Elizabeth and her German Garden (Page 8)
"Why bother about points of difference?" asked Irais. "I should write some little thing, bringing in the usual parts of the picture, such as knees and toes, and make it mildly pathetic."
"But it is by no means an easy thing for me to do," said Minora plaintively; "I have so little experience of children."
"Then why write it at all?" asked that sensible person Elizabeth.
"I have as little experience as you," said Irais, "because I have no children; but if you don't yearn after startling originality, nothing is easier than to write bits about them. I believe I could do a dozen in an hour."
She sat down at the writing-table, took up an old letter, and scribbled for about five minutes. "There," she said, throwing it to Minora, "you may have it--pink toes and all complete."
Minora put on her eye-glasses and read aloud:
"When my baby shuts her eyes and sings her hymns at bed-time my stale and battered soul is filled with awe. All sorts of vague memories crowd into my mind-- memories of my own mother and myself--how many years ago!-- of the sweet helplessness of being gathered up half asleep in her arms, and undressed, and put in my cot, without being wakened; of the angels I believed in; of little children coming straight from heaven, and still being surrounded, so long as they were good, by the shadow of white wings,--all the dear poetic nonsense learned, just as my baby is learning it, at her mother's knee. She has not an idea of the beauty of the charming things she is told, and stares wide-eyed, with heavenly eyes, while her mother talks of the heaven she has so lately come from, and is relieved and comforted by the interrupting bread and milk. At two years old she does not understand angels, and does understand bread and milk; at five she has vague notions about them, and prefers bread and milk; at ten both bread and milk and angels have been left behind in the nursery, and she has already found out that they are luxuries not necessary to her everyday life. In later years she may be disinclined to accept truths second-hand, insist on thinking for herself, be earnest in her desire to shake off exploded traditions, be untiring in her efforts to live according to a high moral standard and to be strong, and pure, and good--"
"Like tea," explained Irais.
"--yet will she never, with all her virtues, possess one-thousandth part of the charm that clung about her when she sang, with quiet eyelids, her first reluctant hymns, kneeling on her mother's knees. I love to come in at bed-time and sit in the window in the setting sunshine watching the mysteries of her going to bed. Her mother tubs her, for she is far too precious to be touched by any nurse, and then she is rolled up in a big bath towel, and only her little pink toes peep out; and when she is powdered, and combed, and tied up in her night-dress, and all her curls are on end, and her ears glowing, she is knelt down on her mother's lap, a little bundle of fragrant flesh, and her face reflects the quiet of her mother's face as she goes through her evening prayer for pity and for peace."
"How very curious!" said Minora, when she had finished. "That is exactly what I was going to say."
"Oh, then I have saved you the trouble of putting it together; you can copy that if you like."
"But have you a stale soul, Miss Minora?" I asked.
"Well, do you know, I rather think that is a good touch," she replied; "it will make people really think a man wrote the book. You know I am going to take a man's name."
"That is precisely what I imagined," said Irais. "You will call yourself John Jones, or George Potts, or some such sternly commonplace name, to emphasise your uncompromising attitude towards all feminine weaknesses, and no one will be taken in."
"I really think, Elizabeth," said Irais to me later, when the click of Minora's typewriter was heard hesitating in the next room, "that you and I are writing her book for her. She takes down everything we say. Why does she copy all that about the baby? I wonder why mothers' knees are supposed to be touching? I never learned anything at them, did you? But then in my case they were only stepmother's, and nobody ever sings their praises."
"My mother was always at parties," I said; "and the nurse made me say my prayers in French."
"And as for tubs and powder," went on Irais, "when I was a baby such things were not the fashion. There were never any bathrooms, and no tubs; our faces and hands were washed, and there was a foot-bath in the room, and in the summer we had a bath and were put to bed afterwards for fear we might catch cold. My stepmother didn't worry much; she used to wear pink dresses all over lace, and the older she got the prettier the dresses got. When is she going?"
"Who? Minora? I haven't asked her that."
"Then I will. It is really bad for her art to be neglected like this. She has been here an unconscionable time,--it must be nearly three weeks."
"Yes, she came the same day you did," I said pleasantly.
