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"Ask the Robin"
Once upon a time – a fairly long ago time – there lived in a neat little cottage two young girls who were sisters. If you had gone to see them on a bright warm summer's day, I daresay you would have envied them and their life and their lot. For they were pretty and healthy and they loved each other dearly, and the cottage was charming to look at, in its dress of clustering roses and honeysuckle and traveller's joy, and other sweet and beautiful climbing, flowering plants. Furthermore, it stood in a little garden filled with treasures of different kinds, pansies, of which there was a great variety, and lilies and mignonette and all the flowers one loves to see in an old-fashioned garden of the kind. And the sisters kept it in perfect order, the beds were always raked, there was never a weed to be seen, the tiny plots of grass were like velvet.
In spring too it was very pretty, when first the snowdrops and then the crocuses and primroses and violets woke up after their long winter sleep, and in autumn also there was a show of beauties, dahlias and chrysanthemums and kitchen pokers and other pretty things of the season.
And indeed, even in winter, the place had its charm, of evergreen shrubs and bright berries and – till the snow came and made an end of all but the hardiest plants, the still remaining lovely variegated leaves of late autumn.
No care or skill was wanting to keep the whole as pretty as could possibly be, for the sisters' father was a gardener, and from him they had learnt both love of growing things and knowledge of all needed for their welfare. And not so very long before this story begins I doubt if Aria or Linde – these were the girls' names – cared what time of year it was, for all were happy days to them. Glowing summer, sparkling spring, rich mellow autumn, even winter, often cold and grey – all brought joy and gladness, till one sad night terrible sorrow fell upon them. Their father was drowned on his way home from market, in crossing a swollen stream, whose rushing waters broke down the little wooden bridge, over which in the darkness he was driving his small pony-cart. And as the poor girls' mother had died years before, they were now truly orphans.
The neighbours – such as there were, for there were but few – were sorry for them and kind, as far as they could be. But it was a lonely part of the world. The gardens where the drowned man had been one of the labourers belonged to a rich landowner who seldom visited his property, and all that the place produced was sent to the nearest town and there sold. Thus there was no one of importance to take much interest in Aria or Linde, except the steward of the castle, who advised them to look for situations as servants, and when they wept and said they could not bear to be parted, he got angry and called them fools and left them alone.
For a short time they got on pretty well.They were still very young – Aria barely seventeen and Linde only fourteen, but they were active and capable and ready-witted, and their father had managed to save a little, though, alas, but a little.
Aria made it last as long as she possibly could. It was summer, and they needed but small fires and cheaper clothing and even – so it seemed to them – simpler food than in the cold weather. Then they were able to earn a fair amount by odd work in the hay-fields and so on, when work was at its best. And once a week, at least, they trudged all the way to market laden with their loveliest flowers, tied up with great taste and care, and sometimes, as the season advanced, baskets full of the wild fruit that they gathered in the forest hard by. Have I told you that their home was on the edge of a forest? No? Ah well, never mind, we shall hear more of the forest by and by.
But summer, and even autumn, only stay for their appointed time. As they stood at the cottage door one morning late in October, Aria's face grew very grave. It was a chilly day, the sky overcast and steely, a sort of sighing in the air as if the spirits of the summer and the sunshine were bidding the world a reluctant farewell, frightened away by the fast-approaching winter.
It was Friday, the day before the market, to which so far they had never missed wending their way, even if the weather were wet or stormy, as it must be now and then at all times of the year.
"How dull and cold it is!" said Linde with a little shiver. "Aria, I wish we didn't need to go all the way to market to-morrow, if it's going to be like this."
Aria looked at her without speaking for a moment. Then she said very seriously:
"You are thoughtless, Linde, but then of course you are much younger than I, poor child. You say you wish we need not go to the town to-morrow? My dear, I am only afraid that your wish will come true! I don't see what we have to take to market – the fruit is all over and we have but very few flowers to tie up."
Linde's face fell. Then she brightened up a little.
"There are lots of lovely leaves," she said.
Aria glanced over the garden.
"Yes," she replied. "I think we may manage two or three good bunches for to-morrow, and possibly for another Saturday too. And – " she went on, "it has struck me that some of the townsfolk, who are always glad to buy our flowers, might care for our dried rose-leaves – we have quite a large jar-full, you know."
Linde clapped her hands.
