The Scarlet Poppy

Timothy Shay Arthur, 1856


One warm morning in June, just as the sun returned from his long but rapid journey to the distant east, and sailed majestically up through the clear blue sky, the many bright flowers of one of the prettiest little parterres in the world, who had opened their eyes those bright flowers to smile at the sunbeams which came to kiss away the tears which night had shed over them, were very much surprised, and not a little offended to find in their very midst an individual who, though most of them knew her, one might have supposed, from their appearance, was a perfect stranger to them all.

The parterre, or flower garden, was small, for it was in the very heart of a great city, where land would bring almost any price; but the gentleman and lady who lived in the noble mansion which fronted it, would not, for the highest price which might have been offered them, have had those sweet flowers torn up, and a brick pile reared in the place their only child, the dear little Carie, loved the garden so dearly, and spent so much of her time there.

Oh, it was a sweet little place, though it was in the midst of a great city where the air was full of dust and coal smoke; for the fountain which played in the garden kept the atmosphere pure and cool, and every day the gardener showered all the plants, so that their leaves were green and fresh as though they were blooming far away in their native woods and dells. There were sweet roses of every hue, from the pure Alba to the dark Damascus; and pinks, some of the most spicy odor, some almost scentless but all so beautiful and so nicely trimmed. The changeless amaranth was there, the pale, sweet-scented heliotrope, always looking towards the sun; the pure lily; and the blue violet, which, though it had been taught to bloom far away from the mossy bed where it had first opened its meek eye to the light had not yet forgotten its gentleness and modesty. And not far from them were the fickle hydrangea, the cardinal flower with its rich, showy petals; and the proud, vain, and ostentatious but beautiful crimson and white peonias. The dahlias had yet put forth but very few blossoms but they were elegant, and the swelling buds promised that before long there would be a rich display of brilliant colors. Honeysuckles, the bright-hued and fragrant, the white jasmine, and many other climbing plants, were latticing the little arbor beside the clear fountain, half hiding their jewel-like hanging blossoms and bright red berries among the smooth green leaves which clustered so closely together as to shut out completely the hot sun from the little gay-plumaged and sweet-voiced songsters whose gilt cage hung within the bower. But I cannot speak of the flowers, there were so many of them, and they were all so beautiful and so sweet-scented.

Well, this June morning, as I was saying, when the flowers, as they were waked from their sleep by the sunbeams which came to kiss away the tears which night had shed over them, opened their eyes and looked about them, they were surprised and offended to see a stranger in their company.

There had been, through all the season, some little rivalries and jealousies among the flowers; but from the glances which they turned on each other, this morning, it was evident that their feelings towards the stranger were exactly alike. However, as might be expected from their different dispositions, they expressed their dislike and contempt for her in different ways; but at first all hesitated to address her, for no one seemed to find language strong enough to express the scorn they felt for her; until the balsam, who never could keep silent long, inquired of the stranger, in a very impatient tone, what was her name, and how she came there.

The poor thing hesitated an instant, and her face grew very red; she must have known that her presence in that company was very much undesired, and when she spoke, it was in a low and embarrassed tone.

"My name is Papaver, and . . ."

But the Marygold laughed aloud. "Papaver!" she repeated in her most scornful tone; "she is nothing more nor less than a Poppy a foul offensive Poppy, whose breath fairly makes me sick. Long ago, when . . . "

But here the Marygold stopped short, it would not do, to confess to her genteel friends, that she had formerly been acquainted with the disreputable stranger. They did not heed her embarrassment, however, for every one, now that the silence was broken, was anxious to speak; all but the Mimosa, who could not utter a word, for she had fainted quite away the red Rose who was very diffident, and the Dahlia who was too dignified to meddle with such trifling affairs.

"You great, red-faced thing!" said the Carnation, "how did you get here in your ragged dress? Do you know what kind of company you are in? Who first saw her here?"

"I saw her," said the Morning Glory, who usually waked quite early, "I saw her before she had got her eyes open; and what do you suppose she had on her head? Why a little green cap which she has just pulled off and thrown away. There it lies on the ground now. Only look at it! no wonder she was ashamed of it. Can you think what she wore it for?"

"Why, yes!" mocked the Ladies' Slipper. "She is so handsome and so delicate, that she was fearful the early hours might injure her health and destroy her charms!"

"No, no!" interrupted another; "she was afraid the morning breeze might steal away her sweet breath!"

"You had better gather up your sweet leaves, and put on your cap again," said the London Pride. "I see a golden-winged butterfly in Calla's cup; your spicy breath will soon bring him here to drink of your nectar!"

The most of the flowers laughed but the Carnation still called out, "How did she get here?"

The Amaranth, however, who never slept a wink through the whole night, would not answer the question, though the flowers were certain that she could, were she so inclined.

"I do not see how you who are in her immediate neighborhood, can breathe!" said the Syringa, who was farthest removed from the poor Poppy.

"I do feel as if I would faint!" said the Verbena.

"And I feel a cold chill creeping over me!" said the Ice Plant.

"That is not strange!" remarked the Nightshade, who had sprung up in the shadow of the hedge, "she carries with her, everywhere she goes, the atmosphere of the place whence she comes. Do you know where that is?"

