Another Short Story, this time from a collection about princesses. Hope you like it!
by Robin Wood
Princess Irene loved flowers.
Her mother and father, the Queen and King, had huge flower gardens at the palace. There were beautifully kept beds of gorgeous blooms from all over the world. There were hidden nooks sheltered by sprays of sweet-smelling shrubs, and holding worn wooden benches where you could sit and rest. There were fountains of purest marble, white and cool as snow, where bright water splashed down to amuse brilliantly colored fish. There were towering trees with spreading canopies that sheltered choirs of hidden songbirds. There were arbors and pergolas cloaked with flowering vines, with delightful swings where you could feel as if you were about to touch the crystal blue sky. There were winding paths, and open walks, and even a formal maze of strong-smelling boxwood with tall golden gates so no one could enter alone and unwatched, and be lost for hours or days.
You would have loved those gardens as much as Irene did, I’m sure.
She was about your age, and she liked nothing more than playing in those gardens. When it rained, and she was forced to sit inside, with nothing to amuse her (except, of course, all her books and toys and magical trinkets,) I’m afraid she would get quite cranky.
“For you see, Nettie,” she would explain to her nurse, “none of them are alive a bit. It means nothing to any of them whether I care for them or not. Not like the flowers. When I love them, they love me back.”
“I love you, little Princess.” Nettie would say, “come, cheer up. The rain won’t last much longer.”
“I know, Nettie.”
And Irene would smile bravely, give Nettie a hug, and try to be cheerful, as a princess should; but her heart was not in it.
(You should not imagine, by the way, that Irene was one of those unfortunate princesses who was given over to her nurse to raise. Her mother and father loved her dearly and spent as much time with her as they could. But it takes a lot of work to run a whole kingdom, and someone had to watch Irene when her parents couldn’t.)
The day this story starts wasn’t rainy, though. It was one of those glorious days you get sometimes is the spring. There had been rain, just the day before, and it had washed all the dust and clouds out of the sky, so it was such a brilliant blue it made you ache to look at it. All the leaves were shining from the rain, with that vibrant, tender green that you only get in the spring. The birds were busy impressing each other with their very best songs, and the air was full of brightly colored butterflies, dipping and soaring over the banks of cheery daffodils and heavenly pink and purple hyacinth.
On a day like this, no one could resist going out, least of all Princess Irene.
Truth to be told, Nettie longed to be in the gardens almost as much as Irene herself, so as soon as breakfast was over, they were out the door.
Now, Irene loved all the flowers, of course. But as much as she loved them all, she had her particular favorite. Can you guess what they were?
Not the roses, although she did love them for their bright colors, soft petals, and beautiful scents. But roses also have thorns that are liable to stick your fingers when you pull a spray close to sniff. And that, as Irene explained, is not as friendly as one could hope.
Not the prize dahlias, although they were gorgeous, with their hundreds of petals on blossoms nearly as large as Irene’s head. Because, she would explain, there was something about them that made you suspect they were a bit too proud and full of themselves.
Not even the violets, although she loved them dearly.
Her very, very favorite flowers were lily-of-the-valley. Do you know them? With their white bells on slender stalks, just waiting to chime for dancing fairies? With their sweet scent, like dreams of angels? With their glossy green leaves that almost hide the shy flowers?
There was a great bank of lily-of-the-valley in a hidden corner of the garden, where things were allowed to run a bit wild. Someone had planted some there long ago, perhaps as long as a hundred years before, and they had propagated and spread and planted themselves among all the tree roots in that shady spot, filling it with heavenly scent and bright white bells, like a million bits of glory shining under the trees.
That morning, Irene ran to the spot as fast as her little feet could take her, skipping and laughing for pure joy.
She ran so fast that I’m afraid she left poor Nettie quite behind, for Nettie wasn’t exactly young any more, not was she as slender as she had been, and preferred a slower pace.
