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Title: The Lost Dahlia
Author: Mitford, Mary Russell, 1787-1855
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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THE LOST DAHLIA.

By Mary Russell Mitford


If to have "had losses" be, as affirmed by Dogberry in one of
Shakspeare's most charming plays, and corroborated by Sir Walter Scott
in one of his most charming romances--(those two names do well in
juxtaposition, the great Englishman! the great Scotsman!)--If to have
"had losses" be a main proof of credit and respectability, then am I
one of the most responsible persons in the whole county of Berks. To say
nothing of the graver matters which figure in a banker's book, and make,
in these days of pounds, shillings, and pence, so large a part of
the domestic tragedy of life--putting wholly aside all the grander
transitions of property in house and land, of money on mortgage, and
money in the funds--(and yet I might put in my claim to no trifling
amount of ill luck in that way also, if I had a mind to try my hand at
a dismal story)--counting for nought all weightier grievances, there is
not a lady within twenty miles who can produce so large a list of small
losses as my unfortunate self.

From the day when, a tiny damsel of some four years old, I first had a
pocket-handkerchief to lose, down to this very night--I will not say how
many years after--when, as I have just discovered, I have most certainly
lost from my pocket the new cambric kerchief which I deposited therein a
little before dinner, scarcely a week has passed without some part of
my goods and chattels being returned missing. Gloves, muffs, parasols,
reticules, have each of them a provoking knack of falling from my
hands; boas glide from my neck, rings slip from my fingers, the bow has
vanished from my cap, the veil from my bonnet, the sandal from my foot,
the brooch from my collar, and the collar from my brooch. The trinket
which I liked best, a jewelled pin, the first gift of a dear friend,
(luckily the friendship is not necessarily appended to the token,)
dropped from my shawl in the midst of the high road; and of shawls
themselves, there is no end to the loss. The two prettiest that ever
I had in my life, one a splendid specimen of Glasgow manufacture--a
scarlet hardly to be distinguished from Cashmere--the other a lighter
and cheaper fabric, white in the centre, with a delicate sprig, and
a border harmoniously compounded of the deepest blue, the brightest
orange, and the richest brown, disappeared in two successive summers
and winters, in the very bloom of their novelty, from the folds of
the phaeton, in which they had been deposited for safety--fairly blown
overboard! If I left things about, they were lost. If I put them away,
they were lost. They were lost in the drawers--they were lost out And if
for a miracle I had them safe under lock and key, why, then, I lost my
keys! I was certainly the most unlucky person under the sun. If there
was nothing else to lose, I was fain to lose myself--I mean my way;
bewildered in these Aberleigh lanes of ours, or in the woodland recesses
of the Penge, as if haunted by that fairy, Robin Good-fellow, who led
Hermia and Helena such a dance in the Midsummer Night's Dream. Alas!
that there should be no Fairies now-a-days, or rather no true
believers in Fairies, to help us to bear the burthen of our own mortal
carelessness.

It was not quite all carelessness, though! Some ill luck did mingle with
a great deal of mismanagement, as the "one poor happ'orth of bread"
with the huge gallon of sack in the bill of which Poins picked
Falstaff's pocket when he was asleep behind the arras. Things belonging
to me, or things that I cared for, did contrive to get lost, without my
having any hand in the matter. For instance, if out of the variety of
"talking birds," starlings, jackdaws, and magpies, which my father
delights to entertain, any one particularly diverting or accomplished,
more than usually coaxing and mischievous, happened to attract my
attention, and to pay me the compliment of following at my heels,
or perching upon my shoulder, the gentleman was sure to hop off. My
favourite mare, Pearl, the pretty docile creature which draws my little
phaeton, has such a talent for leaping, that she is no sooner turned out
in either of our meadows, than she disappears. And Dash himself, paragon
of spaniels, pet of pets, beauty of beauties, has only one shade of
imperfection--would be thoroughly faultless, if it were not for a slight
tendency to run away. He is regularly lost four or five times every
winter, and has been oftener cried through the streets of Belford, and
advertised in the county newspapers, than comports with a dog of his
dignity. Now, these mischances clearly belong to that class of accidents
commonly called casualties, and are quite unconnected with any infirmity
of temperament on my part I cannot help Pearl's proficiency in jumping,
nor Dash's propensity to wander through the country; neither had I any
hand in the loss which has given its title to this paper, and which,
after so much previous dallying, I am at length about to narrate.

