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FROST

Page with ornament
The Database of Ornament

QUIETLY the snow fell, in large soft flakes which
floated in the still air. Janet stood at her
window and looked helplessly at the stealthy
narrowing of the familiar horizon. The oppres-
sive stillness of the clouds had waked her early;
and, as she dressed, she watched the drifting
flakes. Now they fell faster, thicker. The grey veil gradu-
ally drew its folds over hill and valley till the girl’s outlook
was narrowed to the garden wall with its irregular line of
trees. The desolation of the scene sank deeply into her mind,
and intensified her despondency. The grey outer world with
its obscure horizon, its immediate limitations, seemed to sym-
bolise her own life, to echo her present mood. Janet turned
and surveyed the sombre comfort of her room wherein she
had lived so much of her twenty-two years. Familiarity had
dulled her perception of her usual surroundings; but, to-day,
the unloveliness of her room, of the whole house, jarred on her
nerves acutely. Greyness, she realised with a shiver, was the
prevailing tone in her life, despite her many resolutions, her
fitful efforts to colour it afresh, to make it fuller and more vital.
No prince, alas! had kissed her sleep into throbbing wakeful-
ness. Yesterday’s lurid sunset had aroused afresh her flagging
determination to control the tenour of her life, and no longer to
be the slave of her environment. This morning, the remorse-

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less snowflakes wove a pall over her starved hopes, and froze
them into inanition.

‘Janet,’ a gentle old voice cried from the staircase, ‘your break-
fast will be cold if you do not come!’ and the girl, quitting her
window with a sigh, entered upon the day’s routine.

It was in an old manse, in a quiet northern strath, that Janet
lived with her grand-parents. Her grandfather had ministered
to the scattered souls of his parish for over fifty years, in his life
illustrating the love of God, and preaching of the wrath to come
from his pulpit. The children born in the old manse settled
elsewhere, and Janet’s parents had sent her from India to her
grandmother’s fostering care when she was five years old.

As a child she ran wild about the garden, in fields and woods,
and by the rocks on the river. But as she grew out of child-
hood, the requirements of social decorum were laid upon her
by an instructress who strictly debarred her from the com-
panionship of her cotter playmates. Conventional restrictions
sowed seeds of dreariness early in her young life, whose imposed
boundaries narrowed in proportion as she grew old enough to
understand the increasing needs of her nature. Her home,
once her kingdom, became her prison; and she hailed with
joy the day that saw her conveyed to a boarding-school in the
nearest town. Here, at least, she gained companionship; at
least she saw an aspect of life different from that in the familiar
strath. Here, too, was new ground whereon to raise castles in
the air; here were new materials, in part furnished by her
companions, wherewith to build. The future surely held
enchanting possibilities and adventures in keeping for her.
India, at all events, was a promised land of vaguely remem-
bered brightness to which she should return.

But with the ending of her schooldays came the first crumbling
of Janet’s dreams. An epidemic of cholera robbed her of both
her parents and of her sojourn in that ardently longed-for land
of sunshine and of love.

The grey old manse in the north-east of Scotland was hence-
forth to be her home, varied only by visits to schoolfellows in

                                          55
Edinburgh, or to an aunt in the bewildering city of London.
Her dream, too, of being a painter was shattered by her
grandfather’s unconquerable prejudice against the preparatory
student life away from home control. ‘Paint by all means,
child, if it amuses you; but paint here. I have heard dreadful
tales of student life in London and Paris, and dare not take so
great a responsibility on my conscience, or allow you to run
such terrible risks.’

So the weeks passed in an ever-growing monotony; and the
young life began to falter for lack of vital nourishment. The
prevailing silence, broken only by the sound of a cart-wheel or
the lowing of a cow, or rendered more audible by the sudden
cawing of the rooks, weighed on Janet’s spirits. The lack of
young companionship depressed her; the inadequacy of her
daily duties rendered them distasteful to her; the lack of
mental outlook and stimulus starved her intellectually.

Springtide brought fresh hope, fresh vigour; the summer,
with its flowering beauty of field and hill, fresh joy. With
autumn came the sportsmen, and for a short season the
countryside was gay. Janet utilised the warm bright days
in trying to find a way of putting upon canvas her impressions
of green summer and ruddy autumn, for a solace throughout
the long winter and a promise of the spring to be. But with
the fall of the year her ardour waned, her courage dissipated.
The dull quiet, the chill greyness of winter with its steely sun-
shine, ate into her life and robbed her of all impulse. Against
the winter lethargy she fought fitfully but unavailingly.

