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Louise Lamprey


Mary Lavender's Garden

How Mary Lavender Came to Be of Service to an Exiled Queen

M ARY LAVENDER lived in a garden. That seems really the best way to say it. The house of Dame Annis Lavender was hardly more than four walls and a roof, a green door and two small hooded windows. Instead of the house having a garden the garden seemed rather to hold the cottage in a blossomy lap.

A long time ago there had been a castle on the low hill above the cottage. It was a Saxon castle, roughly built of great half-hewn stones, its double walls partly of tramped earth. Nearly a century had passed since a Norman baron had received the "hundred" in which the castle stood, as a reward for having helped Duke William become William the Conqueror. His domain was large enough for a hundred families to live on, getting their living from the land. The original Saxon owner had fled to join Hereward at Ely, and he never came back.

This rude Saxon castle was not what the Norman needed, at all. He must have, if he meant to be safe in this hostile land, a fortress much harder to take. He chose a taller hill just beyond the village, made it higher with most of the stone from the old castle, and built there a great square frowning keep and some smaller towers, with a double wall of stone, topped by battlements, round the brow of the hill, and a ditch around all. No stream being convenient to fill the moat he left it dry. Here, where the Saxon castle had been, was nothing but a dimpled green mound, starred over in spring with pink and white baby daisies, and besprinkled with dwarf buttercups and the little flower that English children call Blue Eyes. Mary liked to take her distaff there and spin. The old castle had been built to guard a ford. The Normans had made a stone bridge at a narrower and deeper point in the river, and Dame Annis and Mary washed linen in the pool above the ford.

The countryside had settled down to the rule of the Normans with hardly more trouble than the dismantled mound. Travelers often came over the new bridge and stayed at the inn on their way to or from London, and there were more than twice as many houses as there had been when Mary's mother was a girl. Older people complained that the country could never endure so much progress. This was a rather remote region, given over mainly to sheep-grazing. On the great extent of "common" still unfenced, the sheep wandered as they liked, and they often came nibbling about Mary's feet as she sat on the mound.

There had been a garden about the ancient castle—several, in fact: the herb-garden, the vegetable garden, and a sort of out-door nursery for fruits and berries. The last had been against a southward-facing wall and was nearly destroyed; but herbs are tenacious things, and the old roots had spread into the vegetable patch, and flowers had seeded themselves, until Dame Annis moved into the little cottage and began to make her living.

Most of the old-fashioned cottage-garden flowers could be found there. Thrift raised its rose-red spikes in crevices of a ruined wall. Bluebells, the wild hyacinths, made heavenly patches of color among the copses. Great beds of mustard and lavender, in early summer, were like a purple-and-gold mantle flung down upon a field. Presently violets bloomed in orderly rows in Dame Aninis's new herb-garden, and roses were pruned and trimmed and trained over old walls and trees.

It may seem odd that violets and roses should be among herbs. The truth is that very few flowers were cultivated in the early Middle Ages simply for ornament. Violets were used to make perfume. Roses were made into rose-water and also into rose conserve, a kind of sweetmeat of rose-petals, sugar and spice packed in little jars. Marigolds were brought from the East by returning Crusaders for use in broth. Pennyroyal, feverfew, camomile, parsley, larkspur, and other flowers used to be grown for making medicine. One of the few herbs which grow in modern gardens, which the Conqueror found in England when he came, is tansy. The name comes from a Greek word meaning immortality. Tansy was used to preserve meat, and to flavor various dishes. There were also sage, marjoram, thyme, and many other herbs of which Dame Annis did not know the names. One of the most precious finds that she made in her digging and transplanting was a root of woad. This plant was used for blue dye, and was so much in demand that England did not produce enough and had to import it. It was too valuable for her to use it herself; she cherished it and fed the soil, planting every seed, promising Mary that some day she should have a gown dyed watchet blue, of linen from their own flax. Mary was thinking about that gown as she sat spinning and listening to the hum of the bees. She knew exactly how it would be made from beginning to end.

