Others came after them in a continuous stream, some too outlandish to be named or recognised, others half familiar, very quick and earnest, but merry at the same time, and all intent upon bringing back something for the world. It was not for themselves alone, or for their own enjoyment that they hurried in so eagerly.
'How splendid! What a crew!' gasped Monkey. 'Quel spectacle!' And she began a somersault.
'Be quiet, will you?' was the rejoinder, as a figure who seemed to have a number of lesser faces within his own big one of sunburned brown, tumbled by them somewhat heavily and left a smell of earth and leaves and potting-sheds about the trees behind him. 'Won't my flowers just shine and dazzle 'em? And won't the dead leaves crackle as I burn 'em up!' he chuckled as he disappeared from view. There was a rush of light as an eddy of the star-stream caught him, and something certainly went up in flame. A faint odour reached the children that was like the odour of burning leaves.
Then, with a rush, came a woman whose immensely long thin arms reached out in front of her and vanished through the entrance a whole minute before the rest of her. But they could not see the face. Some one with high ringing laughter followed, though they could not see the outline at all. It went so fast, they only heard the patter of light footsteps on the moss and needles. Jimbo and Monkey felt slightly uncomfortable as they watched and listened, and the feeling became positive uneasiness the next minute as a sound of cries and banging reached them from the woods behind. There was a great commotion going on somewhere in the train.
'I can't get out, I can't get out!' called a voice unhappily. 'And if I do, how shall I ever get in again? The entrance is so ridiculously small. I shall only stick and fill it up. Why did I ever come? Oh, why did I come at all?'
'Better stay where you are, lady,' the Guard was saying. 'You're good ballast. You can keep the train down. That's something. Steady thinking's always best, you know.'
Turning, the children saw a group of figures pushing and tugging at a dark mass that appeared to have stuck halfway in the carriage door. The pressure of many willing hands gave it a different outline every minute. It was like a thing of india-rubber or elastic. The roof strained outwards with ominous cracking sounds; the windows threatened to smash; the foot-board, supporting the part of her that had emerged, groaned with the weight already.
'Oh, what's the good of me?' cried the queer deep voice with petulance. 'You couldn't get a wisp of hay in there, much less all of me. I should block the whole cave up!'
'Come out a bit!' a voice cried.
'Go back then!' suggested the Guard.
'But I can't. Besides I'm upside down!'
'You haven't got any upside down,' was the answer; 'so that's impossible.'
'Well, anyhow, I'm in a mess and muddle like this,' came the smothered voice, as the figures pulled and pushed with increasing energy.' And my tarpaulin skirt is all askew. The winds are at it as usual.'
'Nothing short of a gale can help you now,' was somebody's verdict, while Monkey whispered beneath her breath to Jimbo. 'She's even bigger than Mother. Quelle masse!'
Then came a thing of mystery and wonder from the sky. A flying figure, scattering points of light through the darkness like grains of shining sand, swooped down and stood beside the group.
'Oh, Dustman,' cried the guard, 'give her of your dust and put her to sleep, please. She's making noise enough to bring the Interfering Sun above the horizon before his time.'
Without a word the new arrival passed one hand above the part of her that presumably was the face. Something sifted downwards. There was a sound of gentle sprinkling through the air; a noise followed that was half a groan and half a sigh. Her struggles grew gradually less, then ceased. They pushed the bulk of her backwards through the door. Spread over many seats the Woman of the Haystack slept.
'Thank you,' said several voices with relief. 'She'll dream she's been in. That's just as good.'
'Every bit,' the others answered, resuming their interrupted journey towards the cavern's mouth.
'And when I come out she shall have some more,' answered the Dustman in a soft, thick voice; 'as much as ever she can use.'
He flitted in his turn towards the stream of gold. His feet were already in it when he paused a moment to shift from one shoulder to the other a great sack he carried. And in that moment was heard a low voice singing dreamily the Dustman's curious little song. It seemed to come from the direction of the train where the Guard stood talking to a man the children had not noticed before. Presumably he was the engine-driver, since all the passengers were out now. But it may have been the old Dustman himself who sang it. They could not tell exactly. The voice made them quite drowsy as they listened:—
The busy Dustman flutters down the lanes, He's off to gather star-dust for our dreams.
He dusts the Constellations for his sack, Finding it thickest on the Zodiac, But sweetest in the careless meteor's track; That he keeps only For the old and lonely, (And is very strict about it!) Who sleep so little that they need the best; The rest,— The common stuff,— Is good enough
For Fraulein, or for Baby, or for Mother, Or any other Who likes a bit of dust, But yet can do without it If they must!
The busy Dustman hurries through the sky The kind old Dustman's coming to your eye!
By the time the song was over he had disappeared through the opening.
'I'll show 'em the real stuff!' came back a voice—this time certainly his own—far inside now.
'I simply love that man,' exclaimed Monkey. 'Songs are usually such twiddly things, but that was real.' She looked as though a somersault were imminent. 'If only Daddy knew him, he'd learn how to write unwumbled stories. Oh! we must get Daddy out.'
'It's only the head that sticks,' was her brother's reply. 'We'll grease it.'
They remained silent a moment, not knowing what to do next, when they became aware that the big man who had been talking to the Guard was coming towards them.
'They've seen us!' she whispered in alarm. 'He's seen us.' An inexplicable thrill ran over her.
'They saw us long ago,' her brother added contemptuously. His voice quavered.
Jimbo turned to face them, getting in front of his sister for protection, although she towered above him by a head at least. The Guard, who led the way, they saw now, was a girl—a girl not much older than Monkey, with big blue eyes. 'There they are,' the Guard said loudly, pointing; and the big man, looking about him as though he did not see very clearly, stretched out his hands towards him. 'But you must be very quick,' she added, 'the Interfering Sun—-'
'I'm glad you came to meet us. I hoped you might. Jane Anne's gone in ages ago. Now we'll all go in together,' he said in a deep voice, 'and gather star-dust for our dreams...' He groped to find them. His hands grew shadowy. He felt the empty air.
His voice died away even as he said it, and the difficulty he had in seeing seemed to affect their own eyes as well. A mist rose. It turned to darkness. The river of starlight faded. The net had suddenly big holes in it. They were slipping through. Wind whispered in the trees. There was a sharp, odd sound like the plop of a water-rat in a pond....
'We must be quick,' his voice came faintly from far away. They just had time to see his smile, and noticed the gleam of two gold teeth.... Then the darkness rushed up and covered them. The stream of tangled, pouring beams became a narrow line, so far away it was almost like the streak of a meteor in the sky.... Night hid the world and everything in it....
Two radiant little forms slipped past Riquette and slid feet first into the sleeping bodies on the beds.
There came soon after a curious sound from the outer room, as Mother turned upon her sofa-bed and woke. The sun was high above the Blumlisalp, spreading a sheet of gold and silver on the lake. Birds were singing in the plane trees. The roof below the open windows shone with dew, and draughts of morning air, sweet and fresh, poured into the room. With it came the scent of flowers and forests, of fields and peaty smoke from cottage chimneys....
But there was another perfume too. Far down the sky swept some fleet and sparkling thing that made the world look different. It was delicate and many-tinted, soft as a swallow's wing, and full of butterflies and tiny winds.
For, with the last stroke of midnight from the old church tower, May had waked April; and April had run off into the mountains with the dawn. Her final shower of tears still shone upon the ground. Already May was busy drying them.
That afternoon, when school was over, Monkey and Jimbo found themselves in the attics underneath the roof together. They had abstracted their father's opera-glasses from the case that hung upon the door, and were using them as a telescope.
'What can you see?' asked Jimbo, waiting for his turn, as they looked towards the hazy mountains behind the village.
'That must be the opening, then,' he suggested, 'just air.'
His sister lowered the glasses and stared at him. 'But it can't be a real place?' she said, the doubt in her tone making her words a question. 'Daddy's never been there himself, I'm sure—from the way he told it. You only dreamed it.' 'Well, anyhow,' was the reply with conviction, 'it's there, so there must be somebody who believes in it.' And he was evidently going to add that he had been there, when Mother's voice was heard calling from the yard below, 'Come down from that draughty place. It's dirty, and there are dead rats in it. Come out and play in the sunshine. Try and be sensible like Jinny.'
They smuggled the glasses into their case again, and went off to the woods to play. Though their union seemed based on disagreements chiefly they were always quite happy together like this, living in a world entirely their own. Jinny went her own way apart always—ever busy with pots and pans and sewing. She was far too practical and domestic for their tastes to amalgamate; yet, though they looked down upon her a little, no one in their presence could say a word against her. For they recognised the child's unusual selflessness, and rather stood in awe of it.
And this afternoon in the woods they kept coming across places that seemed oddly familiar, although they had never visited them before. They had one of their curious conversations about the matter—queer talks they indulged in sometimes when quite alone. Mother would have squelched such talk, and Daddy muddled them with long words, while Jane Anne would have looked puzzled to the point of tears.
'I'm sure I've been here before,' said Monkey, looking across the trees to a place where the limestone cliffs dropped in fantastic shapes of pointed rock. 'Have you got that feeling too?'
Jimbo, with his hands in the pockets of his blue reefer overcoat and his feet stuck wide apart, stared hard at her a moment. His little mind was searching too.
