The Secret Garden Chapter 21

Secret Cherry Tree

A lyrical and powerful chapter in which Colin has a surprise for Ben Weatherstaff.

Read by Natasha.


BEN WEATHERSTAFF

One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only
now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever
and ever. One knows it sometimes when one gets up at the tender solemn
dawn-time and goes out and stands alone and throws one’s head far back
and looks up and up and watches the pale sky slowly changing and
flushing and marvelous unknown things happening until the East almost
makes one cry out and one’s heart stands still at the strange
unchanging majesty of the rising of the sun–which has been happening
every morning for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. One
knows it then for a moment or so. And one knows it sometimes when one
stands by oneself in a wood at sunset and the mysterious deep gold
stillness slanting through and under the branches seems to be saying
slowly again and again something one cannot quite hear, however much
one tries. Then sometimes the immense quiet of the dark blue at night
with millions of stars waiting and watching makes one sure; and
sometimes a sound of far-off music makes it true; and sometimes a look
in some one’s eyes.

And it was like that with Colin when he first saw and heard and felt
the Springtime inside the four high walls of a hidden garden. That
afternoon the whole world seemed to devote itself to being perfect and
radiantly beautiful and kind to one boy. Perhaps out of pure heavenly
goodness the spring came and crowned everything it possibly could into
that one place. More than once Dickon paused in what he was doing and
stood still with a sort of growing wonder in his eyes, shaking his head
softly.

“Eh! it is graidely,” he said. “I’m twelve goin’ on thirteen an’
there’s a lot o’ afternoons in thirteen years, but seems to me like I
never seed one as graidely as this ‘ere.”

“Aye, it is a graidely one,” said Mary, and she sighed for mere joy.
“I’ll warrant it’s the graidelest one as ever was in this world.”

“Does tha’ think,” said Colin with dreamy carefulness, “as happen it
was made loike this ‘ere all o’ purpose for me?”

“My word!” cried Mary admiringly, “that there is a bit o’ good
Yorkshire. Tha’rt shapin’ first-rate–that tha’ art.”

And delight reigned. They drew the chair under the plum-tree, which
was snow-white with blossoms and musical with bees. It was like a
king’s canopy, a fairy king’s. There were flowering cherry-trees near
and apple-trees whose buds were pink and white, and here and there one
had burst open wide. Between the blossoming branches of the canopy
bits of blue sky looked down like wonderful eyes.

Mary and Dickon worked a little here and there and Colin watched them.
They brought him things to look at–buds which were opening, buds which
were tight closed, bits of twig whose leaves were just showing green,
the feather of a woodpecker which had dropped on the grass, the empty
shell of some bird early hatched. Dickon pushed the chair slowly round
and round the garden, stopping every other moment to let him look at
wonders springing out of the earth or trailing down from trees. It was
like being taken in state round the country of a magic king and queen
and shown all the mysterious riches it contained.

“I wonder if we shall see the robin?” said Colin.

“Tha’ll see him often enow after a bit,” answered Dickon. “When th’
eggs hatches out th’ little chap he’ll be kep’ so busy it’ll make his
head swim. Tha’ll see him flyin’ backward an’ for’ard carryin’ worms
nigh as big as himsel’ an’ that much noise goin’ on in th’ nest when he
gets there as fair flusters him so as he scarce knows which big mouth
to drop th’ first piece in. An’ gapin’ beaks an’ squawks on every
side. Mother says as when she sees th’ work a robin has to keep them
gapin’ beaks filled, she feels like she was a lady with nothin’ to do.
She says she’s seen th’ little chaps when it seemed like th’ sweat must
be droppin’ off ‘em, though folk can’t see it.”

This made them giggle so delightedly that they were obliged to cover
their mouths with their hands, remembering that they must not be heard.
Colin had been instructed as to the law of whispers and low voices
several days before. He liked the mysteriousness of it and did his
best, but in the midst of excited enjoyment it is rather difficult
never to laugh above a whisper.

Every moment of the afternoon was full of new things and every hour the
sunshine grew more golden. The wheeled chair had been drawn back under
the canopy and Dickon had sat down on the grass and had just drawn out
his pipe when Colin saw something he had not had time to notice before.