Irais was silent. I hope she was reflecting that it is not worse to neglect one's art than one's husband, and her husband is lying all this time stretched on a bed of sickness, while she is spending her days so agreeably with me. She has a way of forgetting that she has a home, or any other business in the world than just to stay on chatting with me, and reading, and singing, and laughing at any one there is to laugh at, and kissing the babies, and tilting with the Man of Wrath. Naturally I love her--she is so pretty that anybody with eyes in his head must love her--but too much of anything is bad, and next month the passages and offices are to be whitewashed, and people who have ever whitewashed their houses inside know what nice places they are to live in while it is being done; and there will be no dinner for Irais, and none of those succulent salads full of caraway seeds that she so devotedly loves. I shall begin to lead her thoughts gently back to her duties by inquiring every day anxiously after her husband's health. She is not very fond of him, because he does not run and hold the door open for her every time she gets up to leave the room; and though she has asked him to do so, and told him how much she wishes he would, he still won't. She stayed once in a house where there was an Englishman, and his nimbleness in regard to doors and chairs so impressed her that her husband has had no peace since, and each time she has to go out of a room she is reminded of her disregarded wishes, so that a shut door is to her symbolic of the failure of her married life, and the very sight of one makes her wonder why she was born; at least, that is what she told me once, in a burst of confidence. He is quite a nice, harmless little man, pleasant to talk to, good-tempered, and full of fun ; but he thinks he is too old to begin to learn new and uncomfortable ways, and he has that horror of being made better by his wife that distinguishes so many righteous men, and is shared by the Man of Wrath, who persists in holding his glass in his left hand at meals, because if he did not (and I don't believe he particularly likes doing it) his relations might say that marriage has improved him, and thus drive the iron into his soul. This habit occasions an almost daily argument between one or other of the babies and myself.
"April, hold your glass in your right hand."
"But papa doesn't."
"When you are as old as papa you can do as you like."
Which was embellished only yesterday by Minora adding impressively, "And only think how strange it would look if everybody held their glasses so."
April was greatly struck by the force of this proposition.
January 28th.--It is very cold,--fifteen degrees of frost Reaumur, but perfectly delicious, still, bright weather, and one feels jolly and energetic and amiably disposed towards everybody. The two young ladies are still here, but the air is so buoyant that even they don't weigh on me any longer, and besides, they have both announced their approaching departure, so that after all I shall get my whitewashing done in peace, and the house will have on its clean pinafore in time to welcome the spring.
Minora has painted my portrait, and is going to present it as a parting gift to the Man of Wrath; and the fact that I let her do it, and sat meekly times innumerable, proves conclusively, I hope, that I am not vain. When Irais first saw it she laughed till she cried, and at once commissioned her to paint hers, so that she may take it away with her and give it to her husband on his birthday, which happens to be early in February. Indeed, if it were not for this birthday, I really think she would have forgotten to go at all; but birthdays are great and solemn festivals with us, never allowed to slip by unnoticed, and always celebrated in the presence of a sympathetic crowd of relations(gathered from far and near to tell you how well you are wearing, and that nobody would ever dream, and that really it is wonderful), who stand round a sort of sacrificial altar, on which your years are offered up as a burnt-offering to the gods in the shape of lighted pink and white candles, stuck in a very large, flat, jammy cake. The cake with its candles is the chief feature, and on the table round it lie the gifts each person present is more or less bound to give. As my birthday falls in the winter I get mittens as well as blotting-books and photograph-frames, and if it were in the summer I should get photograph-frames and blotting-books and no mittens; but whatever the present may be, and by whomsoever given, it has to be welcomed with the noisiest gratitude, and loudest exclamations of joy, and such words as entzuckend, reizend, herrlich, wundervoll, and suss repeated over and over again, until the unfortunate Geburtstagskind feels indeed that another year has gone, and that she has grown older, and wiser, and more tired of folly and of vain repetitions. A flag is hoisted, and all the morning the rites are celebrated, the cake eaten, healths drunk, speeches made, and hands nearly shaken off. The neighbouring parsons drive up, and when nobody is looking their wives count the candles in the cake; the active lady in the next Schlass spares time to send a pot of flowers, and to look up my age in the Gotha Almanach; a deputation comes from the farms headed by the chief inspector in white kid gloves who invokes Heaven's blessings on the gracious lady's head; and the babies are enchanted, and sit in a corner trying on all the mittens. In the evening there is a dinner for the relations and the chief local authorities, with more health-drinking and speechifying, and the next morning, when I come downstairs thankful to have done with it, I am confronted by the altar still in its place, cake crumbs and candle-grease and all, because any hasty removal of it would imply a most lamentable want of sentiment, deplorable in anybody, but scandalous and disgusting in a tender female. All birthdays are observed in this fashion, and not a few wise persons go for a short trip just about the time theirs is due, and I think I shall imitate them next year; only trips to the country or seaside in December are not usually pleasant, and if I go to a town there are sure to be relations in it, and then the cake will spring up mushroom-like from the teeming soil of their affection.
