The Perfume of the Rose

The Perfume of the Rose  (1899) 
by Flora Annie Steel

Extracted from Windsor magazine, V 11 1899-1900, pp. 17-25. Accompanying illustrations by R. Caton Woodville, R.I. may be omitted. A story of love and hate; of two English lovers caught in the Indian Rebellion of 1857* [The English rulers preferred to call it the Indian Mutiny]


THE PERFUME OF THE ROSE.

BY FLORA ANNIE STEEL

" I THINK we ought to be going back to the others," said the girl. She was a pretty, fair, English girl, fresh as a rose in her dainty pink muslin dress, flounced as they wore them in the Mutiny year—in three full flounces to the waist, like the corolla of a flower. And the lace sunshade she held tilted over her shoulder, as a protection against the slanting rays of the afternoon sun, added to her rose-likeness by its calyx of pale green lining.

"Ought we?" said the young Englishman who walked beside her, his hand clasping hers. They were a good-looking pair, pleasant to behold. "What a bore! It is so jolly here."

The epithet was not happy, save as an expression of the speaker's frame of mind. For the garden into which these engaged lovers had wandered away from the gay party of English men and women, who had taken possession of the marble summer-house in its centre for a picnic (or, as the natives call it, "a fools' dinner"), was something more than folly.

It was beautiful, this garden of a dead dynasty, of kings past and gone like last year's roses.

But there were roses still, and to spare, within those high four-square walls that were hidden from each other by the burnished orange groves, by the tall forest trees fringing the cross of wide marble aqueducts bordered by wide paths.

Such blossoming trees! The kachnar flinging its bare branches, set thick with its geranium flowers, against the creamy feathers waving among the dense, dark foliage of the mangoes. The bakayun drooping its long lilac tassels beside the great gold ones of the umultâs. And here and there, its whole vitality lavished on a monstrous leaf or two, a huge flower or two, white, curved solid as if cut in cold marble, yet with a warm fragrance at its heart, a hill magnolia challenged the scent of the roses below.

Ineffectually. At least, here, in this square of the garden; for that cross of wide, empty aqueducts divided it into squares.

And this one was a square of roses; roses everywhere, even in the lower level of what, in the old kingly days, had been a marble-edged waterway; which now, half filled with soil, held more roses.

But they were all of one kind, the pink Persian rose, whose outer petals pale in the sunlight, whose rose-of-roses' heart is full of an almost piercing perfume. What wonder, when it is the otto-of-roses rose! It grew here for that set purpose in orderly lines, its grey-green velvety leaves almost hidden by its profusion of flowers.

And the scent of them filled the whole square of garden, where the air, still warm from the past noon, lay prisoned in that fringe of blossoming trees.

It seemed to fill the brain also with the quintessence of gladness, beauty, life, and love. So his arm sought her waist and their lips met.

But only for a second; the next, her blush matching her flounces, she had drawn back, and he, with an angry frown, was glaring in the direction of the notes which had interrupted them.

It was a high, clear voice, full of little trills and bubblings like a bird's, and it sang on insistently, as if to give those two time to recover from their confusion. And as it sang, the Persian vowels seemed as piercingly sweet as the perfume into which they echoed.

"The rose-root takes earth's kisses for its meat;
The rose-leaf makes its blush from the sun's heat,
The rose-scent wakes—who knows from what thing sweet?
Who knows
The secret of the perfume of the rose?"

As the song ended a head showed above the tufted bushes. It was rather a fine head, bare of covering, its long, grizzled hair, parted in the middle, lying in a smooth outward curve, then sweeping in an equal inside curve between the ear and throat. So much, no more, was to be seen above the roses, save, for a moment, a long-fingered, delicate brown hand hiding the face in its salaam.

[Illustration: "A head showed above the tufted bushes.'"]

"Who the shaitan are you?" asked the young man fiercely in Hindustani.

The head and hands met in a second salaam, then the face showed—rather a fine face, preternaturally grave, but with a cunning comprehension in its gravity.

"I am Hushmut the essence-maker, Huzoor," was the reply. "I belong to the garden, and, being hidden from the noble people, in my occupation of plucking roses for my still, I sang, to let them know."

The young Englishman gave a half-embarrassed laugh. "What does he say?" asked the girl. She had only been two months in India, and these had been spent in falling in love.

