A Garden of Eden
Mrs. C. N. Williamson
EVERYBODY who comes to the
Riviera visits Lord Hilary’s wonderful garden, La Vista, and most people who do not come have heard of it, because it is worldfamous. Lord Hilary is an old man now, and a bachelor, whose greatest joy is his Italian garden. Those who have slight acquaintance with him and his history speak of it laughingly as the “one love of his life” ; but we who are his neighbors know that there was another love once. If he had not lost her, he would never have turned his back upon his native land, and made this garden, to which for thirty years he has given most of his time and attention. But then, a man who had had no romance in his heart or life could never have imagined or created such a garden.
There is a house in it, of course, a beautiful house, though it is of the garden that one always speaks in asking strangers, “Have you been to La Vista yet?” It is a very old house, so old that there is a well in the big entrance hall, made in case of a siege by Saracens. Lord Hilary lives at La Vista from October till June, or later, and then disappears, few of his friends guess where, except that he is never seen in England. But we know that he goes always to the same place, the place where the Romance began in joy, and that he avoids England because it ended there in sorrow. So we never say to him when he comes back, as the uninitiated do sometimes, “Where were you last summer?”
He is one of the handsomest men you ever saw, though he is over sixty ; and certainly he is one of the kindest.
He is “at home” to his friends every second Saturday all winter, and the garden is open to the public two days each week. One of the days is Sunday, because those who work six days of the week can find peace and pleasure on the seventh at La Vista from morning till sunset; and though there are hundreds of visitors, each one who asks is given a rose, or some other flower to carry away.
You need only murmur to Lord Hilary “such and such a person is very poor, or in trouble,” for him to exclaim instantly, “Eh? . What can I do for him?”
It was owing to this pleasant peculiarity—I am afraid it is a peculiarity —that I had the courage to try and interest him in Betty McNaughten. “A charming girl, and so clever about gardens,” said I. I knew that would strike the right note ! Then I went on, as we walked up and down under the famous pergola curtained with banksia roses, and told him all about her. How she was twentyfour, and had left school at sixteen to take care of her father, Major McNaughten, when her mother was killed and the Major had his back broken, in that dreadful railway accident which everybody in England must remember, between seven and eight years ago. How the girl’s desire, ever since she was a child, had been to grow up and be a “lady gardener.” How her parents, though not exactly understanding or wholly approving an ambition which to them seemed “very queer,” had consented to let her go to a college for gardening, or whatever the place ought to be
called, and then the tragedy had happened. Betty had to turn nurse just at the age when most girls are looking forward to “coming out,” and had had no life at all except in the sickroom. Nevertheless, I told Lord Hilary, she had gone on learning things concerning plants until scientific people pronounced her quite a wonder. I had to be rather vague, you see because, though I love flowers, Fm absolutely ignorant about them myself, except that I know what I want in my garden, and am desperate when the gardener can’t understand if I demand it under the category of a “lovely purple what-you-may-call’em.”
“They’d have taken her for something or other at Kew Gardens, when her father died and left her almost without a penny,” I hurried to add, by way of proving that my swan really was a swan, and not a goose, “only there was a girl, a perfect beast of a girl, who had more influence than Betty, and simply snapped the place out of her mouth. After that, a fearful cousin who lives in Bayswrater and cares for nothing but an elderly pug and bargain sales, took Betty for an unpaid companion. Pretended it was an act of sweet charity, of course, but usedthe child as if she’d been engaged as lady’s maid, and nearly starved her, too. She’d be there still, only she broke down from over-work and general misery—had anaemia or something—so she had to spend her poor little pittance going into a nursing home for a rest cure. That’s where she is now, and I’d have her out with me, only, in our little chalet we’ve no spare room, so-”
“I wonder if she could catalogue my family?” said Lord Hilary. (He always speaks of his trees, and plants, and flowers as his “family,” the dear man.) “If she could, and wmuld like the work, I should be very glad to engage her to do it. My curator is kept too busy, and I’ve often thought I must get somebody, but have put it off until I should hit on the right person.”
