A hiding place to sit and think
Susan sat hiding on the damp moss-covered seat at the end of the garden between the sage and the herb garden. No one could see her there, for the bush of sage was like a small tree, a sure sign that the farm was governed by petticoats, said Tom.
She had come to sit and think, about trees and God, and hell, about animals talking and what was over the edge of the world. She knew she should be in the house helping, and she was deliberately sinning.
The kitchen-garden was a pleasant hiding-place, and one in which she had never been found, for it was full of bushes among which she could crouch unseen in her dark frock. All round were fruit trees, blackcurrant bushes and redcurrants alternately along the top border, for like everything else it was on a slope. There were large single roses, bushes of fragrant cottage roses, behind them close to the wall, and tall cherry and pear trees in between. Gooseberries grew along the other sides of the square, separated from the thick hedge by flagged paths. There were little hairy sweet gooseberries, great red globes which looked like blood when they were held up to the light, smooth yellow balloons filled with wine, such gooseberries as grew nowhere else, so old were the bushes, so gnarled and twisted.
Under a wall a bed of horseradish spread its long leaves, and under these grew white violets, dark velvety pansies, and rich red polyanthus. “Red cowslips” they called them, for Tom said he grew them by planting roots of wild cowslips upside down.
Susan watched him do it once, and certainly the long-stalked lovely flowers which were in such request at school grew from that topsy-turvy root. Susan felt anything might happen in that garden, and she had planted pennies and date-stones, and upside-down buttercups. Her mother ripened cream cheeses in the soil, buried deep in their little muslin cloths, the place marked with a stick. Often Susan had been sent to dig them up after the correct two or three days. Once the stick was lost and Dan spent half an hour digging for the missing cheese.
There were pink and red carnations, mignonette and musk, all growing among the fruit bushes. The rest of the flowers, the stocks and “gillivers”, the love-lies-bleeding and cockscomb, grannie’s bonnets, and larkspur, grew on the beds enclosed by the house wall, round the monkey tree, among the box and ‘rosy dandrums’, under the windows of the parlours and stone room.
The garden itself was filled with rows of peas and beans, oblong beds of onion and carrot, lettuce and radish, celery and rhubarb. It was full to overflowing with fruit and vegetables, for however poor the fields might be, the garden was rich and prosperous.
Lilac hung over the gate, and nut trees swept the walls. There were scarecrows, traps, and nets, but the pheasants and rabbits came every day to take their toll.
Waves of wormwood, rue and fennel spread round her, sharpening her senses, clearing her head with their bitter smells. Marjoram and sage were homely kitchen scents, but these others cast a chill over her as she looked at their dull leaves.
She thought of the trees she loved, the ancient yews, guarding the house, which she had never ventured to climb, for they were sacred and poison, and not to be trifled with. There were the ash trees, knee-deep in buttercups, delicate, unearthly, soft-moving, and the friendly beech trees with swings in their low boughs, and the hard-working apple trees in the orchard, which carried the clothes-lines full of fluttering white sheets, and held their blossom for the bees in spring, and were laden with green and yellow fruit in the autumn.
She thought of the fierce unfriendly trees in the wood, whispering and muttering. The ash trees there were cold and cruel, the elms were deformed, the oaks full of sinister things, secret, dark. Even the beeches concealed eyes and long-nailed fingers behind their trunks.
Then she wondered about animals talking. She could make everything understand, but not always could she get her answer. Animals’ talk was silent, it came from their eyes, but the talk of things, of rooms and trees and fields came when she was very, very quiet and listened until they seemed to come alive. She was very happy to have all these friends.
Then she thought of enemies – the fox, one of the cows, an armchair, and Old Mother Besom, the witch.
“Susan! Susan! Susan!”
Margaret’s voice thrilled all the garden and broke the silence into little pieces like splintering glass. Susan made an involuntary movement of obedience and repressed it.
“Susan! Susan! Come and peel the potatoes.”
Steps were approaching across the grass, the garden gate banged and Mrs Garland hurried down the path. She stooped to pick some thyme and a bunch of parsley bordering the stones. Then she sighed deeply and went out again.
Susan sat very still. She looked up at the sky. The morning air was sweet with the smell of the great woods which were only a few yards away, over the wall and across a dell. Little clouds looked like the petals of one of the roses on the house.
And did God live up there? But He was here too, in the garden, and she was sinning. God had seen her, His eye saw everything. Then He would know she didn’t want to peel the potatoes, not today. She would go to hell if she died now, but if she lived till she had said her prayers tonight she would be safe once more…
“Wherever have you been, Susan?” exclaimed her mother when she entered the house. “Come and peel the potatoes at once. I called you long ago. It’s very wrong and wicked to be disobedient.”
So the potatoes were still waiting. She fetched clean water from the trough and stood over the slop-stone. Potato peeling was no fun when people were near, but when she was alone she talked to each one. She heard the little potato voices calling, “Me next, me next,” as they pushed to get into her hands, to have their brown coats removed. Today neither she nor the potatoes spoke, but she gave them a nod of recognition so that they would know who peeled them.
The Country Child, Chapter 17 The Garden