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Other titles in the Beverley Nichols's Allways Trilogy series:
We have now arrived at the second autumn. Every time the front door is opened the little calendar in the hallway flutters madly in a breeze that is sharpened with a hint of frost. The calendar marks: October 1st.
And then adds, in a sinister sotto voce: 'Pheasant shooting begins.'
What strange minds calendar-makers must have, I think, whenever I pass it. For them, something is always 'beginning,' and it usually begins with a bang. Or if it does not begin with a bang, it informs us that some distinguished person is having a birthday. It is almost impossible to open one's calendar without being reminded, either that some bloodthirsty man is loading his gun, or that some weary creature is dictating polite replies to ambassadors who have felicitated her on an event which she would infinitely prefer to forget.
I would like a calendar that drops subtler hints. I would like one that told me not to forget to go and look for spindle-berries in the wood, because already they will be stained pink, bringing the days of apple-blossom to the heart of winter. I would like to be reminded that there may still be a few mushrooms in the sheltered valleys — mushrooms that never grow very big but are excitingly black underneath, and taste all the sweeter because you are only just in time to rescue them from the ground-frost. I would like to be told to order paper bags for the chrysanthemums, because if you put a nice big paper bag over the flowery crowns of your tall chrysanthemums you will never suffer the agony of seeing their golden petals tarnished at the edges. If you think it must be a bore to do this, I assure you that you are mistaken. Nothing is greater fun then going out in the morning, lifting off the paper bags, which are frozen stiff, and finding the brilliant, glowing flowers underneath. You can stand up the paper bags all the way down the path, and when they are all off you can squash them in your hands, with a delicious crinkling noise as you breathe the acrid sweetness of the grateful blossoms.
During that second autumn I was greatly exercised about this problem of sheltering the flowers outside. Some of them had to suffer, I knew. Nature must take her toll, and all that. But the little creepers by the house ... the flowers that were nestling under the eaves ... so near and yet so far. Could one not do something about them?
I was particularly worried by a grape-vine which I planted in the previous November. This was not the vine to which I referred in my previous chronicle of Allways. No — this was a new corner. It had been planted in a rose-bed in the secret garden, and was trained against the wall outside the Garden Room. The rose-bed was about three feet from the wall, and there was a path in between, so the vine had to take a flying leap over the path, and land on the wall, which it did extremely gracefully. As the path was a tiny cul-de-sac people did not walk up it, or they would have tripped over the stem.
All through the summer this vine produced grapes galore. However, very few of them had ripened before the first frost came and turned them brown. This is so bitter a memory to me that I hate to think of it.
'Why, oh why did the frost have to come just then?' I sighed; on the morning that it happened. 'And why, oh why didn't I know it was coming? I could have got an oil stove, or something, or a blanket.' It made me feel terrible to think that I had been sleeping, like a loathsome profiteer, wrapped in quantities of blankets, with the radiators filling my room with warmth, while the wretched vine had been stabbed to the heart by the cold arrows of the frost — the sweet bloom of its grapes rudely destroyed.
I stared at the vine, and as my regret grew more intense, so my brain began to work out little plans for next year. (It is always 'next year' when you have a garden.) And suddenly I realized that I had the germ of an idea. It developed from a wild thought that if one had only known, the stem could have been loosened from the wall, and the whole vine could have been trailed into the Garden Room for the night, if the window were left an inch open to allow the stem to pass through. I should have had to leave a note for the housekeeper, so that she would not stagger back in the morning under the impression that the vine had come to life, and was stalking through the house, seeking what it might devour. But that would have been a detail.
Seriously, was it so impossible? Here on the other side of the wall was warmth and comfort. Only a few inches away. Was it beyond the ingenuity of man to bring some of that warmth and comfort to the vine?
It was not.
This was what we did. (It is terribly difficult to explain without a plan, but all the plans I have drawn look like soda-water syphons standing on a map of the battle of Waterloo, so it is better to stick to words.)
