Flowers by G. Ranger Wormser

The night wind brought him the smell of flowers.

For a moment he fought against the smothering oppression of the thing he hated; for a second the same struggle against its stifling weight.

His eyes closed with the brows above them drawn and tight. His teeth caught savagely at his lower lip, gnawing at it until the blood came. His hands, the fingers wide spread, the veins purple and standing out, moved slowly and tensely to his throat.

How he dreaded it! How he abominated the thing! How he loathed the subtle, insidious fragrance! How he abhorred flowers—flowers!

With a tremendous, forcing effort he opened his eyes.

The same garden. The same sweeping reach of flowers. Flowers as far as he could see. Gigantic blossoming clumps of rhododendron. Slender, fragile lilies of the valley showing white and faint on the deep green leaves. Violets somewhere. He got the sickeningly sweet scent of them. Early roses growing riotously. He detested the perfume of roses.

Overhead the darkening sky that held in the west the thin gray crescent of the coming moon.

And all through the garden the first dull blue shadows of evening. Shadows that blurred around the shapes of flowers; shadows that spread over the flowers, smearing out the spotting color of them until they were a gloom-splotched, ghostly mass. Shadows that brought out in all its pungent power the assailing, suffocating smell of the flowers.

He stood there waiting.

He could feel his heartbeats throbbing in his temples. His breath came in long racking gasps. His one thought was to breathe regularly. One—two—He tried to think of something other than his breathing. The intangible odor of the flowers choked him with their stealthy cunning.

It was always like this at first. He had always to contend silently and with all his strength against this illusive, abominated thing poured out to him by the flowers.

His strangling intaking of breath. One—two—

Never in all his life had he been without his horror of flowers; never until now had he known why he hated them. Lately he had begun to wonder if they hated him.

It would be better when she came.

They were her flowers. Her flowers that took all her time; all her thoughts; all her caring and affection. Her flowers that grew all about her. Her flowers that held her away from him. He hated her flowers.

One. Two.

It would be quite all right when she was there.

Her flowers would not harm her.

And then he heard the soft, uneven rustling of her skirts.

He looked up to see her walking toward him down the long lane of her flowers. Through the drenching grayness he could see that she wore the same light dress that made her tall and clung to her in folds so that her figure seemed to bend. He could distinguish the heavy shadowy mass of her uncovered hair. Her eyes, set far apart and dark, fixed themselves on him. A quick light flooded into them. In the dusk he saw that her hands were clasped together and that they were filled with lilies.

"Throw them away," he said when she stood beside him.

"They're so pretty," she told him, staring down at the lilies. "You'll let me keep these; just this once?"

"Throw them away," he repeated. "I can't stand the sight of them. You know that. Why must you go on picking the things and picking them?"

She shrugged her shoulders. Her eyes left his face.

"I love them," she said simply.

"Love?" He laughed. "How can you love flowers?"

"Oh, but I can."

"Well, I can't!" He had been wanting her to know that for a long while.

"Why not?" She asked him.

He could not bring himself to tell her why not.

"Throw them away!"

She let the lilies sift through her fingers one by one. And then the last fell to the ground.

"Are you satisfied?"

"No," he said. "What good does it do, anyway? The next time it'll be the same again. It always is."

She reached out a hand and touched his arm.

"But I never know when you're coming. If I knew I wouldn't be picking flowers. I can't help having them in my hands when you come, if I don't know, can I?"

"It isn't that."

He covered her hand lying on his arm with his hand.

"What is it, then?"

She pulled her fingers from under his and drew away a bit.

He made up his mind to try and tell her.

"It's the flowers. I should have told you long ago. Even at the beginning when we first—When I first came here, I—"

She interrupted him.

"When was that? How long ago?"

"How can I tell? Ages ago."

"It does seem;" she said it slowly. "It does seem as if you had always come here. I can't remember the time when you didn't come. It's strange, isn't it? Because, you know, there was a time when you weren't here. That was when I began with the flowers."

"I wish you'd never begun," he muttered. "That's what I've got to say to you. I hate flowers. I've always hated them! I never quite knew why till I came here and found you loving them so much. You never think of anything, or talk of anything but your flowers. If you must know, that's why I hate them!"

"How silly of you!"

He thought she smiled.

"It's not," he said. "There's nothing silly about it. I'd like to have you think of other things. There're plenty of other things. I want you to think of them. I—want—"

He broke off abruptly.

"What do you want?"

"I—I—want—you—I can't say it!"