"He thought we might like to know he was there, that's all—a joke, isn't it?" answered her lover. She smiled, and so, holding each other's hands boldly, they stood facing that head above the roses.

He nodded cheerfully. "The Huzoors are doubtless 'about-to-marry-persons,'" came the voice. "It is not always so, even with the Huzoors. But this being different, if they require essences for the bridal, let them come to Hushmut. Rose, jasmine, orange, sandal, lemon-grass. I make them all in their season. Yea, even wylet [1] which the mems love. It is not really banafsha, Huzoor; they grow not in the plains. I make it from the babul blossom, and none could tell the difference. Mayhap there is none, since He who makes the perfume of the flowers in His still may send the same to many blossoms, as I send my essences to many lovers—even the noble people!"

There was distinct raillery in the last words, and the young Englishman's smile vanished.

"We people hold not with essences," he said curtly, adding to the girl, "Come, dear, I think we ought to go back. Your father will be wanting to go home—he has a lot of work, I know!"

A shuffle in the bushes made the lovers pause; a curious shuffle such as a wounded bird makes in its efforts to escape.

"If the most noble will tarry, this slave will at least make the luck-offering to the bride," came the voice again, and to point its meaning the delicate brown hand held up a circular shallow basket heaped with rose-petals—heaped so lightly that the hand held it level, and it seemed to glide on the top of the bushes, heralding the grizzled head which slid after it with a faintly undulating movement.

The cause of this became clear when the limit of the roses was reached.

Hushmut the essence-maker must have been a cripple from birth. The loose blue cloth, such as gardeners wear knotted round their loins like a petticoat, hid, however, all deformity, even when he clambered up the marble edge of the old waterway and shuffled with sidelong jerks along to the pink muslin flounces.

The wearer's eyes grew soft suddenly. Perhaps the mystery of such births came home to the woman who was so soon to be a wife, perhaps a mother. She gave him a mother's look, anyhow, the look of almost passionate pity a woman gives to a child's deformity.

Perhaps he saw it. Anyhow, he paused, then, with his bold black eyes twinkling, held out the basket.

"A handful, Huzoor, for luck!" he cried.

"A rose ungathered is but a rose;
Pluck it, lover, don't mind a thorn!
Tuck it away in your bosom-clothes
And drink its beauty from night to morn."

The voice trilled and bubbled quite decorously, but the young Englishman intercepted a deliberate wink, and felt inclined to kick Hushmut to lower levels, till he remembered that the girl could not understand.

"Take a handful," he said, "and let's get rid of him." The girl obeyed, but, by mere chance, the little white hand with his ring on it did tuck the handful of pink rose-leaves away in the loose pink ruffles on her breast, whereat Hushmut's approval became so unmistakable that the young Englishman felt that the only thing was to escape from it.

Yet as he hurried the girl back to the summer-house he turned to listen to the essence-maker's voice as he went on with his song and his rose-picking.

"Dig, gardener, deep, till the Earth-lips cling tight.
Prune, gardener! keep those blushes to the light.
Then, gardener, sleep. He brings the scent by night
Who knows
The secret of the perfume of the rose."

There was nothing to be seen now but the stunted grey-green bushes half hidden in blossom; even the head had disappeared. They were a queer people, thought the young man; very difficult to understand. Then the refrain returned to him.

"Who knows
The secret of the perfume of the rose."

"Hushmut?" answered an older man who lounged smoking in one of the marble-fretted balconies of the dead king's pleasure-house. "Ah, yes, he is quite a character. A scoundrel, I believe; at least, he knows all the worst lots in the city. They come to the garden at night, you see, and the bazaar women get all their essences from him. So I expect he knows, at any rate, of all the devilry that's going on. I wish I did." The speaker's face looked a trifle harassed.

"Is it true, sir, what they say?" asked another voice—"that Hushmut is really the king's son; that his mother was a Brahmin girl they kidnapped, who cried herself to death in one of these rooms. Then, when the child was a cripple, the king—by Jove, he was a brute!—disowned it."

"Is that about Hushmut?" asked the girl, who had joined the group in time to hear the last words.

The men looked at each other, and the older one said, "Yes, my dear; they say he was deserted by his parents because he was a cripple. Rather rough on him. Now I think I'll go and get your mother to come home. It's getting late. You'll follow, I suppose."

