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Lures of Life By Joseph Lucas Characters: 22470

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

A delightful French writer says "to grow old in a garden in sight of softly undulating hills, beneath a sky variable as the human soul, is very sweet, very consoling, very easy. One becomes more of a child and for the first time a philosopher. Poetry and wisdom on every hand permeate the close of life, just as the oblique rays of the setting sun penetrate into the heart of the densest foliage, which is impervious to the vertical beams of noonday." This charming writer touches the spot; experience, tenderness, and sympathy flow from mellowed lips well rounding to the autumn of life. Old age does reflect more discerningly than impatient youth, and in a garden, too, surrounded by a heavenly host of flowers whose blossom is as laughter and whose perfume is a song. Romance sketches wonderful pictures with such a beatific background to inspire it, and imagination wanders into a carnival of dreams. How many pleasant thoughts and noble thoughts have been brought to birth in a garden which afterward grew into brave deeds and gentle lives contributing generously to enrich the sum of human happiness!

I sit under an ilex-tree in an old Tuscan garden which in course of many generations has belonged to many owners. A haunting beauty fills the ancient place, which one can feel, but cannot understand. A friendly atmosphere that pervades old gardens saturates the solitude. It is more than atmosphere, it is influence--a caressing influence almost human that holds us up and tantalizes. Vague ancestral memories of old families flash upon the mind; for more than four hundred years men and women have walked and talked and thought in this Tuscan garden of mine, and tended its flowers and enjoyed its tranquillity. Children have played in it, often going to bed tired and happy after romping in it the livelong day, and so generation after generation mankind repeats itself in the life-story of the old garden on a Tuscan hillside. The spirit of the past haunts it in shadow and in sunshine, because wherever men have been they leave a little of themselves behind in ghostly exhalations.

When one is in a contemplative humour a garden is full of object-lessons interesting to study. By dint of watching leaf replace leaf, insects come into life and die, blossoms change into fruit, fruit ripen and fall, the swallows come with the daffodils and depart when the hunter's moon frightens them away--by watching these things methodically and silently accomplishing their allotted tasks, I have come to think about myself with brave resolution and resigned conformity to natural laws. I grieve less over myself when I regard the change which is universal; the setting sun and the dying summer help me also to decline gently. Life is a splendid heritage to hold in fee, but we quit and deliver up possession when our lease expires. The light must be kept burning if our own little taper flickers into darkness.

A young girl visited us in Florence one spring-time. She lived in the garden among the flowers, caressed them, talked to them, and gathered them by the handful, the armful, the basketful. She decorated the rooms with flowers, filled glass bowls and bronze vases with flowers, and her art touched its zenith in glorifying the dinner-table every evening with the choicest of them all. She chatted, smiled, and sang whilst doing it, for she dearly loved the flowers that she fondled.

We took her to the Uffizi to see the world-renowned Old Masters there; but she yawned in front of masterpieces of art, and her eyes wandered round searching the smart costumes of the ladies in the room. We took her to Rome and showed her the sights of the Eternal City, but Bond Street and Regent Street interested her more than St. Peter's and the Coliseum. We visited the Forum with its ruined temples and triumphal arches, and trod the Via Sacra; but the place was only an old stoneyard to her, devoid of interest, so we left her to herself, and she wandered over the Forum on other pleasure bent, and we found her afterwards picking violets amongst the ruins.

When at home again a friend asked how she enjoyed her visit to Rome, and had she seen the Forum? In blank despair she appealed to me to help her out of it. "Yes," I replied, "you saw the Forum; that is where you picked the violets." The Forum to her was deadly dull and forgotten even by name, but a bunch of wild violets lived vividly in her memory as the crown and flower of her heart's desire, more excellent than all the ruins of Rome.

Dulness comes to us in uncongenial company and occupation. You may be surrounded by objects of interest and beauty which amuse other people, but if these worthy objects do not fit your taste, for you they contain no element of delight, and you are bored utterly with them whoever may sing their praise. It is a question of temperament. The heart is not dull if the head is triste. Every eye makes its own beauty and every heart forms its own kinships. Put me in front of a post-impressionist picture and dulness covers me like a funeral pall. The beauties of the glowing picture composed of significant form and bunkum are lost on me completely. Here is something tremendously original that makes demands on my intelligence that I cannot meet. I am mentally bankrupt in front of this maddening art.

