The Story of Uncle Dick by Lucy Maud Montgomery
I had two schools offered me that summer, one at Rocky Valley and one at Bayside. At first I inclined to Rocky Valley; it possessed a railway station and was nearer the centres of business and educational activity. But eventually I chose Bayside, thinking that its country quietude would be a good thing for a student who was making school-teaching the stepping-stone to a college course.
I had reason to be glad of my choice, for in Bayside I met Uncle Dick. Ever since it has seemed to me that not to have known Uncle Dick would have been to miss a great sweetness and inspiration from my life. He was one of those rare souls whose friendship is at once a pleasure and a benediction, showering light from their own crystal clearness into all the dark corners in the souls of others until, for the time being at least, they reflected his own simplicity and purity. Uncle Dick could no more help bringing delight into the lives of his associates than could the sunshine or the west wind or any other of the best boons of nature.
I had been in Bayside three weeks before I met him, although his farm adjoined the one where I boarded and I passed at a little distance from his house every day in my short cut across the fields to school. I even passed his garden unsuspectingly for a week, never dreaming that behind that rank of leafy, rustling poplars lay a veritable "God's acre" of loveliness and fragrance. But one day as I went by, a whiff of something sweeter than the odours of Araby brushed my face and, following the wind that had blown it through the poplars, I went up to the white paling and found there a trellis of honeysuckle, and beyond it Uncle Dick's garden. Thereafter I daily passed close by the fence that I might have the privilege of looking over it.
It would be hard to define the charm of that garden. It did not consist in order or system, for there was no trace of either, except, perhaps, in that prim row of poplars growing about the whole domain and shutting it away from all idle and curious eyes. For the rest, I think the real charm must have been in its unexpectedness. At every turn and in every nook you stumbled on some miracle of which you had never dreamed. Or perhaps the charm was simply that the whole garden was an expression of Uncle Dick's personality.
In one corner a little green dory, filled with earth, overflowed in a wave of gay annuals. In the centre of the garden an old birch-bark canoe seemed sailing through a sea of blossoms, with a many-coloured freight of geraniums. Paths twisted and turned among flowering shrubs, and clumps of old-fashioned perennials were mingled with the latest fads of the floral catalogues. The mid-garden was a pool of sunshine, with finely sifted winds purring over it, but under the poplars there were shadows and growing things that loved the shadows, crowding about the old stone benches at each side. Somehow, my daily glimpse of Uncle Dick's garden soon came to symbolize for me a meaning easier to translate into life and soul than into words. It was a power for good within me, making its influence felt in many ways.
Finally I caught Uncle Dick in his garden. On my way home one evening I found him on his knees among the rosebushes, and as soon as he saw me he sprang up and came forward with outstretched hand. He was a tall man of about fifty, with grizzled hair, but not a thread of silver yet showed itself in the ripples of his long brown beard. Later I discovered that his splendid beard was Uncle Dick's only vanity. So fine and silky was it that it did not hide the candid, sensitive curves of his mouth, around which a mellow smile, tinged with kindly, quizzical humour, always lingered. His face was tanned even more deeply than is usual among farmers, for he had an inveterate habit of going about hatless in the most merciless sunshine; but the line of forehead under his hair was white as milk, and his eyes were darkly blue and as tender as a woman's.
"How do you do, Master?" he said heartily. (The Bayside pedagogue was invariably addressed as "Master" by young and old.) "I'm glad to see you. Here I am, trying to save my rosebushes. There are green bugs on 'em, Master--green bugs, and they're worrying the life out of me."
I smiled, for Uncle Dick looked very unlike a worrying man, even over such a serious accident as green bugs.
"Your roses don't seem to mind, Mr. Oliver," I said. "They are the finest I have ever seen."
The compliment to his roses, well-deserved as it was, did not at first engage his attention. He pretended to frown at me.
"Don't get into any bad habit of mistering me, Master," he said. "You'd better begin by calling me Uncle Dick from the start and then you won't have the trouble of changing. Because it would come to that--it always does. But come in, come in! There's a gate round here. I want to get acquainted with you. I have a taste for schoolmasters. I didn't possess it when I was a boy" (a glint of fun appeared in his blue eyes). "It's an acquired taste."
I accepted his invitation and went, not only into his garden but, as was proved later, into his confidence and affection. He linked his arm with mine and piloted me about to show me his pets.
"I potter about this garden considerable," he said. "It pleases the women folks to have lots of posies."
I laughed, for Uncle Dick was a bachelor and considered to be a hopeless one.
"Don't laugh, Master," he said, pressing my arm. "I've no woman folk of my own about me now, 'tis true. But all the girls in the district come to Uncle Dick when they want flowers for their little diversions. Besides--perhaps--sometimes--"
Uncle Dick broke off and stood in a brown study, looking at an old stump aflame with nasturtiums for fully three minutes. Later on I was to learn the significance of that pause and reverie.