The autumn before last, that is to say, above a year ago, the boast and
glory of my little garden was a dahlia called the Phoebus. How it came
there, nobody very distinctly knew, nor where it came from, nor how we
came by it, nor how it came by its own most appropriate name. Neither
the lad who tends our flowers, nor my father, the person chiefly
concerned in procuring them, nor I myself, who more even than my father
or John take delight and pride in their beauty, could recollect who gave
us this most splendid plant, or who first instructed us as to the style
and title by which it was known. Certes never was blossom fitlier
named. Regular as the sun's face in an almanack, it had a tint of
golden scarlet, of ruddy yellow, which realised Shakspeare's gorgeous
expression of "flame-coloured." The sky at sunset sometimes puts on
such a hue, or a fire at Christmas when it burns red as well as bright.
The blossom was dazzling to look upon. It seemed as if there were light
in the leaves, like that coloured-lamp of a flower, the Oriental Poppy.
Phoebus was not too glorious a name for that dahlia. The Golden-haired
Apollo might be proud of such an emblem. It was worthy of the god of
day; a very Phoenix of floral beauty.

Every dahlia fancier who came into our garden or who had an opportunity
of seeing a bloom elsewhere; and, sooth to say, we were rather
ostentatious in our display; John put it into stands, and jars,
and baskets, and dishes; Dick stuck it into Dash's collar, his own
button-hole, and Pearl's bridle; my father presented it to such lady
visiters as he delighted to honour; and I, who have the habit of
dangling a flower, generally a sweet one, caught myself more than once
rejecting the spicy clove and the starry jessamine, the blossomed myrtle
and the tuberose, my old fragrant favourites, for this scentless (but
triumphant) beauty; everybody who beheld the Phoebus begged for a plant
or a cutting; and we, generous in our ostentation, willing to redeem
the vice by the virtue, promised as many plants and cuttings as we could
reasonably imagine the root might be made to produce*--perhaps rather
more; and half the dahlia growers round rejoiced over the glories of the
gorgeous flower, and speculated, as the wont is now, upon seedling after
seedling to the twentieth generation.

     * It is wonderful how many plants may, by dint of forcing,
     and cutting and forcing again, be extracted from one root.
     But the experiment is not always safe. Nature sometimes
     avenges herself for the encroachments of art, by weakening
     the progeny. The Napoleon Dahlia, for instance, the finest
     of last year's seedlings, being over-propagated, this season
     has hardly produced one perfect bloom, even in the hands of
     the most skilful cultivators.

Alas for the vanity of human expectations! February came, the
twenty-second of February, the very St. Valentine of dahlias, when
the roots which have been buried in the ground during the winter are
disinterred, and placed in a hotbed to put forth their first shoots
previous to the grand operations of potting and dividing them. Of course
the first object of search in the choicest corner of the nicely labelled
hoard, was the Phoebus: but no Phoebus was forthcoming; root and label
had vanished bodily! There was, to be sure, a dahlia without a label,
which we would gladly have transformed into the missing treasure; but as
we speedily discovered a label without a dahlia, it was but too obvious
that they belonged to each other. Until last year we might have had
plenty of the consolation which results from such divorces of the
name from the thing; for our labels, sometimes written upon parchment,
sometimes upon leather, sometimes upon wood, as each material happened
to be recommended by gardening authorities, and fastened on with
packthread, or whip-cord, or silk twist, had generally parted company
from the roots, and frequently become utterly illegible, producing a
state of confusion which most undoubtedly we never expected to regret:
but this year we had followed the one perfect system of labels of
unglazed china, highly varnished after writing on them, and fastened on
by wire; and it had answered so completely, that one, and one only, had
broken from its moorings. No hope could be gathered from that quarter.
The Phoebus was gone. So much was clear; and our loss being fully
ascertained, we all began, as the custom is, to divert our grief and
exercise our ingenuity by different guesses as to the fate of the
vanished treasure.