Looking at a post-impressionist picture, you see only shapes and forms tangled together within the limited area of a gilt frame; you see relations and quantities of colour splashed on canvas meaning anything you choose to label it, but in the likeness of nothing God made or man ever saw. It distorts nature and scoffs at portraiture. "Creating a work of art," trumpets the evangelist of post-impressionism, "is so tremendous a business that it leaves no leisure for catching a likeness." "You look at a landscape, and you are not to see it as fields and cottages; instead you are to see it as lines and colours." Yet up against this lucid statement I observe no reason why the portrait of a man should be drawn like a peculiarly shaped market-garden divided into plots for growing vegetables. Nor can I explain why the picture of a village street should look like a fortnight's wash suspended in a cherry orchard, and the policeman standing in front of the village inn at the corner should look like a laundry-maid hanging out the clothes. It requires uncommon genius to work the illusion successfully, and to start an indolent British public frivolling with the captivating puzzle. But it leaves me cold and passionless, for I am slow of understanding these things. They say an impressionist picture of top-note character is a painfully exciting object for the spectator to worship. To do it justice, he must squirm in front of it, for it is a picture that creates a thunderstorm of rhapsody, a deluge of delight, a roaring cataract of ?sthetic emotion in the soul of the man who understands its cryptic language. The artist who limned the picture suffers agonies whilst working up significant form, being pricked with pins and needles of excitement, and is continually dancing on the hot-plate of rapture. The spectator's duty when viewing a work of art is to come into touch with the mind of the artist. To do this no wonder the spectator has a bad time when digesting a whole gallery of post-impressionist pictures.

Their religion is as bewildering as their art. For their moral vision is out of kilter, as their eyesight is out of focus. The aforesaid evangelist of the cult says: "I doubt whether the good artist bothers much more about the future than about the past. Why should artists bother about the fate of humanity? If art does not justify itself, ?sthetic rapture does.... Rapture suffices. The artist has no more call to look forward than the lover in the arms of his mistress. There are moments in life that are ends to which the whole history of humanity would not be an extravagant means; of such are the moments of ?sthetic ecstasy."

We return to the garden, for the lure of a garden relaxes not. The joy of it entangles you in its toils. Each successive season of the year unfolds new developments which lead you on to the next season. So you are handed on from one month to another throughout the gardener's calendar by endless enticements which keep the interest gently simmering. The procession of gay flowers that promenade the sheltered borders and disport themselves with flagrant pride on open beds during spring and summer days, tricked in rainbow colours, dazzle the eye with splendour, win the heart's endearment, and pay in noblest coin full recompense for the chill, dull toil given in grey winter hours.

A lady friend who lived to a ripe old age said to me jocosely, "To be a good gardener you need a wooden back with an iron hinge to it, for you are bending and stooping all day long in the garden." Only by constant labour spent on the good brown earth can you become candidate for possession of this useful garden requisite, a wooden back with an iron hinge to it, or the neatest imitation offered on the market. In the garden you get in touch with Nature, breathe fresh air, cultivate a contented mind, and never stagnate in idleness or degenerate into ennui. Your body, inured to all weathers, escapes many little ills of the flesh, and gradually you harden into an iron constitution, which is the nearest earthly substitute to a wooden back hung on iron hinges.

You never need remain indoors to smoke or sew or yawn because there is nothing doing in the garden: you can weed there the livelong day in the open. This lowly service offers immediate reward; it begets a healthy appetite at meal-times, and develops a night's sound sleep, which is some pleasure no millionaire can buy with his millions. Weeding puzzles my blind gardener Emilio.

I have two brothers gardeners, Enrico and Emilio. Enrico has sight only of one eye, Emilio is blind both eyes. The two brothers work together in brotherly love, and have only one working eye between them, yet it is wonderful how much good work the one eye accomplishes per day. Emilio sees with his hands. It is weeding that puzzles him most. He never pulls a flower instead of a weed--he feels the difference between them. It is the weeds that elude his fingers as he works along the border that grieve him. Weeding is a fascinating occupation to me. Nice people won't profane their hands grubbing in common garden soil, but, being a groundling myself, I enjoy the fun of coming into contact with my native element. Clean, sweet, caressing earth, it is the last flowery coverlet all of us will sleep under; why shun thy friendly touch to-day? There is always an abundant crop of weeds to practise on in an Italian garden, and your fingers itch to uproot them to the very last offender. I suppose it is the ruthlessness and slaughter of the deed, the close handgrip on the enemy, that compels you on; and when the skirmish is over, surveying the ground cleared of the foe and the heaps of the slain withering at your feet gives a pleasurable thrill of excitement in the hour of victory. You exult, for there is something done, and well done, to show for your backache.