Janet’s breakfast greeting on this snowy January morning was
of a kind she little expected.

‘Well, dearie, here’s news for you—for granny and I have quite
made up our minds about the matter. You have been ailing
all winter, and now an unlooked-for chance has come to make
you well again.’

The girl’s heart leapt, and the colour rushed into her pale face.
Any change would be an unspeakable relief to her.

‘Your aunt has written to tell me that she and your cousin are

                                          56
going to Rome for three months, and she is quite pleased that
you should go with them. Three months in Italy ought to
make a strong girl of you; and you will come back to us in
April with the spring flowers.’

             .            .            .            .            .            .

Every incident of the journey was an excitement. Dreamland,
hope, desire, lay before her. The morrow was no longer a
barren waste bounded by a narrow horizon. Her way lay now
through the unknown, whose sign-posts she could discern
faintly in the flooding sunshine. The minor discomforts of
travel Janet welcomed, for they suggested a practical aspect
of dreamland to which she had never given a thought.

Genoa was the first halting-place. Genoa, the great amphi-
theatre of Ligurian prosperity, with its tier above tier of
Oriental-looking houses flanking the tree-clad hills, and
separated from the crescent bay by its white marble quay.

The great cool palaces; the luxuriant foliage dotted with
pendent oranges and warm-red roses, and pierced by feather
fronds of palm-trees or the spiky growth of cactus and of aloe;
the great harbour with its shipping, the blue-green waters
alive in the sunlight;—these things awoke in Janet’s brain
forgotten memories and mental pictures of an Oriental city
girt by its great harbour, rich, too, in colour, and full of strange
forms and features that long ago, in early childhood, had been
familiar to her if then unnoted.

Rome was reached in the early morning, and the girl’s first
vision of the great city was from the terrace roof of her room
high above the Spagna steps. There she stood motionless,
breathless almost, as she watched the delicate dawn-mist float
away and reveal countless domes and spires, and beyond
these the Alban and Sabine hills, as the sun rose above the
Apennines and turned the quiet twilight into the radiance of
morning.

Day by day the beauty and effluence of the southern winter
awoke a deep and eager response in Janet’s nature. She
became conscious of new needs, new desires. Already the

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cramping influence of familiar parochial life was melting in
the cosmopolitan breath of the eternal city. Janet scarcely
recognised herself as the old landmarks vanished; she felt
happy in this sun-swept, but, to her, pathless land. Her
ignorance appalled her; her insular and Puritan prejudices
were perpetual stumblingblocks which met her with fatiguing
monotony. The artistic side of her nature, however, expanded
joyously in the congenial environment. So keen was her
pleasure, she did not realise how the outward tenour of her
sojourn resembled that of every ninety-and-nine tourists to
whom Baedeker is an infallible guide. To Janet, Rome was a
newly discovered country, and she found herself full of unrecog-
nised possibilities. Ruins, galleries, churches, were visited in
due course. Much as these interested her, she loved best of
all to escape alone to the Pincio and gaze over its ilex-shaded
parapet at the city below; to watch the endless coming and
going of smart carriages, or the strings of collegiates, in their
distinctive soutanes and hats, wind along the pathways; or to
saunter towards the Porta del Popolo and feast her eyes on
the moist greensward and the fresh foliage of the exotic trees
which make a summer of the Roman winter. And how beautiful,
too, in the early mornings was the Piazza di Spagna, abloom
with sprays of early blossoming shrubs—wattle, with its per-
fumed golden balls; eucalyptus, with its thin, scimitar-shaped
leaves; roses and violets and narcissi, till the fountain in the
centre seemed to spring and sparkle from the heart of a flower-
garden.

The churches with their wealth of mosaics and paintings, their
coloured trappings, their strange, picturesque ceremonies,
attracted yet repelled Janet. Her sensuous impulses rebelled
desperately against her religious convictions, trained as she
had been in the severe Calvinistic atmosphere. The harsh
unloveliness of the little strath kirk had always been dis-
tasteful, though she loved the austere purity of her grand-
father’s teaching. Here, in Rome, the aesthetic attractions of
the great churches affected her profoundly by their subtle

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suggestiveness, by their repose; but their religious appeal left
her unmoved, or frankly hostile.

