although I don't approve of such conduct, it is very convenient in more ways than one; I get through my housekeeping undisturbed, and whenever she is disposed to lecture me, I begin about this habit of hers. Her conscience must be terribly stricken on the point, for she is by no means as a rule given to meekness.
"A woman without vanity would be unattackable," resumed the Man of Wrath. "When a girl enters that downward path that leads to ruin, she is led solely by her own vanity; for in these days of policemen no young woman can be forced against her will from the path of virtue, and the cries of the injured are never heard until the destroyer begins to express his penitence for having destroyed. If his passion could remain at white-heat and he could continue to feed her ear with the protestations she loves, no principles of piety or virtue would disturb the happiness of his companion; for a mournful experience teaches that piety begins only where passion ends, and that principles are strongest where temptations are most rare."
"But what has all this to do with us?" I inquired severely.
"You were displeased at our law classing you as it does, and I merely wish to justify it," he answered. "Creatures who habitually say yes to everything a man proposes, when no one can oblige them to say it, and when it is so often fatal, are plainly not responsible beings."
"I shall never say it to you again, my dear man," I said.
"And not only that fatal weakness," he continued, "but what is there, candidly, to distinguish you from children? You are older, but not wiser,--really not so wise, for with years you lose the common sense you had as children. Have you ever heard a group of women talking reasonably together? "
"Yes--we do!" Irais and I cried in a breath.
"It has interested me," went on the Man of Wrath, "in my idle moments, to listen to their talk. It amused me to hear the malicious little stories they told of their best friends who were absent, to note the spiteful little digs they gave their best friends who were present, to watch the utter incredulity with which they listened to the tale of some other woman's conquests, the radiant good faith they displayed in connection with their own, the instant collapse into boredom, if some topic of so-called general interest, by some extraordinary chance, were introduced."
"You must have belonged to a particularly nice set," remarked Irais.
"And as for politics," he said, "I have never heard them mentioned among women."
"Children and idiots are not interested in such things," I said.
"And we are much too frightened of being put in prison," said Irais.
"In prison?" echoed Minora.
"Don't you know," said Irais, turning to her "that if you talk about such things here you run a great risk of being imprisoned?"
"But why? Because, though you yourself may have meant nothing but what was innocent, your words may have suggested something less innocent to the evil minds of your hearers; and then the law steps in, and calls it dolus eventualis, and everybody says how dreadful, and off you go to prison and are punished as you deserve to be."
Minora looked mystified.
"That is not, however, your real reason for not discussing them," said the Man of Wrath; "they simply do not interest you. Or it may be, that you do not consider your female friends' opinions worth listening to, for you certainly display an astonishing thirst for information when male politicians are present. I have seen a pretty young woman, hardly in her twenties, sitting a whole evening drinking in the doubtful wisdom of an elderly political star, with every appearance of eager interest. He was a bimetallic star, and was giving her whole pamphletsful of information."
"She wanted to make up to him for some reason," said Irais, "and got him to explain his hobby to her, and he was silly enough to be taken in. Now which was the sillier in that case?"
She threw herself back in her chair and looked up defiantly, beating her foot impatiently on the carpet.
"She wanted to be thought clever," said the Man of Wrath. "What puzzled me," he went on musingly," was that she went away apparently as serene and happy as when she came. The explanation of the principles of bimetallism produce, as a rule, a contrary effect."
"Why, she hadn't been listening," cried Irais, "and your simple star had been making a fine goose of himself the whole evening.
"Prattle, prattle, simple star, Bimetallic, wunderbar. Though you're given to describe Woman as a dummes Weib. You yourself are sillier far, Prattling, bimetallic star!"
"No doubt she had understood very little," said the Man of Wrath, taking no notice of this effusion.
"And no doubt the gentleman hadn't understood much either." Irais was plainly irritated.
"Your opinion of woman," said Minora in a very small voice, "is not a high one. But, in the sick chamber, I suppose you agree that no one could take her place? "
"If you are thinking of hospital-nurses," I said, "I must tell you that I believe he married chiefly that he might have a wife instead of a strange woman to nurse him when he is sick."
