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The Wonderful Garden

It was very glorious to wake up the next morning in enormous soft beds—four-posted, with many-folded silk hangings, and shiny furniture that reflected the sunlight as dark mirrors might do. And breakfast was nice, with different sorts of things to eat, in silver dishes with spirit-lamps under them—bacon and sausages and scrambled eggs, and as much toast and marmalade as you wanted; not just porridge and apples, as at Aunt Emmeline's. There were tea and coffee and hot milk; and they all chose hot milk.

'I feel,' said Caroline, pouring it out of a big silver jug with little bits of ivory between the handle and the jug to keep the handle from getting too hot—'I feel that we're going to enjoy every second of the time we're here.'

'Rather,' said Charles, through sausage. 'Isn't Uncle Charles a dear?' he added, more distinctly. 'I dreamed about him last night—that he painted his face out of the paint-box I gave Caro, and then we blew him out with the bellows to make him fatter.'

'And did it?' Caroline asked.

'He burst,’ said Charles briefly, 'and turned into showers of dead leaves.'

There was an interval of contented silence. Then—

'What shall we do first?' said Charles. And his sisters, with one voice, answered, 'Explore, of course.'

And they finished their breakfast to dreams of exploring every hole and corner of the wonderful house.

But when they rang to have breakfast taken away, it was Mrs. Wilmington who appeared.

'Your uncle desired me to say that he thinks it healthy for you to spend some hours in the hopen—open air,' she said, speaking in a small, distinct voice. 'He himself takes the air of an afternoon. So will you please all go out at once,' she ended, in a burst of naturalness, 'and not come 'ome, home, till one o'clock.'

'Where are we to go?' asked Charlotte, not pleased.

'Not beyond the park and grounds,' said the housekeeper. 'And,' she added, reluctantly, 'Mr. Charles said if there was any pudding you liked to mention——'

A brief consultation ended in, 'Treacle hat, please'; and when Mrs. Wilmington had minced off, they turned to each other and said:

'The brick!'

'The old duck!' and

'Something like an uncle.'

Then they went out, as they had been told to do. And they took off their shoes and stockings, which they had not been told to do—but, on the other hand, had not been told not to—and walked barefooted in the grass, still cool and dewy under the trees. And they put on their boots again and explored the park, and explored the stable-yard, where a groom was brightening the silver buckles of the harness and whistling as he rubbed. They explored the stables and the harness-room, and the straw-loft, and the hay-loft. And then they went back to the park and climbed trees—a little way—because, though they had always known that they would climb trees if ever they had half a chance, they had not, till now, had any chance at all.

And all the while they were doing this they were looking—at the back of their minds, even when they weren't doing it with the part you think with—for the garden.

And there wasn't any garden!

That was the plain fact that they had to face after two hours of sunshine and green out-of-doors.

'And I'm certain Mother said there was a garden,' Caroline said, sitting down suddenly on the grass; 'a beautiful garden and a terrace.'

'Perhaps the uncle didn't like it, and he's had it made not garden again—"Going back to Nature" that would be, like Aunt Emmeline talks about,' Charles suggested.

'But it's dreadful if there's no garden,' said Caroline, 'because of the flowers we were going to send in letters. Wild flowers don't have such deep meanings, I'm certain.'

'And besides we haven’t seen any wild flowers,’ said Caroline. 'Oh, bother!'

'Never mind,' Charles said. 'Think of exploring the house—and finding the book, perhaps. We'll ask the elegant one, when we go in, why there isn't a garden.'

'We won't wait till then,' said Charlotte; 'let's go and ask that jolly chap who's polishing the harness. He looked as if he wouldn't mind us talking to him.'

'It was him drove us yesterday, Charles pointed out.

So they went as to an old friend. And when they asked William, the groom, why there wasn't a garden, he answered, surprisingly and rather indignantly:

'Ain't they shown you, miss? Not a garden? There ain't a garden to beat it hereabouts. Come on, I'll show you.'

And, still more surprisingly, he led the way to the back door.

'We aren't to go indoors till dinner-time,' Caroline told him; 'and, besides, we should like to see the garden—if there really is one.'

'Of course there is one, miss,' said William. 'She'll never see you if you're quick. She'll be in her room by now—at her accounts and things. And the master's never about in these back parts in the morning.'

'I suppose it’s a lock-up garden and he's going to get the key,' said Charles in a whisper. But William wasn’t.