Some of the flowers shuddered but the Nightshade went on:

"The Poppy is indigenous now only on the verdureless banks of the Styx. When Proserpine, who was gathering flowers, was carried away to the dark Avernus, all the other blossoms which she had woven in her garland withered and died but the Poppy; and that the goddess planted in the land of darkness and gloom, and called it the flower of Death. She flourishes there in great luxuriance; Nox and Somnus make her bed their couch. The aching head, which is bound with a garland of her blossoms, ceases to throb; the agonized soul which drinks in her deep breath, wakes no more to sorrow. Death follows wherever she comes!"

"We will not talk of such gloomy things!" said the Coreopsis, with difficulty preserving her cheerfulness.

But the other plants were silent and dejected; all but the Amaranth, who knew herself gifted with immortality, and the Box-plant, who was very stoical. But another trial awaited the poor Poppy.

The Nightshade had hardly ceased speaking, when soft, gentle human voices were heard in the garden, and a child of three summers, with rosy cheeks, deep blue eyes, and flowing, golden hair, came bounding down the graveled walks, followed by a fair lady. The child had come to bid good morning to her flowers and birds, and as she caroled to the latter, and paused now and then to inhale the breath of some fragrant blossom, and examine the elegant form and rich and varied tints of another, the little songsters sang more loudly and cheerily; and the flowers, it seemed, became more sweet and beautiful.

The Poppy, who was as ignorant as was anyone else how she had found her way into the garden, now began to reason with herself.

"Someone must have planted me here," she said; "and though I am not as sweet as that proud Carnation, nor so elegant as that dignified Dahlia, I may have as much right to remain here as they!" and she raised her head erect, and spread out her broad, scarlet petals, with their deep, ragged fringe, hoping to attract the notice of the little girl.

And so indeed she did; for as the child paused before pale sweet-scented Verbena, the flaunting Poppy caught her eye, and she extended her hand toward the strange blossom.

"Carie, Carie, don't touch that vile thing!" said her mother, "it is poisonous. The smell of it will make you sick. I do not see how it came here. John must bring his spade and take it up. We will have nothing in the garden but what is beautiful or sweet and this is neither!"

The poor Poppy! She had begun to love the little girl, the child had smiled on her so sweetly, and the other flowers had seemed so envious when that little white hand was stretched out towards her; and when she drew back at her Mother's call, reluctantly but with look of surprise and aversion, the Poppy did not care how soon she was banished from a place where she had been treated so unjustly.

However, she was allowed to remain. Whether the lady neglected giving instructions to the gardener respecting her, or whether he forgot her commands, I am not sure; but there she remained, day after day, striving every morning to wake up early and pull off her little green cap before the other flowers had opened their eyes but never succeeding in so doing.

It was no enviable position that she occupied laughed at, despised, and scorned by all the other flowers in the garden, and in hourly expectation of being torn up by the roots and thrown into the street the poor Poppy!

One day when the lady and her Carie were walking in the garden, the little girl, who had looked rather pale, put her hands suddenly to her head, and cried aloud. Her mother was very much frightened. She caught up the little girl in her arms, and tried to ascertain what was the matter; but the child only pressed her hands more tightly to her head, and cried more piteously. The lady carried her into the house, and the family were soon all in an uproar. The servants were all running hither and thither; no one seemed to know what was the matter; for the lady had fainted from terror at her child's pale face and agonized cries, and the little girl could tell nothing.

"It is that odious Poppy who is the cause of all this!" said the flowers one to another (little Carie was indeed playing in her immediate vicinity when she was seized with that dreadful distress), "she has poisoned her!" And their suspicions were confirmed when one of the servants came running into the garden, and seizing hold of the Poppy, stripped off every one of her bright scarlet petals, and gathering them up, returned quickly to the house.

"You poor thing!" said the Elder, as the Poppy, so crudely handled, bent down her dishonored head to the ground; but not one of the other flowers addressed to her a single word.

Through the long day she lay there the Poppy on the ground, trying to forget what had happened; for she did not know but their words were true, and she was the cause of the little girl's suffering she would so gladly have soothed her pain. The other flowers thought she was dead, and the Poppy herself believed that she should never see the light of another morning; but just before the day was gone, the lady walked again into the garden accompanied by her husband; and what do you suppose the other flowers thought? without noticing one of them, the lady walked directly to the Poppy, lifted her head from the ground, and leaned it against the frame which supported the proud Carnation, and then, with her white hands, replaced the loosened earth about her half uptorn roots.

"Oh, I hope it will not die!" she said to her husband, "I would rather lose anything else in the garden, for I don't know but it saved dear little Carie's life! She had a dreadful headache, and nothing afforded her the least relief, until we bruised the leaves of the Poppy, and bound them on her temples, and then she became quiet, and fell into a gentle sleep. Oh, I hope it will live!"

The Poppy did live, and was proud and happy enough. Do you think she was ever afterwards ashamed of her little green cap, or her ragged scarlet leaves? And do you think the other flowers ever laughed at her again, or were ashamed of her acquaintance?

When the summer had passed away, and the bright blossoms one by one withered and died before the autumn's cool breath, the Poppy cheerfully scattered her little seeds on the earth, and laid herself down to die; for she knew that when another spring would come, and her children should shoot up from the ground they would be nurtured as tenderly, and prized as highly as those of the sweeter and far more beautiful flowers.