The Lady of the Garden

THE moonlight drifted down through the orchard, flooding the garden with dreamy radiance. It was a young moonlight, and its quality was misty and ethereal; visions lurked in it. The deep grass of late June wove snares for it, and the silent, full-leaved trees bowed beneath its benediction, letting it interpenetrate them as closely as it would. All was silent. The hills beyond the garden and the orchard stood in a dim blue multitude against the soft night sky; the valley held its peace.

In and out among her flowers the Lady of the Garden moved on light spirit feet. She had died six months ago, and this was, therefore, her first summer of free ministry. When she was living, she had loved her garden with the peculiar tenderness of those who have grown old at the cost of many a cherished occupation and interest, and who have found a last outlet for unflagging vitality. Nay, it was more than that; that sounds selfish. Hers was a nature that must give itself in some fostering love and care. The garden had responded as gardens have such exquisite means of responding — in bloom and perfume, color and grace; it was a notable feature of the summer valley. The orchard behind it, the old white house set in its midst, even the meadows and mountains were the fairer for its presence. The birds and the butterflies loved it, the light lent it the witchery of its treatment all day long and, sometimes, all night. It was a personality; no common, typical garden at all, but a gentle creature, alive and following its own peculiar destiny under its natal star. It would have seemed the Lady’s last child, if she had not rather desired of it a last sisterhood. The two understood each other well, and lived constantly together.

Hard work? Yes, it was that, of course. That was part of its excellence in the beginning, for the Lady had always been one who had gloried in taking resolute hold upon life. But the years bring manacles to the most eager hands and feet; and, during the last season or two, there had been a deepening shadow in the creeping admission that, by and by, experiment would have to be abandoned, even committed enterprise would have to be called in and dismissed. Fortunately, the Lady had never faced and accepted either of these two dreary conditions; she had dug a new bed and planted new flowers one month before she died. Her hope for the next spring was higher than ever. Well, it was justified.

In the first wonder of her liberation, she forgot all about the garden, pretty much all about the earth. That was natural: death is always so much more engrossingly interesting than any one quite thinks that it can be. There was everything to occupy her: love, understanding, knowledge, old mysteries rent asunder to show still more alluring mysteries behind them, surprise, revelation, ecstasy; such an unveiling of Divinity as no most breathless, reverent human word can presume to adumbrate. One has to speak of it all in abstractions; but to the Lady it was a distinct, vivid experience. Her love — oh, her dear love — recovered again after all these years.

Meantime, the garden slept in earth’s winter, and all was well with it.

It is good to think that earth’s children are loyal, true to the mother who bought them forth and nourished them on her bosom and gathered the mortal part of them back again in a last healing embrace. Set free of the universe, they are not forever forgetful of green hills and valleys and garden plots. With the first stirrings of spring the Lady stood in her garden again.

She had never been there so early before. The snow still lay deep on the beds, and the ground underneath it was hard with frost. But the air blew softly at last; there was a hint and a promise in it, a touch of reconciliation. The Lady felt it as she had never felt earthly airs before — not outwardly with any senses, but inwardly, through and through, as if she and the air were one. There was power in the experience, power and a suggestion: she breathed on the root of her favorite larkspur, and, sure enough, life stirred in it, awaking; she had given her dear flower its first summons to the joy of another year.

It was some time before she fully realized the extent of her new influence in her garden. The knowledge dawned on her little by little, in the delicious gradual manner of all deep understanding. She hardly knew what miracles she was working (miracles from her old point of view) until she had coaxed the shoots out of the ground, unfurled the little leaves, set the stems straight. Then, sometimes, she paused and said, ‘How did I do that? Surely, I never did it before. Yet it seemed very natural.’ The most amazing facility was that of color — oh, wonderful to determine the hue of a pansy! The little pansy buds set themselves, swelled and grew, and began to turn back at the edges; and the Lady hung over them, in her old manner, watching, wondering what color they were going to be. Suddenly, she knew: she entered into the folded heart of the blossom before her and found it all purple and gold; the fragrance was as her own thought. So was the color; and, that being so, she could control it. With a touch of her fancy she dimmed the purple, blew a fine dust of meditation across the gleaming gold; and that pansy came forth a pensive, instead of a buoyant, thing.

The secret of color! Most spiritual, most mysterious of earth’s manifestations, it seems rather a manifestation of heaven, hovering, vanishing, persisting in every nook and corner of earth. Intangible, evanescent, it lifts the sense which perceives it to the dignity of the imagination. We ought none of us really to need to die in order to find heaven. However, it is perhaps well that we do; for revelation is an inestimable boon.

