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An essay by Vernon Lee

Other Friendships

Title:     Other Friendships
Author: Vernon Lee [More Titles by Lee]

It came home to me, during that week of grim and sordid business in the old house, feeling so solitary among the ghosts of unkind passions which seemed, like the Wardour Street ancestors, to fill the place--it came home to me what consolation there can be in the friendship of one small corner of grace or beauty. During those dreary days in Scotland, the friendliness and consolation were given me by the old kitchen garden, with its autumn flower borders, half hiding apple trees and big cabbages and rhubarbs, and the sheep-dotted hill, and the beeches sloping above its red fruit walls. I slipped away morning and evening to it as to a friend. Not as to an old one; that would give a different aspect to the matter; nor yet exactly a new friend, conquering or being conquered; but rather as one turns one's thoughts, if not one's words, to some nameless stranger, casually met, in whom one recognizes, among the general wilderness of alien creatures, a quality, a character for which one cares.

Travelling a good deal, and nearly always alone, one has occasion to gauge the deep dreariness of human beings pure and simple, when, so to speak, the small, learnt-by-rote lessons of civilization, of kindness, graciousness, or intelligence, are not being called into play by common business or acquaintanceship. There, in the train, they sit in the elemental, native dreariness of their more practical, ungracious demand on life; not bad in any way, oh no; nor actively repulsive, but trite, empty, _everyday_, in the sense of what _everyday_ often, alas! really is, but certainly no day or hour or minute, in a decent universe, should ever be. And suddenly a new traveller gets in; and, turning round, you realize that things are changed, that something from another planet, and yet something quite right and so familiar, has entered. A young man shabbily dressed in mourning, who got in at a junction in Northern France with a small girl, like him in mourning, and like him pale, a little washed-out ashy blond, and with the inexpressible moral grace which French folk sometimes have, will always remain in my memory; while all those fellow-travellers and all the others--hundreds of them since that day--have faded from my memory, their images collapsing into each other, a grey monotony as of the rows of little houses which unfurl and furl up, and vanish, thank the Lord, into nothingness, while the express swishes past some dreadful manufacturing town. Another time, some years ago, the unknown friend was a small boy, a baby almost, jumping and rolling (a practice intolerable in any child but him) on the seat of a second-class carriage. We did not speak; in fact my friend had barely acquired the necessary art. But I felt companioned, befriended, delivered of the world's crowded solitude.

Apart from railway trains, a similar thing may sometimes happen. And there are few of us, surely, who do not possess, somewhere in their life, friends of the highest value whom they have barely known--met with once or twice perhaps, talked with, and for some reason not met again; but never lost sight of by heart and fancy--indeed, more often turned to, and perhaps more deeply trusted (as devout persons trust St. Joseph and St. Anthony of Padua, whom, after all, they scarcely know more than their own close kindred) than so many of, ostensibly, our nearest and dearest. Indeed, this is the meaning of that curious little poem of Whitman's--"Out of the rolling ocean, the crowd, came a drop gently to me"--with its Emersonian readiness to part, "now we have met, we are safe;" a very wise view of things, if our poor human weakness really wanted safety, and did not merely want "more"--indeed, like that human little boy, want "too much."

But to return to the friendships, consoling, comforting intimacies, which we can have not merely with strangers never met again, or never, meeting, spoken with; but even more satisfactorily with those beloved ones whom, from our own lack of soul, of _anima_ drawing forth _anima_, we dully call inanimates. I am not speaking, of course, of the real passions with which exceptionally lovely or wonderful spots or monuments, views of distant Alps, or certain rocky southern coasts, or St. Mark's or Amiens Cathedral, great sirens among voiceless things, subjugate and draw our souls. The friendships in question are sober and deliberate, founded on reasonable recognition of some trait of dignity or grace; and matured by conscious courtship on our part, retracing of steps day by day, and watching the friend's varying moods at noon or under low lights. During that week in the grim Scottish ancestral house, it was the kitchen-garden, as I began by saying, which comforted me. In another place, where I was ill and sorely anxious, a group of slender, whispering poplars by a mill; and under different, but equally harassing, circumstances, the dear little Gothic church of a tiny town of Western France.

The Gothic church on its rising ground above the high-pitched roofs, and, in a measure, the church's white tame goat, which I found there one morning under a lime tree. I had been overtaken by a sudden storm, the rain-floods dashing from the gargoyles on to the rough ground of the solitary, wooded mound. In the faint light the little church, with sparse oak leaves and dock delicately carved on the granite capitals, was wonderfully grave and gentle in its utter emptiness; and I did it all possible honour. There is a low granite bench or sill round the base of the beautiful sheaved columns; a broken, disused organ-loft of coloured mediaeval thorn carving; and under two shapely little arches lie a knight, unknown, and lady in high coif.... I knew it all by heart, coming like that every day and sometimes twice a day; by heart, and, so to speak, _with_ my heart. The sound of the spouting gargoyles ceased; cocks began to crow; I went out, for the rain must have left off.... Not yet; the skies were still dripping, and the plain below full of vapours. And the tame white goat, the only living creature about the church, had taken refuge under a cart stranded by a large lime tree.

I mention this particular visit to my friend the church of L----, in order to explain the precise nature of our friendship; and to show, as I think it does, that through that law of economy which should preside over our pleasures and interests, such intimacy with a single object, simple and unobtrusive, is worth the acquaintance with a hundred and one magnificent and perfect things, if superficially seen and without loving care.

[The end]
Vernon Lee's essay: Other Friendships