My father, although certain that he had written the label, and wired the
root, had his misgivings about the place in which it had been deposited,
and half suspected that it had slipt in amongst a basket which we had
sent as a present to Ireland; I myself, judging from a similar accident
which had once happened to a choice hyacinth bulb, partly thought that
one or other of us might have put it for care and safety in some such
very snug corner, that it would be six months or more before it turned
up; John, impressed with a high notion of the money-value of the
property and estimating it something as a keeper of the regalia might
estimate the most precious of the crown jewels, boldly affirmed that it
was stolen; and Dick, who had just had a démêlé with the cook, upon
the score of her refusal to dress a beef-steak for a sick greyhound,
asserted, between jest and earnest, that that hard-hearted official
had either ignorantly or maliciously boiled the root for a Jerusalem
artichoke, and that we, who stood lamenting over our regretted Phoebus,
had actually eaten it, dished up with white sauce. John turned pale at
the thought. The beautiful story of the Falcon, in Boccaccio, which the
young knight killed to regale his mistress, or the still more tragical
history of Couci, who minced his rival's heart, and served it up to his
wife, could not have affected him more deeply. We grieved over our lost
dahlia, as if it had been a thing of life.

Grieving, however, would not repair our loss; and we determined, as the
only chance of becoming again possessed of this beautiful flower,
to visit, as soon as the dahlia season began, all the celebrated
collections in the neighbourhood, especially all those from which there
was any chance of our having procured the root which had so mysteriously
vanished.

Early in September, I set forth on my voyage of discovery--my voyages,
I ought to say; for every day I and my pony-phaeton made our way to
whatever garden within our reach bore a sufficiently high character to
be suspected of harbouring the good Dahlia Phoebus.

Monday we called at Lady A.'s; Tuesday at General B's; Wednesday at Sir
John C's; Thursday at Mrs. D's; Friday at Lord E's; and Saturday at Mr.
F.'s. We might as well have staid at home; not a Phoebus had they, or
anything like one.

We then visited the nurseries, from Brown's, at Slough, a princely
establishment, worthy of its regal neighbourhood, to the pretty rural
gardens at South Warnborough, not forgetting our own most intelligent
and obliging nurseryman, Mr. Sutton of Reading--(Belford Regis, I
mean)--whose collection of flowers of all sorts is amongst the most
choice and select that I have ever known. Hundreds of magnificent
blossoms did we see in our progress, but not the blossom we wanted.

There was no lack, heaven knows, of dahlias of the desired colour.
Besides a score of "Orange Perfections," bearing the names of their
respective growers, we were introduced to four Princes of Orange, three
Kings of Holland, two Williams the Third, and one Lord Roden.*

     * The nomenclature of dahlias is a curious sign of the
     times. It rivals in oddity that of the Racing Calendar. Next
     to the peerage, Shakspeare and Homer seem to be the chief
     sources whence they have derived their appellations. Thus we
     have Hectors and Dioedes of all colours, a very black
     Othello, and a very fair Desdemona. One beautiful blossom,
     which seems like a white ground thickly rouged with carmine,
     is called "the Honourable Mrs. Harris;" and it is droll to
     observe how punctiliously the working gardeners retain the
     dignified prefix in speaking of the flower. I heard the
     other day of a _serious_ dahlia grower who had called his
     seedlings after his favourite preachers, so that we shall
     have the Reverend Edward So-and-so, and the Reverend John
     Such-an-one, fraternising with the profane Ariels and
     Imogenes, the Giaours and Me-doras of the old catalogue. So
     much the better. Floriculture is amongst the most innocent
     and humanising of all pleasures, and everything which tends
     to diffuse such pursuits amongst those who have too few
     amusements, is a point gained for happiness and for virtue.