People wondered at the beauty of the garden that year. The winter had been a hard one; many neighboring gardens had suffered a heavy loss. Moreover, the old white house remained closed all through the spring, and no loving human hands came to take the place of those that now lay folded far away in a green cemetery. There was a drought, there were high winds; but the garden blossomed safely. Ah,excellent delight, to cast one’s self adown the current of a streaming wind, and, blowing with it, in it, see that it wrought no harm to the flowers that one loved so well! Ah, tender joy, to bring the moisture of hidden springs to feed the roots in the thirsty ground! The Lady of the Garden, never having known such service, had never known such full contentment as was hers this summer.

How about those folded hands in that green spot far away? Did the Lady ever think of them? Hardly ever. Why should she? She was gladly quit of them, a great deal better off without them; they meant nothing to her now, save an occasional reminiscence which always made her sigh. She intended to forget her grave as soon as she could. But the Lady’s friends and children, still on the hither side of death, were not so brave and strong in spirit as to forget.

Perhaps it is not well to blame them; perhaps, indeed, they might be blamed if they could quite forget. Love clings to form and substance, prizing the spirit always more, but cherishing the instrument through which the song has run. It was a strange, an awful void which the dear Lady’s disappearance had left in the world.

That was the reason why the house in the midst of the garden stood so long unoccupied. The void was at its keenest there, and those who loved the Lady shrank from facing it. Silence, emptiness, no answer — those are dread conditions when one has never failed of comradeship and a swift reply.

The Lady knew this. She was sorry. In her long earthly life she had faced too many voids, and suffered too intensely through them, ever to forget their bitterness. But knowledge, though it may pity ignorance, can never realize again the full pang of its doubt. The Lady wondered at the tears of those who mourned her, just as, looking back, she wondered at her own old earthly tears. ‘ How can they? But then, indeed, how could I? And yet I did.’ She would have tried to comfort them, if they had left a path open for her feet; but quietness is the name of the road along which spirits must travel to touch one another, and grief is noisy. The Lady could not find her way through the tortured, bewildered labyrinth that involved and surrounded the hearts of her children; therefore she gave up the effort and turned her attention to her garden; that was quiet enough. After all, what did it matter? Grief, at the longest, lasts but a day; comfort and knowledge come surely to all, even if they have to wait out the rest of their lives to experience it. Meantime, grief has its own beneficent office; it humbles and softens. God, at least, keeps his own way open through all labyrinths.

When the old white house was at last occupied, the Lady had hopes of a sweet adjustment. Surely the silence and peace of the valley, surely the strength of the surrounding hills, surely the very associations of the old happy days would give comfort. As for the garden — could any one look on that full thriving beauty of color and line, that lusty, luxuriant growth, and not know that the Lady herself had been there, caring for the last darling of her earthly life, as nobody else could care?

Ah, it was beautiful, that garden, in the young summer moonlight! The ‘globèd peonies’ opened their hearts, deep red and pure white and sea-shell pink, heavily fragrant; the tall larkspur lifted its spires against the orchard’s grassy hill; the sweet-william stood in straight pungent rows; the dames’ rocket scattered sweetness from its thickly-starred branches. Foxgloves crowded one corner, erect, and delicately separate for all their close association; pinks ran riot along the edge of the grass; a few late irises held splendid heads upright on long stalks.

The Lady loved her white peony dearly — great snowy blossoms with petals that were like the plumage of a bird, a wounded bird, streaked with crimson at the heart; she loved her trailing rose; she doted on her larkspur. But better than anything else in the garden she loved two plants of pink lady’sslipper that had been brought to her from the woods several years ago. She had set them out with great care, in shady places underneath the foliage of other plants; and she had watered and tended them always with peculiar vigilance. Now, this spring, she had devoted to them the best services of her new powers, entering into their secret life with an exquisite pleasure that, in the old order of things, would have verged on pain. With them she had stirred underneath the ground, awaking to the new season; with them she had crept up to light and air; with them she had grown and put forth leaves and gloried in greenness. Finally, with them she had set the buds of the beautiful quaint flowers and dreamed the gradual color into them — faint streaks and brushings of delicate pink, deepening as the blossom expanded and unfurled. To know the color of the lady’s-slipper was the most thrilling delight of this eventful spring.

One flower on each plant had come to perfection and hung, full-orbed, exquisite, in the moonlight of the summer evening. The Lady could not keep away from them. In her old earthly fashion, she went the rounds of the garden again and again, lingering here and there, no longer to pull up a weed or pick off a dead leaf, but to touch with the dew and steal with the wind and quicken with the magnetic forces of the earth and air. But oftener than to any other spot, she returned to the shadows where the lady’s-slippers lurked and dimly gleamed. Once she took a shaft of moonlight and sent it straight through the leaves of the larkspur to fall softly, caressingly, on the bent head of her dearest blossom. Again, she gathered the dew in her hands and bathed the broad green leaves. Constantly she hung breathless, watching, loving, delighting — oh! who could have thought a garden would mean so much more when one was dead than when one was alive?