For a little while they were silent. It grew darker. The shadows that lay along the ground moved upward through the bushes of rhododendron. He watched the fantastic mesh of them shifting there. The gray of the crescent moon grew faintly yellow. His eyes roved over the shadow splashed reach of flowers. The heavy odor of them sickened him.

"If only you'd try to like them!" She said it wistfully.

"It's no use. I couldn't."

"If you worked among them the way I work, perhaps you could."

"I tell you I couldn't!"

"But they're so lovely." Her hand went out and touched a rose. "It's taken me years to perfect this one. You can't see in this light. But during the day—; why don't you ever come here during the day?"

"I don't know," he told her quite truthfully.

"During the day," she went on, "you ought to see it. It's yellow; almost gold. And its center—That's quite, quite pink with the very middle bit almost scarlet. I love this rose."

He thought then that he could smell the particular fragrance of the one rose permeating subtly through the odor of all those other flowers. She loved that yellow and gold and scarlet rose.

"Good heavens," he said, "do stop telling me how much you love your flowers!"

"If you were with them all the time—"

He did not let her finish.

"That's all you do, isn't it? Just care for your flowers all day long?"

"Why, yes." She was surprised. "Of course it's all I do. It's all I care about doing. It takes every minute of my time. You know that, don't you?"

"Yes, I know it." His tone was gruff.

"Then why do you always talk about it like this?" She asked him. "I've done it for years. Ever since I can remember. It's hard work, but I like doing it. I don't think you know how alone I've always been. I'm afraid you don't realize that. Not really, anyway. I've just never had anything to care about until I started in with the flowers. I don't know if I ought to tell you—"

She stopped speaking quite suddenly.

"What?"

"I don't think you'd like to know what I was going to say."

"Tell me," he insisted.

"Well." She spoke slowly. "Sometimes I feel as though—It's so hard to say. But sometimes I feel as if the flowers know how much I care and—and as if they care too."

"Why d'you say that?"

"I don't quite know. Only they're living things; they are, aren't they?"

"I suppose they are; but that's no reason for you to encourage yourself in all those queer ideas about them."

"Queer ideas?"

"You know the sort of thing I mean."

"I don't. What sort?"

He thought then that her voice had a hurt sound drifting through it.

"Loving them. For one thing."

"But what can I do? What else have I to love? I've just told you how much alone I am. All the time, really. The flowers are the only things I have. I've just told you that."

He waited a second.

"You have me," he said.

"You? But you hardly ever come. I'm so lonesome. You can't know what that means. I am lonely. And you—Why, sometimes I think you're not real. Not—even—real—"

"Don't! For God's sake don't say that!"

"I can't help it! I tell you, I can't. It's all right now. It's always all right when you're here. But after you go—Nothing is real to me; nothing but the flowers. And you don't want me to care for them. You keep saying you hate them. They're all I've got. Won't you—can't you see that?"

"But—if—I—come—here—to—stay?"

"To—stay?"

"Would you want me here?"

He saw her hands move upward until they lay in two white spots on her breast.

"Want you?—If—only—you—knew—"

He waited a moment before he said it.

"And you—could—love—me?"

"I've always loved you."

She spoke in a whisper.

"I'll find a way." He told her. "There must be a way."

"But how? How?"

"I don't know. I never thought about it before. I never knew you cared. I thought it was just the flowers. Nothing but the flowers. I hate the flowers. The feel of them—the sight of them—the smell of them. I couldn't ever come here without being suffocated. I was jealous of them; fearfully jealous."

"And—I—thought." Her voice was low. "I—thought—that—because—I—feel—they—love—me;—because—I love—them;—somehow—they—brought—you—here."

"And when I come—"

"When?"

Her voice itself trailed to a whisper.

"I will come to you! I—will!"

"How—can—you—find—me?"

"Somehow—I will!"

"If—only—you—could. I am lonely. Terribly—lonely. If—it—would—be—soon."

"It—must—be—soon."

"I'll—wait—for you—always. But—if you are—real—you'll—come—soon. It's lonely—waiting. And—I—don't—even—know—if—you—are. I—don't—even—know."

The Reverend William Cruthers started from his chair.

Some one had banged the window closed. Some one had lit the lamp on the center table. Its yellow light trickled through the room and over the scant old fashioned furniture and crept upwards across the booklined walls.

The room was stuffy and close. The smell of flowers had gone.

"Billy!"

He turned to see his sister rushing across the room to him. He stooped a bit and caught her in his arms.

"Why, Gina. I didn't know. Why didn't you write and tell me? Who brought you up from the station?"