The flax would be soaked in the brook until the strong stem-fibers were all that were left; it would be hackled and washed and spun and finally woven by their neighbor, Dame Garland, for Mary's mother had no loom. This neighbor was as poor as themselves, but they would pay her in herbs and dyestuffs. The leaves—not the flowers, which were yellow—from the woad, would be crushed into a paste and allowed to ferment, and finally made into little balls that would keep until needed.

Neither perfume nor dye could be bought in shops thereabouts, and there were no factories anywhere for making either. Dame Lavender had been, before she was married, maid to a great lady who had taught her women how to make such things out of the plants in the castle garden. Now, when her husband failed to come back from the wars in France, she turned to the perfumer's trade as the one which she knew best.

There are a great many ways of making perfume at home. If she had had a still, Dame Lavender could have made almost any sort of ordinary perfume, flavor or medicine. In this process, a mixture of blossoms, spices and drugs, or the blossoms alone, or the leaves, is cooked in a glass bottle called a retort, with a long glass tube fitted to it so that the steam must pass through the tube and cool in little drops. These drops run out into a glass flask and are the perfume. Another way was to gather flowers when perfectly fresh and put them into a kettle of alcohol, which would take up the scent and keep it after the flowers are taken out. Strong-scented flowers or leaves were put with salve in a jar and covered, to perfume the salve. Dried plants of pleasant fragrance, mixed with salve, could be left until the scent had been taken up, then the whole could be melted and strained to remove the herbs. Each herb and flower had to be gathered at the proper time, and dried in the little attic. With this business, and the honey which the bees made, and the spinning done by both mother and daughter, they managed to make a living.

One day when they were at their busiest an old man came to the door and asked for a night's lodging. He had a gentle way of speaking, although his cloak was threadbare, and he seemed much interested in their work. He knew some of the plants which they had never been able to name, and told what they were good for. He seemed so old, poor and feeble, that although she really needed all the money she could earn, Dame Lavender refused the coin he offered her. She felt that if he fell ill somewhere, he might need it.

The Norman castle on the hill had not been really lived in for some ten years. There was a company of soldiers in it, with two or three knights who came and went, but that was all. It had been built as a fortress, and was one; and the situation was such that it could not easily be made into anything else. The baron who owned it was in attendance upon the King.

Then, one day, a rumor went floating about the village, like the scent of growing hedges in spring. It was said that the castle was to be set in order for some great lady; and that she would bring with her two or three maids perhaps, but most of the work was to be done by the people of the village. This was rather mystifying. Mary wondered why a great lady should not rather choose to stay at the nunnery, where the Lady Abbess had all things seemly and well-planned. It was an old Saxon religious house and not at all rich; but Mary always liked to have an errand up Minchen Lane. The lane had got its name from the nuns, who were called "minchens" a long while ago. Sometimes they sent to get some roots or plants from the garden of Dame Lavender. She had some kinds that they had not.

It was nearly certain, at any rate, that the housekeeper at the castle would want lavender and violets, and Dame Annis told Mary to get the besom and sweep out the still-room. This was a shed with a stone floor, the only room they had which was not used for living or sleeping. The room they had given their strange guest, Tomaso of Padua as he called himself, was the one where Mary and her mother usually slept, and they had made up a pallet in the attic.

Mary worked briskly with her besom. It was just such a broom as English people still use to sweep garden walks, a bundle of twigs tied on a stick handle with a pliant osier. While she was at work she heard the gate shut, and saw old Tomaso coming in.

It cannot be said that she was exactly glad to see him. She felt that they might have all that they could do without a lodger just then. She spoke to him courteously, however, and he smiled as if he read her thoughts.

"I have not come to ask for your hospitality this time," he said, "but to bring your good mother something in return for her kindness." Beckoning to a boy who stood outside, he opened the gate, and the boy led in a little donkey laden with the basket-work saddle-bags called paniers. From these Tomaso took all the parts of a still, some fine earthen and glass jars, flasks and bowls, and bundles of spice which were like a whole garden packed into a basket.

"These," he said, "will be of assistance to your mother in her work. I see her coming now, and I will talk with her awhile."

