The Wonderful Garden/Chapter 23
You see the tragedy? Measles, with Lord Andore's party and Rupert's return both fixed for the week after next. No words of mine could do justice to the feelings of the three C.'s. I think perhaps, on the whole, it was worse for Charles, who was suspected throughout of impending measles, of which he was wholly innocent, his cold being only a rather violent example of the everyday kind. He was kept out of draughts, and taken for walks by Mrs. Wilmington, and not allowed to bathe, and he became bored beyond description. Really, the girls were better off in bed, with a brightening vista of jelly, beef-tea, fish, chicken, leading to natural beef and pudding, and getting up to breakfast.
When the three were reunited it was the very day of Lord Andore's party, and of course they were not allowed to go, 'for fear of chills.' Charles, after tea had been taken away, shut the dining-room door carefully, and said:
'I've got something to confess.'
'Well?' said the others, as he stopped short, and displayed no intention of ever going on.
'I don't suppose you'll ever care to speak to me again when I've told you.'
'Don't be a copy-cat,' said Charlotte, sharply. 'If you've done anything really, say so. You know we'll stand by you,' she added, more kindly.
'Well, then,' said Charles, 'I'm very sorry. And I do hope it hasn't spoiled the whole show; but you don't know how fed up I was with being alone, and the Wilmington fussing, and the Uncle never out of his books for more than a minute at a time. And I did it one day when I felt I couldn't bear anything another minute.'
'Did what, dear?' said Caroline, trying to be patient.
'Looked behind the curtains,'said Charles, miserably.
'I knew you would,' said Charlotte; 'at least, I mean I should have known if I'd thought of it. It's exactly like you, and I'll never do any magic with you again.'
'Oh, yes,' said Charles,' rub it in.'
'I expect it has spoiled it all,' said Caroline. 'Oh, Charles, how could you?'
'I'm much more sorry than you are,' said Charles, wretchedly, 'because the magic had begun. She'd gone out of the frame.'
'Gone!' said the girls together.
'Quite gone. It was all black behind the curtains. She wasn't there.'
'Are you sure?'
Both girls sprang towards the curtains, and both stopped short as Charles hastily grabbed an arm of each.
'Don't!' he said. 'You wait. I've thought about it a lot. I haven't had anything else to do, you know.'
'Poor old Charles!' said Charlotte. 'I'm sorry I scratched, but it is aggravating, now isn't it?'
'Not for you, it isn't,' said Charles. 'You haven't looked behind the curtains. You haven't broken your part of the magic. It's all right for you. You'll see her right enough. It's me that won't. You're all right.'
'But I expect your looking broke the spell, and she's back again,' said Caroline, reaching out a hand to the curtains.
'Don't!' shrieked Charles. 'The spell didn't break. It went on. Because I looked again to see if it had. And she wasn't there.'
'How often have you looked since?' Caroline asked, severely.
'Every day since,' said Charles, in a low voice.
'And when did you look first?'
'The day you went to bed,' said Charles, in a still lower voice. 'She wasn't there then, and she isn't there now. Oh, don't rag me about it. I shan't see her. That's jolly well enough, I should think, without you going on at me.'
'We won't,' said Caroline, heroically, and turned her back on the picture. 'But you won't look again, will you, Charles?'
'I shan't want to, now you've come back,' he said.' And this compliment quite melted the hearts of his sisters. Nothing more was said of Charles's unjustifiable indiscretion.
The next day the Uncle asked Caroline if she and Charlotte would care to dust the drawing-room.
'Mrs. Wilmington.'s going to Lord Andore's fête,' he said, 'and she is very busy.'
Mrs; Wilmington gave them the key, and they dusted with earnest care and thoroughness. Charles tried to help, but he was not an expert performer with the duster. More to his mind was the watching of the mandarin's old slow nod, his painted smile, his crossed china hands.
'Oh, to think that the Wilmington's going, and the Mineral woman, and Rupert, and everybody but us!' wailed Charlotte.
