The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 1/Number 2/The Button-Rose
I fear I have not what is called "a taste for flowers." To be sure, my cottage home is half buried in tall shrubs, some of which are flowering, and some are not. A giant woodbine has wrapped the whole front in its rich green mantle; and the porch is roofed and the windows curtained with luxuriant honeysuckles and climbing wild-roses. But, though I have tried for it many times, I never yet had a successful bed of flowers. My next neighbor, Mrs. Smith, is "a lady of great taste"; and when she leads me proudly through her trim alleys edged with box, and displays her hyacinths and tulips, her heliotropes, cactuses, and gladioluses, her choice roses, "so extremely double," and all the rare plants which adorn her parterre, I conclude it must be that I have no taste at all. I beg her to save me seeds and bulbs, get fresh directions for laying down, and inoculating, grafting, and potting, and go home with my head full of improvements. But the next summer comes round with no change, except that the old denizens of the soil (like my maids and my children) have grown more wild and audacious than ever, and I find no place for beds of flowers. I must e'en give it up; I have no taste for flowers, in the common sense of the words. In fact, they awaken in me no sentiment, no associations, as they stand, marshalled for show, "in beds and curious knots"; and I do not like the care of them.
Yet let me find these daughters of the early year in their native haunts, scattered about on hillside and in woody dingle, half hidden by green leaves, starting up like fairies in secluded nooks, nestling at the root of some old tree, or leaning over to peep into some glassy bit of water, and no heart thrills quicker than mine at the sight. There they seem to me to enjoy a sweet wild life of their own; nodding and smiling in the sunshine or verdant gloom, caring not to see or to be seen. Some of the loveliest of my early recollections are of rambles after flowers. There was a certain "little pink and yellow flower" (so described to me by one of my young cousins) after which I searched a whole summer with unabated eagerness. I was fairly haunted by its ideal image. Henry von Ofterdingen never sought with intenser desire for his wondrous blue flower, nor more vainly; for I never found it. One day, this same cousin and myself, while wandering in the woods, found ourselves on the summit of a little rocky precipice, and at its foot, lo! in full bloom, a splendid variety of the orchis, (a flower I had never seen before,) looking to my astonished eyes like an enchanted princess in a fairy tale. With a scream of joy we both sprang for the prize. Harriet seized it first, but after gazing at it a moment with a quiet smile, presented it to me. "Kings may be blest, but I was glorious!" I never felt so rich before or since.
But there was one flower,—and I must confess that I made acquaintance with it in a garden, but at an age when I thought all things grew out of the blessed earth of their own sweet will,—which, as it is the first I remember to have loved, has maintained the right of priority in my affections to this day. Nay, many an object of deep, absorbing interest, more than one glowing friendship, has meantime passed away, leaving no memorial but sad and bitter thoughts; while this wee flower still lives and makes glad a little green nook in my heart. It was a Button-Rose of the smallest species, the outspread blossom scarce exceeding in size a shilling-piece. It stood in my grandfather's garden,—that garden which, at my first sight of it, (I was then about five years old,) seemed to me boundless in extent, and beautiful beyond aught that I had seen or thought before. It was a large, old-fashioned kitchen-garden, adorned and enriched, however, as then the custom was, with flowers and fruit-trees. Several fine old pear-trees and a few of the choicest varieties of plum and cherry were scattered over it; currants and gooseberries lined the fences; the main alley, running through its whole extent, was thickly bordered by lilacs, syringas, and roses, with many showy flowers intermixed, and terminated in a very pleasant grape-arbor. Behind this rose a steep green hill covered with an apple-orchard, through which a little thread of a footpath wound up to another arbor which stood on the summit relieved against the sky. It was but little after sunrise, the first morning of my visit, when I timidly opened the garden gate and stood in full view of these glories. All was dewy, glittering, fragrant, musical as a morn in Eden. For a while I stood still, in a kind of enchantment. Venturing, at length, a few steps forward, gazing eagerly from side to side, I was suddenly arrested by the most marvellously beautiful object my eyes had ever seen,—no other than the little Button-Rose of our story! So small, so perfect! It filled my infant sense with its loveliness. It grew in a very pretty china vase, as if more precious than the other flowers. Several blossoms were fully expanded, and many tiny buds were showing their crimson tips. As I stood lost in rapture over this little miracle of beauty, a humming-bird, the smallest of its fairy tribe, darted into sight, and hung for an instant, its ruby crest and green and golden plumage flashing in the sun, over my new-found treasure. Were it not that the emotions of a few such moments are stamped indelibly on the memory, we should have no conception in maturer life of the intenseness of childish enjoyment. Oh for one drop of that fresh morning dew, that pure nectar of life, in which I then bathed with an unconscious bliss! Methinks I would give many days of sober, thoughtful, rational enjoyment for one hour of the eager rapture which thrilled my being as I stood in that enchanted garden, gazing upon my little rose, and that gay creature of the elements, that winged blossom, that living fragment of a rainbow, that glanced and quivered and murmured over it.