'It's natural enough, I suppose,' he answered, too honest to pretend, too proud, though, to admit he had not got it.
They were rather breathless with their climb, and sat down on a boulder in the shade.
'I know all this awfully well,' Monkey presently resumed, looking about her. 'But certainly we've never come as far as this. I think my underneath escapes and comes to places by itself. I feel like that. Does yours?'
He looked up from a bundle of moss he was fingering. This was rather beyond him.
'Oh, I feel all right,' he said, 'just ordinary.' He would have given his ten francs in the savings bank, the collection of a year, to have answered otherwise. 'You're always getting tummy-aches and things,' he added kindly. 'Girls do.' It was pride that made the sharp addition. But Monkey was not hurt; she did not even notice what he said. The insult thus ignored might seem almost a compliment Jimbo thought with quick penitence.
'Then, perhaps,' she continued, more than a little thrilled by her own audacity, 'it's somebody else's thinking. Thinking skips about the world like anything, you know. I read it once in one of Daddy's books.'
'Oh, yes—like that—-'
'Thinking hard does make things true, of course,' she insisted.
'But you can't exactly see them,' he put in, to explain his own inexperience. He felt jealous of these privileges she claimed. 'They can't last, I mean.' 'But they can't be wiped out either,' she said decidedly. 'I'm sure of that.'
Presently they scrambled higher and found among the rocks an opening to a new cave. The Jura mountains are riddled with caves which the stalactites turn into palaces and castles. The entrance was rather small, and they made no attempt to crawl in, for they knew that coming out again was often very difficult. But there was great excitement about it, and while Monkey kept repeating that she knew it already, or else had seen a picture of it somewhere, Jimbo went so far as to admit that they had certainly found it very easily, while suggesting that the rare good fortune was due rather to his own leadership and skill.
But when they came home to tea, full of the glory of their discovery, they found that a new excitement made the announcement fall a little flat. For in the Den, Daddy read a telegram he had just received from England to say that Cousin Henry was coming out to visit them for a bit. His room had already been engaged at the carpenter's house. He would arrive at the end of the week.
It was the first of May!
One of the great facts of the world I hold to be the registration in the Universe of every past scene and thought. F. W. M.
No place worth knowing yields itself at sight, and those the least inviting on first view may leave the most haunting pictures upon the walls of memory.
This little village, that Henry Rogers was thus to revisit after so long an interval, can boast no particular outstanding beauty to lure the common traveller. Its single street winds below the pine forest; its tiny church gathers close a few brown-roofed houses; orchards guard it round about; the music of many fountains tinkle summer and winter through its cobbled yards; and its feet are washed by a tumbling stream that paints the fields with the radiance of countless wild-flowers in the spring. But tourists never come to see them. There is no hotel, for one thing, and ticket agents, even at the railway stations, look puzzled a moment before they realise where this place with the twinkling name can hide.... Some consult books. Yet, once you get there, it is not easy to get away again. Something catches the feet and ears and eyes. People have been known to go with all their luggage on Gygi's handcart to the station—then turn aside at the last moment, caught back by the purple woods.
A traveller, glancing up at the little three-storey house with 'Poste et Telegraphe' above the door, could never guess how busy the world that came and went beneath its red-tiled roof. In spring the wistaria tree (whence the Pension borrowed its brave name, Les Glycines) hangs its blossoms between 'Poste' and 'Telegraphe,' and the perfume of invisible lilacs drenches the street from the garden at the back. Beyond, the road dips past the bee-hives of la cure; and Boudry towers with his five thousand feet of blue pine woods over the horizon. The tinkling of several big stone fountains fills the street.
But the traveller would not linger, unless he chanced to pass at twelve o'clock and caught the stream of people going into their mid- day dinner at the Pension. And even then he probably would not see the presiding genius, Madame Jequier, for as often as not she would be in her garden, busy with eternal bulbs, and so strangely garbed that if she showed herself at all, it would be with a shrill, plaintive explanation—'Mais il ne faut pas me regarder. Je suis invisible!' Whereupon, consistently, she would not speak again, but flit in silence to and fro, as though she were one of those spirits she so firmly believed in, and sometimes talked to by means of an old Planchette.
And on this particular morning the Widow Jequier was 'invisible' in her garden clothes as Gygi, the gendarme, came down the street to ring the midi bell. Her mind was black with anxiety. She was not thinking of the troop that came to dejeuner, their principal meal of the day, paying a franc for it, but rather of the violent scenes with unpaid tradesmen that had filled the morning-tradesmen who were friends as well (which made it doubly awkward) and often dropped in socially for an evening's music and conversation. Her pain darkened the sunshine, and she found relief in the garden which was her passion. For in three weeks the interest on the mortgages was due, and she had nothing saved to meet it. The official notice had come that morning from the Bank. Her mind was black with confused pictures of bulbs, departed pensionnaires, hostile bankers, and—the ghastly charite de la Commune which awaited her. Yet her husband, before he went into the wine-business so disastrously, had been pasteur here. He had preached from this very church whose bells now rang out the mid-day hour. The spirit of her daughter, she firmly believed, still haunted the garden, the narrow passages, and the dilapidated little salon where the ivy trailed along the ceiling.
Twelve o'clock, striking from the church-tower clock, and the voice of her sister from the kitchen window, then brought the Widow Jequier down the garden in a flying rush. The table was laid and the soup was almost ready. The people were coming in. She was late as usual; there was no time to change. She flung her garden hat aside and scrambled into more presentable garments, while footsteps already sounded on the wooden stairs that led up from the village street.
One by one the retired governesses entered, hung their cloaks upon the pegs in the small, dark hallway, and took their places at the table. They began talking among themselves, exchanging the little gossip of the village, speaking of their books and clothes and sewing, of the rooms in which they lived, scattered down the street, of the heating, of barking dogs that disturbed their sleep, the behaviour of the postman, the fine spring weather, and the views from their respective windows across the lake and distant Alps. Each extolled her own position: one had a garden; another a balcony; a third was on the top floor and so had no noisy tenant overhead; a fourth was on the ground, and had no stairs to climb. Each had her secret romance, and her secret method of cheap feeding at home. There were five or six of them, and this was their principal meal in the day; they meant to make the most of it; they always did; they went home to light suppers of tea and coffee, made in their own appartements. Invitations were issued and accepted. There were some who would not speak to each other. Cliques, divisions, societes a part, existed in the little band. And they talked many languages, learned in many lands—Russian, German, Italian, even Armenian—for all had laboured far from their country, spending the best of their years teaching children of foreign families, many of them in important houses. They lived upon their savings. Two, at least, had less than thirty pounds a year between them and starvation, and all were of necessity careful of every centime. They wore the same dresses from one year's end to another. They had come home to die.
The Postmaster entered with the cash-box underneath one arm. He bowed gravely to the assembled ladies, and silently took his seat at the table. He never spoke; at meals his sole remarks were statements: 'Je n'ai pas de pain,' 'Il me manque une serviette,' and the like, while his black eyes glared resentfully at every one as though they had done him an injury. But his fierceness was only in the eyes. He was a meek and solemn fellow really. Nature had dressed him in black, and he respected her taste by repeating it in his clothes. Even his expression was funereal, though his black eyes twinkled.
The servant-girl at once brought in his plate of soup, and he tucked the napkin beneath his chin and began to eat. From twelve to two the post was closed; his recreation time was precious, and no minute must be lost. After dinner he took his coat off and did the heavy work of the garden, under the merciless oversight of the Widow Jequier, his sister-in-law, the cash-box ever by his side. He chatted with his tame corbeau, but he never smiled. In the winter he did fretwork. On the stroke of two he went downstairs again and disappeared into the cramped and stuffy bureau, whose window on the street was framed by the hanging wistaria blossoms; and at eight o'clock his day of labour ended. He carried the cash-box up to bed at 8.15. At 8.30 his wife followed him. From nine to five he slept.
Alone of all the little household the Widow Jequier scorned routine. She came and went with the uncertainty of wind. Her entrances and exits, too, were like the wind. With a scattering rush she scurried through the years—noisy, ineffective, yet somewhere fine. Her brother had finished his plate of soup, wiped his black moustaches elaborately, and turned his head towards the kitchen door with the solemn statement 'Je n'ai pas de viande,' when she descended upon the scene like a shrill-voiced little tempest.
'Bonjour Mesdames, bonjour Mademoiselle, bonjour, bonjour,' she bowed and smiled, washing her hands in the air; 'et comment allez-vous ce matin?' as the little band of hungry governesses rose with one accord and moved to take their places. Some smiled in answer; others merely bowed. She made enemies as well as friends, the Widow Jequier. With only one of them she shook hands warmly-the one whose payments were long overdue. But Madame Jequier never asked for her money; she knew the old body's tiny income; she would pay her when she could. Only last week she had sent her food and clothing under the guise of a belated little Easter present. Her heart was bigger than her body.
'La famille Anglaise n'est pas encore ici,' announced the Postmaster as though it were a funeral to come. He did not even look up. His protests passed ever unobserved.
