He painted trees as by some special
divining instinct of their essential qualities.
He understood them. He knew why in an oak forest,
for instance, each individual was utterly distinct
from its fellows, and why no two beeches in the whole
world were alike. People asked him down to paint
a favorite lime or silver birch, for he caught the
individuality of a tree as some catch the individuality
of a horse. How he managed it was something of
a puzzle, for he never had painting lessons, his drawing
was often wildly inaccurate, and, while his perception
of a Tree Personality was true and vivid, his rendering
of it might almost approach the ludicrous. Yet
the character and personality of that particular tree
stood there alive beneath his brush shining,
frowning, dreaming, as the case might be, friendly
or hostile, good or evil. It emerged.
There was nothing else in the wide
world that he could paint; flowers and landscapes
he only muddled away into a smudge; with people he
was helpless and hopeless; also with animals.
Skies he could sometimes manage, or effects of wind
in foliage, but as a rule he left these all severely
alone. He kept to trees, wisely following an instinct
that was guided by love. It was quite arresting,
this way he had of making a tree look almost like
a being alive. It approached the uncanny.
“Yes, Sanderson knows what he’s
doing when he paints a tree!” thought old David
Bittacy, C.B., late of the Woods and Forests.
“Why, you can almost hear it rustle. You
can smell the thing. You can hear the rain drip
through its leaves. You can almost see the branches
move. It grows.” For in this way somewhat
he expressed his satisfaction, half to persuade himself
that the twenty guineas were well spent (since his
wife thought otherwise), and half to explain this
uncanny reality of life that lay in the fine old cedar
framed above his study table.
Yet in the general view the mind of
Mr. Bittacy was held to be austere, not to say morose.
Few divined in him the secretly tenacious love of
nature that had been fostered by years spent in the
forests and jungles of the eastern world. It
was odd for an Englishman, due possibly to that Eurasian
ancestor. Surreptitiously, as though half ashamed
of it, he had kept alive a sense of beauty that hardly
belonged to his type, and was unusual for its vitality.
Trees, in particular, nourished it. He, also,
understood trees, felt a subtle sense of communion
with them, born perhaps of those years he had lived
in caring for them, guarding, protecting, nursing,
years of solitude among their great shadowy presences.
He kept it largely to himself, of course, because he
knew the world he lived in. He also kept
it from his wife to some extent. He
knew it came between them, knew that she feared it,
was opposed. But what he did not know, or realize
at any rate, was the extent to which she grasped the
power which they wielded over his life. Her fear,
he judged, was simply due to those years in India,
when for weeks at a time his calling took him away
from her into the jungle forests, while she remained
at home dreading all manner of evils that might befall
him. This, of course, explained her instinctive
opposition to the passion for woods that still influenced
and clung to him. It was a natural survival of
those anxious days of waiting in solitude for his safe
For Mrs. Bittacy, daughter of an evangelical
clergy-man, was a self-sacrificing woman, who in most
things found a happy duty in sharing her husband’s
joys and sorrows to the point of self-obliteration.
Only in this matter of the trees she was less successful
than in others. It remained a problem difficult
He knew, for instance, that what she
objected to in this portrait of the cedar on their
lawn was really not the price he had given for it,
but the unpleasant way in which the transaction emphasized
this breach between their common interests the
only one they had, but deep.
Sanderson, the artist, earned little
enough money by his strange talent; such checks were
few and far between. The owners of fine or interesting
trees who cared to have them painted singly were rare
indeed, and the “studies” that he made
for his own delight he also kept for his own delight.
Even were there buyers, he would not sell them.
Only a few, and these peculiarly intimate friends,
might even see them, for he disliked to hear the undiscerning
criticisms of those who did not understand. Not
that he minded laughter at his craftsmanship he
admitted it with scorn but that remarks
about the personality of the tree itself could easily
wound or anger him. He resented slighting observations
concerning them, as though insults offered to personal
friends who could not answer for themselves.
He was instantly up in arms.
“It really is extraordinary,”
said a Woman who Understood, “that you can make
that cypress seem an individual, when in reality all
cypresses are so exactly alike.”
And though the bit of calculated flattery
had come so near to saying the right, true, thing,
Sanderson flushed as though she had slighted a friend
beneath his very nose. Abruptly he passed in front
of her and turned the picture to the wall.
“Almost as queer,” he
answered rudely, copying her silly emphasis, “as
that you should have imagined individuality
in your husband, Madame, when in reality all men are
so exactly alike!”
