‘Mary’s Meadow’ & Other Tales of Fields & Flowers

Juliana Horatia Ewing

Sunflowers and a Rushlight

Chapter III

JAEL’S ogre-footsteps had hardly ceased to resound from the wooden stairs, when these shook again to the tread of Dr. Brown.

He said—“How are you?” and I said—“Very happy, thank you,” which was true. For the only nice thing about dreadful pain is that, when it is gone, you feel for a little bit as if you could cry with joy at having nothing to bear.

Then I thanked him for asking Grandmamma to let me have the Rushlight till Margery came home; and he said I ought to be very much obliged to him, for he had begged me off the barber too. So I asked him if he thought my hair gave me headaches, and he felt it, and said—“No!” which I was very glad of. He said he thought it was more what I grew inside, than what I grew outside my head that did it, and that I was not to puzzle too much over books.

I was afraid he meant the Puzzling Tale, so I told him it was very short, and the answer was given; so he said he should like to hear it—and I read it to him. He liked it very much, and he liked the picture; and I told him we thought they were Sunflowers, only that the glory leaves were folded in so oddly, and we did not know why. And he said—“Why, because they’re asleep, to be sure. Don’t you know that flowers sleep as soundly as you do? They don’t lie awake in the dark!”

And then he shook with laughing, till he shook the red into his face, and the tears into his eyes, as he always does.

Dr. Brown must know a great deal about flowers, much more than I thought he did; I told him so, and he said, “Didn’t think I looked as like a flower sprite as yourself, eh? ’Pon my word, I don’t think I’m unlike one of your favourites. Tall, ye know, big beaming face, eh? There are people more unlike a Sunflower than Dr. Brown! Ha! ha! ha!”

He laughed, he always does; but he told me quite delightful things about flowers: how they sleep, and breathe, and eat, and drink, and catch cold in draughts, and turn faint in the sun, and sometimes are all the better for a change (“like Miss Margery,” so he said), and sometimes are home-sick and won’t settle (“which I’ve a notion might be one of your follies, Miss Grace”), and turn pale and sickly in dark corners or stuffy rooms. But he never knew one that went home at night.

Except for being too big for our chairs and tables, and for going voyages of discovery, I do think Dr. Brown would make a very nice person to play with; he seems to believe in fancy things, and he knows so much, and is so good-natured. He asked me what flower I thought Jael was like; and when I told him Margery could imitate her exactly, he said he must see that some day. I dared not tell him Margery can do him too, making his speeches in the shovel hat we found in an old old hat-box near Bass’s Straits, and a pair of old black gloves of Grandmamma’s.

When he went away he patted my head, and said Margery and I must come to tea with him some day, and he would show us wonderful things in his microscope, and if we were very good, a plant that eats meat.

“But most flowers thrive by ’eating the air,’ as the Irish say, and you’re one of ’em, Miss Grace. Do ye hear? You’re not to bury yourself in this attic in the holidays. Run out in the garden, and play with your friends the Sunflowers, and remember what I’ve told you about their going to sleep and setting you a good example. It’s as true as Gospel, and there’s many a rough old gardener besides Dr. Brown will tell you that flowers gathered in the morning last longer than those gathered in the evening, because those are fresh after a night’s nap, and these are tired and want to rest, and not to be taken into parlours, and kept awake with candles. Good-bye, little Michaelmas Goose!” And away he went, clomping down-stairs, but not a bit like Jael.

When bed-time came I was a good deal tired; but after I got into bed I kept my candle alight for a time, hoping Jael would bring the Rushlight and put it on the floor near Margery’s bed, as I had asked her to do. But after a while I had to put out my candle, for Grandmamma is rather particular about it, and then I was so sleepy I fell asleep. I was awakened by a noise and a sort of flashing, and I thought it was thunder and lightning, but it was only Jael; she had come stumping in, and was flashing the Rushlight about before my eyes to see if I was asleep, and when she saw I was, she wanted to take it away again, but I begged and prayed, and then I said Grandmamma had promised, and she always keeps her promises, and I should go and ask her. So at last Jael set it down by Margery’s bed, and went away more ogre-footed than ever, grumbling and growling about the waste of candle-grease. But I had got the Rushlight, so I didn’t mind; I only hugged my knees, and laughed, and lay down again. And when I heard Jael go stumping up-stairs, I knew that she had waited till her own bed-time to bring the Rushlight, and that was why it was late. And I thought tomorrow I would tell Grandmamma, for she promised, and she always performs. She does not spoil us, we know, but she is always fair. Jael isn’t, always.

A Rushlight is a very queer thing. It looked so grim as it stood by Margery’s bed, in a little round of light; rather like a ruined castle in the middle of a lake in the moonshine. A castle with one big door, and a lot of round windows with the light coming through. They made big spots and patches of light all about the room. I could not shut my eyes for watching them, for they were not all the same shape, and they kept changing and moving; at last they got so faint, I was afraid the Rushlight was going out, so I jumped up and went to see, and I found there was a very big thief in the candle, so I got the snuffers out of my candlestick, and snuffed it, and got into bed again; and now there were beautiful big moons of light all over Margery’s bed-valance.

