Fragrance in Literature-A Backward Glance- Edith Wharton

A Backward Glance- Edith Wharton


What clung closest in after years, when I thought of the lost Rome of my
infancy? It is hard to say; perhaps simply the warm scent of the box
hedges on the Pincian, and the texture of weather-worn sun-gilt stone.
Those, at least, are the two impressions which, for many years after,
the mightiest of names instantly conjured up for me.

In the course of time we exchanged the Piazza di Spagna for the Champs
Elysees. It probably happened the very next winter; but life in Paris
must have seemed colourless after the sunny violet-scented Italian days,
for I remember far less of it than of Rome.


It was
therefore with little hope of success that I drove out from Florence to
Il Palmerino, the long low villa on the hillside of San Domenico where
Miss Paget has so long made her home. I left Bourget's letter, took a
yearning look at the primrose-yellow house-front and the homely
box-scented garden, and drove away with no expectation of ever seeing
them again.

Then, arm in arm, through the oak-panelled
morning-room we wandered out onto the thin worn turf of the garden, with
its ancient mulberry tree, its unkempt flower-borders, the gables of
Watchbell Street peeping like village gossips over the creeper-clad
walls, and the scent of roses spiced with a strong smell of the sea. Up
and down the lawn we strolled with many pauses, exchanging news,
answering each other's questions, delivering messages from the other
members of the group, inspecting the strawberries and lettuces in the
tiny kitchen-garden, and the chrysanthemums "coming along" in pots in
the greenhouse; till at length the parlour-maid appeared with a
tea-tray, and I was led up the rickety outside steps to the garden-room,
that stately and unexpected appendage to the unadorned cube of the
house.

Peopling the background of these earliest scenes there were the tall
splendid father who was always so kind, and whose strong arms lifted one
so high, and held one so safely; and my mother, who wore such beautiful
flounced dresses, and had painted and carved fans in sandalwood boxes,
and ermine scarves, and perfumed yellowish laces pinned up in blue
paper, and kept in a marquetry chiffonier, and all the other dim
impersonal attributes of a Mother, without, as yet, anything much more
definite; and two big brothers who were mostly away (the eldest already
at college); but in the foreground with Foxy there was one rich
all-permeating presence: Doyley. How I pity all children who have not
had a Doyley--a nurse who has always been there, who is as established
as the sky and as warm as the sun, who understands everything, feels
everything, can arrange everything, and combines all the powers of the
Divinity with the compassion of a mortal heart like one's own! Doyley's
presence was the warm cocoon in which my infancy lived safe and
sheltered; the atmosphere without which I could not have breathed. It is
thanks to Doyley that not one bitter memory, one uncomprehended
injustice, darkened the days when the soul's flesh is so tender, and the
remembrance of wrongs so acute.

There were other days when we drove out on the Campagna, and wandered
over the short grass between the tombs of the Appian way; still others
among the fountains of Frascati; and some, particularly vivid, when, in
the million-tapered blaze of St Peter's, the Pope floated ethereally
above a long train of ecclesiastics seen through an incense haze so
golden that it seemed to pour from the blinding luminary behind the High
Altar.


It is all a jumble of excited
impressions: breaking down on wind-swept sierras; arriving late and
hungry at squalid posadas; flea-hunting, chocolate-drinking (I believe
there was nothing but chocolate and olives to feed me on), being pursued
wherever we went by touts, guides, deformed beggars, and all sorts of
jabbering and confusing people; and, through the chaos and fatigue, a
fantastic vision of the columns of Cordova, the tower of the Giralda,
the pools and fountains of the Alhambra, the orange groves of Seville,
the awful icy penumbra of the Escorial, and everywhere shadowy aisles
undulating with incense and processions...Perhaps, after all, it is not
a bad thing to begin one's travels at four.

When I was young it used to seem
to me that the group in which I grew up was like an empty vessel into
which no new wine would ever again be poured. Now I see that one of its
uses lay in preserving a few drops of an old vintage too rare to be
savoured by a youthful palate; and I should like to atone for my
unappreciativeness by trying to revive that faint fragrance.