'But I hear them coming,' said a governess, swallowing her soup with a sound of many waters. And, true enough, they came. There was a thunder on the stairs, the door into the hall flew open, voices and laughter filled the place, and Jimbo and Monkey raced in to take their places, breathless, rosy, voluble, and very hungry. Jane Anne followed sedately, bowing to every one in turn. She had a little sentence for all who cared for one. Smiles appeared on every face. Mother, like a frigate coming to anchor with a favourable wind, sailed into her chair; and behind her stumbled Daddy, looking absent-minded and pre- occupied. Money was uncommonly scarce just then—the usual Bourcelles complaint.
Conversation in many tongues, unmusically high-pitched, then at once broke loose, led ever by la patronne at the head of the table. The big dishes of meat and vegetables were handed round; plates were piled and smothered; knives and forks were laid between mouthfuls upon plate-edges, forming a kind of frieze all round the cloth; the gossip of the village was retailed with harmless gusto. Dejeuner at Les Glycines was in full swing. When the apples and oranges came round, most of the governesses took two apiece, slipping one or other into little black velvet bags they carried on their laps below the table.
Some, it was whispered, put bread there too to keep them company. But this was probably a libel. Madame Jequier, at any rate, never saw it done. She looked the other way. 'We all must live,' was her invariable answer to such foolish stories. 'One cannot sleep if one's supper is too light.' Like her body, her soul was a bit untidy—careless, that is, with loose ends. Who would have guessed, for instance, the anxiety that just now gnawed her very entrails? She was a mixture of shameless egotism, and of burning zeal for others. There was a touch of grandeur in her.
At the end of the table, just where the ivy leaves dropped rather low from their trailing journey across the ceiling, sat Miss Waghorn, her vigorous old face wrapped, apparently, in many apple skins. She was well past seventy, thin, erect, and active, with restless eyes, and hooked nose, the poor old hands knotted with rheumatism, yet the voice somehow retaining the energy of forty. Her manners were charming and old-fashioned, and she came of Quaker stock. Seven years before she arrived at the Pension for the summer, and had forgotten to leave. For she forgot most things within ten minutes of their happening. Her memory was gone; she remembered a face, as most other things as well, about twenty minutes; introductions had to be repeated every day, and sometimes at supper she would say with her gentle smile, 'We haven't met before, I think,' to some one she had held daily intercourse with for many months. 'I was born in '37,' she loved to add, 'the year of Queen Victoria's accession'; and five minutes later you might hear her ask, 'Now, guess how old I am; I don't mind a bit.' She was as proud of her load of years as an old gentleman of his thick hair. 'Say exactly what you think. And don't guess too low, mind.' Her numerous stories were self-repeaters.
Miss Waghorn's memory was a source of worry and anxiety to all except the children, who mercilessly teased her. She loved the teasing, though but half aware of it. It was their evil game to extract as many of her familiar stories as possible, one after another. They knew all the clues. There was the Cornishman—she came from Cornwall—who had seen a fairy; his adventure never failed to thrill them, though she used the same words every time and they knew precisely what was coming. She was particularly strong on family reminiscences:—her father was bald at thirty, her brother's beard was so long that he tied it round his neck when playing cricket; her sister 'had the shortest arms you ever saw.' Always of youth she spoke; it was pathetic, so determined was she to be young at seventy. Her family seemed distinguished in this matter of extremes.
But the superiority of Cornish over Devonshire cream was her piece de resistance. Monkey need merely whisper—Miss Waghorn's acuteness of hearing was positively uncanny—'Devonshire cream is what I like,' to produce a spurt of explanation and defence that lasted a good ten minutes and must be listened to until the bitter end.
Jimbo would gravely inquire in a pause—of a stranger, if possible, if not, of the table in general—
'Have you ever seen a fairy?'
'No, but I've eaten Cornish cream—it's poison, you know,' Monkey would reply. And up would shoot the keen old face, preened for the fray.
'We haven't been introduced, I think'—forgetting the formal introduction of ten minutes ago—'but I overheard, if you'll forgive my interrupting, and I can tell you all about Cornish cream. I was born in '37'—with her eager smile—'and for years it was on our table. I have made quantities of it. The art was brought first by the Phoenicians——'
'Venetians,' said Monkey.
'No, Phoenicians, dear, when they came to Cornwall for tin——'
'To put the cream in,' from the same source.
'No, you silly child, to get tin from the mines, of course, and——'
Then Mother or Daddy, noting the drift of things, would interfere, and the youngsters would be obliterated—until next time. Miss Waghorn would finish her recital for the hundredth time, firmly believing it to be the first. She was a favourite with everybody, in spite of the anxiety she caused. She would go into town to pay her bill at the bootmaker's, and order another pair of boots instead, forgetting why she came. Her income was sixty pounds a year. She forgot in the afternoon the money she had received in the morning, till at last the Widow Jequier seized it for her the moment it arrived. And at night she would doze in her chair over the paper novel she had been "at" for a year and more, beginning it every night afresh, and rarely getting beyond the opening chapter. For it was ever new. All were anxious, though, what she would do next. She was so full of battle.
Everybody talked at once, but forced conversation did not flourish. Bourcelles was not fashionable; no one ever had appendicitis there. Yet ailments of a milder order were the staple, inexhaustible subjects at meals. Instead of the weather, mon estomac was the inexhaustible tale. The girl brought in the little Cantonal newspaper, and the widow read out selections in a high, shrill voice, regardless who listened. Misfortunes and accidents were her preference. Grand ciel and quelle horreur punctuated the selections. 'There's Tante Jeanne grand-cieling as usual,' Mother would say to her husband, who, being a little deaf, would answer, 'What?' and Tante Jeanne, overhearing him, would re-read the accident for his especial benefit, while the governesses recounted personal experiences among themselves, and Miss Waghorn made eager efforts to take part in it all, or tell her little tales of fairies and Cornish cream....
One by one the governesses rose to leave; each made a comprehensive bow that included the entire company. Daddy lit a cigarette or let Jimbo light it for him, too wumbled with his thoughts of afternoon work to notice the puff stolen surreptitiously on the way. Jane Anne folded her napkin carefully, talking with Mother in a low voice about the packing of the basket with provisions for tea. Tea was included in the Pension terms; in a small clothes-basket she carried bread, milk, sugar, and butter daily across to La Citadelle, except on Sundays when she wore gloves and left the duty to the younger children who were less particular.
The governesses, charged with life for another twenty-four hours at least, flocked down the creaking stairs. They nodded as they passed the Bureau window where the Postmaster pored over his collection of stamps, or examined a fretwork pattern of a boy on a bicycle—there was no heavy garden work that day—and went out into the street. They stood in knots a moment, discussing unfavourably the food just eaten, and declaring they would stand it no longer. 'Only where else can we go?' said one, feeling automatically at her velvet bag to make sure the orange was safely in it. Upstairs, at the open window, Madame Jequier overheard them as she filled the walnut shells with butter for the birds. She only smiled.
'I wish we could help her,' Mother was saying to her husband, as they watched her from the sofa in the room behind. 'A more generous creature never lived.' It was a daily statement that lacked force owing to repetition, yet the emotion prompting it was ever new and real.
'Or a more feckless,' was his reply. 'But if we ever come into our estates, we will. It shall be the first thing.' His mind always hovered after those distant estates when it was perplexed by immediate financial difficulty, and just now he was thinking of various bills and payments falling due. It was his own sympathetic link with the widow—ways and means, and the remorseless nature of sheets of paper with columns of figures underneath the horrible word doit.
'So Monsieur 'Enry Rogairs is coming,' she said excitedly, turning to them a moment on her way to the garden. 'And after all these years! He will find the house the same, and the garden better—oh, wonderfully improved. But us, helas! he will find old, oh, how old!' She did not really mean herself, however.
She began a long 'reminiscent' chapter, full of details of the days when he and Daddy had been boys together, but in the middle of it Daddy just got up and walked out, saying, 'I must get over to my work, you know.' There was no artificiality of manners at Bourcelles. Mother followed him, with a trifle more ceremony. 'Ah, c'est partir a l'anglaise!' sighed the widow, watching them go. She was accustomed to it. She went out into her garden, full of excitement at the prospect of the new arrival. Every arrival for her meant a possible chance of help. She was as young as her latest bulb really. Courage, hope, and generosity invariably go together.
Take him and cut him out in little stars, And he will make the face of heaven so fine That all the world will be in love with night And pay no worship to the garish sun! Romeo and Juliet.
The announcement of Henry Rogers's coming was received—variously, for any new arrival into the Den circle was subjected to rigorous criticism. This criticism was not intentional; it was the instinctive judgment that children pass upon everything, object or person, likely to affect themselves. And there is no severer bar of judgment in the world.
'Who is Cousinenry? What a name! Is he stiff, I wonder?' came from Monkey, almost before the announcement had left her father's lips. 'What will he think of Tante Jeanne?' Her little torrent of questions that prejudged him thus never called for accurate answers as a rule, but this time she meant to have an answer. 'What is he exaccurately?' she added, using her own invention made up of 'exact' and 'accurate.'
Mother looked up from the typewritten letter to reply, but before she could say, 'He's your father's cousin, dear; they were here as boys twenty years ago to learn French,' Jinny burst in with an explosive interrogation. She had been reading La Bonne Menagere in a corner. Her eyes, dark with conjecture, searched the faces of both parents alternately. 'Excuse me, Mother, but is he a clergyman?' she asked with a touch of alarm.
