We left Göhren at seven the next morning and breakfasted outside it where the lodging-houses end and the woods begin. Gertrud had bought bread, and butter, and a bottle of milk, and we sat among the nightshades, whose flowers were everywhere, and ate in purity and cleanliness while August waited in the road. The charming little flowers with their one-half purple and other half yellow are those that have red berries later in the year and are called by Keats ruby grapes of Proserpine. Yet they are not poisonous, and there is no reason why you should not suffer your pale forehead to be kissed by them if you want to. They are as innocent as they are pretty, and the wood was full of them. Poison, death, and Proserpine seemed far enough away from that leafy place and the rude honesty of bread and butter. Still, lest I should feel too happy, and therefore be less able to bear any shocks that might be awaiting me at Thiessow, I repeated the melancholy and beautiful ode for my admonishment under my breath. It had no effect. Usually it is an unfailing antidote in its extraordinary depression to any excess of cheerfulness; but the wood and the morning sun and the bread and butter were more than a match for it. No incantation of verse could make me believe that Joy's hand was for ever at his lips bidding adieu. Joy seemed to be sitting contentedly beside me sharing my bread and butter; and when I drove away towards Thiessow he got into the carriage with me, and whispered that I was going to be very happy there.
Outside the wood the sandy road lay between cornfields gay with corncockles, bright reminders that the coming harvest will be poor. From here to Thiessow there are no trees except round the cottages of Philippshagen, a pretty village with a hoary church, beyond which the road became pure sand, dribbling off into mere uncertain tracks over the flat pasture land that stretches all the way to Thiessow.
The guide-book warmly recommends the seashore when the wind is in the east (which it was) as the quickest and firmest route from Göhren to Thiessow; but I chose rather to take the road over the plain because there was a poem in the guide-book about the way along the shore, and the guide-book said it described it extremely well, and I was sure that if that were so I would do better to go the other way. This is the poem—the translation is exact, the original being unrhymed, and the punctuation is the poet's—
I read it, marvelled, and went the other way.
Thiessow is a place that has to be gone to for its sake alone, as a glance at the map will show. If you make up your mind to journey the entire length of the plain that separates it from everywhere else you must also make up your mind to journey the entire length back again, to see Göhren once more, to pass through Baabe, and to make a closer acquaintance with Sellin which is on the way to the yet unvisited villages going north. It is a singular drive down to Thiessow, singular because it seems as though it would never leave off. You see the place far away in the distance the whole time, and you jolt on and on at a walking pace towards it, in and out of ruts, over grass-mounds, the sun beating on your head, sea on your left rolling up the beach in long waves, more sea on your right across the undulating greenness, a distant hill with a village by the water to the west, sails of fisher-boats, people in a curious costume mowing in a meadow a great way off, and tethered all over the plain solitary sheep and cows, whose nervousness at your approach is the nervousness begotten of a retired life. There are no trees; and if we had not seen Thiessow all the time we should have lost our way, for there is no road. As it is, you go on till you are stopped by the land coming to an end, and there you are at Thiessow. I believe in the summer you can get there by steamer from Göhren or Baabe; but if it is windy and the waves are too big for the boats that land you to put off, the steamer does not stop; so that the only way is over the plain or along the shore. I walked nearly all the time, the jolting was so intolerable. It was heavy work for the horses, and straining work for the carriage. Gertrud sat gripping the bandbox, for with every lurch it tried to roll out. August looked unhappy. His experiences at Göhren had been worse than ours, and Thiessow was right down at the end of all things, and had the drawback, obvious even to August, that whatever it was like we would have to endure it, for swelter back again over the broiling plain only to stay a second night at Göhren was as much out of the question for the horses as for ourselves. As for me, I was absolutely happy. The wide plain, the wide sea, the wide sky were so gloriously full of light and life. The very turf beneath my feet had an eager spring in it; the very daisies covering it looked sprightlier than anywhere else; and up among the great piled clouds the blessed little larks were fairly drunk with delight. I walked some way ahead of the carriage so as to feel alone. I could have walked for ever in that radiance and freshness. The black-faced sheep ran wildly round and round as I passed, tugging at their chains in frantic agitation. Even the cows seemed uneasy if I came too close; and in the far-off meadow the mowers stopped mowing to watch us dwindle into dots. In this part of Rügen the natives wear a peculiarly hideous dress, or rather the men do—the women's costume is not so ugly—and looking through my glasses to my astonishment I saw that the male mowers had on long baggy white things that were like nothing so much as a woman's white petticoat on either leg. But the mowers and their trousers were soon left far behind. The sun had climbed very high, was pouring down almost straight on to our heads, and still Thiessow seemed no nearer. Well, it did not matter. That is the chief beauty of a tour like mine, that nothing matters. As soon as there are no trains to catch a journey becomes magnificently simple. We might loiter as long as we liked on the road if only we got to some place, any place, by nightfall. This, of course, was my buoyant midday mood, before fatigue had weighed down my limbs and hunger gnawed holes in my cheerfulness. The wind, smelling of sea and freshly-cut grass, had quite blown away the memory of how tragic life had looked the night before when set about by too many beds and not enough wash-stand; and I walked along with what felt like all the brightness of heaven in my heart.