“I’m pretty sure Betty would be the right person,” I assured him, pretending to believe his amiable fiction. I’d expected some kind proposal or other, but this seemed too perfect, and I could have hugged the old angel.
“She might come any time that suited her,” he went on. “I shall be going off—er—for the summer in a fortnight now, and the house will be shut up. But your Miss McNaughten could live in the cottage, and old Margarita would look after her. She’d have no expenses, for there are more chickens and eggs and milk and vegetables and fruit than anybody knows what to do with. I’d pay her fare both ways, of course, and give a hundred pounds for the cataloguing work. Oh, you needn’t look grateful. It’s a big work, and I should be getting it cheap at the price. I dare say, if she were smart, she might finish in two months, but she wouldn’t find it too hot at La Vista, even if she had to stay through August. I should never go away myself to escape the heat, only I have—er—got into a sort of groove in the summer.”
“Too hot! Why it would be a paradise for the girl !” I exclaimed. “She’ll think she’s dead and gone to heaven.”
“Rather a lonely heaven,” said Lord Hilary, with the wistful look that comes into his eyes sometimes. “Everybody’ll be gone; hotels shut up, villas empty, the village shops barred; no one stirring outside the garden, except the fishermen down in the harbor and children at play in the olive woods. But Antonio’s an intelligent fellow, and will do anything he can. I shall tell him to give Miss McNaughten all the 'help in his power, and he’ll be delighted.”
“Who’s Antonio?” I asked in a silly, absent-minded way, because already I was planning the letter I’d write to Betty.
“My curator,” said Lord Hilary, looking surprised at the question, as well he might, for I ought to have remembered. But usually he speaks of the curator by his surname, Florio,
which is so suitable I think, for a gardener-sort-of-person. Exactly what a curator is, beyond being a head gardener, I’m sure I don’t know, but Í do know that I was once warned not to call Florio (he speaks a little English, and understands more) a mere gardener, for fear of offending him. But I don’t think he would be offended, really, if I did make a mistake, for Italians are never snobbish, or put on airs, no matter to what class of life they belong.
Well, it was all arranged incredibly soon, for when Lord Hilary makes up his mind to do a thing it is as good as done. We decided to stay on late at the chalet, so as to settle Betty in before leaving for England, and the old angel had the curiosity to linger on, too, though Betty was delayed, and didn’t arrive until several days after his usual date for disappearing into space.
I hadn’t seen Betty for two years, though we had always corresponded since our first meeting at Southsea, where she and her dying father dragged out their long martyrdom together. His death and the Bayswater episode had changed her astonishingly. I had described her to Lord Hilary as a pretty girl, with a sweet manner, perfect complexion, and glorious golden hair. It was quite a shock, meeting her at the railway station nearest our place, and seeing how she had faded. She had no complexion to speak of—she, who had been all lilies and roses !—and the golden gleam seemed to have gone out of her hair. When I saw her last, I’d thought she looked even younger than her age; now she might have been twenty-eight. I really felt obliged to apologise for her to Lord Hilary, as if I had fibbed about her to arouse his interest and sympathy.
“She was pretty, truly,” I said, when I was alone with him after leaving Betty to the tender mercies of Margarita, the widow of a former head gardener. Margarita takes care of that little gem of a “villina” in the3
woodiest part of the great garden, where Lord Hilary has often brought convalescents to stay.
“Don’t worry, my dear ; she’ll be pretty again. I’ve a great opinion of my garden as a tonic, and my ‘family’ as doctors,” said the dear old man. “I wish I could stop and see her even a fortnight from now ; but I must be off—I must be off. Who knows but this may be my last summer? At my age one thinks of these things, that each time may be a good-bye.”
The same night he went away—to the shrine which is a mystery to all save a few. But I was anxious about Betty, she looked so ill ; and, as the weather was perfect, we determined to postpone our flitting still further.
