'Speak to him,' said the pig, as the lizard leaned forward on his front paws like a draper's assistant when he says, 'What's the next article?'
'I don't like to,' said the little girl.
'Nonsense, you little duffer!' said Billy kindly; 'he won't eat you.'
'Are you sure?' said the little girl very earnestly.
Then Billy said, 'Look here, I'm a King, and so I've got a situation. Are you a Queen?'
'My name's Eliza Macqueen,' said the little girl. 'I suppose that's near enough.'
'Well, then,' said Billy to the lizard, 'will she do?'
'Perfectly, I should say,' replied the lizard, with a smile that did not become him very well. 'Here is the address.' He gave it to her; it read:
'Kingdom of Allexanassa. Queen, not been out before; willing, obliging, and anxious to learn.'
'Your kingdoms,' he added, 'are next door to each other.'
'So we shall see each other often,' said Billy. 'Cheer up! We might travel together, perhaps.'
'No,' said the pig; 'Queens go by railway. A Queen has to begin to get used to her train as soon as she can. Now, run along, do. My friend here will see her off.'
'You're sure they won't eat me?' said Eliza—and Billy was certain they wouldn't, though he didn't know why. So he said, 'Good-bye. I hope you'll get on in your new place,' and off he went to buy a penny luggage label at the expensive stationer's three doors down the street on the right-hand side. And when he had addressed the label and tied it round his neck, he posted himself honourably at the General Post-Office. The rest of the letters in the box made a fairly comfortable bed, and Billy fell asleep. When he awoke he was being delivered by the early morning postman at the Houses of Parliament in the capital of Plurimiregia, and the Houses of Parliament were just being opened for the day. The air of Plurimiregia was clear and blue, very different from the air of Claremont Square, Pentonville. The hills and woods round the town looked soft and green, from the hill in the middle of the town where the Parliament Houses stood. The town itself was small and very pretty, like one of the towns in old illuminated books, and it had a great wall all round it, and orange trees growing on the wall. Billy wondered whether it was forbidden to pick the oranges.
When Parliament was opened by the footman whose business it was, Billy said:
'Please, I've come about the place——'
'The King's or the cook's?' asked the footman.
Billy was rather angry.
'Now, do I look like a cook?' he said.
'The question is, do you look like a King?' said the footman.
'If I get the place you will be sorry for this,' said Billy.
'If you get the place you won't keep it long' said the footman. 'It's not worth while being disagreeable; there's not time to do it properly in. Come along in.'
Billy went along in, and the footman led him into the presence of the Prime Minister, who was sitting with straws in his hair, wringing his hands.
'Come by post, your lordship,' the footman said—'from London.'
The Prime Minister left off wringing his hands, and held one of them out to Billy. 'You will suit!' he said. 'I'll engage you in a minute. But just pull the straws out of my hair first, will you? I only put them in because we hadn't been able to find a suitable King, and I find straws so useful in helping my brain to act in a crisis. Of course, once you're engaged for the situation, no one will ask you to do anything useful.'
Billy pulled the straws out, and the Prime Minister said:
'Are they all out? Thanks. Well, now you're engaged—six months on trial. You needn't do anything you don't want to. Now, your Majesty, breakfast is served at nine. Let me conduct you to the Royal apartments.'
In ten minutes Billy had come out of a silver bath filled with scented water, and was putting on the grandest clothes he had ever seen in his life. Everything was of thick, soft, pussy silk, and his boots had gold heels with gold spurs on them.
For the first time in his life it was with personal pleasure, and not from a sense of duty, that he brushed his hair and satisfied himself that none of his nails were in mourning. Then he went to breakfast, which was so fine that none but a French cook could have either cooked or described it. He was a little hungry—he had had nothing to eat since the bread and cheese at supper in Claremont Square the night before last.
After breakfast he rode out on a white pony, a thing he might have lived in Claremont Square for ever without doing. And he found he rode very well. After the ride he went on the sea in a boat, and was surprised and delighted to find that he knew how to sail as well as how to steer. In the afternoon he was taken to a circus; and in the evening the whole Court played blind-man's buff. A most enchanting day!
Next morning the breakfast was boiled underdone eggs and burnt herrings. The King was too polite to make remarks about his food, but he did feel a little disappointed.
The Prime Minister was late for breakfast and came in looking hot and flurried, and a garland of straw was entwined in the Prime Ministerial hair.
'Excuse my hair, sire,' he said. 'The cook left last night, but a new one comes at noon to-day. Meantime, I have done my best.'