So Irene was quite alone when she came to her flowers, and plunked to her knees, crying, “Good morning, my lovely ones!”
Except, it turned out that she was not quite alone after all! Because someone answered her!
“Good morning yourself!”
The voice sounded very kind, and there was a laugh in it, so Irene wasn’t really scared. But she was startled.
She jumped to her feet, and whirled around to face the speaker.
And who do you think she saw?
There was a woman in a green apron kneeling among the lilies, with a trowel in her hand, and dirt on her fingers. Her red-brown hair was streaked with white, and her skin was brown and freckled from the sun. She had wide greeny-brown eyes, a wide nose with a wart, and a wide smile. She looked kind, but she was also the least pretty person the princess had ever seen in all her whole life.
Irene realized she was staring, and caught herself, giving her best court curtesy, for a princess is always unfailing polite to everyone, no matter who they are. Unless, of course, she forgets.
“Pardon me,” she said, “but you rather startled me. Ummmm… Who are you?”
The woman smiled wider, and little laugh crinkles appeared around her eyes.
“I’m sorry, Princess Irene. I didn’t mean to startle you. As you can see,” gesturing at her apron with her trowel, “I’m one if the gardeners here.”
Now, this startled Irene even more, because she knew all the gardeners; from Mr. Morrison, the head gardener, through all his staff to little Tommy Seaburg, who was just a beginning apprentice, and was only allowed to weed the paths in the less-frequented corners.
She was a great favorite with them, and often stopped to chat with them, and ask questions. She was even allowed to deadhead some of the flowers, if she was very careful. (That means to cut off the old, faded blossoms so the plant will replace them with new, bright flowers.)
But she had never seen this woman before in her life.
“Are you new, then?” she asked.
The woman chuckled, a low sweet sound like water chuckling in a brook.
“Oh no, Princess,” she said. “I don’t think anyone could say that.”
“I’ve never seen you before! What is your name, please?”
“Ah, but I’ve seen you, many a time. And you may call me Mag.”
“Please, Mag, why have I never met you before now? I thought I knew all the gardeners.”
“You never needed me before.” said Mag. “And I’m sure you do know all the regular gardeners. The garden I tend is a bit… different.”
“Different how?” asked Irene, very puzzled. She would have been quite alarmed by now if Mag hadn’t looked so very kind and friendly, the conversation was so strange.
Mag cocked her head to one side, and looked up at Irene. “Let’s just say that you are one of the most beautiful flowers in my garden.”
Irene felt her mouth drop open. “Me? But… I’m not a flower!”
“Irene! There you are!” Nettie called as she came up the path behind the princess. “Talking with the flowers again, my love?”
“No,” said Irene, “I was talking with … ” but her voice died as she turned to introduce her nurse, for even as she gestured to the gardener she realized there was no one there. They were quite alone with the lilies.
Irene was very quiet that night. She had a lot to think about.
She asked her mother, the Queen, if they had a gardener named Mag, but her mother was quite sure they did not. She asked her father, the King, and he called Mr. Morrison, who assured them there was no such person employed in the gardens.
That worried her mother enough that she called in Mr. Braithwaite, the Butler, who was in charge of all the people who worked in the palace; but there was no Mag, or anyone who fit her description, anywhere on staff, in any capacity.
Nettie insisted that there had been no one there, so eventually they decided that Irene had been imagining it.
Her mother was troubled, because Irene was generally a truthful child. But there was nothing much she could do except post a few extra guards to watch Irene’s room as she slept. So she did that, and then went to her own bed.
But Irene did not sleep. She lay awake, watching the stars outside her window, and thought and wondered.
The next morning, she was a bit cranky and out of sorts, which is not to be wondered at, since she had had so little sleep. (That is one of the reasons it’s so important to get enough sleep every night.)
She didn’t much want her breakfast. The toast, she said, was burned, and the eggs were runny, and the jam tasted “weird.”