But, dear as the Button-Rose is to my memory, I should hardly think of obtruding it on the notice of others, were it not for a little tale of human interest connected with it. While I yet stood motionless in the ecstasy of my first wonder, a young man and woman entered the garden, chatting and laughing in a very lively manner. The lady was my Aunt Caroline, then in the fresh bloom of seventeen; the young man I had never seen before. Seeing me standing alone in the walk, my aunt called me; but as I shrunk away shy and blushing at sight of the stranger, she came forward and took hold of my hand.
"This is our little Katy, Cousin Harry," said she, leading me towards him.
"Our little Katy's most obedient!" replied he, taking off his broad-brimmed straw hat, and making a flourishing bow nearly to the ground.
"Don't be afraid of him, Katy dear; he's nobody," said my aunt, laughing.
At these encouraging words I glanced up at the merry pair, and thought them almost as pretty as the rose and hummingbird. My Aunt Caroline's beauty was of a somewhat peculiar character,—if beauty that can be called which was rather spirit, brilliancy, geniality of expression, than symmetrical mould of features. The large, full eye was of the deepest violet hue; the finely arched forehead, a little too boldly cast for feminine beauty, was shaded by masses of rich chestnut hair; the mouth,—but who could describe that mouth? Even in repose, some arch thought seemed ever at play among its changeful curves; and when she spoke or laughed, its wonderful mobility and sweetness of expression threw a perfect witchery over her face. She was quite short, and, if the truth must be told, a little too stout in figure; but this was in a great measure redeemed by a beautifully moulded neck, on which her head turned with the quickness and grace of a wild pigeon. Every motion was rapid and decided, and her whole aspect beamed with genius, gayety, and a cordial friendliness, which took the heart at first sight. And then, her voice, her laugh!—not so low as Shakspeare commends in woman, but clear, musical, true-hearted, making one glad like the song of the lark at sunrise.
Cousin Harry was a very tall, very pale, very black-haired and black-eyed young gentleman, with a high, open brow, and a very fascinating smile.
The remainder of the garden scene was to me but little more than dumb show. Perhaps it was more vividly remembered for that very reason. I recollect being busy filling a little basket with strawberries, while I watched with a pleased, childish curiosity the two young people, as they passed many times up and down the gravelled walk between the rows of flowers. I was not far from the Button-Rose, and I had nearly filled my basket, when my aunt came to the spot and stooped over the little plant. Her face was towards me, and I saw several large tears fall from her eyes upon the leaves. She broke off the most beautiful blossom, and tying it up with some sprigs of mignonette, presented it to Cousin Harry. They then left the garden.
The next day I heard it said that Cousin Harry was gone away. The little rose was brought into the house and installed in the bow-window of my aunt's room, where it was watched and tended by us both with the greatest care.
Some time after this, the news came that Cousin Harry was married. The next morning I missed my little favorite from the window. My aunt was reading when I waked.
"Oh, Aunty!" I cried, "where is our little rose?"
"It was too much trouble, Katy," said she, quietly; "I have put it into the garden."
"But isn't it going to stand in our window any more?"
"No, dear, I am tired of it."
"Oh, do bring it back! I will take the whole care of it," said I, beginning to cry.
"Katy," said my aunt, taking me into her lap, and looking steadily, but kindly, into my face, "listen to me. I do not wish to have that rose in my room any more; and if you love me, you will never mention it again."
Something in her manner prevented my uttering a word more in behalf of the poor little exile. As soon as I was dressed, I ran down into the garden to visit it. It looked very lonely, I thought; I could hardly bear to leave it. The day following, it disappeared from the garden, and old Nanny, the housemaid, told me that my aunt had given it away. I never saw it again.
Thus ended my personal acquaintance with the little Button-Rose. But that first strong impression on my fancy was indelible. The flower still lived in my memory, surrounded by associations which gave it a mystic charm. By degrees I ceased to miss it from the window; but that strange garden scene grew more and more vivid, and became a cabinet picture in one of the little inner chambers of memory, where I often pondered it with a delicious sense of mystery. The rose and humming-bird seemed to me the chief actors in the magic pantomime, and they were some way connected with my dear Aunt Linny and the black-eyed young man; but what it all meant was the great puzzle of my busy little brain. It has sometimes been a matter of curious speculation to me, what share that diminutive flower had in the development of my mind and character. With it, so it seems to me, began the first dawn of a conscious inner life. I can still recollect with wonderful distinctness what I have thought and felt since that date, while all the preceding years are vague and shadowy as an ill-remembered dream. From them I can only conjure up, as it were, my outward form,—a happy animal existence, with which scarce a feeling of self is connected; but from the time when I bore a part in this little fragment of a romance the current of identity flows on unbroken. From that light waking touch, perchance, the whole subsequent development took form and tone.—But, gentle reader, your pardon! This is nothing to my story.
Ten years had slipped away, and I was now in my sixteenth year. Of course, my little cabinet picture had been joined by many others. It was now but one in an extensive gallery; and the modest little gem, dimmed with dust, and hidden by larger pieces, had not been thought of for many a day.