"What a good idea!" she cried. "Oh I'm sure the leaves would sell. So few of the ladies in the town have proper gardens of their own."
"Or time to look after them, luckily for us," said Aria, "otherwise our flowers would not be in such request."
For though little Linde spoke of their customers as "ladies," the good housekeepers of the small but busy town were mostly of the working-class themselves – that is to say, wives or mothers of the men employed in the china manufactories on which the place depended, and in those days, long, long before railway lines, there were no such things as flower shops. The only chance of getting fresh garden produce was the market.
"Luckily for us too," Aria went on, "there are no great gardens near, except at the castle, and father often said it was hard work to keep the countess supplied with flowers enough, even though she sent express messengers for them twice a week."
"All the same," said Linde rather dolefully, "I wish father hadn't been a gardener. Flowers are so delicate and wither so soon. If we'd had a little dairy now – or even poultry, and could have sold butter and eggs, and chickens. They'd have gone on all the year round."
"Linde, dear, father never had money enough to buy cows or even poultry," said Aria with a sigh. "And it would have been difficult to get much to the market, so far off as it is, without a cart and pony, and how could we have bought these?"
For the pony which had perished with the poor man was the property of his master, though he was sometimes allowed to carry shrubs and bulbs of his own to market, with the castle vegetables, when he went to sell them at the town.
Linde did not answer. Her spirits were very apt to go up and down all in a minute, so Aria spoke again more cheerfully.
"Yes," she said, "I'm glad I thought of the rose-leaves. They are really most fragrant still. I lifted the lid yesterday for a moment. The powder that father gave me to throw among them was wonderfully good. I wish we had more of it."
"Is it quite done?" asked Linde.
"Very nearly. It was given to mother, you know, when she was a bride by an old woman who was her godmother. She declared it had fairy power and would never grow stale. And so it has proved. We may safely promise any who buy the leaves that they will scent their linen even better than lavender, and more lastingly. Come along, Linde, and let's see how we can best take a good parcel of them with us to-morrow," and Linde's interest revived again, as she followed her sister indoors.
The dried leaves – what are often called "pot pourri," though the simple sisters had never heard the name – were kept in a very large jar, of old-fashioned stoneware. It had a lid, and would nowadays be highly valued as rare and antique. But of this its owners knew nothing. They only loved it for their parents' sake, as it too had been a wedding gift from the godmother. And whence she had got it no one had ever known. She was herself a rather mysterious person. Folks used to say – so Aria remembered having heard when she was a little girl, helping her mother to gather rose-leaves to fill the jar – that there was something of fairy nature about her.
"And however that may have been," said Aria, as she repeated this to Linde, "certainly her gifts have proved lasting. The jar has been knocked over several times, you know, and never broken, and the powder is as fresh as a newly gathered rose."
"Yes," Linde agreed, after a good long sniff at the jar's contents. "It's delicious. It makes me think of all sorts of lovely summer things."
Then they consulted as to how they could best carry the precious leaves to the market for sale.
"We needn't take them all," pleaded Linde. "I do wish we needn't sell any. It seems a shame."
"Almost," her sister replied, "but it can't be helped. If only I had had more of the powder," she repeated, "we might have collected and dried quantities of rose-leaves."
"Or if we knew how to make the powder," said Linde.
But that knowledge was not to be had.
Aria had reached down the jar, which stood on a high shelf in a corner, and the fragrance seemed to fill the room.
"Leave off sniffing it, Linde, dear," she said, for the child kept bending over it, "and let us plan how to take the leaves to market. We can't of course carry the jar, but it wouldn't do only to pack them in a sheet of paper. Ah, I have it," and she ran up the tiny ladder-like staircase which led to their little bedroom above, returning with a good-sized old-fashioned box or canister of tin, with a firm lid. "The very thing," she exclaimed joyously.
"It will be dreadfully clumsy and heavy to carry," objected Linde.
"Oh no, I can easily manage it, and a bunch or two of flowers as well, without being overladen," said Aria. "And see here, Linde, I will take this little cup," and she held up a small mug of lustre ware, "I fancy it will hold about two ounces weight of the leaves. For that quantity say we charge half a groat – and if we are lucky enough to sell twenty or even twelve cups full, that will get us through next week beautifully."
Then she filled the little cup and weighed its contents. They were just over her idea. And Linde's spirits rose again as she helped her sister to cleanse the canister from every speck of dust or mould and then to fill it with the perfumed leaves.
