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The Double Garden
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NEWS OF SPRING
I HAVE seen the manner in which Spring stores up sunshine, leaves and flowers and makes ready, long beforehand, to invade the North. Here, on the everbalmy shores of the Mediterranean – that motionless sea which looks as though it were under glass – where, while the months are dark in the rest of Europe, Spring has taken shelter from the wind and the snows in a palace of peace and light and love, it is interesting to detect its preparations for travelling in the fields of undying green. I can see clearly that it is afraid, that it hesitates once more to face the great frost-traps which February and March lay for it annually beyond the mountains. It waits, it dallies, it tries its strength before resuming the harsh and cruel way which the hypocrite Winter seems to yield to it. It stops, sets out again, revisits a thousand times, like a child running round the garden of its holidays, the fragrant valleys, the tender hills which the frost has never brushed with its wings. It has nothing to do here, nothing to revive, since nothing has perished and nothing suffered, since all the flowers of every season bathe here in the blue air of an eternal summer. But it seeks pretexts, it lingers, it loiters, it goes to and fro like an unoccupied gardener. It pushes aside the branches, fondles with its breath the olive-tree that quivers with a silver smile, polishes the glossy grass, rouses the corollas that were not asleep, recalls the birds that had never fled, encourages the bees that were workers without ceasing; and then, seeing, like God, that all is well in the spotless Eden, it rests for a moment on the ledge of a terrace which the orange-tree crowns with regular flowers and with fruits of light and, before leaving, casts a last look over its labour of joy and entrusts it to the sun.
I have followed it, these past few days, on the banks of the Borigo, from the torrent of Careï to the Val de Gorbio, in those little rustic towns, Ventimiglia, Tende, Sospello, in those curious villages, perched upon rocks, Sant' Agnese, Casteliar, Castilion, in that adorable and already quite Italian country which surrounds Mentone. You go through a few streets quickened with the cosmopolitan and somewhat hateful life of the Riviera, you leave behind you the band-stand, with its everlasting town music, around which gather the consumptive rank and fashion of Mentone, and behold, at two steps from the crowd that dreads it as it would a scourge from Heaven, you find the admirable silence of the trees, all the goodly Virgillan realities of sunk roads, clear springs, shady pools that sleep on the mountain-sides, where they seem to await a goddess's reflection. You climb a path between two stone walls brightened by violets and crowned with the strange brown cowls of the arisarum, with its leaves of so deep a green that one might believe them to be created to symbolize the coolness of the well, and the amphitheatre of a valley opens like a moist and splendid flower. Through the blue veil of the giant olive-trees that cover the horizon with a transparent curtain of scintillating pearls, gleams the discreet and harmonious brilliancy of all that men imagine in their dreams and paint upon scenes that are thought unreal and unrealizable, when they wish to define the ideal gladness of an immortal hour, of some enchanted island, of a lost paradise, or the dwelling of the gods.
All along the valleys of the coast are hundreds of these amphitheatres which are as stages whereon, by moonlight or amid the peace of the mornings and afternoons, are acted the dumb fairy-plays of the world's contentment. They are all alike, and yet each of them reveals a different happiness. Each of them, as though they were the faces of a bevy of equally happy and equally beautiful sisters, wears its distinguishing smile. A cluster of cypresses, with its pure outline, a mimosa that resembles a bubbling spring of sulphur, a grove of orange-trees with dark and heavy tops symmetrically charged with golden fruits that suddenly proclaim the royal affluence of the soil that feeds them, a slope covered with lemon-trees, where the night seems to have heaped up on a mountain-side, to await a new twilight, the stars gathered by the dawn, a leafy portico which opens over the sea like a deep glance that suddenly discloses an infinite thought, a brook hidden like a tear of joy, a trellis awaiting the purple of the grapes, a great stone basin drinking in the water that trickles from the tip of a green reed: all and yet none modify the expression of the restfulness, the tranquillity, the azure silence, the blissfulness that is its own delight.