Mary felt as if the earth had turned inside out when she heard the outcome of that conversation. The lady who was coming to the castle was Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of England, and her coming was a considerable responsibility to every one concerned. She had been found just ready to join her sons, Richard and Geoffrey, in Aquitaine, where they were fighting against their father, and she was to be shut up in this remote fortress, in charge of one of the King's most trusted knights, until he had disposed of the rebellion and had time to consider the case. She would not, she declared, spend her days in a nunnery, and the nuns of Minchen Lane were anything but anxious to have her. There was a room in the Norman castle which could be fitted up as a still-room, and it was desirable to have whatever was needed made within the walls if possible. Would Mary undertake to go there and make herself useful, either in ways that might aid the cook, or in any other duties that she saw? The cook was an Italian. The maids of honor were daughters of Norman-French families. Barbara Edrupt, the wife of the wool-merchant who owned Longley Farm, was also, it appeared, going to lend a hand with the spinning and train one or two country girls for the rough work. It was no small task to maintain a royal lady in fitting state, even though she was a prisoner. It was more difficult here because there was little or nothing to do it with, and peddlers, merchants and other purveyors from distant London or Paris might be a source of danger.

Dame Annis Lavender was rather doubtful, but she had confidence in Mary, and it was settled that Mary should go. She was to have the gown of blue sooner that she thought. The flax was already spun, Dame Garland did the weaving, and she and Mary's mother dipped and dipped again until the web was a deep exquisite blue like a summer sky. Barbara made Mary a gift of a fair white linen cap and kerchief. The two girls, Barbara with her black eyes and hair, Mary with her gold-brown braids and calm blue eyes and wild-rose coloring, made a pretty picture together.

So at least thought the troubadour who came riding by and saw them. He was in attendance upon the castellan, Thibaut of Toulouse, and a little group of maids and pages coming to make ready for the Queen, who was expected to arrive the next day. Thibaut's wife had been a Provençal lady, and his daughter Philippa, by whose side the troubadour was riding, was a trifle homesick for her childhood speech. She was very glad of Ranulph's company.

As they came past the garden she bent sidewise in her saddle and looked eagerly toward the gate. "Do you see—there?" she cried. "That is a Provence rose."

"I will bring you some," the troubadour answered, and a moment later he was striding toward the two girls among the flowers. They had never seen any one like him,—so gay, so courteous and so straightforward.

"I come to beg a rose," he said. "Are not these the red roses of Provence?"

"Surely," answered Barbara. "I brought the bush from my own home, and gave Mary a cutting. There never was such a rose for bloom and sweetness, we think. My husband he says so too."

Barbara blushed and smiled a little when she spoke of Robert, and she and Mary quickly filled a basket with the roses. The next morning Ranulph came again with the Provençal maid of honor to get more flowers, and "strowing herbs,"—sweet-scented plants that gave out their fragrance when trodden upon. The rushes used for floor-covering were often mixed with these on festival days, and when new rushes were to be put down the whole might be swept into the fire and burned. The maids of honor made garlands for the wall, and thus the first breath of air the Queen drew in her grim, small stone rooms high in the castle keep, was laden with the scent of the blossoms of the South.

It was a cheerless abode, Mary and Barbara thought. There were no hangings, no costly dishes nor candlesticks, no weapons or anything that could be made into a weapon, nor any jewels or rich clothing.

Mary wondered a little that certain richly embroidered tapestries which belonged to the nuns had not been borrower, for she knew that the Lady Abbess had lent them now and then. Philippa could have told her.

"It is well," said the Queen haughtily when she had seen her apartments, "that they have given me no gold-woven arras for my prison. I think I would burn it for the gold—if any of these jailers of mine could be bought perchance."

The captivity of the royal prisoner was not, however, very severe. She sometimes rode out under guard, she was allowed to walk upon the terrace and in the walled garden, and she talked sometimes with the troubadour and with old Tomaso. In one of the older towers of the castle the physician had his rooms, and here he read in ancient books, or brewed odd mixtures in his retorts and crucibles. He taught Mary more about the management of a still, the use of herbs and the making of essences than she had ever dreamed there was to learn. Physicians in those days might be quacks or alchemists. Here and there one was what we call an experimental chemist. Nearly a hundred years later some of Tomaso's papers proved most valuable to the University of Padua.