External circumstances had remained much the same with us; only one great change, the death of my dear grandmother, having occurred in the family. My aunt presided over her father's household, and the admirable order and good taste which pervaded every department bore witness how well she understood combining the elements of a home.
Aunt Linny, now twenty-seven years of age, had lost nothing of her former attractiveness. The brilliant, impulsive girl had but ripened into the still more lovely woman. Her cheek was not faded nor her eye dimmed. There was the same frankness, the same heart in her glance, her smile, the warm pressure of her hand, but tempered by experience, reflection, and self-control. One felt that she could be loved and trusted with the whole heart and judgment. Her personal attractions, and yet more the charm of her sensible, genial, and racy conversation, brought to our house many pleasant visitors, and made her the sparkling centre of every circle into which she could be drawn. But it was rarely that she could be beguiled from home; for, since her mother's death, she had devoted herself heart and soul to her widowed father.
The relation between myself and my aunt was somewhat peculiar. Neither of us having associates of our own age in the family, I had become her companion, and even friend, to a degree which would have been impossible in other circumstances. She had scarcely outgrown the freshness and simplicity of childhood when I first came to live with her, and my mind and feelings had expanded rapidly under the constant stimulus of a nature so full of rich life; so that at the date I now speak of, we lived together more as sisters than as aunt and niece. An inexpressible charm rests on those days, when we read, wrote, rambled together, shared the same room, and had every pleasure, every trouble in common. All show of authority over me had gradually melted away; but her influence with me was still unbounded, for I loved her with the passionate earnestness of a first, full-hearted friendship.—But to proceed with my story.
One sweet afternoon in early summer, we two were sitting alone. The windows towards the garden were open, and the breath of lilacs and roses stole in. I had been reading to her some verses of my own, celebrating the praise of first love as an imperishable sentiment. My fancy had just been crazed with the poetry of L.E.L., who was then shining as the "bright particular star" in the literary heavens.
"The lines are very pretty," said my aunt, "but I trust it's only poetizing, Kate; I should be sorry indeed to have you join the school of romantic misses who think first love such a killing matter."
"But, Aunty," I cried, "what a horribly prosy, matter-of-fact affair life would be in any other view! I believe poetry itself would become extinct."
"So, then, if a woman is disappointed in first love, she is bound to die for the benefit of poetry!"
"But just think, Aunt Linny—if Ophelia, instead of going mad so prettily, and dying in a way to break everybody's heart, had soberly set herself to consider that there were as fine fish yet in the sea as ever were caught, and that it was best, therefore, to cheer up and wait for better times! Frightful!"
"Never trouble your little head, Kate, with fear that there will not be Ophelias enough, as long as the world stands. But I wouldn't be one, if I were you, unless I could bespeak a Shakspeare to do me into poetry. That would be an inducement, I allow. How would you fancy being a Sukey Fay, Kate?"
"Oh, the poor old wretch, with her rags and dirt and gin-bottle! Has she a story?"
"Just as romantic a one as Ophelia, only she lacks a poet. But, in sober truth, Katy, why is there not as true poetry in battling with feeling as in yielding to it? To me there seems something far more lofty and beautiful in bearing to live, under certain circumstances, than in daring to die."
"If you only spoke experimentally, dear Aunty! Oh that Plato, or John Milton, or Sir Philip Sydney would reappear, and lay all his genius and glory at your feet! I wonder if you'd be of the same mind then!"
"And then, of course, this sublime suitor must die, or desert me, to show how I would behave under the trial.—Katy," continued my aunt, after a little pause, with a smile and slight blush, "I have half a mind to tell you a little romance of my early days, when I was just your age. It may be useful to you at this point of your life."
"Is it possible?" cried I,—"a romance of your early days! Quick, let me hear!"
"I shouldn't have called it a romance, Katy; for as a story, it is just nothing. It has no interest except as marking the beginning of my education,—the education, I mean, of real life."
"But let me hear; there's some spice of poetry in it, I know."
"Well, then, it's like many another story of early fancy. In my childhood I had a playmate. Our fathers' houses stood but a few rods apart, and the families lived in habits of the closest intimacy. From my earliest remembrance, the brave little boy, four years older than I, was my sworn friend and protector; and as we increased in years, an affection warm and frank as that of brother and sister grew up between us. A love of nature and of poetry, and a certain earnestness and enthusiasm of character, which separated us both from other children, drew us closely together. At fifteen he left us to fit for college at a distant school, and thenceforward he was at home only for brief visits, till he was graduated with distinguished honor at the age of twenty-one. During those six years of separation our relation to each other had suffered no change. We had corresponded with tolerable regularity, and I had felt a sister's pride in his talents and literary honors. When, therefore, he returned home to recruit his health, which had been seriously impaired by study and confinement, I welcomed him with great joy, and with all the frankness of former times.