'Whatever makes you think that, child?'
'Clergymen are always called the reverundhenry. He'll wear black and have socks that want mending.'
'He shouldn't punt his letters,' declared Monkey. 'He's not an author, is he?'
Jimbo, busy over school tasks, with a huge slate-pencil his crumpled fingers held like a walking-stick, watched and listened in silence. He was ever fearful, perhaps, lest his superior man's knowledge might be called upon and found wanting. Questions poured and crackled like grapeshot, while the truth slowly emerged from the explanations the parents were occasionally permitted to interject. The personality of Cousin Henry Rogers grew into life about them—gradually. The result was a curious one that Minks would certainly have resented with indignation. For Cousinenry was, apparently, a business man with pockets full of sovereigns; stern, clever, and important; the sort of man that gets into Governments and things, yet somewhere with the flavour of the clergyman about him. This clerical touch was Jane Anne's contribution to the picture; and she was certain that he wore silk socks of the most expensive description—a detail she had read probably in some chance fragments of a newspaper. For Jinny selected phrases in this way from anywhere, and repeated them on all occasions without the slightest relevancy. She practised them. She had a way of giving abrupt information and making startling statements a propos of nothing at all. Certain phrases stuck in her mind, it seemed, for no comprehensible reason. When excited she picked out the one that first presented itself and fired it off like a gun, the more inapt the better. And 'busy' was her favourite adjective always.
'It's like a communication from a company,' Mother was saying, as she handed back the typewritten letter.
'Is he a company promoter then?' asked Jinny like a flash, certainly ignorant what that article of modern life could mean.
'Oh, I say!' came reproachfully from Jimbo, thus committing himself for the first time to speech. He glanced up into several faces round him, and then continued the picture of Cousin Henry he was drawing on his slate. He listened all the time. Occasionally he cocked an eye or ear up. He took in everything, saying little. His opinions matured slowly. The talk continued for a long time, questions and answers.
'I think he's nice,' he announced at length in French. For intimate things, he always used that language; his English, being uncertain, was kept for matters of unimportance. 'A gentle man.'
And it was Jimbo's verdict that the children then finally adopted. Cousin Henry was gentil. They laughed loudly at him, yet agreed. His influence on their little conclaves, though never volubly expressed— because of that very fact, perhaps—was usually accepted. Jimbo was so decided. And he never committed himself to impulsive judgments that later had to be revised. He listened in silence to the end, then went plump for one side or the other. 'I think he'll be a nice man,' was the label, therefore, then and there attached to Mr. Henry Rogers in advance of delivery. Further than that, however, they would not go. It would have been childish to commit themselves more deeply till they saw him.
The conversation then slipped beyond their comprehension, or rather their parents used long words and circumventing phrases that made it difficult to follow. Owing to lack of space, matters of importance often had to be discussed in this way under the children's eyes, unless at night, when all were safe in bed; for French, of course, was of no avail for purposes of concealment. Long words were then made use of, dark, wumbled sentences spoken very quickly, with suggestive gestures and expressions of the eyes labelled by Monkey with, 'Look, Mother and Daddy are making faces—something's up!'
But, none the less, all listened, and Monkey, whose intuitive intelligence soaked up hidden meanings like a sponge, certainly caught the trend of what was said. She detailed it later to the others, when Jinny checked her exposition with a puzzled 'but Mother could never have said that,' while Jimbo looked wise and grave, as though he had understood it all along, and was even in his parents' councils.
On this occasion, however, there was nothing very vital to retail. Cousin Henry was to arrive to-morrow by the express from Paris. He was a little younger than Daddy, and would have the room above him in the carpenter's house. His meals he would take at the Pension just as they did, and for tea he would always come over to the Den. And this latter fact implied that he was to be admitted into intimacy at once, for only intimates used the Den regularly for tea, of course.
It was serious. It involved a change in all their lives. Jinny wondered if it 'would cost Daddy any more money,' or whether 'Cousinenry would bring a lot of things with him,' though not explaining whether by 'things' she meant food or presents or clothes. He was not married, so he couldn't be very old; and Monkey, suggesting that he might 'get to love' one of the retired governesses who came to the Pension for their mid-day dinner, was squelched by Jimbo with 'old governesses never marry; they come back to settle, and then they just die off.'
Thus was Henry Rogers predigested. But at any rate he was accepted. And this was fortunate; for a new arrival whom the children did not 'pass' had been known to have a time that may best be described as not conducive to repose of body, mind, or spirit.
The arrival of Mr. Henry Rogers in the village—in La Citadelle, that is—was a red-letter day. This, however, seems a thin description of its glory. For a more adequate description a well-worn phrase must be borrowed from the poems of Montmorency Minks—a 'Day of Festival,' for which 'coronal' invariably lay in waiting for rhyming purposes a little further down the sonnet.
Monkey that afternoon managed to get home earlier than usual from Neuchatel, a somewhat suspicious explanation as her passport. Her eyes were popping. Jimbo was always out of the village school at three. He carried a time-table in his pocket; but it was mere pretence, since he was a little walking Bradshaw, and knew every train by heart—the Geneva Express, the Paris Rapide, the 'omnibus' trains, and the mountain ones that climbed the forest heights towards La Chaux de Fonds and Le Locle. Of these latter only the white puffing smoke was visible from the village, but he knew with accuracy their times of departure, their arrival, and the names of every station where they stopped. In the omnibus trains he even knew some of the guards personally, the engine-drivers too. He might be seen any day after school standing in the field beside the station, waiting for them to pass; mecanicien and conducteur were the commonest words in his whole vocabulary. When possible he passed the time of day with both of these important personages, or from the field he waved his hand and took his cap off. All engines, moreover, were 'powerful locomotives.' The phrase was stolen from his father—a magnificent sound it had, taking several seconds to pronounce. No day was wholly lived in vain which enabled him to turn to some one with, 'There's the Paris Rapide; it's five minutes late'; or 'That's the Geneva omnibus. You see, it has to have a very'—here a deep breath—'powerful locomotive.'
So upon this day of festival it was quite useless to talk of common things, and even the holidays acquired a very remote importance. Everybody in the village knew it. From Gygi, the solitary gendarme, to Henri Beguin, who mended boots, but had the greater distinction that he was the only man Gygi ever arrested, for periodical wild behaviour —all knew that 'Cousin Henry, father's cousin, you know,' was expected to arrive in the evening, that he was an important person in the life of London, and that he was not exactly a pasteur, yet shared something of a clergyman's grave splendour. Clothed in a sacerdotal atmosphere he certainly was, though it was the gravity of Jane Anne's negative description that fastened this wild ecclesiastical idea upon him.
'He's not exactly a clergyman,' she told the dressmaker, who for two francs every Monday afternoon sat in the kitchen and helped with the pile of indiscriminate mending,' because he has to do with rather big companies and things. But he is a serious man all the same—and most fearfully busy always.'
'We're going to meet him in the town,' said Jimbo carelessly. 'You see, the Paris Rapide doesn't stop here. We shall come back with him by the 6.20. It gets here at 6.50, so he'll be in time for supper, if it's punctual. It usually is.'
And accordingly they went to Neuchatel and met the Paris train. They met their Cousin Henry, too. Powerful locomotives and everything else were instantly forgotten when they saw their father go up to a tall thin man who jumped—yes, jumped—down the high steps on to the level platform and at once began to laugh. He had a beard like their father. 'How will they know which is which?' thought Jinny. They stood in everybody's way and stared. He was so tall. Daddy looked no bigger than little Beguin beside him. He had a large, hooked nose, brown skin, and keen blue eyes that took in everything at a single glance. They twinkled absurdly for so big a man. He wore rough brown tweeds and a soft felt travelling hat. He wore also square-toed English boots. He carried in one hand a shiny brown leather bag with his initials on it like a member of the Government.
The clergyman idea was destroyed in a fraction of a second, never to revive. The company promoter followed suit. Jinny experienced an entirely new sensation in her life—something none but herself had ever felt before—something romantic. 'He's like a soldier—a General,' she said to anybody who cared to listen, and she said it so loudly that many did listen. But she did not care. She stood apart from the others, staring as though it were a railway accident. This tall figure of a cousin she could fit nowhere as yet into her limited scheme of life. She admired him intensely. Yet Daddy laughed and chatted with him as if he were nothing at all! She kept outside the circle, wondering about his socks and underclothes. His beard was much neater and better trimmed than her father's. At least no crumb or bit of cotton was in it.
But Jimbo felt no awe. After a moment's hesitation, during which the passers-by butted him this way and that, he marched straight up and looked him in the face. He reached to his watch-chain only.
'I'll be your sekrity, too,' he announced, interrupting Daddy's foolishness about 'this is my youngest lad, Rogers.' Youngest lad indeed!
And Henry Rogers then stooped and kissed the lot of them. One after the other he put his big arms round them and gave them a hug that was like the hug of a bear standing on its hind legs. They took it, each in his own way, differently. Jimbo proudly; Monkey, with a smacking return kiss that somehow conveyed the note of her personality— impudence; but Jane Anne, with a grave and outraged dignity, as though in a public railway station this kind of behaviour was slightly inappropriate. She wondered for days afterwards whether she had been quite correct. He was a cousin, but still he was—a man. And she wondered what she ought to call him. 'Mr. Rogers' was not quite right, yet 'Mr. Cousin Henry' was equally ill-chosen. She decided upon a combination of her own, a kind of code-word that was affectionate yet distant: 'Cousinenry.' And she used it with an explosive directness that was almost challenge—he could accept which half he chose.