We were even shown a bloom called the Phoebus, about as like to our
Phoebus "as I to Hercules." But the true Phoebus, "the real Simon
Pure," was as far to seek as ever.

Learnedly did I descant with the learned in dahlias over the merits of
my lost beauty. "It was a cupped flower, Mr. Sutton," quoth I, to my
agreeable and sympathising listener; (gardeners _are_ a most cultivated
and gentlemanly race;) "a cupped dahlia, of the genuine metropolitan
shape; large as the Criterion, regular as the Springfield Rival, perfect
as Dodd's Mary, with a long bloom stalk like those good old flowers,
the Countess of Liverpool and the Widnall's Perfection. And such a free
blower, and so true! I am quite sure that there is not so good a dahlia
this year. I prefer it to 'Corinne,' over and over." And Mr. Sutton
assented and condoled, and I was as near to being comforted as anybody
could be, who had lost such a flower as the Phoebus.

After so many vain researches, most persons would have abandoned
the pursuit in despair. But despair is not in my nature. I have a
comfortable share of the quality which the possessor is wont to call
perseverance--whilst the uncivil world is apt to designate it by the
name of obstinacy--and do not easily give in. Then the chase, however
fruitless, led, like other chases, into beautiful scenery, and formed an
excuse for my visiting or revisiting many of the prettiest places in the
county.

Two of the most remarkable spots in the neighbourhood are, as it
happens, famous for their collections of dahlias--Strathfield-saye, the
seat of the Duke of Wellington, and the ruins of Reading Abbey.

Nothing can well be prettier than the drive to Strathfield-saye,
passing, as we do, through a great part of Heckfield Heath,* a tract
of wild woodland, a forest, or rather a chase, full of fine sylvan
beauty--thickets of fern and holly, and hawthorn and birch, surmounted
by oaks and beeches, and interspersed with lawny glades and deep
pools, letting light into the picture. Nothing can be prettier than the
approach to the duke's lodge. And the entrance to the demesne, through a
deep dell dark with magnificent firs, from which we emerge into a finely
wooded park of the richest verdure, is also striking and impressive.
But the distinctive feature of the place (for the mansion, merely a
comfortable and convenient nobleman's house, hardly responds to the fame
of its owner) is the grand avenue of noble elms, three quarters of a
mile long, which leads to the front door.

     * It may be interesting to the lovers of literature to hear
     that my accomplished friend Mrs. Trollope was "raised," as
     her friends the Americans would say, upon this spot. Her
     father, the Rev. William Milton, himself a very clever man,
     and an able mechanician and engineer, held the living of
     Heckfield for many years.

It is difficult to imagine anything which more completely realises the
poetical fancy, that the pillars and arches of a Gothic cathedral were
borrowed from the interlacing of the branches of trees planted at stated
intervals, than this avenue, in which Nature has so completely succeeded
in outrivalling her handmaiden Art, that not a single trunk, hardly even
a bough or a twig, appears to mar the grand regularity of the design as
a piece of perspective. No cathedral aisle was ever more perfect; and
the effect, under every variety of aspect, the magical light and shadow
of the cold white moonshine, the cool green light of a cloudy day, and
the glancing sunbeams which pierce through the leafy umbrage in
the bright summer noon, are such as no words can convey. Separately
considered, each tree (and the north of Hampshire is celebrated for the
size and shape of its elms) is a model of stately growth, and they are
now just at perfection, probably about a hundred and thirty years old.
There is scarcely perhaps in the kingdom such another avenue.

On one side of this noble approach is the garden, where, under the care
of the skilful and excellent gardener, Mr. Cooper, so many magnificent
dahlias are raised, but where, alas! the Phoebus was not; and between
that and the mansion is the sunny, shady paddock, with its rich pasture
and its roomy stable, where, for so many years, Copenhagen, the
charger who carried the Duke at Waterloo, formed so great an object of
attraction to the visiters of Strathfield-saye.* Then came the house
itself and then I returned home. Well! this was one beautiful and
fruitless drive. The ruins of Reading Abbey formed another as fruitless,
and still more beautiful.