I spent the whole evening with Uncle Dick. After we had explored the garden he took me into his house and into his "den." The house was a small white one and wonderfully neat inside, considering the fact that Uncle Dick was his own housekeeper. His "den" was a comfortable place, its one window so shadowed by a huge poplar that the room had a grotto-like effect of emerald gloom. I came to know it well, for, at Uncle Dick's invitation, I did my studying there and browsed at will among his classics. We soon became close friends. Uncle Dick had always "chummed with the masters," as he said, but our friendship went deeper. For my own part, I preferred his company to that of any young man I knew. There was a perennial spring of youth in Uncle Dick's soul that yet had all the fascinating flavour of ripe experience. He was clever, kindly, humorous and, withal, so crystal clear of mind and heart that an atmosphere partaking of childhood hung around him.
I knew Uncle Dick's outward history as the Bayside people knew it. It was not a very eventful one. He had lost his father in boyhood; before that there had been some idea of Dick's going to college. After his father's death he seemed quietly to have put all such hopes away and settled down to look after the farm and take care of his invalid stepmother. This woman, as I learned from others, but never from Uncle Dick, had been a peevish, fretful, exacting creature, and for nearly thirty years Uncle Dick had been a very slave to her whims and caprices.
"Nobody knows what he had to put up with, for he never complained," Mrs. Lindsay, my landlady, told me. "She was out of her mind once and she was liable to go out of it again if she was crossed in anything. He was that good and patient with her. She was dreadful fond of him too, for all she did almost worry his life out. No doubt she was the reason he never married. He couldn't leave her and he knew no woman would go in there. Uncle Dick never courted anyone, unless it was Rose Lawrence. She was a cousin of my man's. I've heard he had a kindness for her; it was years ago, before I came to Bayside. But anyway, nothing came of it. Her father's health failed and he had to go out to California. Rose had to go with him, her mother being dead, and that was the end of Uncle Dick's love affair."
But that was not the end of it, as I discovered when Uncle Dick gave me his confidence. One evening I went over and, piloted by the sound of shrieks and laughter, found Uncle Dick careering about the garden, pursued by half a dozen schoolgirls who were pelting him with overblown roses. At sight of the master my pupils instantly became prim and demure and, gathering up their flowery spoil, they beat a hasty retreat down the lane.
"Those little girls are very sweet," said Uncle Dick abruptly. "Little blossoms of life! Have you ever wondered, Master, why I haven't some of my own blooming about the old place instead of just looking over the fence of other men's gardens, coveting their human roses?"
"Yes, I have," I answered frankly. "It has been a puzzle to me why you, Uncle Dick, who seem to me fitted above all men I have ever known for love and husbandhood and fatherhood, should have elected to live your life alone."
"It has not been a matter of choice," said Uncle Dick gently. "We can't always order our lives as we would, Master. I loved a woman once and she loved me. And we love each other still. Do you think I could bear life else? I've an interest in it that the Bayside folk know nothing of. It has kept youth in my heart and joy in my soul through long, lonely years. And it's not ended yet, Master--it's not ended yet! Some day I hope to bring a wife here to my old house--my wife, my rose of joy!"
He was silent for a space, gazing at the stars. I too kept silence, fearing to intrude into the holy places of his thought, although I was tingling with interest in this unsuspected outflowering of romance in Uncle Dick's life.
After a time he said gently,
"Shall I tell you about it, Master? I mean, do you care to know?"
"Yes," I answered, "I do care to know. And I shall respect your confidence, Uncle Dick."
"I know that. I couldn't tell you, otherwise," he said. "I don't want the Bayside folk to know--it would be a kind of desecration. They would laugh and joke me about it, as they tease other people, and I couldn't bear that. Nobody in Bayside knows or suspects, unless it's old Joe Hammond at the post office. And he has kept my secret, or what he knows of it, well. But somehow I feel that I'd like to tell you, Master.
