Great Aunt Lancilla from Scented Garden by Eleanour Sinclair Rodhe

In the Secret Garden
 
 
 
Great Aunt Lancilla from Scented Garden by Eleanour Sinclair Rodhe 
 
 
My own first recollections of sweet-leaved geraniums 
go back to the days when as a child I used to stay with my 
great-aunt Lancilla. And whenever I smell those leaves 
I am instantly transported to her house, and in particular 
to the broad, sunny passage which led to the kitchen. 
The sun came pouring through the sloping glass roof, and 
there was a whole bank of the sweet-leaved geraniums, 
reaching well above my head. Pinching the leaves was 
always a joy, for the scents were so rich and so varied. 
And those scents now never fail to remind me of a gracious 
old lady who looked well to the ways of her placid, well- 
ordered household and was loved by every one who served 
her, and every man, woman and child in the village. 

When I think of scented gardens I remember hers first 
and foremost, for though since those days I have seen 
many gardens, I do not think I have ever seen a pleasanter, 
homelier one. The house was Georgian, and the short 
drive to it was flanked on both sides by pollarded lime 
trees. (I have only to shut my eyes to hear the hum of the 
bees now.) The drive was never used by the household 
nor indeed by anyone who came on foot, for the shortest 
way from the village was through a gate leading from the 
road to a side door. The path was perfectly straight, and 
bordered on either side by very broad beds, and except 
in midwinter they were full of scent and colour. I can 
see the big bushes of the pale pink China roses and smell 
their delicate perfume ; I see the tall old-fashioned 
delphiniums and the big red peonies and the clumps of 
borage, the sweet-williams, the Madonna and tiger 
lilies and the well-clipped bushes of lad's love. Before 
the time of roses I remember chiefly the Canterbury bells 
and pyrethrums, and earlier still the edge nearest the path 
was thick with wallflowers and daffodils. I have never 
seen hollyhocks grow as they grew at the back of those 
borders, and they were all single ones, ranging from pale 
yellow to the deepest claret. Beyond this path, on one 
side was the big lawn with four large and very old mul- 
berry trees. As a child it frequently struck me that con- 
sidering how small mulberries were compared to apples, 
plums and so forth, it was really little short of a miracle 
what a glorious mess one could get into with them in next 
to no time. Amongst the flowers great-aunt Lancilla loved 
most were evening primroses. I have never since then seen 
a large border, as she had, entirely given to them. She 
used to pick the flowers to float in finger bowls at dinner. 
I can see the kitchen garden too, with its long paths 
and espalier fruit trees and the sweet peas grown in clumps, 
and they were sweet peas then, for they were deliciously 
scented. And big clumps of gypsophila and mignonette, 
which everyone in those days grew to mix with the sweet 
peas. There were great rows of clove carnations for 
picking, and never have I smelt any like them. 
 
Nor have 
I since tasted the like of the greengages which grew against 
the old wall. Is there anything quite so good as both the 
smell and the taste of a ripe greengage picked hot in the 
sun ? I can see the orderly rows of broad beans, lettuces, 
peas and scarlet runners and stout cabbages. The onions 
and ' sparrer grass ' were the special pride of the old 
gardener's heart. I can see the well and hear the pleasant 
clanking sound of the bucket as it was let down. I see old 
Gregory attending to the bee-hives with the calm gentle 
movements which characterize all experienced bee-keepers. 
He invariably talked to the bees when he was attending 
to them, and one day when, as a small child, I was 
watching him, I asked him, ' Do the bees understand what 
you are saying to them, Gregory ? ' ' Understan', Missie ? ' 
he replied, ' Just as much as horses an' dogs an' cattle ; 
it stands to sense and reason they do. An' sometimes I 
thinks they understan' more nor we do.' And the rasp- 
berries and gooseberries ! My great-aunt had a favourite 
Aberdeen, who, incredible though it may seem, loved 
ripe gooseberries. He used to sit up, as though he were 
begging, and eat them and wail aloud every few minutes 
whenever his nose was pricked. I love to think of the 
huge bed of lilies of the valley, where one could gather 
and gather to one's heart's content for one's friends in 
the village. But my chief recollection of that kitchen 
garden is of roses. Cabbage roses and La France and 
Gloire de Dijon and Maiden's Blush, and if one gathered 
armfuls it seemed to make no difference. Those were the 
days when people filled their rooms with innumerable 
small vases of flowers, but my great-aunt, who went her 
own way entirely, loved to have big bowls of flowers 
everywhere, even in the passages of her house. 


And how well I remember the sweet, subdued scent of 
pot-pourri, for as well as flowers there were in every room 
big open bowls of the pot-pourri she loved to have about 
her. In many of the bowls there were oranges stuck with 
cloves. Everyone loves picking these up and sniffing 
them, yet few people make them nowadays. 