Billy said it was all right, and he had had an excellent breakfast. The second day passed as happily as the first; the cook seemed to have arrived, for the breakfast was made up for by the lunch. And Billy had the pleasure of shooting at a target at two thousand yards with the Lee-Metford rifle which had arrived by the same post as himself, and hitting the bull's-eye every time.
This is really a rare thing—even when you are a King. But Billy began to think it curious that he should never have found out before how clever he was, and when he took down a volume of Virgil and found that he could read it as easily as though it had been the 'Child's First Reading-Book,' he was really astonished. So Billy said to the Prime Minister:
'How is it I know so many things without learning them?'
'It's the rule here, sire,' said the Prime Minister. 'Kings are allowed to know everything without learning it.'
Now, the next morning Billy woke very early, and got up and went out into the garden, and, turning a corner suddenly, he came upon a little person in a large white cap, with a large white apron on, in which she was gathering sweet pot-herbs, thyme, and basil, and mint, and savory, and sage, and marjoram. She stood up and dropped a curtsy.
'Halloa!' said Billy the King; 'who are you?'
'I'm the new cook,' said the person in the apron.
Her big flapping cap hid her face, but Billy knew her voice.
'Why,' said he, turning her face up with his hands under her chin, 'you're Eliza!'
And sure enough it was Eliza, but her round face looked very much cleverer and prettier than it had done when he saw it last.
'Hush!' she said. 'Yes, I am. I got the place as Queen of Allexanassa, but it was all horribly grand, and such long trains, and the crown is awfully heavy. And yesterday morning I woke very early, and I thought I'd just put on my old frock—mother made it for me the very last thing before she was taken ill.'
'Don't cry,' said Billy the King gently.
'And I went out, and there was a man with a boat, and he didn't know I was the Queen, and I got him to take me for a row on the sea, and he told me some things.'
'What sort of things?'
'Why, about us, Billy. I suppose you're the same as I am now, and know everything without learning it. What's Allexanassa Greek for?'
'Why, something like the Country of Changing Queens, isn't it?'
'And what does Plurimiregia mean?'
'That must mean the land of many Kings. Why?'
'Because that's what it is. They're always changing their Kings and Queens here, for a most horrid and frightening reason, Billy. They get them from a registry office a long way off so that they shouldn't know. Billy, there's a dreadful dragon, and he comes once a month to be fed. And they feed him with Kings and Queens! That's why we know everything without learning. Because there's no time to learn in. And the dragon has two heads, Billy—a pig's head and a lizard's head—and the pig's head is to eat you with and the lizard's head will eat me!'
'So they brought us here for that,' said Billy—'mean, cruel, cowardly brutes!'
'Mother always said you could never tell what a situation was like until you tried it,' said Eliza. 'But what are we to do? The dragon comes to-morrow. When I heard that I asked where your kingdom was, and the boatman showed me, and I made him land me here. So Allexanassa hasn't got a Queen now, but Plurimiregia has got us both.'
Billy rumpled his hair with his hands.
'Oh, my cats alive!' he said, 'we must do something; but I'll tell you what it is, Eliza. You're no end of a brick to come and tell me. You might have got off all by yourself, and left me to the pig's head.'
'No, I mightn't,' said Eliza sharply. 'I know everything that people can learn, the same as you, and that includes right and wrong. So you see I mightn't.'
'That's true! I wonder whether our being clever would help us? Let's take a boat and steer straight out, and take our chance. I can sail and steer beautifully.'
'So can I,' said Eliza disdainfully; 'but, you see, it's too late for that. Twenty-four hours before the beast comes the sea-water runs away, and great waves of thick treacle come sweeping round the kingdoms. No boat can live in such a sea.'
'Well, but how does the dragon get here? Is he on the island?'
'No,' said Eliza, squeezing up handfuls of herbs in her agitation till the scent quite overpowered the scent of the honeysuckle. 'No; he comes out of the sea. But he is very hot inside, and he melts the treacle so that it gets quite thin, like when it runs out of a treacle-pudding, and so he can swim in it, and he comes along to the quay, and is fed—with Us.'
'I wish we were back in Claremont Square,' said he.
'So do I, I'm sure,' said Eliza. 'Though I don't know where it is, nor yet want to know.'
'Hush!' said Billy suddenly. 'I hear a rustling. It's the Prime Minister, and I can hear he's got straws in his hair again, most likely because you're disappeared, and he thinks he will have to cook the breakfast. Meet me beside the lighthouse at four this afternoon. Hide in this summer-house and don't come out till the coast's clear.'