But all accepted him at once without fear. They felt, moreover, a secret and very tender thing; there was something in this big, important man that made them know he would love them for themselves; and more—that something in him had need of them. Here lay the explanation of their instant confidence and acceptance.
'What a jolly bunch you are, to be sure!' he exclaimed. 'And you're to be my secretary, are you?' he added, taking Jimbo by the shoulders. 'How splendid!'
'I'm not,' said Monkey, with a rush of laughter already too long restrained. Her manner suggested a somersault, only prevented by engines and officials.
But Jimbo was a little shocked. This sort of thing disgraced them.
'Oh, I say!' he exclaimed reproachfully.
'Daddy, isn't she awful?' added Jane Anne under her breath, a sentence of disapproval in daily use. Her life seemed made up of apologising for her impudent sister.
'The 6.20 starts at 6.20, you know,' Jimbo announced. 'The Lausanne Express has gone. Are your "baggages" registered?' And the party moved off in a scattered and uncertain manner to buy tickets and register the luggage. They went back second class—for the first time in their lives. It was Cousin Henry who paid the difference. That sealed his position finally in their eyes. He was a millionaire. All London people went first or second class.
But Jimbo and his younger sister had noticed something else about the new arrival besides his nose and eyes and length. Even his luxurious habit of travelling second class did not impress them half as much as this other detail in his appearance. They referred to it in a whispered talk behind the shelter of the conducteur's back while tickets were being punched.
'You know,' whispered Monkey, her eyes popping, 'I've seen Cousin Henry before somewhere. I'm certain.' She gave a little gasp.
Jimbo stared, only half believing, yet undeniably moved. Even his friend, the Guard, was temporarily neglected. 'Where?' he asked; 'do you mean in a picture?'
'No,' she answered with decision, 'out here, I think. In the woods or somewhere.' She seemed vague. But her very vagueness helped him to believe. She was not inventing; he was sure of that.
The conducteur at that moment passed away along the train, and Cousin Henry looked straight at the pair of them. Through the open window dusk fluttered down the sky with spots of gold already on its wings.
'What jolly stars you've got here,' he said, pointing. 'They're like diamonds. Look, it's a perfect network far above the Alps. By gum— what beauties!'
And as he said it he smiled. Monkey gave her brother a nudge that nearly made him cry out. He wondered what she meant, but all the same he returned the nudge significantly. For Cousin Henry, when he smiled, had plainly shown—two teeth of gold.
The children had never seen gold-capped teeth.
'I'd like one for my collection,' thought Jimbo, meaning a drawer that included all his loose possessions of small size. But another thing stirred in him too, vague, indefinite, far away, something he had, as it were, forgotten.
O star benignant and serene, I take the good to-morrow, That fills from verge to verge my dream, With all its joy and sorrow! The old sweet spell is unforgot That turns to June December; And, though the world remember not, Love, we would remember. Life and Death, W. E. HENLEY.
And Rogers went over to unpack. It was soon done. He sat at his window in the carpenter's house and enjoyed the peace. The spell of evening stole down from the woods. London and all his strenuous life seemed very far away. Bourcelles drew up beside him, opened her robe, let down her forest hair, and whispered to him with her voice of many fountains....
She lies just now within the fringe of an enormous shadow, for the sun has dipped behind the blue-domed mountains that keep back France. Small hands of scattered mist creep from the forest, fingering the vineyards that troop down towards the lake. A dog barks. Gygi, the gendarme, leaves the fields and goes home to take his uniform from its peg. Pere Langel walks among his beehives. There is a distant tinkling of cow-bells from the heights, where isolated pastures gleam like a patchwork quilt between the spread of forest; and farther down a train from Paris or Geneva, booming softly, leaves a trail of smoke against the background of the Alps where still the sunshine lingers.
But trains, somehow, do not touch the village; they merely pass it. Busy with vines, washed by its hill-fed stream, swept by the mountain winds, it lies unchallenged by the noisy world, remote, un-noticed, half forgotten. And on its outskirts stands the giant poplar that guards it—la sentinelle the peasants call it, because its lofty crest, rising to every wind, sends down the street first warning of any coming change. They see it bend or hear the rattle of its leaves. The coup de Joran, most sudden and devastating of mountain winds, is on the way from the precipice of the Creux du Van. It comes howling like artillery down the deep Gorges de l'Areuse. They run to fasten windows, collect the washing from roof and garden, drive the cattle into shelter, and close the big doors of the barns. The children clap their hands and cry to Gygi, 'Plus vite! Plus vite!' The lake turns dark. Ten minutes later it is raging with an army of white horses like the sea.
Darkness drapes the village. It comes from the whole long line of Jura, riding its troop of purple shadows—slowly curtaining out the world. For the carpenter's house stands by itself, apart. Perched upon a knoll beside his little patch of vineyard, it commands perspective. From his upper window Rogers saw and remembered....
High up against the fading sky ridges of limestone cliff shine out here and there, and upon the vast slopes of Boudry—l'immense geant de Boudry—lies a flung cloak of forest that knows no single seam. The smoke from bucheron fires, joining the scarves of mist, weaves across its shoulder a veil of lace-like pattern, and at its feet, like some great fastening button, hides the village of the same name, where Marat passed his brooding youth. Its evening lights are already twinkling. They signal across the vines to the towers of Colombier, rising with its columns of smoke and its poplars against the sheet of darkening water—Colombier, in whose castle milord marechal Keith had his headquarters as Governor of the Principality of Neuchatel under the King of Prussia. And, higher up, upon the flank of wooded mountains, is just visible still the great red-roofed farm of Cotendard, built by his friend Lord Wemyss, another Jacobite refugee, who had strange parties there and entertained Jean Jacques Rousseau in his exile. La Citadelle in the village was the wing of another castle he began to build, but left unfinished.
White in the gathering dusk, Rogers saw the strip of roadway where passed the gorgeous coach—cette fameuse diligence du milord marshal Keith—or more recent, but grimmer memory, where General Bourbaki's division of the French army, 80,000 strong, trailed in unspeakable anguish, hurrying from the Prussians. At Les Verrieres, upon the frontier, they laid down their arms, and for three consecutive days and nights the pitiful destitute procession passed down that strip of mountain road in the terrible winter of 1870-71.
Some among the peasants still hear that awful tramping in their sleep: the kindly old vigneron who stood in front of his chalet from dawn to sunset, giving each man bread and wine; and the woman who nursed three soldiers through black small-pox, while neighbours left food upon the wall before the house.... Memories of his boyhood crowded thick and fast. The spell of the place deepened about him with the darkness. He recalled the village postman—fragment of another romance, though a tattered and discredited one. For this postman was the descendant of that audacious pale-frenier who married Lord Wemyss' daughter, to live the life of peasants with her in a yet tinier hamlet higher up the slopes. If you asked him, he would proudly tell you, with his bullet-shaped, close-cropped head cocked impertinently on one side, how his brother, now assistant in a Paris shop, still owned the title of baron by means of which his reconciliated lordship sought eventually to cover up the unfortunate escapade. He would hand you English letters—and Scotch ones too!—with an air of covert insolence that was the joy of half the village. And on Sundays he was to be seen, garbed in knickerbockers, gaudy stockings, and sometimes high, yellowish spats, walking with his peasant girl along the very road his more spirited forbear covered in his runaway match....
The night stepped down more quickly every minute from the heights. Deep-noted bells floated upwards to him from Colombier, bringing upon the evening wind some fragrance of these faded boyhood memories. The stars began to peep above the peaks and ridges, and the mountains of the Past moved nearer. A veil of gossamer rose above the tree-tops, hiding more and more of the landscape; he just could see the slim new moon dip down to drink from her own silver cup within the darkening lake. Workmen, in twos and threes, came past the little house from their toil among the vines, and fragments of the Dalcroze songs rose to his ear—songs that the children loved, and that he had not heard for nearly a quarter of a century. Their haunting refrains completed then the spell, for all genuine spells are set to some peculiar music of their own. These Dalcroze melodies were exactly right.... The figures melted away into the single shadow of the village street. The houses swallowed them, voices, footsteps, and all.
And his eye, wandering down among the lights that twinkled against the wall of mountains, picked out the little ancient house, nestling so close beside the church that they shared a wall in common. Twenty-five years had passed since first he bowed his head beneath the wistaria that still crowned the Pension doorway. He remembered bounding up the creaking stairs. He felt he could still bound as swiftly and with as sure a step, only—he would expect less at the top now. More truly put, perhaps, he would expect less for himself. That ambition of his life was over and done with. It was for others now that his desires flowed so strongly. Mere personal aims lay behind him in a faded heap, their seductiveness exhausted.... He was a man with a Big Scheme now— a Scheme to help the world....
The village seemed a dull enough place in those days, for the big Alps beckoned beyond, and day and night he longed to climb them instead of reading dull French grammar. But now all was different. It dislocated his sense of time to find the place so curiously unchanged. The years had played some trick upon him. While he himself had altered, developed, and the rest, this village had remained identically the same, till it seemed as if no progress of the outer world need ever change it. The very people were so little altered—hair grown a little whiter, shoulders more rounded, steps here and there a trifle slower, but one and all following the old routine he knew so well as a boy.
