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Elizabeth and Her German Garden Part 7

December 27th--It is the fashion, I believe, to regard Christmas as a bore of rather a gross description, and as a time when you are invited to over-eat yourself, and pretend to be merry without just cause. As a matter of fact, it is one of the prettiest and most poetic institutions possible, if observed in the proper manner, and after having been more or less unpleasant to everybody for a whole year, it is a blessing to be forced on that one day to be amiable, and it is certainly delightful to be able to give presents without being haunted by the conviction that you are spoiling the recipient, and will suffer for it afterward.

Servants are only big children, and are made just as happy as children by little presents and nice things to eat, and, for days beforehand, every time the three babies go into the garden they expect to meet the Christ Child with His arms full of gifts. They firmly believe that it is thus their presents are brought, and it is such a charming idea that Christmas would be worth celebrating for its sake alone.

As great secrecy is observed, the preparations devolve entirely on me, and it is not very easy work, with so many people in our own house and on each of the farms, and all the children, big and little, expecting their share of happiness. The library is uninhabitable for several days before and after, as it is there that we have the trees and presents.

All down one side are the trees, and the other three sides are lined with tables, a separate one for each person in the house. When the trees are lighted, and stand in their radiance shining down on the happy faces, I forget all the trouble it has been, and the number of times I have had to run up and down stairs, and the various aches in head and feet, and enjoy myself as much as anybody. First the June baby is ushered in, then the others and ourselves according to age, then the servants, then come the head inspector and his family, the other inspectors from the different farms, the mamsells, the bookkeepers and secretaries, and then all the children, troops and troops of them--the big ones leading the little ones by the hand and carrying the babies in their arms, and the mothers peeping round the door. As many as can get in stand in front of the trees, and sing two or three carols; then they are given their presents, and go off triumphantly, making room for the next batch. My three babies sang lustily too, whether they happened to know what was being sung or not. They had on white dresses in honour of the occasion, and the June baby was even arrayed in a low-necked and short-sleeved garment, after the manner of Teutonic infants, whatever the state of the thermometer. Her arms are like miniature prize-fighter's arms--I never saw such things; they are the pride and joy of her little nurse, who had tied them up with blue ribbons, and kept on kissing them. I shall certainly not be able to take her to balls when she grows up, if she goes on having arms like that.

When they came to say good-night, they were all very pale and subdued.

The April baby had an exhausted-looking Japanese doll with her, which she said she was taking to bed, not because she liked him, but because she was so sorry for him, he seemed so very tired. They kissed me absently, and went away, only the April baby glancing at the trees as she passed and making them a curtesy.

"Good-bye, trees," I heard her say; and then she made the Japanese doll bow to them, which he did, in a very languid and blase fashion. "You'll never see such trees again," she told him, giving him a vindictive shake, "for you'll be brokened long before next time."

She went out, but came back as though she had forgotten something.

"Thank the Christkind so much, Mummy, won't you, for all the lovely things He brought us. I suppose you're writing to Him now, isn't you?"

I cannot see that there was anything gross about our Christmas, and we were perfectly merry without any need to pretend, and for at least two days it brought us a little nearer together, and made us kind. Happiness is so wholesome; it invigorates and warms me into piety far more effectually than any amount of trials and griefs, and an unexpected pleasure is the surest means of bringing me to my knees. In spite of the protestations of some peculiarly constructed persons that they are the better for trials, I don't believe it. Such things must sour us, just as happiness must sweeten us, and make us kinder, and more gentle. And will anybody affirm that it behoves us to be more thankful for trials than for blessings? We were meant to be happy, and to accept all the happiness offered with thankfulness--indeed, we are none of us ever thankful enough, and yet we each get so much, so very much, more than we deserve. I know a woman--she stayed with me last summer--who rejoices grimly when those she loves suffer. She believes that it is our lot, and that it braces us and does us good, and she would shield no one from even unnecessary pain; she weeps with the sufferer, but is convinced it is all for the best. Well, let her continue in her dreary beliefs; she has no garden to teach her the beauty and the happiness of holiness, nor does she in the least desire to possess one; her convictions have the sad gray colouring of the dingy streets and houses she lives amongst--the sad colour of humanity in masses. Submission to what people call their "lot" is simply ignoble. If your lot makes you cry and be wretched, get rid of it and take another; strike out for yourself; don't listen to the shrieks of your relations, to their gibes or their entreaties; don't let your own microscopic set prescribe your goings-out and comings-in; don't be afraid of public opinion in the shape of the neighbour in the next house, when all the world is before you new and shining, and everything is possible, if you will only be energetic and independent and seize opportunity by the scruff of the neck.