Since the only thing that differentiated
her husband from the mob was the money for which she
had married him, Sanderson’s relations with that
particular family terminated on the spot, chance of
prospective orders with it. His sensitiveness,
perhaps, was morbid. At any rate the way to reach
his heart lay through his trees. He might be said
to love trees. He certainly drew a splendid inspiration
from them, and the source of a man’s inspiration,
be it music, religion, or a woman, is never a safe
thing to criticize.
“I do think, perhaps, it was
just a little extravagant, dear,” said Mrs.
Bittacy, referring to the cedar check, “when
we want a lawnmower so badly too. But, as it
gives you such pleasure ”
“It reminds me of a certain
day, Sophia,” replied the old gentleman, looking
first proudly at herself, then fondly at the picture,
“now long gone by. It reminds me of another
tree that Kentish lawn in the spring, birds
singing in the lilacs, and some one in a muslin frock
waiting patiently beneath a certain cedar not
the one in the picture, I know, but ”
“I was not waiting,” she
said indignantly, “I was picking fir-cones for
the schoolroom fire ”
“Fir-cones, my dear, do not
grow on cedars, and schoolroom fires were not made
in June in my young days.”
“And anyhow it isn’t the same cedar.”
“It has made me fond of all
cedars for its sake,” he answered, “and
it reminds me that you are the same young girl still ”
She crossed the room to his side,
and together they looked out of the window where,
upon the lawn of their Hampshire cottage, a ragged
Lebanon stood in a solitary state.
“You’re as full of dreams
as ever,” she said gently, “and I don’t
regret the check a bit really. Only
it would have been more real if it had been the original
tree, wouldn’t it?”
“That was blown down years ago.
I passed the place last year, and there’s not
a sign of it left,” he replied tenderly.
And presently, when he released her from his side,
she went up to the wall and carefully dusted the picture
Sanderson had made of the cedar on their present lawn.
She went all round the frame with her tiny handkerchief,
standing on tiptoe to reach the top rim.
“What I like about it,”
said the old fellow to himself when his wife had left
the room, “is the way he has made it live.
All trees have it, of course, but a cedar taught it
to me first the ‘something’
trees possess that make them know I’m there
when I stand close and watch. I suppose I felt
it then because I was in love, and love reveals life
everywhere.” He glanced a moment at the
Lebanon looming gaunt and somber through the gathering
dusk. A curious wistful expression danced a moment
through his eyes. “Yes, Sanderson has seen
it as it is,” he murmured, “solemnly dreaming
there its dim hidden life against the Forest edge,
and as different from that other tree in Kent as I
am from from the vicar, say. It’s
quite a stranger, too. I don’t know anything
about it really. That other cedar I loved; this
old fellow I respect. Friendly though yes,
on the whole quite friendly. He’s painted
the friendliness right enough. He saw that.
I’d like to know that man better,” he added.
“I’d like to ask him how he saw so clearly
that it stands there between this cottage and the
Forest yet somehow more in sympathy with
us than with the mass of woods behind a
sort of go-between. That I never noticed before.
I see it now through his eyes. It stands
there like a sentinel protective rather.”
He turned away abruptly to look through
the window. He saw the great encircling mass
of gloom that was the Forest, fringing their little
lawn. It pressed up closer in the darkness.
The prim garden with its formal beds of flowers seemed
an impertinence almost some little colored
insect that sought to settle on a sleeping monster some
gaudy fly that danced impudently down the edge of
a great river that could engulf it with a toss of
its smallest wave. That Forest with its thousand
years of growth and its deep spreading being was some
such slumbering monster, yes. Their cottage and
garden stood too near its running lip. When the
winds were strong and lifted its shadowy skirts of
black and purple.... He loved this feeling of
the Forest Personality; he had always loved it.
“Queer,” he reflected,
“awfully queer, that trees should bring me such
a sense of dim, vast living! I used to feel it
particularly, I remember, in India; in Canadian woods
as well; but never in little English woods till here.
And Sanderson’s the only man I ever knew who
felt it too. He’s never said so, but there’s
the proof,” and he turned again to the picture
that he loved. A thrill of unaccustomed life ran
through him as he looked. “I wonder; by
Jove, I wonder,” his thoughts ran on, “whether
a tree er in any lawful meaning
of the term can be alive. I remember
some writing fellow telling me long ago that trees
had once been moving things, animal organisms of some
sort, that had stood so long feeding, sleeping, dreaming,
or something, in the same place, that they had lost
the power to get away...!”
Fancies flew pell-mell about his mind,
and, lighting a cheroot, he dropped into an armchair
beside the open window and let them play. Outside
the blackbirds whistled in the shrubberies across the
lawn. He smelt the earth and trees and flowers,
the perfume of mown grass, and the bits of open heath-land
far away in the heart of the woods. The summer
wind stirred very faintly through the leaves.