The day after Betty came I wasn’t able to call, though our chalet is only a short mile from La Vista. Friends were leaving for England, and we had to see them off. But the next morning I went over, and found her walking in the garden with Antonio Florio, the curator. They were coming down that marvelous avenue of cypresses about which all the artists rave, and I thought how tall and protecting the big, young Italian looked. It had never occurred to me before that Florio was a handsome fellow, but he had quite a noble air that morning, in the garden that he loved, pointing out everything to the English Signorina. Perhaps it was partly the contrast between them that struck me suddenly with admiration for him ; he is so dark and enthusiastic, glowing with health, bright-eyed and sunburnt, his neck a bronze column rising from the turned-over collar of his blue linen blouse ; she so small and fragile and fair, moving daintily by his side in her white dress, under the immense, solemn trees. But then, of course, there was another contrast, Betty being a lady, and Florio not a gentleman by birth.
As soon as I came near, I could have cried out with joy and surprise at the improvement two days had made in the girl. It was excitement, of course, that had given her back for
the moment a little of her lovely color, but her hair no longer looked dim and lustreless. It glittered in the sunshine like pale gold, and her eyes shone. Already Lord Hilary’s prophecy was coming true. She was growing pretty again, and she’d slipped back from twenty-eight to her own proper age—twenty-four.
After acknowledging my greeting in his pleasant, respectful, though far from servile, Italian way, Florio took himself off, reminding the Signorina that he would be at her service again whenever she wished.
“He’s such an intelligent man, and somehow not at all common, though of course he doesn’t make the slightest pretension to being one’s equal,” Betty said of the Curator, when we’d talked for awhile of things in general, and had come back to her work in the garden. “He’s so willing to help, and he talks so interestingly about the flowers; it’s a pleasure to listen.”
“Are you as happy as you expected to be?” I asked.
“Oh”—and she looked rapturous— “I’m a hundred times happier ! The place is lovlier than I fancied from your description. As I said to Antonio, no description could do it justice.”
“You call him Antonio!” I remarked.
“Oughtn’t I to? I heard Lord Hilary call him that, and so does old Margarita. One wouldn’t call a man in his position Signor Antonio, I suppose ?”
“His surname is Florio, not Antonio,” I explained. “But no, one wouldn’t address him as ‘Signor.’ I don't think I’ve ever called 'him anything except ‘you.’ Go on calling him Antonio—why not? You’ll find that he’ll never take the slightest liberty. Lord Hilary thinks a great deal of him, and all the twenty-five gardeners treat him with the utmost respect. I dare say they ‘Signor’ him.”
“I’m sure he’ll be a great comfort to me,” said Betty. “I do so want to do my work well, and show Lord Hil-
ary how grateful I am to him for opening the gates of this Garden of Eden to me.”
“An Adamless Eden,” I laughed. “Unless we rename Antonio Adam?”
“Then there’d be no Eve for him, so it wouldn’t be worth while. I may as well go on being Eve without an Adam. Indeed, I don’t want one ! A girl who could lack anybody or anything in such a haven of rest, such a Paradise of peace, would deserve to be driven out.”
As the days went on, Betty grew more and more radiant. By the time she had -been at La Vista a fortnight, and we were beginning to think we must go back to England (it was past the middle of June) she was prettier than ever. She did not look a day over eighteen. She had developed a dimple which had been a mere suggestion before. She was always smiling. Her eyes sparkled ; her hair was a halo, as she walked under pergolas that were cataracts of flowers.
Every morning from eight to twelve she and Florio worked together, for, as he said, and I remembered, Lord Hilary had ordered him to assist Miss McNaughten in every way possible. At twelve, old Margarita gave the girl a lunch in the cool little diningroom of the “cottage,” where curtains of rose vines pressed against the halfclosed green persiennes. While she ate, Betty generally read some book which Antonio lent her, for, among other things, he was teaching her Italian. That helped on -her work, of course. And she repaid him by giving hints about his English, at which she laughed a little sometimes, when he used some particularly quaint expression. But he never laughed at her Italian. Whatever she did, he admired her respectfully with grave brown eyes, clear as the depths of Devonshire brooks. And the literature he lent was worth reading. As Betty said, he was extremely well read and clever for a man in his position. He loved Virgil and Dante, and quoted both, not pretentiously ever, for there was nothing pretentious
about simple, pleasant Antonio, but quite as a matter of course, just as I might quote Browning or Tennyson, if 1 could ever remember half a line when 1 wanted it!