I hope it has been made evident in these pages how superior Irais and myself are to the ordinary weaknesses of mankind; if any further proof were needed, it is furnished by the fact that we both, in defiance of tradition, scorn this celebration of birthday rites. Years ago, when first I knew her, and long before we were either of us married, I sent her a little brass candlestick on her birthday; and when mine followed a few months later, she sent me a note-book. No notes were written in it, and on her next birthday I presented it to her; she thanked me profusely in the customary manner, and when my turn came I received the brass candlestick. Since then we alternately enjoy the possession of each of these articles, and the present question is comfortably settled once and for all, at a minimum of trouble and expense. We never mention this little arrangement except at the proper time, when we send a letter of fervid thanks.
This radiant weather, when mere living is a joy, and sitting still over the fire out of the question, has been going on for more than a week. Sleighing and skating have been our chief occupation, especially skating, which is more than usually fascinating here, because the place is intersected by small canals communicating with a lake and the river belonging to the lake, and as everything is frozen black and hard, we can skate for miles straight ahead without being obliged to turn round and come back again,--at all times an annoying, and even mortifying, proceeding. Irais skates beautifully: modesty is the only obstacle to my saying the same of myself; but I may remark that all Germans skate well, for the simple reason that every year of their lives, for three or four months, they may do it as much as they like. Minora was astonished and disconcerted by finding herself left behind, and arriving at the place where tea meets us half an hour after we had finished. In some places the banks of the canals are so high that only our heads appear level with the fields, and it is, as Minora noted in her book, a curious sight to see three female heads skimming along apparently by themselves, and enjoying it tremendously. When the banks are low, we appear to be gliding deliciously over the roughest ploughed fields, with or without legs according to circumstances. Before we start, I fix on the place where tea and a sleigh are to meet us, and we drive home again; because skating against the wind is as detestable as skating with it is delightful, and an unkind Nature arranges its blowing without the smallest regard for our convenience.
Yesterday, by way of a change, we went for a picnic to the shores of the Baltic, ice-bound at this season, and utterly desolate at our nearest point. I have a weakness for picnics, especially in winter, when the mosquitoes cease from troubling and the ant-hills are at rest; and of all my many favourite picnic spots this one on the Baltic is the loveliest and best. As it is a three-hours' drive, the Man of Wrath is loud in his lamentations when the special sort of weather comes which means, as experience has taught him, this particular excursion. There must be deep snow, hard frost, no wind, and a cloudless sky; and when, on waking up, I see these conditions fulfilled, then it would need some very potent reason to keep me from having out a sleigh and going off. It is, I admit, a hard day for the horses; but why have horses if they are not to take you where you want to go to, and at the time you want to go? And why should not horses have hard days as well as everybody else? The Man of Wrath loathes picnics, and has no eye for nature and frozen seas, and is simply bored by a long drive through a forest that does not belong to him ; a single turnip on his own place is more admirable in his eyes than the tallest, pinkest, straightest pine that ever reared its snow-crowned head against the setting sunlight. Now observe the superiority of woman, who sees that both are good, and after having gazed at the pine and been made happy by its beauty, goes home and placidly eats the turnip. He went once and only once to this particular place, and made us feel so small by his blast behaviour that I never invite him now. It is a beautiful spot, endless forest stretching along the shore as far as the eye can reach; and after driving through it for miles you come suddenly, at the end of an avenue of arching trees, upon the glistening, oily sea, with the orange-coloured sails of distant fishing-smacks shilling in the sunlight. Whenever I have been there it has been windless weather, and the silence so profound that I could hear my pulses beating. The humming of insects and the sudden scream of a jay are the only sounds in summer, and in winter the stillness is the stillness of death.