“That’s a very old tree over there, isn’t it?” he said. Dickon looked
across the grass at the tree and Mary looked and there was a brief
moment of stillness.

“Yes,” answered Dickon, after it, and his low voice had a very gentle
sound.

Mary gazed at the tree and thought.

“The branches are quite gray and there’s not a single leaf anywhere,”
Colin went on. “It’s quite dead, isn’t it?”

“Aye,” admitted Dickon. “But them roses as has climbed all over it
will near hide every bit o’ th’ dead wood when they’re full o’ leaves
an’ flowers. It won’t look dead then. It’ll be th’ prettiest of all.”

Mary still gazed at the tree and thought.

“It looks as if a big branch had been broken off,” said Colin. “I
wonder how it was done.”

“It’s been done many a year,” answered Dickon. “Eh!” with a sudden
relieved start and laying his hand on Colin. “Look at that robin!
There he is! He’s been foragin’ for his mate.”

Colin was almost too late but he just caught sight of him, the flash of
red-breasted bird with something in his beak. He darted through the
greenness and into the close-grown corner and was out of sight. Colin
leaned back on his cushion again, laughing a little. “He’s taking her
tea to her. Perhaps it’s five o’clock. I think I’d like some tea
myself.”

And so they were safe.

“It was Magic which sent the robin,” said Mary secretly to Dickon
afterward. “I know it was Magic.” For both she and Dickon had been
afraid Colin might ask something about the tree whose branch had broken
off ten years ago and they had talked it over together and Dickon had
stood and rubbed his head in a troubled way.

“We mun look as if it wasn’t no different from th’ other trees,” he had
said. “We couldn’t never tell him how it broke, poor lad. If he says
anything about it we mun–we mun try to look cheerful.”

“Aye, that we mun,” had answered Mary.

But she had not felt as if she looked cheerful when she gazed at the
tree. She wondered and wondered in those few moments if there was any
reality in that other thing Dickon had said. He had gone on rubbing
his rust-red hair in a puzzled way, but a nice comforted look had begun
to grow in his blue eyes.

“Mrs. Craven was a very lovely young lady,” he had gone on rather
hesitatingly. “An’ mother she thinks maybe she’s about Misselthwaite
many a time lookin’ after Mester Colin, same as all mothers do when
they’re took out o’ th’ world. They have to come back, tha’ sees.
Happen she’s been in the garden an’ happen it was her set us to work,
an’ told us to bring him here.”

Mary had thought he meant something about Magic. She was a great
believer in Magic. Secretly she quite believed that Dickon worked
Magic, of course good Magic, on everything near him and that was why
people liked him so much and wild creatures knew he was their friend.
She wondered, indeed, if it were not possible that his gift had brought
the robin just at the right moment when Colin asked that dangerous
question. She felt that his Magic was working all the afternoon and
making Colin look like an entirely different boy. It did not seem
possible that he could be the crazy creature who had screamed and
beaten and bitten his pillow. Even his ivory whiteness seemed to
change. The faint glow of color which had shown on his face and neck
and hands when he first got inside the garden really never quite died
away. He looked as if he were made of flesh instead of ivory or wax.

They saw the robin carry food to his mate two or three times, and it
was so suggestive of afternoon tea that Colin felt they must have some.

“Go and make one of the men servants bring some in a basket to the
rhododendron walk,” he said. “And then you and Dickon can bring it
here.”

It was an agreeable idea, easily carried out, and when the white cloth
was spread upon the grass, with hot tea and buttered toast and
crumpets, a delightfully hungry meal was eaten, and several birds on
domestic errands paused to inquire what was going on and were led into
investigating crumbs with great activity. Nut and Shell whisked up
trees with pieces of cake and Soot took the entire half of a buttered
crumpet into a corner and pecked at and examined and turned it over and
made hoarse remarks about it until he decided to swallow it all
joyfully in one gulp.

The afternoon was dragging towards its mellow hour. The sun was
deepening the gold of its lances, the bees were going home and the
birds were flying past less often. Dickon and Mary were sitting on the
grass, the tea-basket was repacked ready to be taken back to the house,
and Colin was lying against his cushions with his heavy locks pushed
back from his forehead and his face looking quite a natural color.

