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OLD FASHIONED FLOWERS

I

     THIS morning, when I went to look at my flowers, surrounded by their white fence, which protects them against the good cattle grazing in the field beyond, I saw again in my mind all that blossoms in the woods, the fields, the gardens, the orangeries and the green.houses and I thought of all that we owe to the world of marvels which the bees visit.

     Can we conceive what humanity would be if it did not know the flowers? If these did not exist, if they had all been hidden from our gaze, as are probably a thousand no less fairy sights that are all around us, but invisible to our eyes, would our character, our faculties, our sense of the beautiful, our aptitude for happiness be quite the same? We should, it is true, in nature have other splendid manifestations of luxury, exuberance and grace; other dazzling efforts of the superfluous forces: the sun, the stars, the varied lights of the moon, the azure and the ocean, the dawns and twilights, the mountain, the plain, the forest and the rivers, the light and the trees and, lastly, nearer to us, birds, precious stones and woman. These are the ornaments of our planet. Yet, but for the last three, which belong to the same smile of nature, how grave, austere, almost sad would be the education of our eye, without the softness which the flowers give! Suppose for a moment that our globe knew them not: a great region, the most enchanted in the joys of our psychology, would be destroyed, or rather would not be discovered. All of a delightful sense would sleep for ever at the bottom of our harder and more desert hearts and in our imagination stripped of worshipful images. The infinite world of colours and shades would have been but incompletely revealed to us by a few rents in the sky. The miraculous harmonies of light at play, ceaselessly inventing new gaieties, revelling in itself, would be unknown to us; for the flowers first broke up the prism and made the most subtle portion of our sight. And the magic garden of perfumes: who would have opened its gate to us? A few grasses, a few gums, a few fruits, the breath of the dawn, the smell of the night and the sea would have told us that beyond our eyes and ears there existed a shut paradise where the air which we breathe changes into delights for which we could have found no name. Consider also all that the voice of human happiness would lack! One of the blessed heights of our soul would be almost dumb, if the flowers had not, since centuries, fed with their beauty the language which we speak and the thoughts that endeavour to crystallize the most precious hours of life. The whole vocabulary, all the impressions of love, are impregnate with their breath, nourished with their smile. When we love, all the flowers that we have seen and smelt seem to hasten within us to people with their known charms the consciousness of a sentiment whose happiness, but for them, would have no more form than the horizons of the sea or sky. They have accumulated within us, since our childhood, and even before it, in the soul of our fathers, an immense treasure, the nearest to our joys, upon which we draw each time that we wish to make more real the clement minutes of our life. They have created and spread in our world of sentiment the fragrant atmosphere in which love delights.

     That is why I love above all the simplest, the commonest, the oldest and the most antiquated; those which have a long human past behind them, a large array of kind and consoling actions; those which have lived with us for hundreds of years and which form part of ourselves, since they reflect something of their grace and their joy of life in the soul of our ancestors.


II

     But where do they hide themselves? They are becoming rarer than those which we call rare flowers to-day. Their life is secret and precarious. It seems as though we were on the point of losing them, and perhaps there are some which, discouraged at last, have lately disappeared, of which the seeds have died under the ruins, which will no more know the dew of the gardens and which we shall find only in very old books, amid the bright grass of the Illuminators or along the yellow flower-beds of the Primitives.

     They are driven from the borders and the proud baskets by arrogant strangers from Peru, the Cape of Good Hope, China, Japan. They have two pitiless enemies in particular. The first of these is the encumbering and prolific Begonia Tuberosa, that swarms in the beds like a tribe of turbulent fighting-cocks, with innumerous combs. It is pretty, but insolent and a little artificial; and, whatever the silence and meditation of the hour, under the sun and under the moon, in the intoxication of the day and the solemn peace of the night, it sounds its clarion cry and celebrates its victory, monotonous, shrill and scentless. The other is the Double Geranium, not quite so indiscreet, but indefatigable also and extraordinarily courageous. It would appear desirable were it less lavished. These two, with the help of a few more cunning strangers and of the plants with coloured leaves that close up those turgid mosaics which at present debase the beautiful lines of most of our lawns, these two have gradually ousted their native sisters from the spots which these had so long brightened with their familiar smiles. They no longer have the right to receive the guest with artless little cries of welcome at the gilded gates of the mansion. They are forbidden to prattle near the steps, to twitter in the marble vases, to hum their tune beside the lakes, to lisp their dialect along the borders. A few of them have been relegated to the kitchen garden, in the neglected and, for that matter, delightful corner occupied by the medicinal or merely aromatic plants, the Sage, the Tarragon, the Fennel and the Thyme, old servants, too, dismissed and nourished through a sort of pity or mechanical tradition. Others have taken refuge by the stables, near the low door of the kitchen or the cellar, where they crowd humbly like importunate beggars, hiding their bright dresses among the weeds and holding their frightened perfumes as best they may, so as not to attract attention.