The end of this walk—I think of it as one of the happiest and most beautiful I have had—came about one o'clock. At that dull hour, when the glory of morning is gone and the serenity of afternoon has not begun, we arrived at a small grey wooden hotel, separated from the east sea by a belt of fir-wood, facing a common to the south, and about twenty minutes' walk from Thiessow proper, which lies on the sea on the western and southern shore of the point. It looked clean, and I went in. August and Gertrud sat broiling in the sun of the shelterless sandy road in front of the lily-grown garden. Somehow I had no doubts about being taken in here, and I was at once shown a spotless little bedroom by a spotless landlady. It was a corner room in the south-west corner of the house, and one window looked south on to the common and the other west on to the plain. The bed was drawn across this window, and lying on it I could see the western sea, the distant hill on the shore with its village, and grass, grass, nothing but grass, rolling away from the very wall of the house to infinity and the sunset. The room was tiny. If I had had more than a hold-all I should not have been able to get into it. It had a locked door leading into another bedroom which was occupied, said the chambermaid, by a quiet lady who would make no noise. Gertrud's room was opposite mine. August cheered up when I went out and told him he could go to the stables and put up, and Gertrud was visibly agreeably surprised by the cleanliness of both our rooms.
I lunched on a verandah overlooking the common, with the Madonna lilies of the little garden within reach of my hand; and the tablecloth and the spoons and the waiter were all in keeping with the clean landlady. The inn being small the visitors were few, and those I saw dining at the other little tables on the verandah appeared to be quiet, inoffensive people such as one would expect to find in a quiet, out-of-the-way place. The sea was not visible, but I could hear it on the other side of the belt of firs; and the verandah facing south and being hot and airless, a longing to get into the cool water took hold of me. The waiter said the bathing-huts were open in the afternoon from four to five, and I went upstairs to tell Gertrud to bring my things down to the beach at four, when she would find me lying in the sand. While I was talking, the quiet lady in the next room began to talk too, apparently to the chambermaid, for she talked of hot water. I broke off my own talk short. It was not that the partition was so thin that it seemed as if she were in the same room as myself, though that was sufficiently disturbing—it was that I thought for a moment I knew the voice. I looked at Gertrud. Gertrud's face was empty of all expression. The quiet lady, continuing, told the chambermaid to let down the sun-blinds, and the note in her voice that had struck me was no longer there. Feeling relieved, for I did not want to come across acquaintances, I put The Prelude in my pocket and went out. The fir-wood was stuffy, and suggested mosquitoes, but several bath-guests had slung up hammocks and were lying in them dozing, so that there could not have been mosquitoes; and coming suddenly out on to the sands all idea of stuffiness vanished, for there was the same glorious, heaving, sparkling, splashing blue that I had seen from the dunes of Göhren the evening before at sunset. The bathing-house, a modest place with only two cells and a long plank bridge running into deep water, was just opposite the end of the path through the firs. It was locked up and deserted. The sands were deserted too, for the tourists were all dozing in hammocks or in beds. I made a hollow in the clean dry sand beneath the last of the fir trees, and settled down to enjoy myself till Gertrud came. Oh, I was happy! Thiessow was so quiet and primitive, the afternoon so radiant, the colours of the sea and of the long line of silver sand, and of the soft green gloom of the background of firs so beautiful. Commendably far away to the north I saw the coastguard hill belonging to Göhren. On my right the woods turned into beechwoods, and scrambled up high cliffs that seemed to form the end of the peninsula. I would go and look at all that later on after my bathe. If there is a thing I love it is exploring the little paths of an unknown wood, finding out the corners where it keeps its periwinkles and anemones, discovering its birds' nests, waiting motionless for its hedgehogs and squirrels, and even searching out those luscious recesses, oozy and green, where