"IS IT true that the rose is the queen of the flowers?" asked Richard of his papa.
And the latter said to him jokingly:
"Ask them themselves, they ought to be better informed."
Richard took what his father told him literally, and going down into the garden, approached a plum-tree which gallantly waved to and fro in the wind, and taking off his hat with great respect, asked it:
"Mr. Plum-tree, will you be good enough to tell me if the rose is the queen of the flowers?"
But the plum-tree continued to move to and fro in the wind without answering him.
And drawing near to an almond tree, whose white blossoms had just opened, he repeated his question.
"Mr. Almond-tree, is it true that the rose is the queen of the flowers?"
The almond-tree remained silent, but its blossoms went red with envy.
"The almond-tree is also unprincipled," thought Richard. "All these trees have a discourteous tone. Let us ask the plants."
A splendid double pink, which raised its splendid corolla with a gallantry worthy of its nobility, as soon as he heard the question, graciously bowed upon his stalk and answered:
"Quite so, the rose is our beloved queen, on account of being so beautiful and because her delicate aroma has no rival. But if you wish to know more, come back to-night at twelve o’clock and notice what happens in your garden."
"Thank you, kind pink. I will not miss to-night."
Richard went to bed at the usual time, but he could not sleep. At half-past eleven he dressed himself again, and slipping secretly down stairs arrived in the garden and awaited events. On the last stroke of midnight a bright light appeared from the sky and that ray of light condensed on the earth, taking the figure of a beautiful woman crowned with flowers, who carried in her hand a little golden wand which gave off brilliant reflections. The fairy extended her hand and immediately an unusual movement was produced among the plants. The pinks turned into elegant gentlemen in bright costumes of ruby, pink, and green; the hyacinths and jasmines into gallant little pages with fair hair; the white lilies were pale ladies of singular beauty, dressed in white; the dahlias wore long trains and at the neck a ruffle of delicate lace of colours which recalled the flowers which had preceded; the violet modestly tried to hide her beautiful countenance of velvety skin and her eyes of gentle aspect among a group of poppies, who passed arm-in-arm, attracting attention by their blood red costumes. Finally from amongst a group of mournful evergreens, who were chatting with some beautiful pansies, appeared the queen of the fête, the rose. Her presence produced a murmur of admiration, never had she been so lovely. Her face held the freshness of the flower, and her pink dress with a long train was of very fine silk which rustled as the sovereign walked. An olive-tree turned into a throne and dais, and the rose, without any other ceremony than a general greeting, took her seat on the throne. She raised her arm, imposing silence, and everybody became silent.
"Gentlemen," said the queen, "once again the good magician Spring has re-animated our hearts. We have not met since last year and there are several grave matters to resolve, but the most important is the manner of defending ourselves from the bees, wasps, and butterflies who continually sip our honey, accelerating our end. On this point I have already begged Spring to have the accused appear before me, so that this gathering is really an oral judgment."
At a signal from the magician the accused appeared in costumes of etiquette, the butterfly wearing its finest clothes.
It appeared before the queen with its head modestly bent and its face lighted up by a blush.
"What does your majesty wish?" it asked.
"To inquire the motive why you presume to take away our nectar," said the rose.
"Ah, madam!" replied the butterfly, touched, "little harm I do you, because I never take more than is necessary to feed myself, and I have never abused your hospitality."
"That is well; we will take that into account as an extenuating circumstance for you. Let the wasp approach."
The wasp entered in a black dress-coat and a yellow necktie striped with black.
"I," it said, "gather nectar from you because I have proposed to work like the bee, although I have not yet succeeded in doing so since the beginning of the world, but still not much time has passed and I hope to learn."
"How can you hope to learn," interrupted the queen, "if all that you do is to eat it all without having any to make honeycombs? Your case is a very bad one. As you have not a good lawyer you are lost. Fetch the bee."
The latter appeared, her presence awakening a general murmur. It wore neither a dress-coat nor a frock-coat, nor even a lounge-coat; it was wearing a blouse covered with stains of honey and wax. All drew away from the bee for fear of getting soiled.
"Now I know what I am coming to," it said without keeping quiet. "It is always the same song: that we do take away, that we do not take away the nectar from the flowers. Good, what about it? We do not do so for ourselves, but for our master. All the sweet syrup of your corollas we enclose in the hive, and from there every year it comes out so that Man, our master, rejoices his palate with it and embalms his breath with your aroma. After dying in summer and losing your green leaves in autumn, you still live in us, that we may make your remembrance lasting. And still you complain! You, it is true, give your blood, but it would be worth nothing if we did not gather it in order to store it. The work is ours, and the work is worth as much as your nectar. If you have to condemn me, do so quickly, I beg of you, as I am losing a great deal of work time, and we are somewhat behindhand with the work."
The rose called the pink and the violet, discussed the case with them, and after some minutes’ reflection, spoke in this manner:
"The wasp is an unconscientious glutton who, under the pretext of making honeycombs, which she never succeeds in doing, robs us. Give her five hundred hard lashes."
On hearing this a deadly nightshade seized the wasp and carried her away to bestow the correction.
"The butterfly’s innocence and moderation favour her," said the queen, "therefore I declare her absolved with all favourable pronouncements."
The butterfly bowed respectfully and kissed the sovereign’s hand. Her golden feelers glistened, she shook her wings, filling the ambient air with diamond dust, and took to flight showering cascades of light.
"With regard to the bee," continued the rose, "not only do I find her without any guilt, but wish that henceforth you do not close your petals to her, but leave her at liberty to carry away the honey that she requires. As a reward for her laboriousness, and as a symbol of perpetual friendship between us, I am going to give her a kiss."
The bee, much moved, advanced, and placing her blushing forehead within reach of the queen’s lips, received a kiss of peace, which made tears of gratitude gather in her eyes.
A delicious perfume invaded the garden, the fairy raised her wand, and each flower returned to its post, recovering its original form.
The magician flew into space, wrapped in a moonbeam, and Richard remained alone, pensive in the recollection of what he had seen.
"What a beautiful lesson!" he said. "Even in the kingdom of flowers work gains the most precious reward."