He ran out and took the Prime Minister's arm.
'What is the straw for now?'
'Merely a bad habit,' said the Prime Minister wearily.
Then Billy suddenly saw, and he said:
'You're a beastly mean, cowardly sneak, and you feel it; that's what the straws are about!'
'Your Majesty!' said the Prime Minister feebly.
'Yes,' said Billy firmly; 'you know you are. Now, I know all the laws of Plurimiregia, and I'm going to abdicate this morning, and the next in rank has to be King if he can't engage a fresh one. You're next in rank to me, so by the time the dragon comes you'll be the King. I'll attend your Coronation.'
The Prime Minister gasped, 'How did you find out?' and turned the colour of unripe peaches.
'That's tellings,' said Billy. 'If you hadn't all been such sneaks, I expect heaps of your Kings had sense enough to have got rid of the dragon for you. Only I suppose you've never told them in time. Now, look here. I don't want you to do anything except keep your mouth shut, and let there be a boat, and no boatman, on the beach under the lighthouse at four o'clock.'
'But the sea's all treacle.'
'I said on the beach, not on the sea, my good straw merchant. And what I say you've jolly well got to do. You must be there—and no one else. If you tell a soul I'll abdicate, and where will you be then?'
'I don't know,' said the wretched Prime Minister, stooping to gather some more straws from the strawberry bed.
'But I do,' said Billy. 'Now for breakfast.'
Before four o'clock that afternoon the Prime Minister's head was a perfect bird's-nest of straws. But he met Billy at the appointed place, and there was a boat—and also Eliza. Billy carried his Lee-Metford.
A wind blew from the shore, and the straws in the Prime Minister's hair rustled like a barley-field in August.
'Now,' said Billy the King, 'my Royal Majesty commands you to speak to the dragon as soon as it arrives, and to say that your King has abdicated——'
'But he hasn't,' said the Prime Minister in tears.
'But he does now—so you won't be telling a lie. I abdicate. But I give you my word of honour I'll turn King again as soon as I've tried my little plan. I shall be quite in time to meet my fate—and the dragon. Say "The King has abdicated. You'd better just look in at Allexanassa and get the Queen, and when you call again I'll have a nice fat King all ready for you."'
The straws trembled, and Eliza sobbed.
Billy went on; and he had never felt so truly regal as now, when he was preparing to risk his life in order to save his subjects from the monthly temptation to be mean and cowardly and sneakish. I think myself it was good of Billy. He might just have abdicated and let things slide. Some boys would have.
The sea of greeny-black treacle heaved and swelled sulkily against the beach. The Prime Minister said:
'Very well; I'll do it. But I'd sooner die than see my King false to his word.'
'You won't have to choose between the two,' said Billy, very pale, but determined. 'Your King's not a hound, like—like some-people.'
And then, far away on the very edge of the green treacly sea, they saw a squirming and a squelching and clouds of steam, and all sorts of exciting and unpleasant things happening very suddenly and all together.
The Prime Minister covered his head with dry seaweed and said:
'That's He,' corrected Eliza the Queen and Billy the King in one breath.
But the Prime Minister was long past any proper pride in his grammar.
And then, cutting its way through the thick, sticky waves of the treacle sea, came the hot dragon, melting a way for himself as he came. And he got nearer and nearer and bigger and bigger, and at last he came close to the beach, snouting and snorting, and opened two great mouths in an expecting, hungry sort of way; and when he found he was not being fed the expression of the mouths changed to an angry and surprised question. And one mouth was a pig's mouth and one was a lizard's.
Billy the King borrowed a pin from Eliza the Queen to stick into the Prime Minister, who was by this time nearly buried in the seaweed which he had been trying to arrange in his hair.
'Speak up, silly!' said His Majesty.
The Prime Minister spoke up.
'Please, sir,' he said to the two-headed dragon, 'our King has abdicated, so we've nothing for you just now, but if you could just run over to Allexanassa and pick up their Queen, we'll have a nice fat King ready for you if you'll call on your way home.'
The Prime Minister shuddered as he spoke. He happened to be very fat.
The dragon did not say a word. He nodded with both his heads and grunted with both his mouths, and turned his one tail and swam away along the track of thin, warm treacle which he had made in swimming across the sea.