     But, even there, the Pelargonium, red with indignation, and the Begonia, crimson with rage, came to surprise and hustle the unoffending little band; and they fled to the farms, the cemeteries, the little gardens of the rectories, the old maid's houses and the country convents. And now hardly anywhere, save in the oblivion of the oldest villages, around tottering dwellings, far from the railways and the nursery-gardener's overbearing hot-houses, do we find them again with their natural smile: not wearing a driven, panting and hunted look, but peaceful, calm, restful, plentiful, careless and at home. And, even as in former times, in the coaching-days, from the top of the stone wall that surrounds the house, through the rails of the white fence, or from the sill of the windows enlivened by a caged bird, on the motionless road where none passes, save the eternal forces of life, they see spring come and autumn, the rain and the sun, the butterflies and the bees, the silence and the night followed by the light of the moon.

III

     Brave old flowers! Wall-fowers, Gillyflowers, Stocks! For, even as the fieldflowers, from which a trifle, a ray of beauty, a drop of perfume, divides them, they have charming names, the softest in the language; and each of them, like tiny, artless ex-votos, or like medals bestowed by the gratitude of men, proudly bears three or four. You Stocks, who sing among the mined walls and cover with light the grieving stones, you Garden Primroses, Primulas or Cowslips, Hyacinths, Crocuses, Crown Imperials, Scented Violets, Lilies of the Valley, Forget-me-nots, Daisies and Periwinkles, Poet's Narcissuses, Pheasant's Eyes, Bear's Ears, Alyssums, Saxifrage, Anemones: it is through you that the months that come before the leaf-time-February, March, April  –  translate into smiles which men can understand the first news and the first mysterious kisses of the sun! You are frail and chilly and yet as bold-faced as a bright idea. You make young the grass; you are fresh as the water that flows in the azure cups which the dawn distributes over the greedy buds, ephemeral as the dreams of a child, almost wide still and almost spontaneous, yet already marked by the too-precocious brilliancy, the too-flaming nimbus, the too-pensive grace that overwhelm the flowers which yield obedience to man.


IV

     But here, innumerous, disordered, manycoloured, tumultuous, drunk with dawns and noons, come the luminous dances of the daughters of Summer! Little girls with white veils and old maids in violet ribbons, school-girls home for the holidays, first-communicants, pale nuns, dishevelled romps, gossips and prudes. Here is the Marigold, who breaks up with her brightness the green of the borders. Here is the Camomile, like a nosegay of snow, beside her unwearying brothers, the Garden Chrysanthemums, whom we must not confuse with the Japanese Chrysanthemums of autumn. The Annual Helianthus, or Sunflower, towers like a priest raising the monstrance over the lesser folk in prayer and strives to resemble the luminary which he adores. The Poppy exerts himself to fill with light his cup torn by the morning wind. The rough Larkspur, in his peasant's blouse, who thinks himself more beautiful than the sky, looks down upon the Dwarf Convolvuluses, who reproach him spitefully with putting too much blue into the azure of his flowers. The Virginia Stock, arch and demure in her gown of jaconet, like the little servant-maids of Dordrecht or Leyden, washes the borders of the beds with innocence. The Mignonette hides herself in her laboratory and silently distils perfumes that give us a foretaste of the air which we breathe on the threshold of Paradise. The Peonies, who have drunk their imprudent fill of the sun, burst with enthusiasm and bend forward to meet the coming apoplexy. The Scarlet Flax traces a blood-stained furrow that guards the walks; and the Portulaca, creeping like a moss, studies to cover with mauve, amber or pink taffeta the soil that has remained bare at the foot of the tall stalks.

     The chub-faced Dahlia, a little round, a little stupid, carves out of soap, lard or wax his regular pompons, which will be the ornament of a village holiday. The old, paternal Phlox, standing amid the clusters, lavishes the loud laughter of his jolly, easygoing colours. The Mallows, or Lavateras, like demure misses, feel the tenderest blushes of fugitive modesty mount to their corollas at the slightest breath. The Nasturtium paints his water colours, or screams like a parakeet climbing up the bars of its cage; and the Rose-mallow, Altha~a Rosea, Hollyhock, riding the high horse of her many names, flaunts her cockades of a flesh silkier than a maiden's breast. The Snapdragon and the almost transparent Balsam are more timorous and awkward and fearfully press their flowers against their stalks.