'Never mind,' said Caroline, 'there's the Flower of Heart's Desire to look forward to, and Rupert coming back. And think of all the grapes Lord Andore sent us, and the chocks from Mr. Alphabet.'
She began to move the old silk handkerchief—Mrs. Wilmington considered the drawing-room too sacred for anything but silk—across the marble of a big console-table, when she saw that something lay on it which was not usually there. It was a square thing like a letter, fastened with a sort of plaited ribbon of green and white silk, and sealed; and on the end of the ribbon, which hung down about three inches, was another large green seal.
'Look here, Char, how funny!' said Caroline. 'It looks awfully old. Written on vellum or something, and the seal's uncle's coat of arms.'
'Let's take it to uncle,' Charlotte suggested. 'Why, what's up?'
Caroline was holding the letter out to her in a hand that shook.
'Look!' she said, and her voice shook too. 'Look! The thing's got our names on it.'
It had. On the square parchment face were the three names, written in a strange yet readable handwriting, in ink that was faded as with the slow fading of many, many years:
'You open it, Caro,' said Charlotte; and Charles, who had come across from his favourite mandarin, said, 'Yes, Caro; you open it.'
It seemed a pity to break the green seals, and they were glad that the plaited silk slipped off easily when the letter was folded a little. But the second green seal had to be broken. The parchment, crackling in Caroline's uncertain hands, was unfolded, and within was writing—lines in that same strange but clear hand, that same dim, faded ink.
'Then I didn't spoil it,' Charles spoke first; 'not even for myself. Because it's addressed to me the same as to you.'
'Yes,' said Caroline; 'you'd better be between us two, though, Charles, and you must not look round.'
'As if I should think of doing such a thing,' said Charles indignantly.
At five minutes to eight that evening the three C.'s stood in front of the console-table with pink verbena behind their ears and red roses over their hearts. Mrs. Wilmington had 'done' the vases in the dining-room that very morning, and, curiously enough, roses and pink verbena were the flowers she had chosen.
'It must be a strong magic to have made her do that,' said Charlotte; 'secrecy and family reunion.'
The room was not dark, of course, at that time in the evening; but then, it was not quite light either.
The three C.'s, Charles occupying a guarded position in the middle, stood quite still and waited.
And presently, quite surely and certainly, with no nonsense about it, they saw in the looking-glass the door open that led to the Uncle's secret staircase. And through it, in trailing velvet, came a lady—the lady of the picture! Her ruff, her coif, her darkly-flashing jewels, her softly-flashing eyes—the children knew them well. Had they not seen them every day for weeks, framed in the old carved frame in the dining-room?
I am sorry to say that Charles at once tried to look round, but his sister's arms about his neck restrained him.
The lady glided to a spot from which she could look straight into the mirror and into the children's eyes.
'I am here,' she said, in what Charlotte said afterwards was a starry voice. 'Do not move or speak. I have come to you because you have believed in the old and beautiful things. You sought for my books and found them; also you have tried to use the magic spells to help the poor and needy, and to reconcile them who are at strife. Therefore, you see what you desired to see, and when the flowering time is here you shall have your heart's desire. Do not speak or move, lest you break the spell. I will sing to you. And when the last note dies away, close your eyes and count very slowly twenty-seven—the number of the years on earth of your kinswoman Eleanour.'
The beautiful presence moved along the room to the harp, that too, was in the field of vision bounded by the tarnished gold of the mirror's frame. She seated herself on a chair of faded needlework and drew the golden harp towards her. Then she sang softly in the starry voice that was hers in speaking. The song was in a language that none of them knew (Charles said afterwards that it was Latin, but it was not like any Latin the girls had ever heard). And the music was starry too. And the meaning of the song seemed to be love, and parting, and hope, and noble dreams, and the desire of great and good things; a song that made one very happy and yet made one feel as though one must cry. Softer and softer the voice grew, softer and softer the gentle resonant tones of the harp. The song ended.