But the great New Forest hardly raised her sweeping
skirts of black and purple shadow.
Mr. Bittacy, however, knew intimately
every detail of that wilderness of trees within.
He knew all the purple coombs splashed with yellow
waves of gorse; sweet with juniper and myrtle, and
gleaming with clear and dark-eyed pools that watched
the sky. There hawks hovered, circling hour by
hour, and the flicker of the peewit’s flight
with its melancholy, petulant cry, deepened the sense
of stillness. He knew the solitary pines, dwarfed,
tufted, vigorous, that sang to every lost wind, travelers
like the gypsies who pitched their bush-like tents
beneath them; he knew the shaggy ponies, with foals
like baby centaurs; the chattering jays, the milky
call of the cuckoos in the spring, and the boom of
the bittern from the lonely marshes. The undergrowth
of watching hollies, he knew too, strange and mysterious,
with their dark, suggestive beauty, and the yellow
shimmer of their pale dropped leaves.
Here all the Forest lived and breathed
in safety, secure from mutilation. No terror
of the axe could haunt the peace of its vast subconscious
life, no terror of devastating Man afflict it with
the dread of premature death. It knew itself
supreme; it spread and preened itself without concealment.
It set no spires to carry warnings, for no wind brought
messages of alarm as it bulged outwards to the sun
But, once its leafy portals left behind,
the trees of the countryside were otherwise.
The houses threatened them; they knew themselves in
danger. The roads were no longer glades of silent
turf, but noisy, cruel ways by which men came to attack
them. They were civilized, cared for but
cared for in order that some day they might be put
to death. Even in the villages, where the solemn
and immemorial repose of giant chestnuts aped security,
the tossing of a silver birch against their mass,
impatient in the littlest wind, brought warning.
Dust clogged their leaves. The inner humming
of their quiet life became inaudible beneath the scream
and shriek of clattering traffic. They longed
and prayed to enter the great Peace of the Forest
yonder, but they could not move. They knew, moreover,
that the Forest with its august, deep splendor despised
and pitied them. They were a thing of artificial
gardens, and belonged to beds of flowers all forced
to grow one way....
“I’d like to know that
artist fellow better,” was the thought upon which
he returned at length to the things of practical life.
“I wonder if Sophia would mind him for a bit ?”
He rose with the sound of the gong, brushing the ashes
from his speckled waistcoat. He pulled the waistcoat
down. He was slim and spare in figure, active
in his movements. In the dim light, but for that
silvery moustache, he might easily have passed for
a man of forty. “I’ll suggest it to
her anyhow,” he decided on his way upstairs
to dress. His thought really was that Sanderson
could probably explain his world of things he had
always felt about trees. A man who
could paint the soul of a cedar in that way must know
“Why not?” she gave her
verdict later over the bread-and-butter pudding; “unless
you think he’d find it dull without companions.”
“He would paint all day in the
Forest, dear. I’d like to pick his brains
a bit, too, if I could manage it.”
“You can manage anything, David,”
was what she answered, for this elderly childless
couple used an affectionate politeness long since
deemed old-fashioned. The remark, however, displeased
her, making her feel uneasy, and she did not notice
his rejoinder, smiling his pleasure and content “Except
yourself and our bank account, my dear.”
This passion of his for trees was of old a bone of
contention, though very mild contention. It frightened
her. That was the truth. The Bible, her
Baedeker for earth and heaven, did not mention it.
Her husband, while humoring her, could never alter
that instinctive dread she had. He soothed, but
never changed her. She liked the woods, perhaps
as spots for shade and picnics, but she could not,
as he did, love them.
And after dinner, with a lamp beside
the open window, he read aloud from _ The Times_ the
evening post had brought, such fragments as he thought
might interest her. The custom was invariable,
except on Sundays, when, to please his wife, he dozed
over Tennyson or Farrar as their mood might be.
She knitted while he read, asked gentle questions,
told him his voice was a “lovely reading voice,”
and enjoyed the little discussions that occasions
prompted because he always let her with them with “Ah,
Sophia, I had never thought of it quite in that
way before; but now you mention it I must say I think
there’s something in it....”
