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Jena, April 30th.
Dear Mr. Anstruther,—You know the little strip of balcony outside our sitting-room window, with its view over the trees of the Paradies valley to the beautiful hills across the river? Well, this morning is so fine, the sun is shining so warmly, that I had my coffee and roll there, and, now, wrapped up in rugs, am still there writing to you. I can't tell you how wonderful it is. The birds are drunk with joy. There are blackbirds, and thrushes, and chaffinches, and yellow-hammers, all shouting at once; and every now and then when the clamor has a gap in it I hear the whistle of the great tit, the dear small bird who is the very first to sing, bringing its pipe of hope to those early days in February when the world is at its blackest. Have you noticed how different one's morning coffee tastes out of doors from what it does in a room? And the roll and butter—oh, the roll and butter! So must rolls and butter have tasted in the youth of the world, when gods and mortals were gloriously mixed up together, and you went for walks on exquisite things like parsley and violets. If Thoreau—I know you don't like him, but that's only because you have read and believed Stevenson about him—could have seen the eager interest with which I ate my roll just now, he would, I am afraid, have been disgusted; for he severely says that it is not what you eat but the spirit in which you eat it,—you are not, that is, to like it too much—that turns you into a glutton. It is, he says, neither the quality nor the quantity, but the devotion to sensual savors that makes your eating horrid. A puritan, he says, may go to his brown bread crust with as gross an appetite as ever an alderman to his turtle. Thus did I go, as grossly as the grossest alderman, this morning to my crust, and rejoiced in the sensual savor of it and was very glad. How nice it is, how pleasant, not to be with people you admire. Admiration, veneration, the best form of love—they are all more comfortably indulged in from a distance. There is too much whalebone about them at close quarters with their object, too much whalebone and not nearly enough slippers. I am glad Thoreau is dead. I love him far too much ever to want to see him; and how thankful I am he cannot see me.
It is my step-mother's birthday, and trusted friends have been streaming up our three flights of stairs since quite early to bring her hyacinths in pots and unhappy roses spiked on wires and make her congratulatory speeches. I hear them talking through the open window, and what they say, wafted out to me here in the sun, sounds like the pleasant droning of bees when one is only half awake. First there is the distant electric bell and the tempestuous whirl of Johanna down the passage. Then my step-mother emerges from the kitchen and meets the arriving friend with vociferous welcoming. Then the friend is led into the room here, talking in gasps as we all do on getting to the top of this house, and flinging cascades of good wishes for her liebe Emilie on to the liebe Emilie's head. Then the hyacinths or the roses are presented:—'I have brought thee a small thing,' says the friend, presenting; and my step-mother, who has been aware of their presence the whole time, but, with careful decency, has avoided looking at them, starts, protests, and launches forth on to heaving billows of enthusiasm. She does not care for flowers, either in pots or on wires or in any other condition, so her gratitude is really most creditably done. Then they settle down in the corners of the sofa and talk about the things they really want to talk about—neighbors, food, servants, pastors, illnesses, Providence; beginning, since I was ill, with a perfunctory inquiry from the visitor as to the health of die gute Rose-Marie.
'Danke, danke,' says my step-mother. You know in Germany whenever anybody asks after anybody you have to begin your answer with danke. Sometimes the results are odd; for instance: 'How is your poor husband today?' 'Oh, danke, he is dead.'
So my step-mother, too, says danke, and then I hear a murmur of further information, and catch the word zart. Then they talk, still in murmurs not supposed to be able to get through the open window and into my ears, about the quantity of beef-tea I have consumed, the length of the chemist's bill, the unfortunate circumstance that I am so overgrown—'Weedy,' says my step-mother.
'Would you call her weedy?' says the friend, with a show of polite hesitation.
'Weedy,' repeats my step-mother emphatically; and the friend remarks quite seriously that when a person is so very long there is always some part of her bound to be in a draught and catching cold. 'It is such a pity,' concludes the friend, 'that she did not marry.' (Notice the tense. Half a dozen birthdays back it used to be 'does not.')
'Gentlemen,' says my step-mother, 'do not care for her.'
'Armes Mädchen' murmurs the friend.
'Herr Gott, ja,' says my step-mother, 'but what is to be done? I have invited gentlemen in past days. I have invited them to coffees, to beer evenings, to music on Sunday afternoons, to the reading aloud of Schiller's dramas, each with his part and Rose-Marie with the heroine's; and though they came they also went away again. Nothing was changed, except the size of my beer bill. No, no, gentlemen do not care for her. In society she does not please.'
'Armes Mädchen' says the friend again; and the armes Mädchen out in the sun laughs profanely into her furs.
The fact is it is quite extraordinary the effect my illness has had on me. I thought it was bad, and I see it was good. Beyond words ghastly at the time, terrible, hopeless, the aches of my body as nothing compared with the amazing anguish of my soul, the world turned into one vast pit of pain, impossible to think of the future, impossible to think of the past, impossible to bear the present—after all that behold me awake again, and so wide awake, with eyes grown so quick to see the wonder and importance of the little things of life, the beauty of them, the joy of them, that I can laugh aloud with glee at the delicious notion of calling me an armes Mädchen. Three months ago with what miserable groanings, what infinite self-pityings, I would have agreed. Now, clear of vision, I see how many precious gifts I have—life, and freedom from pain, and time to be used and enjoyed—gifts no one can take from me except God. Do you know any George Herbert? He was one of the many English poets my mother's love of poetry made me read. Do you remember
I once more smell the dew, the rain,
And relish versing.
O, my only Light!
It cannot be
That I am he
On whom thy tempests fell all night?
Well, that is how I feel: full of wonder, and an unspeakable relief. It is so strange how bad things—things we call bad—bring forth good things, from the manure that brings forth roses lovely in proportion to its manuriness to the worst experiences that can overtake the soul. And as far as I have been able to see (which is not very far, for I know I am not a clever woman) it is also true that good things bring forth bad ones. I cannot tell you how much life surprises me. I never get used to it. I never tire of pondering, and watching, and wondering. The way in which eternal truths lurk along one's path, lie among the potatoes in cellars (did you ever observe the conduct of potatoes in cellars? their desperate determination to reach up to the light? their absolute concentration on that one distant glimmer?), peep out at one from every apparently dull corner, sit among the stones, hang upon the bushes, come into one's room in the morning with the hot water, come out at night in heaven with the stars, never leave us, touch us, press upon us, if we choose to open our eyes and look, and our ears and listen—how extraordinary it is. Can one be bored in a world so wonderful? And then the keen interest there is to be got out of people, the keen joy to be got out of common affections, the delight of having a fresh day every morning before you, a fresh, long day, bare and empty, to be filled as you pass along it with nothing but clean and noble hours. You must forgive this exuberance. The sun has got into my veins and has turned everything golden. Yours sincerely,
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