"To hear you talk," said Irais, "no one would ever imagine that you dream away your days in a garden with a book, and that you never in your life seized anything by the scruff of its neck. And what is scruff?

I hope I have not got any on me." And she craned her neck before the glass.

She and Minora were going to help me decorate the trees, but very soon Irais wandered off to the piano, and Minora was tired and took up a book; so I called in Miss Jones and the babies--it was Miss Jones's last public appearance, as I shall relate--and after working for the best part of two days they were finished, and looked like lovely ladies in widespreading, sparkling petticoats, holding up their skirts with glittering fingers. Minora wrote a long description of them for a chapter of her book which is headed Noel,--I saw that much, because she left it open on the table while she went to talk to Miss Jones. They were fast friends from the very first, and though it is said to be natural to take to one's own countrymen, I am unable altogether to sympathise with such a reason for sudden affection.

"I wonder what they talk about?" I said to Irais yesterday, when there was no getting Minora to come to tea, so deeply was she engaged in conversation with Miss Jones.

"Oh, my dear, how can I tell? Lovers, I suppose, or else they think they are clever, and then they talk rubbish."

"Well, of course, Minora thinks she is clever."

"I suppose she does. What does it matter what she thinks? Why does your governess look so gloomy? When I see her at luncheon I always imagine she must have just heard that somebody is dead. But she can't hear that every day. What is the matter with her?"

"I don't think she feels quite as proper as she looks," I said doubtfully; I was for ever trying to account for Miss Jones's expression.

"But that must be rather nice," said Irais. "It would be awful for her if she felt exactly the same as she looks."

At that moment the door leading into the schoolroom opened softly, and the April baby, tired of playing, came in and sat down at my feet, leaving the door open; and this is what we heard Miss Jones saying--

"Parents are seldom wise, and the strain the conscientious place upon themselves to appear so before their children and governess must be terrible. Nor are clergymen more pious than other men, yet they have continually to pose before their flock as such. As for governesses, Miss Minora, I know what I am saying when I affirm that there is nothing more intolerable than to have to be polite, and even humble, to persons whose weaknesses and follies are glaringly apparent in every word they utter, and to be forced by the presence of children and employers to a dignity of manner in no way corresponding to one's feelings. The grave father of a family, who was probably one of the least respectable of bachelors, is an interesting study at his own table, where he is constrained to assume airs of infallibility merely because his children are looking at him.

The fact of his being a parent does not endow him with any supreme and sudden virtue; and I can assure you that among the eyes fixed upon him, not the least critical and amused are those of the humble person who fills the post of governess."

"Oh, Miss Jones, how lovely!" we heard Minora say in accents of rapture, while we sat transfixed with horror at these sentiments. "Do you mind if I put that down in my book? You say it all so beautifully."

"Without a few hours of relaxation," continued Miss Jones, "of private indemnification for the toilsome virtues displayed in public, who could wade through days of correct behaviour? There would be no reaction, no room for better impulses, no place for repentance. Parents, priests, and governesses would be in the situation of a stout lady who never has a quiet moment in which she can take off her corsets."

"My dear, what a firebrand!" whispered Irais. I got up and went in. They were sitting on the sofa, Minora with clasped hands, gazing admiringly into Miss Jones's face, which wore a very different expression from the one of sour and unwilling propriety I have been used to seeing.

"May I ask you to come to tea?" I said to Minora. "And I should like to have the children a little while."

She got up very reluctantly, but I waited with the door open until she had gone in and the two babies had followed. They had been playing at stuffing each other's ears with pieces of newspaper while Miss Jones provided Minora with noble thoughts for her work, and had to be tortured afterward with tweezers. I said nothing to Minora, but kept her with us till dinner-time, and this morning we went for a long sleigh-drive. When we came in to lunch there was no Miss Jones.

"Is Miss Jones ill?" asked Minora.

"She is gone," I said.

"Gone?"

"Did you never hear of such things as sick mothers?" asked Irais blandly; and we talked resolutely of something else.

All the afternoon Minora has moped. She had found a kindred spirit, and it has been ruthlessly torn from her arms as kindred spirits so often are. It is enough to make her mope, and it is not her fault, poor thing, that she should have preferred the society of a Miss Jones to that of Irais and myself.