"Again we read, chatted, and rambled together. I found him unchanged in character, but improved, cultivated, to a degree which delighted, almost awed me. When he read our favorite authors with his rich, musical voice, and descanted on their beauties with discriminating taste and fervent poetic feeling, a new light fell on the page. Through his eyes I learned to behold in nature a richness, a grace, a harmony, a meaning, only vaguely felt before. It was as if I had just received the key to a mysterious cipher, unlocking deep and beautiful truths in earth and sea and sky, by which they were invested with a life and splendor till now unseen. But it was his noble sentiments, his generous human sympathies, his ardent aspirations after honorable distinction to be won by toil and self-denial, which woke my heart as by an electric touch. My own unshaped, half-conscious aims and aspirations, stirred with life, took wing and soared with his into the pure upper air. Ah! it was a bright, beautiful dream, Kate, the life of those few months. I never once thought of love, nor of the possibility of separation. All flowed so naturally from our life-long intimacy, that I had not the slightest suspicion of the change which had come over me. But the hour of waking was at hand. We had looked forward to the settled summer weather for a marked improvement in his health. But June had come and he still seemed very delicate. His physician prescribed travelling and change of climate; and though his high spirits had deceived me as to his real danger, I urged him to go. He left us to visit an elder brother residing in one of the Middle States. Ten years this very month!" added Aunt Linny, with an absent air.
"Ten years ago this very month," I exclaimed, "did my distinguished self arrive at this venerable mansion. What a singular conjunction of events! No doubt our horoscopes would reveal some strange entanglement of destinies at this point. Perchance I, even I, was 'the star malign' whose rising disturbed the harmonious movement of the spheres!"
"No doubt of it; the birth of a mouse once caused an earthquake, you know."
"But could I have seen him? Did I arrive before he had left?"
"Oh, yes, very likely; but of course you can have no recollection of him, such a chit as you were then."
"What was his name?" I cried, eagerly. A long-silent chord of memory began to give forth a vague, uncertain murmur.
"Oh, no matter, Kate. I would a little rather you shouldn't know. It doesn't affect the moral of the story, which was all I had in view in relating it."
"A plague take the moral, Aunty! The romance is what I want; and what's that without 'the magic of a name'?"
"Tell me his Christian name, then,—just for a peg to hang my ideas on; that is, if it's meat for romance. If it is Isaac or Jonathan, you needn't mention it."
"Well, then, you tease,—I called him Cousin Harry."
"Cousin Harry!" I screamed, starting forward, and staring at her with eyes wide open.
"Yes; but what ails you, child? You glare upon me like a maniac."
"Hush! hush! don't speak!" said I.
As I sunk back, in a sort of dream, into the rocking-chair in which I had been idling, the garden caught my eye through the open window. The gate overarched with honeysuckle, the long alley with its fragrant flowering border, the grape arbor, the steep green hill behind, lay before me in the still, rich beauty of June. In a twinkling, memory had swept the dust from my little cabinet picture, and let in upon it a sudden light. The ten intervening years vanished like a dream, and that long-forgotten garden scene started up, vivid as in the hour when it actually passed before my eyes. The clue to that mystery which had so spellbound my childish fancy was at length found. I sat for a time in silence, lost in a delicious, confused reverie.
"The Button-Rose was a gift from him, then?" were my first words.
"What, Kate?" said Aunt Linny, now opening her large blue eyes with a strange look.
"Did you give away the flower-pot too? That was so pretty! Whom did you give it to?"
"Incredible!" she exclaimed, coloring, and with the strongest expression of surprise. "Truly, little pitchers have not been slandered!"
"But the wonderful humming-bird, Aunty! What had that to do with it?"
"Kate," said my aunt, "you talk like one in sleep. Wake up, and let me know what all this means."
"I see it all now!" I rattled on, more to myself than her. "First young love,—parting gift,—Cousin Harry proves fickle,—Aunt Linny banishes the Button-Rose from her window,—takes to books, and educating naughty nieces, and doing good to everybody,—'bearing to live,' as more heroic than 'daring to die,'—in ten years gets so that she can speak of it with composure, as a lesson to romantic girls. So?"
"Even so, Katy!" she replied, quietly; "and to that early disappointment I owe more than to anything that ever befell me."
She said this with a smile; but her voice trembled a little, and I perceived that a soft dew had gathered over her eyes. By an irresistible impulse I rose, and stealing softly behind her, clasped my arms round her neck, and kissing her forehead whispered, "Forgive me, sweet Aunty!"
"Not a bit of harm, Katy," she replied, drawing me down for a warm kiss. "But what a gypsy you must be," she added, in her usually lively tone, "to have trudged along so many years with this precious little bundle, and said never a word to anybody!"
"I've not thought of it myself, these ever so many years," said I, "and it seems like witchwork that it should all have come to me at this moment."
I then related to her my childish reminiscences and speculations, which amused her not a little. Her hearty, mirthful zest showed that the theme was not a disquieting one. I now begged her to proceed with her story.
"But stay a moment," said I; "let me fetch our garden bonnets, that we may enjoy it in the very scene of the romance."
