The wrought iron gate creaked as it swung aside and, with a cheer, the class filed into the garden: teachers, moms, girls and boys. A grizzled old man with a red knit cap shuffled into view, and once the children were quieted, he spoke. “Since you’re here, and you’re wanting, I’ll take you through.”
“Are you the gardener?” said Mrs. Stephens.
“I did so. So it fell on me to be,” he said.
“Does the garden lead to the manor?” said Mrs. Stephens.
“It does. I know the way through,” he said.
Mrs. Stephens grinned. “What a find, Delilah! Just out on a country ride and look what we come across.”
He led them up the winding path. His roses were “dollies” and his lilies were “splitters.” Mrs. Stephens pointed out the morning glory tied up a maple tree.
“What beautiful flowers,” said the teacher.
“Weeds,” said the gardener. “But I can’t find a ladder. So there they sit.”
“Oh,” said Mrs. Stephens with a frown. She whispered to Ms. Delilah, “Ipomoea, I thought, but then who am I?” Ms. Delilah shrugged.
The old man grunted and waved them along. They passed between thickets of azalea and rhododendron, camellias and orange blossom, each given a strange name by the gardener. Finally they came to a stone staircase that led to a brick terrace. The old man climbed two steps and turned around.
“This is as far as is mine, and so, as far as I can take you,” he said. “More lies behind me, but it’s not proper to usher ladies and children through a man’s more intimate living space.”
Even the children laughed. Ms. Delilah pointed to the horizon. “Sir, surely you live in or near the mansion beyond.”
The gardener looked over his shoulder and shielded his eyes. “No, though I know who did and who does. In an immediate sense, I have naught to do with either. Though, if you wish to continue, to pay a visit, take the path that splits to the left ’round the terrace and through the meadow.”
Mrs. Stephens mumbled something to Ms. Delilah, gestured to a small tent pitched on the terrace under a wisteria arbor. Ms. Delilah turned red.
“I do not believe you’re supposed to be here, sir,” she said.
“Day to day, I have difficulty believing it myself, miss,” said the old man.
The teachers and moms hurried the children back down the path toward the bus. “When we return to Glackson, I will be making a few calls to the authorities to sort this out,” said Mrs. Stephens.
The old man nodded. He followed the troop to the gate and shut it behind them. From his back pocket, he pulled a yellowed sheaf of papers, “The Last Will and Testament of Lord Jemis Tephed.” He squinted at the underlined section.
“The garden I leave to the vagrant with the red cap. Evicted no less than a dozen times, he always wandered back to shape the garden as he saw fit. If labor can indeed be mixed with material to produce a state of ownership, then his is the greatest share, even if these means were pointed at a very different end than that envisioned by me or those in my employ. Let his strange preoccupation flourish, if only for toleration’s sake; for I am not without proclivities of the sort that, when known, weather both the patience of loved ones and one’s public stature. In name, I take these to the grave with me, God willing. But let this gift attest to their existence.”
The gardener sat by the fence and waited for the men in suits to arrive, as he did last week and the week before that.