My great-aunt only allowed candles for lighting pur- 
poses, for she always declared she could smell gas in any 
house where it was laid on, and ' that ill-considered in- 
vention,' as I once heard her describe a gas-cooker, she 
would not tolerate. I remember so well the burnished 
silver candlesticks set out on a side-table in the hall every 
evening to take up to the bedrooms. Making paper spills 
(especially very long ones) for lighting the candles was a 
pleasant occupation when she read aloud to one. She 
had a wonderful collection of children's books, and though 
she had read them to two generations of children, she 
enjoyed them with as much zest as one did oneself. The 
books one loved in one's childhood are, I think, the books 
one loves most all through one's life. If I live to be ninety 
I know I shall still be reading Hans Andersen, Mrs. 
Ewing, Charlotte Yonge and the four bound volumes of 
the delightful S. Nicholas'' Magazine, which my father 
and mother gave me as they came out. (I have many 
American friends now, both personal friends and those 
I know only through correspondence with them, but 
my first American friends were amongst the contributors 
to the Letter-Box pages of S. Nicholas' Magazine.) Of 
the many books my great-aunt read to me, I remember 
amongst others a dumpy calf-bound volume of stories 
translated from the Hungarian original, and one tale in 
particular about a small boy, a little prince (whose name 
was quite half a line long, but I can only recall it began 
with K) who, as my great-aunt and I enviously agreed, 
thought of more naughty things to do in a day than 
either of us could contrive in a whole week. In the art of 
telling the old fairy stories and Hans Andersen's immortal 
tales she excelled. We all remember the type of kindly 
grown-up who was ready enough to tell one stories but 
seemed to be unable to tell the same story exactly the 
same again. Out of consideration for their feelings one 
tried not to show how unsatisfactory this was, but all the 
time one had the unpleasant sensation that the ground 
was slipping away from under one's feet. Whether it was 
due to her love of the old stories, or because years of 
practice had taught her (and I fancy it was the former), 
my great-aunt could tell favourite stories over and over 
again with never a word wrong. Most soothing those 
tales were, and how gratefully those of us to whom she 
so generously gave much of her valuable time remember 
those happy hours. 

And I account it one of the privileges of my life to have 
heard her read aloud from the Bible. Prayers were before 
breakfast, but after breakfast it was her unfailing custom, 
however busy she might be, and her life was a very busy 
one indeed, to read some part of the Bible aloud. I can 
see her reverently placing the Book on the small table by 
her special chair and then when she had found the part 
she wanted, she either read it, or, as frequently as not, 
she removed her spectacles and with her hands clasped 
before her, she would repeat by heart a chapter or so. It 
was my firm belief in those days that she knew the whole 
Bible by heart, and she certainly knew very large portions 
by heart. As to countless others the Word of God was 
indeed a lantern unto her feet and a light unto her paths. By 
that unfailing source of light she ruled herself, her house- 
hold and the village. She had in full measure that deep- 
rooted love of the Bible which is so characteristic of our 
race, and I often heard her repeating passages to herself as 
she went about the house and garden. Small wonder that 
her ways were ways of pleasantness and all her paths were 
peace. I remember standing one evening with her by 
the side of the great pond at the further end of the lawn 
and watching a singularly beautiful sunset. She looked 
at it in silence for a few minutes, and then almost un- 
consciously she repeated the whole of the Psalm ' The 
heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament 
sheweth his handiwork.' To this day I can never read or 
hear that Psalm without thinking of her. 

In appearance great-aunt Lancilla was a very impressive 
old lady. In the days when everyone of her age wore long 
skirts she invariably wore skirts quite four inches off the 
ground, both during the day and in the evening. The 
colour she most affected was a certain soft cinnamon 
brown one rarely sees nowadays. Others wore bonnets, 
but summer and winter she wore wide-brimmed hats, 
almost devoid of trimming and tied under her chin with 
a large flat bow. She rarely wore jewellery, but instead 
enchanting strings of beads which she had acquired in 
various parts of the world, and that was quite a genera- 
tion before Paris or Chelsea had even dreamt of beads. 
No one loved pretty things more than she did, but I 
think she was almost unconscious of passing fashions. 
Under her skirt and fastened like an apron she wore a 
Pocket. Only a capital letter can give an idea of the size 
and importance of this curious garment, which consisted 
of a whole array of flat, envelope-like receptacles, into 
which she slipped anything and everything she needed. 
A trowel and a small hand- fork, for instance, disappeared 
easily into those capacious depths, to say nothing of such 
trifles as stale bread for the ducks, corn for the pigeons, 
etc. Most people would find it difficult to walk gracefully 
with trowels and such knocking their ankles, but these 
impedimenta never seemed to interfere with her quick, 
yet dignified movements. I never remember her carrying 
anything in her hands except flowers, fruit, or the candle 
lantern she took to light her way to church on winter 
evenings. 