"Ah, Kate, you are bent on making a heroine of me!" was the reply, as she took her seat in the grape arbor; "but there are really no materials. I shall finish in fifteen minutes by my watch, and you'll drop me as an Ophelia, I venture to say. Cousin Harry had left us, as I told you, to visit his brother. For some months his letters were very frequent, and as the time approached for his return they grew increasingly cheerful, and—Katy, I cannot but excuse myself in part, when I recall the magic charm of those letters. But no matter; all of a sudden they ceased, and for several weeks not a word was heard from him by his own family. At length, when my anxiety had become wellnigh intolerable, there came a brief letter to his father, announcing his marriage with the sister of his brother's wife, and his decision to enter into business with his brother."
"Did you know anything of the young lady?"
"He had once or twice mentioned her in his letters as a beautiful, amiable creature, whose education had been shamefully neglected. Her kindness to him in his illness and loneliness, added to her natural charms, won his heart, no doubt many a wise man has been caught in that snare."
"But what base conduct towards you!"
"Not at all, my dear! My dream had suffused his words with its own coloring,—that was all. As soon as reason could make her voice heard, I acquitted him of all blame. His feelings towards me had been those of a brother,—no more."
"But why, then, did he cease to write? why not share his new happiness with so dear a friend?"
"That was not unnatural, after what he had said of the young lady's deficiencies. Probably the awkwardness of the thing led him to defer writing from time to time, till he had become so absorbed in his domestic relations and his business, that he had ceased to think of it. Life's early dewdrops often exhale in that way, Kate!"
"Then life is a hateful stupidity!"
"Yes; if it could be morning all day, and childhood could outlast our whole lives, it would be very charming. But life has jewels that don't exhale, Kate, but sparkle brightest in the hottest sun. These lie deep in the earth, and to dig them out requires more than a child's strength of heart and arm. One must be well inured to toil and weather before he can win these treasures; but when once he wears these in his bosom he doesn't sigh for dewdrops."
"Well, let me hear how you were inured."
"The news of this marriage revealed to me, as by a flash of lightning, my whole inner world of feeling. When I knew that he was forever lost, I first knew what he had become to me. The pangs of disappointment, of self-humiliation,—I hardly know which were the stronger,—were like poisoned arrows in my heart. It was my first trouble, and I had to bear it in silence and alone. Not for worlds would I have had it guessed that I had cherished an unreturned affection, and it would have killed me to hear him blamed. Towards him I had, in my most secret heart, no emotion of resentment or reproach. A feeling of dreary loss, of a long, weary life from which all the flowers had vanished, a sort of tender self-pity, filled my heart. It is not worth while to detail the whole process by which I gradually forced myself out of this miserable state. One thing helped me much. As soon as the first bitterness of my heart was passed, I saw clearly that the indulgence of such a sentiment towards one who was now the husband of another could not be innocent. It must not be merely concealed; it must be torn up, root and branch. With this steadily before my mind as the central point of my efforts, I worked my way step by step. First came the removal of the numerous little mementos of those happy days in dreamland, the sight of which softened my heart into weakness and vain regret. Next I threw aside my favorite works of imagination and feeling, and for two years read scarcely a book which did not severely task my mind. I devoted myself more to my mother, and interested myself in the poor and sick. Last, not least, I resolved on taking the whole charge of your education, Katy; and of my various specifics, I think I would recommend the training of such an elf as the 'sovereignest remedy' for first love. The luxuriant growth of your character interested, stimulated, kept me perpetually on the alert. I soon began to work con amore at this task; my spirits caught at times the contagious gayety of yours; my poor heart was refreshed by your warm childish love. In short, I began to live again. But, ah! dear Kate, it was a long, stern conflict. Many, many months, yes, years, passed by, ere those troubled waters became clear and still. But I held firmly on my way, and the full reward came at last. By degrees I had created within and around me a new world of interest and activity, in which this little whirlpool of morbid feeling became an insignificant point. I was conscious of the birth of new energies, of a bolder and steadier sweep of thought, of fuller sympathies, of that settled quiet and harmony of soul which are to be gained only in the school of self-discipline. That dream of my youth now lies like a soft cloud far off in the horizon, beautiful with the morning tints of memory, but casting no shadow."
She paused; then added, in a lively tone: "Well, Kate, the fifteen minutes are not out, and yet my story is done. Think you now it would really have been better to go a-swinging on a willow-tree over a pond, and so have made a good poetical end?"
"Oh, I am so glad you were not such a goose as to make a swan of yourself, like poor Ophelia!" said I, throwing my arms around her, and giving her half a dozen kisses. "But tell me truly, was I indeed such a blessing to you, 'the very cherubim that did preserve thee'? To think of the repentance I have wasted over my childish naughtiness, when it was all inspired by your good angel! I shall take heed to this hint."
"Do so, Kate, and your good angel will doubtless inspire in me a suitable response."
"But tell me now, Aunt Linny, who the living man was. Was he a real cousin?"
"I may as well tell you, Kate, or you will get it from your 'familiar.' You have heard of our rich cousin in Cuba, Henry Morrison?"
"Oh, yes; I have heard grandfather speak of him. So, then, he was Cousin Harry! I should like one chance at his hair, for all his goodness. Did you ever meet again?"
