Literary Thoughts edition presents Lamia's Winter-Quarters by Alfred Austin ------ "Lamia's Winter-Quarters" was written in 1898 by English poet Alfred Austin (1835–1913) as an account of a holiday in Italy, told in the form of a story. All books of the Literary Thoughts edition have been transscribed from original prints and edited for better reading experience. Please visit our homepage www.literarythoughts.com to see our other publications.
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Transscribed and Published by Jacson Keating (editor)
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‘I observe,’ said Lamia, ‘that another of those somewhat numerous prose performances of yours, that are more or less remotely connected with Gardens, and which you were pleased, without any previous consultation with me, to entitle Lamia’s Winter-Quarters, is, like the first of the series, The Garden That I Love, to be issued in an equally luxurious form, and to be illustrated by the attractive talent of Mr. Elgood. But since this project, to which my attention was called by that now universal source of information, advertisements, has been alluded to, do you mind telling me why you called our delightful sojourn in a Tuscan villa overlooking Florence my winter-quarters rather than the Poet’s winter-quarters, or Veronica’s, or, for that matter, even yours?‘
Somewhat embarrassed, I replied:
‘To have called the book my winter-quarters would have savoured of egotism, and would, moreover, I fear, have failed in attractiveness.’
‘But against Veronica’s name, or the Poet’s, no such objection would lie?‘
‘Perhaps not,’ I said. ‘But possibly from living with them, to say nothing of you, I have acquired a habit of respect for the fact; and it was more consonant with truth to call the winter-quarters yours.’
‘How is that?’ she asked.
‘Well, you see, Veronica does what the Poet wishes, and the Poet does what you wish, and so——’
‘I beg to say,’ she interrupted, ‘that is not the fact. I do what the Poet wishes.’
‘Is not that much the same thing?’ I replied. ‘You always seem to have the same wish about everything. So I suppose you felt precisely as he did when he wrote those adulatory lines which I saw in the public prints, a few days ago, under the heading, “A Poetical Impromptu.”‘
‘Really! He wrote no such, nor indeed any, lines, never having seen nor heard of the lady in question, in his life.’
‘Is it possible?‘ ‘Everything of that kind is possible in these days.’
‘But did he not contradict it?‘ ‘Did he contradict! Like a good many other men, he would have to keep a Secretary for no other purpose than to contradict what is reported in the papers, and most of which they probably never see. I should think he turned the opportunity to better account by recalling a couplet of Pope—
‘Let Dennis charge all Grub Street on my quill,
I wished the man a dinner, and sate still.’
‘But,’ I said, ‘are not such inventions calculated to injure the influence of the prints that resort to them?’
‘I should think so,’ she said, honouring me for once by talking seriously. ‘But whose, and what, influence is not being injured just now by their own misdoings? The House of Commons, for instance, though more written and talked about than ever, has long been losing influence, and the Press is now following suit; and it is the silent, or comparatively silent, persons and forces that are acquiring or increasing influence; the Monarchy, the House of Lords, and——’
‘The House of Lords!’ I exclaimed. ‘I thought it was going to be abolished, or to have its very moderate claims yet further curtailed.’
‘Did you?’ she answered. ‘Then your thoughts are not of much value. I daresay it would be difficult to persuade Politicians that Shakespeare was wiser than all the sons of the Mother of Parliaments put together; and what does he say?
‘Take but degree away, untune that string,
And mark what discord follows.
And so long as the British nation continues on the whole to be sane, it will never consent to take “degree” away, in order to fasten on itself a dead level and a tyrannical uniformity.‘
I was so flattered by Lamia having, in a short space of time, condescended to talk seriously with me, that I thought a favourable opportunity had arisen for preferring any request that I wanted her to grant. Encouraged by this feeling, I ventured to say:
‘A great adornment and advantage to the forthcoming volume would be a portrait of the person whose name is associated with it; in other words, a portrait of Lamia.’
