June 3rd.--This is such an out-of-the-way corner of the world that it
requires quite unusual energy to get here at all, and I am thus delivered
from casual callers; while, on the other hand, people I love, or people
who love me, which is much the same thing, are not likely to be deterred
from coming by the roundabout train journey and the long drive at the end.
Not the least of my many blessings is that we have only one neighbour.
If you have to have neighbours at all, it is at least a mercy that there
should be only one; for with people dropping in at all hours and wanting
to talk to you, how are you to get on with your life, I should like to know,
and read your books, and dream your dreams to your satisfaction?
Besides, there is always the certainty that either you or the dropper-in
will say something that would have been better left unsaid, and I have
a holy horror of gossip and mischief-making. A woman's tongue is a
deadly weapon and the most difficult thing in the world to keep in order,
and things slip off it with a facility nothing short of appalling at
the very moment when it ought to be most quiet. In such cases the only
safe course is to talk steadily about cooks and children, and to pray
that the visit may not be too prolonged, for if it is you are lost.
Cooks I have found to be the best of all subjects--the most phlegmatic
flush into life at the mere word, and the joys and sufferings connected
with them are experiences common to us all.
Luckily, our neighbour and his wife are both busy and charming,
with a whole troop of flaxenhaired little children to keep
them occupied, besides the business of their large estate.
Our intercourse is arranged on lines of the most
beautiful simplicity. I call on her once a year, and she
returns the call a fortnight later; they ask us to dinner
in the summer, and we ask them to dinner in the winter.
By strictly keeping to this, we avoid all danger of that closer
friendship which is only another name for frequent quarrels.
She is a pattern of what a German country lady should be,
and is not only a pretty woman but an energetic and practical one,
and the combination is, to say the least, effective.
She is up at daylight superintending the feeding of the stock,
the butter-making, the sending off of the milk for sale;
a thousand things get done while most people are fast asleep,
and before lazy folk are well at breakfast she is off in her
pony-carriage to the other farms on the place, to rate the "mamsells,"
as the head women are called, to poke into every corner,
lift the lids off the saucepans, count the new-laid eggs,
and box, if necessary, any careless dairymaid's ears.
We are allowed by law to administer "slight corporal punishment"
to our servants, it being left entirely to individual taste to decide
what "slight" shall be, and my neighbour really seems to enjoy
using this privilege, judging from the way she talks about it.
I would give much to be able to peep through a keyhole and see
the dauntless little lady, terrible in her wrath and dignity,
standing on tiptoe to box the ears of some great strapping
girl big enough to eat her.
The making of cheese and butter and sausages
_excellently_ well is a work which requires brains,
and is, to my thinking, a very admirable form of activity,
and entirely worthy of the attention of the intelligent.
That my neighbour is intelligent is at once made evident
by the bright alertness of her eyes--eyes that nothing escapes,
and that only gain in prettiness by being used to some good purpose.
She is a recognised authority for miles around on the mysteries
of sausage-making, the care of calves, and the slaughtering of swine;
and with all her manifold duties and daily prolonged absences
from home, her children are patterns of health and neatness,
and of what dear little German children, with white pigtails
and fearless eyes and thick legs, should be. Who shall say
that such a life is sordid and dull and unworthy of a high order
of intelligence? I protest that to me it is a beautiful life,
full of wholesome outdoor work, and with no room for those
listless moments of depression and boredom, and of wondering
what you will do next, that leave wrinkles round a pretty
woman's eyes, and are not unknown even to the most brilliant.
But while admiring my neighbour, I don't think I shall ever try
to follow in her steps, my talents not being of the energetic
and organising variety, but rather of that order which makes
their owner almost lamentably prone to take up a volume of poetry
and wander out to where the kingcups grow, and, sitting on
a willow trunk beside a little stream, forget the very
existence of everything but green pastures and still waters,
and the glad blowing of the wind across the joyous fields.
