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The Scent of Water
By Elizabeth Goudge
Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLCCopyright © 1991 Mark Dutton and Jessie Monroe
All rights reserved.
Mary, you will regret this."
Mary Lindsay settled herself in the driving seat of her small car and pulled on her gloves. She looked apologetically at her friend and said, "It's not irrevocable, Catherine." Yet she knew it was and so did Catherine as she said irritably, "You'll go to seed."
"Things do in the country," said Mary. "They have to, for there is seedtime and harvest there. Catherine, this may be my last chance to live it."
"Country life. I've never known it. I'd like to before it and I disappear from the English scene."
"You talk as though you were seventy," snapped Catherine. "And why must you go alone? You might at least have let me come with you."
"Catherine," said Mary gently but forcibly, for they had had this out before, "you know, for I've told you. I have to go alone. You'll come and stay when I'm settled. Good-bye, my dear. Thank you for helping me pack. Thank you for everything. Good-bye."
She was far too disciplined a woman to cry but Catherine was not very clear to her as she waved and moved off down the familiar London street. They had worked together for six years, Mary in an executive post in one of the ministries, Catherine as one of her subordinates, and it had been wordlessly understood that they would live together when they retired; in London, where they would have music, ballet and good plays, all those things that until now had been so necessary to Mary. And now she had already retired at fifty, and Catherine would not do so for another ten years. The parting was harder for Catherine, Mary thought sadly, for she herself was sustained by the madness of her adventure.
For the woman that she was, both urban and cosmopolitan, it was indeed mad. A few months ago a cousin of her father's, whom she had not seen since she was a child, had died at the age of eighty-five, leaving her a little money, a small house and all that it contained. The house was in a remote village in the Chilterns, of which she possessed only a few memories, and they had been almost totally submerged until that morning when the lawyer's letter had come. She had had no time to look at her mail before she left her flat, and she had taken the letter to her office and opened it there. She had read it over and over again, marveling, passing with each minute a little further away from where her body sat, a little further back in time, and then suddenly that day when her father had taken her to see Cousin Mary had been alive again, with the memories no longer memories but present experience. Her comfortable office, the roar of the traffic in the street below and the woman at the desk had all vanished and Mary Lindsay had been a child again.
She was driving with her father in a pony trap along a country lane bordered on each side with trees. They were like no trees she had ever seen in the London parks, they were tremendous, august and unearthly. Far up in the blue sky there was a faint rustling of leaves, a movement of branches in the May wind, but below there was a motionless, shadowed, possessive stillness. Yet though she pressed closer to her father she was not afraid of them. She thought they were good trees, pleased to see her and glad her father was taking her to see her namesake, Cousin Mary Lindsay. She had not been called after her cousin on purpose, she had understood from talk between her father and mother, merely by accident; but poor Cousin Mary had been so pleased to have a child of the family bearing her name that they had not liked to undeceive her. And now she had asked that the little Mary might be brought to see her so that she could show her "the little things." She had sent the trap from the pub to meet the London train at the nearest station, six miles away. There was a boy at the pub who could drive it.
"Fine trees," said her father to this boy, whose piercing blackbird whistling had been momentarily hushed by the grandeur of the trees. "What are they?"
"Limes," said the boy. "Ain't another lime avenue like this in all the country."
And then his whistling broke out again as the trees drew back. Mary heard them moving and felt their mysterious hold releasing her. To her left now were cherry trees at the edge of a wood. Within the wood were bluebells and she heard a cuckoo calling.
Between that memory and the next the cuckoo called in a warm darkness, its note changing imperceptibly to the pealing of a bell, for the clock in a square church tower was ringing the hour. The gray rock of the church towered above a graveyard where the buttercups were gay about the slanting gravestones. There was a village green with thatched cottages about it, one of them the village shop and post office, and opposite the lychgate of the church lilacs grew in a tangled mass behind a garden wall. In the wall was a green door under a stone archway. It had a round brass handle and beside it was an ancient rusted iron bellpull. Cut into the stone on the other side of the arch was the name of the house. It was called The Laurels though there wasn't a laurel in sight. The lilacs had grown so tall that their branches hung over the wall and over the arch above the door. Four steps led up to the door and they were very worn in the middle. What could be behind the door Mary couldn't imagine. Not the world she knew. The thicket of purple and white blossom, the door and the steps were like a picture painted a long time ago, and it horrified her to see the boy dragging a bellpull out of the wall and hanging onto it while a solemn peal sounded far away, muffled and sad, as though it rang at the bottom of the sea. One did not ring the doorbells of painted pictures and if there should be a door ajar one did not push it and go in. The world inside a picture was a hidden thing.
