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You can imagine the packing, the running up and down stairs, the difficulty of choosing what to leave behind—for that is, after all, what it comes to when you are going away, much more than the difficulty of choosing what you will take with you. Miss Sandal, surrounded by heaps of toys and books—far too large to have been got into the trunks, even if all the clothes had been left out—at last settled the question by promising to send on, by post or by carrier, any little thing which had been left behind and which the children should all agree was necessary to their happiness.
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The Wonderful Garden
LONDON ∙ NEW YORK ∙ TORONTO ∙ SAO PAULO ∙ MOSCOW
PARIS ∙ MADRID ∙ BERLIN ∙ ROME ∙ MEXICO CITY ∙ MUMBAI ∙ SEOUL ∙ DOHA
TOKYO ∙ SYDNEY ∙ CAPE TOWN ∙ AUCKLAND ∙ BEIJING
Published by Sovereign Classic
First published in 2018
Copyright © 2018 Sovereign
All Rights Reserved.
It was Caroline’s birthday, and she had had some very pleasant presents. There was a blotting-book of blue leather (at least, it looked like leather), with pink and purple roses painted on it, from her younger sister Charlotte; and a paint-box—from her brother Charles—as good as new.
‘I’ve hardly used it at all,’ he said, ‘and it’s much nicer than anything I could have bought you with my own money, and I’ve wiped all the paints clean.’
‘It’s lovely,’ said Caroline; ‘and the beautiful brushes, too!’
‘Real fitch,’ said Charles proudly. ‘They’ve got points like needles.’
‘Just like,’ said Caroline, putting them one after the other into her mouth, and then holding them up to the light.
Besides the paint-box and the blotting-book, a tin-lined case had come from India, with a set of carved chess-men from father, and from mother some red and blue scarves, and, most glorious of imaginable gifts, a leopard-skin.
‘They will brighten the play-room a little,’ said mother in her letter. And they did.
Aunt Emmeline had given a copy of Sesame and Lilies, which is supposed to be good for girls, though a little difficult when you are only twelve; and Uncle Percival had presented a grey leather pocket-book and an olive-wood paper-knife with ‘Sorrento’ on the handle. The cook and housemaid had given needle-book and pin-cushion; and Miss Peckitt, the little dressmaker who came to the house to make the girls’ dresses, brought a small, thin book bound in red, with little hard raised spots like pin-heads all over it, and hoped Miss Caroline would be kind enough to accept.
‘The book,’ said Miss Peckitt, ‘was mine when a child, and my dear mother also, as a young girl, was partial to it. Please accept it, Miss, with my humble best wishes.’
‘Thanks most awfully,’ said Caroline, embracing her.
‘Thank you,’ said Miss Peckitt, straightening her collar after the sudden kiss. ‘Quite welcome, though unexpected; I had a bit of southernwood given to me this morning, which, you will find in the book, means a surprise.’
And it did, for the book was The Language of Flowers. And really that book was the beginning of this story, or, at least, if it wasn’t that book, it was the other book. But that comes later.
‘It’s ripping,’ said Caroline. ‘I do like it being red.’
The last present was a very large bunch of marigolds and a halfpenny birthday-card, with a gold anchor and pink clasped hands on it, from the boy who did the boots and knives.
‘We’ll decorate our room,’ said Charlotte, ‘in honour of your birthday, Caro. We’ve got lots of coloured things, and I’ll borrow cook’s Sunday scarf. It’s pink and purple shot silk—a perfect dream! I’ll fly!’
She flew; and on her return they decorated their room.
You will perhaps wonder why they were so anxious to decorate their room with coloured things. It was because the house they lived in had so little colour in it that it was more like a print of a house in a book—all black and white and grey, you know—than like a house for real people to live in. It was a pale, neat, chilly house. There was, for instance, white straw matting on the floors instead of warm, coloured carpets; and on the stairs a sort of pale grey cocoa-nut matting. The window curtains were of soft cotton, and were palely lavender; they had no damask richness, no gay flowery patterns. The walls were not papered, but distempered in clean pale tints, and the general effect was rather like that of a very superior private hospital. The fact that the floors were washed every week with Sanitas gave a pleasing wood-yard scent. There were no coloured pictures in the house—only brown copies of great paintings by Raphael and Velazquez and people like that.
The Stanmore children lived here because their father and mother were in India and their other relations in New Zealand—all except old Uncle Charles, who was their mother’s uncle and who had quarrelled with, or been quarrelled with by, their father and mother in bygone years.
The owners of the house, whose name was Sandal, were relations of some sort—cousins, perhaps. Though they were called Uncle Percival and Aunt Emmeline they were not really those relations.
