The Garden at Huntercombe Manor in 1882-83.
Of Spiders' Webs, Christmas Roses, King Arthur, and the Tree I Love.
December 6.— Among the strange and beautiful sights of the garden during the hard hoar-frost that ushered in the first days of the month, not the least beautiful were the spiders' webs. Passing along the Larch Walk, the oak palings that divide us on that side from the new road (the old road, made by Richard, King of the Romans, in the thirteenth century, is now within the grounds) were hung all over with white rags— or so it seemed at first sight. And then, just for one second, that curious momentary likeness of like to unlike chanced. I remembered the street of palaces at Genoa, the day when I saw it last; the grand old walls covered with fluttering rags of advertisements— yes, advertisements in English: "Singer's Sewing Machine." The white rags on our palings were spiders' webs both new and old, a marvellous number, thus crystalized, as it were, into existence by the frost, where scarcely one had been before. In open weather the webs are as good as invisible to human eyes; but now that frost had thickened the minutest threads to the size of Berlin wool— though in beauty of texture they resembled fine white velvet chenille— there was a sudden revelation of these wonderful works of art! One feels, if the nets show only half as large and thick to a fly's eye, the spider's trade must be a poor one. Here is a calculation that will probably interest nobody: 567 feet of pales over 5 feet high, an average of 18 webs to every 9 feet. It may prove, however, something of the unsuspected multitude of spiders in a given area, though it is nothing to the acres of ploughed land that the level sun-ray of an autumn afternoon will show completely netted over with gossamer. Making the most of a few minutes' inspection— for I should myself have frozen had I watched much longer these frozen webs— I could see but two varieties of work— the cobweb that usurped the corners. and the beautiful wheel-within-wheel net. In them all one might observe once more that ever-recurring stern immutability of the thing called Instinct. Here, for instance, are two sets of spiders living close neighbours for years together. Each set makes its snares on an opposite plan; and although they cannot help seeing each other's work continually, neither takes the least hint from the other. The plain cobweb is never made more intricate; the artist of the wheel never dreams that she might do her spinning to a simpler pattern. Happy people! They troubled not their heads about improvements; yet, on looking closer at the last-named webs, there seemed something of the faintest indication of a slight individuality; so far at least, that in a dozen nets there would be five or six worked within a square of four lines, while the remainder had five, tied together rather carelessly in a knot below. Perhaps the variation marks two distinct species; or it may be only accidental. Next day every visible trace of the strong beautiful webwork I had so admired was gone with the frost. The spider may have " spread her net abroad with cords" as usual, but there was no magician's wand to touch it.
The orchard ought to be very gay in the spring. Daffodils have been dropped in all over the turf, and a round patch dug round each Apple tree is to be filled with yellow Wallflowers. This is an experiment, and I do not feel sure that I shall like the flowers so well as the trees simply growing out of the grass. A change, however, is always pleasant; though, perhaps, one might hardly care to lay out the garden differently every year, as the Chinese are said to do. I had a dream, of the orchard grass enamelled with many-coloured Crocuses— in loving reminiscence of certain flowery Olive grounds I know; but after all, the imitation would have been poor as a winter sky compared to the glowing blue of June. I am not without hope some day— that golden "some day" which so seldom comes— to naturalize in our orchards the real enamelling of the Olive groves— that often-used phrase is too hard in sound and in its usual meaning to express the loveliness of those lilac star Anemones— with here and there a salmon-pink, or a fiery scarlet, blazing like a sun in the living green beneath the trees. I used to think nothing on this earth could come so near a vision of the star-strewn fields of Paradise.
In the north, or entrance court, we have been busy transplanting some large Apple trees that had overgrown their place, and setting free the trimmed Yews between which they grew. The blackness of these formal, cut Yews shows well against the old walls, which are covered with very aged greengages and golden Drops. On the turf between each of the pyramid Yews, broad oblong beds have been made; in April we hope to plant them with pink China Roses, which are to grow very dwarf, and to flower the whole year through! The border round the Roses may be Nemophilia; or perhaps the lovely Santolina Fragrans, with the soft grey foliage.
I think the "going in" to one's house should be as bright and cheerful as it is possible to make it. But how hard it is to brighten up a north aspect! ours has hitherto been far too gloomy. In the garden, the bed of Roman Roses is warmly matted over for the winter. This brave little red China Rose is one of my great favourites; it goes on flowering for ever! Even now, when the matting is raised a little bit, I can see buds and leaves and the red of opening blooms. I call it the Roman Rose chiefly because it grows at Florence; which is so very Irish, that I think there must have been some better reason now forgotten. The Rose hedges in the beautiful Boboli Gardens are crimsoned over with blossoms as early as the end of March; with us, however, it needs protection when planted in the open ground.
Under the east wall is our only Christmas Rose; it is a very large plant, and over it was built up, about a month ago, a little green bower of Spruce Fir branches. The shelter is to save the blooms from frost, which so often tarnishes their whiteness with red. Almost daily, as I passed, I have peeped in to watch the cluster of white buds nestled snugly within. The buds have duly swelled and lifted one by one their heads, and now this morning our first bunch of perfect Christmas Roses have been gathered. This flower must, I think, be dear to every one with a heart for flowers. Its expression is so full of innocence and freshness— for it is not only human persons who have expression in their faces! and then the charm of its Myrtle-like stamens and clear-cut petals— snow-cold to the touch— and its pretty way of half-hiding among the dark leaves— always ready to be found when sought— and always with so many more blossoms than had been hoped for! To some, indeed, the associations bound up with the Christmas Rose— with even the sound of its name— may be dearer than all its outward loveliness; recalling, perhaps, the house and garden of their childhood, and happy Christmases of long-ago; "the old familiar faces," and tones of the voices that are gone. I must here make the confession that last year, in my anxiety for the whitest possible of blossoms, I had glass placed over the plant; and in spite of warnings, put matting over that; all which ended at Christmas in a fine show of green Roses! In the pits there are several of the smaller kind coming on in pots, which will soon be ready to cut. These are easy enough in their ways. But the Christmas Rose out in the border is a difficult thing to grow; full of quirks and fancies, and like a woman, hard to please. Once, however, it settles down in any spot, it will thrive there; and then will sooner die than take to a new place.