Quick as thought, Billy the King signed to the Prime Minister and to Eliza, and they launched the boat. Billy sprang on board and pushed off, and it was not till the boat was a dozen yards from shore that he turned to wave a farewell to Eliza and the Prime Minister. The latter was indeed still on the beach, searching hopefully among the drifts and weeds for more straws, to mark his sense of the constitutional crisis, but Eliza had disappeared.
'Oh dear, oh dear,' said Billy the King; 'surely that brute of a Prime Minister can't have killed her right off, so as to have her ready for the dragon when he comes back. Oh, my dear little Eliza!'
'I'm here,' said a thick voice.
And, sure enough, there was Eliza, holding on to the gunwale of the boat and swimming heavily in the warm treacle. Nearly choked with it, too, for she had been under more than once.
Billy hastened to haul her aboard, and, though she was quite brown and very, very sticky, the moment she was safe in the boat he threw his arms round her and said:
'Dear, darling Eliza, you're the dearest, bravest girl in the world. If we ever get out of this you'll marry me, won't you? There's no one in the world like you. Say you will.'
'Of course I will,' said Eliza, still spluttering through the treacle. 'There's no one in the world like you, either.'
'Right! Then, if that's so, you steer and I'll sail, and we'll get the better of the beast yet,' said Billy.
And he set the sail, and Eliza steered as well as she could in her treacly state.
About the middle of the channel they caught up with the dragon. Billy took up his Lee-Metford and fired its eight bullets straight into the dragon's side. You have no idea how the fire spurted out through the bullet-holes. But the wind from shore had caught the sails, and the boat was now going very much faster than the dragon, who found the bullet-holes annoying, and had slowed up to see what was the matter.
'Good-bye, you dear, brave Eliza,' said Billy the King. 'You're all right, anyhow.'
And, holding his reloaded Lee-Metford rifle high over his head, he plunged into the treacly sea and swam back towards the dragon. It is very difficult to shoot straight when you are swimming, especially in nearly boiling treacle, but His Majesty King Billy managed to do it. He sent his eight bullets straight into the dragon's heads, and the huge monster writhed and wriggled and squirmed and squawked, all over the sea from end to end, till at last it floated lifeless on the surface of the clear, warm treacle, and stretched its wicked paws out, and shut its wicked eyes, all four of them, and died. The lizard's eyes shut last.
Then Billy began to swim for dear life towards the shore of Plurimiregia, and the treacle was so hot that if he hadn't been a King he would have been boiled. But now that the dreadful dragon was cold in death there was nothing to keep the treacle sea thin and warm, and it began to thicken so fast that swimming was very difficult indeed. If you don't understand this, you need only ask the attendants at your nearest swimming-baths to fill the baths with treacle instead of water, and you will very soon comprehend how it was that Billy reached the shore of his kingdom quite exhausted and almost speechless.
The Prime Minister was there. He had fetched a whole truss of straw when he thought Billy's plan had failed, and that the dragon would eat him as the next in rank, and he wanted to do the thing thoroughly; and when he warmly embraced the treacly King, Billy became so covered with straws that he hardly knew himself. He pulled himself together, however, enough to withdraw his resignation, and then looked out over the sea. In mid-channel lay the dead dragon, and far in the distance he could see the white sails of the boat nearing the shores of Allexanassa.
'And what are we to do now?' asked the Prime Minister.
'Have a bath,' said the King. 'The dragon's dead, and I'll fetch Eliza in the morning. They won't hurt her over there now the dragon's killed.'
'They won't hurt her,' said the Prime Minister. 'It's the treacle. Allexanassa is an island. The dragon brought the treacle up by his enchantments, and now there is no one to take it away again. You'll never get a boat to live in a sea like that—never.'
'Won't I?' said Billy. 'I'm cleverer than you.'
But, all the same, he didn't quite see his way to sailing a boat in that sea, and with a sad and aching heart he went back to the palace to the silver bath. The treacle and straws took hours to wash off, and after that he was so tired that he did not want any supper, which was just as well, because there was no one to cook it. Tired as he was, Billy slept very badly. He woke up again and again to wonder what had become of his brave little friend, and to wish that he could have done something to prevent her being carried away in that boat; but, think as he might, he failed to see that he could have done any differently. And his heart sank, for, in spite of his bold words to the Prime Minister, he had no more idea than you have how to cross the sea of thick treacle that lay between his kingdom and Allexanassa. He invented steamships with red-hot screws and paddle-wheels all through his dreams, and when he got up in the morning he looked out of his window on the dark sea and longed for a good, gray, foamy, salt, tumbling sea like we have at home in England, no matter how high the waves and the winds might be. But the wind had fallen, and the dark brown sea looked strangely calm.
