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The Great Lily's Mission by Mrs. J. B. McConaughy


Forty-three years ago last New-Year's Day a native boat was gliding along through one of the small rivers of British Guiana, when it came to a spot where the stream widened into a little lake. A celebrated botanist was a voyager in the little canoe, and all at once his attention was fixed on a wonderful plant he found growing along the margin of the lake. All his weariness and the many discomforts of his situation were forgotten in the enthusiasm of that moment. Never before had he seen such a flower. One might fancy a giant had been raising lilies to present to some fair giantess.

Imagine the rippling water covered with thick leaves of pale green, lined with vivid crimson, each one almost large enough to cover your bed, while all about were floating massive lilies, whose single petals of white and rosy pink were more than a foot across, and numbered over a hundred to a blossom.

The flower was sent home to England, and awakened great enthusiasm among the lovers of science, but no one surmised that the fair stranger was destined to effect a great revolution in the architecture of the world. Yet all great enterprises have generally taken a very roundabout way before they came to perfection. You could hardly forecast them when you looked at their beginnings.

Such a royal lily well deserved a royal name. So it was christened the Victoria Regia. Had it been a beautiful princess they were anxious to make contented in her adopted land, they could not have taken more pains to humor her tastes and whims. Mr. Paxton, the great gardener who had it in charge, determined that the baby lily should never know that it was not in its native waters, growing in its native soil, under its own torrid skies. So he made up a bed for its roots out of burned loam and peat; the great lazy leaves were allowed to float at their ease in a tank of water, to which a gentle ripple was imparted by means of a water-wheel, and then a house of glass, of a beautiful device, was built over it all, and the right temperature kept up to still further deceive the young South American.

With all this pampering it grew so fast that in a month it had outgrown its house. A new one must be had forthwith, or the baby lily would be hopelessly dwarfed. Mr. Paxton was not disconcerted by this precociousness of his wayward pet, but at once put his talents to work to provide it with suitable accommodations. The greenhouse he next built was a more novel and elegant conservatory, and might rightly be styled the first Crystal Palace.

It was just at this time that the word had gone out over all the earth that its nations were invited to a great World's Fair at London. And now a very serious question came up about the building in which to house them. The committee, of course, decided on a structure of orthodox brick and mortar, and then began a fierce war in the papers with regard to the project. How would their beautiful Hyde Park be spoiled by letting loose in it such an army of shovellers, bricklayers, hewers, and all manner of craftsmen! What a spoiling of its ornamental trees, and what a cutting up of its smooth drives by the heavy carts loaded with brick and mortar enough to build a pyramid!

Mr. Paxton read in the Times these many objections, and the thought flashed through his mind that they could all be removed by building on the plan of his lily-house. A succession of such structures enlarged and securely joined together would produce just such a building as was wanted. All could be prepared in the great workshops of the kingdom, and brought together with almost as little noise and confusion as was Solomon's great Temple.

The building committee were hard to convince. They were joined to their idols of brick and mortar. But good Prince Albert, and Sir Robert Peel, and Mr. Stephenson, the engineer, were all on the side of iron and glass, and at last they won.

Such a beautiful fairy-like structure as went up, almost like Aladdin's palace, by New-Year's Day, 1851, the world had never seen. The great lily had, all unconsciously, accomplished a wonderful work. Over and over again has its crystal house been copied, and not the least beautiful of such structures is our own grand Centennial Main Building.