THE FÊTE OF FLOWERS
DURING the past weeks Laura had seen much more of her father than previously. She had tried to establish some equality of spirit with him and felt that he treated her less as a child than before.
On the morning after her conversation with Agatha, she found him in a very bad humour. "It's a thankless task that I have," he said. "I have to cajole people into doing what is for their own advantage, and then they turn round and spoil my plans out of pure wantonness. Out of pure opposition the Orbians issue a disparaging notice of the whole enterprise of the Colony. It's pure bigotry."
"But, Papa, they must have some reason, can't you think of any?"
"Communication is likely to be pretty difficult; probably next winter the ocean is likely to freeze over, but they can't possibly know that."
"They know a great deal more than you think," said Laura.
"What do you mean, Laura?" said her father in a tone which startled her, "tell me quickly everything you know."
"I don't know anything, Papa."
"Then why did you say that they knew more than I thought they did?"
"I don't know."
"Laura, I insist on your telling me."
"Indeed I can't, Papa. Father Luke told me that the Orbians knew the truth and that everyone would come to them for guidance." Cartwright looked at her searchingly.
"You are not keeping anything from me, are you, Laura?"
"Why do you send Harold away?" said she, "if there are plenty of opportunities you could give him here."
"Harold Wall is not the kind of man one can offer favours to," said Cartwright, "this is the very opening for him, and it will lead to a long and distinguished career, I hope. He has not said anything to you which would lead you to look on him as more than a friend, has he?"
"You must absolutely put away any thoughts of that kind. Harold is too sensible a man to cherish them. You are not the girl to go moping for a man who has put you out of his mind. And I tell you frankly, however much that young man cared for you, his pride would be an insuperable obstacle. The only way in which a Wall would ask me for my daughter, would be as an equal. You may be pretty sure you have seen and heard the last of him, unless some miracle happens. It's just as if you lived in another world."
"I know that, Papa."
"A great many lives go to the making of a state, and many fancies of boy and girl to the making of a life. Remember, you are my daughter, and I am ready to do anything possible for you."
"Yes, Papa," said Laura, "I know that, and I was going to ask you something."
"Papa! I want something to fill my life. I want to study science."
"What, this pretty head bother itself that way! You haven't the capacity, Laura."
"Do you think you have all the brains of the family, Papa. Isn't there a little left over for me?"
"Very well," said Cartwright after a little reflection, "you shall go to my brother. You are very late in beginning, but he will see what can be made of you for the sake of the family."
Hugh Farmer, Cartwright's half-brother, lived in a remote and dreary region of Scythia, and was always spoken of in the family as a man of wondrous learning with no redeeming human feature. However, Laura had made her bed, and felt that she must lie on it.
But when her father proposed that she should start before the end of the week, despite herself, tears came.
"Why, what is it, Laura," asked her father, "crying because you have got what you wanted?"
"Oh, Father," she said, " I—can't you let me stop for the fête of flowers?"
Cartwright smiled. There was no very great difficulty to be apprehended in dealing with a child who thought so much of a pleasure party.
Cartwright, when his children were little, had carried out his notion of a return to nature in their education. For a great part of the year they lived at his country place, on the shore of the Alban Lake, and there they discovered a pastime, which arranged and ordered under his systematic care, had enchanted the world of fashion. Not to have been to one of the Cartwright's flower fêtes, was to have missed the fairest sight Unæa could show.
For from that thin line of earth, so tenuous and slender, sprang with a lavishment no words can portray, flowers in profusion, enchantment, wonder. It but needed to stay the feet of passers-by, to let the generous soil alone, to enable it to become a magnificent purveyor of beauty. Thus from his children's early walks and his own recognition of how not to do, had sprung this festival, the acme of fashionable delights.
It would have grieved Laura desperately if she had not seen Harold again, and at this fête of flowers, where she could make him the guest of honour, she would have all the opportunity she longed for. She wanted to make amends for her trivial heartless way of dissuading him from his enterprise. Really she thought it splendid of him. It appealed to her this going forth to strike out a new land from the wastes of Septentria. And she wanted to tell him that there was no danger of her forgetting him. How could she do this better than in the scenes of her childhood where every step meant love and trust. For Laura had had the happiest childhood, and in this fête of flowers she would lead him, step by step, the old frequented way—she knew that she could take him right into the home of love and trust her mother made for her in days long gone, and perhaps she would find the chance to say, "Harold, if in your great work you are ever weary or lonely or sad, remember there is one far away that thinks of nothing but you."
