THE POOR INNOCENT.
The four children had rather peculiar names. The eldest girl was called Iris, which, as everybody ought to know, means rainbow—indeed, there was an Iris spoken of in the old Greek legends, who was supposed to be Hera’s chief messenger, and whenever a rainbow appeared in the sky it was said that Iris was bringing down a message from Hera. The Iris of this story was a very pretty, thoughtful little girl, aged ten years. Her mother often talked to her about her name, and told her the story which was associated with it. The eldest boy was called Apollo, which also is a Greek name, and was supposed at one time to belong to the most beautiful boy in the world. The next girl was called Diana, and the youngest boy’s name was Orion.
When this story opens, Iris was ten years old, Apollo nine, Diana six, and little Orion five. They were like ordinary children in appearance, being neither particularly handsome nor particularly the reverse; but in their minds and ways, in their habits and tastes, they seemed to have inherited a savor of those far-off beings after whom their mother had called them. They were, in short, very unworldly children—that does not mean that they were specially religious—but they did not care for fine clothes, nor the ordinary amusements which ordinary children delight in. They loved flowers with a love which was almost a passion, and they also knew a great deal about the stars, and often coaxed their mother to allow them to sit up late at night to watch the different constellations; but above all these things they adored, with a great adoration, the entire animal kingdom.
It so happened that the little Delaneys spent the greater part of their time in a beautiful garden. I don’t think, in all the course of my wanderings, I ever saw a garden quite to compare to that in which their early days were spent. Even in the winter they lived the greater part of their time here, being hardy children and never catching cold. The house was a fine and beautiful building, having belonged to their family for several generations, but the children thought nothing at all of that in comparison with the garden. Here, when possible, they even had their lessons; here they played all their wonderful and remarkable games; here they went through their brief sorrows, and tasted their sweetest joys. But I must hasten to describe the garden itself. In the first place, it was old-fashioned, having very high brick walls covered all over with fruit trees. These fruit trees had grown slowly, and were now in the perfection of their prime. Never were such peaches to be seen, nor such apricots, nor such cherries, as ripened slowly on the red brick walls of the old garden. Inside the walls almost all well-known English flowers flourished in lavish profusion. There was also fruit to be found here in quantities. Never were such strawberries to be seen as could be gathered from those great strawberry beds. Then the gooseberries with which the old bushes were laden; the currants, red, black, and white; the raspberries, had surely their match nowhere else on this earth.
The walled-in garden contained quite five acres of ground, and was divided itself into three portions. In the middle was the flower garden proper. Here there was a long, straight walk which led to an arbor at the bottom. The children were particularly fond of this arbor, for their father had made it for them with his own hands, and their mother had watched its growth. Mrs. Delaney was very delicate at the time, and as she looked on and saw the pretty arbor growing into shape, she used to lean on Iris’ arm and talk to her now and then in her soft, low voice about the flowers and the animals, and the happy life which the little people were leading. At these moments a look would often come into her mother’s gentle eyes which caused Iris’ heart to beat fast, and made her tighten her clasp on the slender arm. Then, when the arbor was quite finished, Mr. Delaney put little seats into it, a rustic chair for each child, which he or she could take in or out at pleasure. The chairs were carved in commemoration of each child’s name. Iris had the deep purple flowers which go by that name twined round and round the back of hers. Apollo’s chair was made memorable with his well-known lyre and bow, and these words were carved round it: “The golden lyre shall be my friend, the bent bow my delight, and in oracles will I foretell the dark future.”
Diana’s chair had a bow and quiver engraved on the back, while little Orion’s represented a giant with a girdle and a sword. The children were very proud of their chairs, and often talked of them to one another, and Iris, who was the story-teller of the party, was never tired of telling the stories of the great originals after whom she and her brothers and sister were named.
Down the straight path which led to the pretty arbor were Scotch roses, red and white. The smell of these roses in the summer was quite enough to ravish you. Iris in particular used to sniff at them and sniff at them until she felt nearly intoxicated with delight.
The central garden, which was mostly devoted to flowers, led through little, old-fashioned, somewhat narrow postern doors into the fruit gardens on either side. In these were the gooseberries. Here were to be found the great beds of strawberries; here, by-and-by, ripened the plums and the many sorts of apples and pears; here, too, were the great glass houses where the grapes assumed their deep claret color and their wonderful bloom; and here also were some peculiar and marvelous foreign flowers, such as orchids, and many others.