"Never. His father's family soon removed to a distant place, so that there was no necessity for visiting the old home. But I have always heard him spoken of as an upright merchant and a cultivated and generous man. He has resided several years in Cuba. A year or two since, he went to Europe for his wife's health, and there she died. Rumor now reports him as about to become the husband of an Englishwoman of high connections. I should be very glad to see him once more.—But come now, Kate, let's have a decennial celebration of our two anniversaries. Lay the tea-table in the grape arbor, and then invite grandpapa to a feast of strawberries and cream."
I hastily ornamented our rural banquet-hall with long branches of roses and honeysuckles in full bloom, stuck into the leafy roof. As we sat chatting and laughing over our simple treat, a humming-bird darted several times in and out. "A messenger!" whispered I to Aunt Linny. "Depend upon it, Cousin Harry didn't marry the English lady."
The next morning I slept late. Fancy had all night been busy, combining her old and new materials into many a wild shape. After my aunt had risen at her usual early hour, I fell into one of those balmy morning-naps which make up for a whole night's unrest. I dreamed still, but the visions floated by with that sweet changeful play which soothes rather than fatigues the brain. The principal objects were always the same; but the combination shifted every instant, as by the turn of a kaleidoscope. At length they arranged themselves in a lovely miniature scene in a convex mirror. There bloomed the little Button-Rose in the centre, and above it the humming-bird glanced and murmured, and now and then darted his slender bill deep into the bosom of the flowers. With hands clasped above this central object, as if exchanging vows upon an altar, stood the young human pair. Of a sudden, old Cornelius Agrippa was in the room, robed in a black scholar's-gown, over which his snowy beard descended nearly to his knees. Stretching forth a long white wand, he touched the picture, and immediately a wedding procession began to move out of the magic crystal, the figures, as they emerged, assuming the size of life. First tripped a numerous train of white-robed little maidens, scattering flowers; then came a priest in surplice and bands, holding before him a great open service-book; after him, the bridal pair, attended by their friends. But by an odd trick of fancy, the bridegroom, who looked very stately and happy, appeared with the china flower-pot containing the Button-Rose balanced on the end of his nose! Awaked by my own laughter at this comical sight, I opened my eyes and found Aunt Linny sitting on the bedside and laughing with me.
"I should have waked you before, Katy," said she, "if you had not seemed to be enjoying yourself so much. Come, unfold your dream. I presume it will save me the trouble of telling you the contents of this wonderful epistle which I hold in my hand."
"It's from Cousin Harry! Huzza!" cried I, springing up to snatch it.
But she held it out of my reach. "Softly! good Mistress Fortuneteller," said she. "Read me the letter without seeing it, and then I shall know that you can tell the interpretation thereof."
"Of course it's from Cousin Harry. That's what the humming-bird came to say last night. As for the contents,—he's not married,—his heart turns to the sister-friend of his youth,—he yearns to look into her lustrous orbs once more,—she alone, he finds, is the completion of his 'Ich.' He hastens across the dark blue sea; soon will she behold him at her feet."
"Alas, poor gypsy, thou hast lost thy silver penny this time. The letter is indeed from Cousin Harry, and that of itself is one of life's wonders. But it is addressed with all propriety to his 'venerable uncle.' He arrived from Europe a month since, and being now on a tour for health and pleasure, proposes to make a hasty call on his relatives and visit the old homestead. He brings his bride with him. Now, Kate, be stirring; they will be here to-night, and we must look our prettiest."
"The hateful, prosy man! I'll not do anything to make his visit agreeable," said I, pettishly.
"Why, Kate, what are you conjuring up in your foolish little noddle?"
"Oh, I supposed an éclaircissement would come round somehow, and we should finish the romance in style."
"Why, Kate, do you really wish to get rid of me?"
"No, indeed! I wouldn't have you accept his old withered heart for the world. But I wanted you to have the triumph of rejecting it. 'Indeed, my dear cousin,'—thus you should have said,—'I shall always be interested in you as a kinsman, but I can never love you.'"
"Kate is crazed!" she exclaimed, in a voice of despair. "Why, dear child, there is not a shadow of foundation for this nonsense. I am heartily glad at the thought of seeing my cousin once more, and all the gladder that he brings a wife with him. Will you read the letter?"
I read it twice, and then asked,—"Where does he mention his wife?"
"Why, there,—don't you see? 'I shall bring with me a young lady, whom, though a stranger and a foreigner, I trust you will be pleased to welcome.' Isn't that plain?"
The inference seemed sufficiently natural; but the slight uncertainty was the basis of many entertaining dreams through the day. I resolved to hold fast my faith in romance till the last moment. Towards evening, when the parlors and guest-chambers had received the last touches, when the silver had been polished, the sponge-cake and tarts baked, and our own toilette made,—when, in short, nothing remained to be done, my excitement and impatience rose to the highest pitch. I ran repeatedly down the avenue, and finally mounted with a pocket-telescope to the top of the house for a more extensive survey.
"See you aught, Sister Annie?" called my aunt from below.