it keeps its happy slugs. They tell me slugs are not really happy, that Nature is cruel, and that you only have to scratch the pleasant surface of things to get at once to blood-curdling brutalities. Perhaps if you were to go on scratching you might get to consolations and beneficiencies again; but why scratch at all? Why not take the beauty and be grateful? I will not scratch. I will not criticise my own mother who has sheltered me so long in her broad bosom, and been so long my surest guide to all that is gentle and lovely. Whatever she does, from thunderbolts to headaches, I will not criticise; for if she gives me a headache, is there not pleasure when it leaves off? And if she hurls a thunderbolt at me and I am unexpectedly exterminated, my body shall serve as a basis for fresh life and growth, and shall blossom out presently into an immortality of daisies.
I think I must have slept, for the sound of the waves grew very far away, and I only seemed to have been watching the sun on them for a few minutes, when Gertrud's voice floated across space to my ears; and she was saying it was past four, and that one lady had already gone down to bathe, and that, as there were only two cells, if I did not go soon I might not get a bathe at all. I sat up in my hollow and looked across to the huts. The bathing woman in the usual white calico sunbonnet was there, waiting on the plank bridge. No one was in the sea yet. It was a great bore that there should be any one else bathing just then, for German female tourists are apt to be extraordinarily cordial in the water. On land, laced into suppressive whalebone, dressed, and with their hair dry and curled, they cannot but keep within the limits set by convention; but the more clothes they take off the more do they seem to consider the last barrier between human creature and human creature broken down, and they will behave towards you, meeting you on this common ground of wateriness, as though they had known you and extravagantly esteemed you for years. Their cordiality, too, becomes more pronounced in proportion to the coldness and roughness of the water; and the water that day looked cold and was certainly rough, and I felt that there being only two of us in it it would be impossible to escape the advances of the other one. Still, as the cells were shut at five, I could not wait till she had done, so I went down and began to undress.
While I was doing it I heard her leave her cell and anxiously ask the woman if the sea were very cold. Then she apparently put in one foot, for I heard her shriek. Then she apparently bent down, and scooping up water in her hand splashed her face with it, for I heard her gasp. Then she tried the other foot, and shrieked again. And then the bathing woman, fearful lest five o'clock should still find her on duty, began mellifluously to persuade. By this time I was ready, but I did not choose to meet the unknown emotional one on the plank bridge because the garments in which one bathes in German waters are regrettably scanty; so I waited, peeping through the little window. After much talk the eloquence of the bathing woman had its effect, and the bather with one wild scream leapt into the foam, which immediately engulfed her, and when she emerged the first thing she did on getting her breath was to clutch hold of the rope and shriek without stopping for at least a minute. 'Unwürdiges Benehmen,' I observed to Gertrud with a shrug. 'It must be very cold,' I added to myself, not without a secret shrinking. But to my surprise, when I ran along the planks above where the unfortunate clutched and shrieked, she looked up at me with a wet but beaming countenance, and interrupted her shrieks to gasp out, 'Prachtvoll!'
'Really these bath-guests in the water——' I thought indignantly. What right had this one, only because my apparel was scanty, to smile at me and say prachtvoll? I was so much startled by the unexpected exclamation from a person who had the minute before been rending the air with her laments, that my foot slipped on the wet planks, I just heard the bathing woman advising me to take care, just had time to comment to myself on the foolishness of such advice to one already hurling through space, and then came a shock of all-engulfing coldness and wetness and suffocation, and the next moment there I was gasping and spluttering exactly as the other bath-guest had gasped and spluttered, but with this difference, that she had clutched the rope and shrieked, and I, with all the convulsive energy of panic, was shrieking and clutching the bath-guest.