After lunch Betty would rest; then she would insist on working till tea time, and in the cool of the day would go poking about among obscure-looking plants, with Antonio, picking off bits of leaf or examining petals or stamens in the most learned way, vying with the Curator in jabbering scientifically. If I were with them, I couldn’t understand a word, and felt quite “out of it,” but naturally I was seldom there. It wasn’t as if Betty needed a chaperon, with a kind of head-gardener, told off to help her, like a superior sort of servant. And so, at last, I contentedly left the girl, happy in the garden, with Antonio for a watch-dog, and Margarita for cook and maid.
“Be good to my little friend,” I said to Florio, as I was starting away to catch the train we would take for Paris.
“It is indeed, a great pleasure to be good to her, Signora, if one can call what I do being ‘good,’ ” he answered in Italian. “She is a heavenly young lady, the most heavenly I ever saw. To see her is like watching a new star in the night sky or finding a wonderful flower never discovered before, growing in the garden.”
The look in his eyes when he said this brought a queer, startling thought to my mind. But I said to myself that it was nonsense. Italian men were like that, rather exaggerated in the expression of ordinary sentiments, perhaps ; and as for an Italian’s eyes (a good-looking, young Italian, even the poorest peasant) they always shine as if they saw visions, when their owner is thinking of no more romantic subject than to-morrow’s dinner. It was impossible that Florio—but I wouldn’t even finish out the idea. He was litt’e more than an intelligeni peasant, who had been educated, and who had a kind of genius for gardenin P-. He had an uncle who was a
priest, I’d heard; but that means nothing in Italy or France, and though I’d begun to consider him rather handsome in his garden, I could imagine that all his charm might go in “best clothes,” if he tried to “dress himself up like a Signor,” as Margarita would no doubt express it.
I was perfectly sure Betty had no thought of any such stupidity on Florio’s part; but I did wish that she could meet some really suitable man of her own class with a little money. She was so sweet—(I said to myself in the train)—it seemed a pity that, penniless as she was, and homeless, she would have little chance to marry, for even the prettiest girls need a “background,” and Betty had lost hers, if she had ever had one. Besides, I realized that she wasn’t what you could call a beauty—the sort of beauty to whom King Cophetua is glad to stoop and give cloth of gold instead of rags.
I heard regularly twice a week from Betty in the Garden of Eden. She had no news to tell, except about the flowers and the splendid progress she made with her cataloguing, thanks to Antonio, who was always kind. But at last came a letter which I knew, even when I first caught a glimpse of the address, would be somehow different. The address looked nervous and hurried. “Something’s happened!” I thought. I opened the envelope with my heart beating, but the first words told nothing, except that the work was finished, a little sooner than Betty had expected, and so she was coming home.
“Lord Hilary has sent me a cheque for a hundred pounds, over and above the advance he made,” she said. “I don’t feel as if I ought to take it, but he insists. I should be broken-hearted at leaving Paradise, and going back into the work-a-day world to look for something to do by which I can decently keep soul and body together, only—something has happened.”
“There! I told you so!” I interrupted my reading to exclaim out aloud.