Early on Wednesday all Laura's friends—young men and girls, and not a few older folk who feared not fatigue—left the city for an arduous day's journey. Conveyances in Astria, unless very slow and ponderous, do not afford the easy travelling that our vehicles do; and thus, late at night, tired, ready for supper and sleep, the party reached the pavilion prepared for them about a mile from the shore of the lake, perched high upon the Alban hills.
Next morning, before daylight, the summons for rising sounded, and as the sun began to gild the clouds, the young men and maidens began their walk over ground no Astrian foot had trodden for days before. And then before their eyes was a sea of flowers.
There were great morning glories, poppies and asters, tall white orchids nodding stately, and many and many a blossom we know not of. There was no shape exuberant fancy could demand but what was there, with scent and dewdrops laden, lifting itself in the palpable thick splendour of the coming day. Great handfuls the girls gathered. They, like flowers plucked by some loving hand and given motion and smiles and song, plucked in turn their sisters to share their adventure and their joy. Upon the sandy margin of the lake were little boats and, when the sun was high, in each a flower-courted queen reclined, and her subject, wielding his long oar, swirled the waters and rowed her out upon the placid bosom of the inland sea.
That voyage wafted Harold farther and farther in the land of enchantment till he felt that if, on the solitary desert of the Antipodal shore, he passed his life alone, were life well spent in all the blessed memory of that bright hour's converse on the lake, where shone the lustre of the deep-hued flowers and that great white lily, supremely white, those clustering leaves of green and pure white petals on Laura's breast.
And as they floated on they talked as they had never talked before, the wind wafting them, the clear sky above them, they sailed away to a new land. She was no longer the prize, the adoration, the remote divinity, the distant being to win, but she was the dear close companion, the sharer of his thoughts; inexpressibly insensibly all day long she grew closer, more real to him, and doubt, anxiety, and fear dropped away from his image of her—he learned that she was real and strong, and if they drifted away from one another afterwards, it would be through no trifling thing like an ocean's breadth or long years' delay. Laura seated herself in his heart as a divinity beyond the reach of accident, not to be gained by opportunity, nor lost by circumstance, but as if growing beside him like an other self, not to be affected by other people or moved from him by any-thing. And yet no words were said of what they felt for one another. Laura simply let drop her tantalizing moods, told him of the old dear times, and in a mute surprise it grew upon him that his work, the great thing he was going to do, was what her life hung round, her thoughts turned to.
The last of the boats to arrive at the opposite shore contained Agatha and Forest, deep in conversation and giving no heed to the trivial interruptions by which the others tried to disturb them. As far as to be gathered, the topic on which they had arrived was the unexampled opportunities of recently married women for studying the variation of the species under domestication.
Someone passed a stone from the shore to typify the weighty nature of the conversation, and, as is often the case, the joke was carried on with more enthusiasm than discretion. Before they were aware of what was done the waves began to leap over Forest's craft. Agatha uttered a shriek of alarm.
"Don't be disturbed," said Forest, and leaning back over the stern, lifted the prow clear by his weight. "Jump," he said.
"Jump, Agatha, before you sink," cried the merry voices from the shore.
"What will become of you, Edward?" said she, standing uncertain.
"Oh, never mind me," said Forest. "Often, when I go out rowing alone, I have to swim to shore; the boat fills with such weighty thoughts."
"You ought to have told me before you asked me to come," said Agatha indignantly, and leaped to safety.
But Forest had placed his oar under the stern of the endangered boat, and so was able to escape submersion and join the others with undisturbed gravity.
On shore they danced, walked, and talked. Then in the evening they all returned in the great ferry boat, singing their way in the blue-black night, and, sleeping at the pavilion, returned to the city after their day of simple and natural pleasure. So ended the flower fête.