"Yes, father, with him," she said with a rose blush.

So, by degrees, in couples as a rule, but sometimes with a pale-faced child tucked into the carriage between father and mother, the pleasure-seekers left the garden of dead kings to the scent of the roses—left it cheerfully, calling back to their friends times and places where they were to meet again, as English men and women did on those fatal evenings in May, 1857.

Only the girl, in her pink frock, and her lover lingered, while the dogcart in which he was to drive her home waited under the blossoming trees.

And as they stood talking, as lovers will, Hushmut, the essence-maker, thinking the coast was clear, came shuffling down the scented shadow of the path—for the sun had left the garden—pushing his basket of rose-leaves before him, dragging his crippledom behind him.

"Do you think he would show us his still?" said the girl suddenly. "I've never seen one. Ask him, will you?"

Hushmut's big, bold, black eyes twinkled. Certainly the miss-sahiba might see. There was no secret in his work. He took the scent as he found it, as wise men took love.

Again there was that faint suspicion of raillery, only to be pardoned by the girl's ignorance, and also by a conviction that Hushmut counted on that ignorance and meant the remark only for the young Englishman. And so, oddly, the latter became conscious of a distinct antagonism between himself and the crippled essence-maker. It was absurd, ludicrous, but it existed, nevertheless.

There was not much to see in those vaults under the plinth of the pleasure-palace in which Hushmut had set up his distillery. They were very low, very dark, the only light coming through the open door, and from the row of rose-shaped air-holes pierced at intervals in the plinth. Viewed from outside, these formed part of its raised and pierced marble decoration. From within they looked quaint and flowerlike, set as they were in the dim, shadowy vault, hidden here and there by the dumpy columns, showing through the arches distantly, softly, brightly pink; for Hushmut had pasted pink paper over them, to keep out the bees and wasps, he explained, which otherwise, led by the scent of the flowers, came in troublesome numbers.

The rude still, like a huge cooking-pot, stood in one corner, and all about it lay trays on trays of fading rose-leaves.

"Pah! How sickly sweet! Let's get outside," said the young man after a brief glance round. But the girl stood looking curiously at a brownish-yellow mass piled beside the still. "What is that?" she asked. Hushmut's black eyes turned to her comprehendingly; he shuffled to the pile and held out a sample for her to see. She bent to look at it.

"Rose-leaves!" she said. "Oh! I see—after the scent has been taken out of them. Poor things! What a shame!"

Hushmut said something rapidly in Hindustani, and the girl turned to her companion for explanation.

"He says," translated the latter, with a curiously grudging note in his voice, "that they have their use. He dries them in the sun and burns them in the furnace of his still."

She shook her head and smiled. "That's poor compensation!" Then she bent closer and sniffed regretfully at what Hushmut held.

"All gone!" she said, so like a child that her lover laughed at her tenderly.

"What else did you expect, you goose! 'Only the actions of the just smell sweet and blossom in the dust!' So come, we really must be off—it's getting late."

He felt in his pocket, and held out a backsheesh to Hushmut; but the latter shook his head and once more said something rapidly in Hindustani. It had a note of petition in it, but the request was apparently not to the hearer's taste. That was to be seen from his face.

[Illustration: "'May He who knows the secret of the rose protect the bride.'"]

"What does he want?" asked the girl curiously.

"Nothing he is going to get," replied her lover, moving off; "the cheek of the man!"

But the pink muslin stood its ground.

"What is it? " she persisted. "I want to know. He doesn't look to me as if he meant to be rude, and—and"—her face softened—"if it is anything we can do, I'd like to do it. Tell me, please."

The young fellow shrugged his shoulders impatiently. "Oh, only foolery! He wants you to give him back some of the rose-leaves he gave you, that he may put them in his new brew, to—to make it sweeter; says the luck gift of a bride always does——"

The girl blushed and smiled all over. "Well, why not? It is a pretty idea, anyhow." She drew out the handful of rose-leaves as she spoke, then paused with a faint wonder, for the warmth of their shelter had made their perfume almost bewildering.

"How—how sweet they are!" she murmured. Then, still smiling, but with the blush faded almost to paleness, she dropped the rose-leaves into the delicate, long-fingered hand.