On the steps of the broad piazza looking out into the garden, the Lady’s children sat, very sad and very silent. Their silence was good as far as it went, but it came from the outside and did not penetrate far enough to affect their hearts. Those foolish organs were loud with grief. ‘No use,’ the Lady thought, shaking her head, and smiling a little, but pityingly. ‘I can’t touch them yet; I must bide my time.’ She had forgotten that in a few days her earthly birthday was coming, the first she had ever missed, and that her children were, therefore, sadder and lonelier than ever. Earthly birthdays! How should she remember? That whole human experience seemed remote and unreal now. The birthday of her death was the only event that counted, if one must still take note of time in eternity. Therefore, she went on her way through the garden, absorbed and happy; she breathed a caress on the lady’s-slipper, she turned and blessed her poor blind children, and vanished in the boundless blue that was now her familiar home.

Earth habits cling, however, especially when one is newly dead; and time’s rhythm still beats faintly in the memories of those who have just escaped from it. ‘Ah! my birthday.’ The Lady remembered the day when it dawned far below her, and once more she paused and turned, with the old need of mortal things upon her. Her garden — of course, that was the spot for her to visit to-day: she wanted her flowers’ congratulation, the welcome of her tall larkspur, the shy wishes of her lady’s-slipper. For wishes are just as precious in heaven (what we call heaven) as they are on earth, and a good deal more potent. Perhaps her children would welcome her, too, on this day that had always been the day of days to them. With a sweet rush of gladness the Lady entered her waiting garden on the wings of the summer breeze.

But what was the matter? Before she crossed the green-shadowed lawn at the foot of the orchard, she knew that something was wrong. Something? A great deal. It was as if, instead of a dear face turned toward her, she had found a back obstinately presented. Her garden was not watching for her at all with its larkspur and peonies. Even in heaven, one feels disappointments; they are part of the nature of things to a soul that eternally hopes and desires. One feels perplexity, too; the Lady could not understand what had happened. She had left larkspur and peonies in full bloom, with many buds waiting to open; she had fully expected a wonderful welcome of color and fragrance today. In the keenness of her new powers, she was prepared for the best birthday celebration she had ever had. But where were the flowers? Gone. Only the green, hard little buds left — no hope from them for many days to come; only the bare spaces where single blossoms had stood in their rarity. Had there been a tempest whose warning had not reached her in her far pursuit of unimaginable new occupations and ecstasies? No; the long grass in the orchard was not ruffled, the trees had lost none of their leaves. Had there been robbery? The Lady glanced at the old white house, and, lo, it was empty again — not closed, but unoccupied.

Intuitions come the more swiftly to spirits when free from their bodies than when clogged by sensation; and the Lady had always been one to leap to sure conclusions. She knew in a minute, now, what had happened. Her sorrowing, loving children had picked every flower in her precious garden and had carried them all away to lay them on her grave. All of them? Even the lady’s-slipper? The poor Lady sped to the shady corner, and there, sure enough —But she could not endure it; she sat down and cried. May not spirits weep now and then? Such tears are dew to the earth.

It was a forlorn birthday celebration. Deserted by her children and flowers, bereft, disappointed, there was nothing for it but that she should turn her attention to that distant spot of earth which was being made the centre of the day’s commemoration. She did not want to go there at all — the very thought was distasteful to her — but wistful loneliness drew her.

Alas! She bent over her grave, dismayed at the sight of her flowers laid low in the grass — as low and faint and frail as she in that dim hour of her death which she vaguely remembered. The roses had lost their petals, the peonies were limp and crumpled, the foxgloves were scattered; across the head of the grave, in front of the shining new stone, lay the two pink lady’sslippers, shrunken and bruised.

‘ My flowers! my flowers! ’ — It is not a scene on which one can bear to linger. While it endured, not even the raptures of heaven availed to lighten the burden of baffled love and grievous disappointment.

There is not really much to be said in excuse for that dear Lady’s children; nor, indeed, in excuse for the whole cloud of mortal blindness. The ages have done their best to open our eyes. A Holiest Person came long ago expressly to teach us the lesson which gardens and seasons have illustrated, sages and our own hearts have repeated constantly ever since. Death has nothing to do with graves, anniversaries are no affair of the spirit . Life renews itself at every turn, and feeds on living memories and eternal expectations. But we seem to have made up our minds that we will not understand.