In the Bachelor's Garden
IN THE BACHELOR'S GARDEN
By Temple Bailey
THE cottage is taken," said Jane.
The Bachelor laid down his spoon and pushed back his strawberries. "Any women?"
"A girl," said Jane, tersely.
The Bachelor groaned and picked up his paper.
Then there was silence, while Jane poured the coffee and rang for muffins and sweetbreads.
"You needn't know her," said Jane, after a while.
The Bachelor peered abstractedly through his glasses. "Her? Oh, the girl!" he remarked, finally.
Jane nodded, and, having finished breakfast, he gathered up his letters, and went and stood by the open window from which the latticed blinds were thrown back. The rusty-breasted robins were hopping about the dewy lawn, and the crab-apple trees were a splash of pink in the orchard beyond. The smell of the sweet Spring air awoke something within him.
"Is she pretty, Jane?" he said, hesitatingly.
Jane was carrying the tray out of the door, but she turned and looked at him searchingly, down the length of the dim room.
"She's young," she said, "and yellow-haired, and she has a little brother and she keeps a cat." After this information, the old housekeeper went out and slammed the door.
"H'm," mused the Bachelor, thoughtfully, when he was left alone.
Then he stepped through the window and into his garden. The long, narrow beds that bordered the paths were gay with tulips and jonquils; an almond-bush drooped its slender pink branches over the tender green of the grass; from the leafless branches of the wistaria-vine on the garden wall hung delicate purplish clusters of blossoms, which mingled their fragrance with that of the lilacs by the gate. There was a cat-bird in the hedge and a flock of small brown sparrows twittered among the snowy-white blossoms of the cherry-trees, and the wrens were building in the eaves of the Summer-house.
The Bachelor knelt by the side of a rose-bush, picked up the trowel he had dropped when called in to breakfast, and began to turn up the rich earth around the roots of the bush.
Suddenly, the peace of the garden was broken. The happy chatter of the birds ceased and they uttered restless, frightened cries. The Bachelor stopped humming a tuneless and idiotic little song and rose from his knees, dropping his eye-glasses that he might get a better view at long range.
Under the cherry-tree was the cause of the uproar. A magnificent white cat crouched on the ground and widened her green eyes evilly, and whipped her tail back and forth as the birds circled above and around her, just out of reach.
The Bachelor took a step forward, and she bounded away; but he was too quick for her, and caught her up in his arms and looked into her green eyes.
"No cats allowed, pussy cat," he said, emphatically. Then, holding her under one arm, while she struggled violently, he placed a ladder against the garden wall, amid the wistaria, and climbed to the top round. In spite of her clawing and scratching, he held her for a moment in his strong arms and stroked her fur. "No cats and no girls, pussy cat," he said, and sighed.
In the sigh was the renunciation of a man dominated by the memory of a youthful experience. The Bachelor had loved once, but the girl had married another man. When he met her he wondered that such an insignificant being could have spoiled his faith in women, but in all these years there had been no girl in the garden.
As for cats, Jane objected to cats; and his old housekeeper's prejudice, together with a certain consideration for the birds, had made the rule secure.
He rubbed the cat under her chin, thoughtfully, seriously, and, with a sudden change of tactics, she curled up against his arm and gave a long, purring mew, and tucked her soft white head close against his neck. The action had in it all the seductiveness of sudden, caressing surrender. The Bachelor liked it and wished more of it, but he had long ago learned to close his heart to feminine blandishments; so he took her up carefully by the back of the neck and dropped her over the garden wall. She landed safely on the soft grass, and he looked over after her.
"You are very nice, pussy cat," he said; "but you are not for my garden."
The cat bounded across the road, and as she did so the door of the cottage opposite opened. There came out of the door a girl—a goddess, the Bachelor called her—in a muslin gown. She was straight and slender, and she was very, very young. All at once, looking at her from the top of the little ladder, the Bachelor felt a pang for his lost youth.
"Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been?" she questioned, severely, and flashed an inquiring glance at the Bachelor, whose trim, dark head and intellectual eye-glasses were all that showed above the wall.
But the Bachelor was looking down confusedly on the fine white parting that separated the burnished golden waves of her hair.
"She frightened the birds," he said, helplessly, and disappeared.
For the next half-hour he dug distractedly in the earth and spoiled most of his precious rose-bushes, for his head was filled with visions of the goddess with the burnished hair.
Suddenly, he straightened up and laughed, and with the laugh he was transformed. He strode up the path with the swagger of a happy boy. His quiet, scholarly walk was discarded. What man could be old with a face like that in his heart?