The girl kissed him hastily and enthusiastically on either cheek.

"A nice welcome home!" She laughed breathlessly. "I was just about to make a graceful and silent exit."

"But, Gina, I didn't know."

"Of course you didn't know. You couldn't. I wouldn't write. I wanted to surprise you. Aren't you surprised, Billy?"

"Awfully," he conceded.

"Awfully?"

Her brows puckered.

"Very much so, I mean."

"You never do know just what you do mean. Do you, William?"

"Naturally, I do."

"It wouldn't be natural for you if you did."

The girl slid away from him and went and perched herself comfortably on the arm of the chair in which he had been sitting. Her hands were busy with her hatpins and her eyes that peered up at him were filled with laughter.

"How did you get up from the station, Gina?"

"Oh, such a lovely way, Billy! And so very energetic for me. I walked. Now, what do you know about that?"

He frowned a bit.

"Very good for you, I don't doubt." He said it stiffly. "After all the motoring you must have done with those friends of yours!"

She had gotten her hat off. She sat dangling it by the brim. The lamplight streaked over her hair.

"Now, don't be nasty, William. And whatever you do, don't speak to me as if I were a congregation. The Trents are perfectly lovely people, even if they are terribly rich and not very Christian. And—and Georgie Trent is a sweet boy; and," she added it hastily. "Wood Mills is a duck of a place!"

He thrust his hands into his coat pockets.

"I never said it wasn't, Gina."

She paid no attention to him. Her legs were crossed. Her one foot was swinging to and fro. Her eyes were fixed speculatively on the foot.

"And you ought to be very glad to have me here again. Suppose I'd listened to Georgie and married him right off, instead of coming back here. A nice fix you'd have been in. You know perfectly well no one in all the world does for you as nicely as I do. You know that, don't you?"

He smiled down at her.

"To be sure I do."

"As a matter of fact," she went on. "When I came in here you were half, if not altogether, asleep in this chair."

"I wasn't asleep, Gina."

"Oh, that's what you always say. But I banged in and you didn't hear me. I lighted the lamp and you didn't seem particularly conscious of it. And the window. The window was wide open. I closed that for you. The wind was bringing in just yards of those flower smells you hate so."

"Was it, Gina?"

"Huh—huh."

"You smelled them, then?"

His tone was strangely quiet.

"Of course I did. Come and sit here, Billy." She wiggled herself into a more comfortable position on the arm of the chair. "And tell your onliest sister how much you love her."

He went and sat beside her in the chair. He put his arm about her waist.

"You're a dear child, Gina."

"I know it!" She snuggled close to him. "And I've had the most divine time, Billy. Wood Mills is a glorious place. There wasn't an awful lot to do; but whatever we did was great fun."

"You'd have a good time anywhere, little sister."

"Would I?"

Her eyes wavered about the room a bit hungrily.

Something in her voice pulled his eyes up to her face.

"Gina, what is it?"

"Nothing, Billy."

She felt his fingers tighten at her side.

"Aren't you happy here, Gina?"

"Of course I am, Billy!" Her head was thrown back so that the long line of her throat showed in its firm molded whiteness. "Only, Billy, I want—I don't think I even know what I want. Only just sometimes I feel it. A want—that—perhaps—isn't—even—mine. It's for something;—well, for something that doesn't feel here."

He stroked her hand.

"It's lonesome for you, Gina."

"No, it isn't that. It's just; oh, I guess it's just that I worry about you."

"Me, Gina?"

"Yes, Billy. Sometimes you look so—so starved. That's what makes me think it's your want I feel—; yours that you want very much—and—and—Billy, that you can't get hold of."

"No, Gina! No!"

She pressed her cheek against his.

"Oh, Billy." She spoke quickly. "There was one place out there at Wood Mills. You wouldn't have liked it. But it was too wonderful!"

He drew a deep breath of relief at the sudden change in her voice.

"What was it, Gina? Why wouldn't I have liked it?"

She fidgeted a bit.

"Why? Oh—because."

"Because what, Gina?"

"It was just one big estate, Billy. A girl owns it. She's an orphan. She's very beautiful. She lives there all by herself except for a couple of old servants. Claire Trent and I saw her once or twice when we rode through the place. Claire says she's sort of queer. She doesn't bother about people. She doesn't like them, Claire says. She spends all her time around the place."

"That sounds very strenuous, Gina."

"Oh, it isn't, Billy. It's lovely. The estate is."

"I've heard the places there are pretty."