Every paradise has its serpent, however, and this one is so infested by mosquitoes during the season when picnics seem most natural, that those of my visitors who have been taken there for a treat have invariably lost their tempers, and made the quiet shores ring with their wailing and lamentations. These despicable but irritating insects don't seem to have anything to do but to sit in multitudes on the sand, waiting for any prey Providence may send them; and as soon as the carriage appears they rise up in a cloud, and rush to meet us, almost dragging us out bodily, and never leave us until we drive away again. The sudden view of the sea from the messy, pine-covered height directly above it where we picnic; the wonderful stretch of lonely shore with the forest to the water's edge; the coloured sails in the blue distance; the freshness, the brightness, the vastness--all is lost upon the picnickers, and made worse than indifferent to them, by the perpetual necessity they are under of fighting these horrid creatures. It is nice being the only person who ever goes there or shows it to anybody, but if more people went, perhaps the mosquitoes would be less lean, and hungry, and pleased to see us. It has, however, the advantage of being a suitable place to which to take refractory visitors when they have stayed too long, or left my books out in the garden all night, or otherwise made their presence a burden too grievous to be borne; then one fine hot morning when they are all looking limp, I suddenly propose a picnic on the Baltic. I have never known this proposal fail to be greeted with exclamations of surprise and delight.
"The Baltic! You never told us you were within driving distance? How heavenly to get a breath of sea air on a day like this! The very thought puts new life into one! And how delightful to see the Baltic! Oh, please take us!" And then I take them.
But on a brilliant winter's day my conscience is as clear as the frosty air itself, and yesterday morning we started off in the gayest of spirits, even Minora being disposed to laugh immoderately on the least provocation. Only our eyes were allowed to peep out from the fur and woollen wrappings necessary to our heads if we would come back with our ears and noses in the same places they were in when we started, and for the first two miles the mirth created by each other's strange appearance was uproarious,-- a fact I mention merely to show what an effect dry, bright, intense cold produces on healthy bodies, and how much better it is to go out in it and enjoy it than to stay indoors and sulk. As we passed through the neighbouring village with cracking of whip and jingling of bells, heads popped up at the windows to stare, and the only living thing in the silent, sunny street was a melancholy fowl with ruffled feathers, which looked at us reproachfully, as we dashed with so much energy over the crackling snow.
"Oh, foolish bird!" Irais called out as we passed; "you'll be indeed a cold fowl if you stand there motionless, and every one prefers them hot in weather like this!"
And then we all laughed exceedingly, as though the most splendid joke had been made, and before we had done we were out of the village and in the open country beyond, and could see my house and garden far away behind, glittering in the sunshine; and in front of us lay the forest, with its vistas of pines stretching away into infinity, and a drive through it of fourteen miles before we reached the sea. It was a hoar-frost day, and the forest was an enchanted forest leading into fairyland, and though Irais and I have been there often before, and always thought it beautiful, yet yesterday we stood under the final arch of frosted trees, struck silent by the sheer loveliness of the place. For a long way out the sea was frozen, and then there was a deep blue line, and a cluster of motionless orange sails; at our feet a narrow strip of pale yellow sand; right and left the line of sparkling forest; and we ourselves standing in a world of white and diamond traceries. The stillness of an eternal Sunday lay on the place like a benediction.
Minora broke the silence by remarking that Dresden was pretty, but she thought this beat it almost.
"I don't quite see," said Irais in a hushed voice, as though she were in a holy place,"how the two can be compared."
"Yes, Dresden is more convenient, of course," replied Minora; after which we turned away and thought we would keep her quiet by feeding her, so we went back to the sleigh and had the horses taken out and their cloths put on, and they were walked up and down a distant glade while we sat in the sleigh and picnicked. It is a hard day for the horses,--nearly thirty miles there and back and no stable in the middle; but they are so fat and spoiled that it cannot do them much harm sometimes to taste the bitterness of life. I warmed soup in a little apparatus I have for such occasions, which helped to take the chilliness off the sandwiches,--this is the only unpleasant part of a winter picnic, the clammy quality of the provisions just when you most long for something very hot. Minora let her nose very carefully out of its wrappings, took a mouthful, and covered it up quickly again. She was nervous lest it should be frost-nipped, and truth compels me to add that her nose is not a bad nose, and might even be pretty on anybody else; but she does not know how to carry it, and there is an art in the angle at which one's nose is held just as in everything else, and really noses were intended for something besides mere blowing.
It is the most difficult thing in the world to eat sandwiches with immense fur and woollen gloves on, and I think we ate almost as much fur as anything, and choked exceedingly during the process. Minora was angry at this, and at last pulled off her glove, but quickly put it on again.
"How very unpleasant," she remarked after swallowing a large piece of fur.
