The autumn before last, that is to say, above a year ago, the boast and glory of my little garden was a dahlia called the Phoebus. How it came there, nobody very distinctly knew, nor where it came from, nor how we came by it, nor how it came by its own most appropriate name. Neither the lad who tends our flowers, nor my father, the person chiefly concerned in procuring them, nor I myself, who more even than my father or John take delight and pride in their beauty, could recollect who gave us this most splendid plant, or who first instructed us as to the style and title by which it was known. Certes never was blossom fitlier named. Regular as the sun’s face in an almanack, it had a tint of golden scarlet, of ruddy yellow, which realised Shakspeare’s gorgeous expression of “flame-coloured.” The sky at sunset sometimes puts on such a hue, or a fire at Christmas when it burns red as well as bright. The blossom was dazzling to look upon. It seemed as if there were light in the leaves, like that coloured-lamp of a flower, the Oriental Poppy. Phoebus was not too glorious a name for that dahlia. The Golden-haired Apollo might be proud of such an emblem. It was worthy of the god of day; a very Phoenix of floral beauty.
Every dahlia fancier who came into our garden or who had an opportunity of seeing a bloom elsewhere; and, sooth to say, we were rather ostentatious in our display; John put it into stands, and jars, and baskets, and dishes; Dick stuck it into Dash’s collar, his own button-hole, and Pearl’s bridle; my father presented it to such lady visiters as he delighted to honour; and I, who have the habit of dangling a flower, generally a sweet one, caught myself more than once rejecting the spicy clove and the starry jessamine, the blossomed myrtle and the tuberose, my old fragrant favourites, for this scentless (but triumphant) beauty; everybody who beheld the Phoebus begged for a plant or a cutting; and we, generous in our ostentation, willing to redeem the vice by the virtue, promised as many plants and cuttings as we could reasonably imagine the root might be made to produce*–perhaps rather more; and half the dahlia growers round rejoiced over the glories of the gorgeous flower, and speculated, as the wont is now, upon seedling after seedling to the twentieth generation.
* It is wonderful how many plants may, by dint of forcing, and cutting and forcing again, be extracted from one root. But the experiment is not always safe. Nature sometimes avenges herself for the encroachments of art, by weakening the progeny. The Napoleon Dahlia, for instance, the finest of last year’s seedlings, being over-propagated, this season has hardly produced one perfect bloom, even in the hands of the most skilful cultivators.
Alas for the vanity of human expectations! February came, the twenty-second of February, the very St. Valentine of dahlias, when the roots which have been buried in the ground during the winter are disinterred, and placed in a hotbed to put forth their first shoots previous to the grand operations of potting and dividing them. Of course the first object of search in the choicest corner of the nicely labelled hoard, was the Phoebus: but no Phoebus was forthcoming; root and label had vanished bodily! There was, to be sure, a dahlia without a label, which we would gladly have transformed into the missing treasure; but as we speedily discovered a label without a dahlia, it was but too obvious that they belonged to each other. Until last year we might have had plenty of the consolation which results from such divorces of the name from the thing; for our labels, sometimes written upon parchment, sometimes upon leather, sometimes upon wood, as each material happened to be recommended by gardening authorities, and fastened on with packthread, or whip-cord, or silk twist, had generally parted company from the roots, and frequently become utterly illegible, producing a state of confusion which most undoubtedly we never expected to regret: but this year we had followed the one perfect system of labels of unglazed china, highly varnished after writing on them, and fastened on by wire; and it had answered so completely, that one, and one only, had broken from its moorings. No hope could be gathered from that quarter. The Phoebus was gone. So much was clear; and our loss being fully ascertained, we all began, as the custom is, to divert our grief and exercise our ingenuity by different guesses as to the fate of the vanished treasure.