"The Basket of Flowers." by Lilian Gask (1865-)
OHN'S wedding-present from his master was a charming little cottage, close to the great garden of the Castle, which he had made so beautiful. Early and late had he toiled over beds and borders, learning the habits of each tree and flower that he might know how best to grow them, and when he married a charming bride, as fair as one of his own roses, his neighbours declared that he deserved his good fortune.
The Count, his master, was a just and kindly man, and fully appreciated his services. As time went on, and a little daughter was born to John and his wife, they felt they had nothing more to ask of Heaven, and the child grew up in an atmosphere of love and sunshine until she was five years old. Then trouble came to the straw-thatched cottage, and the young mother was called away. John and his little Marie were left alone, and for many a day to come the songs of the birds sounded sad to them instead of sweet.
Marie was just as good as her mother had been, and very soon she became the joy and comfort of her father's heart. Day after day she toddled beside him through the Castle gardens, watching him at his work with her clear blue eyes, and shaking her sunshiny hair over the flowers she loved. They were her only companions except her father, and she murmured to them the piteous story of how Fidèle, her little dog, had eaten the nose of her best doll, or hidden her ball. The ladies at the Castle took a great fancy to the pretty little creature, and often, when she was old enough, the Countess had her up to the housekeeper's room that she might learn to embroider, and put dainty stitches in the delicate fabrics Court ladies wore. The grand cook too became one of her teachers, and Marie was taught how to concoct wonderful dishes out of very little, so that John fared well when he came in from work. At the age of fifteen his little daughter was a clever housekeeper, and it seemed as if the rest of his days were to be passed in peace.
Marie had other accomplishments besides cooking and needlework. An old woman in the village whom she had befriended showed her how to weave beautiful baskets from the willows by the stream, and Marie was always inventing fresh patterns, and different ways of twisting the pliant twigs, so that her baskets might be different from those of anyone else. When she wanted a new gown, or a dainty for her father, she would take some of these into the next town, where they fetched a very good price. The best one of all, however, she reserved as a birthday present for the young Countess, whom she had worshipped from her babyhood.
The birthday of the Countess dawned clear and bright. Marie was up early, filling her basket with fragrant pinks and delicate lilies, and arranging these with so much skill that her father exclaimed with pride when her work was finished. Holding it very carefully before her, she shyly approached the Castle, and was shown upstairs to her ladyship's own apartments.
The young Countess was delighted with the tasteful gift, and, leaving Marie in her bedroom, flew off to show it to her mother. Hastening back, she thanked Marie once again, and added graciously:
"It is your birthday too, dear girl, and this is my present to you. You must always think of me when you wear it."
As she spoke she displayed a simple white robe which she had lately purchased. It was trimmed with pale blue ribbons, and Marie flushed with delight as she curtsied and withdrew. Once outside the Castle, she ran so quickly with her treasure that she was out of breath when she reached the cottage.
"Isn't it beautiful, Father," she cried, "and shall I not look fine in it next Sunday?" All the while they were at breakfast she could talk of nothing else, and her father rejoiced to see her pleasure. He was just going back to his work when the young Countess herself came to the door. She was pale and trembling, and her beautiful eyes were filled with reproach as she flung the flower-filled basket on the floor.
"Oh, Marie!" she cried, "how could you do it? Is this the way you repay my kindness? Give me back my mother's diamond ring at once, and I will forgive you, but you must never come near me again."
N vain Marie protested that she had seen no ring, and that, if she had, she would have died rather than steal it; the Countess did not believe her.
"It was there, on my dressing-table, when I left you in my room that I might show my mother your basket!" she said indignantly. "Our maid, Henrietta, noticed it there the moment before you came in, and no one entered afterwards but you and myself."
"I never saw it!" repeated Marie. "Do believe me, dear Countess! I would not rob you for anything in the world!" Her father, deeply agitated, joined his pleading to hers.
The young Countess turned haughtily away.
"If you will not confess," she said, "I shall send you to prison." And she swept away in bitter anger.
Marie and her father were overwhelmed with grief. He did not for one moment doubt her innocence, but he saw that circumstances were against her, and, dazed and bewildered, knew not what to do. The bailiff shortly afterwards appeared, and in spite of Marie's protestations carried her off to prison.