Tante Jeanne, in particular, but for wrinkles that looked as though a night of good sound sleep would smooth them all away, was the same brave woman, still 'running' that Wistaria Pension against the burden of inherited debts and mortgages. 'We're still alive,' she had said to him, after greetings delayed a quarter of a century, 'and if we haven't got ahead much, at least we haven't gone back!' There was no more hint of complaint than this. It stirred in him a very poignant sense of admiration for the high courage that drove the ageing fighter forward still with hope and faith. No doubt she still turned the kitchen saucer that did duty for planchette, unconsciously pushing its blunted pencil towards the letters that should spell out coming help. No doubt she still wore that marvellous tea-gown garment that did duty for so many different toilettes, even wearing it when she went with goloshes and umbrella to practise Sunday's hymns every Saturday night on the wheezy church harmonium. And most likely she still made underskirts from the silk of discarded umbrellas because she loved the sound of frou-frou thus obtained, while the shape of the silk exactly adapted itself to the garment mentioned. And doubtless, too, she still gave away a whole week's profits at the slightest call of sickness in the village, and then wondered how it was the Pension did not pay...!
A voice from below interrupted his long reverie.
'Ready for supper, Henry?' cried his cousin up the stairs. 'It's past seven. The children have already left the Citadelle.'
And as the two middle-aged dreamers made their way along the winding street of darkness through the vines, one of them noticed that the stars drew down their grand old network, fastening it to the heights of Boudry and La Tourne. He did not mention it to his companion, who was wumbling away in his beard about some difficult details of his book, but the thought slipped through his mind like the trail of a flying comet: 'I'd like to stay a long time in this village and get the people straight a bit,'—which, had he known it, was another thought carefully paraphrased so that he should not notice it and feel alarm: 'It will be difficult to get away from here. My feet are in that net of stars. It's catching about my heart.'
Low in the sky a pale, witched moon of yellow watched them go....
'The Starlight Express is making this way, I do believe,' he thought. But perhaps he spoke the words aloud instead of thinking them.
'Eh! What's that you said, Henry?' asked the other, taking it for a comment of value upon the plot of a story he had referred to.
'Oh, nothing particular,' was the reply. 'But just look at those stars above La Tourne. They shine like beacons burning on the trees.' Minks would have called them 'braziers.'
'They are rather bright, yes,' said the other, disappointed. 'The air here is so very clear.' And they went up the creaking wooden stairs to supper in the Wistaria Pension as naturally as though the years had lifted them behind the mountains of the past in a single bound— twenty-five years ago.
Near where yonder evening star Makes a glory in the air, Lies a land dream—found and far Where it is light always. There those lovely ghosts repair Who in sleep's enchantment are, In Cockayne dwell all things fair— (But it is far away). Cockayne Country, Agnes Duclaux.
The first stage in Cousinenry's introduction took place, as has been seen, at a railway station; but further stages were accomplished later. For real introductions are not completed by merely repeating names and shaking hands, still less by a hurried kiss. The ceremony had many branches too—departments, as it were. It spread itself, with various degrees, over many days as opportunity offered, and included Gygi, the gendarme, as well as the little troop of retired governesses who came to the Pension for their mid-day dinner. Before two days were passed he could not go down the village street without lifting his cap at least a dozen times. Bourcelles was so very friendly; no room for strangers there; a new-comer might remain a mystery, but he could not be unknown. Rogers found his halting French becoming rapidly fluent again. And every one knew so much about him—more almost than he knew himself.
At the Den next day, on the occasion of their first tea together, he realised fully that introduction—to the children at any rate— involved a kind of initiation.
It seemed to him that the room was full of children, crowds of them, an intricate and ever shifting maze. For years he had known no dealings with the breed, and their movements now were so light and rapid that it rather bewildered him. They were in and out between the kitchen, corridor, and bedroom like bits of a fluid puzzle. One moment a child was beside him, and the next, just as he had a suitable sentence ready to discharge at it, the place was vacant. A minute later 'it' appeared through another door, carrying the samovar, or was on the roof outside struggling with Riquette.
'Oh, there you are!' he exclaimed. 'How you do dart about, to be sure!'
And the answer, if any, was invariably of the cheeky order—
'One can't keep still here; there's not room enough.'
Or, worse still—
'I must get past you somehow!' This, needless to say, from Monkey, who first made sure her parents were out of earshot.
But he liked it, for he recognised this proof that he was accepted and made one of the circle. These were tentative invitations to play. It made him feel quite larky, though at first he found his machinery of larking rather stiff. The wheels required oiling. And his first attempt to chase Miss Impudence resulted in a collision with Jane Anne carrying a great brown pot of home-made jam for the table. There was a dreadful sound. He had stepped on the cat at the same time.
His introduction to the cat was the immediate result, performed solemnly by Jimbo, and watched by Jinny, still balancing the jar of jam, with an expression of countenance that was half amazement and half shock. Collisions with creatures of his size and splendour were a new event to her.
'I must advertise for help if it occurs again!' she exclaimed.
'That's Mere Riquette, you know,' announced Jimbo formally to his cousin, standing between them in his village school blouse, hands tucked into his belt.
'I heard her, yes.' From a distance the cat favoured him with a single comprehensive glance, then turned away and disappeared beneath the sofa. She, of course, reserved her opinion.
'It didn't REALLY hurt her. She always squeals like that.'
'Perhaps she likes it,' suggested Rogers.
'She likes better tickling behind the ear,' Jimbo thought, anxious to make him feel all right, and then plunged into a description of her general habits—how she jumped at the door handles when she wanted to come in, slept on his bed at night, and looked for a saucer in a particular corner of the kitchen floor. This last detail was a compliment. He meant to imply that Cousin Henry might like to see to it himself sometimes, although it had always been his own special prerogative hitherto.
'I shall know in future, then,' said Rogers earnestly, showing, by taking the information seriously, that he possessed the correct instinct.
'Oh yes, it's quite easy. You'll soon learn it,' spoken with feet wide apart and an expression of careless importance, as who should say, 'What a sensible man you are! Still, these are little things one has to be careful about, you know.'
Mother poured out tea, somewhat laboriously, as though the exact proportions of milk, hot water, and sugar each child took were difficult to remember. Each had a special cup, moreover. Her mind, ever crammed with a thousand domestic details which she seemed to carry all at once upon the surface, ready for any sudden question, found it difficult to concentrate upon the teapot. Her mind was ever worrying over these. Her husband was too vague to be of practical help. When any one spoke to her, she would pause in the middle of the operation, balancing a cup in one hand and a milk jug in the other, until the question was properly answered, every t crossed and every i dotted. There was no mistaking what Mother meant—provided you had the time to listen. She had that careful thoroughness which was no friend of speed. The result was that hands were stretched out for second cups long before she had completed the first round. Her own tea began usually when everybody else had finished—and lasted—well, some time.
'Here's a letter I got,' announced Jimbo, pulling a very dirty scrap of paper from a pocket hidden beneath many folds of blouse. 'You'd like to see it.' He handed it across the round table, and Rogers took it politely. 'Thank you very much; it came by this morning's post, did it?'
'Oh, no,' was the reply, as though a big correspondence made the date of little importance. 'Not by that post.' But Monkey blurted out with the jolly laughter that was her characteristic sound, 'It came ages ago. He's had it in his pocket for weeks.'
Jimbo, ignoring the foolish interruption, watched his cousin's face, while Jinny gave her sister a secret nudge that every one could see.
'Darling Jimbo,' was what Rogers read, 'I have been to school, and did strokes and prickings and marched round. I am like you now. A fat kiss and a hug, your loving—-' The signature was illegible, lost amid several scratchy lines in a blot that looked as if a beetle had expired after violent efforts in a pool of ink.
'Very nice indeed, very well put,' said Rogers, handing it gravely back again, while some one explained that the writer, aged five, had just gone to a kindergarten school in Geneva. 'And have you answered it?'
'Oh, yes. I answered it the same day, you see.' It was, perhaps, a foolish letter for a man to have in his pocket. Still—it was a letter.
'Good! What a capital secretary you'll make me.' And the boy's flush of pleasure almost made the dish of butter rosy.
'Oh, take another; take a lot, please,' Jimbo said, handing the cakes that Rogers divined were a special purchase in his honour; and while he did so, managed to slip one later on to the plates of Monkey and her sister, who sat on either side of him. The former gobbled it up at once, barely keeping back her laughter, but Jinny, with a little bow, put hers carefully aside on the edge of her plate, not knowing quite the 'nice' thing to do with it. Something in the transaction seemed a trifle too familiar perhaps. She stole a glance at mother, but mother was filling the cups and did not notice. Daddy could have helped her, only he would say 'What?' in a loud voice, and she would have to repeat her question for all to hear. Later, she ate the cake in very small morsels, a little uncomfortably.