At dinner Irais surveyed her with her head on one side. "You look so pale," she said; "are you not well?"

Minora raised her eyes heavily, with the patient air of one who likes to be thought a sufferer. "I have a slight headache," she replied gently.

"I hope you are not going to be ill," said Irais with great concern, "because there is only a cow-doctor to be had here, and though he means well, I believe he is rather rough." Minora was plainly startled. "But what do you do if you are ill?" she asked.

"Oh, we are never ill," said I; "the very knowledge that there would be no one to cure us seems to keep us healthy."

"And if any one takes to her bed," said Irais, "Elizabeth always calls in the cow-doctor."

Minora was silent. She feels, I am sure, that she has got into a part of the world peopled solely by barbarians, and that the only civilised creature besides herself has departed and left her at our mercy.

Whatever her reflections may be her symptoms are visibly abating.

January 1st.--The service on New Year's Eve is the only one in the whole year that in the least impresses me in our little church, and then the very bareness and ugliness of the place and the ceremonial produce an effect that a snug service in a well-lit church never would. Last night we took Irais and Minora, and drove the three lonely miles in a sleigh.

It was pitch-dark, and blowing great guns. We sat wrapped up to our eyes in furs, and as mute as a funeral procession.

"We are going to the burial of our last year's sins," said Irais, as we started; and there certainly was a funereal sort of feeling in the air.

Up in our gallery pew we tried to decipher our chorales by the light of the spluttering tallow candles stuck in holes in the woodwork, the flames wildly blown about by the draughts. The wind banged against the windows in great gusts, screaming louder than the organ, and threatening to blow out the agitated lights together. The parson in his gloomy pulpit, surrounded by a framework of dusty carved angels, took on an awful appearance of menacing Authority as he raised his voice to make himself heard above the clatter. Sitting there in the dark, I felt very small, and solitary, and defenceless, alone in a great, big, black world. The church was as cold as a tomb; some of the candles guttered and went out; the parson in his black robe spoke of death and judgment; I thought I heard a child's voice screaming, and could hardly believe it was only the wind, and felt uneasy and full of forebodings; all my faith and philosophy deserted me, and I had a horrid feeling that I should probably be well punished, though for what I had no precise idea. If it had not been so dark, and if the wind had not howled so despairingly, I should have paid little attention to the threats issuing from the pulpit; but, as it was, I fell to making good resolutions. This is always a bad sign,--only those who break them make them; and if you simply do as a matter of course that which is right as it comes, any preparatory resolving to do so becomes completely superfluous. I have for some years past left off making them on New Year's Eve, and only the gale happening as it did reduced me to doing so last night; for I have long since discovered that, though the year and the resolutions may be new, I myself am not, and it is worse than useless putting new wine into old bottles.

"But I am not an old bottle," said Irais indignantly, when I held forth to her to the above effect a few hours later in the library, restored to all my philosophy by the warmth and light, "and I find my resolutions carry me very nicely into the spring. I revise them at the end of each month, and strike out the unnecessary ones. By the end of April they have been so severely revised that there are none left."

"There, you see I am right; if you were not an old bottle your new contents would gradually arrange themselves amiably as a part of you, and the practice of your resolutions would lose its bitterness by becoming a habit."

She shook her head. "Such things never lose their bitterness," she said, "and that is why I don't let them cling to me right into the summer.

When May comes, I give myself up to jollity with all the rest of the world, and am too busy being happy to bother about anything I may have resolved when the days were cold and dark."

"And that is just why I love you," I thought. She often says what I feel.

"I wonder," she went on after a pause, "whether men ever make resolutions?"

"I don't think they do. Only women indulge in such luxuries. It is a nice sort of feeling, when you have nothing else to do, giving way to endless grief and penitence, and steeping yourself to the eyes in contrition; but it is silly. Why cry over things that are done? Why do naughty things at all, if you are going to repent afterward? Nobody is naughty unless they like being naughty; and nobody ever really repents unless they are afraid they are going to be found out."

"By 'nobody' of course you mean women, said Irais.

"Naturally; the terms are synonymous. Besides, men generally have the courage of their opinions."

"I hope you are listening, Miss Minora," said Irais in the amiably polite tone she assumes whenever she speaks to that young person.

It was getting on towards midnight, and we were sitting round the fire, waiting for the New Year, and sipping Glubwein, prepared at a small table by the Man of Wrath. It was hot, and sweet, and rather nasty, but it is proper to drink it on this one night, so of course we did.

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