All that day the cottage seemed pervaded by the fragrance. Accidentally a few of the leaves and some grains of the powder fell among Linde's curly hair, and when she brushed it out at night she was amused at its scent. It was not to be wondered at perhaps, that as her head lay on the pillow she should have dreamt of the jar and its contents and the old mystery associated with them.
This was her dream.
She thought that she and her sister were standing at their usual corner of the market-place, their posies of flowers and large bunches of autumn leaves carefully arranged before them on the rough wooden table, the tin canister in the middle and a little heap of the leaves displayed in front of it. It seemed very early, there were scarcely any people about. Suddenly up came a small old woman, a stranger and what Linde would have called "a foreigner," for her dress was either that of another country or of a date already quite passed out of fashion. She glanced at the flowers, and appeared to be passing on, when she caught sight of the little heap of dried leaves, on which she stopped short and Linde felt a pair of bright eyes fixed on her. Then the stranger smiled and nodded, and, bending towards the child, murmured in her ear the mysterious words: "Three times, and then ask the robin."
"How – what do you mean?" exclaimed Linde in her dream, trying to catch hold of the owner of the piercing eyes, as she turned away. But before the little girl could touch her, she was gone, and in the start of disappointment Linde awoke.
"What a queer dream," she said to herself, as she lay thinking of it. "I wish Aria were awake, I do so want to tell it her."
But Aria was fast asleep, her face looking so peaceful in the moonlight that Linde was too unselfish to wish to disturb her, for of late she knew well that the elder girl's waking hours were full of anxiety.
"I must wait till the morning," thought the child, and turning round she herself was soon in a dreamless slumber.
The next day Aria listened with great interest to Linde's story.
"It is queer," she agreed. "It almost sounds like a message from mother's uncanny godmother."
"Don't call her 'uncanny,'" Linde objected. "It's rather a frightening sort of word, and she mightn't like it. Supposing," she went on, lowering her voice, "supposing she really was a fairy, or partly one, she may be back in fairyland for all we know, and some day we might see her."
But Aria shook her head.
"No," she said, "she very likely had dealings with the fairies, but that isn't the same as being one herself."
"I'll keep a good look-out for her, nevertheless, at the market to-day," Linde replied.
And so she did. But no one at all resembling the quaint figure in her dream was to be seen, and after a while Linde forgot about her, so busy were the sisters that morning in selling their wares.
The first of their usual customers, a kindly, well-to-do, housewifely woman, who had known their father and always came to them for flowers, was at once attracted by the delicious perfume of the dried leaves.
"Dear, dear," she exclaimed, "it's not often that late autumn flowers are so fragrant. Your posies are always fresh and sweet, but I've never known their scent so beautiful," and she sniffed with satisfaction, looking about to discover from which of the flowers it came.
"It's not the flowers," explained Aria to the good dame. "It's something new we have for sale to-day. I only hope that you and our other customers may take a fancy to it," and she went on to tell of the pleasant qualities of the dried rose-leaves – how their scent, if they were laid among linen, was both fresher and more delicate to begin with, and lasted much longer than that of the finest lavender. But she said nothing of the sort of mystery connected with the powder; some instinct prevented her doing so. Nor did she tell that but a little of it remained, or that their stock of rose-leaves would soon be exhausted.
"Who knows what may happen before that?" she reflected, and the words of Linde's dream-visitor recurred to her, "Three times, and then ask the robin."
Dame Barbara was quite satisfied and greatly delighted.
"Here," she said, fumbling for her substantial purse, "a groat for two ounces of it, did you say? No, a half-groat only? My dear, you'll have to raise your prices if the perfume is so excellent! Well to begin with, give me the four ounces straight away, and here's a half-groat over and above what it all comes to – dried leaves and fresh ones and flowers, all together – just the tiny silver piece for luck, you know."
Aria and Linde smiled and thanked her. And the thanks were repeated, when, as she turned away, she called out, "I'll be the first to tell my cronies of this. Dear, dear, I feel as if I were in a fairy garden myself with the pleasure of the perfume. I had no idea that the robins' forest had such treasures of roses. For you live in the forest, do you not, or close by?"
"Yes, just at its edge," they replied, "but," Linde went on eagerly, "we never knew it was called after the robins. It is odd that we never heard it."