There was one thing about this so-called aunt and uncle—they were never cross and seldom unjust. Their natures seemed to be pale and calm like the colours of their house; and though the children had meat every day for dinner, Mr. and Miss Sandal never had anything but vegetables, and vegetables are said to be calming.
Now India is a highly-coloured country, as you may have noticed in pictures, and the Stanmore children felt faded in that grey house. And that is why they loved colour so much, and made so much fuss about the leopard-skin and the Indian embroideries and the marigold flowers and the little old red book and the wreath of gold forget-me-nots outside it encircling the words Language of Flowers.
‘When Aunt Emmeline sees how beautiful it is she’ll want to have the whole house scarved and leoparded, I shouldn’t wonder,’ said Charlotte, hanging the pink scarf over a picture of a blind girl sitting on an orange, which is called ‘Hope.’
‘I don’t suppose so,’ said Caroline. ‘I asked her once what old Uncle Charles’s house was like, that mother said was so beautiful, and she said it was far too full of things, and somewhat imperfectly ventilated.’
‘It’s a pity Uncle Charles was quarrelled with, I think,’ said Charlotte. ‘I shouldn’t at all have minded going to stay with him. I expect really he likes nice little girls. I wonder what the row was all about, and why they didn’t all kiss and be friends before the sun went down upon—like we’re told to?’
I cannot tell you what the row was about, for I know no more than you do, or than Charlotte did. And you must have noticed that grown-up people’s quarrels are very large and most mysterious. When you quarrel with your brothers or sisters it is always about some simple thing—as, for instance, who left your paint-brushes in the water, or who forgot your Water Babies out in the hayfield, or whether it was you who upset the gum over your brother’s map, or walked on the doll’s house sofa that day when you all upset it scrapping, and the furniture was put back in a hurry. Anyhow, your quarrels are soon over, because quarrelling is so uncomfortable, and, besides, you have most likely been taught, as Charlotte had, that you must not let the sun go down upon your wrath. But with grown-up people it is different. They seem sometimes to have forgotten about the sun not going down, and their quarrels last on and on and on for weeks and months and years, till you would think that they must have forgotten what the fuss was all about. But they don’t, and when Aunt Jane comes to tea you will still hear fragments about how Uncle William behaved, and what a pity it was about Edward acting as he did. If the grown-ups notice you, they will tell you to run away and play. You will never hear what the quarrel was about, and if you did you wouldn’t understand, and if you understood you’d probably think it was a silly fuss about nothing, and wonder how they could have kept it up all these years—for it is as likely as not that Uncle William did that unfortunate behaving of his many many years ago, and that Edward acted in that extraordinary way long before you were born. The only thing you can find out for certain about these grown-up quarrels is that they seem to be always about money, or about people having married people that their relations didn’t want them to marry.
No doubt you will have noticed all this, and you will perhaps have noticed as well that if you suddenly speak of a person, that person very often turns up almost at once. So that when Charlotte said, ‘I wish Uncle Charles had not been quarrelled with,’ it would have occasioned you no surprise if Uncle Charles had suddenly walked up to the front door.
But this did not happen. But some one walked up to the front door. It was the postman.
Caroline rushed out to see if there were any more birthday-cards for her. It was now the beginning of the summer holidays, but some of the girls at the High School might possibly have remembered her birthday. So she rushed out, and rushed into Aunt Emmeline, who must have been hurt, because afterwards Caroline’s head was quite sore where it had banged against Aunt Emmeline’s mother-of-pearl waist-buckle. But Aunt Emmeline only said:
‘Gently, my child, gently,’ which, as Caroline said later, was worse than being scolded, and made you feel as if you were elephants. And there weren’t any birthday-cards for her, either.
All the letters were for Miss Sandal. And just as the leopard-skin had been spread on the floor she came to the door of the children’s room with one of the letters in her hand.
‘I have a surprise for you,’ she said.
‘Do come in and sit down,’ said Caroline. That was another nice thing about Aunt Emmeline. She always treated the children’s room as though it really was the children’s room, and expected to be treated as a visitor when she came into it. She never sat down without being asked.
‘Thank you,’ she now said, and sat down. ‘The surprise is that you are going into the country for your holidays.’
There was a silence, only broken by Charles, and he only said:
‘We needn’t have bothered about decorating the room.’
‘Oh, is this decoration?’ Miss Sandal asked, as though she thought pink scarves might get on to picture-frames and leopard-skins on to floors, or marigolds on to mantelpieces, just by accident or untidiness.
‘I may say that I have known for some time that this was likely to happen—but the letter which has just come makes everything settled. You are to go the day after to-morrow.’
‘But where?’ Caroline asked. And Miss Sandal then uttered the memorable and unusual words, ‘Did you ever hear of your Great-Uncle Charles?’