But I am looking for Winter and the print of its footsteps. Where is it hiding? It should be here; and how dares this feast of roses and anemones, of soft air and dew, of bees and birds display itself with such assurance during the most pitiless month of Winter's reign? And what will Spring do, what will Spring say, since all seems done, since all seems said? Is it superfluous, then, and does nothing await it? No; search carefully: you shall find amid this life of unwearying youth the work of its hand, the perfume of its breath which is younger than life. Thus, there are foreign trees yonder, taciturn guests, like poor relations in ragged clothes. They come from very far, from the land of fog and frost and wind. They are aliens, sullen and distrustful. They have not yet learned the limpid speed, not adopted the delightful customs of the azure. They refused to believe in the promises of the sky and suspected the caresses of the sun which, from early dawn, covers them with a mantle of silkier and warmer rays than that with which July loaded their shoulders in the precarious summers of their native land. It made no difference: at the given hour, when snow was falling a thousand miles away, their trunks shivered, and, despite the bold averment of the grass and a hundred thousand flowers, despite the impertinence of the roses that climb up to them to bear witness to life, they stripped themselves for their winter sleep. Sombre and grim and bare as the dead, they await the Spring that bursts forth around them; and, by a strange and excessive reaction, they wait for it longer than under the harsh, gloomy sky of Paris, for it is said that in Paris the buds are already beginning to shoot. One catches glimpses of them here and there amid the holiday throng whose motionless dances enchant the hills. They are not many and they conceal themselves: they are gnarled oaks, beeches, planes; and even the vine, which one would have thought better-mannered, more docile and well-informed, remains incredulous. There they stand, black and gaunt, like sick people on an Easter Sunday in the church-porch made transparent by the splendour of the sun. They have been there for years and some of them, perhaps, for two or three centuries; but they have the terror of winter in their marrow. They will never lose the habit of death. They have too much experience, they are too old to forget and too old to learn. Their hardened reason refuses to admit the light when it does not come at the accustomed time. They are rugged old men, too wise to enjoy unforeseen pleasures. They are wrong. For here, around the old, around the grudging ancestors, is a whole world of plants that know nothing of the future, but give themselves to it. They live but for a season; they have no past and no traditions and they know nothing, except that the hour is fair and that they must enjoy it. While their elders, their masters and their gods, sulk and waste their time, they burst into flower; they love and they beget. They are the humble flowers of dear solitude: the Easter daisy that covers the sward with its frank and methodical neatness; the borage bluer than the bluest sky; the anemone, scarlet or dyed in aniline; the virgin primrose; the arborescent mallow; the bell-flower, shaking its bells that no one hears; the rosemary that looks like a little country maid; and the heavy thyme that thrusts its grey head between the broken stones.
But, above all, this is the incomparable hour, the diaphanous and liquid hour of the wood-violet. Its proverbial humility becomes usurping and almost intolerant. It no longer cowers timidly among the leaves: it hustles the grass, overtowers it, blots it out, forces its colours upon it, fills it with its breath. Its unnumbered smiles cover the terraces of olives and vines, the tracks of the ravines, the bend of the valleys with a net of sweet and innocent gaiety; its perfume, fresh and pure as the soul of the mountain spring, makes the air more translucent, the silence more limpid and is, in very deed, as a forgotten legend tells us, the breath of Earth, all bathed in dew, when, a virgin yet, she wakes in the sun and yields herself wholly in the first kiss of early dawn.
Again, in the little gardens that surround the cottages, the bright little houses with their Italian roofs, the good vegetables, unprejudiced and unpretentious, have known no fear. While the old peasant, who has come to resemble the trees he cultivates, digs the earth around the olives, the spinach assumes a lofty bearing, hastens to grow green nor takes the smallest precaution; the garden bean opens its eyes of jet in its pale leaves and sees the night fall unmoved; the fickle peas shoot and lengthen out, covered with motionless and tenacious butterflies, as though June had entered the farm-gate; the carrot blushes as it faces the light; the ingenuous strawberry-plants inhale the flavours which noontide lavishes upon them as it bends towards earth its sapphire urns; the lettuce exerts itself to achieve a heart of gold wherein to lock the dews of morning and night.
The fruit-trees alone have long reflected: the example of the vegetables among which they live urged them to join in the general rejoicing, but the rigid attitude of their elders from the North, of the grandparents born in the great dark forests, preached prudence to them. But now they awaken: they too can resist no longer and at last make up their minds to join the dance of perfumes and of love. The peach-trees are now no more than a rosy miracle, like the softness of a child's skin turned into azure vapour by the breath of dawn. The pear and plum and apple and almond-trees make dazzling efforts in drunken rivalry; and the pale hazel-trees, like Venetian chandeliers, resplendent with a cascade of gems, stand here and there to light the feast. As for the luxurious flowers that seem to possess no other object than themselves, they have long abandoned the endeavour to solve the mystery of this boundless summer. They no longer score the seasons, no longer count the days, and, knowing not what to do in the glowing disarray of hours that have no shadow, dreading lest they should be deceived and lose a single second that might be fair, they have resolved to bloom without respite from January to December. Nature approves them and, to reward their trust in happiness, their generous beauty and amorous excesses, grants them a force, a brilliancy and perfumes which she never gives to those which hang back and show a fear of life.
All this, among other truths, was proclaimed by the little house that I saw today on the side of a hill all deluged in roses, carnations, wall-flowers, heliotrope and mignonette, so as to suggest the source, choked and overflowing with flowers, whence Spring was preparing to pour down upon us; while, upon the stone threshold of the closed door, pumpkins, lemons, oranges, limes and Turkey figs slumbered in the majestic, deserted, monotonous silence of a perfect day.