     Next, in the discreet corner of the old families, are crowded the long-leaved Veronica; the red Potentilla; the African Marigold; the ancient Lychnis, or Maltese Cross; the Mournful Widow, or Purple Scabious; the Foxglove, or Digitalis, who shoots up like a melancholy rocket; the European Aquilegia, or Columbine; the Viscarla, who, on a long, slim neck, lifts a small, ingenuous, quite round face to admire the sky; the lurking Lunaria, who secretly manufactures the "Pope's money," those pale, flat crown-pieces with which, no doubt, the elves and fairies by moonlight carry on their trade in spells; lastly, the Pheasant's Eye, the red Valerian, or Jupiter's Beard, the Sweet William and the old Carnation, that was cultivated long ago by the Grand Condd in his exile.

     Besides these, above, all around, on the walls, in the hedges, among the arbours, along the branches, like a people of sportive monkeys and birds, the climbing plants make merry, perform feats of gymnastics, play at swinging, at losing and recovering their balance, at falling, at flying, at looking up at space, at reaching beyond the treetops to kiss the sky. Here we have the Spanish Bean and the Sweet Pea, quite proud at being no longer included among the vegetables; the modest Volubilis; the Honeysuckle, whose scent represents the soul of the dew; the Clematis and the Glycine; while, at the windows, between the white curtains, along the stretched string, the Campanula, surnamed Pyramidalis, works such miracles, throws out sheaves and twists garlands formed of a thousand uniform flowers so prodigiously immaculate and transparent that they who see it for the first time, refusing to believe their eyes, want to touch with their finger the bluey marvel, cool as a fountain, pure as a source, unreal as a dream.

     Meanwhile, in a blaze of light, the great white Lily, the old lord of the gardens, the only authentic prince among all the commonalty issuing from the kitchen garden, the ditches, the copses, the pools and the moors, among the strangers come from none knows where, with his invariable six-petalled chalice of silver, whose nobility dates back to that of the gods themselves: the immemorial Lily raises his ancient sceptre, august, inviolate, which creates around it a zone of chastity, silence and light.

     I have seen them, those whom I have named and as many whom I have forgotten, all thus collected in the garden of an old sage, the same that taught me to love the bees. They displayed themselves in beds and clusters, in symmetrical borders, ellipses, oblongs, quincunxes and lozenges, surrounded by box hedges, red bricks, earthenware tiles or brass chains, like precious matters contained in ordered receptacles similar to those which we find in the discoloured engravings that illustrate the works of the old Dutch poet, Jacob Cats. And the flowers were drawn up in rows, some according to their kinds, others according to their shapes and shades, while others, lastly, mingled, accordirig to the happy chances of the wind and the sun, the most hostile and murderous colours, in order to show that nature acknowledges no dissonance and that all that lives creates its own harmony.

     From its twelve rounded windows, with their shining panes, their muslin curtains, their broad green shutters, the long, painted house, pink and gleaming as a shell, watched them wake at dawn and throw off the brisk diamonds of the dew and then close at night under the blue darkness that falls from the stars. One felt that it took an intelligent pleasure in this gentle, daily fairy-scene, itself solidly planted between two clear ditches that lost themselves in the distance of the immense pasturage dotted with motionless cows, while, by the roadside, a proud mill, bending forward like a preacher, made familiar signs with its paternal sails to the passers-by from the village.

VI

     Has this earth of ours a fairer ornament of its hours of leisure than the care of flowers? It was beautiful to see thus collected for the pleasure of the eyes, around the house of my placid friend, the splendid throng that tills the light to win from it marvellous colours, honey and perfumes. He found there translated into visible joys, fixed at the gates of his house, the scattered, fleeting and almost intangible delights of summer: the voluptuous air, the clement nights, the emotional sunbeams, the glad hours, the confiding dawn, the whispering and mysterious azured space. He enjoyed not only their dazzling presence: he also hoped  –  probably unwisely, so deep and confused is that mystery  –  he also hoped, by dint of questioning them, to surprise, with their aid, I know not what secret law or idea of nature, I know not what private thought of the universe, which perhaps betrays itself in those ardent moments in which it strives to please other beings, to beguile other lives and to create beauty.