Dec 13.— Our second white frost has vanished, and the grass appears again with a moist and pleasant smell. The forest of the Fantaisie is thinned, and the encircling Laurels trimmed. The whole took just half a winter's day to do. At the end of the turf walk, between the bushes and the golden Yews, peers out a Spindle tree, with its pink and scarlet fruit. The birds seem not to care for it, for the fruit is all there— untouched. I wonder if the name of Spindle comes from the unnatural thinness of the tree!
After these many years of working to a special end, we seem now to have almost reached it in one direction, for the garden looks well-nigh as green and furnished in winter as in summer— so far, at least, as the outline of verdure goes. The Yew hedges, and Pines, and perennial greens are at their best now, in mid-winter; they would even seem to have grown and thickened out since the summer died away. Watching the growth of these trees and hedges has been the delight and solace of many a troubled time, and one cannot but feel the most affectionate interest in them. In the centre of a triangular-shaped bit of lawn, surrounded by Conifers, we have placed a large stone vase on a square stone pedestal. The vase is old and grey, and had long stood in another place, where it made no show. The grey stone looks well against the warm greens that back it, and will look better when the season comes to fill it with bright summer flowers. The trees that stand around all wear a sort of charmed double life— at least to me— silently, fancifully.
It was at a time of sickness that the sleepless hours of the long winter nights came to be passed in spirit with the trees in the garden, and especially with half-a-dozen or so of out beautiful straight young pines. Dare I tell the secret? They all became knights and ladies of King Arthur's Court! The great Wellingtonia standing a little apart is Arthur himself. The Nordmanniana, with its whorls of deepest green and strong upward shoot of fifteen inches in the year, is Sir Launcelot. The gold-green softly-feathered Douglas Fir, Sir Bedevere. The young Cedar of Lebanon, with fretted boughs of graceful downward sweep, Sir Agravaine. Sir Bors is a rounded solemn English Yew, of slow and steadfast growth. Sir Palomides— a fine pillar-shaped Thuia— towers between Sir Gawaine and Sir Gaheris, who are both clad in the wondrous green with almost metallic lustre of Cupressus Lawsoniana erecta viridis. These stand round the triangular lawn, and amongst them comes, by some strange chance, St. Eulalie, a lovely Pine (Abies Amabilis), whose robe of grey-blue tufted foliage wraps her feet, and trails upon the grass.
Beyond, on the long lawn next "the park," stands Sir Tristram, the fine young Pinsapo; he all but perished in the frost of 1879-80, but now he seems to have drawn new strength and vigorous green from that nearly fatal conflict with his terrible enemy. On the house lawn, the Deodara, is the fairy Morgan-le-faye. Near her stood Sir La Cote-mal-taille, an ill-informed Lawsoniana; but he is now transplanted elsewhere. King Mark is a rather wretched ill-grown Cedrus, in summer almost hidden by Laburnums. Dame Bragwaine is a curious Cryptomeria Elegans; she has do many names (seven, at least, that I know of), and she takes such odd diverse disguises! once, loaded with heavy snow, she had to be supported by a stake, and took the semblance of a bear leaning on a ragged staff. In summer she is green, and in winter she wears a dress of purple brown; in rain or heavy dew she is spangled all over with diamonds and pearls. Queen Guinevere was never represented; no tree was found to fit her character. But near King Arthur and Sir Tristram, the two great Pampas tufts, still waving wintry plumes, are "La Beale Isoude" and "Isoude les Blaunch Mains."
From our foolish garden-dreaming let us rest, and turn with a long look of revering love to the great Oak, that stands in his strength out in the park field, beyond the garden. On three sides round are lines guardian Elms, in all their pride of delicate leafless intricacy; alone, amid the leafless ones, rises the Oak, wearing still his crown of brown, sere leaves. Smooth and straight grows up the giant stem, full twenty feet to the spring of the lowest branch. Two brother Oaks stand on either side. Their form is more rounded, more perfect; but high above them the great Oak uprears his head— unconcerned, and grandly branched, though shattered by every fierce west wind that blows. Every storm works the same loss, but from the way each torn limb lies, you would say he had thrown it down in proud defiance. The wood-pigeons shelter among the summer leaves; the autumn ripens a rich store of acorns; and now, as I survey him from the terrace walk, or gaze upwards from the wet dead leaves beneath, through all the mystery of his bare and spreading bough, I think of Keats' stanza—
"In a drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy tree,
Thy branches ne'er remember
Their green felicity;
The North cannot undo them,
With a sleety whistle through them,
Nor frozen thawings glue them
From budding at the prime."
The Oak is to my mind the tree of trees; and the destruction of its foliage, by insect ravages, that has year by year saddened so many parks and woods, has not come near us, I rejoice to say. Our few (there are but four or five) are safe as yet. I heard the gardener of one great place that has suffered much acknowledge as the cause the scarcity of birds.
Copyright ©: 2000 Donald Perkins