"But," said Minora, bewildered at the way her illusions were being knocked about, "the sick-room is surely the very place of all others in which a woman's gentleness and tact are most valuable."
"Gentleness and tact?" repeated the Man of Wrath. "I have never met those qualities in the professional nurse. According to my experience, she is a disagreeable person who finds in private nursing exquisite opportunities for asserting her superiority over ordinary and prostrate mankind. I know of no more humiliating position for a man than to be in bed having his feverish brow soothed by a sprucely-dressed strange woman, bristling with starch and spotlessness. He would give half his income for his clothes, and probably the other half if she would leave him alone, and go away altogether. He feels her superiority through every pore; he never before realised how absolutely inferior he is; he is abjectly polite, and contemptibly conciliatory; if a friend comes to see him, he eagerly praises her in case she should be listening behind the screen; he cannot call his soul his own, and, what is far more intolerable, neither is he sure that his body really belongs to him; he has read of ministering angels and the light touch of a woman's hand, but the day on which he can ring for his servant and put on his socks in private fills him with the same sort of wildness of joy that he felt as a homesick schoolboy at the end of his first term."
Minora was silent. Irais's foot was livelier than ever. The Man of Wrath stood smiling blandly down upon us. You can't argue with a person so utterly convinced of his infallibility that he won't even get angry with you; so we sat round and said nothing.
"If," he went on, addressing Irais, who looked rebellious, "you doubt the truth of my remarks, and still cling to the old poetic notion of noble, self-sacrificing women tenderly helping the patient over the rough places on the road to death or recovery, let me beg you to try for yourself, next time any one in your house is ill, whether the actual fact in any way corresponds to the picturesque belief. The angel who is to alleviate our sufferings comes in such a questionable shape, that to the unimaginative she appears merely as an extremely self-confident young woman, wisely concerned first of all in securing her personal comfort, much given to complaints about her food and to helplessness where she should be helpful, possessing an extraordinary capacity for fancying herself slighted, or not regarded as the superior being she knows herself to be, morbidly anxious lest the servants should, by some mistake, treat her with offensive cordiality, pettish if the patient gives more trouble than she had expected, intensely injured and disagreeable if he is made so courageous by his wretchedness as to wake her during the night-- an act of desperation of which I was guilty once, and once only. Oh, these good women! What sane man wants to have to do with angels? And especially do we object to having them about us when we are sick and sorry, when we feel in every fibre what poor things we are, and when all our fortitude is needed to enable us to bear our temporary inferiority patiently, without being forced besides to assume an attitude of eager and grovelling politeness towards the angel in the house."
There was a pause.
"I didn't know you could talk so much, Sage," said Irais at length.
"What would you have women do, then?" asked Minora meekly. Irais began to beat her foot up and down again,--what did it matter what Men of Wrath would have us do? "There are not," continued Minora, blushing, "husbands enough for every one, and the rest must do something."
"Certainly," replied the oracle. "Study the art of pleasing by dress and manner as long as you are of an age to interest us, and above all, let all women, pretty and plain, married and single, study the art of cookery. If you are an artist in the kitchen you will always be esteemed."
I sat very still. Every German woman, even the wayward Irais, has learned to cook; I seem to have been the only one who was naughty and wouldn't.
"Only be careful," he went on, "in studying both arts, never to forget the great truth that dinner precedes blandishments and not blandishments dinner. A man must be made comfortable before he will make love to you; and though it is true that if you offered him a choice between Spickgans and kisses, he would say he would take both, yet he would invariably begin with the Spickgans, and allow the kisses to wait."
At this I got up, and Irais followed my example. "Your cynicism is disgusting," I said icily.
"You two are always exceptions to anything I may say," he said, smiling amiably.
He stooped and kissed Irais's hand. She is inordinately vain of her hands, and says her husband married her for their sake, which I can quite believe. I am glad they are on her and not on Minora, for if Minora had had them I should have been annoyed. Minora's are bony, with chilly-looking knuckles, ignored nails, and too much wrist. I feel very well disposed towards her when my eye falls on them. She put one forward now, evidently thinking it would be kissed too.