‘The one that was quarrelled with?’ said Charles.
‘I did not know you knew of that. Yes. The quarrel is now at an end, and he has invited you to spend your holidays at the Manor House.’
There was a deep silence, due to the children’s wanting to shout ‘Hooray!’ and feeling that it would not be manners.
‘I thought you’d be pleased,’ said Miss Sandal. ‘It is considered a very beautiful house, and stands in a park.’
‘Are you going, Aunt Emmeline?’ Caroline asked.
‘No, dear. Only you children are invited. You will be quiet and gentle, won’t you, and try to remember that your Great-Uncle Charles is a quiet student, and not used to children. You will have a great deal of liberty, and I hope you will use it well. You have never been on a visit before without—without some one to remind you of—to tell you——’
‘Oh, that’s all right, Aunt Emmie,’ said Charlotte. ‘But who’ll sew on our buttons and mend our stockings?’
‘There is a housekeeper, of course,’ said Miss Sandal. ‘I shall pack your things to-morrow; and if you will decide what toys you would like to take with you, I will pack them too.’
‘Yes,’ said Caroline, still feeling it polite not to look pleased. ‘Thank you, Aunt Emmeline.’
‘I hope he’ll like us,’ said Charles. ‘He ought to when we’re all named after him. I say, couldn’t we all pretend to be called something else? It’s bad enough now; but it’ll be awful when there’s an Uncle Charles in the house as well as all us. I say, Aunt Emmie, are we to call him “Great”?’
‘He means Great-Uncle Charles,’ Caroline explained. ‘I expect we’d better call him plain “Uncle,” hadn’t we?’
‘He wouldn’t like being called “plain,”’ said Charles.
‘Don’t be silly,’ said Caroline, still a prey to politeness. ‘He won’t mind what little boys call him.’
‘I bet he would if I called him the sort of things you call me. Silly yourself!’
‘Children! children!’ said Miss Sandal. ‘I thought you’d be so pleased.’
‘We are,’ said Caroline. ‘Only won’t you be rather dull without us? That’s why we don’t seem so glad as you seem to think we ought to seem.’
Miss Sandal smiled, which made her long, whitey-brown-paper-coloured face look much prettier.
‘Thank you, Caroline. Your Uncle Percival and I are also about to take a holiday. We are going to Switzerland, the Italian Lakes, and to Venice. You may be as happy as you like without worrying about us.’
And it was then that the three children felt that politeness and sincerity might meet in a heartfelt shout of ‘Hooray!’
‘I shall take the leopard-skin and all my other presents,’ said Caroline.
‘And I shall take the draughts and the spilikins,’ said Charlotte.
‘Mother said there were draughts made of ebony and ivory with lions’ heads and mother-of-pearl spilikins in the drawing-room when she was a little girl,’ Caroline reminded her.
‘I shall take every single thing I’ve got, and my cricket set as well,’ said Charles.
THE MANOR HOUSE
You can imagine the packing, the running up and down stairs, the difficulty of choosing what to leave behind—for that is, after all, what it comes to when you are going away, much more than the difficulty of choosing what you will take with you. Miss Sandal, surrounded by heaps of toys and books—far too large to have been got into the trunks, even if all the clothes had been left out—at last settled the question by promising to send on, by post or by carrier, any little thing which had been left behind and which the children should all agree was necessary to their happiness. ‘And the leopard-skin takes so much room,’ she said, ‘and I believe there are wild-beast-skins as well as stuffed animals at your uncle’s house.’ So they left the leopard-skin behind too. There was a good deal of whispered talk and mystery and consulting of books that morning, and Aunt Emmeline most likely wondered what it was all about. But perhaps she didn’t. She was very calm. Anyway, she must have known when, as the cab drew up in front of the door, the three children presented themselves before her with bouquets in their hands.
‘They are for you,’ said all three at once.
Then Charlotte presented Aunt Emmeline with a bunch of balm from the garden.
‘It means sympathy,’ she said; ‘because, of course, it’s nice of you to say so, but we know that those geography places you’re going to can’t be really as nice as Uncle Charles’s.’
Charles’s bouquet was of convolvulus. ‘It means dead hope,’ he explained; ‘but it’s very pretty, too. And here’s this.’ He suddenly presented a tiny cactus in a red pot. ‘I bought it for you,’ he said; ‘it means, “Thou leavest not.”’
‘How charming of you!’ said Aunt Emmeline, and turned to Caroline, who was almost hidden behind a huge bunch of ivy and marigolds.
‘The ivy means friendship,’ said Caroline, ‘and the marigolds don’t count. I only put them because they are so goldy-bright. But if they must count, then they mean cruelty—Fate’s, you know, because you’re not coming. And there’s a purple pansy in among it somewhere, because that means, “I think of you.”’