"It will wrap round your pipes, and keep them warm," said Irais.
"Pipes!" echoed Minora, greatly disgusted by such vulgarity.
"I'm afraid I can't help you," I said, as she continued to choke and splutter; "we are all in the same case, and I don't know how to alter it."
"There are such things as forks, I suppose," snapped Minora.
"That's true," said I, crushed by the obviousness of the remedy; but of what use are forks if they are fifteen miles off? So Minora had to continue to eat her gloves.
By the time we had finished, the sun was already low behind the trees and the clouds beginning to flush a faint pink. The old coachman was given sandwiches and soup, and while he led the horses up and down with one hand and held his lunch in the other, we packed up--or, to be correct, I packed, and the others looked on and gave me valuable advice.
This coachman, Peter by name, is seventy years old, and was born on the place, and has driven its occupants for fifty years, and I am nearly as fond of him as I am of the sun-dial; indeed, I don't know what I should do without him, so entirely does he appear to understand and approve of my tastes and wishes. No drive is too long or difficult for the horses if I want to take it, no place impossible to reach if I want to go to it, no weather or roads too bad to prevent my going out if I wish to: to all my suggestions he responds with the readiest cheerfulness, and smoothes away all objections raised by the Man of Wrath, who rewards his alacrity in doing my pleasure by speaking of him as an alter Esel. In the summer, on fine evenings, I love to drive late and alone in the scented forests, and when I have reached a dark part stop, and sit quite still, listening to the nightingales repeating their little tune over and over again after interludes of gurgling, or if there are no nightingales, listening to the marvellous silence, and letting its blessedness descend into my very soul. The nightingales in the forests about here all sing the same tune, and in the same key of (E flat).
I don't know whether all nightingales do this, or if it is peculiar to this particular spot. When they have sung it once, they clear their throats a little, and hesitate, and then do it again, and it is the prettiest little song in the world. How could I indulge my passion for these drives with their pauses without Peter? He is so used to them that he stops now at the right moment without having to be told, and he is ready to drive me all night if I wish it, with no sign of anything but cheerful willingness on his nice old face. The Man of Wrath deplores these eccentric tastes, as he calls them, of mine; but has given up trying to prevent my indulging them because, while he is deploring in one part of the house, I have slipped out at a door in the other, and am gone before he can catch me, and have reached and am lost in the shadows of the forest by the time he has discovered that I am nowhere to be found.
The brightness of Peter's perfections are sullied however by one spot, and that is, that as age creeps upon him, he not only cannot hold the horses in if they don't want to be held in, but he goes to sleep sometimes on his box if I have him out too soon after lunch, and has upset me twice within the last year-- once last winter out of a sleigh, and once this summer, when the horses shied at a bicycle, and bolted into the ditch on one side of the chaussee (German for high road), and the bicycle was so terrified at the horses shying that it shied too into the ditch on the other side, and the carriage was smashed, and the bicycle was smashed, and we were all very unhappy, except Peter, who never lost his pleasant smile, and looked so placid that my tongue clave to the roof of my mouth when I tried to make it scold him.
"But I should think he ought to have been thoroughly scolded on an occasion like that," said Minora, to whom I had been telling this story as we wandered on the yellow sands while the horses were being put in the sleigh; and she glanced nervously up at Peter, whose mild head was visible between the bushes above us. "Shall we get home before dark?" she asked.
The sun had altogether disappeared behind the pines and only the very highest of the little clouds were still pink; out at sea the mists were creeping up, and the sails of the fishing-smacks had turned a dull brown; a flight of wild geese passed across the disc of the moon with loud cacklings.
"Before dark?" echoed Irais, "I should think not. It is dark now nearly in the forest, and we shall have the loveliest moonlight drive back."
"But it is surely very dangerous to let a man who goes to sleep drive you," said Minora apprehensively.
"But he's such an old dear," I said.
"Yes, yes, no doubt," she replied tastily; ,"but there are wakeful old dears to be had, and on a box they are preferable."
Irais laughed. "You are growing quite amusing, Miss Minora," she said.
"He isn't on a box to-day," said I; "and I never knew him to go to sleep standing up behind us on a sleigh."
But Minora was not to be appeased, and muttered something about seeing no fun in foolhardiness, which shows how alarmed she was, for it was rude.