He led them into a whitewashed passage that had cupboards and larders opening out of it and ended in a green baize door. He opened this, and there they were in the hall.

'Quick!' he said, and crossed it, unlatched another door, and held it open. 'Come in quiet,' he said, and closed the door again. And there they all were in a little square room with a stone staircase going down the very middle of it, like a well. There was a wooden railing round three sides of the stairway, and nothing else in the room at all except William and the children.

'A secret staircase,' cried Charlotte. 'Oh, it can't be really. How lovely!'

'I daresay it was a secret once,' said William, striking a match, and lighting a candle that stood at the top of the stairs in a brass candlestick. 'You see, there wasn't always these banisters, and you can see that ridge along the wall. My grandfather says it used to be boarded over, and that's where the joists went. They'd have a trap-door or something over the stairway, I shouldn't be surprised'

'But what's the stair for?—Where does it go? Are we going down?' the children asked.

'Yes, and sharp, too. Nobody's supposed to go this way except the master. But you'll not tell on me. I'll go first. Mind the steps, Miss. they're a bit wore at the edges, like'

They minded the steps, going carefully down, following the blinking, winking blue and yellow gleam of the candle.

There were not many steps.

'Straight ahead now,'said William, holding the candle up to show the groined roof of a long, straight passage, built of stone, and with stone flags for the floor of it.

'How perfectly ripping!' said Charlotte, breathlessly. 'It is brickish of you to bring us here. Where does it go to?'

'You wait a bit,' answered William, and went on. The passage ended in another flight of steps—up this time-and the steps ended in a door, and when William had opened this, everyone frowned and shut their eyes, for the doorway framed green leaves with sunlight dazzling through them; and——

''Ere's the garden,' said William; and here, indeed, it was.

'There's another door the other end what the gardeners go in and out of,' said William. 'I'll get you the key sometime.'

The door had opened into a sort of arch—an arbour, for its entrance was almost veiled by thick-growing shrubs.

'Oh, thank you,' said Caroline. 'But when did they make this passage, and what for?'

'They made that passage when the folks in the house was too grand to go through the stable-yard and too lazy to go round,' said William. 'There's no stable-yard way now,' he added. 'So long! I must be getting back, miss. Don't you let on as I brought you through.'

'Of course not,' everyone said. Charles added: 'But I didn't know the house was as old as secret passages in history times.'

'It's any age you please,' said William; 'the back parts is.'

He went back through the door and the children went out through the leafy screen in front, into the most beautiful garden that could be, with a wall. I like unwalled gardens myself, with views from the terraces. From this garden you could see nothing but tall trees and—the garden itself.

The lower half was a vegetable garden arranged in squares, with dwarf fruit-trees and flower-borders round them like the borders round old-fashioned pocket-handkerchiefs. Then about half-way up the garden came steps—stone balustrades, a terrace, and beyond that a flower-garden with smooth green turf paths, box-edged, a sundial in the middle, and in the flower-beds flowers—more flowers than I could give names to.

'How perfectly perfect!' Charlotte cried.

'I do wish I'd brought out my Language of!' said Caroline.

'How awfully tidy everything is!' said Charles, in awe-struck tones.

It was.

There was nowhere an imperfect leaf, a deformed bud, or a misshapen flower. Every plant grew straight and strong, and with an extraordinary evenness.

'They look like pictures of plants more than like real ones,' said Caroline, quite truly.

An old gardener was sweeping the terrace steps and gave the children 'Good morning.'

They gave it back and stayed to watch him. It seemed polite to say something before turning away. So Caroline said:

'How beautifully everything grows here!'

'Ay,' said the old man, 'it do. Say perfect and you won't be far out.'

'It's very clever of you,' Charlotte spoke. 'Ill-weeds don't grow in a single place in your garden.'

'I don't say as I don't do something,' replied the old man, 'but seems as if there was a blessing on the place—everything thrives and grows just-so. It's the soil or the aspick, p'raps. I dunno. An' I've noticed things.'

'What thing"' was the natural question.

'Oh, just things, the gardener answered shortly, and swept away to the end of the long steps.

'I say!'—Caroline went after him to do it—'I say, may we pick the flowers?'

'In moderation,' said the gardener, and went away.

'I wonder what he'd call moderation?' said Charles; and they discussed this question so earnestly that the dinner-bell rang before they had picked any flowers at all.