"I hope it will be the sweetest essence you ever made," she said with a laugh; and Hushmut seemed to understand, for he smiled back and salaamed as he, in his turn, tucked the charm into his bosom for use when the still should be ready for closing; and as he did so he said in his high, suave voice, "May He who knows the secret of the rose protect the bride." He said it without the least suspicion of reality—simply as a dignified piece of courtesy.

A minute afterwards the wheels of that last dogcart, as it drove out of the garden, disturbed the birds who had already begun to choose their resting-places for the night, since they, too, looked for the usual rest and peace in that fatal Maytime.

And for a space the peace, the rest settled on the garden. Only Hushmut's voice, as he busied himself in packing the pink petals into his still, told of any life in it beyond the birds, the flowers, the bees.

One of these, belated, drifted into the vault through the open door, and hummed a background to the high, trilling voice.

"Pale, pale are the rose lips, sweet!
Red is the heart of the rose,
But red are the lips mine meet,
And your heart white as the snows."

Then a faint, almost noiseless patter of bare running feet paused at the door, and someone looked in to say breathlessly—

"It hath begun, they say. But who knows? I am off to the city to see."

Hushmut looked up, startled, from his rose-leaves—startled, nothing more.

"Begun? so soon? wherefore?"

"God knows!" came the breathless voice. "Mayhap it is a lie. Some thought it would not come at all. I will return and tell thee the news."

The faint, almost noiseless patter of bare feet died away, and there was peace and rest in the garden for another space. Only Hushmut shuffled to the door, looked out curiously, then shuffled back to his work; for that must be finished before dark, else the roses would spoil, squandering their sweetness. There was another pile of brownish-yellow residuum ready dried for the furnace, and as he filled a basket with it, his hands among the scentless stuff, a sudden remembrance of his own impotence, his own deprivation, came to him. Perhaps he had seen a hint of the simile in the English girl's face.

He smiled half cynically, and muttered—"Only the dust of the rose remains for the perfume-seller."

He paused almost before the bit of treasured wisdom was ended. There was a sound of wheels, of a galloping horse's. feet. Someone was coming back to the garden.

The next instant, through the open door, he saw two figures running—an Englishman, an English girl in a pink dress; the man's arm was round her as he ran; he looked back fearfully, then seemed to whisper something in her ear, and she gave answer back.

What was it? Hushmut knew by instinct.

He was thinking of the roof of the pleasure-house, of the winding stair that led to it, down which it would at least be possible to fling a foe before the end came; and she was thinking of the marble plinth below, where, when the end came, a woman might find safety from men's hands in death.

So they came on through the growing shadows.

Hushmut shuffled to the door and watched the figures calmly, indifferently, as they neared him; for the way to the winding stair lay up the steps which rose just beyond the low door of his distillery in the plinth.

Perhaps the dusk hid him from those two; perhaps even in broad daylight they would not, in their fierce desire to reach—not safety, but resistance—have seen him.

They did not, anyhow; but as they passed the door the girl's muslin flounce caught hard on its lintel hasp, and as in frantic haste she stooped to rip it free, the scent of those rose-leaves Hushmut had given her, still lingering in the ruffles at her breast, seemed to pass straight back into those same rose-leaves in his own.

That was all. Nothing more. But it brought back his last words to her: "May He who knows the secret of the rose protect the bride!"

Strange coincidence, since the chance of saving her had come to the speaker.

[Illustration: "As they passed the door the girl's muslin flounce caught."]

The same instant his long-fingered brown hand was on her white one as she tugged at her dress.

"This way, Huzoor!" he cried in a loud voice for the man to hear. "There's a secret passage here—it leads, to safety!" Safety! That word, better than resistance, not to the man himself, but as sole guardian to the girl, arrested him in a second—tempted him.

He looked, hesitated, then dragged his charge on—dragged her from anything with a dark skin to it.

But her white one touching this dark one found something in it to give confidence; or perhaps that fragrance from the still, which sends a like perfume to many blossoms, had passed from Hushmut's breast to hers, as hers had to Hushmut's. He knows, who knows the secret of the perfume of the rose.

Anyhow, she hung back, she called pitifully, clamorously, "No! No! Let us trust him—let us take the chance!"

There was no time for remonstrance.

[Illustration: "Closed the door and sat beside it singing when the troopers rode up."]

The next second they were in the cool, scented darkness of the vault, with those pink air-holes showing like shadowy roses among the low arches, the squat pillars.