It was fate. That morning something had said to him, "She is coming!" and now she had come into his life—his lonely, lonely life.
Up in the Bachelor's den was a little window that overlooked the cottage. This window became a shrine. He could see the girl and the boy and the white cat, and they were all of them very gay and very happy and very young, and the Bachelor, keeping wistful watch of them, felt like an elderly Peri.
He knew that he was spying on the goddess, but he, who had always been the soul of honor, gloried in his fall. When the goddess came to the door it was an event; when she poured coffee in the dining-room of the cottage it was an epoch; when she walked in the garden it was history.
He drove Jane nearly distracted by the mystery of his actions. When before had he neglected the precious garden?
"Your lilies-of-the-valley are coming out," she said one morning, reproachfully.
In the quiet days before the coming of the goddess, the lily bed had been the pride of the Bachelor's heart. His conscience smote him and he went out to the secluded corner where the little white bells nestled in the sheathlike leaves.
"She is like them, she is like them," he whispered, and brooded over their beauty.
Up to this time he had been content to worship afar off, but now he resolved to meet her and know her, and when the Bachelor wished anything he went systematically to work to get it.
Knowing that the boy went fishing in the early morning, the Bachelor also went fishing in the early morning.
They met at a turn of the stream. The boy was on one bank and the Bachelor on the other.
"Any luck?" said the Bachelor, in a hushed voice that seemed to fit in with the shadows and the silence of the woods.
The boy looked at the Bachelor's well-filled creel and then at his own empty one.
"I never have any luck," he said.
"H'm," said the Bachelor, and he dropped his eye-glasses and gave the boy a long look from his clear brown eyes. Such a depressing youngster, and the goddess had to live with him! Then the Bachelor sat down on a stone.
"A fisherman, my dear fellow," he said, "must have patience. I can wait forever for anything I want and mean to have." And he thought of the girl.
But the boy thought only of himself. "I won't be patient," he flared.
"H'm," said the Bachelor again, and he turned his glasses absently around in his fingers, so that they flashed sun-spots over the boy's chestnut head.
They walked along the opposite banks of the stream, sometimes in silence, and sometimes the boy talked. He was a pessimistic youngster. Ill health had broken into his school year, and had brought him and his sister to this quiet place.
While the boy talked the Bachelor pondered on plans for a continuance of the acquaintance he had begun. "Do you ride?" he asked, as they tramped homeward.
The boy's face brightened. "Yes," he said; "but we haven't any horses."
"Come over in the morning and have a run with me," the Bachelor said, and the boy accepted.
Before they reached home the fish all went into the boy's creel, and he was joyously hospitable.
"Come in, and we'll have them for breakfast."
The Bachelor concealed his indecorous exultation and went.
Then the boy, without ceremony, led him through the back gate of the cottage and they passed the kitchen window, and there was the goddess making biscuit for breakfast!
She was rolling the dough and her arms were bared to the elbow, showing childish dimples. She had on a pink gown and a white apron, and the Bachelor was enthralled to the point of speechlessness. The white cat sat on the sill and blinked at the Bachelor.
"Do you like them?" said the goddess, meaning the biscuit.
"I love them," said the Bachelor, meaning the dimples.
When she came into the dining-room later, she was without the apron and her sleeves were down. An old colored woman passed the trout and the biscuits, and the girl poured coffee; but the Bachelor feasted on ambrosia and drank nectar.
Life from this time became strange and unreal to the Bachelor. Gone were the days when his books and his flowers were his companions. In the daytime he cultivated the society of the boy, and in the evening he was permitted to walk and talk with the goddess.
Sometimes he met a pink-cheeked, athletic young man, and at others a dark and slender foreigner. On such evenings he would go home and sit in some dark corner of his garden and meditate murder.
But there were other days when no one came, and she was very kind. Little by little he was permitted to see the woman behind the goddess, and he loved her the more because of her humanity.
So it came about that one evening the Bachelor came down-stairs with a rose in his buttonhole and a bunch of lilies-of-the-valley in his hand.
Jane eyed him disapprovingly. "You are old," she grumbled, with the freedom of long service, "to be so gay."
The Bachelor kissed her on her withered cheek. "I am not old!" he cried.
"You are forty-five your next birthday," said Jane, unappeased.
For a moment the light went out of the bachelor's face; then he looked at the lilies and laughed and ran down the steps like a boy.
"Oh, Jane, Jane, you are mistaken," he repeated, gaily; "I am just twenty."