‘So it has come to that!’ she replied. ‘Not satisfied with having travestied me in—let me see—yes, one, two, three, four, five successive volumes, The Garden That I Love, In Veronica’s Garden, Lamia’s Winter-Quarters, Haunts of Ancient Peace, and The Poet’s Diary, you now propose to vulgarise my ideal loveliness and magnetic personality in order to gratify the curiosity of a number of persons who have never seen me, and never will. Let me never hear of such a proposal again. As the little boy said, “Myself is my own”; and, if it please you, part of
The light that never was on sea or land,
The consecration, and the Poet’s dream.‘
‘Your wish is my law,’ I hastened to say, and was about to snatch at the first subject I could think of to ward off further reproof, when she held out a little posy of Penzance sweet-briar roses she had been wearing, saying in her sweetest manner, as though afraid she might have wounded me, ‘Are they not lovely? No, keep them, if you care to do so. They remind me of something I saw the other day, when, on my way to London for a few hours, the train halted between Waterloo Station and Charing Cross at a point overlooking a number of back plots and alleys of the humblest description; and the one immediately below me arrested my gaze. There were two short rows of the purest white linen, lately out of the wash-tub, hanging out to dry; and under them, a hammock, with a chubby baby in it, fast asleep. A few feet behind was a red-brick wall, and along its foot three rows of pelargoniums in full flower, and evidently most carefully hoed and watered. A comely looking woman, with her sleeves tucked up as far as they would go, came out of the house, peeped into the hammock, kissed, or rather hugged the baby, and then turned it round to screen it a little from the direct rays of the sun that were shining on this little paradise. Then the train moved on; and I thought to myself, with a feeling of quiet joy, that neither the garden that we love, nor the Tuscan garden that was our winter-quarters, nor all the gardens and palaces in the world, contain more happiness than those few yards of ground in one of the humblest parts of London, tenanted by linen hung out to dry, three rows of pelargoniums, a hammock with a sleeping child in it, and a loving mother.’
‘I wish I had seen it,’ I said.
‘I described it to the Poet,’ Lamia replied; ‘and he then did indulge in an Impromptu, which—let me think a moment—yes—ran somewhat like this:
‘How blest are they who hunger not
For riches or renown,
And keep, within a narrow plot,
A country heart in town;
‘Who envy not, though lowly born,
Luxurious lives above,
But blend with toil, renewed each morn,
The bliss of blameless Love.’
Where Apennine slopes unto Tuscan plain,
And breaks into dimples, and laughs to flowers,
To see where the terrors of Winter wane,
And out of a valley of grape and grain
There blossoms a City of domes and towers.
Teuton, Lombard, and grasping Gaul,
Prince and Pontiff, have forced their way,
Have forded the river, and scaled the wall,
And made in its palaces stye and stall,
Where spears might glisten and war-steeds neigh.
But ever since Florence was fair and young,
And the sun upon turret and belfry shone,
Were her windows bannered and joy-bells rung,
When back to his saddle the Stranger sprung,
And lances were lifted and pikemen gone.
Yes, ever and ever till you, my Queen,
Came over the sea that is all your own,
When the tear on the tip of the vine is seen,
And the fig-tree cressets have flamed to green,
And windflower wakened, and tulip blown.
Then roses were showered before your feet,
And her lily-crowned gonfalons waved above,
And children chanted in square and street,
‘All hail to the Monarch may free men greet,
Whose sceptre is Peace, and whose Throne is Love.’
And now that each snow-torrent foams and falls,
And the oreoles sing and the skylarks soar,
And the lithe swallow circles her rose-white walls,
Through the clefts of the Apennine Florence calls,
‘More welcome than Spring,’ come back once more!
‘Come back, for the cuckoo is on its way,
And the mountains, smiling, await your smile;
And still in my olive-groves bask and stray,
Till the warm-winged waters and winds of May
Shall waft you back to your own loved Isle.’
Pian di Ripoli, Florence,
‘Where is Lamia?’
The inquiry is one not infrequently made; for, while most of us can vanish without being missed, some favoured individuals there are whose disappearance at once excites a sense of loss; and Lamia is one of these. The question, I need scarcely say, was put by Veronica; since the Poet maintains a fine irresponsible attitude respecting others as well as about himself, and, however anxious I may be to keep sight of Lamia, I am hardly so simple as to betray my desire. But, responding with sincere alacrity to Veronica’s question, I protested I had not the faintest notion where she was, but would at once go in search of her.
