Elizabeth and Her German Garden Part 10

"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."

"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.

Chapter end

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