"At the further end," came Hushmut's voice, amid his shuffling, till the latter ceased in the rasping of a chain unhasped. "Here, Huzoor—it leads to the summer-palace beyond the garden wall. So, by the mango grove to the Residency. May He who knows the secret of the perfume of the rose protect the bride."

His voice sounded hollow in their ears as they ran down the vaulted passage which opened before them, lit at intervals by those cunning air-holes hidden flowerfully in the scroll-work of one of the marble-edged aqueducts, and the closing door behind them blew a breath of the rose scent from the vault after their retreating figures.

Two years had passed. Nine long months spent in keeping a foe at bay; three in following that spent and broken foe to the bitter end; and then a year of English skies and English faces to dull the memory of that long strain to mind and body.

And then, once more, a young Englishman with a girl in a pink dress drove into that garden of dead kings. But the four-square wall was in ruins. It had been a rallying point of that spent and broken foe.

The garden itself was neglected, the roses unpruned. And those two were changed also, and an ayah holding a baby remained in the hired carriage which they left waiting for them under the blossoming trees, as the dogcart had waited that May evening two years before.

"I'm afraid he must have thought us awfully ungrateful," said the man regretfully; "but it couldn't be helped at first. Then afterwards one had to move on. But I did write, you know, more than once about him, after we got a grip on the place again; so I hope they have done something."

"They will have to now, at any rate," said the wearer of the pink dress firmly. The sight of the garden, changed, neglected as it was, had brought back the very picture of that grizzled head with the curved hair slipping through the rose-bushes, the delicate dark hand holding the tray of rose-leaves, as it slid over the bushes with its luck-offering for the bride. Yes; even if justice had been slow, inevitably slow, it should come now—this very evening, though she and her husband had only arrived in the station that morning.

They went to the rose-square first, but Hushmut was not there. Then, seeing by the lack of blossom that the time for roses was not yet, they went on to the orange groves. There was no one there. So, doubtfully, they passed to the jasmines, to the lemon-grass.

But no one was to be seen. Nothing was to be heard but the lazy yet insistent cry of someone scaring the birds from the pomegranates.

"Let us ask him. He may know," suggested the wearer of the pink dress. So they called him and he came, an old man, wizened, careworn.

Yes, he said, he knew. Wherefore not, when he had guarded fruit in that garden since he was a boy? There was not much to guard now, owing to past evil. Hushmut the essence-maker? Hushmut was dead. No one made essences any more. How did he die? Very simply. He had seen it with his own eyes when he was guarding fruit. The Huzoors had doubtless heard of the evil times, even though, as the coachman had told him, they had just come from wilayet. Well, it began quite suddenly one evening in May. It was the peaches he was guarding then. There had been a "fools' dinner" in the garden, and afterwards a young sahib and a miss in a pink dress had come running in to take refuge from the troopers. He had seen them, but what could he do? But Hushmut had shown them the secret passage, no doubt. Anyhow, he had come out alone, and closed the door, and sat beside it singing when the troopers rode up.

And doubtless, seeing that he was friends with all the bad walkers in the city through the selling of his essences, they would have believed his tale that the young sahib had not passed that way, but for a bit of the miss-sahiba's dress, which had caught in the door hasp. So they knew what he had done, and, being enraged, had killed him there, by the door. It was quite simple.

Quite. So simple that those two said nothing. Only their hands sought each other as they turned back to the summer-house.

"I should like to see the place again," said the wearer of the pink dress, in a hard, even voice. "I wonder if the door is open."

It was, for no one made essences now. So they entered.

The still stood in the corner, as before. The pile of that strange fuel lay between it and the trays of rose-leaves. But there was no difference between them now. Both were yellow, scentless; and though the pink paper which Hushmut had pasted over the rose-shaped air-holes was all broken and torn by birds and winds and weather, the bees did not drift in.

For there was no scent to lead them on.

None.

The winds of two long years had swept it away absolutely. What else was to be expected?

Yet a vague disappointment showed in the woman's face as it had in the girl's.

But this time the man's voice trembled as he answered her look with the words—

"'Only the actions of the just smell sweet and blossom in the dust.'"

Copyright, 1899, by F. A. Steel, in the United States of America.
  1. violet.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927.


The author died in 1929, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.