"Pretty! But this one, Billy;" in her enthusiasm she leaned eagerly forward. "You couldn't imagine it! There are miles and miles. And the whole thing; Claire says the whole year round; it's just one big mass of flowers."

In spite of himself he pulled his arm away from the girl's waist.

"Oh, is it?"

"Billy, I know you don't like flowers. But this! You've never seen anything like this!"

"There're probably lots and lots of places like it, little sister."

"Oh, no!" Her tone was vehement. "There couldn't be. Not such a garden! All rhododendrons and lilies of the valley—; is anything wrong, Billy?"

"Nothing. Those flowers grow in all gardens at this time of the year."

She stared into his blanched face and her brows drew together in a puzzled frown.

"Not like this, Billy. Really. I've never seen such rhododendrons or such lilies. And the violets and roses!"

He got to his feet suddenly.

"What?" He asked hoarsely. "What flowers did you say?"

"Why, rhododendrons—and lilies,—and—lilies. What is it, Billy?"

"Go on, Gina. Go on!"

"Billy!"

"Lilies of the valley and violets, Gina—"

"And roses;" she finished mechanically.

"What kind of roses, Gina?"

The puzzled frown left her face.

"Glorious roses, Billy." She was enthusiastic again. "There've never been roses like these. Why, there's one kind of a rose. It's known all over now. It took her years and years to grow it."

"What sort of a rose, Gina? What sort did you say?"

"I didn't say, Billy. I don't even know the name of it. But it's a yellow rose; almost gold. And its center is pink and—and scarlet."

For a moment they were silent.

"Did you see this—this woman, Gina—often?"

"Oh, once or twice, Billy."

"When, Gina?"

"In the evenings; each time."

"Where was she, Gina?"

"Why, how strange you are, Billy."

"Where, Gina? Tell me, d'you hear—tell me—where?"

"In her garden, Billy. What's there to get so excited about?"

He fought for his control then.

"I'd like to know, Gina—where you saw her and—and—"

The girl interrupted him.

"I saw her in the evenings—in her garden. She used to walk down—well—it looked like a long lane of flowers. To be exact, Billy, it was always in the evening and kind of gray. So I couldn't see very much except that she wore a light clingy sort of dress."

She stopped for a second.

"Yes, Gina?"

His voice was more quiet now.

"I told you she was a bit queer, didn't I?"

"Queer? God! she—was—lonesome—Gina!"

"Yes," the girl caught at his last words. "I'll bet she was lonesome. Any one would be, living like that. That's what makes her queer I guess. I saw her both times with my own eyes come down the garden with her hands full of flowers. Both times I saw her stand quite still. And then Claire and I would see her drop her flowers to the ground. That was the funny part. She didn't throw them away. It wasn't that, you know."

"No, Gina."

"She'd, well, she'd drop them. One by one. As if—"

"As if what, Gina?"

"Oh, as if she were being made to do it."

He went to his knees then. He buried his head in the girl's lap.

She leaned anxiously forward, her hand smoothing his hair.

"Billy—Billy, dear—aren't you well? Billy, tell me."

He could not bring himself to speak.

"Billy, is this what you do when I come home to you? Shame on you, Billy! Why—why, Billy, aren't you glad to have me here? Say, aren't you?"

"Thank God!" He whispered. "Thank God!"

He got to his feet then.

The girl rose from her chair and clung to him.

"I've never seen you like this, Billy."

"Listen, Gina;" his voice was low. "When you go upstairs to take off your things, pack my grip, little sister. I'm going away."

"Away, Billy?"

"Yes, Gina."

"But where, Billy?"

"To a place where I've wanted to go for a very long—long time, little sister."

"But, Billy—"

"Will you do that for me? Now, Gina? I—I—want to—leave."

"When, Billy?"

"As—soon—as—I can, Gina. It—must—be—soon."

The girl went out of the room very quietly.

He crossed over to the window and threw it open.

Darkness as far as he could see. Darkness in which were smudged lighter things without shape. Somewhere in the distance the feathery ends of branches brushed their leaves to and fro against the sky.

He knew that the wind was stirring.

He looked up at the heavens. Gray and dark save where the thin crescent moon held its haunting yellow light that was slurred over by drifting clouds and then held again.

He could see the wind driving the clouds.

The swish of the wind out there going through those smudged lighter things without shape.

He leaned far over the sill.

And suddenly the night wind brought him the smell of flowers.

Gradually the odor of the flowers blending subtly and faint at first, grew more distinct; heavier.

He stood there smiling.

Flowers—

Her—flowers—

"I'm coming;" he whispered. "I'm—coming—to—you—now—dear—"