It was a jolly, merry, cosy tea, as teas in the Den always were. Daddy wumbled a number of things in his beard to which no one need reply unless they felt like it. The usual sentences were not heard to-day: 'Monkey, what a mouthful! You must not shovel in your food like that!' or, 'Don't gurgle your tea down; swallow it quietly, like a little lady'; or, 'How often have you been told not to drink with your mouth full; this is not the servants' hall, remember!' There were no signs of contretemps of any kind, nothing was upset or broken, and the cakes went easily round, though not a crumb was left over.
But the entire time Mr. Rogers was subjected to the keenest scrutiny imaginable. Nothing he did escaped two pairs of eyes at least. Signals were flashed below as well as above the table. These signals were of the kind birds know perhaps—others might be aware of their existence if they listened very attentively, yet might not interpret them. No Comanche ever sent more deft communications unobserved to his brother across a camp fire.
Yet nothing was done visibly; no crumb was flicked; and the table hid the pressure of the toe which, fortunately, no one intercepted. Monkey, at any rate, had eyes in both her feet, and Jimbo knew how to keep his counsel without betrayal. But inflections of the voice did most of the work—this, with flashes of brown and blue lights, conveyed the swift despatches.
'My underneath goes out to him,' Monkey telegraphed to her brother while she asked innocently for 'jam, please, Jimbo'; and he replied, 'Oh, he's all right, I think, but better not go too fast,' as he wiped the same article from his chin and caught her big brown eye upon him. 'He'll be our Leader,' she conveyed later by the way she stirred her cup of tea-hot-water-milk, 'when once we've got him "out" and taught him'; and Jimbo offered and accepted his own resignation of the coveted, long-held post by the way he let his eyelid twiddle in answer to her well-directed toe-nudge out of sight.
This, in a brief resume, was the purport of the give and take of numerous despatches between them during tea, while outwardly Mother— and Father, too, when he thought about it—were delighted with their perfect company manners.
Jane Anne, outside all this flummery, went her own way upon an even keel. She watched him closely too, but not covertly. She stared him in the face, and imitated his delicate way of eating. Once or twice she called him 'Mr. Rogers,' for this had a grown-up flavour about it that appealed to her, and 'Cousin Henry' did not come easily to her at first. She could not forget that she had left the ecole secondaire and was on her way to a Geneva Pension where she would attend an ecole menagere. And the bursts of laughter that greeted her polite 'Mr. Rogers, did you have a nice journey, and do you like Bourcelles?'—in a sudden pause that caught Mother balancing cup and teapot in mid-air—puzzled her a good deal. She liked his quiet answer though—'Thank you, Miss Campden, I think both quite charming.' He did not laugh. He understood, whatever the others might think. She had wished to correct the levity of the younger brother and sister, and he evidently appreciated her intentions. He seemed a nice man, a very nice man.
Tea once over, she carried off the loaded tray to the kitchen to do the washing-up. Jimbo and Monkey had disappeared. They always vanished about this time, but once the unenvied operation was safely under way, they emerged from their hiding-places again. No one ever saw them go. They were gone before the order, 'Now, children, help your sister take the things away,' was even issued. By the time they re-appeared Jinny was halfway through it and did not want to be disturbed.
'Never mind, Mother,' she said, 'they're chronic. They're only little busy Highlanders!' For 'chronic' was another catch-word at the moment, and sometimes by chance she used it appropriately. The source of 'busy Highlanders' was a mystery known only to herself. And resentment, like jealousy, was a human passion she never felt and did not understand. Jane Anne was the spirit of unselfishness incarnate. It was to her honour, but made her ineffective as a personality.
Daddy lit his big old meerschaum—the 'squelcher' Jinny called it, because of its noise—and mooned about the room, making remarks on literature or politics, while Mother picked a work-basket cleverly from a dangerously overloaded shelf, and prepared to mend and sew. The windows were wide open, and framed the picture of snowy Alps, now turning many-tinted in the slanting sunshine. (Riquette, gorged with milk, appeared from the scullery and inspected knees and chairs and cushions that seemed available, selecting finally the best arm-chair and curling up to sleep. Rogers smoked a cigarette, pleased and satisfied like the cat.) A hush fell on the room. It was the hour of peace between tea and the noisy Pension supper that later broke the spell. So quiet was it that the mouse began to nibble in the bedroom walls, and even peeped through the cracks it knew between the boards. It came out, flicked its whiskers, and then darted in again like lightning. Jane Anne, rinsing out the big teapot in the scullery, frightened it. Presently she came in softly, put the lamp ready for her mother's needle, in case of need later, gave a shy queer look at 'Mr. Rogers' and her father, both of whom nodded absent-mindedly to her, and then went on tip-toe out of the room. She was bound for the village shop to buy methylated spirits, sugar, blotting-paper, and—a 'plaque' of Suchard chocolate for her Cousinenry. The forty centimes for this latter was a large item in her savings; but she gave no thought to that. What sorely perplexed her as she hurried down the street was whether he would like it 'milk' or 'plain.' In the end she bought both.
Down the dark corridor of the Citadelle, before she left, she did not hear the muffled laughter among the shadows, nor see the movement of two figures that emerged together from the farther end.
'He'll be on the sofa by now. Shall we go for him?' It was the voice of Monkey.
'Leave it to me.' Jimbo still meant to be leader so far as these two were concerned at any rate. Let come later what might.
'Better get Mother out of the way first, though.'
'Mother's nothing. She's sewing and things,' was the reply. He understood the conditions thoroughly. He needed no foolish advice.
'He's awfully easy. You saw the two gold teeth. It's him, I'm sure.'
'Of course he's easy, only a person doesn't want to be pulled about after tea,' in the tone of a man who meant to feel his way a bit.
Clearly they had talked together more than once since the arrival at the station. Jimbo made up for ignorance by decision and sublime self- confidence. He answered no silly questions, but listened, made up his mind, and acted. He was primed to the brim—a born leader.
'Better tell him that we'll come for him to-night,' the girl insisted. 'He'll be less astonished then. You can tell he dreams a lot by his manner. Even now he's only half awake.'
The conversation was in French—school and village French. Her brother ignored the question with 'va te cacher!' He had no doubts himself.
'Just wait a moment while I tighten my belt,' he observed. 'You can tell it by his eyes,' he added, as Monkey urged him forward to the door. 'I know a good dreamer when I see one.'
Then fate helped them. The door against their noses opened and Daddy came out, followed by his cousin. All four collided.
'Oh, is the washing-up finished?' asked Monkey innocently, quick as a flash.
'How you startled me!' exclaimed Daddy. 'You really must try to be less impetuous. You'd better ask Mother about the washing,' he repeated, 'she's in there sewing.' His thoughts, it seemed, were just a trifle confused. Plates and linen both meant washing, and sometimes hair and other stuff as well.
'There's no light, you see, yet,' whispered Jimbo. A small lamp usually hung upon the wall. Jane Anne at that moment came out carrying it and asking for a match.
'No starlight, either,' added Monkey quickly, giving her cousin a little nudge. 'It's all upwumbled, or whatever Daddy calls it.'
The look he gave her might well have suppressed a grown-up person— 'grande personne,' as Jimbo termed it, translating literally—but on Monkey it had only slight effect. Her irrepressible little spirit concealed springs few could regulate. Even avoir-dupois increased their resiliency the moment it was removed. But Jimbo checked her better than most. She did look a trifle ashamed—for a second.
'Can't you wait?' he whispered. 'Daddy'll spoil it if you begin it here. How you do fidget!'
They passed all together out into the yard, the men in front, the two children just behind, walking warily.
Then came the separation, yet none could say exactly how it was accomplished. For separations are curious things at the best of times, the forces that effect them as mysterious as wind that blows a pair of butterflies across a field. Something equally delicate was at work. One minute all four stood together by the fountain, and the next Daddy was walking downhill towards the carpenter's house alone, while the other three were already twenty metres up the street that led to the belt of forest.
Jimbo, perhaps, was responsible for the deft manoeuvring. At any rate, he walked beside his big cousin with the air of a successful aide-de- camp. But Monkey, too, seemed flushed with victory, rolling along—her rotundity ever suggested rolling rather than the taking of actual steps—as if she led a prisoner.
'Don't bother your cousin, children,' their father's voice was heard again faintly in the distance. Then the big shoulder of La Citadelle hid him from view and hearing.
And so the sight was seen of these three, arm in arm, passing along the village street in the twilight. Gygi saw them go and raised his blue, peaked cap; and so did Henri Favre, standing in the doorway of his little shop, as he weighed the possible value of the new customer for matches, chocolate, and string—the articles English chiefly bought; and likewise Alfred Sandoz, looking a moment through the window of his cabaret, the Guillaume Tell, saw them go past like shadows towards the woods, and observed to his carter friend across the table, 'They choose queer times for expeditions, these English, ouah!'
'It's their climate makes them like that,' put in his wife, a touch of pity in her voice. Her daughter swept the Den and lit the fourneau for la famille anglaise in the mornings, and the mother, knowing a little English, spelt out the weather reports in the Daily Surprise she sometimes brought.
Meanwhile the three travellers had crossed the railway line, where Jimbo detained them for a moment's general explanation, and passed the shadow of the sentinel poplar. The cluster of spring leaves rustled faintly on its crest. The village lay behind them now. They turned a moment to look back upon the stretch of vines and fields that spread towards the lake. From the pool of shadow where the houses nestled rose the spire of the church, a strong dark line against the fading sunset. Thin columns of smoke tried to draw it after them. Lights already twinkled on the farther shore, five miles across, and beyond these rose dim white forms of the tremendous ghostly Alps. Dusk slowly brought on darkness.
