I read this story a number of years ago, promptly forgot the source, and had not been able to locate it again until this evening when I stumbled upon it while browsing the YLCF site. Now I remember that I first read it in the back of a Douglas Wilson book (Her Hand in Marriage perhaps?). Enjoy.
The Garden by Douglas Wilson
As my horse trotted wearily up the road, I could see the walls of a beautiful garden ahead. Outside the gate was an equally beautiful woman. At the sound of my greeting, she turned and dropped a curtsey. "Good sir... good morning."
I looked at her, and then at the garden walls extending out to the right and left. Behind her was the garden gate. I said, "I am very thirsty...for something clean." She smiled, and her smile made me thirstier still. But she said nothing. "Is there water here?" I asked.
"There is a stream within my garden." Her statement was simply a statement of fact; there was no invitation at all in it.
I asked, "May I come in and drink?"
"No," she said. "The lord of my mother's garden does not permit that."
"Why is this? Other women have let me drink from the gardens that they tend." I glanced at the fruit-laden branches, which were visible over the top of the garden wall. "You have a lovely garden, but those who let me drink had gardens just as beautiful."
She laughed at this, and her laugh was merry indeed. "I have no doubt that you have been in some lovely gardens. But was the water clean?"
"No," I said, and in spite of myself, turned my head and looked down.
She continued with a question. "Is that why you are no longer in the gardens tended by these women?"
I was ashamed so I did not answer her. Instead I looked past her into the garden. The path through the gate disappeared after a few feet, leaving the view of anyone on the road. "It seems like a shame for such a garden to go to waste."
She seemed both puzzled and amused. "How does it go to waste?"
"Does any man drink from your stream?"
"No, but no man fouls it either."
"But is that not a waste? Was not your stream made to quench the thirst of travelers?"
"I'm afraid you are seriously mistaken. It was made to quench the thirst, not of travelers, but of the lord of the garden."
"Oh," I said, "this garden has a lord?"
"No," she said.
"Then I don't understand. Are you speaking in riddles?"
She smiled. "No, I do not. The garden will one day have a lord, although it does not yet. The stream is for him alone."
"And who will your lord be?"
"When my mother's lord gives a blessing, the one whom I appoint."
"How can the lesser appoint the greater?"
"How can it not be so? When my lord comes, I will grant to him my garden. But until I do, he is just another traveler."
"And what do you look for? I am sure there are many who knock at your gate."
At this she blushed slightly but looked straight at me. "I will not have a lord who does not have a lord himself--my lord must have taken an oath of fealty to the Landlord."
"The Landlord? Who is he?"
"He is the owner of all the gardens along this road. In order to come into my garden, my lord must take an oath before the Landlord to tend the garden well. He must also swear that he will enter no other garden."
I had never heard such words as these before. "How long must he stay out of other gardens?"
"But what if he is born to travel?"
"Then he is not born for my garden."
"I see," I said, becoming a little angry. "Then why have I never heard of such an oath? I have been in many gardens."
"Yes, you said that before. But was the water clean? Were the gardens tended? That is what happens when there is no oath."
"So that is all? If someone takes an oath before this Landlord, you will make them your Lord?"
"Well, what else then?"
"There are many men who think they can tend my garden well, and who would be willing to swear an oath before the Landlord saying so. But that does not mean that my mother's lord, or I, share their confidence."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that I know the extent of the garden. I have a knowledge of it that cannot be gained from the road. But no man can share that knowledge until after I have made him my lord and husband. So I must have the measure of the man before."
"So what must a man do?"
"The first thing is to--"
"Yes, I know. He must swear to the Landlord. But after?"
"He must return to me, and ask to see my mother's lord."
"And what would he say?"
"That depends on the man."
At this parting comment, she turned and walked slowly back into the garden, pulling the gate closed behind her. I spurred my horse, which began to trot down the road. I did not know what to think, but I needed to find this Landlord.