'Prachtvoll, nicht?' I heard her say with an odious jollity through the singing in my ears. Every wave lifted me a little off my feet. My mouth was full of water. My eyes were blinded with spray. I continued to cling to her with one hand, miserably conscious that after this there would be no shaking her off, and rubbing my eyes with the other looked at her. My shrieks froze on my lips. Where had I seen her face before? Surely I knew it? She wore one of those grey india-rubber caps, drawn tightly down to her eyes, that keep the water out so well and are so hopelessly hideous. She smiled back at me with the utmost friendliness, and asked me again whether I did not think it glorious.
'Ach ja-ja,' I panted, letting her go and groping blindly for the rope. 'Thank you, thank you; pray pardon me for having seized you so rudely.'
'Bitte, bitte,' she cried, beginning to jump up and down again.
'Who in the world is she?' I asked myself, getting away as fast as I could. 'Where have I seen her before?'
Probably she was an undesirable acquaintance. Perhaps she was my dressmaker. I had not paid her last absurd bill, and that and a certain faint resemblance to what my dressmaker would look like in an india-rubber cap was what put her into my head; and no sooner had I thought it than I was sure of it, and the conviction was one of quite unprecedented disagreeableness. How profoundly unpleasant to meet this person in the water, to have come all the way to Rügen, to have suffered at Göhren, to have walked miles in the heat of the day to Thiessow, for the sole purpose of bathing tête-à-tête with my dressmaker. And to have tumbled in on top of her and clung about her neck! I climbed out and ran into my cell. My idea was to get dressed and away as speedily as possible; yet with all Gertrud's haste, just as I came out of my cell the other woman came out of hers in her clothes, and we met face to face. With one accord we stopped dead and our mouths fell open, 'What,' she cried, 'it is you?'
'What,' I cried, 'it is you?'
It was my cousin Charlotte whom I had not seen for ten years.
My cousin Charlotte was twenty when I saw her last. Now she was thirty, besides having had an india-rubber cap on. Both these things make a difference to a woman, though she did not seem aware of it, and was lost in amazement that I should not have recognised her at once. I told her it was because of the cap. Then I expressed the astonishment I felt that she had not at once recognised me, and after hesitating a moment she said that I had been making too many faces; and so with infinite delicacy did we avoid all allusion to those ten unhideable years.
Charlotte had had a chequered career; at least, beside my placid life it seemed to have bristled with events. In her early youth, and to the dismay of her parents, she insisted on being educated at one of the English colleges for women—it was at Oxford, but I forget its name—a most unusual course for a young German girl of her class to take. She was so determined, and made her relations so uncomfortable during their period of opposition, that they gave in with what appeared to more distant relatives who were not with Charlotte all day long a criminal weakness. At Oxford she took everything there was to take in the way of honours and prizes, and was the joy and pride of her college. In her last year, a German savant of sixty, an exceedingly bright light in the firmament of European learning, came to Oxford and was fêted. When Charlotte saw the great local beings she was accustomed to look upon as the most marvellous men of the age—the heads of colleges, professors, and other celebrities—vying with each other in honouring her countryman, her admiration for him was such that it took her breath away. At some function she was brought to his notice, and her family being well known in Germany and she herself then in the freshness of twenty-one, besides being very pretty, the great man was much interested, and beamed benevolently upon her, and chucked her under the chin. The head in whose house he was staying, a person equally exquisite in appearance and manners, who had had much to forgive that was less excellent in his guest and had done so freely for the sake of the known profundity of his knowledge, could not but remark this interest in Charlotte, and told him pleasantly of her promising career. The professor appeared to listen with attention, and looked pleased and approving; but when the head ceased, instead of commenting on her talents or the creditable manner in which she had developed them, what he said was, 'A nice, round little girl. A very nice, round little girl. Colossal appetitlich.' And this he repeated emphatically several times, to the distinct discomfort of the head, while his eyes followed her benignly into the distant corner placed at the disposal of the obscure.