The gardener's lure is irresistible. The devotee wa

lks in flowerland of his own creation. In dreary winter hours he dreams splendid dreams of himself surrounded by summer harmonies, summer fragrance, and summer flowers, for which he has planned and planted and patiently tended along the covering months of winter and spring. The hour of full realization approaches when the roses mass their rival glories and spread their coloured raptures in the garden that he loves. This puts the crown on the brow of summer. This is the gardener's festival of the year. He invites his horticultural cronies to tea on the lawn, and they all talk rose jargon together. He takes them on a tour of inspection round the garden, and they congratulate the founder of the feast of flowers. They are happy as a band of Sunday-school children spending the afternoon out. They sit on the lawn under the spreading ilex-tree, which casts ample shadow for their comfort, and the summer sunshine lays ardent on the green-sward around them. It is a genial gathering, but the man who understands not roses would be speechless in their midst and not a little bored. Conversation cools off, the evening shadows lengthen, and in an interlude of silence there is a sort of whispering stillness in the warm evening air, as if the flowers and grass and trees are all saying kind words to one another, for having done their best to please. The lure of the garden is never so poignant as at this great moment, for your heart is brimming of sweet content, and you say to yourself: "Can it be true? Can anything in the world be more beautiful?"

There is another lure that lays hands on a man like grappling-irons tackling a Spanish galleon laden with treasure, with a grip which cannot be shaken off: I mean the writer's lure. I am fond of reading. The enticements of a good book are hard to resist, especially if you have no inclination to resist, but tumble a ready victim to the writer's charm.

What is the writer's lure? How does it cast its spell? You can talk round the subject by metaphor and symbol and figure of speech, but cannot solve it like a problem in Euclid and add Q.E.D. at the end. The writer's lure is the vividest way of saying things. It is a bolt shot from the mind that hits the penman's mark. The writer's lure fixes you even as a beautiful sympathetic picture holds you up by its witchery of art. In the picture warmth of colour, grace of line, melting tints, dreamy distance, and an added mystic charm brooding over all, voice lovingly your taste in art, and, like a haunted man, you carry the landscape about with you all day long. It intrudes on your mind midst pressing business affairs; the sunlight sleeping on the hills creates a pleasant interlude of thought when engrossed in life's little worries. Turner's "Crossing the Brook" in the Tate Gallery is a picture that bewitches me when I see it. It stimulates my imagination and sets my thoughts sailing over the country carried on the breezes which blow across the Turner landscape.

A book haunts you in the selfsame way as a picture. You read a book, and it stirs your emotions and captivates your fancy, and for a time it possesses you like a living spirit. The writer's lure holds you in its grip. The book soaks into you. A sentence here and there leaps to memory during odd moments of the day; the rhythm of the language ripples musically as a chime of bells, and you repeat the sentence to yourself again and again. The aptness of an image is lifelike, and a vision floats across your mind; the happy turn of a sentence sticks. The fresh, clear-cut thought shot out boldly from the writer's brain conveys a new idea; you recall the touch of humour resembling a patch of warm sunshine twinkling on the landscape, and your lips curve into a smile. There are passages of tenderness also that you treasure, because they find your heart like shafts of love feathered with joy. All these things in the book come back to you vividly, and whisper their fond message over again.

One cannot explain the writer's lure. You may name it, but you cannot catch it in the reviewer's trap of criticism. It is illusive as the angel who visited Manoah and his wife, wrought wondrously, and vanished leaving no trace. It is a secret of pencraft which defies definitions and eludes analysis, yet it is the vital element in composition. It is not a question of conforming to correct standards of good writing by which literary excellence is judged, the writer being blessed or cursed by the censors according to the measure of his allegiance to their literary creed. Some writers violate every literary canon set up to guide their pen in the way of righteousness, but they are alive with literary fire; the vital element is fecund within them, and they riot in the power of it. There are no rules in art that great writers have not shown us how to break with advantage. You cannot resolve the writer's lure into its component parts as you can a potato. Like electricity, it defies analysis, but, like the electric current, you feel it in your bones.

Blind Emilio does not work by rules taught in popular garden manuals; he gathers inspiration for his craft direct from the heavens. He is an oracle of occult information and prevision almost uncanny, concerning things in the garden and out of it. However, he is a cheerful soul and a born optimist, so we consult him often and rely on his wisdom, because, like honey, its flavour is pleasant to the taste.

