The Dead Garden
Elsie was in the dead garden. She hated the name, but the garden was, undeniably, dead, as everyone in Dryden knew. For forty years nothing in it had bloomed. Once the delight of the village, it used to have legions of wild roses and flowering cherry trees with white and lavender blossoms raining down from their branches. All the ground had been covered in lilies and emerald grass. The spot had been a beloved place of leisure for the Dryden villagers for generations.
But one spring forty years ago, the garden did not bloom. It simply stayed as brown and bare as in winter, finished with both autumnal and springtime finery forever, it seemed. Every year it was hoped that the garden would again show forth its splendor, but it never would, staying in stark, shriveled obstinacy. Some unsuccessful efforts had been made to rejuvenate it, to no avail. Now no one visited the dead garden, only referring to it as a lost golden pastime that would never return.
The dead garden was situated on a large level space between the crests of two steep hills. It was enclosed by tall, dense bracken that hid it from view below but afforded a view of Dryden from above. Two cherry trees, their twined boughs leafless and grating against one another in wind, flanked the single stone bench. From it, one could see the whole front of the snug little Dryden schoolhouse and a good deal of the lane that led to it.
This was a hazy June afternoon of bird song and sun. It did not seem an afternoon fitting to host a drama of human passion, but it did. For Elsie came to the dead garden every weekday afternoon, rain or shine, to watch the schoolhouse until the schoolmaster emerged from it and went down the lane after all the children had gone. The simple reason for this dogged behavior was that she loved him and had loved him for years and would always love him.
His name was Christopher Lockley, and he had been Elsie’s teacher several years ago. Her love for him was slow to develop, but after three years of observing him at the front of the room she had come to know his gentle, honest nature. She relished the flavor of the sparkling wit he sometimes allowed to show, a wit that derived from real humor and not a bit of malice.
In her teen years, Elsie had entertained some hopes that Mr. Lockley might notice her–didn’t he smile at her a little differently than at his other pupils?–but now, at twenty, five years out of school and into the dawn of womanhood, she could no longer cherish such hopes. Mr. Lockley did not notice her, quite apart from loving her in return.
Elsie saw him quite often in town and church. The smiles he gave her when they met were so full of earnest goodwill that they nearly caused her to weep. Sometimes he spoke a few words to her. But he never sought her out; she was only an old pupil to him.
As Elsie reaped the bitter fruit of her ardor, the zest of life was waning for her. Day followed day in pale wistfulness, invigorated only by the daily visit to the dead garden, where she could gaze openly, hungrily, at Mr. Lockley without being seen, going home slightly comforted by the mere glimpse of him.
Elsie often chided herself for being a selfish, self-absorbed little fool who so shallowly saw nothing in life but a man who cared nothing for her beyond friendly courtesy. But the love remained, stored up in her heart, and even deepened.
Elsie tensed as the schoolhouse door opened as though it was the first time she had breathlessly waited for it. There he was, locking it behind him and striding away down the lane. How contented he looked, gazing about him at the placid greenery with his books under his arm. Heated passion, such as Elsie had for him, that drove her to obsessively watch him secretly, seemed totally alien to Mr. Lockley’s frank manner.
Elsie couldn’t see his face in detail from her lofty position, but she knew it by heart. It seemed always ready to blossom into mirth and very often did, crinkling up appealingly. Mr. Lockley’s eyes were clever and beaming, and his flaxen hair was clipped short. His figure was sturdy and graceful.
Elsie stretched out her hand to the bracken that framed his advancing figure.
“Oh, couldn’t you love me, Mr. Lockley? Couldn’t you?” she whispered fervently.
Mr. Lockley vanished from view. He would soon turn into the road below the other side of the hill and reach his home near town. He lived alone and had never appeared to have any notion of marrying.
Elsie’s head drooped. “You could never love a girl like me. If you did, it would be enough to make this poor old deserted garden live again. If you knew that I watch you every day! I suppose it is better that you don’t know.”
She stood to leave. She never lingered long after Mr. Lockley passed beyond her sight. Then she slipped back down the hill through the firs and into the back garden of the home she shared with her Aunt Wilma.
Aunt Wilma was waiting at the kitchen door when her niece crossed the yard. Elsie regarded the grimly wise face with unease. Never had Aunt Wilma met her when she returned from her vigils or wanderings.
“I s’pose ye’ve gone to see yer schoolmaster again. No, don’t deny it, urchin. I knows you go to that old garden at the top of the hill, and further, that it gives an excellent view of the schoolhouse. My eyes note more’n ye’d think, and I spent my childhood in that garden, when it was in its better days. Don’t have the taste for it now, just like most folks here. But you do. Ye’re in love with the master, Christopher Lockley–or fancy ye are.”
Elsie stepped over a bed of phlox and went past her aunt into the house. “How do you know that, Aunt Wilma, and what does it matter to you?” she inquired coolly.