Thinking of the thief in the Rushlight made me think of a thief in a castle, and then of thieves getting into our house, and that if one got in at my window I could do nothing except scream for help, because Grandmamma keeps the Watchman’s Rattle under her own pillow, and locks her bedroom door. And then I looked at my window, and saw a bit of light, and it made me quite cold, for I thought it was a burglar’s lantern, till I saw it was the moon.

Then I knew how silly I was, and I determined that I would not be such a coward. I determined I would not think of burglars, nor ghosts, nor even Margery.

Margery and I are quite sure that we can think of things, and prevent ourselves thinking of things, by trying very hard. But it is rather difficult.

I tried, and I did. I thought I would think of flowers, and of Dr. Brown, for he is very cheerful to think of. So I thought of Sunflowers, and how they eat the air, and go to sleep at night, and perhaps look like the three women in the Fairy Tale. And I thought I would always pick flowers in the morning now, and never at night, when they want to go to sleep and not to be woke up in a parlour with candles.

And then I wondered: Would they wake with candles if they had begun to go to sleep? Would they wake with a jump, as I did, if Jael flashed the Rushlight in their faces? Would the moon wake them? Were they awake then, that very minute, like me, or asleep, as I was before Jael came in? Did they look like the picture in the Fairy Book, with their glory leaves folded over their faces? If I took a candle now, and held it before St. George of England, looking like that, would he wake with a start, and spread his glory leaves out all round, and stare at me, broad—wide awake?

Then I thought how often I had gone out early, and wet my petticoats, to see if any of them had no dew on their faces, and that I had never gone out at night to see if they looked like the women in the Fairy Tale; and I wondered why I never had, and I supposed it was because I was silly, and perhaps afraid of going out in the dark.

Then I remembered that it wasn’t dark. There was a moon: besides my having a Rushlight.

Then I wondered if I was very very silly, and why Dr. Brown had called me a Michaelmas Goose. But I remembered that it must be because to-morrow was the 29th of September.

Then the stairs clock struck eleven.

I counted all the strokes, and then I saw that the Rushlight was getting dim again, so I got up and snuffed it, and all the moons came out as bright as ever; but I did not feel in the least sleepy.

I did not feel frightened any more. I only wished I knew for certain what Sunflowers look like when they are asleep, and whether you can wake them up with candles. And I went on wondering, and watching the moons.

Then the stairs clock struck a quarter-past eleven, and I thought—“Oh, Grace! If you were not such a coward, if you had jumped up when the clock struck eleven, and slipped down the back-stairs, with the Rushlight in your hands, and unlocked the side-door, you might have run down the grass walk without hurting your feet, and flashed it in the faces of the Sunflowers, and had a good look, and got back to bed again before the clock struck a quarter-past; and then it would have been done, and couldn’t be undone, and you would have known whether they look like the picture, and if they wake up with candles, and you never could have unknown. But now, you’ll go on putting off, and being frightened about it, and perhaps to-morrow Jael will tell Grandmamma you were asleep, and she won’t let you have a Rush-light any more, not even when you are a grown-up young lady; and even when you get married and go away, you may marry a man who won’t let you have one; and so you may never never know what you want to know, all because you’re a Michaelmas Goose.”

Then the Rushlight began to get dim again, so I got up and snuffed it, and it shone out bright, and I thought, “If it was Margery she would do it straight off. I won’t be a Michaelmas Goose; I’ll go while I’m up, and be back before the stairs clock strikes again, and then it will be done and can’t be undone, and I shall know, and can’t unknow.”

So I took up the Rushlight and went as fast as I could.

I met a black beetle on the back-stairs, which was horrid, but I went on. The side-door key is very rusty and very stiff; I had to put down the Rushlight and use both my hands, and just then the clock struck the half-hour, which was rather a good thing, for it drowned the noise of the lock. It did not take me two minutes to run down the grass path, and there were the Sunflowers.

I did it and it can’t be undone, but I don’t know what I wanted to know after all, for the moon was shining in their faces, so they may not have been really sound asleep. They are so tall, the Rushlight was too heavy for me to lift right up, so I opened the door and took out the candle, and flashed it in their faces. But they did not take as much notice as I expected. Their glory leaves looked rather narrow and tight, but they were not quite like the flower-women in the picture.

Sunflowers are alive, I know; they look so different when they are dead. And I am sure they go to sleep, and wake up with candles, or Dr. Brown would not have said so. But it is rather a quiet kind of being alive and awake, I think. Something like Grandmamma, when she is very stiff on Sunday afternoon, and goes to sleep upright in a chair, and wakes up a little when her book, drops. But not alive and awake like Margery’s black cat, which must have heard me open the side-door, and followed me without my seeing it. It did frighten me, with jumping out of the bushes, and looking at me with yellow eyes!

Then I saw another eye. The eye of a moth, who was on one of the leaves. A most beautiful fellow! His coloured wings were rather tight, like the Sunflower’s glory leaves, but he was wide awake—watching the candle.

I should have got back to bed quicker if it had not been for Margery’s black cat and the night-moths. I wanted to get the cat into the house again, but she would not follow me, and the moths would; and I had such hard work to keep them out of the Rushlight.

There was nothing to drown the noise the key made when I locked the side-door again, and when I got to the bottom of the back-stairs, I saw a light at the top, and there was Grandmamma in the most awful night-cap you can imagine, with a candle in one hand, and the watchman’s rattle in the other.

Mary’s Meadow    |    Sunflowers and a Rushlight Chapter 4

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