There was a good deal of whispered talk and mystery.
‘Thank you very, very much,’ said Aunt Emmeline. ‘I can’t tell you how pleased I am. It is very sweet of you all.’
This floral presentation gave a glow and glory to their departure. At the very last moment Caroline leaned out of the window to say:
‘Oh, Aunt Emmeline, when Miss Peckitt comes to finish those muslin frocks that you’re going to send us, would you try to manage to give her a Canterbury bell from me? She’ll know what it means. But in case she doesn’t, it’s gratitude—in the book. And we’ll put flowers in our letters expressing our feelings. Good-bye.’
Uncle Percival took them to the station and——
But why should I describe a railway journey? You know exactly what it is like. I will only say that it was very dusty, and so sunny that the children wanted the blinds down, only a very tailor-made lady with a cross little grey dog said ‘No.’ And you know how black your hands get in the train, and how gritty the cushions are, and how your faces get black too, though you are quite certain you haven’t touched them with your hands. The one who got the little bit of the engine in its eye was Charles that time. But some one always gets it, because some one always puts its head out of the carriage window, no matter what the printed notices may say. You know all this. What you don’t know is what happened at the junction where, carefully attended by the guard, they changed trains. They had to wait for some time, and when they had looked at the bookstall—which was small and dull, and almost entirely newspapers—they looked at the other people who had to wait too. Most of them were of dull appearance; but there was one tall gentleman who looked, they all agreed, exactly like Mr. Murdstone in David Copperfield.
‘And he’s got David with him, too,’ said Charlotte. ‘Look!’
The Murdstone gentleman, having bought the Athenæum, the Spectator, and a seven-penny reprint of the works of Marcus Aurelius, had gone to a bench on which sat a sulky-looking boy. He spoke to the boy, and the boy answered. And the gentleman walked off.
‘He’s gone to have a bun all by himself,’ said Charles. ‘Selfish pig!’
‘I say, let’s sit down on the bench. You sit next him, Charles. Perhaps he’d talk to us.’ This was Caroline’s idea.
They did; and ‘he,’ who was, of course, the sulky boy, did speak to them. But not till
they’d spoken to him. It was Charles who did it.
‘You sit next him, Charles.’
‘Are you going on in this next train?’ he said, ‘because, if you are, we can get into your carriage. We shall be company for you.’
‘What’s the good?’ said the boy, unexpectedly; ‘it’ll only make it worse afterwards.’
‘The being alone.’
‘Well, anyhow,’ said Caroline, coming round to sit on the other side of him, ‘you’re not alone now. What’s up? Who is he?’
‘He’s a schoolmaster. I should have thought you could have seen that.’
‘We thought he was like Mr. Murdstone.’
‘He is,’ said the strange boy; ‘exactly.’
‘Oh,’ said Charlotte joyously, ‘then you’ve read David. I say!’
They were all delighted. There is no bond like the bond of having read and liked the same books. A tide of friendliness swept over the party, and when they found that he had also read Alice in Wonderland, Wild Animals I Have Known, and Hereward the Wake, as well as E. Nesbit’s stories for children in the Strand Magazine, they all felt that they had been friends for years.
‘But tell us all about it, quick, before he comes back,’ urged Charles. ‘Perhaps we could help you—bring you jam tarts and apples with a rope ladder or something. We are yours to the death—you won’t forget that, will you? And what’s your name? And where do you live? And where are you going? Tell us all about it, quick!’ he urged.
Then out it all came. The strange boy’s name was Rupert Wix, and he was at a school—not half bad the school was—and old Filon—he was the classical chap—was going to take Rupert and two other chaps to Wales for the holidays—and now the other chaps had got measles, and so had old Filon. And old Mug’s brother—his name wasn’t really Mug, of course, but Macpherson, and the brother was the Rev. William Macpherson—yes, that was him, the Murdstone chap—he was going to take Rupert to his beastly school in the country.
‘And there won’t be any other chaps,’ said Rupert, ‘because, of course, it’s vac—just old Mug’s beastly brother and me, for days and weeks and years—until the rest of the school comes back. I wish I was dead!’
‘Oh, don’t!’ said Caroline; ‘how dreadful! They’ve got scarlet fever at our school, that’s why our holidays have begun so early. Do cheer up! Have some nut-chocolate.’ A brief struggle with her pocket ended in the appearance of a packet—rather worn at the edges—the parting gift of Aunt Emmeline.
‘Is old Mug’s brother as great a pig as he looks?’ Charles asked, through Rupert’s ‘Thank-yous.’
‘Much greater,’ said Rupert cordially.