'Now,' said the lady; 'farewell!'
The children closed their eyes, Caroline put her hand over Charles's to 'make sure,' and so moved was he by the singing and the beautiful mystery of the whole adventure that he hardly wriggled at all. There was a soft rustling sound behind them. Very slowly they all counted from one to twenty-seven. Caroline's hand was clasping Charlotte's, and at the end of the count a long pressure, returned, told each that the other had finished her counting.
They opened their eyes and turned round. The drawing-room was empty. It seemed impossible. Yet it was true.
'It's all over,' said Charles.
'But we've seen Her,' said Caroline.
'We've heard Her,' said Charlotte.
'Yes,' said Charles. 'I intend to be perfectly good every minute as long as I live. I wish Rupert had been here. He would never have done anything wrong again either, like he did when——'
'It's very wrong,' Charlotte interrupted, 'to remember things other people have done wrong. Come on, let's go back to the dining-room. It's lonely here without Her.'
They went back to the dining-room and sat talking the great mystery, almost in whispers, till it was time to go to bed.
'And to-morrow we're to go out,' were Charlotte's last words. 'And the F. of H.D. ought to he flowering. It's just seven weeks since we sowed it.'
'Of course it is,' said Caroline, 'don't talk as if you were the only one who remembered it. I say, if you had to say what your heart's desire would be, what would it?'
'To see Her again.' said Charlotte, 'and hear her starry voice.'
Next morning there was a discussion about the curtains the moment the three entered the dining-room. Ought they, or ought they not, to remove the curtains? The girls were for leaving them and putting up garlands every day as long as they stayed in the Manor House. But Charles, who had faithfully put fresh flowers—not always garlanded, it is true, but always flowers—every day during the measles interval, had had enough of it, and said so.
'And she's had enough of it, too,' he said; 'it was to make her come, and she came. She won't come again if you go on garlanding for ever.'
The Uncle, for a wonder, breakfasted with them. Charles appealed to him.
'We saw her, she did come, her real self,' he said, 'yesterday. So the charm's worked, and we oughtn't to go on garlanding, ought we?'
'You really saw her?' the Uncle asked. And was told many things.
'Then,' he said, when he had listened to it all, 'I think we might draw back the curtains. The magic has been wrought, and now all should be restored to its old state.'
'I told you so,' said Charles.
'Shall I take down the curtains?' said the Uncle. And the three C.'s said 'Yes.'
He pulled at the green folds, and the curtains and drooping soft flowers of yesterday fell in a mingled heap on the floor. And from the frame, now disclosed, the lady's lips almost smiled on them as her beautiful eyes gazed down on them with a new meaning.
'But she'll never speak to us again,' said Caroline, almost in tears.
'Or sing to us,' said Charlotte, not very steadily.
'Or tell us to count twenty-seven slowly,' said Charles, sniffing a very little.
'But it's something, isn't it,' said the uncle, 'to have seen her, even if only for once?'
You will understand that anything Mrs. Wilmington might say was powerless to break the charm of so wonderful an adventure. Hollow tales she told of the portrait's having been borrowed for a show of pictures of celebrities who had lived in the neighbourhood, and of the picture being brought back very late the night before, after the servants had gone to bed; also of a gentleman who told her that Mr. Alphabet sent his love; also of a lady, a great actress from London, who had taken part in the pageant which was one of the features of Lord Andore's coming-of-age party—'a very nice lady she was, too, dressed up to look the part of the picture, and put down as Dame Eleanour in the programme, which I can show you printed in silver on satin paper.'
'I daresay it's true what the Wilmington says,' said Caroline, when they were alone; 'but it doesn't make any difference. Our lady wasn't dressed up to look the part; she was the picture. Perhaps our heart's desire will turn out to be seeing her again. Let's go and see if the seed has flowered.'