     * Copenhagen--(I had the honour of naming one of Mr.
     Cooper's dahlias after him--a sort of _bay_ dahlia, if I may
     be permitted the expression)--Copenhagen was a most
     interesting horse. He died last year at the age of twenty-
     seven. He was therefore in his prime on the day of Waterloo,
     when the duke (then and still a man of iron) rode him for
     seventeen hours and a half, without dismounting. When his
     Grace got off, he patted him, and the horse kicked, to the
     great delight of his brave rider, as it proved that he was
     not beaten by that tremendous day's work. After his return,
     this paddock was assigned to him, in which he passed the
     rest of his life in the most perfect comfort that can be
     imagined; fed twice a-day, (latterly upon oats broken for
     him,) with a comfortable stable to retire to, and a rich
     pasture in which to range. The late amiable duchess used
     regularly to feed him with bread, and this kindness had
     given him the habit, (especially after her death,) of
     approaching every lady with the most confiding familiarity.
     He had been a fine animal, of middle size and a chestnut
     colour, but latterly he exhibited an interesting specimen of
     natural decay, in a state as nearly that of nature as can
     well be found in a civilised country. He had lost an eye
     from age, and had become lean and feeble, and, in the manner
     in which he approached even a casual visiter, there was
     something of the demand of sympathy, the appeal to human
     kindness, which one has so often observed from a very old
     dog towards his master. Poor Copenhagen, who, when alive,
     furnished so many reliques from his mane and tail to
     enthusiastic young ladies, who had his hair set in brooches
     and rings, was, after being interred with military honours,
     dug up by some miscreant, (never, I believe, discovered,)
     and one of his hoofs cut off, it is to be presumed, for a
     memorial, although one that would hardly go in the compass
     of a ring.  A very fine portrait of Copenhagen has been
     executed by my young friend Edmund H a veil, a youth of
     seventeen, whose genius as an animal painter, will certainly
     place him second only to Landseer.

Whether in the "palmy state" of the faith of Rome, the pillared aisles
of the Abbey church might have vied in grandeur with the avenue at
Strathfield-saye, I can hardly say; but certainly, as they stand, the
venerable arched gateway, the rock-like masses of wall, the crumbling
cloisters, and the exquisite finish of the surbases of the columns and
other fragments, fresh as if chiselled yesterday, which are re-appearing
in the excavations now making, there is an interest which leaves
the grandeur of life, palaces and their pageantry, parks and their
adornments, all grandeur except the indestructible grandeur of nature,
at an immeasurable distance. The place was a history. Centuries passed
before us as we thought of the magnificent monastery, the third in size
and splendour in England, with its area of thirty acres between the
walls--and gazed upon it now!

And yet, even now, how beautiful! Trees of every growth mingling with
those grey ruins, creepers wreathing their fantastic garlands around
the mouldering arches, gorgeous flowers flourishing in the midst of that
decay! I almost forgot my search for the dear Phoebus, as I rambled with
my friend Mr. Malone, the gardener, a man who would in any station be
remarkable for acuteness and acquirement, amongst the august remains of
the venerable abbey, with the history of which he was as conversant
as with his own immediate profession. There was no speaking of smaller
objects in the presence of the mighty past!

Gradually chilled by so much unsuccess, the ardour of my pursuit
began to abate. I began to admit the merits of other dahlias of divers
colours, and actually caught myself committing the inconstancy of
considering which of the four Princes of Orange I should bespeak for
next year. Time, in short, was beginning to play his part as the great
comforter of human afflictions, and the poor Phoebus seemed as likely to
be forgotten as a last year's bonnet, or a last week's newspaper--when,
happening to walk with my father to look at a field of his, a pretty bit
of upland pasture about a mile off, I was struck, in one corner where
the manure for dressing had been deposited, and a heap of earth and dung
still remained, to be spread, I suppose, next spring, with some
tall plant surmounted with bright flowers. Could it be?--was it
possible?--did my eyes play me false?--No; there it was, upon a
dunghill--the object of all my researches and lamentations, the
identical Phoebus! the lost dahlia!





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