‘Then I know what I’d do,’ said Charlotte. ‘I’d run away from school, like a hero in a book, and have some adventures, and then go home to my people.’
‘That’s just it,’ said Rupert. ‘I haven’t got anywhere to run to. My people are in India. That’s why I have to have my hols at a beastly school. I’d rather be a dog in a kennel—much.’
‘Oh, so would I,’ said Charlotte. ‘But then I’d almost rather be a dog than anything. They’re such dears. I do hope there’ll be dogs where we’re going to.’
‘Where’s that?’ Rupert asked, more out of politeness than because he wanted to know.
‘I’ll write it down for you,’ said Caroline, and did, on a page of the new grey leather pocket-book Uncle Percival had given her. ‘Here, put it in your pocket, and you write and tell us what happens. Perhaps it won’t be so bad. Here he comes—quick!’
She stuffed the paper into Rupert’s jacket pocket as the tall Murdstone-like figure advanced towards them. The three children left Rupert and walked up the platform.
‘I’m glad we gave him the chock,’ said Charles, and the word was hardly out of his mouth before a cold, hard hand touched his shoulder (and his cheek as he turned quickly) and a cold, hard voice said:
‘Little boy, I do not allow those under my charge to accept sweetmeats from strange children, especially dirty ones.’
And with that the Murdstone gentleman pushed the chocolate into Charles’s hand and went back to his prey.
‘Beast! Brute! Beast!’ said Charles.
After this it was mere forlorn-hopishness and die-on-the-barricade courage, as Charlotte said later, that made the children get into the same carriage with Rupert and his captor. They might as well have saved themselves the trouble. The Murdstone gentleman put Rupert in a corner and sat in front of him with a newspaper very widely opened. And at the next station he changed carriages, taking Rupert by the hand as though he had been, as Charles put it, ‘any old baby-girl.’
But as Rupert went out Caroline whispered to him:
‘You get some borage and eat it,’ and Rupert looked ‘Why?’
‘Borage gives courage, you know,’ she said, too late, for he was whisked away before he could hear her, and they saw him no more.
They talked about him, though, till the train stopped at East Farleigh, which was their station.
There was a waggonette to meet them and a cart for their luggage, and the coachman said he would have known Caroline anywhere, because she was so like her mother, whom he remembered when he was only gardener’s boy; and this made every one feel pleasantly as though they were going home.
It was a jolly drive, across the beautiful bridge and up the hill and through the village and along a mile or more of road, where the green hedges were powdered with dust, and tufts of hay hung, caught by the brambles from the tops of passing waggons. These bits of hay made one feel that one really was in the country—not just the bare field-country of the suburb where Aunt Emmeline and Uncle Percival lived, where one could never get away from the sight of red and yellow brick villas.
And then the boy who was driving the luggage cart got down and opened a gate; and they drove through and along a woodland road where ferns and blossoming brambles grew under trees very green and not dusty at all.
From the wood they came to a smooth, green, grassy park dotted with trees, and in the middle of it, standing in a half-circle of chestnuts and sycamores, was the house.
It was a white, bow-windowed house, with a balcony at one end, and a porch, with white pillars and two broad steps; and the grass grew right up to the very doorsteps, which is unusual and very pretty. There was not a flower to be seen—only grass. The waggonette, of course, kept to the drive, which ran round to a side door—half glass.
And here Mrs. Wilmington the housekeeper received them. She was a pale, thin person—quite kind, but not at all friendly.
‘I don’t think she has time to think of anything but being ladylike,’ said Charlotte. ‘She ought to wear mittens.’
This was while they were washing their hands for tea.
‘I suppose if you’re a housekeeper you have to be careful people don’t think you’re a servant,’ said Caroline. ‘What drivel it is! I say, isn’t this something like?’
She was looking out of the bow window of the big room spread with a blue rose-patterned carpet, at the green glory of the park, lying in the sun like another and much more beautiful carpet with a pattern of trees on it.
Then they went down to tea. Such a house—full of beautiful things! But the children hadn’t time to look at them then, and I haven’t time to tell you about them now.
I will only say that the dining-room was perfect in its Turkey-carpet-and-mahogany comfort, and that it had red curtains.
‘Will you please pour the tea, Miss Caroline?’ said Mrs. Wilmington, and went away.
‘I’m glad we haven’t got to have tea with her, anyway,’ said Charles.
And then Uncle Charles came in. He was not at all what they expected. He could not have been what anybody expected. He was more shadowy than you would think anybody could be. He was more like a lightly printed photograph from an insufficiently exposed and imperfectly developed negative than anything else I can think of. He was as thin and pale as Mrs. Wilmington, but there was nothing hard or bony about him. He was soft as a shadow—his voice, his hand, his eyes.