Marie spent a terrible night, and when morning came was but a wreck of the bright young girl who had taken the young Countess that ill-fated basket of flowers. Her honest face, as she denied all knowledge of the ring, prepossessed the judge in her favour, but the maid Henrietta was so emphatic in saying that she had actually seen it on the dressing-table before Marie entered the room, and had even noticed how the sunlight caused it to sparkle, that he had no choice but to find her guilty. Marie was sentenced to imprisonment, but the Count, in compassion for her father's distress, begged the judge to modify her punishment. She was accordingly set at liberty, but on condition that she should immediately leave that part of the country, and that her father should pay the value of the ring. The old gardener would not abandon her, so the little cottage was given up, and all their cherished possessions were sold to defray the cost of the missing ornament. The only thing that Marie retained, besides the clothes she wore and a small old-fashioned portrait of her mother, was the Countess's basket, which she kept as a memento of that dreadful day.
The poor old man was sick with trouble as he and Marie set off on their wanderings. He had worked hard all his life, and now, at the end of his days, it seemed as though this disgrace would kill him. His love for Marie was his only consolation, and the heroic fortitude with which she bore herself under this heavy trial made her more dear to him than ever.
OR days they wandered over the country, sleeping at night in the shelter of a hayrick, or under a hedge, with berries and fruit for their only food. Nature was kind to them, for the skies were clear, and the air so soft and balmy that it seemed like a caress. At last, when the old man's strength was all but spent, Marie saw before them a comfortable farmhouse. The porch was covered with roses, and the polished windows almost smiled at her. Here, she felt, they might meet with friends, and she was not disappointed.
The farmer and his wife were kindly folk, and their hearts were moved to pity at the sight of the forlorn wayfarers who approached their door. They invited them into the red-flagged kitchen, and set before them milk and bread. When the wanderers had refreshed themselves, and were seated on the wide oak settle, their compassionate hosts inquired their history, and on learning of their misfortunes, and of what poor Marie had been accused, their hearts went out to them.
"That is the way with those rich people," said the old farmer; "they treat us as though we were dogs and did not know what honour meant. Fancy serving you in that way, and doubting your daughter's word, when you had worked for them faithfully for so many years! But never mind–you shall make your home with us for the present, and when you are strong again, we will see what you can do."
So that night Marie and her father slept under a roof once more, and their prayers were full of gratitude to Heaven.
The old man soon recovered his wonted health, for the fare at the farm was good and plentiful, and the farmer's wife, who had taken a great fancy to Marie, was kindness itself. She had always longed for a daughter, and now, as she said, it seemed as though Providence had sent one. Her only son was a headstrong youth, but little at home, and up to the present had been no comfort to her.
In spite of all that had befallen them, the next three years were happy ones, both for Marie and her father. The old man took as much pride in the garden of their kind friends as he had done in that of the Count. He made it a bower of fragrance, and people came for miles to see his wonderful show of roses. The cuttings from his plants brought the farmer a considerable sum, and Marie was so useful about the house that the good wife often wondered how she had done without her before she came. Her baskets brought in quite as much pocket-money as she required.
"If only I could prove my innocence of that dreadful theft!" Marie would sometimes say to herself, as she worked in the long summer evenings; but she stifled her sighs lest she might sadden her father. As age came on him he forgot the past, and, living only in the present, passed his days in calm content.
One morning when she went to call him, she found him asleep–so fast asleep that she could not wake him; the little portrait of her mother lay in his open hand. In spite of her overwhelming sorrow at being left alone, Marie could only feel glad that his pilgrimage was at an end.
This was the beginning of a very troubled time for the farmer and his wife, as well as for Marie herself. The preceding winter had tried the old couple greatly, and they felt too feeble now to work the farm by themselves. Their son was a clever fellow, and they knew that if he would only give his mind to his work, he could make the farm pay as well as it had done in years gone by.
"I will give everything over to you, my son," the farmer said, "if you will solemnly promise that your mother and I shall be allowed to stay here for the rest of our lives, and that you will provide for us comfortably."