I summoned Mr. Joy and got him to build a long, coffin-shaped box. (He makes coffins, by the way, and complains bitterly that his nephews always spend his coffin-money on riotous living before he has time to put anything by for his old age.)
We bored two holes through this box, one at the side and one at the top, and then we took the box to the vine, threaded the stem through — (the box had to be cut in half, and put together again, but that is an unnecessary complication) — and set it against the wall.
The situation was then as follows: The end of the vine stem, where it plunged into the earth, was exposed, as it should be. But six inches up it entered the box, remained in the box for about two feet, and then emerged at the top of the box and proceeded to clamber up the wall.
The box was then painted white, so that it looked like a long garden seat, set against the wall, under the window.
And then ... I had grooves made along the edges of the box, got four large pieces of fabulously expensive glass, set the glass in the grooves and set another piece of glass on top. Then one had a little sort of greenhouse, which looked like an extra bay window, completely covering the vine.
I rushed into the house to see what it looked like from inside.
As soon as I opened the door I breathed a sigh of relief. You would not have known the glass was there. You just saw the original window, and the Secret Garden beyond.
I walked across to the window and opened it. Stretched out my hand. Tapped the glass. Stroked a leaf of the vine. Said to the vine: 'I'm terribly sorry I didn't think of this before. But next year ... '
Next year, we were amply rewarded. The glass remained in place all through the winter, except during a very mild week when we removed it. (It only took about a minute and a half to slide the glass out of the grooves and prop it up against the wall.) And though you would never know that it was there, except when it was snowing, or raining, there was always the delightful consciousness that the vine was being protected, that it had become, as it were, a member of the family. On bitter grey days, in March, when the wind had the sting of a lash, I would open the window in the Garden Room and gloat over the tiny green buds that were already swelling on the vine. 'I wonder if you realize how spoilt you are,' I would say indulgently. The vine did not answer. 'I suppose you know' I went on, 'that even the Scotch firs are looking down in the mouth? That the Berberis Bealii is nipped to the bone? And that the Lonicera fragrantissima is a positive wreck?'
But though the vine did not answer, in words, it answered, most lavishly, in deeds. For on the following summer, it had a good two months' start over the rest of the creepers. By the end of June its plentiful clusters had already begun to form. The glass had long been removed, of course, though the box-seat remained.
In the last week of July, when the grapes were black, I took great pleasure in leading people out to this seat, and asking them, carelessly, if they would not like to sit down for a moment.
'But grapes ... ' they exclaim.
'Grapes?' I say vaguely, looking in the wrong direction.
'But masses of grapes — out of doors — in July!'
'Oh those,' I say, unmoved. 'Yes. They really ought to be thinned out.'
'But how do you do it?'
Whereupon I sit down, blocking out the view of the tell-tale glass, which is only half concealed under a cascade of clematis.
'There is something very remarkable', I say, 'about the climate of Huntingdonshire.'
However, one could not build little glass-houses outside every window in the cottage. The vine happened to be ideally situated for such treatment. If one had tried it on other creepers, it would have looked ridiculous. And so, as far as that was concerned, I had to be content with protecting a few of the rarer winter flowers with sacking.
And every night, when I went to bed, I opened my window, and gently lifted in a spray of wistaria, which had clambered up to the glass and was beating its frozen fingers on the pane.
There were, however, many other ways in which I succeeded in bringing the garden indoors.
One of them, of course, was with great baskets of everlasting flowers.
I do not think most people take enough trouble with their baskets of everlasting flowers. They stuff them in untidily, and half the flowers rot, and the whole affair is soon covered with dust, so that it reminds one of those gruesome collections of pampas grass and honesty and sea thistles which are arranged on the mantelpieces of seaside boarding houses, with the Black Prince, in bronze, on the left, and a view of Mont Blanc, with real frosting, on the right.