Peter, however, behaved beautifully on the way home, and Irais and I at least were as happy as possible driving back, with all the glories of the western sky flashing at us every now and then at the end of a long avenue as we swiftly passed, and later on, when they had faded, myriads of stars in the narrow black strip of sky over our heads. It was bitterly cold, and Minora was silent, and not in the least inclined to laugh with us as she had been six hours before.
"Have you enjoyed yourself, Miss Minora?' inquired Irais, as we got out of the forest on to the chaussee, and the lights of the village before ours twinkled in the distance.
"How many degrees do you suppose there are now?" was Minora's reply to this question.
"Degrees?--Of frost? Oh, dear me, are you cold," cried Irais solicitously.
"Well, it isn't exactly warm, is it?" said Minora sulkily; and Irais pinched me. "Well, but think how much colder you would have been without all that fur you ate for lunch inside you," she said.
"And what a nice chapter you will be able to write about the Baltic," said I. "Why, it is practically certain that you are the first English person who has ever been to just this part of it."
"Isn't there some English poem," said Irais, "about being the first who ever burst--"
"'Into that silent sea,'" finished Minora hastily. "You can't quote that without its context, you know."
"But I wasn't going to," said Irais meekly; "I only paused to breathe. I must breathe, or perhaps I might die."
The lights from my energetic friend's Schloss shone brightly down upon us as we passed round the base of the hill on which it stands; she is very proud of this hill, as well she may be, seeing that it is the only one in the whole district.
"Do you never go there?" asked Minora, jerking her head in the direction of the house.
"Sometimes. She is a very busy woman, and I should feel I was in the way if I went often."
"It would be interesting to see another North German interior," said Minora; "and I should be obliged if you would take me.
"But I can't fall upon her suddenly with a strange girl," I protested; "and we are not at all on such intimate terms as to justify my taking all my visitors to see her."
"What do you want to see another interior for?" asked Irais. "I can tell you what it is like; and if you went nobody would speak to you, and if you were to ask questions, and began to take notes, the good lady would stare at you in the frankest amazement, and think Elizabeth had brought a young lunatic out for an airing. Everybody is not as patient as Elizabeth," added Irais, anxious to pay off old scores.
"I would do a great deal for you, Miss Minora," I said, "but I can't do that."
"If we went," said Irais, "Elizabeth and I would be placed with great ceremony on a sofa behind a large, polished oval table with a crochetmat in the centre-- it has got a crochet-mat in the centre, hasn't it.?" I nodded. "And you would sit on one of the four little podgy, buttony, tasselly red chairs that are ranged on the other side of the table facing the sofa. They are red, Elizabeth?" Again I nodded. "The floor is painted yellow, and there is no carpet except a rug in front of the sofa. The paper is dark chocolate colour, almost black; that is in order that after years of use the dirt may not show, and the room need not be done up. Dirt is like wickedness, you see, Miss Minora--its being there never matters; it is only when it shows so much as to be apparent to everybody that we are ashamed of it. At intervals round the high walls are chairs, and cabinets with lamps on them, and in one corner is a great white cold stove-- or is it majolica?" she asked, turning to me.
"No, it is white."
"There are a great many lovely big windows, all ready to let in the air and the sun, but they are as carefully covered with brown lace curtains under heavy stuff ones as though a whole row of houses were just opposite, with peering eyes at every window trying to look in, instead of there only being fields, and trees, and birds. No fire, no sunlight, no books, no flowers; but a consoling smell of red cabbage coming up under the door, mixed, in due season, with soapsuds."
"When did you go there?" asked Minora.
"Ah, when did I go there indeed? When did I not go there? I have been calling there all my life."
Minora's eyes rolled doubtfully first at me then at Irais from the depths of her head-wrappings; they are large eyes with long dark eyelashes, and far be it from me to deny that each eye taken by itself is fine, but they are put in all wrong.
"The only thing you would learn there," went on Irais, "would be the significance of sofa corners in Germany. If we three went there together, I should be ushered into the right-hand corner of the sofa, because it is the place of honour, and I am the greatest stranger; Elizabeth would be invited to seat herself in the left-hand corner, as next in importance; the hostess would sit near us in an arm-chair; and you, as a person of no importance whatever, would either be left to sit where you could, or would be put on a chair facing us, and with the entire breadth of the table between us to mark the immense social gulf that separates the married woman from the mere virgin. These sofa corners make the drawing of nice distinctions possible in a way that nothing else could. The world might come to an end, and create less sensation in doing it, than you would, Miss Minora, if by any chance you got into the right-hand corner of one. That you are put on a chair on the other side of the table places you at once in the scale of precedence, and exactly defines your social position, or rather your complete want of a social position." And Irais tilted her nose ever so little heavenwards.