Whenever the children were not in the house they were to be found in the garden, for, in addition to the abundance of fruit and vegetables, it also possessed some stately trees, which gave plenty of shade even when the sun was at its hottest. Here Iris would lie full length on her face and hands, and dream dreams to any extent. Now and then also she would wake up with a start and tell marvelous stories to her brothers and sister. She told stories very well, and the others always listened solemnly and begged her to tell more, and questioned and argued, and tried to make the adventures she described come really into their own lives.
Iris was undoubtedly the most imaginative of all the little party. She was also the most gentle and the most thoughtful. She took most after her beautiful mother, and thought more than any of the others of the peculiar names after which they were all called.
On a certain day in the first week of a particularly hot and lovely June, Iris, who had been in the house for some time, came slowly out, swinging her large muslin hat on her arm. Her face looked paler than usual, and somewhat thoughtful.
“Here you are at last, Iris,” called out Diana, in her brisk voice, “and not a moment too soon. I have just found a poor innocent dead on the walk; you must come and look at it at once.”
On hearing these words, the gloom left Iris’ face as if by magic.
“Where is it?” she asked. “I hope you did not tread on it, Diana.”
“No; but Puff-Ball did,” answered Diana. “Don’t blame him, please, Iris; he is only a puppy and always up to mischief. He took the poor innocent in his mouth and shook it; but I think it was quite deaded before that.”
“Then, if it is dead, it must be buried,” said Iris solemnly. “Bring it into the arbor, and let us think what kind of funeral we will give it.”
“Why not into the dead-house at once?” queried Diana.
“No; the arbor will do for the present.”
Iris quickened her footsteps and walked down the straight path through the midst of the Scotch roses. Having reached the pretty little summer-house, she seated herself on her rustic chair and waited until Diana arrived with the poor innocent. This was a somewhat unsightly object, being nothing more nor less than a dead earthworm which had been found on the walk, and which Diana respected, as she did all live creatures, great or small.
“Put it down there,” said Iris; “we can have a funeral when the sun is not quite so hot.”
“I suppose it will have a private funeral,” said Apollo, who came into the summer-house at that moment. “It is nothing but a poor innocent, and not worth a great deal of trouble; and I do hope, Iris,” he added eagerly, “that you will not expect me to be present, for I have got some most important chemical experiments which I am anxious to go on with. I quite hope to succeed with my thermometer to-day, and, after all, as it is only a worm——”
Iris looked up at him with very solemn eyes.
“Only a worm,” she repeated. “Is that its fault, poor thing?” Apollo seemed to feel the indignant glance of Iris’ brown eyes. He sat down submissively on his own chair. Orion and Diana dropped on their knees by Iris’ side. “I think,” said Iris slowly, “that we will give this poor innocent a simple funeral. The coffin must be made of dock leaves, and——”
Here she was suddenly interrupted—a shadow fell across the entrance door of the pretty summer-house. An elderly woman, with a thin face and lank, figure, looked in.
“Miss Iris,” she said, “Mrs. Delaney is awake and would be glad to see you.”
“Mother!” cried Iris eagerly. She turned at once to her sister and brothers. “The innocent must wait,” she said. “Put it in the dead-house with the other creatures. I will attend to the funeral in the evening or to-morrow. Don’t keep me now, children.”
“But I thought you had just come from mother,” said Apollo.
“No. When I went to her she was asleep. Don’t keep me, please.” The woman who had brought the message had already disappeared down the long straight walk. Iris took to her heels and ran after her. “Fortune,” she said, looking into her face, “is mother any better?”
“As to that, Miss Iris, it is more than I can tell you. Please don’t hold on to my hand, miss. In hot weather I hate children to cling to me.”
Iris said nothing more, but she withdrew a little from Fortune’s side.
Fortune hurried her steps, and Iris kept time with her. When they reached the house, the woman stopped and looked intently at the child.
“You can go straight upstairs at once, miss, and into the room,” she said. “You need not knock; my mistress is waiting for you.”
“Don’t you think, Fortune, that mother is just a little wee bit better?” asked Iris again. There was an imploring note in her question this time.
“She will tell you herself, my dear. Now, be quick; don’t keep her waiting. It is bad for people, when they are ill, to be kept waiting.”
“I won’t keep her; I’ll go to her this very instant,” said Iris.