"Did you know," said Irais, seeing the movement, "that it is the custom here to kiss women's hands?"
"But only married women's," I added, not desiring her to feel out of it, "never young girls'."
She drew it in again. "It is a pretty custom," she said with a sigh; and pensively inscribed it in her book.
January 15th.--The bills for my roses and bulbs and other last year's horticultural indulgences were all on the table when I came down to breakfast this morning. They rather frightened me. Gardening is expensive, I find, when it has to be paid for out of one's own private pin-money. The Man of Wrath does not in the least want roses, or flowering shrubs, or plantations, or new paths, and therefore, he asks, why should he pay for them? So he does not and I do, and I have to make up for it by not indulging all too riotously in new clothes, which is no doubt very chastening. I certainly prefer buying new rose-trees to new dresses, if I cannot comfortably have both; and I see a time coming when the passion for my garden will have taken such a hold on me that I shall not only entirely cease buying more clothes, but begin to sell those that I already have. The garden is so big that everything has to be bought wholesale; and I fear I shall not be able to go on much longer with only one man and a stork, because the more I plant the more there will be to water in the inevitable drought, and the watering is a serious consideration when it means going backwards and forwards all day long to a pump near the house, with a little water-cart. People living in England, in almost perpetual mildness and moisture, don't really know what a drought is. If they have some weeks of cloudless weather, it is generally preceded and followed by good rains; but we have perhaps an hour's shower every week, and then comes a month or six weeks' drought. The soil is very light, and dries so quickly that, after the heaviest thunder-shower, I can walk over any of my paths in my thin shoes; and to keep the garden even moderately damp it should pour with rain regularly every day for three hours. My only means of getting water is to go to the pump near the house, or to the little stream that forms my eastern boundary, and the little stream dries up too unless there has been rain, and is at the best of times difficult to get at, having steep banks covered with forget-me-nots. I possess one moist, peaty bit of ground, and that is to be planted with silver birches in imitation of the Hirschwald, and is to be carpeted between the birches with flaming azaleas. All the rest of my soil is sandy-- the soil for pines and acacias, but not the soil for roses; yet see what love will do--there are more roses in my garden than any other flower! Next spring the bare places are to be filled with trees that I have ordered: pines behind the delicate acacias, and startling mountain-ashes, oaks, copper-beeches, maples, larches, juniper-trees--was it not Elijah who sat down to rest under a juniper-tree? I have often wondered how he managed to get under it. It is a compact little tree, not more than two to three yards high here, and all closely squeezed up together. Perhaps they grew more aggressively where he was. By the time the babies have grown old and disagreeable it will be very pretty here, and then possibly they won't like it; and, if they have inherited the Man of Wrath's indifference to gardens, they will let it run wild and leave it to return to the state in which I found it. Or perhaps their three husbands will refuse to live in it, or to come to such a lonely place at all, and then of course its fate is sealed. My only comfort is that husbands don't flourish in the desert, and that the three will have to wait a long time before enough are found to go round. Mothers tell me that it is a dreadful business finding one husband; how much more painful then to have to look for three at once!--the babies are so nearly the same age that they only just escaped being twins. But I won't look. I can imagine nothing more uncomfortable than a son-in-law, and besides, I don't think a husband is at all a good thing for a girl to have. I shall do my best in the years at my disposal to train them so to love the garden, and out-door life, and even farming, that, if they have a spark of their mother in them, they will want and ask for nothing better. My hope of success is however exceedingly small, and there is probably a fearful period in store for me when I shall be taken every day during the winter to the distant towns to balls--a poor old mother shivering in broad daylight in her party gown, and being made to start after an early lunch and not getting home till breakfast-time next morning. Indeed, they have already developed an alarming desire to go to "partings" as they call them, the April baby announcing her intention of beginning to do so when she is twelve. "Are you twelve, Mummy?" she asked.