And it would make me perfectly wretched to be confronted
by ears so refractory as to require boxing.
Sometimes callers from a distance invade my solitude, and it
is on these occasions that I realise how absolutely alone each
individual is, and how far away from his neighbour; and while they talk
(generally about babies, past, present, and to come), I fall to
wondering at the vast and impassable distance that separates one's
own soul from the soul of the person sitting in the next chair.
I am speaking of comparative strangers, people who are forced
to stay a certain time by the eccentricities of trains,
and in whose presence you grope about after common interests
and shrink back into your shell on finding that you have none.
Then a frost slowly settles down on me and I grow each minute more
benumbed and speechless, and the babies feel the frost in the air
and look vacant, and the callers go through the usual form of
wondering who they most take after, generally settling the question
by saying that the May baby, who is the beauty, is like her father,
and that the two more or less plain ones are the image of me,
and this decision, though I know it of old and am sure it is coming,
never fails to depress me as much as though I heard it for the first time.
The babies are very little and inoffensive and good, and it
is hard that they should be used as a means of filling up gaps
in conversation, and their features pulled to pieces one by one,
and all their weak points noted and criticised, while they stand
smiling shyly in the operator's face, their very smile drawing forth
comments on the shape of their mouths; but, after all, it does not
occur very often, and they are one of those few interests one has
in common with other people, as everybody seems to have babies.
A garden, I have discovered, is by no means a fruitful topic, and it
is amazing how few persons really love theirs--they all pretend they do,
but you can hear by the very tone of their voice what a lukewarm
affection it is. About June their interest is at its warmest,
nourished by agreeable supplies of strawberries and roses;
but on reflection I don't know a single person within twenty miles
who really cares for his garden, or has discovered the treasures
of happiness that are buried in it, and are to be found if sought
for diligently, and if needs be with tears.
It is after these rare calls that I experience the only
moments of depression from which I ever suffer, and then I am angry
at myself, a well-nourished person, for allowing even a single
precious hour of life to be spoil: by anything so indifferent.
That is the worst of being fed enough, and clothed enough,
and warmed enough, and of having everything you can reasonably desire--
on the least provocation you are made uncomfortable and unhappy
by such abstract discomforts as being shut out from a nearer approach
to your neighbour's soul; which is on the face of it foolish,
the probability being that he hasn't got one.
The rockets are all out. The gardener, in a fit of inspiration,
put them right along the very front of two borders, and I don't
know what his feelings can be now that they are all flowering
and the plants behind are completely hidden; but I have learned
another lesson, and no future gardener shall be allowed
to run riot among my rockets in quite so reckless a fashion.
They are charming things, as delicate in colour as in scent,
and a bowl of them on my writing-table fills the room with fragrance.
Single rows, however, are a mistake; I had masses of them
planted in the grass, and these show how lovely they can be.
A border full of rockets, mauve and white, and nothing else,
must be beautiful; but I don't know how long they last
nor what they look like when they have done flowering.
This I shall find out in a week or two, I suppose. Was ever
a would-be gardener left so entirely to his own blundering?
No doubt it would be a gain of years to the garden if I
were not forced to learn solely by my failures, and if I
had some kind creature to tell me when to do things.
At present the only flowers in the garden are the rockets,
the pansies in the rose beds, and two groups of azaleas--
mollis and pontica. The azaleas have been and still are gorgeous;
I only planted them this spring and they almost at once
began to flower, and the sheltered corner they are in looks
as though it were filled with imprisoned and perpetual sunsets.
Orange, lemon, pink in every delicate shade--what they
will be next year and in succeeding years when the bushes
are bigger, I can imagine from the way they have begun life.
On gray, dull days the effect is absolutely startling.
Next autumn I shall make a great bank of them in front of a belt
of fir trees in rather a gloomy nook. My tea-roses are covered
with buds which will not open for at least another week,
so I conclude this is not the sort of climate where they
will flower from the very beginning of June to November,
as they are said to do.