She didn’t want to wear the dress that Nettie laid on the bed for her, and she didn’t know which dress she did want.
When it was time for her lessons, she told Sir James, her tutor, that doing sums was stupid, and that General Barton had deserved his famous defeat for being so dumb.
In short, she was as short tempered and unlike her normal, sunny self as she could be.
After lunch, everyone finally gave up, and sent her out to the garden to play, and see if the fresh air could improve her temper.
So out she went, and wandered sullenly along the paths, resenting the extra guards and the lack of Nettie, who had a headache, and had declined to accompany her.
She wandered here and there for a while, too tired and unhappy to care where she was walking, until she found herself back among the lilies-of-the-valley.
And can you guess who was waiting for her there? Yes, that’s right. Mag!
Mag was kneeling among the flowers, exactly as she had been the day before, busily digging up clumps of lilies, carefully separating them, and then replanting them with room to breathe between them. As she planted each one, she poured water on it from a blue earthenware pitcher, humming the while.
Irene stared at her with eyes as round as two teacups, and then looked back down the path at the guards. They were a respectful distance away, watching her and chatting to each other. It was plain they saw nothing alarming.
Irene turned back to Mag, but she just continued with her working and humming.
“Can they even see you?” she blurted out
“I shouldn’t think so, and good afternoon to you, too, your highness.”
Irene blushed. She knew she had been rude all day, and she didn’t like it, but she didn’t seem able to stop.
“Good afternoon, Mag” she said as politely as she could. “Who are you?”
Mag looked up at last, and clicked her tongue. “Oh, my poor princess. What a state you have worried yourself into. I told you who I am yesterday.”
“Yes,” Irene said impatiently, “except you don’t work here. No one has ever heard of you!”
Mag raised one eyebrow. “And that means I don’t work here? There are thousands who work in these gardens that Mr. Morrison doesn’t know. All the bees and earthworms, the butterflies and squirrels, the toads and birds. All working to make the gardens beautiful, and Mr. Morrison doesn’t know a one of them.”
Irene sat on the ground, too tired to stand, but determined to get a straight answer. “You aren’t a bee or butterfly. Now who are you?”
Mag smiled. “I might be. Not everything looks the way you expect it to. But you are right, and I can see you are too tired to tease. I am a gardener, as I told you, and you were given into my care by your great-great grandmother, who was a good friend of mine.”
Irene just stared at her. “But that would make you more than a hundred years old!”
Mag just smiled.
“And why did I never see you until yesterday?”
“I told you yesterday. You didn’t need me until now.”
“How do I need you?”
Mag smiled fondly at her. “You need me to tell you something important, so you’ll know it when the time comes.”
“Is something going to happen to the kingdom?”
“Oh my, no, although it speaks well of you that your people are your first concern.”
Mag put down her trowel and wiped her hands on her apron. “Our personalities are formed from the little decisions we make, day after day.”
Irene blushed. “Mine haven’t been good today,” she said.
“No. But anyone can have a bad day. It’s your usual decisions, and your decisions about what to do about your bad decisions, that form your personality.
“But sometimes we have an unusual decision to make. And that can set us down one path or another. Paths can always change, but the farther you travel, the harder it becomes.”
“When you are faced with the decision, you will know which path is right, if you listen to your heart and your internal compass. But sometimes it’s difficult to do what’s right; it can seem very risky. Wrong often seems easier in the short term.”
She picked up her trowel again, dug a hole in an empty corner, then carefully uprooted a clump of lilies.
“Tell me, little princess, how do you feel when you are here, with the lilies of the valley blooming all around you?”
By now, Mag’s quiet voice and the birdsong had soothed Irene enough that she felt relaxed and sleepy. The world seemed unreal and dreamlike to her.
“I feel safe,” she said, “Happy and calm and quiet. It’s so peaceful, like nothing bad can happen here, and all my problems are far away.”
