Y EARS before Apple-Tree had found her blossom, at the time when Robert's mother came as a bride to her new home, she brought with her, among other things, a tiny Century-Plant. All there was of it were two or three stiff little leaves. But it was placed in a beautiful conservatory with the stately palms, the graceful ferns, and all the rare and lovely plants that lived there.
As the years passed on, the leaves grew a little longer and a little broader, and one or two more were added, but that was all. So, even in that beautiful home, life for the Century-Plant was very dull. The years were just the same: all winter long she was shut up in the hot-house, and when the days and nights had grown warmer, showing that summer had really come, she was placed in some conspicuous place on the lawn. The only real change she ever knew was an occasional transplanting into a larger box.
So the Century-Plant began to murmur, and to wish, oh, so many things! Why could she never be set in the ground like some of her winter companions, the brilliant Jacqueminot, or American Beauty Roses, the Lilies, the Carnation Pinks, or even the sweet little Violet? She knew that when she was out of doors she had the same warm sunshine, and the same refreshing rain as these friends of hers had, but that did not satisfy her. She wanted to live in the earth and send her roots out into it, as plants were intended to do.
But she could have borne this trouble if only she might have had some flowers to show, or could once have been admired for her loveliness. The Rose family, all the Pinks, the Heliotrope—in fact, many of the plants about her—would often get sweet new gowns. And visitors to the conservatory would admire them, or sniff their fragrance, saying: "Oh, how lovely!" or, "Isn't it perfectly beautiful?"
Even the Palms and the Ferns, though they never showed a blossom, were praised for their lovely greens.
But when visitors reached her corner they would say only: "Oh, this is a Century-Plant. Curious thing, isn't it? Has it ever bloomed?"
And always would come the same answer: "No, not yet."
It was hard always to be called "curious," like some strange wild animal.
The fair young bride who had brought the tiny plant to her home grew gray and wrinkled. One day she failed to visit the flowers; the gardener said she was ill, and Century-Plant saw her no more. Robert and the other children who had played about the Century-Plant on the lawn grew into men and women, and their little ones toddled about the box that held the old plant, and still there were no flowers.
Even though Century-Plant had grown very tall by this time, she still had to keep on wishing that she had something to wear besides the same old green and white. For many years Mother Nature had promised her something else, and it had never come yet. So sometimes she almost gave up hope.
But there came a day, when, in answer to her wistful sigh, she was told: "Just be patient; you haven't much longer to wait."
And Century-Plant really began to think so herself. A day or two later a strange thing happened.
The gardener was bending over her when he exclaimed: "Bless my stars, there's a bud! I must go tell the ladies."
Then Century-Plant knew that at last her wish was to be realized, and the thought of having a flower of her own made her glad and happy, notwithstanding her old age.
Gentle whispers went through the hot-house. The Violet sweetly breathed: "I am so glad Century-Plant is going to have some blossoms."
And the Rose answered: "So am I."
As for Century-Plant herself, she felt quite above her neighbors now, for the wonderful new flower stalk kept getting taller and taller, until from its top she could look down even on the stately palms. And still she grew, until her tall head touched the roof. Now, after all these years, must she stop for lack of room? Century-Plant trembled through all her leaves at the thought; but the thoughtful gardener had provided for this, too, and the roof was lifted higher and higher until the stalk was thirty or forty feet in the air. Then Century-Plant was so full of pride that she hardly noticed the perfume Violet was sending up to her.
At last the curious flowers up at the top of the stalk opened and looked so strange that it seemed as though Century-Plant were wearing an imported bonnet. People came from far and near to gaze at her.
And though they used to exclaim, it was much in the way they always had, and the remarks were generally: "How queer! Have you ever seen one before?"
And it seemed as though they still loved the sweet modest flowers best. Century-Plant never noticed that, but was very happy so long as her new bonnet kept fresh and bright. But one day the flowers fell one by one, and the stalk began to grow so limp that at last that, too, dropped. Then Century-Plant, herself, began to feel very ill. Nothing she ate or drank seemed to agree with her. She had gained her wish, but was more unhappy than ever. Probably she never had known that when a Century-Plant has bloomed it must die. Day after day she faded away until one morning the gardener pulled the old plant up by the roots and threw it out on a brush heap.
Century-Plant's corner is empty now, and a banana palm takes her place on the lawn, but whenever some impatient young thing wishes that Mother Nature would hurry her plans a little, some wise old resident of the conservatory is sure to say: "Remember the sad end of poor Century-Plant."