"Nothing yet, good Fatima!—spin out thy prayers a little longer. Stay! a cloud of dust, a horseman!—no doubt an outrider hastening on to announce his approach. Ah! he passes, the stupid clown! Another! Nay, that was only a Derby wagon; the stars forbid that our deliverer should come in a Derby! But now, hush! there's a bonâ fide barouche, two black horses, black driver and all. Almost at the turn! O gentle Ethiopian, tarry! this is the castle! Go, then, false man! Fatima, thy last hope is past! No, they stop! the gentleman looks out! he waves his hand this way! Aunt Linny, 'tis he! the carriage is coming up the avenue!" So saying, I threw down the telescope and flew to her room.
"You are right, Kate, it must be he," said she, glancing through the window, and then following me quietly down stairs.
The carriage stopped, and we all went down the steps to receive our long absent relative. A tall, pale gentleman in black sprang out and came hurriedly towards us. He looked much older than I had expected; but the next instant the flash of his black eye, and the eloquent smile which lighted up his pensive countenance as with a sunbeam, brought back the Cousin Harry of ten years ago. He returned my grandfather's truly paternal greeting with the most affectionate cordiality; but with scarce a reply to my aunt's frank welcome, gave her his arm, and made a movement towards the house.
"But, cousin," said she, smiling, "what gem have you there, hidden in the carriage, too precious to be seen? We have a place in our hearts for the fair stranger, I assure you."
"Ah, poor thing! I had quite forgotten her," said he, coloring and laughing, as he turned towards the carriage.
Aunt Linny and I exchanged mirthful glances at this treatment of a bride; but the next instant he had lifted out and led towards us a small female personage, who, when her green veil was thrown aside, proved to be a lovely girl of some seven or eight years.
"Permit me," said he, smiling, "to present Miss Caroline Morrison, 'sole daughter of my house and heart.'"
"But the stranger, the foreign lady?" inquired Aunt Linny, as she kissed and welcomed the child.
"Why, this is she,—this young Cuban! Whom else did you look for?" was the reply, in a tone of surprise, and, as it seemed to me, of slight vexation.
"We expected a lady with a few more years on her head," interposed grandpapa; "but the little pet is just as welcome. There, Katy, this curly-pate will answer as well as a wax doll for you."
The dear old gentleman could never realize that I was grown up to be a woman. Of course, I was now introduced in due form, and we went together up the steps.
"How pleasant, how familiar all things look!" said our visitor, pausing and gazing round him. "Why, uncle, you must have had your house, and yourself, and everything about you insured against old age. Nothing has changed except to improve. I see the very picture I carried with me ten years ago."
The tears stood in my grandfather's eyes. "You have forgotten one great change, dear nephew," said he; "against that we could find no insurance."
"How could I forget?" was the answer, in a low tone, full of feeling, his own eyes filling with moisture. "My dear aunt! I shed many tears with and for you, when I heard of her death." He looked extremely amiable at this moment; I knew that I should love him.
My aunt smiled through her tears, and said, very sweetly, "The thought of her should cheer, and not cloud our meeting. Her presence never brought me sorrow, nor does her remembrance. Come, dear," she added, cheerfully, taking the child's hand, "come in and rest your poor little tired self. Kate, find the white kitten for her. A prettier one you never saw in France or Cuba, Miss Carrie,—that's what papa calls you, I suppose?"
"It used to be my name," said the little smiler; "but papa always calls me Linny now, because he thinks it sweeter."
"What say you to the humming-bird now?" I whispered to my aunt, as we were a moment alone in the tea-room.
"Kate, I wish you were fifty miles off at this moment! It was no good angel that deluded me into telling you that foolish tale last evening. Indeed, Kate," added she, earnestly, "you will seriously compromise me, if you are not more careful. Promise me that you will not make one more allusion of this kind, even to me, while they remain!"
"But I may give you just a look, now and then?"
"Do you wish me to repent having trusted you, Kate?"
"I promise, aunty,—by my faith in first love!"
"Nonsense! Go, call them to tea."
Our kinsman had been easily persuaded to remain with us a week, and a charming week it had been to all of us. He had visited all the West India Islands, and the most interesting portions of England and the Continent. My grandfather, who, as the commander of his own merchant-ship, had formerly visited many foreign countries, was delighted to refresh his recollections of distant scenes, and to live over again his adventures by sea and land. The conversation of our guest with his uncle was richly instructive and entertaining; for he had a lively appreciation of national and individual character, and could illustrate them by a world of amusing anecdote. The old veteran's early fondness for his nephew revived in full force, and his enjoyment was alloyed only by the dread of a new separation. "What shall I do when you are gone, Harry!" was his frequent exclamation; and then he would sigh and shake his head, and wish he had one son left.
