THE garden looked dreary and desolate in spite of the afternoon sunshine. The lilac and lavender bushes were past their prime; their wealth of sweetness had been squandered by riotous offshoots. The wind played among the branches, and cast changing sun-flecked shadows on the grass-grown paths, narrowed by the encroachment of the box borders that had once lined the way with the stiff precision of troops before a royal progress.
The flowers had the air of being overburdened with the monotony of their existence. They could never have had that aspect if they had been only wild flowers and had never experienced human care and companionship. That made the difference.
The gate hung on rusty hinges; it answered with a long-drawn-out creaking, as it was pushed open by a man who had been a stranger to the place for nearly twenty years.
Yes, the garden was certainly smaller than it had been pictured by his memory. There had been a time when it had appeared as a domain of extensive proportions, and the wood beyond of marvelous depth and density.
He was conscious of a sense of disappointment. The property would scarcely realize as high a price in the market as he had hoped; and it was incumbent upon him to part with it, if he would be released from the narrow circumstances that hemmed him in.
He had arranged to meet the lawyer there that afternoon. One of the latter’s clients had already made a bid for the estate. The timber, at all events, would add to the value.
The house faced southward upon the garden. It was here the man had been brought up by an old great-aunt. He guessed later that she had grudged him any of the endearments that death had denied her bestowing upon her own children. Her affections had all been buried before he was born. Besides, he took after the wrong branch of the family.
She must have possessed a strong personality. It was difficult to bring to mind that it was no longer an existent force. Every one, from the parson to the servants, had stood a little in awe of her. He remembered the unmoved manner in which she had received the news of the death of a near relative. It had overwhelmed him with a sudden chill, that so she would have received tidings of his own. It had taken all the sunshine in the garden to make him warm again.
In the mood that was growing upon him, it would not have much surprised him to find her sitting bolt upright in her carved high-back chair, as she had sat in the time of his earliest recollections,—the thin, yellow hands, on which the rings stood out, folded in her lap. On one occasion she had washed his small hands between hers. The hard lustre of the stones acquired a painful association with the ordeal. The blinds would be partially drawn in the musk-scented parlor, to save the carpet from further fading, for there had been a tradition of thrift in the family from the time of its settlement,—a tradition that had not been maintained by its latest representative.
Like the atmosphere of a dream, the years grew dim and misty between now and the time when summer days were longer and sunnier, and it had been counted to him for righteousness if he had amused himself quietly and not given trouble.
A stream that he had once dignified with the name of river formed a boundary between the garden and the wood. Although it had shrunk into shallow insignificance,—with much beside,—a faint halo of the romance with which he had endued this early scene of his adventures still clung to the spot.
As he came to the stream, he saw the reflection of a face in the water—not his own, but that of one much younger.
It was so he met the boy. The child had been placing stepping-stones to bridge the stream, and now came across, balancing himself on the slippery surfaces to test his work. It was odd that he had remained unobserved until this moment, but that was due to the fact of the water-rushes on the brink being as tall as he.
The boy’s eyes met those of the man with a frank, unclouded gaze. He did not appear astonished. That is the way when one is young enough to be continually viewing fresh wonders; one takes everything for granted. He saw at a glance that this other was not alien to him; his instinct remained almost as true as those of the wild nature around.
For his own part, he had an unmistakable air of possession about him. He appeared to belong to the place as much as the hollyhocks and honeysuckle; and yet, how could that be?
‘Probably a child of the caretaker,’ the man told himself.
He had authorized the agent to do what was best about keeping the house in order. He had not noticed what signs it had to show of habitation. Now he saw from the distance that it had not the unoccupied appearance he had expected of it; nor the windows, the dark vacant stare of those that no life behind illumines.
‘Do you live here?’ he asked of the boy.
‘Yes.’ The boy turned proudly toward the modest gray pile in the manner of introducing it, forgetting himself in his subject. ‘It’s a very old house. There’s a picture over the bureau in the parlor of the man who built it, and planted the trees in the wood. Hannah says—
It was a foolish repetition of the name. Of course there were other Hannahs in the world. The old servant of that name, who had told the man stories in his boyhood, had been dead more years than the child could number.
‘Yes,—don’t you know Hannah? She’ll come and call me in presently, and then you’ll see her. Hannah says they—the trees—have grown up with the family’ (he assumed a queer importance, evidently in unconscious mimicry of the one who had repeated the tradition to him), ‘and that with them the house will stand or fall. Do you think the roots really reach so far?’