Mag nodded. “Lilies of the valley are one of your Centers of Strength.”
“Centers of Strength? What are those?”
“Things and places where you are the most like yourself. The world can be a very confusing place. Most people cope with it by changing who they are a little, from place to place and time to time. For instance, you’re kind of afraid of Mr. Braithwaite, right?”
You remember that Mr. Braithwaite was the butler, and was in charge of all the servants in the palace. He was very tall, and very narrow, and very strict. Unlike most of the servants, he didn’t much like the little princess. But then, he didn’t much like anyone, really; not even himself. He was inclined to look down his very long nose at Irene, and he “tolerated no nonsense.” To be honest, Irene wasn’t ‘kind of afraid’ of him. He scared her silly, and she tried to avoid him as much as she could.
So, faced with this question, she blushed, and said, “Yes. More than a little, really.”
“When you come across him in the palace, how do you act?”
Irene thought about the last time she’d seen Mr. Braithwaite. She had been walking back to her rooms after a lesson with Sir James. He had just given her the list of principal exports of the kingdom to memorize, in order, and she’d been making up a song to help fix them in her head, and singing it quietly to herself. And then suddenly the butler was in front of her, with that expression on his face that said he utterly despised her.
The song had died on her lips, and she’d blushed and looked down. She knew he didn’t approve of princesses acting less than courtly.
“Umm… I get quiet. I try not to move, and not to draw attention to myself. I hope if I’m stiff and proper enough, he won’t say anything, and I’ll be able to just sneak away.”
Mag looked at her kindly, as she poured water from the pitcher into the hole she had made. “Yes,” she said, “You become quite a different princess from the one you are with me, or with your parents, or with the cook.”
Irene squirmed uncomfortably. “I guess I do. I just never thought of it like that before. Is it terribly wrong?”
“Oh, sweetness, it’s not wrong at all. It’s perfectly natural, and most people do it. Most of the time, it doesn’t hurt anything for you to pretend you are invisible when you see Mr. Braithwaite. But sometimes, it’s important to remain who you are, even when you are frightened or unsure.”
She put the lily tenderly into the hole, and brought the earth up around it, pressing it firmly down against the clump of roots, so it would be securely grounded in its new home.
“In times like that, you need to know that you can carry your Center of Strength with you.”
“Carry it with me? How?”
“Why, you just imagine that you are here. You have a connection to this place. In a very real way, it’s part of you. The secret is that you can move your mind and heart to places where you have connections, even when your body is far away. Just picture in your mind the lilies blooming, and the feelings of warmth, and strength, and peace, and love, that you have when you are here, and you’ll find that you can face the things you need to face.”
“It’s that easy?”
Mag laughed, as she patted the earth around the transplanted clump, which looked now as if it had always grown in that spot.
“Not easy, no. Not the first time, anyway, although it becomes easier the more you do it, like anything else. Say ‘possible’. It is possible to face things when your heart and mind are holding to your Center of Strength that might seem impossible if you didn’t know that secret. Can you remember that?”
Mag smiled kindly at her. “Then, for now, why don’t you go back inside, apologize to Nettie and Sir James, and take a nap. You’ll feel much better for it.”
Irene smiled, and got to her feet. “Thank you, Mag, and I hope I wasn’t rude when I first saw you here.”
“Well, you were, a little. But I understand.”
“Then I’m very sorry, and I’ll try to do better in the future.” and Irene curtsied very prettily.
“Beautifully done, and I accept your apology. Have a good nap, my little flower, and remember that I love you.”
And Irene grinned all over her face, yawned hugely, (remembering to cover her mouth) and went back inside.
The very next day, after her lessons with Sir James, Irene was in her room alone. Nettie’s headache had turned into a cold, and she had to stay in bed. The extra guards had been sent back to their regular duties when Irene had been her normal, cheerful self at dinner the night before. So she was completely by herself, and trying to figure out how to hold the ribbon just so and hold the picture of the flowers in the right position and glue them both down on the get-well card she was making for Nettie with only two hands, when she heard a noise in the hall.
