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Elizabeth and Her German Garden Part 11

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."

Chapter end

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