Six months later she married the professor. Her family wept and implored in vain; told her in vain of the terrificness of marrying a widower with seven children all older than herself. Charlotte was blinded by the glory of having been chosen by the greatest man Oxford had ever seen. Oxford was everything to her. Her distant German home and its spiritless inhabitants were objects only of her good-natured shrugs. She wrote to me saying she was going to be the life companion of the finest thinker of the age; her people, so illiterate and so full of prejudices, could not, she supposed, be expected to appreciate the splendour of her prospects; she thanked heaven that her own education had saved her from such a laughable blindness; she could conceive nothing more glorious than marrying the man in all the world whom you most reverently admire, than being chosen as the sharer of his thoughts, and the partner of his intellectual joys. After that I seldom heard from her. She lived in the south of Germany, and her professor's fame waxed vaster every year. Every year, too, she brought a potential professor into a world already so full of them, and every year death cut short its career after a period varying from ten days to a fortnight, and the Kreuzzeitung seemed perpetually to be announcing that Heute früh ist meine liebe Frau Charlotte von einem strammen Jungen leicht und glücklich entbunden worden, and Heute starb unser Sohn Bernhard im zarten Alter von zwei Wochen. None of the children lived long enough to meet the next brother, and they were steadily christened Bernhard, after a father apparently thirsting to perpetuate his name. It became at last quite uncomfortable. Charlotte seemed never to be out of the Kreuzzeitung. For six years she and the poor little Bernhards went on in this manner, haunting its birth and death columns, and then abruptly disappeared from them; and the next I heard of her was that she was in England,—in London, Oxford, and other intellectual centres, lecturing in the cause of Woman. The Kreuzzeitung began about her again, but on another page. The Kreuzzeitung was shocked; for Charlotte was emancipated. Charlotte's family was so much shocked that it was hysterical. Charlotte, not content with lecturing, wrote pamphlets,—lofty documents of a deadly earnestness, in German and English, and they might be seen any day in the bookshop windows Unter den Linden. Charlotte's family nearly fainted when it had to walk Unter den Linden. The Radical papers, which were only read by Charlotte's family when nobody was looking and were never allowed openly to darken their doors, took her under their wing and wrote articles in her praise. It was, they said, surprising and refreshing to find views and intelligence of the sort emerging from the suffocating ancestral atmosphere that hangs about the Landadel. The paralysing effect of too many ancestors was not as a rule to be lightly shaken off, especially by the female descendants. When it did get shaken off, as in this instance, it should be the subject of rejoicing to every person who had the advancement of civilisation at heart. The civilisation of a state could never be great so long as its women, etc. etc.
My uncle and aunt nearly died of this praise. Her brothers and sisters stayed in the country and refused invitations. Only the professor seemed as pleased as ever. 'Charlotte is my cousin,' I said to him at a party in Berlin where he was being lionised. 'How proud you must be of such a clever wife!' I had not met him before, and a more pleasant, rosy, nice little old man I have never seen.
He beamed at me through his spectacles. Almost could I see the narrow line that separated me from a chin-chucking. 'Yes, yes,' he said, 'so they all tell me. The little Lotte is making a noise. Empty vessels do. But I daresay what she tells them is a very pretty little nonsense. One must not be too critical in these cases.' And, seizing upon the cousinship, he began to call me Du.
I inquired how it was she was wandering about the world alone. He said he could not imagine. I asked him what he thought of the pamphlets. He said he had no time for light reading. I was so unfortunate as to remark, no doubt with enthusiasm, that I had read some of his simpler works to my great benefit and unbounded admiration. He looked more benign than ever, and said he had had no idea that anything of his was taught in elementary schools.