VII

     Old flowers, I said. I was wrong; for they are not so old. When we study their history and investigate their pedigrees, we learn with surprise that most of them, down to the simplest and commonest, are new beings, freedmen, exiles, new-comers, visitors, foreigners. Any botanical treatise will reveal their origins. The Tulip, for instance (remember La Bruyère's "Solitary,'' "Oriental," "Agate," and "Cloth of Gold"), came from Constantinople in the sixteenth century. The Ranuncula, the Lunaria, the Maltese Cross, the Balsam, the Fuchsia, the African Marigold, or Tagetes Erecta, the Rose Campion, or Lychnis Coronaria, the two-coloured Aconite, the Amaranthus Caudatus, or Love-lies-bleeding, the Hollyhock and the Campanula Pyramidalis arrived at about the same time from the Indies, Mexico, Persia, Syria and Italy. The Pansy appears in 1613; the Yellow Alyssum in 1710; the Perennial Flax in 1775; the Scarlet Flax in 1819; the Purple Scabious in 1629; the Saxifraga Sarmentosa in 1771; the longleaved Veronica in 1713; the Perennial Phlox is a little older. The Indian Pink made its entrance into our gardens about 1713. The Garden Pink is of modern date. The Portulaca did not make her appearance till 1828; the Scarlet Sage till 1822. The Ageratum, or Cœlestinum, now so plentiful and so popular, is not two centuries old. The Helichrysum, or Everlasting, is even younger. The Zinnia is exactly a centenarian. The Spanish Bean, a native of South America, and the Sweet Pea, an immigrant from Sicily, number a little over two hundred years. The Anthemis, whom we find in the least-known villages, has been cultivated only since 1699. The charming blue Lobella of our borders came to us from the Cape of Good Hope at the time of the French Revolution. The China Aster, or Reine Marguerite, is dated 1731. The Annual or Drummond's Phlox, now so common, was sent over from Texas in 1835. The large-flowered Lavatera, who looks so confirmed a native, so simple a rustic, has blossomed in our gardens only since two centuries and a half; and the Petunia since some twenty lustres. The Mignonette, the Heliotrope  –  who would believe it?  –  are not two hundred years old. The Dahlia was born in 1802; and the Gladiolus is of yesterday.

VIII

     What flowers, then, blossomed in the gardens of our fathers? Very few, no doubt, and very small and very humble, scarce to be distinguished from those of the roads, the fields and the glades. Before the sixteenth century, those gardens were almost bare; and, later, Versailles itself, the splendid Versailles, could have shown us only what is shown to-day by the poorest village. Alone, the Violet, the Garden Daisy, the Lily of the Valley, the Marigold, the Poppy, a few Crocuses, a few Irises, a few Colchicums, the Foxglove, the Valerian, the Larkspur, the Cornflower, the Clove, the Forget-me-not, the Gilly-flower, the Mallow, the Rose, still almost a Sweetbriar, and the great silver Lily, the spontaneous finery of our woods and of our snowfrightened, wind-frightened fields: these alone smiled upon our forefathers, who, for that matter, were unaware of their poverty. Man had not yet learnt to look around him, to enjoy the life of nature. Then came the Renascence, the great voyages, the discovery and invasion of the sunlight. All the flowers of the world, the successful efforts, the deep, inmost beauties, the joyful thoughts and wishes of the planet rose up to us, borne on a shaft of light that, in spite of its heavenly wonder, issued from our own earth. Man ventured forth from the cloister, the crypt, the town of brick and stone, the gloomy stronghold in which he had slept. He went down into the garden, which became peopled with azure, purple and perfumes, opened his eyes, astounded like a child escaping from the dreams of the night; and the forest, the plain, the sea and the mountains and, lastly, the birds and the flowers, that speak in the name of all a more human language which he already understood, greeted his awakening.

IX

     Nowadays, perhaps, there are no more unknown flowers. We have found all or nearly all the forms which nature lends to the great dream of love, to the yearning for beauty that stirs within her bosom. We live, so to speak, in the midst of her tenderest confidences, of her most touching inventions. We take an unhoped-for part in the most mysterious festivals of the invisible force that animates us also. Doubtless, in appearance, it is a small thing that a few more flowers should adorn our beds. They only scatter a few impotent smiles along the paths that lead to the grave. It is none the less true that these are new and very real smiles, which were unknown to those who came before us; and this recently discovered happiness spreads in every direction, even to the doors of the most wretched hovels. The good, the simple flowers are as happy and as gorgeous in the poor man's strip of garden as in the broad lawns of the great house, and they surround the cottage with the supreme beauty of the earth; for the earth has till now produced nothing more beautiful than the flowers. They have completed the conquest of the globe. Foreseeing the days when men shall at last have long and equal leisure, already they promise an equality in sane enjoyments. Yes, assuredly it is a small thing; and everything is a small thing, if we look at each of our little victories one by one. It is a small thing, too, in appearance, that we should have a few more thoughts in our heads, a new feeling at our hearts; and yet it is just that which slowly leads us where we hope to win.

     After all, we have here a very real fact, namely, that we live in a world in which flowers are more beautiful and more numerous than formerly; and perhaps we have the right to add that the thoughts of men are more just and greedier of truth. The smallest joy gained and the smallest grief conquered should be marked in the Book of Humanity. It behoves us not to lose sight of any of the evidence that we are mastering the nameless powers, that we are beginning to handle some of the mysterious laws that govern the created, that we are making our planet all our own, that we are adorning our stay and gradually broadening the acreage of happiness and of beautiful life.

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