“I don’t want this afternoon to go,” he said; “but I shall come back
tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after, and the day after.”

“You’ll get plenty of fresh air, won’t you?” said Mary. “I’m going to
get nothing else,” he answered. “I’ve seen the spring now and I’m
going to see the summer. I’m going to see everything grow here. I’m
going to grow here myself.”

“That tha’ will,” said Dickon. “Us’ll have thee walkin’ about here an’
diggin’ same as other folk afore long.”

Colin flushed tremendously.

“Walk!” he said. “Dig! Shall I?”

Dickon’s glance at him was delicately cautious. Neither he nor Mary
had ever asked if anything was the matter with his legs.

“For sure tha’ will,” he said stoutly. “Tha–tha’s got legs o’ thine
own, same as other folks!”

Mary was rather frightened until she heard Colin’s answer.

“Nothing really ails them,” he said, “but they are so thin and weak.
They shake so that I’m afraid to try to stand on them.”

Both Mary and Dickon drew a relieved breath.

“When tha’ stops bein’ afraid tha’lt stand on ‘em,” Dickon said with
renewed cheer. “An’ tha’lt stop bein’ afraid in a bit.”

“I shall?” said Colin, and he lay still as if he were wondering about
things.

They were really very quiet for a little while. The sun was dropping
lower. It was that hour when everything stills itself, and they really
had had a busy and exciting afternoon. Colin looked as if he were
resting luxuriously. Even the creatures had ceased moving about and
had drawn together and were resting near them. Soot had perched on a
low branch and drawn up one leg and dropped the gray film drowsily over
his eyes. Mary privately thought he looked as if he might snore in a
minute.

In the midst of this stillness it was rather startling when Colin half
lifted his head and exclaimed in a loud suddenly alarmed whisper:

“Who is that man?” Dickon and Mary scrambled to their feet.

“Man!” they both cried in low quick voices.

Colin pointed to the high wall. “Look!” he whispered excitedly. “Just
look!”

Mary and Dickon wheeled about and looked. There was Ben Weatherstaff’s
indignant face glaring at them over the wall from the top of a ladder!
He actually shook his fist at Mary.

“If I wasn’t a bachelder, an’ tha’ was a wench o’ mine,” he cried, “I’d
give thee a hidin’!”

He mounted another step threateningly as if it were his energetic
intention to jump down and deal with her; but as she came toward him he
evidently thought better of it and stood on the top step of his ladder
shaking his fist down at her.

“I never thowt much o’ thee!” he harangued. “I couldna’ abide thee th’
first time I set eyes on thee. A scrawny buttermilk-faced young besom,
allus askin’ questions an’ pokin’ tha’ nose where it wasna, wanted. I
never knowed how tha’ got so thick wi’ me. If it hadna’ been for th’
robin– Drat him–”

“Ben Weatherstaff,” called out Mary, finding her breath. She stood
below him and called up to him with a sort of gasp. “Ben Weatherstaff,
it was the robin who showed me the way!”

Then it did seem as if Ben really would scramble down on her side of
the wall, he was so outraged.

“Tha’ young bad ‘un!” he called down at her. “Layin’ tha’ badness on a
robin–not but what he’s impidint enow for anythin’. Him showin’ thee
th’ way! Him! Eh! tha’ young nowt”–she could see his next words burst
out because he was overpowered by curiosity–“however i’ this world did
tha’ get in?”

“It was the robin who showed me the way,” she protested obstinately.
“He didn’t know he was doing it but he did. And I can’t tell you from
here while you’re shaking your fist at me.”

He stopped shaking his fist very suddenly at that very moment and his
jaw actually dropped as he stared over her head at something he saw
coming over the grass toward him.

At the first sound of his torrent of words Colin had been so surprised
that he had only sat up and listened as if he were spellbound. But in
the midst of it he had recovered himself and beckoned imperiously to
Dickon.

“Wheel me over there!” he commanded. “Wheel me quite close and stop
right in front of him!”