“What does it matter to me?” Aunt Wilma banged the door behind her in exasperation. “Haven’t I raised ye from an infant after yer folks perished o’ the fever? As to how I know, I’ve seen the way ye look at him when ye pass or meet him. If nothing else, he’s too old for you–thirty-five and you twenty!”
Elsie stood silent under her aunt’s keen eyes.
“”Ye’re languishing, Elsie. Ye aren’t really in love, ye know. The affliction ye’ve got is infatuation. Haven’t ye ever seen folks in love? They trot around beamin’ and singing at their work. But ye’re brooding and restless. Them’s the fruits of infatuation, I tell ye, wandr’ing about like a lost soul! ‘Tain’t healthy. Love of the real sort is healthy; infatuation ’tisn’t. It’ll pass if ye’re patient. Then soon enough ye’ll love a fellow for true. ” She nodded her head wisely, but Elsie firmly shook hers.
“No, Aunt Wilma. I’ve had infatuations before and they were as you say; but this is truly love, and it is only pain because it has no hope of being returned. If it is returned it yields beaming and trotting. If not, it wounds terribly.”
Aunt Wilma pursed her lips and opened them to speak again, but Elsie cut her off.
“Have you ever loved like this, Aunt Wilma?”
“No, thank the Good Man Above, but I’ve seen it enough to know it better’n most folks who have. I’ve never been a fool in that way, so I can be mighty level-headed about it. Anyhow, ye won’t die of a broken heart; ye’ve got the indestructible constitution of the Millers.”
Elsie just smiled sadly in devout thankfulness that no one else knew of her secret ardor and helped Aunt Wilma get supper. During the meal Elsie chatted quite cheerily as usual. But Aunt Wilma saw the anguish in her niece’s face between remarks. “It’ll take time to wear off,” Aunt Wilma thought to herself.
After cleaning up they settled down in the sitting room to read, as was their habit in the quiet evenings. Elsie read listlessly. The books she used to adore all featured heroines whose love was returned. She had no kinship with them.
Aunt Wilma was soon snoring, her book dropped into her lap. No matter what anxiety or stress Wilma Miller might be suffering, she never could read long in the evening without falling soundly asleep. She simply could not help it–and how many fine tales she missed as a consequence thereof! Else, she might have understood her niece a little better.
Elsie stepped over to Aunt Wilma’s chair and gently brushed an iron-gray curl from the old woman’s forehead. Aunt Wilma was well-meaning in her blunt way, but she did not understand.
Elsie paused in the doorway and looked with affection at her aunt, who was worried about her and did truly care. “You needn’t worry,” Elsie whispered. Then she stepped out into the night.
* * *
Christopher Lockley toiled up the long hill, meaning to pause in the dead garden before lessons as he liked to do now and then. He never found anyone, human or bird or beast, there and stood for a time looking down upon Dryden and its rolling countryside. In his lifetime the schoolmaster had not seen the garden in health, but he had often fancied what it must have been like then.
He went through the close bracken and stopped abruptly. He wasn’t in a dead garden at all. Everywhere were clusters of pink, white, and red roses, and the trees were hung with lavender gauze. Robust green vines draped themselves over the walls of bracken, their leaves unfurled. Sheets of lilies covered the moist green grass. The garden was alive with all the missed springs of forty years gracing it.
“At last, it lives,” said Mr. Lockley in astonishment.
His eyes rested on the heart of the garden. The two cherry trees there were white with blossoms. Beneath their arch, on the stone bench, lay a maiden. Thick dew glistened on her fanned brown hair and homespun dress. One of her arms was raised to pillow her head, and her face, in profile, was turned upward to the white blossoms that crowned her resting place. In the morning sun, the alcove was like a glowing pavilion.
“Miss Miller?” Mr. Lockley said in concern, his voice hushed.
When he ventured closer he saw the smallest hint of a smile on Elsie’s lips, but her eyes were closed, hidden beneath her ivory lids. Treading nearer still, the schoolmaster saw that no breath stirred her form.
But all around the bench life was thrilling in the garden once more. Mr. Lockley, gazing enthralled at its delicate glory, thought that it could never have been so lovely as it was this fresh June morning. But the maiden at its heart-! She must have lain there all the previous night, while the bloom crept silently into fulness around her.
Minutes passed while he stood gazing down at her. He had never taken especial notice of her before beyond noting that she was a quiet, studious pupil; but now he could not cease looking at her face. All the wistfulness and timidity in it had vanished, replaced by a natural grace it had never had in life.
Mr. Lockley would never be able to explain it, but he knew, unquestionably, that it was Elsie’s presence alone that had brought the garden back to life at last. He felt some regret that he had not striven to know more of her.
Mr. Lockley gently took the hand that lay on Elsie’s breast. “A sweet life lost,” he murmured.
Laura Chitlon has always loved to write, particularly stories inspired by sentimental fiction and fairy tales.
Floral photography has always been a hobby for Mary Moser. She has been taking pictures for a while now for friends and family and wanted to expand to different venues.