Veronica’s solicitude was, I suspect, prompted by that deep-seated regard for decorous behaviour, which, far from leaving it at home, she had carefully brought abroad as peculiarly applicable to foreign parts and Continental manners. She is well aware that, in the matter of social observances, Lamia is capable of almost any enormity; and her absence from the morning-room of the hotel in the southern seaport where we were making our first halt, inspired her with natural misgiving.
The search, as it turned out, was not a long one. Lamia I found seated under a tall white-flowering magnolia in a leafy garden hard by, where oleanders already well set for bloom, though still far from their flowering season, and trees that for some unknown reason English people call mimosas, but which they should learn to speak of as acacias, and various evergreen shrubs of stately stature, concerning which I should not at present like to be too closely cross-questioned, offered a sufficient protection against the burning December morning sun, while permitting occasional glimpses of deep-blue sky. Ostensibly, she was having a further polish put on her brown leather shoes by a black-eyed, black-haired, tawny-skinned urchin, who entered into her humour with true Southern adaptability, and who would have gone on performing his quite unnecessary office as long as ever the young lady desired. For the moment, I think, she had forgotten all about him, for she had three oranges in her lap,—‘One for each of you,’ she said,—and was delicately dividing the other for her own delectation. A large spray of Parma violets, fastened to her attractive person, I need scarcely say exactly where they should be, completed her recent purchases.
‘Do you mind asking Veronica to come and see me?’ she said, ‘for I never was so happy in my life.’
I bethought me of the somewhat stern interrogatory, ‘Where is Lamia?’ and merely observed that Veronica was superintending the final operations of the maid in the matter of repacking, and probably would wish not to be disturbed.
‘How strange!’ said Lamia, ‘and how tastes differ! The smell of canvas covers and leather straps is particularly disagreeable to me; whereas the island of Zante itself could not be more fragrant than the scent of these violets and oranges, to say nothing of the magnolia flowers overhead, and that delightful son of the sunshine at my feet. And to think that, say thirty-six hours ago, I roused you and the Poet from your slumbers to look upon a snow-white world! I daresay you will think me very capricious, but this is the garden that I love.’
‘Les absens ont toujours tort,’ said the Poet, emerging from a shady avenue behind her. At the sound of his voice she rose somewhat hastily, as though a performance quite good enough for me was scarcely consonant with the half-courtly veneration she entertains for him; gave the oranges in her lap and a franc-piece to the smiling young urchin, who thought her more fascinating than ever, and said reproachfully, ‘Then why do you absent yourself?’
‘That was hardly what I meaned,’ he replied. ‘I was referring rather to the position of inferiority you assign to the garden that we love, because it is now far away from us. But you are quite right, and are going to Italy in the proper spirit. Whatever you see there, admire consumedly, and you cannot be far wrong.’
‘Are we not in Italy already?‘ ‘Almost. Its vestibule is Provence.’
I suppose it is because we are very simple folk, and lead at home a rather primitive life, that we find everything new which most other people find familiar, and so many things attractive that the bulk of the world treat as undeserving of attention. Along that magical coast, where we turned our gaze first to the sea-fringe, then to the hill declivities, then back again to the white-laced bays, and never being able to determine which were the more beautiful, I observe that persons who have travelled many hundreds of miles in order to enjoy the sunshine and glamour of the South, are well content to make this entrancing journey in a railway carriage, pulling down the blinds if the sun be a trifle too hot, and conning their newspaper or turning over the leaves of some conventional novel, in any case. That was not our way of travelling, which was a good deal more leisurely and more old-fashioned. We should have liked to find ourselves behind Veronica’s ponies, but our hired vehicle did well enough; and, while we never asked our cheerfully communicative driver to quicken his pace, we frequently begged him to slacken it, and over and over again bade him halt altogether. Although, save to Lamia, the road was no new one, we all alike had fresh unsophisticated eyes for it, and all of us found it a veritable wonder-world. Indeed, I could not help reflecting that we behaved very much as we behave at home in the garden that we love, declaring that the last blue creek, or the last secular olive-grove, was the most wonderful we had yet seen, for no better reason than that it was the last.