In a word, I was routed by the professor. I withdrew, feeling crushed, and wondering if I had deserved it. He came after me, called me his liebe kleine Cousine, and sitting down beside me patted my hand and inquired with solicitude how it was he had never seen me before. Renewed attempts on my part to feed like a bee on the honey of his learning were met only by pats. He would pat, but he would not impart wisdom; and the longer he patted the more perfect did his serenity seem to become. When people approached us and showed a tendency to hang on the great man's lips, he looked up with a happy smile and said, 'This is my little cousin—we have much to say to each other,' and turned his back on them. And when I was asked whether I had not spent a memorable, an elevating evening, being talked to so much by the famous Nieberlein, I could only put on a solemn face and say that I should not soon forget it. 'It will be something to tell your children of, in the days to come when he is a splendid memory,' said the enthusiast.
'Oh won't it!' I ejaculated, with the turned-up eyes of rapture.
'Tell me one thing,' I said to Charlotte as we walked slowly along the sands towards the cliff and the beechwood; 'why, since you took me for a stranger, were you so—well, so gracious to me in the water?'
Gertrud had gone back to the hotel laden with both our bathing-things. 'She may as well take mine up at the same time,' Charlotte had remarked, piling them on Gertrud's passive arms. Undeniably she might; and accordingly she did. But her face was wry, and so had been the smile with which she returned Charlotte's careless greetings. 'You still keep that old fool, I see,' said Charlotte. 'It would send me mad to have a person of inferior intellect for ever fussing round me.'
'It would send me much madder to have a person of superior intellect buttoning my boots and scorning me while she does it,' I replied.
'Why was I so gracious to you in the water?' repeated Charlotte in answer to my inquiry, made not without anxiousness, for one likes to know one's own cousin above the practices of ordinary bath-guests. 'I'll tell you why. I detest the stiff, icy way women have of turning their backs if they don't know each other.'
'Oh they're not very stiff,' I remarked, thinking of past bathing experiences, 'and besides, in the water——'
'It is not only unkind, it is simply wicked. For how shall we ever be anything but tools and drudges if we don't co-operate, if we don't stand shoulder to shoulder? Oh my heart goes out to all women! I never see one without feeling I must do all in my power to get to know her, to help her, to show her what she must do, so that when her youth is gone there will still be something left, a so much nobler happiness, a so much truer joy.'
'Than what?' I asked, puzzled.
Charlotte was looking into my eyes as though she were reading my soul. She wasn't, whatever she might have thought she was doing. 'Than what she had before, of course,' she said with some asperity.
'But perhaps what she had before was just what she liked best.'
'But if it was only the sort of joy every woman who is young and pretty gets heaped on her, does it not take wings and fly away the moment she happens to look haggard, or is low-spirited, or ill?'
It was as I had feared. Charlotte was strenuous. There was not a doubt of it. And the strenuous woman is a form of the sex out of whose way I have hitherto kept. Of course I knew from the pamphlets and the lectures that she was not one to stay at home and see the point of purring over her husband's socks; but I had supposed one might lecture and write things without bringing the pamphlet manner to bear on one's own blood relations.
'You were very jolly in the water,' I said. 'Why are you suddenly so serious?'
'The water,' replied Charlotte, 'is the only place I am ever what you call jolly in. It is the only place where I can ever forget how terribly earnest life is.'
'My dear Charlotte, shall we sit down? The bathing has made me tired.'
We did sit down, and leaning my back against a rock, and pulling my hat over my eyes, I gazed out at the sunlit sea and at the flocks of little white clouds hanging over it to the point where they met the water, while Charlotte talked. Yes, she was right, nearly always right, in everything she said, and it was certainly meritorious to use one's strength, and health, and talents as she was doing, trying to get rid of mouldy prejudices. I gathered that what she was fighting for were equal rights and equal privileges for women and men alike. It is a story I have heard before, and up to now it has not had a satisfactory ending. And Charlotte was so small, and the world she defied was so big and so indifferent and had such an inconsequent habit of associating all such efforts—in themselves nothing less than heroic—with the ridiculousness of cropped hair and extremities clothed in bloomers. I protest that the thought of this brick wall of indifference with Charlotte hurling herself against it during all the years that might have been pleasant was so tragic to me that I was nearly tempted to try to please her by offering to come and hurl myself too. But I have no heroism. The hardness and coldness of bricks terrifies me. What, I wondered, could her experiences with her great thinker have been, to make her turn her back so absolutely on the fair and sheltered land of matrimony? I could not but agree with much that she was saying. That women, if they chose, need not do or endure any of the things against which those of them who find their voice cry out has long been clear to me. That they are, on the whole, not well-disposed towards each other is also a fact frequently to be observed. And that this secret antagonism must be got over before there can be any real co-operation may, I suppose, be regarded as certain. But when Charlotte spoke of co-operation she was apparently thinking only of the co-operation of those whom years, in place of the might of youth, have provided with the sad sensibleness that comes of repeated disappointments—the co-operation, that is, of the elderly; and the German elderly in the immense majority of cases remains obscurely in her kitchen and does not dream of co-operating. Has she not got over the conjugal quarrels of the first married years? Has she not filled her nurseries and become indefinite in outline? And do not these things make for content? If thoughts of rebellion enter her head, she need only look honestly at her image in the glass to be aware that it is not her kind that will ever wring concessions from the other sex. She is a brave Frau, and a brave Frau who should try to do anything beyond keeping her home tidy and feeding its inmates would be almost pathetically ridiculous.
