Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary

One of my favorite stories has always been Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden.” Although it’s been years and years since I’ve seen the movie, I reread my copy of the book almost every year. I love the beautiful descriptions of the gardens and Misselthwaite Manor, and stubborn little Mary and spoiled Collin and especially Dickon, with his wide smile and his animal friends. Yet beneath the roses and the sunshine and Jump the fox, there’s a much darker narrative thread moving, one of death and fear and broken relationships, and a house with “one hundred rooms, all locked up.” And, of course, the Magic, of which Collin becomes Grand Master.

Every time I close the book, I wonder whatever became of the three friends at its center. Did Mary grow up to marry her cousin Collin? Did they become Lord and Lady of Misselthwaite Manor? Was Collin’s miraculous recovery real, or would he be a cripple for the rest of his life? And what about Dickon – dear, sweet Dickon, who was several steps under the others in the class structure, and would have been just the age for conscription during World War I – What happened to him, and his relationship with Mary?

After finishing “Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells,” a collection of “gaslamp fantasy” edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, I was finally inspired to sit down and begin writing my own version of the story of Mary, Collin, and Dickon, all grown up. I’d like to include the first scene here. For those of you who know the story, is my continuation of it realistic and satisfying? And for those of you who don’t, how much of the back story can you guess from this one scene?


Mistress Mary

                In the spring of 1918, Dickon came home from the Western Front. Mary froze at the upstairs parlor window, one hand on her chest, when she saw him coming up the long drive, his shoulders slumped under his bright thatch of red hair. She flew down the wide stairway and out of the front door without waiting for the maid to open it, her lacy skirts caught up in her fists and her newly-bobbed blonde hair standing out in a halo around her face in the early April sunlight. She threw her arms around his shoulders, causing him to drop the patched carpet bag he was carrying, as Collin stepped out of the front door and started down the drive towards them, leaning heavily on his mahogany cane.

“Collin! He’s come home,” Mary called up the drive. “He’s really come home!”

Dickon had first stopped by the cottage in the village where he had grown up, to see his mother Mrs. Sowerby, and  Martha and her Tom and all the young ones. But the line that kept him tethered to Misselthwaite Manor had grown more and more taunt the closer he’d come to home, until he’d been unable to resist its pull. His reunion with its Lord and Lady had seemed, just an hour ago, like a bright, unimaginable dream, but the head gardener’s cottage, which had been his since old Ben had died seven years back, and the hedges of roses and cool groves of fruit trees he had tended, had been firm and secure in his mind.

Collin’s cane made a decisive “tock” on the cobblestones as he stopped beside Mary and Dickon. Collin trembled in the unseasonal heat as he took in the new stoop to Dickon’s shoulders, the sharp edges of his cheekbones under his map of freckles, the emptiness inside his deep blue eyes. Dickon stumbled out of Mary’s embrace, and Mary stepped back from him, twisting her skirts in her long white hands.

“Lord Craven,” Dickon ducked his head like an under-servant, his blank gaze unchanged. “Lady Craven,” Dickon nodded to Mary.

“Oh, Dickon!” Mary gave a strange little laugh, almost like a sob. “Don’t be silly. Have I changed so much in four years? You’ll call me Mary as you always have!”

“Dickon,” Collin reached out to shake his calloused hand, deciding against a brotherly pat on the back. Collin noticed with cool relief the entire absence of any unnatural affection he’d once held for this rustic man-child, back when they were three children in their hidden bit of garden, opening to the first flutters of secrets they’d had no business exploring, with the roses hedging them in, and old Ben on his ladder, peeking over the wall. Back when the Magic had come when he’d called. Easy as breathing. Easy as laying down his cane to walk. The madness that had overtaken them all, those few years, and the grueling hours of research and practice that were Collin’s life now, had so little in common that calling them by the same name seemed an untruth.

“I suppose you’ve been to see Martha, and Tom, and your mother – she’s well?” Mary was saying. “And our children! You’ll want to meet the children, surely!”

At a third story window, the indistinct faces of two small children stared down at the meeting on the drive. Dickon thought he caught a glimpse of light red hair, haloed, as Mary’s was, in a sudden ray of sunlight, before the nursemaid appeared to usher the two curious faces away.

Collin frowned. “Really, dear, I don’t think that’s necessary just yet. I’m sure Dickon would much rather rest a while after his travels.” He turned to Dickon. “Your post as head gardener has been reserved for you, of course. Mary would have allowed nothing else.” He gave a tight-lipped smile. Mary’s face was as white as her dress in the sunlight.  “But we hired an older man from the village to carry on while you were gone. I’ll allow him to stay on a few days more, while you settle into your duties again.”

Collin fished in his pockets for the key ring he carried, pulling it out to remove one small rusted skeleton key, which he handed to Dickon. Dickon squinted at it, as if unsure what it was for.

“It’s the key to your cottage,” Collin explained. “We kept it locked up for you, the way you left it. No one’s been in all these four years.” He cleared his throat and drew his shoulders up with an effort, and smiled. “Go on now, and get settled in. Get some rest.”

“I am,” Dickon said, still staring in wonder at the small key, “Very tired.”


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