Jimbo began to hum the song of the village he had learned in school—
P'tit Bourcelles sur sa colline De partout a gentille mine; On y pratique avec success L'exploitation du francais,
and the moment it was over, his sister burst out with the question that had been buzzing inside her head the whole time—
'How long are you going to stay?' she said, as they climbed higher along the dusty road.
'Oh, about a week,' he told her, giving the answer already used a dozen times. 'I've just come out for a holiday—first holiday I've had for twenty years. Fancy that! Pretty long time, eh?'
They simply didn't believe that; they let it pass—politely.
'London's stuffy, you know, just now,' he added, aware that he was convicted of exaggeration. 'Besides, it's spring.'
'There are millions of flowers here,' Jimbo covered his mistake kindly, 'millions and millions. Aren't there, Monkey?'
'Of course,' he agreed.
'And more than anywhere else in the whole world.'
'It looks like that,' said Cousin Henry, as proudly as they said it themselves. And they told him how they picked clothes-baskets full of the wild lily of the valley that grew upon the Boudry slopes, hepaticas, periwinkles, jonquils, blue and white violets, as well as countless anemones, and later, the big yellow marguerites.
'Then how long are you going to stay—really?' inquired Monkey once again, as though the polite interlude were over. It was a delicate way of suggesting that he had told an untruth. She looked up straight into his face. And, meeting her big brown eyes, he wondered a little—for the first time—how he should reply.
'Daddy came here meaning to stay only six months—first.'
'When I was littler,' Jimbo put in.
'——and stayed here all this time—four years.'
'I hope to stay a week or so—just a little holiday, you know,' he said at length, giving the answer purposely. But he said it without conviction, haltingly. He felt that they divined the doubt in him. They guessed his thought along the hands upon his arm, as a horse finds out its rider from the touch upon the reins. On either side big eyes watched and judged him; but the brown ones put a positive enchantment in his blood. They shone so wonderfully in the dusk.
'Longer than that, I think,' she told him, her own mind quite made up. 'It's not so easy to get away from.'
'You mean it?' he asked seriously. 'It makes one quite nervous.'
'There's such a lot to do here,' she said, still keeping her eyes fixed upon his face till he felt the wonder in him become a little unmanageable. 'You'll never get finished in a week.'
'My secretary,' he stammered, 'will help me,' and Jimbo nodded, fastening both hands upon his arm, while Monkey indulged in a little gust of curious laughter, as who should say 'He who laughs last, laughs best.'
They entered the edge of the forest. Hepaticas watched them with their eyes of blue. Violets marked their tread. The frontiers of the daylight softly closed behind them. A thousand trees opened a way to let them pass, and moss twelve inches thick took their footsteps silently as birds. They came presently to a little clearing where the pines stood in a circle and let in a space of sky. Looking up, all three saw the first small stars in it. A wild faint scent of coming rain was in the air—those warm spring rains that wash the way for summer. And a signal flashed unseen from the blue eyes to the brown.
'This way,' said Jimbo firmly. 'There's an armchair rock where you can rest and get your wind a bit,' and, though Rogers had not lost his wind, he let himself be led, and took the great grey boulder for his chair. Instantly, before he had arranged his weight among the points and angles, both his knees were occupied.
'By Jove,' flashed through his mind. 'They've brought me here on purpose. I'm caught!'
A tiny pause followed.
'Now, look here, you little Schemers, I want to know what——'
But the sentence was never finished. The hand of Monkey was already pointing upwards to the space of sky. He saw the fringe of pine tops fencing it about with their feathery, crested ring, and in the centre shone faint, scattered stars. Over the fence of mystery that surrounds common objects wonder peeped with one eye like a star.
'Cousinenry,' he heard close to his ear, so soft it almost might have been those tree-tops whispering to the night, 'do you know anything about a Star Cave—a place where the starlight goes when there are no eyes or puddles about to catch it?'
A Star Cave! How odd! His own boyhood's idea. He must have mentioned it to his cousin perhaps, and he had told the children. And all that was in him of nonsense, poetry, love rose at a bound as he heard it. He felt them settle themselves more comfortably upon his knees. He forgot to think about the points and angles. Here surely a gateway was opening before his very feet, a gateway into that world of fairyland the old clergyman had spoken about. A great wave of tenderness swept him—a flood strong and deep, as he had felt it long ago upon the hill of that Kentish village. The golden boyhood's mood rushed over him once more with all its original splendour. It took a slightly different form, however. He knew better how to direct it for one thing. He pressed the children closer to his side.
'A what?' he asked, speaking low as they did. 'Do I know a what?'
'A cave where lost starlight collects,' Monkey repeated, 'a Star Cave.'
And Jimbo said aloud the verses he had already learned by heart. While his small voice gave the words, more than a little mixed, a bird high up among the boughs woke from its beauty sleep and sang. The two sounds mingled. But the singing of the bird brought back the scenery of the Vicarage garden, and with it the strange, passionate things the old clergyman had said. The two scenes met in his mind, passed in and out of one another like rings of smoke, interchanged, and finally formed a new picture all their own, where flowers danced upon a carpet of star-dust that glittered in mid-air.
He knew some sudden, deep enchantment of the spirit. The Fairyland the world had lost spread all about him, and—he had the children close. The imaginative faculty that for years had invented ingenious patents, woke in force, and ran headlong down far sweeter channels—channels that fastened mind, heart, and soul together in a single intricate network of soft belief. He remembered the dusk upon the Crayfield lawns.
'Of course I know a Star Cave,' he said at length, when Jimbo had finished his recitation, and Monkey had added the details their father had told them. 'I know the very one your Daddy spoke about. It's not far from where we're sitting. It's over there.' He pointed up to the mountain heights behind them, but Jimbo guided his hand in the right direction—towards the Boudry slopes where the forests dip upon the precipices of the Areuse.
'Yes, that's it—exactly,' he said, accepting the correction instantly; 'only I go to the top of the mountains first so as to slide down with the river of starlight.'
'We go straight,' they told him in one breath.
'Because you've got more star-stuff in your eyes than I have, and find the way better,' he explained.
That touched their sense of pity. 'But you can have ours,' they cried, 'we'll share it.'
'No,' he answered softly, 'better keep your own. I can get plenty now. Indeed, to tell the truth—though it's a secret between ourselves, remember—that's the real reason I've come out here. I want to get a fresh supply to take back to London with me. One needs a fearful lot in London——'
'But there's no sun in London to melt it,' objected Monkey instantly.
'There's fog though, and it gets lost in fog like ink in blotting- paper. There's never enough to go round. I've got to collect an awful lot before I go back.'
'That'll take more than a week,' she said triumphantly.
They fastened themselves closer against him, like limpets on a rock.
'I told you there was lots to do here,' whispered Monkey again. 'You'll never get it done in a week.'
'And how will you take it back?' asked Jimbo in the same breath. The answer went straight to the boy's heart.
'In a train, of course. I've got an express train here on purpose——'
'The "Rapide"?' he interrupted, his blue eyes starting like flowers from the earth.
'Quicker far than that. I've got——'
They stared so hard and so expectantly, it was almost like an interruption. The bird paused in its rushing song to listen too.
'——a Starlight Express,' he finished, caught now in the full tide of fairyland. 'It came here several nights ago. It's being loaded up as full as ever it can carry. I'm to drive it back again when once it's ready.'
'Where is it now?'
'Who's loading it?'
'How fast does it go? Are there accidents and collisions?'
'How do you find the way?'
'May I drive it with you?'
'Tell us exactly everything in the world about it—at once!'
Questions poured in a flood about him, and his imagination leaped to their answering. Above them the curtain of the Night shook out her million stars while they lay there talking with bated breath together. On every single point he satisfied them, and himself as well. He told them all—his visit to the Manor House, the sprites he found there still alive and waiting as he had made them in his boyhood, their songs and characters, the Dustman, Sweep, and Lamplighter, the Laugher, and the Woman of the Haystack, the blue-eyed Guard——
'But now her eyes are brown, aren't they?' Monkey asked, peering very close into his face. At the same moment she took his heart and hid it deep away among her tumbling hair.
'I was coming to that. They're brown now, of course, because in this different atmosphere brown eyes see better than blue in the dark. The colours of signals vary in different countries.
'And I'm the mecanicien,' cried Jimbo. 'I drive the engine.'
'And I'm your stoker,' he agreed, 'because here we burn wood instead of coal, and I'm director in a wood-paving company and so know all about it.'
They did not pause to dissect his logic—but just tore about full speed with busy plans and questionings. He began to wonder how in the world he would satisfy them—and satisfy himself as well!—when the time should come to introduce them to Express and Cave and Passengers. For if he failed in that, the reality of the entire business must fall to the ground. Yet the direct question did not come. He wondered more and more. Neither child luckily insisted on immediate tangible acquaintance. They did not even hint about it. So far the whole thing had gone splendidly and easily, like floating a new company with the rosiest prospectus in the world; but the moment must arrive when profits and dividends would have to justify mere talk. Concrete results would be demanded. If not forthcoming, where would his position be?