“Isn’t it too tragic, poor Antonio has been foolish enough to fall in love with me, or think he has,’’ the letter went on, “and I am so sorry and miserable about it, that it’s spoiled everything. As the time drew near for me to go, I saw that he was unlike himself, and that sometimes, when he thought I wasn’t looking, his face was very sad. But I thought perhaps he had some private worry, and I do assure you it was the gi'eatest shock when the truth came out. We had been such excellent friends, and, as you prophesied, he seemed really perfect in his part of guide and philosopher, never presuming on my appreciation of him. I do believe he would have kept his secret if I hadn’t been silly enough to moan a little about leaving the Garden of Eden. Then he burst out with what he’s been hiding; how he worshipped me, and how, if I would stoop to him, he’d give his life and soul to make me happy. He knew, he said, that he was far beneath me, only fit to touch the hem of my dress, and a torrent of things like that, which almost broke my heart. For a while I could no more have stopped him than 1 coula stop the mountain torrent in the gorge. I need never go away from the Garden of Eden, he urged, if only I could make up my mind to marry him. And he would ask nothing of me, nothing at all that I didn’t wish to give. It would be enough happiness just to have the right to call me his wife. You can imagine how grieved and upset I was! I couldn’t help crying a little, and he turned deadly white under his brown sunburn. Suddenly his eyes—they are beautiful eyes, you know, if he is only a gardener !—looked a thousand years old. And all the youth and joy of life seemed to fa^.e out of him slowly as he stood listening, silent, unprotesting, while I told him I didn’t care for him in that way, and tried to explain, without hurting his poor feelings, that it would never do, that I couldn’t really make hun happy, that we weren’t suited to each other as 'husband and wife, and that
he must forget he’d ever thought of me except as a friend who was very, very grateful to him for many kindnesses. Í was just as nice and gentle a.' 1 knew how to be, but I’m afraid he understood some things I didn’t want him to understand. If there’s anything loathsome on God’s earth it’s a snob, and I’d go into a nunnery if I believed I were one; vet imagine how father would feel if his daughter even dreamed of marry'ng somebody’s head gardener! And can’t you see Cousin Charlotte's face if she heard I’d been proposed to by one? But it's awfully sad, and 1 don’t thhik my poor Antonio can be more unhappy than I am because of making him unhappy.” !
A few days later Betty arrived in London, and I went to see her at a dreadful house which called itself Dorcas Mansions, inhabited only by females. Men were strictly forbidden, even as afternoon visitors. If you were driven to roost there because you were, unfortunately, a woman, and poor, you could have a whole cuh'cle to yourself, and board, for fifteen shillings a week. But there was a rule for every hour of the day, and probably would have been for the night, if you weren’t expected to sleep from ten to seven; anyhow, you had to be in by nine at latest, or they’d know the reason why. And you brought your own napkin ring. Nevertheless. I quite saw when I called on Betty that it was better to be one of the Dorcases than a companion to Cousin Charlotte. What I didn’t see so clearly was whether, after all, it wouldn’t have been better to—but that was when she’d shown me the diningroom, and I’d noticed spots on the tablecloth. Besides, Dorcas Mansions was in the neighborhood of Lisson Grove, and I couldn’t help seeing a picture of the Garden of Eden “behind my eyes.”
Betty was fairly cheerful, however, with a strained, conscientious cheerfulness, and said that she had a chance
of teaching botany in a kindergarten
with colored charts. By and by she would get something better.
I felt brutal to leave her Dorcasing while we went off to enjoy ourselves in a perfect house by the river, where the river's at its loveliest. But the visit was a long-standing promise ; and what can one do, anyhow, with a girl who is obstinately independent?
After staying at Marlow we went up to Scotland, and didn’t get back to town till October, Betty hadn’t written often, because (she said when she did write) she was learing typing and shorthand, so she was very busy, and usually rather tired by evening.
I flashed off in a taxi to the grisly Mansions as soon as I could manage it, and it was all I could do not to cry when I saw Betty. She was more conscientiously cheerful than in the summer, and smiled a great many smiles, but the smiles were so hard you could have knocked them off her little thin, white face with a hammer, as if they’d heen bits of a badly-fitting death-mask. She had gone back to a state worse than before La Vista, and when she wasn’t smiling one of those pitiful smiles her eyes seemed to hold all the sadness that had ever been in the world.
“I’m well enough,” she said, “and getting on nicely. I’m typing a big botanical book for a wise but cross savant. Oh, you needn’t pity me. I’m all right. It’s only that I—I suppose the contrast’s too sharp after the garden. I dream of it every night, and that I’m there in the sunshine, among the flowers. It’s rather bad waking up, but, like Cousin Charlotte on Sundays after lunch, I thing of my mercies. I’m afraid La Vista has spoiled me for—for most things. I mean, the kind of things I’m likely to have in In life, after this. But I ought to rejoice that I’ve got such beautiful memories. Maybe I shall when I’m a little older, and my heart’s a little cooler. Just at present I’m not sure it wouldn’t have been better for me if— if I’d never seen—never gone there at all. I shouldn’t have this ache of homesickness and hopelessness, and
the waking up after the dreams that never, never can come true.”