'You shouldn't bother about the old ones,' I murmured, watching a little white steamer rounding the Göhren headland. 'Get the young to co-operate, my dear Charlotte. The young inherit the earth—Teutonic earth certainly they do. If you got all the pretty women between twenty and thirty on your side the thing's done. No wringing would be required. The concessions would simply shower down.'
'I detest the word concession,' said Charlotte.
'Do you? But there it is. We live on the concessions made us by those beings you would probably call the enemy. And, after all, most of us live fairly comfortably.'
'By the way,' she said, turning her head suddenly and looking at me, 'what have you been doing all these years?'
'Doing?' I repeated in some confusion. I don't know why there should have been any confusion, unless it was a note in Charlotte's voice that made her question sound like a stern inquiry after that one talent which is death to hide lodged with me useless. 'Now, as though you didn't very well know what I have been doing. I have had a row of babies and brought it up quite nicely.'
'That isn't anything to be proud of.'
'I didn't say it was.'
'Your cat achieves precisely the same thing.'
'My dear Charlotte, I haven't got a cat.'
'And now—what are you doing now?'
'You see what I am doing. Apparently exactly what you are.'
'I don't mean that. Of course you know I don't mean that. What are you doing now with your life?'
I turned my head and gazed reproachfully at Charlotte. How pretty she used to be. How prettily the corners of her mouth used to turn up, as though her soul were always smiling. And she had had the dearest chin with a dimple in it, and she had had clear, hopeful eyes, and all the lines of her body had been comely and gracious. These are solid advantages that should not lightly be allowed to go. Not a trace of them was left. Her face was thin, and its expression of determination made it look hard. There was a deep line straight down between her eyebrows, as though she frowned at life more than is needful. Angles had everywhere taken the place of curves. Her eyes were as bright and intelligent as ever, but seemed to have grown larger. Something had completely done for Charlotte as far as beauty of person goes; whether it was the six Bernhards, or her actual enthusiasms, or the unusual mixture of both, I could not at this stage discover; nor could I yet see if her soul had gained the beauty that her body had lost, which is undoubtedly what the rightly cared-for soul does do. Meanwhile anything more utterly unlike the wife of a famous professor I have never seen. The wife of an aged German celebrity should be, and is, calm, comfortable, large, and slow. She must be, and is, proud of her great man. She attends to his bodily wants, and does not presume to share his spiritual excitements. In their common life he is the brain, she the willing hands and feet. It is perfectly fair. If there are to be great men some one must be found to look after them—some one who shall be more patient, faithful, and admiring than a servant, and unable like a servant to throw up the situation on the least provocation. A wife is an admirable institution. She is the hedge set between the precious flowers of the male intellect and the sun and dust of sordid worries. She is the flannel that protects when the winds of routine are cold. She is the sheltering jam that makes the pills of life possible. She is buffer, comforter, and cook. And so long as she enjoys these various roles the arrangement is perfect. The difficulties begin when, defying Nature's teaching, which on this point is luminous, she refuses to be the hedge, flannel, jam, buffer, comforter, and cook; and when she goes so far on the sulphuric path of rebellion as to insist on being clever on her own account and publicly, she has, in Germany at least, set every law of religion and decency at defiance. Charlotte had been doing this, if all I had heard was true, for the last three years; therefore her stern inquiry addressed to a wife of my sobriety struck me as singularly out of place. What had I been doing with my life? Looking back into it in search of an answer it seemed very spacious, and sunny, and quiet. There were children in it, and there was a garden, and a spouse in whose eyes I was precious; but I had not done anything. And if I could point to no pamphlets or lectures, neither need I point to a furrow between my eyebrows.