But the richest treat for my aunt and me was reserved till the late evening, when the dear patriarch had retired to rest. Those warm, balmy nights on the piazza, with the moonlight quivering through the vines, and turning the terraced lawn with fantastic mixture of light and shadow into a fairy scene, while the cultivated traveller discoursed of all things beautiful in nature and art, were full of witchery. Mont Blanc at sunrise, the wild scenery of the Simplon, the exhumed streets of Pompeii, the Colosseum by moonlight, those wondrous galleries of painting and sculpture of which I had read as I had read of the palace of Aladdin and the gardens of the genii,—the living man before me had seen all these! I looked upon him as an ambassador from the world of poetry. But even this interested me less than the tone of high and manly sentiment by which his conversation was pervaded, the feeling reminiscences of endeared friendships formed in those far-off lands, the brief glimpses of deep sorrows bravely borne; and I watched with a sweet, sly pleasure my aunt's quiet surrender to the old spell.
"It makes me very happy, Kate," said she one day, "to have found my cousin and friend again. I am glad to feel that friendships springing from the pure and good feelings of the heart are not so transient as I have sometimes been tempted to think them. They may be buried for years under a drift of new interests; but give them air, and they will live again."
"What is that remark of Byron about young ladies' friendship? Take care, take care!" said I, shaking my head, gravely; "receive the warning of a calm observer!"
"Oh, no, Kate! this visit is but a little green oasis in the desert. In a day or two we shall separate, probably forever; but both, I doubt not, will be happier through life for this brief reunion. His plan is to make his future residence in France."
At the end of the week our kinsman left us for a fortnight's visit to the metropolis. Intending to give us a call on his return south, he willingly complied with our desire to leave his little girl with us. As we were sitting together in my aunt's room after his departure, the child brought her a small packet which her father had intrusted to her. "I believe," said the little smiler, "he said it was a story for you to read. Won't you please to read it to me?" She took it with a look of surprise and curiosity, and immediately opened it and began to read. But her color soon began to vary, her hand trembled, and presently laying down the sheets in her lap, she sat lost in thought.
"It seems a moving story!" I remarked, dryly.
"Kate, this is the strangest affair!—But I can't tell you now; I must read it first alone."
She left the room, and I heard the key turn in the lock as she entered another chamber. In about an hour she came out very composedly, and said nothing more on the subject.
After our little guest was asleep at night, I could restrain myself no longer. "You are treating me shabbily, aunty," said I. "See if I am ever a good girl again to please you!"
"You shall know it all, Katy; I only wished to think it over first by myself. There, take the letter; but make no note or comment till I mention it again."
The letter of Cousin Harry seemed to me rather matter-of-fact, I must confess, till near the end, where he spoke of a little nosegay which he enclosed, and which would speak to her of dear old times.
"But where is the nosegay, aunty?"
With a beautiful flush, as if the sunset of that vanished day were reddening the sky of memory, she drew a small packet from her bosom, and in it I found a withered rose-bud tied up with a shrivelled sprig of mignonette.
I am afraid that my Aunt Linny's answer was a great deal more proper than I should have wished; and yet, with all its emphatic expressions of duty towards her father and the impossibility of leaving him, there must have been something between the lines which I could not read. I have since discovered that all such epistles have their real meaning concealed in some kind of more rarefied sympathetic ink, which betrays itself only under the burning hands of a lover.
"So, then," said Aunt Linny, as she was sealing this letter, "you see, Katy, that your romance has come to an untimely end."
I turned round her averted face with both my hands, and looked in her eyes till she blushed and laughed in spite of herself.
"My knowledge of symptoms is not large," said I, "but I have a conviction that his health will now endure a northern climate."
"Let's talk no more of this!" said she, putting me aside with a gentle gravity, which checked my nonsense. But as I was unable to detect in her, on this or the following day, the slightest depression of spirits, I shrewdly guessed that our anticipations of the result were not very dissimilar.
The next return post brought, not the expected letter, but our hero himself. I was really amazed at the change in his appearance. Erect, elastic, his face radiant with expression, he looked years younger than at his first arrival. I caught Aunt Linny's eloquent glance of surprise and pleasure as they met. For a moment the bridal pair of my dream stood living before me; then vanished even more suddenly than that fancy show of the old magician. When we again met, two or three hours after, my aunt's serene smile and dewy eyes told me that all was right.
In a month the wedding took place, and the "happy pair" started off on a few weeks' excursion. As I was helping my aunt exchange her bridal for her travelling attire, I whispered, "What say you to my doctrine of first love, aunty?"
"That it finds its best refutation in my experience. No, believe me, dearest Katy, the true jewel of life is a spirit that can rule itself, that can subject even the strongest, dearest impulses to reason and duty. Without it, indeed," she added, with a soft earnestness, "affection towards the worthiest object becomes an unworthy sentiment—And besides, Kate,"—here her eye gleamed with girlish mirth —"you see, if I had made love my all, I should have missed it all. Not even Cousin Harry's constancy would have been proof against a withered, whining, sentimental old maid."
"Well, you will allow that it's a great paradox, aunty! If you believe in my doctrine, it turns out a mere delusion; if you don't believe in it, 'tis sure to come true."
"Take care, then, and disbelieve in it with all your might!" said she, laughing, and kissing me, as we left her room,—my room alone henceforth. A shadow seemed to fill it, as she passed the threshold.