And this, if you please, this is what Ben Weatherstaff beheld and which
made his jaw drop. A wheeled chair with luxurious cushions and robes
which came toward him looking rather like some sort of State Coach
because a young Rajah leaned back in it with royal command in his great
black-rimmed eyes and a thin white hand extended haughtily toward him.
And it stopped right under Ben Weatherstaff’s nose. It was really no
wonder his mouth dropped open.

“Do you know who I am?” demanded the Rajah.

How Ben Weatherstaff stared! His red old eyes fixed themselves on what
was before him as if he were seeing a ghost. He gazed and gazed and
gulped a lump down his throat and did not say a word. “Do you know who
I am?” demanded Colin still more imperiously. “Answer!”

Ben Weatherstaff put his gnarled hand up and passed it over his eyes
and over his forehead and then he did answer in a queer shaky voice.

“Who tha’ art?” he said. “Aye, that I do–wi’ tha’ mother’s eyes
starin’ at me out o’ tha’ face. Lord knows how tha’ come here. But
tha’rt th’ poor cripple.”

Colin forgot that he had ever had a back. His face flushed scarlet and
he sat bolt upright.

“I’m not a cripple!” he cried out furiously. “I’m not!”

“He’s not!” cried Mary, almost shouting up the wall in her fierce
indignation. “He’s not got a lump as big as a pin! I looked and there
was none there–not one!”

Ben Weatherstaff passed his hand over his forehead again and gazed as
if he could never gaze enough. His hand shook and his mouth shook and
his voice shook. He was an ignorant old man and a tactless old man and
he could only remember the things he had heard.

“Tha’–tha’ hasn’t got a crooked back?” he said hoarsely.

“No!” shouted Colin.

“Tha’–tha’ hasn’t got crooked legs?” quavered Ben more hoarsely yet.
It was too much. The strength which Colin usually threw into his
tantrums rushed through him now in a new way. Never yet had he been
accused of crooked legs–even in whispers–and the perfectly simple
belief in their existence which was revealed by Ben Weatherstaff’s
voice was more than Rajah flesh and blood could endure. His anger and
insulted pride made him forget everything but this one moment and
filled him with a power he had never known before, an almost unnatural
strength.

“Come here!” he shouted to Dickon, and he actually began to tear the
coverings off his lower limbs and disentangle himself. “Come here!
Come here! This minute!”

Dickon was by his side in a second. Mary caught her breath in a short
gasp and felt herself turn pale.

“He can do it! He can do it! He can do it! He can!” she gabbled over to
herself under her breath as fast as ever she could.

There was a brief fierce scramble, the rugs were tossed on the ground,
Dickon held Colin’s arm, the thin legs were out, the thin feet were on
the grass. Colin was standing upright–upright–as straight as an
arrow and looking strangely tall–his head thrown back and his strange
eyes flashing lightning. “Look at me!” he flung up at Ben
Weatherstaff. “Just look at me–you! Just look at me!”

“He’s as straight as I am!” cried Dickon. “He’s as straight as any lad
i’ Yorkshire!”

What Ben Weatherstaff did Mary thought queer beyond measure. He choked
and gulped and suddenly tears ran down his weather-wrinkled cheeks as
he struck his old hands together.

“Eh!” he burst forth, “th’ lies folk tells! Tha’rt as thin as a lath
an’ as white as a wraith, but there’s not a knob on thee. Tha’lt make
a mon yet. God bless thee!”

Dickon held Colin’s arm strongly but the boy had not begun to falter.
He stood straighter and straighter and looked Ben Weatherstaff in the
face.

“I’m your master,” he said, “when my father is away. And you are to
obey me. This is my garden. Don’t dare to say a word about it! You
get down from that ladder and go out to the Long Walk and Miss Mary
will meet you and bring you here. I want to talk to you. We did not
want you, but now you will have to be in the secret. Be quick!”

Ben Weatherstaff’s crabbed old face was still wet with that one queer
rush of tears. It seemed as if he could not take his eyes from thin
straight Colin standing on his feet with his head thrown back.

“Eh! lad,” he almost whispered. “Eh! my lad!” And then remembering
himself he suddenly touched his hat gardener fashion and said, “Yes,
sir! Yes, sir!” and obediently disappeared as he descended the ladder.

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