She choked, and pressed her hand against her breast, as if to push the ache away behind her heart. Then she laughed, with tears in her eyes. “I am the silliest thing! Don't mind me, I’m dull and bored, that’s all the matter. Tell me at once about yourself, and don’t dare even to speak of ine, or I shall scream and kick.”
So I told her about the Scotch visits, and made the most of the funny parts. And I waited a week before inviting her to come to the Riviera when the new wing of the chalet should be finished. She turned red and then white when I asked her.
“Thank you very much, but I could not possibly,” she said. “I have my work to do. I’ve been unsettled enough as it is.”
Then I knew, what I had only dimly dared to suspect before.
In November we migrated as usual to the South, and found Lord Hilary already at La Vista.
“Your Miss McNaughton was a great success with her cataloguing, and I’m glad she seems to have been happy,” he remarked. “But—what has she done to Antonio? She’s taken his soul, and there’s a shadow over the garden, even in this blue and gold weather.”
“There’s a shadow over her, too,” I murmured. “She dreams of the garden and her happy days. Perhaps she hardly realized when she was living them, how wonderful they were, and all that made them wonderful. But I think she realizes now, when it’s too late.”
Lord Hilary looked at me thoughtfully, and I looked back at him. We didn't say anything more about Bettv or the Curator.
Four or five days after that I went again to La Vista with some friends, just out from England, who had never seen the garden. While they were having flowers gathered for them by the man next in importance to An-
tonio, I asked Lord Hilary where was Florio. I hadn’t seen him since returning to Italy.
‘T’ve sent him to London on business,” replied the old angel. “He’s gone to look up something for me, at Kew Gardens.”
“Oh!” I said. “I wish him luck.”
“So do I,” said Lord Hilary.
Just then a footman came out to him from the house with a telegram. When he had read it, smiling, he handed it to me. It consisted of one word, an Italian word, which means “Success.”
“Now we can talk about it. Oh, joy!” I exclaimed.
“You’re really pleased then?”
“Yes, I really am. I shouldn’t have thought at first I could be. But I’ve been seeing clearly lately. He’s one of Nature’s gentlemen.”
“Yes,” said Lord Hilary, “and one of the best fellows living. Lie’s worthy of any fate, and”—laughing—• “he looked all right in his tweeds when he started, although he did buy them ready made in Genoa; otherwise, the gilt may have been off the gingerbread—girls are so frivolous, the best of them.”
“Not after they’ve been Dorcases,” said I. “But we might have known. An Italian, with such eyelashes, can look well in anything, because he’s not self-conscious. It doesn’t need a blue blouse and a garden round him to keep up the illusion.”
“But she’ll love the garden, won’t she? And I shall wire to Antonio that I’m going to give him the cottage for a wedding present. He knows already that his salary’s raised,
otherwise I don’t think he’d have had the moral courage to go, in spite of the hint I gave him about young ladies sometimes changing their minds.”
“For weeks I believed it was the ’garden I missed so agonizingly,” said the letter which Betty must have written to me the day Florio sent his telegram to Lord Hilary. “But, gradually, I discovered that it was Antonio. I saw that in my silly, conventional pride I’d thrown away a treasure which can come only once in the most fortunate life—a great, unselfish love. And I longed for it, when it was too late. I longed for Antonio, even more than for the garden, for I began to see that it was he who had made the garden radiant. Now, it seems too good to be true that I should have my chance given to me over again. This time I said ‘Yes—yes!’ the instant he asked me. And I’m so happy ; I want to pinch myself to know if it’s true. I was so afraid you’d told him that I repented, and made him feel he ought to call when he was in England on Lord Hilary’s business, but he says he didn’t meet you after you got back, and it was at Kew that he found out my address, No more dreadful wakings up after dreams of Eden ! I shall be in Eden ! And it won’t be an Adamless Eden any more. It never was, really.”
Some people might doubt the success of a match between such an Adam and such an Eve. But I don’t. Eden and Paradise will be one for them; and there’ll be no flaming sword—unless it’s Cousin Charlotte’s. She has cut Betty. But it’s a long cry from Bayswater to their garden.