She realized that her father was speaking to her. "I expect to find her very odd. You must not laugh and if your surroundings seem unusual you must not say so." Of course she would not say so, thought Mary, as she climbed out of the trap. Of course things would be unusual inside a picture. What did her father expect?
The door opened inward very slightly. The boy had jumped into the trap and driven away and her father, his hand on her shoulder, was urging her gently forward. She hung back, then grabbing at her courage she pushed through with her father behind her. The door shut behind them and they were in a scented darkness. At least that was how it seemed to her at first as she stood on warm paving stones with her back to the door and to the little man in a leather apron, a gardener perhaps, who had opened it and was now talking to her father. She took no notice of them, for they did not seem to exist for her. She was alone in the world inside the picture. It had seemed dark but now the light was silver. The paving stones were those of a narrow paved passage with four delicate fluted pillars on each side. The roof was made of wooden beams holding the weight of a great wistaria vine that entirely covered them and hung down in curtains of scent and color on either side. Beyond the leaves and flowers Mary was dimly aware of birds singing in a garden.
At the end of the passage a little old woman in a black dress, with snowy mobcap and apron, stood at an open door smiling and holding out her hand. Mary went to her and took her hand and passed with her into a dark stone-flagged hall where a silver tankard of lilies of the valley stood on an oak chest. The flowers and the polished silver gathered all the light to themselves and Mary gazed at them entranced, noticing that a bird with spread wings was carved upon the top of the chest, and that across the front of it interlaced strappings formed a cross in the center, and suddenly she was no longer an intruder in this world inside the picture. It was her own world.
After that the memories were clear but not consecutive. They fell together, lovely and confused like the bright fragments of a kaleidoscope. She was upstairs and the old maidservant was pouring water out of a brass jug into a basin patterned with honeysuckle, and washing her hands and face. The soft towel smelled sweet against her face and even when it momentarily covered her ears she could still hear the birds singing. Looking out of the window she saw through veils of greenness a boy standing in the center of a pool. Then she was standing on a dark uncarpeted staircase and the worn treads sank in the middle like the steps outside the green door. She walked down very slowly, carefully placing her feet on the hollowed wood that shaped itself like a curved hand to hold her safely. She was seated at a mahogany dining table eating roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, and later apple tart and custard, while her father talked to the tall gaunt woman in the wide-skirted flowered dress who was sitting in the chair with the carved back at the head of the table. She did not look up from her plate, and she did not speak, for she was very frightened of Cousin Mary. She did not think her funny, she thought her terrible, with her light eyes bright as a bird's, her red hair piled untidily on the top of her head and her deep hoarse voice. Her hands were so thin they were like claws, covered with bright rings, and the long necklace she wore chimed when she moved. But the fear Mary felt then was nothing to what she felt later when the door of the small paneled parlor clicked shut behind her father, going out to smoke in the garden, and she was alone with Cousin Mary. But she was a brave child and she did not pull away when her wrist was nipped between two cold fingers. She followed where she was led, over a mossy carpet scattered with roses, through the dim shadows of the room to where a sea-green light illumined a small round table with a plush cover, and set upon it a tall domed glass case.
"Look, Mary Namesake," said Cousin Mary and the childlike eagerness in her voice contrasted oddly with her deep voice. "Look there, my dear!"
At first Mary could see nothing, for the shadows of the green vine leaves in the little conservatory outside the window flickered over the glass case, but then Cousin Mary lifted it away and she saw the circles of velvet-covered wood, diminishing in height and held together by a central upright, making shelves for the display of a host of miniature treasures, fairy things of silver and gold, jade, pinchbeck, glass, ebony and ivory, all so small that only the eyes of a child could fully perceive their glory. But Cousin Mary's bright eyes were still as keen as Mary's. She knelt down, bringing herself to the same level as the child, and they were equals. Mary was no longer afraid of her. She had forgotten that she ever had been afraid. She had forgotten everything, for time had stopped for her. She stood and gazed at the little things and it was the greatest moment of her life until now, more wonderful even than that moment when she saw the lilies in the silver tankard. Perhaps five minutes, perhaps a hundred years went by, and Cousin Mary gently touched a few things here and there with the tip of her finger, and talked to them softly, but Mary did not dare to touch. She scarcely dared to breathe. In their London home, a doctor's house where people were perpetually in and out, her father's patients and her mother's guests, and where she was one among five noisy children, there was no place for things like these; still, fragile and silent things.