For David Bittacy was wise. It
was long after marriage, during his months of loneliness
spent with trees and forests in India, his wife waiting
at home in the Bungalow, that his other, deeper side
had developed the strange passion that she could not
understand. And after one or two serious attempts
to let her share it with him, he had given up and
learned to hide it from her. He learned, that
is, to speak of it only casually, for since she knew
it was there, to keep silence altogether would only
increase her pain. So from time to time he skimmed
the surface just to let her show him where he was wrong
and think she won the day. It remained a debatable
land of compromise. He listened with patience
to her criticisms, her excursions and alarms, knowing
that while it gave her satisfaction, it could not
change himself. The thing lay in him too deep
and true for change. But, for peace’ sake,
some meeting-place was desirable, and he found it
It was her one fault in his eyes,
this religious mania carried over from her upbringing,
and it did no serious harm. Great emotion could
shake it sometimes out of her. She clung to it
because her father taught it her and not because she
had thought it out for herself. Indeed, like many
women, she never really thought at all, but
merely reflected the images of others’ thinking
which she had learned to see. So, wise in his
knowledge of human nature, old David Bittacy accepted
the pain of being obliged to keep a portion of his
inner life shut off from the woman he deeply loved.
He regarded her little biblical phrases as oddities
that still clung to a rather fine, big soul like
horns and little useless things some animals have
not yet lost in the course of evolution while they
have outgrown their use.
“My dear, what is it? You
frightened me!” She asked it suddenly, sitting
up so abruptly that her cap dropped sideways almost
to her ear. For David Bittacy behind his crackling
paper had uttered a sharp exclamation of surprise.
He had lowered the sheet and was staring at her over
the tops of his gold glasses.
“Listen to this, if you please,”
he said, a note of eagerness in his voice, “listen
to this, my dear Sophia. It’s from an address
by Francis Darwin before the Royal Society. He
is president, you know, and son of the great Darwin.
Listen carefully, I beg you. It is most
“I am listening, David,”
she said with some astonishment, looking up.
She stopped her knitting. For a second she glanced
behind her. Something had suddenly changed in
the room, and it made her feel wide awake, though
before she had been almost dozing. Her husband’s
voice and manner had introduced this new thing.
Her instincts rose in warning. “Do read
it, dear.” He took a deep breath, looking
first again over the rims of his glasses to make quite
sure of her attention. He had evidently come
across something of genuine interest, although herself
she often found the passages from these “Addresses”
In a deep, emphatic voice he read aloud:
’"It is impossible to know whether
or not plants are conscious; but it is consistent
with the doctrine of continuity that in all living
things there is something psychic, and if we accept
this point of view ’”
“If,” she interrupted, scenting
He ignored the interruption as a thing
of slight value he was accustomed to.
‘"If we accept this point of
view,’” he continued, ’"we must believe
that in plants there exists a faint copy of what
we know as consciousness in ourselves .’”
He laid the paper down and steadily
stared at her. Their eyes met. He had italicized
the last phrase.
For a minute or two his wife made
no reply or comment. They stared at one another
in silence. He waited for the meaning of the words
to reach her understanding with full import.
Then he turned and read them again in part, while
she, released from that curious driving look in his
eyes, instinctively again glanced over her shoulder
round the room. It was almost as if she felt
some one had come in to them unnoticed.
“We must believe that in plants
there exists a faint copy of what we know as consciousness
“If,” she repeated
lamely, feeling before the stare of those questioning
eyes she must say something, but not yet having gathered
her wits together quite.
he rejoined. And then he added gravely: “That,
my dear, is the statement of a scientific man of the
Mrs. Bittacy sat forward in her chair
so that her silk flounces crackled louder than the
newspaper. She made a characteristic little sound
between sniffling and snorting. She put her shoes
closely together, with her hands upon her knees.
“David,” she said quietly,
“I think these scientific men are simply losing
their heads. There is nothing in the Bible that
I can remember about any such thing whatsoever.”
“Nothing, Sophia, that I can
remember either,” he answered patiently.
Then, after a pause, he added, half to himself perhaps
more than to her: “And, now that I come
to think about it, it seems that Sanderson once said
something to me that was similar.
“Then Mr. Sanderson is a wise
and thoughtful man, and a safe man,” she quickly
took up, “if he said that.”
For she thought her husband referred
to her remark about the Bible, and not to her judgment
of the scientific men. And he did not correct
“And plants, you see, dear,
are not the same as trees,” she drove her advantage
home, “not quite, that is.”
“I agree,” said David
quietly; “but both belong to the great vegetable
There was a moment’s pause before she answered.
“Pah! the vegetable kingdom,
indeed!” She tossed her pretty old head.
And into the words she put a degree of contempt that,
could the vegetable kingdom have heard it, might have
made it feel ashamed for covering a third of the world
with its wonderful tangled network of roots and branches,
delicate shaking leaves, and its millions of spires
that caught the sun and wind and rain. Its very
right to existence seemed in question.