‘And what are your names?’ he said, when he had shaken hands all round.
Caroline told him, and Charles added:
‘How funny of you not to know, uncle, when we’re all named after you!’
‘Caroline, Charles, Charlotte,’ he repeated. ‘Yes, I suppose you are. I like my tea very weak, please, with plenty of milk and no sugar.’
Caroline nervously clattered among the silver and china. She was not used to pouring out real tea for long-estranged uncles.
‘I hope you will enjoy yourselves here,’ said Uncle Charles, taking his cup; ‘and excuse me if I do not always join you at meals. I am engaged on a work—I mean I am writing a book,’ he told them.
‘What fun!’ said every one but Caroline, who had just burnt herself with the urn; and Charles added:
‘What’s it about?’
‘Magic,’ said the Uncle, ‘or, rather, a branch of magic. I thought of calling it “A Brief Consideration of the Psychological and Physiological Part played by Suggestion in So-called Magic.”’
‘It sounds interesting; at least I know it would if I knew anything about it,’ said Caroline, trying to be both truthful and polite.
‘It’s very long,’ said Charles. ‘How would you get all that printed on the book’s back?’
‘And don’t say “so-called,”’ said Charlotte. ‘It looks as if you didn’t believe in magic.’
‘If people thought I believed in magic they wouldn’t read my books,’ said Uncle Charles. ‘They’d think I was mad, you know.’
‘But why?’ Charlotte asked. ‘We aren’t mad, and we believe in it. Do you know any spells, uncle? We want awfully to try a spell. It’s the dream of our life. It is, really.’
The ghost of a smile moved the oyster-shell-coloured face of Uncle Charles.
‘So you take an interest in magic?’ he said. ‘We shall have at least that in common.’
‘Of course we do. Every one does, only they’re afraid to say so. Even servants do. They tell fortunes and dreams. Did you ever read about the Amulet, or the Phœnix, or the Words of Power? Bread and butter, please,’ said Charles.
‘You have evidently got up the subject,’ said Uncle Charles. ‘Who told you about Words of Power?’
‘It’s in The Amulet,’ said Charlotte. ‘I say, uncle, do tell us some spells.’
‘Ah!’ Uncle Charles sighed. ‘I am afraid the day of spells has gone by—except, perhaps, for people of your age. She could have told you spells enough—if all the stories of her are true.’
He pointed to a picture over the mantelpiece—a fair-haired, dark-eyed lady in a ruff.
‘She was an ancestress of ours,’ he said; ‘she was wonderfully learned.’
‘What became of her?’ Charlotte asked.
‘They burned her for a witch. It is sometimes a mistake to know too much,’ said the Uncle.
This contrasted agreeably with remembered remarks of Uncle Percival and Aunt Emmeline, such as ‘Knowledge is power’ and ‘There is no darkness but ignorance.’
The children looked at the lady in the white ruff and black velvet dress, and they liked her face.
‘What a shame!’ they said.
‘Yes,’ said the Uncle. ‘You see she’s resting her hand on two books. There’s a tradition that those books contain her magic secret. I used to look for the books when I was young, but I never found them—I never found them.’ He sighed again.
‘We’ll look, uncle,’ said Charlotte eagerly. ‘We may look, mayn’t we? Young heads are better than old shoulders, aren’t they? At least, that sounds rude, but you know I mean two heads are better than yours—— No, that’s not it. Too many cooks spoil the—— No, that’s not it either. We wouldn’t spoil anything. Too many hands make light work. That’s what I meant.’
woman in portrait above fire
‘They burned her for a witch.’
‘Your meaning was plain from the first,’ said the Uncle, finishing his tea and setting down his cup—a beautiful red and blue and gold one—very different from Aunt Emmeline’s white crockery. ‘Certainly you may look. But you’ll respect the field of your search.’
‘Uncle,’ said Caroline, from behind the silver tea-tray, ‘your house is the most lovely, splendid, glorious, beautiful house we’ve ever seen, and——’
‘We wouldn’t hurt a hair of its head,’ said Charles.
Again the Uncle smiled. ‘Well, well,’ he said, and faded away like a shadow.
‘We’ll find those books or perish,’ said Charlotte firmly.
‘Ra-ther,’ said Charles.
‘We’ll look for them, anyway,’ said Caroline. ‘Now let’s go and pick an ivy leaf and put it in a letter for poor dear Aunt Emmeline. I’ll tell you something.’
‘Well?’ said the others.
‘This is the sort of house I’ve always dreamed of when it said luxury—in books, you know.’
‘Me too,’ said Charlotte.
‘And me,’ said Charles.