The process of furnishing her Pocket was usually done 
in the garden-room. Like most garden-rooms, that was 
a wholly delightful place. Comfortable, worn old chairs, 
a long table used for arranging flowers and countless 
other processes, a rocking chair which rocked to such a 
pitch that it was a joy for ever, a large desk containing 
many treasured recipes, and all those fascinating odds 
and ends which seem to collect themselves in old desks, 
and which are so much more attractive to childhood 
than any toys. I wonder what manner of folk invented 
those entrancing fittings in the desks and work-boxes of 
Victorian days. Amongst my great-aunt's numerous gifts 
to me was a work-box, a treasure indeed, for it had be- 
longed to her mother. The outside and all the trays and 
lids, etc., are entirely inlaid with ebony, silver and ivory 
in a tiny intricate pattern, and inside the partitions are 
fitted with those little ivory objects of which no one 
nowadays seems to know the use. What, for instance, 
are these little ivory barrels with tops which screw on 
and with slender ivory sticks thrust into them ? In those 
days I never thought of asking, for I only wanted to play 
with these smooth lovely little toys. 

And there was a store-cupboard in the garden-room, 
which was an overflow from the store-room proper. That 
was a store-cupboard ! Apart from the home-candied 
rose-petals, violets, carnation-petals, cowslips, rosemary 
and borage flowers, the damson cheeses and so forth, to 
be found in every well-regulated store-room in those 
days, that cupboard contained triumphs of the culinary 
art not to be bought nowadays. Great-aunt Lancilla 
candied oranges whole, and when done they were like 
semi-transparent globes of orange gold. Before being 
candied a tiny hole was made in the place where the stalk 
was and every bit of the pulp was scraped out with a salt- 
spoon, a slow and delicate process. Then the oranges 
were steeped in a strong salt and water pickle for a week, 
then soaked in fresh water for two or three days, the 
water being changed every day. The oranges were then 
boiled in syrup till they cleared. (This recipe has been 
used for at least six generations in our family.) In candle- 
light, or indeed any artificial light, these candied oranges 
look exquisite. 

And do you know whortleberry jam and jelly ? Whortle- 
berries have many different names in Britain. Scotch 
folk call them blaeberries, and in Surrey we call them 
* hurts.' They are, I fancy, the only fruit one cannot 
buy in London, and so far as I know whortleberry jelly 
and jam are also not to be bought. I suppose the process 
of picking the tiny berries being so slow, added to the 
cost of transit, and the fact that they travel badly account 
for this. But is there a more delicate, delicious fruit, 
whether plainly stewed or made into a conserve ? And I 
remember also the bunches of white and red currants 
candied whole. These were very attractive, for they looked 
as though they were made of glass. They seemed very 
* superior ' to the rose leaves, but the latter were sweet 
and the former very acid, in spite of their deceptive 
coating of sugar. Both rose and carnation petals were 
preserved by coating them on both sides with white of 
egg well beaten. It was a fascinating process, done with 
a tiny brush like a paint-brush. Then the petals were 
spread out on very large dishes, and castor sugar care- 
fully and evenly shaken over them. Then they were 
turned over, and the other side was sugared. My great- 
aunt invariably dried these rose petals in the sun, and 
perhaps that is why they were so sweet. When dry they 
were beautifully crisp and put away in layers with paper 
between each layer in air-tight boxes. Primroses done like 
this look very pretty, for the flowers are done whole. 
And such syrups ! Elder syrup, which was very pungent 
and luscious, clove carnation syrup (the best of all), mint 
syrup (quince juice strongly flavoured with mint), and 
saffron syrup, of which I only remember that one of the 
ingredients was Canary wine. The name ' Canary wine ' 
made an impression on me, for as a child I thought it 
must have something to do with canary birds, and I vaguely 
wondered why ! The cupboard also contained many 
homely medicines in which in those days I took no interest 
at all. But I remember how often the village women 
came for these remedies. For great-aunt Lancilla was 
the trusted friend of every soul in the place. She had 
known all the young generation from their birth upwards, 
and for the scapegraces, of whom the village had quite its 
normal share, she had a very understanding heart. One 
of the scapegraces was the garden boy. Even as a child 
I was conscious that between such a luminary as, for in- 
stance, the coachman, and the garden boy there was a 
great gulf fixed, but I was equally conscious that between 
my great-aunt and * the young limb ' (the cook's epithet 
for him, not mine) there was a solid bond of comradeship. 
She understood him perfectly, and I think he would 
cheerfully have gone to the stake for her.