In the hotel she made few friends. The girl’s natural shyness,
increased by the remoteness of her home, was a constant barrier
to social intercourse. At table her position between her soci-
able aunt and cousin relieved her, she felt, of the necessity of
continuous talking, and leisure to watch and listen unheeded.
The three months at length drew to a close, the longest and
most eventful of her life. As Janet stood on the terrace roof
for the last time, and watched the sun set in flaming crimson
and orange, against which the dome of St. Peter’s stood out-
lined in sombre purple, she sighed farewell to the mysterious
Campagna beyond, to the ancient city at her feet. She knew
that her regret would grow into an ever-deepening longing
as time drifted her further away from this flowering oasis she
had chanced upon in the colourless desert of her life.

             .            .            .            .            .            .

The elation that Janet had brought back with her from Italy
lasted throughout the ensuing summertide. The beauty of the
summer, the rich fruition of tree and flower, the mantling
green, gold, and purple of hill and vale, Janet saw through eyes
wherein lingered the glamour of the southern land she had
left. Nevertheless, it was a shock, on her return to the old
sleepy manse, to find neither stick nor stone out of its accus-
tomed place, to see nothing altered in any one or anything that
answered to the wonderful change she felt in herself. Nothing
differed: the same voices, the same routine, the same daily
remarks, just as she remembered them ever since her child-
hood. Yet not quite the same. A curious shrinkage seemed
to have taken place. The greater world outside this familiar
daily life made the smaller world grow smaller still, showed it
by comparison to be antiquated, asleep, left behind by the
great wave of extension and expansion.

Losing sight of the warm human hearts that beat in the little
strath, of the equality of suffering it shared with the rest of the
world, Janet felt herself chilled to the heart by its parochialism,—

                                          59
in other words, by the absence of any definite outlet for her
unsatisfied and untried possibilities. The even tcnour of her
life had been abruptly confused by her visit to Rome. An angel
had stepped into the quiet pool and had troubled it; but alas!
the waters were gradually settling once more into stagnation.
Would no lasting good remain?

One by one the autumn sportsmen and their visitors left the
neighbouring hills, and the strath resumed its normal unevent-
fulness. Was there no escape? Should she not go back to
Rome, or even to London, and learn to paint? She was of age,
should she not choose her own course of life? But whenever
this suggestion created an alluring picture in her mind, it was
immediately effaced by another—that of two wrinkled, pathetic
faces, of two frail old bodies awaiting the close of their tired
lives. This picture seemed to Janet to leave her no alternative.
Clearly she realised her present duty, and accepted it; but the
blight of bitter regret and futile longing withered the delicate
tentatives of her heart.

Autumn faded into barrenness; the leaves lay brown and sodden
in the strath. Here and there a straggling bunch of mountain-
ash berries gleamed scarlet among the skeleton branches;
ruddy haws presaged a severe winter. Early frosts turned the
low grey clouds into falling rain, and the enshrouding mists
hung above the river, and were shredded against the pine-trees
on the banks.

The uneventful days crawled on, and, as the year waned, Janet
felt herself paralysed by an inertia that robbed her of all power
of adapting her environment to her own ends. Since she could
not shape her destiny, she had to suffer; since she could not
attune herself to her surroundings, she had to endure.

One December afternoon, after a windless, brooding morn-
ing, Janet stood at the parlour window disconsolately watching
the little eddies of wind which whirled the dust into spirals, and
here and there shook down a ragged, tenacious leaf that circled
reluctantly to the ground. Suddenly a large, loose snowflake
drifted past the pine branches, and this all at once was

                                          60
followed by a cloud of other flakes, which melted as they
fell.

‘Ah! winter has come!’ she said, with sharp indrawing of her
breath. She stood spellbound while the snow fell faster, finer,
till at last the ground was hidden by the soft white covering.
‘Winter has come,’ she sighed again. Then, turning abruptly,
she pushed her easel aside impatiently, thrust her paint tubes
and brushes Into the old oak chest, and took the household
   workbasket from the chimney corner. Drawing a chair
      before the fire, she began with nervous fingers to darn
                some fine napery. ‘Yes,’ she repeated
                   wearily, ‘winter has come indeed.’


ELIZABETH A. SHARP.

MLA citation:

Sharp, Elizabeth A. “Frost.” The Evergreen; A Northern Seasonal, vol. 4 Winter 1896-7, pp. 53-60. Evergreen Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2016-2018. Yellow Nineties 2.0, General Editor Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/egv4_sharp_frost/