THE WONDERFUL GARDEN
It was very glorious to wake up the next morning in enormous soft beds—four-posted, with many-folded silk hangings, and shiny furniture that reflected the sunlight as dark mirrors might do. And breakfast was nice, with different sorts of things to eat, in silver dishes with spirit-lamps under them,—bacon and sausages and scrambled eggs, and as much toast and marmalade as you wanted; not just porridge and apples, as at Aunt Emmeline’s. There were tea and coffee and hot milk. They all chose hot milk.
‘I feel,’ said Caroline, pouring it out of a big silver jug with little bits of ivory between the handle and the jug to keep the handle from getting too hot, ‘I feel that we’re going to enjoy every second of the time we’re here.’
‘Rather,’ said Charles, through sausage. ‘Isn’t Uncle Charles a dear,’ he added more distinctly. ‘I dreamed about him last night—that he painted his face out of the paint-box I gave Caro, and then we blew him out with the bellows to make him fatter.’
‘And did it?’ Caroline asked.
‘He burst,’ said Charles briefly, ‘and turned into showers of dead leaves.’
There was an interval of contented silence. Then—
‘What shall we do first?’ said Charles. And his sisters with one voice answered, ‘Explore, of course.’
And they finished their breakfast to dreams of exploring every hole and corner of the wonderful house.
But when they rang to have breakfast taken away it was Mrs. Wilmington who appeared.
‘Your uncle desired me to say that he thinks it’s healthy for you to spend some hours in the hopen—open air,’ she said, speaking in a small distinct voice. ‘He himself takes the air of an afternoon. So will you please all go out at once,’ she ended in a burst of naturalness, ‘and not come ’ome, home, till one o’clock.’
‘Where are we to go?’ asked Charlotte, not pleased.
‘Not beyond the park and grounds,’ said the housekeeper. ‘And,’ she added reluctantly, ‘Mr. Charles said if there was any pudding you liked to mention——’
A brief consultation ended in, ‘Treacle hat, please’; and when Mrs. Wilmington had minced off, they turned to each other and said:
‘The old duck!’ and
‘Something like an uncle.’
Then they went out, as they had been told to do. And they took off their shoes and stockings, which they had not been told to do—but, on the other hand, had not been told not to—and walked barefooted in the grass still cool and dewy under the trees. And they put on their boots again and explored the park, and explored the stable-yard, where a groom was rubbing bright the silver buckles of the harness and whistling as he rubbed. They explored the stables and the harness-room and the straw-loft and the hay-loft. And then they went back to the park and climbed trees—a little way, because though they had always known that they would climb trees if ever they had half a chance, they had not, till now, had any chance at all.
And all the while they were doing all this they were looking—at the back of their minds, even when they weren’t doing it with the part you think with—for the garden.
And there wasn’t any garden!
That was the plain fact that they had to face after two hours of sunshine and green out-of-doors.
‘And I’m certain mother said there was a garden,’ Caroline said, sitting down suddenly on the grass; ‘a beautiful garden and a terrace.’
‘Perhaps the Uncle didn’t like it, and he’s had it made not garden again—“Going back to Nature” that would be, like Aunt Emmeline talks about,’ Charles suggested.
‘And it’s dreadful if there’s no garden,’ said Caroline, ‘because of the flowers we were going to send in letters. Wild flowers don’t have such deep meanings, I’m certain.’
‘And besides we haven’t seen any wild flowers,’ said Caroline. ‘Oh, bother!’
‘Never mind,’ Charles said, ‘think of exploring the house—and finding the book, perhaps. We’ll ask the Elegant One, when we go in, why there isn’t a garden.’
‘We won’t wait till then,’ said Charlotte; ‘let’s go and ask that jolly man who’s polishing the harness. He looked as if he wouldn’t mind us talking to him.’
‘It was him drove us yesterday,’ Charles pointed out.
So they went as to an old friend. And when they asked William why there wasn’t a garden he answered surprisingly and rather indignantly:
‘Ain’t they shown you, Miss? Not a garden? There ain’t a garden to beat it hereabouts. Come on, I’ll show you.’
And, still more surprisingly, he led the way to the back door.
‘We aren’t to go indoors till dinner-time,’ said Caroline; ‘and besides, we should like to see the garden—if there really is one.’
‘Of course there is one, Miss,’ said William. ‘She’ll never see you if you’re quick. She’ll be in her room by now—at her accounts and things. And the Master’s never about in these back parts in the morning.’
‘I suppose it’s a lock-up garden and he’s going to get the key,’ said Charles in a whisper. But William wasn’t.
He led them into a whitewashed passage that had cupboards and larders opening out of it and ended in a green baize door. He opened this, and there they were in the hall.
