Kitty of the Roses

by Ralph Henry Barbour

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Chapter I

A picture for the book Kitty of the Roses

Through the wide-open window floated in the fragrance of dew-dripping flowers. On the edge of the table a smouldering cigarette sent up a thin, wavering filament of gray smoke that lost itself in the upper gloom of the darkened room, leaving behind it a not-unpleasing odor of the Orient to mingle with the incense from the gardens without. When he paused in his writing—and pauses were frequent—Mr. Stephen Burton’s gaze invariably wandered to the sunlighted morning world represented by the vista at his elbow.

Immediately below him a small, turf-carpeted garden formed a square of shadow and sunlight. A jasmine clambered and sprawled along the purple brick wall at the rear, and a narrow, chocolate-hued bed of moist loam caught the fallen blooms. The bed held white and purple and lavender iris, and spiræa, and blue pentstemon, and was bordered with honey-flower. At the end of the old wall, where it formed an angle with an iron fence, a queerly shaped Daphne-tree threw grotesque shadows on the little lawn. But it was beyond the rusty iron barrier that Burton’s eyes found their richest reward.

There stretched a quadrangle that was bounded by walls on two sides and at the farther end by the back of an old-fashioned Southern house, staid and sleepy-looking, whose second-story porch, half hidden by vines over white-painted iron lattice-work, held a hammock which ever since Burton’s coming had remained idle, swinging lazily in the afternoon breezes. The quadrangle was intersected by narrow red gravel paths bordered by box hedges waist-high. And between the hedges, against the walls, along the fence, and clambering upon the house were roses. Never had Burton seen or dreamed of such roses. The garden was a riot of intense reds, of tender pinks, of flaring yellows and dazzling whites, and of every hue and tint between.

For the most part, they were the favorites of a generation gone: Banksias, festooning the warm bricks with bouquets of amber yellow and of violet-tinged white; Baltimore Belles, creamy-hued and graceful; rosy-violet Pride of Washingtons; sweetbriers of scarlet and blush; Austrian briers, single blossoms of flame-yellow. In the beds were great cabbage-roses of delicate, clear pink and of deep rose; moss-roses of many sorts, crimson Damasks, bright-red Luxembourgs, tiny clusters of flesh-colored Pompons. An immense bush of Gloire des Jardins was aflame with its great double blooms of red, while clustered about it were Madame Cottins, Philippe Quatres, Marceaus, Madame Hardys, Princess Clementines, and Madame Plantiers. The rich crimson, cup-shaped blossoms of a George the Fourth were nodding regally over the yellow-pink blooms of an Emmeline; the brown velvet petals of a Lord Nelson were clustering above a lowly Wellington; while, supreme in one three-cornered jungle of color, a spreading bush of Queen Victoria, an offshoot of the parent stem, showered the ground with its glowing petals.

Above the farther wall leaned a magnolia, a portly, eminently respectable magnolia, spreading its long branches far out over the garden as though offering old-gentlemanly protection to the rose-ladies. In the long afternoons the green and bronze foliage, now reflecting the morning sunlight from its varnished surface, made a pleasant gloom thereabouts, throwing great gently-moving ovals of greenish shadow over the rosebushes along the old wall; here was the Giant of Battles, with petals so darkly red as to verge upon black, and the Duchess, with old-fashioned blooms, globular, chary of petals, showing yellow at the heart when fully opened to the sun, and of a rare old shade of pink that made one think of lavender-scented brocades and was like the inner surface of a sea-shell.

Many a rose bloomed there whose name was no longer known, whose origin was forgotten with its grower, but which, nameless and unpretentious, leafed and budded and flowered season after season, year after year, gladly and humbly fulfilling its mission and setting an example which many of the far-heralded and perverse beauties of the garden might well have emulated.

In one corner dwelt a foreign colony of hardy phlox, white, scarlet, and crimson, tall and vigorous as they needs must be in order to reach the sunlight above the great rose-bushes and to maintain their hard-won footing. And here and there, aliens too, yuccas shot their great spikes above the wilderness of bloom and swung their panicles of cream-colored bells, whose tinkling the birds and bees alone might hear, in the languorous morning breeze. Fallen petals splashed the level tops of the box hedges with brilliant colors, and, when a vagrant wind set the blooms a-nodding, fluttered to the gravel paths and so drifted like scented, tinted snowflakes to and fro. In the shadowed corners of the hedge closely woven spider webs were jewelled with dew-drops and, when the moving leaves let the sun-flecks through, gleamed and sparkled like silver filaments hung with diamonds and blue pearls.

For the fiftieth time since breakfast Burton looked up from the littered table and gazed over the scene, inhaling the intense yet delicate perfume and bathing his sight in the little sea of color with a sensation of almost physical delight. And as he looked, there stepped into the scene a flower that dimmed the others as the moonlight dims the first faint radiance of the stars. He dropped his pen, heedless of the fact that it rolled over his clean sheets leaving a broken trail of ink, and leaned towards the casement with eager eyes and quickened breath.

The flower was dressed in white, in hue a modest blossom enough, its only color being a sash of lilac ribbon about its waist. On its head—for, after all, what does it matter if metaphors are mixed?—was a broad-brimmed garden hat wound about the crown with a filmy white veil. It—she—carried a basket in one hand and with the other held up daintily the skirt of her gown. For a moment she stood on the topmost step in the green shadow of a yellow Banksia, small, graceful, a very rose herself, and the fairest, daintiest in all the garden. Burton’s papers rustled in the tiny morning breeze and fluttered unseen one by one to the dark-hued, highly polished floor. He leaned an elbow on the sill and, without shame, kept his eyes upon the denizen of the rose-garden. After a moment of smiling survey of the scene the girl descended the steps and, basket at side, threaded the paths, snipping here and there with a pair of tiny scissors held in a gloved hand until the basket was filled and weighted with pink and white blossoms.

Yet all the time the broad brim of her hat threw a soft shadow across her face, and it was not until she paused beside the iron fence to clip a single cluster of crimson Damasks that the watcher in the window was rewarded with a clear view of her features. Perhaps, for a Northerner, Burton was impressionable. At all events, it is a fact that when she lifted her face for a moment in an idle glance towards the neighboring house and the light fell fully, boldly upon it, his heart leaped chokingly and then, with a series of disconcerting bumps and thuds, raced faster than it had within his memory. And yet the glimpse he had was but a fleeting one, for the girl’s eyes encountered his own, and after a look of infinitesimal duration, a look pregnant with surprise and dismay, were swiftly lowered, while a faint blush crept over the warm, clear skin. The next instant the shadow had descended again; another, and she had turned away, blossom-laden, towards the house. Burton gazed after her, his mind a confused memory of warm, brown hair and clear, startled brown eyes; of a tender, oval face, southern-hued, sun-lighted; of small, red lips, upon which a little glad smile was fading before a look of confusion. Up the path she went, with never a look behind, yet not hurriedly; plainly, she wanted it understood that here was no rout, but merely a retirement in good order before a superior and better-positioned force. Suddenly from an open window of the house above her a voice called, a man’s voice, languidly imperative,—

“Kitty! Kitty!”

“I’m coming,” called the girl. She flew lightly up the steps, the door was opened from within by invisible hands, and the girl and the blossoms disappeared. The door closed with a subdued slam.

Burton drew a long sigh and mechanically picked up his dead cigarette.

“Kitty,” he murmured under his breath; and again, “Kitty!”

Then, with the cigarette burning, he blew a cloud of purple smoke out of the window into the June sunshine and nodded his head confidentially towards the garden and the house.

“Kitty of the Roses,” he whispered.

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