The Wonderful Garden -p043.jpg

'How beautifully everything grows here.'

The gate at the end of the garden was open, and they went out that way. Over the gate was a stone with words on it and a date. They stopped to spell out the carved letters:

Caroline copied the last two words in her grey-covered pocket-book; and when Mrs. Wilmington came in to carve the mutton, Caroline asked what the words meant.

'I never inquired,' said the housekeeper. 'It must be quite out of date now, whatever it meant once. But you must have been in the garden to see that. How did you get in?'

An awkward question. There was nothing for it but to say:

'By the secret passage.' And Charles said it.

'No one uses that but your uncle,' said Mrs. Wilmington, 'and you were requested to keep out of doors till dinner-time.'

She shut her mouth with a snap, and went on carving.

'Sorry,' said Caroline.

'Granted,' returned Mrs. Wilmington, but not cordially; and having placed two slices of mutton on each plate she went away.

'It is jolly having meals by ourselves,' said Charlotte; 'only I wish she wasn't cross.'

'We ought to be extra manner-y, I expect, when we're by ourselves,' observed Caroline. 'May I pass you the salt, Charles?'

'No, you mayn't,' answered Charles. 'Thank you, I mean; but there's one at each corner. That's one each for us, and one over for——'

'For her.' Charlotte pointed to the picture of the dark-eyed, fair-haired lady.

'Let's put a chair for her,' said Charlotte, 'and pretend she's come to dinner, then we shall have to behave like grown-up people.'

'I never can remember about behaving.' satd Charles wearily; 'such a lot of things—and none of them seem to matter. Why shouldn't you drink with your mouth full? It’s your own mouth.'

'And eating peas with your knife. I think it would be as good as conjuring, doing it without cutting yourself—Charlotte tried to lift the peas from her plate with her knife—'let alone the balancing,' she added, as they rolled off among the mutton.

'Don't,' said Caroline. 'She's looking at you. Charles, you're the only gentleman, worse luck—I wish I was a boy—put a chair for her.'

And a large, green-seated chair, whose mahogany back was inlaid with a brass scroll pattern, was wheeled to the empty space on the fourth side of the table.

'Now we must none of us look at her—in the picture, I mean. And then we can't be sure that she isn't sitting in that chair.' said Caroline.

After dinner Caroline looked up 'Remorse's regret' in The Language of Flowers. It was agreed that Mrs. Wilmington had better have a bouquet.

'Brambles,' Caroline said, her finger in the book, 'they're Remorse—but they wouldn't make a very comfortable nosegay. And Regret's verbena, and I don't even know what it is.'

'Put pansies with the brambles,' said Charlotte; 'that'll be thoughts of remorse.'

So the housekeeper, coming down very neat in her afternoon dress of shiny black alpaca, was met by a bunch of pansies.

'To show we think we're remorsish about the secret stairs,' said Charlotte; 'and look out, because the brambles are the remorse and they prick like Billy-o!'

Mrs. Wilmington smiled, and looked quite nice-looking.

'Thank you,' she said. 'I am sure you will remember not to repeat the fault.'

Which wasn't the nicest way of receiving a remorse-bouquet; but then, as Charlotte remarked, perhaps she couldn't help not knowing the nice ways. And, anyhow, she seemed pleased, and that was the great thing, as Caroline pointed out.

Then, having done something to please Mrs. Wilmington, they longed to do something to please someone else, and the Uncle was the only person they could think of doing anything to please.

'Suppose we arranged all the books in the dining-room bookcases, in colours—all the reds together and all the greens, and the ugly ones all on a shelf together,' Charlotte suggested. And the others agreed. So that the afternoon flew by like any old bird, as Caroline put it; and when tea came the floor and sofa and chairs were covered with books, and one shelf was gay with red books and half a shelf demure in green—

'Your uncle isn't coming home to-day,' said Mrs. Wilmington, 'and I'm sure it's just as well. 'What a mess! Here, let me put them back, while you go and wash your hands.'

'We'll put them back,' the children said, but in vain. They had to go to wash their hands, and Mrs. Wilmington continued to put the books back all the time they were having tea. Patiently and carefully she did it, not regarding the colours at all, and her care and her patience seemed to say, more loudly than any words she could have spoken, 'Yes; there you sit, having your nice tea—and I cannot have my tea, because I have to clear up after you. But I do not complain. No.'

They would have preferred that she should complain. But they couldn't say so.