The moon is the guiding providence regulating some of Emilio's important duties. He observes the phases of the moon with the reverence of an astrologer of legendary days. He awaits the waning moon in February to prune the rose-trees. A potent mystic virtue dwells in a waning moon according to his garden lore, which is old as his pagan ancestors. If you prune rose-trees in a waxing moon the new growths will be long, weak shoots, and the crop of roses in the summer poor, puny things. Prune in the waning moon and the new growths will be short, sturdy rods bearing large flowers, and an abundance of them. Garden seed must be sown under the auspices of the waning moon if you want your flower-beds in the summer-time to be renowned for beauty, to make your friends envious of your success and yourself just swaggeringly happy.

What applies to roses and seed applies equally to pruning vines and grafting fruit-trees. Bulbs and potatoes may be planted any time. They move in the spring when Nature signals whether they are in the ground or out of it. They are outside the ritual of the moon.

We had a heavy crop of diospyros last autumn, drawn from four trees in the kitchen-garden. These fruits are fat, round, rosy fellows, plump as overgrown tomatoes. The flesh of the ripe diospyros is Nature's jam, soft and mushy, delicious in flavour, and eaten politely with a spoon. Our neighbour who hails from Cincinnati grew a crop of small, sickly-looking fruit. "Ah!" said Emilio, "now that you see the difference in the two crops, you must believe me. Their diospyros were gathered in the growing moon, and they shrivel and lose colour and flavour; ours were gathered in the waning moon, and keep beautiful and sound to the end of the season." There is good luck under the waning moon. Another explanation of the difference in the crops has merit, which Emilio considers treason to the honourable tradition of his fathers. Our fruit was grown in the kitchen-garden on manured soil; our American neighbour's trees stand on a rocky bank in the wild garden which is never dressed with manure. The blessing of the moon falls on the crop that is best nourished in the days of its youth.

In the garden is an avenue of lime-trees about one hundred and sixty feet long. In the summer it forms a deliciously shady walk; in rainy weather it is a clean and pleasant promenade, for it has a paved pathway in it. The north end of the avenue terminates in a large semicircular stone seat mounted on a stone base one step higher than the pathway. The seat has no florid decorative carving on it to arouse hostility or provoke criticism. It is just a plain seat of simple Roman type, roomy and comfortable to sit on. Behind the seat curves a semicircle of thirteen cypress-trees screening the north winds. Again, behind the cypress-trees is an interesting old stone wall about twenty feet high, forming the boundary of the garden. Above the wall, rising in gentle slope, is the south shoulder of the hill, on the hill-top sits Fiesole, the famous Etruscan city of history and legend. The slope is covered with olives and vines, forming a mantle grey and green with its leafy fringe dropping on our garden wall.

This great retaining wall is old as the villa which was purchased by Domenico Mori in 1475. The history of the house earlier than this date is lost in the mist of antiquity. The ancient wall is a feature in the garden, for on two sides it towers like a cliff, forming a charming background to the scene. It has weathered beautifully with the ages, and is an immense stretch of canvas for the display of masses of colour. In places it is bleached silvery-grey, and elsewhere the tinted lichen mottle it with saffron and orange and brown, and every delectable shade and tone which Time, the great decorator, with loving hand, imparts to old stone. It looks warm and gay and friendly, and grows a rock-garden of its own, for wild flowers bloom in its cracks and crannies and red valerian flames upon its heights, side by side with golden broom. Ivy clothes it in parts, and most mysteriously so, for years back the plants were cut off their roots, and the ivy now exists only on nourishment drawn from the wall, and it exists vigorously on the meagre diet the wall supplies. When the sunshine pours down upon its hoary time-worn face, the old wall is transfigured into a thing of triple splendour, for its colours glow and blaze with spiritual fervour imparting that artistic touch of nature which is the happy gift of garden plaisance.

Deeply set in the wall is the ruin of a small shrine. Once upon a time this shrine was the home of the Madonna, but now no Madonna occupies the niche. Some pious ancestor of the house implored gracious protection of the Mother of Jesus on behalf of his vines and olives, fruits and flowers, and he set up her Ladyship's sheltered image in the little vaulted temple on the wall as guardian of the crops, hoping that fat harvest would follow his devotion to Our Lady of Plenty. The vacant shrine is desolate and crumbling and mossy now, and so is the sentimental faith of those ancient days. It was a hallowed sentiment in its way, this worship of the Madonna. Men lived up to it, and felt happy in their prayers to the Lady of Heaven. Nowadays men win good harvests on more scientific lines. They put trust in deep ploughing and artificial manure rather than in prayers and oblations to the Mother of God.

The personal intervention of the Deity in the affairs of men strikes a homely note in the world's domestic management, and brings the Heavenly Father in close touch with His earthly family; but the dear God's blessing is level-handed, and favours His children, bad or good, who work the hardest, and add intelligence to their toil.

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