There was an underlying uneasiness in the tone, which it was impossible altogether to disguise.
As the other expressed his inability to volunteer an opinion on this point, the boy went on, seeing that his confidences were treated with due respect:
‘I dug up one myself once—I wished I hadn’t afterwards—to make myself a Christmas tree like I’d read about. I just had to hang some old things I had on it. It was only a tiny fir, small enough to go in a flower-pot; but that night the house shook, and the windows rattled as if all the trees in the forest were trying to get in. I heard them tapping their boughs ever so angrily against the pane. As soon as it was light, I went out and planted the Christmas tree again. I hadn’t meant to keep it out of the ground long: they might have known that.’
‘Have you no playfellows here?’
The boy gave a comprehensive glance around. ‘There are the trees; they are good fellows. I wouldn’t part with one of them. It’s fine to hear them all clap their hands when we are all jolly together. There are nests in them, too, and squirrels. We see a lot of one another.’
This statement was not difficult to believe: the Holland overalls bore evident traces of fellowship with mossy trunks.
The boy did most of the talking. He had more to tell of the founder of the family whose portrait hung in the parlor, and of how, when he—the child—grew up, he rather thought of writing books, as that same ancestor had done, and making the name great and famous again. He had not decided what kind of books he should write yet. Was it very hard to find words to rhyme, if one tried poetry? He was at no pains to hide such fancies and ambitions, of which his kind are generally too sensitive or too ashamed to speak to their elders, and which are as a rule forgotten as soon as outgrown.
‘Shall we go in the wood now?’ said the boy. ‘It’s easy enough to cross over the stepping-stones.’
‘Yes, let us go.’ The man was beginning to see everything through the boy’s eyes. The garden was again much as he had remembered it, inclosed in a world of beautiful mystery. Nothing was really altered. What alteration he had imagined had been merely a transitory one in himself. The child had put a warm, eager hand into his; together they went into the wood, as happy as a pair of truant school boys; they might have been friends of long standing.
‘So this is your enchanted forest?’ said the man.
‘Not really enchanted,’ replied the boy seriously. ‘I once read of one, but of course it was only in a fairy tale. That one vanished as soon as one spoke the right word. It would be a very wrong word that could make this vanish.’ He had a way of speaking of the wood as if it were some sacred grove.
His companion suddenly felt guilty, not quite knowing why.
‘Of course some one might cut them down.’ The boy lowered his voice; it seemed shameful to mention the perpetration of such a deed aloud. ‘It would be terrible to hear them groan when the axe struck them. The young ones mightn’t mind so much; but it would be bad for the grandfather trees who’ve been here from the beginning. Hannah says one would still hear them wailing on stormy nights.’
‘Even if they had been felled and carted away?’
‘Yes, even then; though, to be sure, there would be no one to hear the wailing if it’s true that the house must fall, too, at the same time. But we needn’t trouble about that; none of it is likely to happen. You see, if it did, where should I be?’
He laughed merrily. This last argument appeared to him to be quite conclusive. Such an important consideration placed the awful contingency quite out of the question, and transformed it into nothing more than a joke.
The child’s laughter died away as they both stood still to listen. Each thought he had heard his own name called.
‘It’s Hannah,’ said the boy; and off he raced toward the house, barely saving himself from running into the arms of another person who had turned in at the gate.
‘Who was the boy who ran round by the espaliers a minute ago? One would scarcely have judged him to be a child of the caretaker.’
The man’s heart sank with a dull thud: something had told him the answer before it came.
‘Child!’ The lawyer looked puzzled. ‘I did not see one. No children have any business in this garden; neither is there any caretaker here. The house has been shut up altogether since the old servant you called Hannah died, eleven years ago.’
They had reached the veranda. The westering sun had faded off the windows. It was easy to see that the house was empty. The shutters were up within, and the panes dark and weather-stained. Birds had built their nests undisturbed about the chimney stacks. The hearthstones had long been cold.
‘My client is willing to purchase the property on the terms originally proposed,’ the lawyer was saying. ‘He contemplates investing in it as a building site. Of course the timber would have to be felled—’
A breeze passed through the treetops like a shudder. The younger man interposed:—
‘I am sorry you should have had the trouble of coming here, but I have decided to keep the old place after all—stick and stone. It is not right it should go out of the family. I must pull my affairs together as well as I can without that.’
The little phantom of his dead boyhood was to suffer no eviction.