The gardener is leaving on the first of April, and I am trying to find another. It is grievous changing so often-- in two years I shall have had three--because at each change a great part of my plants and plans necessarily suffers. Seeds get lost, seedlings are not pricked out in time, places already sown are planted with something else, and there is confusion out of doors and despair in my heart. But he was to have married the cook, and the cook saw a ghost and immediately left, and he is going after her as soon as he can, and meanwhile is wasting visibly away. What she saw was doors that are locked opening with a great clatter all by themselves on the hingeside, and then somebody invisible cursed at her. These phenomena now go by the name of "the ghost." She asked to be allowed to leave at once, as she had never been in a place where there was a ghost before. I suggested that she should try and get used to it; but she thought it would be wasting time, and she looked so ill that I let her go, and the garden has to suffer. I don't know why it should be given to cooks to see such interesting things and withheld from me, but I have had two others since she left, and they both have seen the ghost. Minora grows very silent as bed-time approaches, and relents towards Irais and myself; and, after having shown us all day how little she approves us, when the bedroom candles are brought she quite begins to cling. She has once or twice anxiously inquired whether Irais is sure she does not object to sleeping alone.
"If you are at all nervous, I will come and keep you company," she said; "I don't mind at all, I assure you."
But Irais is not to be taken in by such simple wiles, and has told me she would rather sleep with fifty ghosts than with one Minora.
Since Miss Jones was so unexpectedly called away to her parent's bedside I have seen a good deal of the babies; and it is so nice without a governess that I would put off engaging another for a year or two, if it were not that I should in so doing come within the reach of the arm of the law, which is what every German spends his life in trying to avoid. The April baby will be six next month, and, after her sixth birthday is passed, we are liable at any moment to receive a visit from a school inspector, who will inquire curiously into the state of her education, and, if it is not up to the required standard, all sorts of fearful things might happen to the guilty parents, probably beginning with fines, and going on crescendo to dungeons if, owing to gaps between governesses and difficulties in finding the right one, we persisted in our evil courses. Shades of the prison-house begin to close here upon the growing boy, and prisons compass the Teuton about on every side all through life to such an extent that he has to walk very delicately indeed if he would stay outside them and pay for their maintenance. Cultured individuals do not, as a rule, neglect to teach their offspring to read, and write, and say their prayers, and are apt to resent the intrusion of an examining inspector into their homes; but it does not much matter after all, and I daresay it is very good for us to be worried; indeed, a philosopher of my acquaintance declares that people who are not regularly and properly worried are never any good for anything. In the eye of the law we are all sinners, and every man is held to be guilty until he has proved that he is innocent.
Minora has seen so much of the babies that, after vainly trying to get out of their way for several days, she thought it better to resign herself, and make the best of it by regarding them as copy, and using them to fill a chapter in her book. So she took to dogging their footsteps wherever they went, attended their uprisings and their lyings down, engaged them, if she could, in intelligent conversation, went with them into the garden to study their ways when they were sleighing, drawn by a big dog, and generally made their lives a burden to them. This went on for three days, and then she settled down to write the result with the Man of Wrath's typewriter, borrowed whenever her notes for any chapter have reached the state of ripeness necessary for the process she describes as "throwing into form." She writes everything with a typewriter, even her private letters.
"Don't forget to put in something about a mother's knee," said Irais; "you can't write effectively about children without that."
"Oh, of course I shall mention that," replied Minora.
"And pink toes," I added. "There are always toes, and they are never anything but pink."
"I have that somewhere," said Minora, turning over her notes.
"But, after all, babies are not a German speciality," said Irais, "and I don't quite see why you should bring them into a book of German travels. Elizabeth's babies have each got the fashionable number of arms and legs, and are exactly the same as English ones."
"Oh, but they can't be just the same, you know," said Minora, looking worried. "It must make a difference living here in this place, and eating such odd things, and never having a doctor, and never being ill. Children who have never had measles and those things can't be quite the same as other children; it must all be in their systems and can't get out for some reason or other. And a child brought up on chicken and rice-pudding must be different to a child that eats Spickgans and liver sausages. And they are different; I can't tell in what way, but they certainly are; and I think if I steadily describe them from the materials I have collected the last three days, I may perhaps hit on the points of difference."Next