Their son gladly agreed to this, for he was tired of roaming about, and glad to settle down. Marie, of course, was to stay on also. She did the work of two servants at least, so it was no particular credit to the young man that he wished to keep her.
While he remained single, things went on smoothly, but he soon took a wife from the village, a handsome and showy girl, who was of a jealous disposition, and knew as little how to keep house as she did how to hold her tongue. They had not been married a month before she fell out with the old people, and refused to allow them to sit either in the kitchen or in the parlour. They were turned out of their big bedroom, being made to sleep in a garret instead, and the food she supplied them with was both scanty and ill-cooked. It is hard to say what they would have done but for Marie, who put up with the young wife's temper with angelic sweetness, that she might still be near the dear old people who had befriended her.
Before very long, however, her position became impossible. The young wife grew jealous of her loveliness, and sought by every means in her power to make her life unbearable. The climax came when she accused her of having stolen some linen that had been laid out to bleach in the sun, and had mysteriously disappeared.
"You are at your old tricks!" she said to Marie, for she had heard her story; and the poor girl could have sunk into the earth with shame.
"Alas! I must leave you!" she cried weepingly to the old couple. "I cannot stay here any longer. If only I could die!"
For the first time since she left the Castle, Marie gave way to despair; she had nowhere to go, for she was homeless. For a long while she wandered about the fields. When dusk gave place to darkness she made her way to the little churchyard on the hill where, Sunday after Sunday, she filled the basket on her father's grave with flowers. Here, under the shade of a cypress, she laid herself down, and cried herself to sleep.
The moon shone down on the sleeping girl, turning her soft bright hair into a wreath of gold as it caught the light. Out of the darkness of the church porch stole a tall white figure, that might have been an angel's. But the face was the face of a woman, and she bent over Marie, exclaiming:
"Do you not recognise me, dear child? I am the young Countess whom you used to love, and I have come to ask you to forgive me for my cruel doubts."
ARIE was too dazed at first to understand the meaning of her words, but presently, as she sat beside the Countess in a stately bedroom of the house where she was staying, she heard with joy that her innocence had been proved.
"Last year I was married," said the young Countess, "and after our wedding my husband and I went back to the Castle, which we left soon after you did. During our visit there was a violent storm, and one of the trees, close by the window of the room where I used to sleep, was struck by lightning and torn asunder. A great branch fell to the ground, and out of this dropped a magpie's nest. My younger brothers, who were with us, flew to see what it contained, and discovered a number of bright and shining treasures, among which we found that ring. It was clear that the magpie had carried it off, after having flown in through my open window. And you, my poor Marie, were the sufferer."
Marie broke into sobs. In the midst of her relief and gladness, she could not help thinking of her father. And the Countess wept also. Presently she went on with her story.
"My father sent for Henrietta, and forced her to confess that she had actually missed the ring before you came that morning. It was her jealousy of you that made her give false evidence, but I do not believe she has ever been happy since that day.... We did all we could to find you, but in spite of our many inquiries we could hear nothing, and thought you must be dead. A few days ago I came to visit a castle in this neighbourhood, and my hostess brought me to-day to see the little church. As we strolled past the graves, she showed me one which she said was always decked with flowers.
"'It is that of an old gardener,' she added. 'His daughter never forgets him.' And there, full of lilies and roses, I saw the basket that you had made for me. I knew it at once, for no one but you ever made them just that shape....
"I came back to-night because I could not sleep for thinking of the injustice that I had done you. Oh, my dear child, how sorry I am, and what you must have suffered! But that is over now. You must come home with me, and never leave me again."
Marie did not forget the old couple, who had been so good to her in her hour of need, and the first thing she did next day was to take the Countess to see them. Owing to her good offices, the son and his wife were given another farm, and the old people were reinstated as master and mistress of their own home, with a kind young woman to look after them.
Marie returned to the Castle with the Countess, and the people of the village could not do enough to show their contrition for their want of faith in her in days gone by. A few years later she was happily married to a young gardener in the Count's service, and went to live with him in the dear little cottage where she was born. The Countess gave it to her as a wedding present, and here she and her husband spent many happy years, with their children round them.