Later, when it was dark, he came home, with the faded lilies still in his hand. He had fingered his glasses nervously when he asked the question of questions, and when she said "No," in her cool, confident little way, his hands had gone out desperately toward the lilies, which lay between them, and he had clutched them as if for help.
"I know," he had said, "I—I am too old." And she had been mute.
He crept up to his den and dropped the lilies on the desk and his arms across the lilies and his head on his arms, and the shadows gathered deeper and deeper, until the room was black.
After this he turned again to his garden. "We must live without her," he said, and he talked with Jane about bulbs and other dry and commonplace things.
But sometimes, in the evening, when his pulses stirred, he would go up-stairs in the gloom to the little window and watch her, as she played rippling tunes to the boy or threw tissue-paper balls for the white cat to catch.
Then he would finger the gray hair on his temples and his voice would break. "Such a fool to think of it!" he would whisper; "such an old, old fool!" With a gesture of despair he would draw the curtains to shut out the merry, laughing group and light his lamp and gaze unseeing at the yellow pages of his old, old books.
Therefore it came about that he did not see the girl, after the boy had gone to bed, as she stood by the little gate and looked wistfully over toward the big, dark house. Only the white cat knew, and she preserved a sphinx-like silence when she was hugged close in round, white arms, while tears, falling fast, made spots on her immaculate fur.
"He doesn't seem so very, very old, pussy cat," her mistress would moan. "I wonder—" And then her sentences would trail off into indistinguishable murmurs, while the cat purred peacefully as she licked her wet fur smooth again.
As the Bachelor went no more to the cottage, the boy came to him. The white cat, too, came, timidly at first, and finally with the boldness of assured welcome. But the girl never came.
The boy sat on a bench and delivered dogmatic opinions, as is the way with the young, while the Bachelor worked and listened.
One morning, however, the boy was restless; evidently something was on his mind.
"Why don't you come over?" he asked, suddenly.
The Bachelor looked down at him from the top of the ladder, where he was training the wistaria.
"Oh, because—" He paused.
"That's what Felicia said," remarked the boy, and stuck his hands in his pockets and lifted a red face to the Bachelor.
There was dead silence as the Bachelor raised a heavy branch and laid it in place.
"She said something else," went on the boy, awkwardly.
The Bachelor dropped the branch and came down the ladder and stood in front of the boy.
"What did she say?" he demanded.
The boy dug his heels into the gravel. "Well, I asked her to come in here with me, and she said, 'No, no; I am shut out; I have shut myself out forever!' and——"
The Bachelor put both of his hands on the boy's shoulders and gave him a little shake. "Did she say that—did she?"
His voice was deep with emotion, and he threw his head back and squared his shoulders. The youngster looked at him with sudden embarrassed understanding.
"Oh, I say," he advised, with confused blushes, "try again. She doesn't know her own mind; no girl does."
The Bachelor wrung the boy's hand, and then that red-faced and bullet-headed angel departed.
But, when the boy had gone, the Bachelor's face darkened. His doubts returned, and he sat in his lonely corner with only the lilies for company. The white cat crept through the half-opened gate, unrebuffed, and, as the birds were all asleep, she came and sat by the Bachelor's side and tucked her pretty head under his hand.
And this time he did not turn her away. "Oh, pussy cat, pussy cat," he said, "will she ever come into my garden?"
They sat there for a long time, the man and the cat, and the moon came tip and showed the garden glorified with the whiteness of the light. There were silver flowers in it, with a gold one now and then, and the branches of the almond-bush made dark shadows on the lawn.
Then, outside of the gate, he heard a voice calling.
"Pussy! pussy cat!" cried the voice.
The Bachelor rose and went to the gate and pushed it open wide. The girl stood without, and he took her hand and drew her beyond the honey-suckle-wreathed portals.
"She is here," he said, "but you must come in and get her."
Thus the girl came into the garden, and now that the Bachelor had her on enchanted ground he was not afraid.
So, suddenly brave, he went and picked a big red rose, and, leaning over her, he fastened it in her hair—the burnished hair of the goddess. Then his two hands went to each side of the oval of her face and he turned it up to his.
"You belong to my garden, you flower of all the flowers," he said; "I will not let you go."
As she looked at him, wonderingly, all his courage deserted him; for who dares command a goddess? And he went and leaned against the cherry-tree with his face in his hands.
But the garden pleaded for him. All the blossoms that he had loved and cared for contributed their share to the enchantment. As in a dream, her hands touched his and drew them away from his face; and, as he looked into her eyes, all at once he knew that he was really very, very young, and that his garden was the garden of paradise.