"Twenty-five years ago I loved Rose Lawrence. The Lawrences lived where you are boarding now. There was just the father, a sickly man, and Rose, my "Rose of joy," as I called her, for I knew my Emerson pretty well even then. She was sweet and fair, like a white rose with just a hint of pink in its cup. We loved each other, but we couldn't marry then. My mother was an invalid, and one time, before I had learned to care for Rose, she, the mother, had asked me to promise her that I'd never marry as long as she lived. She didn't think then that she would live long, but she lived for twenty years, Master, and she held me to my promise all the time. Yes, it was hard"--for I had given an indignant exclamation--"but you see, Master, I had promised and I had to keep my word. Rose said I was right in doing it. She said she was willing to wait for me, but she didn't know, poor girl, how long the waiting was to be. Then her father's health failed completely, and the doctor ordered him to another climate. They went to California. That was a hard parting, Master. But we promised each other that we would be true, and we have been. I've never seen my Rose of joy since then, but I've had a letter from her every week. When the mother died, five years ago, I wanted to move to California and marry Rose. But she wrote that her father was so poorly she couldn't marry me yet. She has to wait on him every minute, and he's restless, and they move here and there--a hard life for my poor girl. So I had to take a new lease of patience, Master. One learns how to wait in twenty years. But I shall have her some day, God willing. Our love will be crowned yet. So I wait, Master, and try to keep my life and soul clean and wholesome and young for her.
"That's my story, Master, and we'll not say anything more about it just now, for I dare say you don't exactly know what to say. But at times I'll talk of her to you and that will be a rare pleasure to me; I think that was why I wanted you to know about her."
He did talk often to me of her, and I soon came to realize what this far-away woman meant in his life. She was for him the centre of everything. His love was strong, pure, and idyllic--the ideal love of which the loftiest poets sing. It glorified his whole inner life with a strange, unfailing radiance. I found that everything he did was done with an eye single to what she would think of it when she came. Especially did he put his love into his garden.
"Every flower in it stands for a thought of her, Master," he said. "It is a great joy to think that she will walk in this garden with me some day. It will be complete then--my Rose of joy will be here to crown it."
That summer and winter passed away, and when spring came again, lettering her footsteps with violets in the meadows and waking all the sleeping loveliness of old homestead gardens, Uncle Dick's long deferred happiness came with her. One evening when I was in our "den," mid-deep in study of old things that seemed musty and unattractive enough in contrast with the vivid, newborn, out-of-doors, Uncle Dick came home from the post office with an open letter in his hand. His big voice trembled as he said,
"Master, she's coming home. Her father is dead and she has nobody in the world now but me. In a month she will be here. Don't talk to me of it yet--I want to taste the joy of it in silence for a while."
He hastened away to his garden and walked there until darkness fell, with his face uplifted to the sky, and the love rapture of countless generations shining in his eyes. Later on, we sat on one of the old stone benches and Uncle Dick tried to talk practically.
Bayside people soon found out that Rose Lawrence was coming home to marry Uncle Dick. Uncle Dick was much teased, and suffered under it; it seemed, as he had said, desecration. But the real goodwill and kindly feeling in the banter redeemed it.
He went to the station to meet Rose Lawrence the day she came. When I went home from school Mrs. Lindsay told me she was in the parlour and took me in to be introduced. I was bitterly disappointed. Somehow, I had expected to meet, not indeed a young girl palpitating with youthful bloom, but a woman of ripe maturity, dowered with the beauty of harmonious middle-age--the feminine counterpart of Uncle Dick. Instead, I found in Rose Lawrence a small, faded woman of forty-five, gowned in shabby black. She had evidently been very pretty once, but bloom and grace were gone. Her face had a sweet and gentle expression, but was tired and worn, and her fair hair was plentifully streaked with grey. Alas, I thought compassionately, for Uncle Dick's dreams! What a shock the change to her must have given him! Could this be the woman on whom he had lavished such a life-wealth of love and reverence? I tried to talk to her, but I found her shy and timid. She seemed to me uninteresting and commonplace. And this was Uncle Dick's Rose of joy!
I was so sorry for Uncle Dick that I shrank from meeting him. Nevertheless, I went over after tea, fearing that he might misunderstand, nay, rather, understand, my absence. He was in the garden, and he came down the path where the buds were just showing. There was a smile on his face and the glory in his eyes was quite undimmed.
"Master, she's come. And she's not a bit changed. I feared she would be, but she is just the same--my sweet little Rose of joy!"
I looked at Uncle Dick in some amazement. He was thoroughly sincere, there was no doubt of that, and I felt a great throb of relief. He had found no disillusioning change. I saw Rose Lawrence merely with the cold eyes of the stranger. He saw her through the transfiguring medium of a love that made her truly his Rose of joy. And all was well.
They were married the next morning and walked together over the clover meadow to their home. In the evening I went over, as I had promised Uncle Dick to do. They were in the garden, with a great saffron sky over them and a glory of sunset behind the poplars. I paused unseen at the gate. Uncle Dick was big and splendid in his fine new wedding suit, and his faded little bride was hanging on his arm. Her face was upturned to him; it was a glorified face, so transformed by the tender radiance of love shining through it that I saw her then as Uncle Dick must always see her, and no longer found it hard to understand how she could be his Rose of joy. Happiness clothed them as a garment; they were crowned king and queen in the bridal realm of the springtime.