Dame Barbara nodded sagaciously.
"'Tis a very old name. Scarce a one but myself knows of it, nowadays," she said. "No wonder you children never heard it. There was an ancient story – just a foolish tale – that the fairies haunted the forest, till one day some cruel or stupid person killed a robin. Robins used to abound there, and they are their special favourites, you know, and since then never a fairy or a robin has been seen there. But I must hurry off to finish my marketing."
Aria and Linde looked at each other.
"It must mean something," said Linde in a low and almost awe-struck tone. "My dream, I mean, and the old woman saying, 'Ask the robin.'"
"Yes," her sister agreed. "It is odd too that we never heard the old name or the old story before. I wonder if father had? I have a sort of remembrance of his once saying something about our being too near the forest for robins to make their home with us, but I had a silly childish idea that he only meant that all robins disliked forests."
"I think I must have had the same notion," said Linde, "for we have both of us now and then wished that robins would make their nests in our garden, but we just thought they never would! We have hardly ever seen one."
"Very seldom," said Aria. "I have occasionally noticed a redbreast on the hedge, seeming to look about him, but he was sure to fly away."
But though they felt extremely interested in what they had heard and very curious to find out if, as Linde said, her dream did "mean something," just then they had no time to talk about it any more, for Dame Barbara was as good as her word. Every one of their usual customers for flowers seemed to have met the old woman and been told of the wonderful dried leaves. And some strangers, too, new-comers or visitors to the little town, stopped as they passed by, with exclamations of "What a delicious fragrance! Can it be from these flowers?" and when it was explained to them that the source of the perfume was the contents of the tin canister, one and all immediately bought a cup-full, or two, even in some cases three or four. Long before their usual hour for going home, all the leaves were sold, and some would-be purchasers who came too late were delighted to hear that next market-day there would be a fresh supply of the coveted leaves.
"Never has our purse been so well filled before," said Aria in great content, as she tied up the little purchases of butter and eggs and honey and other luxuries which she had scarcely hoped to be able to afford. "Linde, it really has been a wonderful success. If only we had jars and jars full of the leaves!"
"Don't despair," said Linde. "Remember my dream. Who knows what may come of it?" and very hopeful and happy, the sisters set off for their long walk home.
Nothing out of the common happened to them during the next few days. Though they half laughed at themselves for doing so, they often kept looking out in hopes of catching sight of a redbreast, but none was to be seen, and though they strolled more than once farther than usual into the forest, when their daily work was over, they there met with no adventures.
"I am afraid, Linde, dear," said Aria on the Friday evening, when they had again filled the canister with the precious leaves to be ready for market next day, "I am afraid that we must think no more about your dream, or that it meant anything. We have still leaves enough for one other day's sale after to-morrow, and we must just be thankful for the help it has been, giving us time to consider what we must do to get through the winter," and though she tried to speak cheerfully, the poor girl could not keep back a little sigh, which Linde was quick to hear.
"Aria, sweetheart, Aria," the child exclaimed in a piteous voice, "you don't think, you can't mean that we may have to part? Oh I'd much, much rather die, if we might but die together. Promise me, promise me that you'll never leave me."
"My darling," said Aria, bravely forcing back her tears, "Heaven knows, it half kills me to think of such a possibility. So far, things have gone better with us than we could have dared to hope; let us therefore go on praying and trusting that we may keep together."
Linde cheered up again.
"Yes, yes, that is the best thing to do," she agreed. "And do you know, Aria, though I get frightened sometimes, deeper down I have a feeling that we shall get on well, after all. It is ever since my dream that I seem to get this sort of comforting hope," she added, with a curious light in her eyes.
The elder sister, to tell the truth, had less faith in dreams and presentiments than little Linde, but she was glad of anything to cheer the child. So with a loving kiss they went to bed betimes, in preparation for their long walk to market the next day, and soon fell asleep.
Aria woke first on Saturday morning. It was still very early, the dawn barely breaking. But there was light enough to see Linde's face, all rosy and smiling in her sleep. She quickly roused when she heard her sister moving about the room.
"Aria," she exclaimed, "Aria, darling, it's come again. The dream, I mean."
Aria turned and looked at her. At first the elder sister was inclined to say that she was not very surprised. A dream that has made much impression on one is apt to return, especially in this case, remembering their conversation the previous evening. But the sight of Linde's happy and excited face checked her.
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