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Sketch Book of the North
An Old Tulip Garden


A quiet, sunny nook in the hollow it is, this square old garden with its gravelled walks and high stone walls; a sheltered retreat left peaceful here, under the overhanging woods, when the stream of the world’s traffic turned off into another channel. The grey stone house, separated from the garden by a thick privet hedge and moss-grown court, is the last dwelling at this end of the quiet market-town, and, with its slate roof and substantial double story, is of a class greatly superior to its neighbours, whose warm red tiles are just visible over the walls. It stands where the old road to Edinburgh dipped to cross a little stream, and, in the bygone driving days, the stage-coach, after rattling out of the town and down the steep road here, between the white, tile-roofed houses, when it crossed the bridge opposite the door, began to ascend through deep, embowering woods. But a more direct highway to the capital was opened many a year ago: just beyond the bridge, a wall was built across the road; and the grey house with its garden was left secluded in the sunny hollow. The rapid crescendo of the coach-guard’s horn no longer wakens the echoes of the place, and the striking of the clock every hour in the town steeple is the only sound that reaches the spot from the outside world.

The hot sun beats on the garden here all day, from the hour in the morning when it gets above the grand old beeches of the wood till it sets away beyond the steeple of the town. But in the hottest hours it is always refreshing to look, over the weather-stained tiles of the long low toolhouse, at the mossy green of the hill that rises there, cool and shaded, under the trees. Now and then a bull, of the herd that feeds in the glades of the wood, comes down that shaded bank, whisking his tawny sides with an angry tail to keep off the pestering flies, and his deep bellow reverberates in the hollow. In the early morning, too, before the dewy freshness has left the air, the sweet mellow pipe of the mavis and the fuller notes of the blackbird float across from these green depths, and ever and again throughout the day the clear whistle of some chaffinch comes from behind the leaves.

Standing among the deep box edgings and gravelled paths, it is not difficult to recall the place’s glory of forty years ago—the glory upon which these ancient plum-trees, blossoming yet against the sunny walls, looked down. To the eye of Thought time and space obstruct no clouds, and in the atmosphere of Memory the gardens of the Past bloom for us always.

Forty years ago! It is the day of the fashion for Dutch bulbs, when fabulous prices were paid for an unusually "fancy" specimen, and in this garden some of the finest of them are grown. The tulips are in flower, and the long narrow beds which, with scant space between, fill the entire middle of the garden are ablaze with the glory of their bloom. Queenly flowers they are and tall, each one with a gentle pedigree—for nothing common or unknown has entrance here—and crimson, white, and yellow, the velvet petals of some almost black, striped with rare and exquisite markings, they raise to the sun their large chaste chalices. The perfection of shape is theirs as they rise from the midst of their green, lance-like leaves; no amorous breeze ever invades the spot to dishevel their array or filch their treasures; and the precious golden dust lies in the deep heart of each, untouched as yet save by the sunshine and the bee. When the noonday heat becomes too strong, awnings will be spread above the beds; for with the fierce glare, the petals would open out and the pollen fall before the delicate task of crossing had been done.

But see! through the gate in the privet hedge there enters as fair a sight. Ladies in creamy flowered muslins and soft Indian silks, shading their eyes from the sun with tiny parasols, pink and white and green—grand dames of the county, and grander from a distance; gentlemen in blue swallow-tailed coats and white pantaloons—gallants escorting their ladies, and connoisseurs to examine the flowers—all, conducted by the owner, list-book in hand, advance into the garden and move along the beds. To that owner—an old man with white hair, clear grey eyes, and the memory of their youthful red remaining in his cheeks—this is the gala time of the year. Next month the beds of ranunculus will bloom, and pinks and carnations will follow; but the tulips are his most famous flowers, and, for the few days while they are in perfection, he leads about, with his old-world courtesy, replying to a question here, giving a name or a pedigree there, a constant succession of visitors. These are his hours of triumph. For eleven months he has gone about his beloved pursuit, mixing loams and leaf-moulds and earths, sorting, drying, and planting the bulbs, and tending their growth with his own hand—for to whose, else, could he trust the work?—and now his toil has blossomed, and its worth is acknowledged. Plants envied by peers, plants not to be bought, are there, and he looks into the heart of each tenderly, for he knows it a child of his own.

Presently he leads his visitors back into the house, across the mossy stones of the court where, under glass frames, thousands of auricula have just passed their bloom, and up the outside stair to the sunny door in the house-side. He leads them into the shady dining-room, with its furniture of dark old bees-waxed mahogany, where there is a slight refreshment of wine and cake—rare old Madeira, and cake, rich with eggs and Indian spice, made by his daughter’s own hand. Jars and glasses are filled with sweet-smelling flowers, and the breath of the new-blown summer comes in through the open doors.

The warm sunlight through the brown linen blind finds its way across the room and falls with subdued radiance on the middle picture on the opposite wall. The dark eyes, bright cheeks, and cherry mouth were those of the old man’s wife—the wife of his youth. She died while the smile was yet on her lip and the tear of sympathy in her eye; for she was the friend of all, and remains yet a tender memory among the neighbouring poor. The old man is never seen to look upon that picture; but on Sundays for hours he sits in reverie by his open Bible here in the room alone. In a velvet case in the corner press lies a silver medal. It was pinned to his breast by the Third George on a great day at Windsor long ago. For the old man, peacefully ending his years here among the flowers, in his youth served the king and fought, as a naval officer, through the French and Spanish wars. As he goes quietly about, alone, among his garden beds, perchance he hears again sometimes the hoarse word of command, the quick tread of the men, and the deep roar of the heavy guns, as his ship goes into action. The smoke of these battles rolled leeward long ago, and their glory and their wounds are alike forgotten. In that press, too, lies the wonderful ebony flute, with its marvellous confusion of silver keys, upon which he used to take pleasure in recalling the stirring airs of the fleet. It has played its last tune; the keys are untouched now, and it is laid past, warped by age, to be fingered by its old master no more.

But his guests rise to leave, and, receiving with antique grace their courtly acknowledgments, he attends the ladies across the stone-paved hall to their carriages.

Forty years ago! The old man since then has himself been carried across that hall to his long home, and no more do grand dames visit the high-walled garden. But the trees whisper yet above it; the warmth of summer beats on the gravelled walks; and the flowers, lovely as of old in their immortal youth, still open their stainless petals to the sun.


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