"An ivory coach, you see, Mary," whispered her cousin. "It's no bigger than a hazelnut but it's all there, the horses and the coachman and Queen Mab herself inside. Do you see her inside?"
Mary nodded speechlessly. She could see the fairy figure with the star in her hair, and the tiny delicate features of the childlike face. It did not occur to her that human fingers could possibly have made Queen Mab and her coach, for she seemed timeless as Cousin Mary herself. They had always lived here in this world inside the picture and they always would.
"It's Dresden, my dear, this little tea set. Dresden."
Mary had just been trying to think herself small, and smaller and smaller, so as to get tiny enough to sit beside Queen Mab in her coach, but she courteously allowed herself to get large again so as to gloat over the tea set of frail white china patterned with forget-me-nots. The cups and saucers and plates and teapot looked as though they had been fashioned out of thin eggshell. There were several of these tea sets, of glass, china, gold and silver. There were birds and animals, a dwarf with a scarlet cap, candlesticks and lanterns, and telescopes with microscopic pictures that you could see when you held the telescope up to the light. There were wooden dolls no larger than Mary's little fingernail, with chairs for them to sit on and a cradle for the wooden baby. There were so many things that Mary lost count of them. But it was Queen Mab and her coach which she loved best, and the smallest of the tea sets, the one made of clear blue glass, airy as a blown soap bubble. She yearned to possess these two and her eyes clung to them, yet when Cousin Mary said, "Would you like to have something for yourself, dear?" she shook her head. They would have no place in the London house. Queen Mab would die there and the tea set dissolve at the first crash of a banging door. "It's noisy in London," she said. "There are no trees in our street, and the birds don't sing like they do here. They wouldn't like it."
"Perhaps not," said Cousin Mary. "No, I don't think they would. I've never wanted to give anything away before, except once when I wanted to give the dwarf to a little boy, but you're different. You're my namesake. You're Mary Lindsay like me. My dear, I want to tell you—"
But Mary never knew what her cousin wanted to tell her because the church clock struck four, the door opened and her father came in, followed by the old maidservant with the tea. Cousin Mary lifted the glass case back over her treasures and turning around said to Mary's father, "She has seen my little things." She spoke gravely, in awed tones, as though something tremendous had happened, but he only nodded pleasantly and standing with his back to the fire he began to chat about the weather, and he did not even glance at the little things. But Mary knew he was wrong and Cousin Mary was right. Something very important had happened.
Then tea was over and they were saying good-bye in the hall, and Mary was in Cousin Mary's arms and they were both crying bitterly. "Bring her to see me again, Arthur," sobbed Cousin Mary.
"Yes, we'll come again," said Mary's father. "Cheer up now, both of you. We'll come again."
But they did not come again, for soon after that Mary's father died, and her mother, hard at work launching her clever children into the world on the wings of scholarships, lost touch with her husband's family. She had never liked them anyway. They were a queer lot.
Mary was once more sitting at her desk, very much shaken by the wave of forgotten memories that had broken over her, and slightly scandalized by the way she had abandoned herself to them. She had, literally, forgotten where and who she was. She had been again that little girl of—how many years ago? She must have been about eight years old. Forty-two years ago. All that time gone by, and now those flowers in the silver tankard were more real to her than the pile of official letters waiting on her desk. She straightened her shoulders, took the first one off the pile and then dropped it on the blotter. Was the child she had been five minutes ago an imaginative child? I must be, she thought. I mean, I must have been, or I wouldn't have felt like that about the trees, or thought as I did about going into a picture, into a hidden country. Father was imaginative, I think, but not Mother. I've always thought I was more like Mother.
Excerpted from The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge. Copyright © 1991 Mark Dutton and Jessie Monroe. Excerpted by permission of Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC.
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