"Note it," she added, "as the heading of your next chapter."
"Note what?" asked Minora impatiently.
"Why,'The Subtle Significance of Sofas', of course," replied Irais. "If," she continued, as Minora made no reply appreciative of this suggestion, "you were to call unexpectedly, the bad luck which pursues the innocent would most likely make you hit on a washing-day, and the distracted mistress of the house would keep you waiting in the cold room so long while she changed her dress, that you would begin to fear you were to be left to perish from want and hunger; and when she did appear, would show by the bitterness of her welcoming smile the rage that was boiling in her heart."
"But what has the mistress of the house to do with washing? "
"What has she to do with washing? Oh, you sweet innocent-- pardon my familiarity, but such ignorance of country-life customs is very touching in one who is writing a book about them. "
"Oh, I have no doubt I am very ignorant," said Minora loftily.
"Seasons of washing," explained Irais, "are seasons set apart by the Hausfrau to be kept holy. They only occur every two or three months, and while they are going on the whole house is in an uproar, every other consideration sacrificed, husband and children sunk into insignificance, and no one approaching, or interfering with the mistress of the house during these days of purification, but at their peril."
"You Don't Really Mean," Said Minora, "that You Only Wash Your Clothes Four Times A Year?
"Yes, I do mean it," replied Irais.
"Well, I think that is very disgusting," said Minora emphatically.
Irais raised those pretty, delicate eyebrows of hers. "Then you must take care and not marry a German," she said.
"But what is the object of it?" went on Minora.
"Why, to clean the linen, I suppose."
"Yes, yes, but why only at such long intervals?"
"It is an outward and visible sign of vast possessions in the shape of linen. If you were to want to have your clothes washed every week, as you do in England, you would be put down as a person who only has just enough to last that length of time, and would be an object of general contempt."
"But I should be a clean object," cried Minora, "and my house would not be full of accumulated dirt."
We said nothing--there was nothing to be said.
"It must be a happy land, that England of yours," Irais remarked after a while with a sigh--a beatific vision no doubt presenting itself to her mind of a land full of washerwomen and agile gentlemen darting at door-handles.
"It is a clean land, at any rate," replied Minora.
"I don't want to go and live in it," I said--for we were driving up to the house, and a memory of fogs and umbrellas came into my mind as I looked up fondly at its dear old west front, and I felt that what I want is to live and die just here, and that there never was such a happy woman as Elizabeth.
April 18th.--I have been so busy ever since Irais and Minora left that I can hardly believe the spring is here, and the garden hurrying on its green and flowered petticoat--only its petticoat as yet, for though the underwood is a fairyland of tender little leaves, the trees above are still quite bare.
February was gone before I well knew that it had come, so deeply was I engaged in making hot-beds, and having them sown with petunias, verbenas, and nicotina affinis; while no less than thirty are dedicated solely to vegetables, it having been borne in upon me lately that vegetables must be interesting things to grow, besides possessing solid virtues not given to flowers, and that I might as well take the orchard and kitchen garden under my wing. So I have rushed in with all the zeal of utter inexperience, and my February evenings were spent poring over gardening books, and my days in applying the freshly absorbed wisdom. Who says that February is a dull, sad, slow month in the country? It was of the cheerfullest, swiftest description here, and its mild days enabled me to get on beautifully with the digging and manuring, and filled my rooms with snowdrops. The longer I live the greater is my respect and affection for manure in all its forms, and already, though the year is so young, a considerable portion of its pin-money has been spent on artificial manure. The Man of Wrath says he never met a young woman who spent her money that way before; I remarked that it must be nice to have an original wife; and he retorted that the word original hardly described me, and that the word eccentric was the one required. Very well, I suppose I am eccentric, since even my husband says so; but if my eccentricities are of such a practical nature as to result later in the biggest cauliflowers and tenderest lettuce in Prussia, why then he ought to be the first to rise up and call me blessed.