'It is very odd,' Charlotte went on, as I sat silent, 'our meeting like this. I was on the verge of writing to ask if I might come and stay with you.'
'Oh were you?'
'So often lately I have thought just you might be such a help to me if only I could wake you up.'
'Wake me up, my dear Charlotte?'
'Oh, I've heard about you. I know you live stuffed away in the country in a sort of dream. You needn't try to answer my question about what you have done. You can't answer it. You have lived in a dream, entirely wrapped up in your family and your plants.'
'Plants, my dear Charlotte?'
'You do not see nor want to see farther than the ditch at the end of your garden. All that is going on outside, out in the great real world where people are in earnest, where they strive, and long, and suffer, where they unceasingly pursue their ideal of a wider life, a richer experience, a higher knowledge, is absolutely indifferent to you. Your existence—no one could call it life—is quite negative and unemotional. It is as negative and as unemotional as——' She paused and looked at me with a faint, compassionate smile.
'As what?' I asked, anxious to hear the worst.
'Frankly, as an oyster's.'
'Really, my dear Charlotte,' I exclaimed, naturally upset. How very unfortunate that I should have hurried away from Göhren. Why had I not stayed there two or three days, as I had at first intended? It was such a safe place; you could get out of it so easily and so quickly. If I were an oyster—curious how much the word disconcerted me—at least I was a happy oyster, which was surely better than being miserable and not an oyster at all. Charlotte was certainly nearer being miserable than happy. People who are happy do not have the look she had in her eyes, nor is their expression so uninterruptedly determined. And why should I be lectured? When I am in the mood for a lecture, my habit is to buy a ticket and go and listen; and when I have not bought a ticket, it is a sign that I do not want a lecture. I did not like to explain this beautifully simple position to Charlotte, yet felt that at all costs I must nip her eloquence in the bud or she would keep me out till it was dark; so I got up, cleared my throat, and said in the balmy tone in which people on platforms begin their orations, 'Geehrte Anwesende.'
'Are you going to give me a lecture?' she inquired with a surprised smile.
'In return for yours.'
'My dear soul, may I not talk to you about anything except plants?'
'I really don't know why you should think plants are the only things that interest me. I have not yet mentioned them. And, as a matter of fact, you are the last person with whom I would share my vegetable griefs. But that isn't what I wished to say. I was going to offer you, geehrte Anwesende, a few remarks about husbands.'
'About husbands,' I repeated blandly, in a voice of milk and honey. 'Geehrte Anwesende, in the course of an uneventful existence I have had much leisure for reflection, and my reflections have led me to the conclusion, erroneous perhaps, but fixed, that having got a husband, taken him of one's own free will, taken him sometimes even in the face of opposition, the least one can do is to stick to him. Now, Charlotte, where is yours? What have you done with him? Is he here? And if not, why is he not here, and where is he?'
Charlotte got up hastily and brushed the sand out of the folds of her dress. 'You haven't changed a bit,' she said with a slight laugh. 'You are just as——'
'Silly?' I suggested.
'Oh, I didn't say that. And as for Bernhard, he is where he always was, marching triumphantly along the road to undying fame. But you know that. You only ask because your ideas of the duties of woman are medieval, and you are shocked. Well, I'm afraid you must be shocked then. I haven't seen him for a whole year.'
Luckily at this moment, for I think we were going to quarrel, Gertrud came heaving through the sand towards us with a packet of letters. She had been to the post, and knowing I loved getting letters came out to look for me so that I might have them at once; and as I eagerly opened them and buried myself in them, Charlotte confined her occasional interjections to deprecating the obviously inferior shape of Gertrud's head.