‘And they told me,’ said Lamia, ‘that the scenery is so monotonous, and that bay follows bay, and mountain repeats mountain, with provoking uniformity. Why, there are not any two alike. I only wish human beings were as diverse.’
‘It all depends,’ said the Poet, ‘whether you look lovingly or unlovingly, passionately or dispassionately. One must be intoxicated by scenery, in order to appreciate it. Tranquil survey is not enough, and scrutinising curiosity is fatal.’
‘I am sure,’ said Lamia, ‘Veronica is not intoxicated. She is tranquillity itself.’
‘Veronica, you mean,’ was his reply, ‘does not effervesce. But her silence is, perhaps, the measure of her emotion.’
‘O stop! stop! I must have some of those anemones.‘ How often a kindred need of this kind arose on the part of Lamia, it would be hard to say; but, by degrees, every part of the carriage that was not occupied by ourselves was filled with tulips, windflowers, roses, and long branches of early-flowering golden acacia.
‘You baby!’ said Veronica, ‘what are you going to do with them all?’
‘You shall see, when luncheon-hour has arrived.‘ ‘Which I think it now has,’ I ventured to suggest.
Thereupon we came to a standstill; the driver took bit and bridle off his willing little nags, and replaced them with well-filled nose-bags, while we unloaded our hampers, that were as commodiously as they were generously stocked. The unpacking of them went on under the skilful direction of Veronica, who would no more have dreamed of allowing us to lunch al fresco without spotless table-cloth, neat napkins, and all the apparatus of civilisation, than in her parlour at home. But she allowed Lamia to select the spot; and the choice, though made from romantic rather than from practical impulse, proved to be not wanting in comfort. Under a carob-tree, the first Lamia had ever seen, the cloth was spread; and then she scattered rather than arranged her lately gathered flowers, with infinite taste. A short distance away, as we looked under the olive-trees across the ruddy clods and accidental wild-flowers, were the innumerable dimples of the amiable sea; and, did we turn our heads, slopes of terraced fertility mounted gradually toward deciduous clusters of woodland, and peaks of more accentuated pine.
‘Will it be very unromantic,’ asked Lamia, ‘to seem hungry? Because if it would, as I should not like to hurt any one’s feelings, I can sate the edge of appetite with bare imagination of a feast, or, at most, with the unsubstantial pageant of a mandarin orange.‘ Veronica’s reply was to cut some solid slices of galantine of fowl, and to tell me to do the same to one of those long rolls of crisp crust which contrast so favourably with the semi-barbarous baker’s bread of our own beloved island. The Poet, as of right, withdrew the tow from the withy-bound flask of ruby wine, saying to me, and to me only, as he did so, ‘Siccis omnia nam dura deus proposuit.’ It was our first open-air meal under the southern sky; and even Veronica, who, as we all know, is rather on the side of indoor festivity at home, could not protest that, in the shelter Lamia had chosen for us, it was a touch too cold for the pleasant and perfectly safe satisfaction of our appetite.
‘Is it always like this?’ asked Lamia.
‘Far from it,’ I was going to reply; but the Poet anticipated me.
‘Yes, always, Lamia! always, always, always! No one deserves to travel who anticipates anything less agreeable than what he is enjoying at the moment. Should it ever be different, let us hope we shall know how to meet it. Meanwhile, let us think as little as possible of to-morrow.’
‘We can all see,’ said Lamia, ‘that such was the spirit in which you travelled in your youth. In your rhythmical record of the journey which you took—not with Veronica, I believe,—along this meandering coast-line, there is never a stanza, a line, even a word, to indicate that the myrtle ever ceases to bloom, or that the sun ever forgets to shine.’
‘You forget there is a terrific storm,’ said Veronica, whose acquaintance with the Poet’s verse, though less frequently exhibited, is, I must confess, a good deal more intimate than Lamia’s.
‘Yes,’ said Lamia, quite undisconcerted, ‘only to disappear with the return of dawn, and never to be heard of again; and thenceforth we are told of nothing but genial airs, temperate sunshine, almond-trees and peach-trees ablow, and oleanders reddening into bloom.’
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