‘Quick,’ he said, and crossed it, unlatched another door and held it open. ‘Come in quiet,’ he said, and closed the door again. And there they all were in a little square room with a stone staircase going down the very middle of it, like a well. There was a wooden railing round three sides of the stairway, and nothing else in the room at all, except William and the children.
‘A secret staircase,’ said Charlotte. ‘Oh, it can’t be, really. How lovely!’
‘I daresay it was a secret once,’ said William, striking a match and lighting a candle that stood at the top of the stairs in a brass candlestick. ‘You see there wasn’t always these banisters, and you can see that ridge along the wall. My grandfather says it used to be boarded over and that’s where the joists went. They’d have a trap-door or something over the stairway, I shouldn’t be surprised.’
‘But what’s the stair for?—Where does it go? Are we going down?’ the children asked.
‘Yes, and sharp too. Nobody’s supposed to go this way except the Master. But you’ll not tell on me. I’ll go first. Mind the steps, Miss. They’re a bit wore at the edges, like.’
They minded the steps, going carefully down, following the blinking, winking, blue and yellow gleam of the candle.
There were not many steps.
‘Straight ahead now,’ said William, holding the candle up to show the groined roof of a long straight passage, built of stone, and with stone flags for the floor of it.
‘How perfectly ripping!’ said Charlotte breathlessly. ‘It is brickish of you to bring us here. Where does it go to?’
‘You wait a bit,’ said William, and went on. The passage ended in another flight of steps—up this time,—and the steps ended in a door, and when William had opened this every one blinked and shut their eyes, for the doorway framed green leaves with blue sky showing through them, and——
‘’Ere’s the garden,’ said William; and here, indeed, it was.
‘There’s another door the other end what the gardeners go in and out of,’ said William. ‘I’ll get you a key sometime.’
The door had opened into a sort of arch—an arbour, for its entrance was almost veiled by thick-growing shrubs.
‘Oh, thank you,’ said Caroline; ‘but when did they make this passage, and what for?’
‘They made that passage when the folks in the house was too grand to go through the stable-yard and too lazy to go round,’ said William. ‘There’s no stable-yard way now,’ he added. ‘So long! I must be getting back, Miss. Don’t you let on as I brought you through.’
‘Of course not,’ every one said. Charles added, ‘But I didn’t know the house was as old as secret passages in history times.’
‘It’s any age you please,’ said William; ‘the back parts is.’
He went back through the door, and the children went out through the leafy screen in front, into the most beautiful garden that could be, with a wall. I like unwalled gardens myself, with views from the terraces. From this garden you could see nothing but tall trees and—the garden itself.
The lower half was a vegetable garden arranged in squares with dwarf fruit-trees and flower-borders round them, like the borders round old-fashioned pocket-handkerchiefs. Then about half-way up the garden came steps—stone balustrades, a terrace, and beyond that a flower garden with smooth green turf paths, box-edged, a sundial in the middle, and in the flower-beds flowers—more flowers than I could give names to.
‘How perfectly perfect!’ Charlotte said.
‘I do wish I’d brought out my Language Of!’ said Caroline.
‘How awfully tidy everything is!’ said Charles in awe-struck tones.
There was nowhere an imperfect leaf, a deformed bud, or a misshapen flower. Every plant grew straight and strong, and with an extraordinary evenness.
‘They look like pictures of plants more than like real ones,’ said Caroline quite truly.
An old gardener was sweeping the terrace steps, and gave the children ‘Good morning.’
They gave it back, and stayed to watch him. It seemed polite to say something before turning away. So Caroline said:
‘How beautifully everything grows here.’
‘Ay,’ said the old man, ‘it do. Say perfect and you won’t be far out.’
‘It’s very clever of you,’ said Charlotte. ‘Ill weeds don’t grow in a single place in your garden.’
‘I don’t say as I don’t do something,’ said the old man, ‘but seems as if there was a blessing on the place—everything thrives and grows just-so. It’s the soil or the aspick, p’raps. I dunno. An’ I’ve noticed things.’
‘What things?’ was the natural question.
‘Oh, just things,’ the gardener answered shortly, and swept away to the end of the long steps.
‘I say’—Caroline went after him to do it—‘I say, may we pick the flowers?’
‘In moderation,’ said the gardener, and went away.
children looking in garden
‘How beautifully everything grows here.’
‘I wonder what he’d call moderation,’ said Charles; and they discussed this question so
earnestly that the dinner-bell rang before they had picked any flowers at all.
The gate at the end of the garden was open, and they went out that way. Over the gate was a stone with words and a date. They stopped to spell out the carved letters:
HERE BE DREAMES
Caroline copied the last two words in the grey-covered pocket-book; and when Mrs. Wilmington came in to carve the mutton, Caroline asked what the words meant.
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