The old house was as beautiful as the garden to which it belonged. It had been built, a great part of it, centuries ago, and had, like many other houses of its date, been added to from time to time. Queerly shaped rooms jutted out in many quarters; odd stairs climbed up in several directions; towers and turrets were added to the roof; passages, some narrow, some broad, connected the new buildings with the old. The whole made an incongruous and yet beautiful effect, the new rooms possessing the advantages and comforts which modern builders put into their houses, and the older part of the house the quaint devices and thick, wainscoted walls and deep, mullioned windows of the times which are gone by.
Iris ran quickly through the wide entrance hall and up the broad, white, stone stairs. These stairs were a special feature of Delaney Manor. They had been brought all the way from Italy by a Delaney nearly a hundred years ago, and were made of pure marble, and were very lovely to look at. When Iris reached the first landing, she turned aside from the spacious modern apartments and, opening a green baize door, ran down a narrow passage. At the end of the passage she turned to the left and went down another passage, and then wended her way up some narrow stairs, which curled round and round as if they were going up a tower. This, as a matter of fact, was the case. Presently Iris pushed aside a curtain, and found herself in an octagon room nearly at the top of a somewhat high, but squarely built, tower. This room, which was large and airy, was wainscoted with oak; there was a thick Turkey carpet on the floor, and the many windows were flung wide open, so that the summer breeze, coming in fresh and sweet from this great height, made the whole lovely room as fresh and cheery and full of sweet perfume as if its solitary inmate were really in the open air.
Iris, however, had often been in the room before, and had no time or thought now to give to its appearance. Her eyes darted to the sofa on which her young mother lay. Mrs. Delaney was half-sitting up, and looked almost too young to be the mother of a child as big as Iris. She had one of the most beautiful faces God ever gave to anybody. It was not so much that her features were perfect, but they were full of light, full of soul, and such a very loving expression beamed in her eyes that no man, woman, or child ever looked at her without feeling the best in their natures coming immediately to the surface.
As to little Iris, her feelings for her mother were quite beyond any words to express. She ran up to her now and knelt by her side.
“Kiss me, Iris,” said Mrs. Delaney.
Iris put up her soft, rosebud lips; they met the equally soft lips of the mother.
“You are much better, mummy; are you not?” said the child, in an eager, half-passionate whisper.
“I have had a long sleep, darling, and I am rested,” said Mrs. Delaney. “I told Fortune to call you. Father is away for the day. I thought we could have half an hour uninterrupted.”
“How beautiful, mother! It is the most delightful thing in all the world to be alone with you, mummy.”
“Well, bring your little chair and sit near me, Iris. Fortune will bring in tea in a moment, and you can pour it out. You shall have tea with me, if you wish it, darling.”
Iris gave a sigh of rapture; she was too happy almost for words. This was almost invariably the case when she found herself in her mother’s presence. When with her mother she was quiet and seldom spoke a great deal. In the garden with the other children Iris was the one who chattered most, but with her mother her words were always few. She felt herself then to be more or less in a listening attitude. She listened for the words which dropped from those gentle lips; she was always on the lookout for the love-light which filled the soft brown eyes.
At that moment the old servant, Fortune, brought in the tea on a pretty tray and laid it on a small table near Mrs. Delaney. Then Iris got up, and with an important air poured it out and brought a cup, nicely prepared, to her mother.
Mrs. Delaney sipped her tea and looked from time to time at her little daughter. When she did so, Iris devoured her with her anxious eyes.
“No,” she said to herself, “mother does not look ill—not even very tired. She is not like anybody else, and that is why—why she wears that wonderful, almost holy expression. Sometimes I wish she did not, but I would not change her, not for all the world.”
Iris’ heart grew quiet. Her cup of bliss was quite full. She scarcely touched her tea; she was too happy even to eat.
“Have you had enough tea, mother?” she asked presently.
“Yes, darling. Please push the tea-table a little aside, and then come up very near to me. I want to hold your dear little hand in mine; I can’t talk much.”
“But you are better—you are surely better, mother?”
“In one sense, yes, Iris.”
Iris moved the tea-table very deftly aside, and then, drawing up her small chair, slipped her hand inside her mother’s.
“I have made up my mind to tell you, Iris,” said the mother. She looked at the little girl for a full minute, and then began to talk in a low, clear voice. “I am the mother of four children. I don’t think there are any other children like you four in the wide world. I have thought a great deal about you, and while I have been ill have prayed to God to keep you and to help me, and now, Iris, now that I have got to go away—”
“To go away, mother?” interrupted Iris, turning very pale.