It had. In that plot of the terraced garden which the old gardener had marked with the pencilled stick label seven tall, straight stems had shot up, perfect and even in each leaf and stalk, as every plant was which grew in that wonderful soil. And each stem bore only one flower—white and star-shaped, and with a strange, sweet scent.
'I wish Rupert were here,' said Charlotte. 'We ought to wait for Rupert.'
And as she spoke there was Rupert coming to them through the flowers of the lower garden.
'So they've flowered,' he said, without any other greeting.
'Yes; and now we're going to eat them and get our heart's desire. Oh, Rupert, I do wish you believed in it all.'
'Perhaps I do,' said Rupert. 'The decent way old Macpherson has behaved while I've been there makes you ready to believe in anything.'
'Then let's eat them,' said Caroline; 'one each, and the other three we'll divide as well as we can.'
Each plucked a white, starry blossom. The stalks snapped off clean and fresh, like primrose stalks. Then the four put each a hand on the stalk of the fifth flower and broke it between them. And so with the sixth and the seventh. Caroline divided the three flowers with extreme care and accuracy and handed its share to each child. Then, standing in a ring in the sunny garden, the four ate the white flowers. The taste of them was pleasant but strange—something like pineapple and something like flower-artichokes (which have the most mysterious taste in the world)—something like spice, and something like the fruit you eat in dreams.
And as they finished eating they heard a foot on the steps of the terrace and turned, and it was the Uncle, coming towards them with pale-coloured papers in one hand and a bunch of waxy-white flowers in the other.
Fond as all were of Uncle Charles, no one could feel that the moment was fortunately chosen, and I am sorry to say that Charles voiced to some extent the general feeling when he said, almost audibly, 'Oh, bother!'
The uncle came towards them smiling kindly.
'I have come,' he said, 'to make a presentation to you.' He gave to each a white flower. 'I have again consulted that entrancing volume of yours, The Language of Flowers, and it tells me that this is the appropriate flower to convey the sentiments with which I approach you.'
Every one said 'Thank you very much.' And Caroline added, 'But what does it mean, Uncle?'
'What! Has your book taught you so little?' he asked.
'You see,' Caroline kindly explained, 'I don't even know what the name of the flower is, but it's most awfully kind of you, uncle, all the same.'
'Oh, the name of the flower?' said the Uncle. 'It's stephanotis.'
'But that means, "Will you accompany me to the East?"' said Caroline.
'Well,' said the Uncle, 'and will you?'
'To the East?'
'Yes,' said the Uncle. 'Let us sit down on the steps and talk over the idea.'
They sat down, and the Uncle explained.
'Your finding these books.' he said, 'has so completely revolutionised my ideas of magic that I cannot complete my book. I must throw it into the melting-pot, rewrite it entirely. And to do that I need more knowledge than I have. And I intend to travel, to examine the magic of other lands. The first country I shall visit is India, and it occurred to me that you might like to go with me and visit your parents. I have been corresponding with them by cable,' he added, waving the pale-coloured papers, 'and your parents are delighted with the idea of the family reunion (pink verbena). We start, if the idea smiles to you, next week.'
'Oh, uncle!' was all that anyone could find to say, till Charlotte added, 'But what about Rupert?'
'Rupert is to go too,' said the Uncle; 'as far as Suez, where his father will meet him.'
'Is father coming home, then?' Rupert asked, breathlessly.
'For a year's leave,' said the Uncle; 'but you haven't any of you answered the stephanotis question yet. Will you accompany me to the East?'
Caroline ran to a flower-bed, and came back with some leaves and flowers, which she thrust into the uncle's hand.
'Small white bell-flower, wood-sorrel, aquilegia,' she said. 'They mean perfect joy; we love you beyond measure, and Yes. Yes! Yes!”'
As they turned to go to the house they saw the seven stems on which the white, starry flowers had grown, and suddenly and surely each child saw that the Uncle, when he brought them the bunch of pale papers in one hand and the bunch of stephanotis in the other, was really bringing to each child its Heart's Desire.
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