I sent to England for vegetable-marrow seeds, as they are not grown here, and people try and make boiled cucumbers take their place; but boiled cucumbers are nasty things, and I don't see why marrows should not do here perfectly well. These, and primrose-roots, are the English contributions to my garden. I brought over the roots in a tin box last time I came from England, and am anxious to see whether they will consent to live here. Certain it is that they don't exist in the Fatherland, so I can only conclude the winter kills them, for surely, if such lovely things would grow, they never would have been overlooked. Irais is deeply interested in the experiment; she reads so many English books, and has heard so much about primroses, and they have got so mixed up in her mind with leagues, and dames, and Disraelis, that she longs to see this mysterious political flower, and has made me promise to telegraph when it appears, and she will come over. Bur they are not going to do anything this year, and I only hope those cold days did not send them off to the Paradise of flowers. I am afraid their first impression of Germany was a chilly one.
Irais writes about once a week, and inquires after the garden and the babies, and announces her intention of coming back as soon as the numerous relations staying with her have left,--"which they won't do," she wrote the other day, "until the first frosts nip them off, when they will disappear like belated dahlias--double ones of course, for single dahlias are too charming to be compared to relations. I have every sort of cousin and uncle and aunt here, and here they have been ever since my husband's birthday--not the same ones exactly, but I get so confused that I never know where one ends and the other begins. My husband goes off after breakfast to look at his crops, he says, and I am left at their mercy. I wish I had crops to go and look at-- I should be grateful even for one, and would look at it from morning till night, and quite stare it out of countenance, sooner than stay at home and have the truth told me by enigmatic aunts. Do you know my Aunt Bertha? she, in particular, spends her time propounding obscure questions for my solution. I get so tired and worried trying to guess the answers, which are always truths supposed to be good for me to hear.
'Why do you wear your hair on your forehead?' she asks,--and that sets me off wondering why I do wear it on my forehead, and what she wants to know for, or whether she does know and only wants to know if I will answer truthfully.
'I am sure I don't know, aunt,' I say meekly, after puzzling over it for ever so long; 'perhaps my maid knows. Shall I ring and ask her?' And then she informs me that I wear it so to hide an ugly line she says I have down the middle of my forehead, and that betokens a listless and discontented disposition. Well, if she knew, what did she ask me for? Whenever I am with them they ask me riddles like that, and I simply lead a dog's life. Oh, my dear, relations are like drugs,--useful sometimes, and even pleasant, if taken in small quantities and seldom, but dreadfully pernicious on the whole, and the truly wise avoid them."
From Minora I have only had one communication since her departure, in which she thanked me for her pleasant visit, and said she was sending me a bottle of English embrocation to rub on my bruises after skating; that it was wonderful stuff, and she was sure I would like it; and that it cost two marks, and would I send stamps. I pondered long over this. Was it a parting hit, intended as revenge for our having laughed at her? Was she personally interested in the sale of embrocation? Or was it merely Minora's idea of a graceful return for my hospitality? As for bruises, nobody who skates decently regards it as a bruise-producing exercise, and whenever there were any they were all on Minora; but she did happen to turn round once, I remember, just as I was in the act of tumbling down for the first and only time, and her delight was but thinly veiled by her excessive solicitude and sympathy. I sent her the stamps, received the bottle, and resolved to let her drop out of my life; I had been a good Samaritan to her at the request of my friend, but the best of Samaritans resents the offer of healing oil for his own use.
But why waste a thought on Minora at Easter, the real beginning of the year in defiance of calendars. She belongs to the winter that is past, to the darkness that is over, and has no part or lot in the life I shall lead for the next six months. Oh, I could dance and sing for joy that the spring is here! What a resurrection of beauty there is in my garden, and of brightest hope in my heart! The whole of this radiant Easter day I have spent out of doors, sitting at first among the windflowers and celandines, and then, later, walking with the babies to the Hirschwald, to see what the spring had been doing there; and the afternoon was so hot that we lay a long time on the turf, blinking up through the leafless branches of the silver birches at the soft, fat little white clouds floating motionless in the blue. We had tea on the grass in the sun, and when it began to grow late, and the babies were in bed, and all the little wind-flowers folded up for the night, I still wandered in the green paths, my heart full of happiest gratitude. It makes one very humble to see oneself surrounded by such a wealth of beauty and perfection anonymously lavished, and to think of the infinite meanness of our own grudging charities, and how displeased we are if they are not promptly and properly appreciated. I do sincerely trust that the benediction that is always awaiting me in my garden may by degrees be more deserved, and that I may grow in grace, and patience, and cheerfulness, just like the happy flowers I so much love.