“Yes, dearest. Don’t be troubled, darling; I can make it all seem quite happy to you. But now, when I see it must be done, that I must undertake this very long journey, I want to put things perfectly straight between you and me, my little daughter.”
“Things have been always straight between us, mother,” said Iris. “I don’t quite understand.”
“Do you remember the time when I went to Australia?”
“Are you going to Australia again?” asked Iris. “You were a whole year away then. It was a very long time, and sometimes, mother, sometimes Fortune was a little cross, and Miss Stevenson never seemed to suit Apollo. I thought I would tell you about that.”
“But Fortune means well, dearest. She has your true interest at heart, and I think matters will be differently arranged, as far as Miss Stevenson is concerned, in the future. It is not about her or Fortune I want to speak now.”
“And you are going back to Australia again?”
“I am going quite as far as Australia; but we need not talk of the distance just now. I have not time for many words, nor very much strength to speak. You know, Iris, the meaning of your names, don’t you?”
“Of course,” answered Iris; “and, mother, I have often talked to the others about our names. I have told Apollo how beautiful he must try to be, not only in his face, but in his mind, mother, and how brave and how clever. I have told him that he must try to have a beautiful soul; and Orion must be very brave and strong, and Diana must be bright and sparkling and noble. Yes, mother; we all know about our names.”
“I am glad of that,” said Mrs. Delaney. “I gave you the names for a purpose. I wanted you to have names with meaning to them. I wanted you to try to live up to them. Now, Iris, that I am really going away, I am afraid you children will find a great many things altered. You have hitherto lived a very sheltered life; you have just had the dear old garden and the run of the house, and you have seen your father or me every day. But afterwards, when I have gone, you will doubtless have to go into the world; and, my darling, my darling, the cold world does not always understand the meaning of names like yours, the meaning of strength and beauty and nobleness, and of bright, sparkling, and high ideas. In short, my little girl, if you four children are to be worthy of your names and to fulfill the dreams, the longings, the hopes I have centered round you, there is nothing whatever for you to do but to begin to fight your battles.”
Iris was silent. She had very earnest eyes, something like her mother’s in expression. They were fixed now on Mrs. Delaney’s face.
“I will not explain exactly what I mean,” said the mother, giving the little hand a loving squeeze, “only to assure you, Iris, that, as the trial comes, strength will be given to you to meet it. Please understand, my darling, that from first to last, to the end of life, it is all a fight. ‘The road winds uphill all the way.’ If you will remember that you will not think things half as hard, and you will be brave and strong, and, like the rainbow, you will cheer people even in the darkest hours. But, Iris, I want you to promise me one thing—I want you, my little girl, to be a mother to the others.”
“A mother to the others?” said Iris, half aloud. She paused and did not speak at all for a moment, her imagination was very busy. She thought of all the creatures to whom she was already a mother, not only her own dear pets—the mice in their cages, the silk-worms, the three dogs, the stray cat, the pet Persian cat, the green frogs, the poor innocents, as the children called worms—but in addition to these, all creatures that suffered in the animal kingdom, all flowers that were about to fade, all sad things that seemed to need care and comfort. But up to the present she had never thought of the other children except as her equals. Apollo was only a year younger than herself, and in some ways braver and stouter and more fearless; and Orion and Diana were something like their names—very bright and even fierce at times. She, after all, was the gentlest of the party, and she was very young—not more than ten years of age. How could she possibly be a mother to the others?
She looked at Mrs. Delaney, and her mother gazed solemnly at her, waiting for her to speak.
“After all,” thought Iris, “to satisfy the longing in mother’s eyes is the first thing of all. I will promise, cost what it may.”
“Yes,” she said; then softly, “I will, mother; I will be a mother to the others.”
The little girl threw her arms round her mother’s neck; their lips met in a long embrace.
“Darling, you understand? I am satisfied with your promise, and I am tired.”
“Must I go away, mother? May not I stay very quietly with you? Can you not sleep if I am in the room?”
“I would rather you left me now. I can sleep better when no one is by. Ring the bell for Fortune as you go. She will come and make me comfortable. Yes; I am very tired.”
“One moment first, mummy—you have not told me yet when you are going on the journey.”
“The day is not quite fixed, Iris, although it is—yes, it is nearly so.”
“And you have not said where you are going, mother. I should like to tell the others.”
But Mrs. Delaney had closed her eyes, and did not make any reply.
Categories: English Literature