She ran and opened her door, and saw that it was Flossie, industriously dusting one of the little tables that held cut flowers, just down the hall from Irene’s rooms.
Flossie was one of the servants, but she was just Irene’s age, and very friendly and fun to play with. Except, most of the time, she was working and couldn’t play. Mr. Braithwaite had told Irene more than once, quite firmly, not to bother the servants when they were working. Still, she only needed her help for a minute, just long enough to apply the glue. So she whispered, “Flossie!”
Flossie looked up, and winked at her, not stopping her dusting for a moment.
“Please, Flossie, I need your help for a minute,” whispered Irene.
At the exact same moment, Mr. Braithwaite spoke from down the hall. “Flossie, you are needed in the kitchen.”
“Not now,” said Flossie, who hadn’t heard him and was replying to the princess. “I’m dusting!”
“How dare you!” thundered Mr. Braithwaite, and in a flash he swept past Irene’s door, and grabbed the hapless Flossie by the elbow.
She went pale, and dropped the duster. “Mr. Braithwaite!” she squeaked! “Sir, I… I… I… ”
Mr. Braithwaite shook her, as she grew paler still, and her eyes got big and round. “I will not tolerate this kind of impudence and disrespect! Who do you think you are, saying ‘no’ to me?”
“Sir! I didn’t! I would never! I was… ”
“Do you think I’m deaf, girl? You distinctly told me ‘no’.”
Irene felt sick. For a moment, she was strongly tempted to quietly close the door, and pretend she had never heard Flossie in the hall. But Flossie would be in bad trouble, and might even lose her place in the palace. It would be wrong to sneak away. But Mr. Braithwaite was so scary, especially when he was like this.
She remembered Mag, and remembered her Center of Strength. She pictured the sheltered corner so hard she could almost smell the lilies of the valley.
And she stepped into the hall.
“Pardon me, Mr. Braithwaite.”
He whirled, still holding the drooping Flossie by the elbow. “What do you want.”
Irene leaned back into the feeling of the lilies, and remembered that she was, after all, a princess. “I’m sorry, Mr. Braithwaite. But Flossie was telling me ‘no’, not you.” she swallowed hard, as he glared at her.
“I’m sorry. I know it was wrong of me, but I had just asked her to come into my room and help me with something. She knew her duty, and was refusing to leave the dusting. I don’t think she heard you.”
Mr. Braithwaite stared at her, unmoving for a moment. Then looked back at Flossie as if she was something he’d scraped off his boot. “Is that true?”
“Ye… yes sir. I would never think of refusing anything you told me to do, sir.”
“Then go to the kitchen, you’re needed there.” He gave her a final shake and released her.
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.” and Flossie bobbed her head and was gone, without even retrieving the duster, which lay, forgotten, beside the table.
“As for you,” Mr. Braithwaite looked at Irene with much the same look he’d given Flossie, “If I have to tell you one more time not to interfere with the servants, I will be forced to speak to your parents.”
“Yes, sir.” said Irene.
Mr. Braithwaite gave her a final glare, turned on his heel, and stalked away.
That was when Irene got the shakes. She closed the door, crept back to her table, grabbed her favorite doll, Lily, who had been “helping” and curled up around her.
“Not easy” she whispered to her doll. “Not easy at all. But possible. I did it.” She felt a small grin beginning to grow, deep inside her. “I did it, Lily. I really did. I did the right thing, when the wrong would have been so much easier. But I know I did, and Flossie knows, even if Mr. Braithwaite never forgives me. But he didn’t like me anyway, and I did it!”
Then from deep in her Center of Strength, she heard Mag’s voice saying, “Yes, you did. I’m so very proud.” For a moment she thought she felt a warm, loving hand, patting her shoulder.
And then it was just the sun, streaming through the window.