For the basis of my everlasting bunches I found, after the first year, that it was best to form a groundwork of statice rather than of the popular helichrysum. (That sounds very pompous, but statice, as you probably know, is sea-lavender, and helichrysum is the Sunday name for the ordinary 'everlasting' flower.) There are three sorts of statice which are absurdly easy to grow from seed — pink, yellow and mauve. You should pick them, the instant they are in flower, and dry them in the sun, because if you leave them too long on the plant the stalks will grow mouldy.
Nothing could be prettier than a basket which has a groundwork of these three shades of statice. (By the way, you want to sow about twice as much pink and yellow as mauve, if you wish to obtain an equal quantity.)
When you have your ground work you can add the everlasting flowers, to taste, and also a few sprays of that very delightful flower, which is not nearly well enough known, called xeranthemum. I never hear that word without thinking of a limerick which runs: —
We've got a new maid called Xeranthemum
Who said 'I've been living at Grantham, mum:
But my mistress took fright
For I snored in the night,
To the tune of the National Anthem, mum.
The xeranthemum is a most versatile flower with as many varieties of colour as the nemesia. You can sow it out of doors in April, and cut it in August, again remembering to cut it the moment it flowers.
There are only two other things I put in my everlasting bunches. One is obvious and the other is An Invention.
The obvious one is maidenhair fern. I do not know if it is very Philistine of me, but after cutting the sprigs of maidenhair, and after drying and pressing them, I dip them in green ink. Ordinary green ink at a penny a bottle gives them a beautiful grass green colour which lasts all through the winter.
The Invention — which sounds vulgar and hideous, but is gay and delightful — is feathers. Ordinary white hen's feathers, about four inches long, pushed in between the dry, rustling petals. They give just that touch of white which you cannot get in everlasting flowers. And they look like flowers themselves ... you would not know they were feathers until you went close up to the basket.
Reading this over I seem to have given a detailed and touching description of How To Make A Hat That An Eccentric Female Could Wear In Church On Palm Sunday In The Year 1901. The sort of hat in which one could feel really thankful that King Edward had made such a speedy recovery from his operation for appendicitis.
Well, let us leave it at that. If you could see my little bowls and baskets, glowing in dark corners throughout the winter, by the side of a bed, on a window-ledge, in an empty space on a bookshelf, you would not laugh at them. Rather would you praise the gallantry with which they keep their sweet complexions even in the face of flaunting cinerarias and elegant cyclamens; that are like débutantes, dancing for their few days of life, while the well-preserved wallflowers watch them from the shadows. But no ... the everlasting bunches do not remind me of wallflowers. They have an eternal youth. And if you take them to your heart, something of that youth will flow through their strange, dry petals into your own heart.
This is a book about a house, as we have said before, and it is not fitting, therefore, that we should deal here with the lore of bulbs, nor peer into the attics and cupboards to see if the Cynthella hyacinths are sprouting, nor inquire, querulously, why nearly all the winter, irises send up such deceptive fountains of green leaves without a single flower, like heralds that blow their trumpets flamboyantly for kings that never come.
Yet, as we are talking about bringing the garden indoors, I would like to tell you of one funny little experiment I made during this second winter at the cottage.
Flowers, I had, through the everlasting bouquets. And bouquets. And creepers, through the vine. And quantities of gloriously bronzed beech branches. (It seems almost impertinence on my part to remind you that if you wish to keep branches of bronze beech leaves all through the winter, you must plunge their stems in a mixture of half water and half crude glycerine. But there may be some small, depraved person, living in a damp cave somewhere, who does not know this vital fact. If so, I would ask the small depraved one not to forget to ask for crude glycerine. Why it is called crude, I do not know, because its results are most elegant, and will keep your beech leaves in perfect condition till spring is well on the way.)
My experiment was due to a sudden aching realization that though the flowers had been induced to walk, as it were, into the house, and the leaves too, and the vine, the wood had shown no signs of coming in. And I did so bitterly want an indoor wood. For weeks I toyed with the idea of a model Japanese garden, but the more I saw of model Japanese gardens the less I liked them. There was something a little uncanny about them.
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