Hastily snatching a dozen peaches out of the palace garden by way of breakfast, Billy the King hurried to the beach by the lighthouse. No heaving of the treacle sea broke the smooth line of it against the beach. Billy looked—looked again, swallowed the last peach, stone and all, and tore back to the town.
He rushed into the chief ironmonger's and bought a pair of skates and a gimlet. In less time than I can write it he had scurried back to the beach, bored holes in his gold heels, fastened on the skates, and was skating away over the brown sea towards Allexanassa. For the treacle, heated to boiling-point by the passing of the dragon, had now grown cold, and, of course, it was now toffee! Far off, Eliza had had the same idea as soon as she saw the toffee, and, of course, as Queen of Allexanassa, she could skate beautifully. So the two skated into each other's arms somewhere near the middle of the channel between the two islands.
They stood telling each other how happy they were for a few moments, or it may have been a few hours; and when they turned to go back to Plurimiregia they found that the toffee-ice of the treacle sea was black with crowds of skaters—for the Allexanassians and the Plurimiregians had found out the wonderful truth, and were hurrying across to pay visits to their friends and relations in the opposite islands. Near the shore the toffee was hidden by troops of children, who had borrowed the family hammers and were chipping into the solid toffee and eating the flakes of it as they splintered off.
People were pointing out to each other the spot where the dragon had sunk, and when they perceived Billy the King and Eliza the Queen they sent up a shout that you could have heard miles out at sea—if there had been any sea—which, of course, there wasn't. The Prime Minister had lost no time in issuing a proclamation setting forth Billy's splendid conduct in ridding the country of the dragon, and all the populace were in a frenzy of gratitude and loyalty.
Billy turned on a little tap inside his head by some means which I cannot describe to you, and a bright flood of cleverness poured through his brain.
'After all,' he said to Eliza, 'they were going to give us to the dragon to save their own lives. It's bad, I know. But I don't know that's it's worse than people who let other people die of lead-poisoning because they want a particular glaze on their dinner-plates, or let people die of phosphorus-poisoning so that they may get matches at six boxes a penny. We're as well off here as in England.'
'Yes,' said Eliza.
So they agreed to stay and go on being King and Queen, on condition that the Prime Minister consented to give up straws altogether, even in moments of crisis.
'I will, your Majesties,' he said, adding, with a polite bow, 'I shall not need a single straw under your Majesty's able kingship.'
And all the people cheered like mad.
Eliza and Billy were married in due course. The kingdoms are now extremely happy. Both are governed by Billy, who is a very good King because he knows so much. Eliza got him to change the law about Queens knowing everything, because she wanted her husband to be cleverer than she was. But Billy didn't want to make laws to turn his Eliza stupid, so he just changed the law—only a little bit—so that the King knows everything a man ought to know, and the Queen knows everything that ought to be known by a woman. So that's all right.
Exploring expeditions were fitted out to find the edge of the toffee. It was found to stand up in cliffs two hundred feet high, overhanging the real, live, salt-watery sea. The King had ships built at once to sail on the real sea and carry merchandise to other lands. And so Allexanassa and Plurimiregia grew richer and richer every day. The merchandise, of course, is toffee, and half the men in the kingdoms work in the great toffee-mines. All the toffee you buy in shops comes from there. And the reason why some of the cheaper kinds you buy are so gritty is, I need hardly say, because the toffee-miners will not remember, before they go down into the mines, to wipe their muddy boots on the doormats provided by Billy the King, with the Royal Arms in seven colours on the middle of each mat.
THE PRINCESS AND THE CAT
The day when everything began to happen to the Princess began just like all her ordinary days. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and the Princess jumped out of bed and ran into the nursery to let the mice out of the traps in the nursery cupboard. The traps were set every night with a little bit of cheese in each, and every morning nurse found that not a single trap had caught a single mouse. This was because the Princess always let them go. No one knew this except the Princess and, of course, the mice themselves. And the mice never forgot it.
Then came bath and breakfast, and then the Princess ran to the open window and threw out the crumbs to the birds that flew down fluttering and chirping into the marble terrace. Before lessons began she had an hour for playing in the garden. But she never began to play till she had been round to see if any rabbits or moles were caught in the traps the palace gardeners set. The gardeners were lazy, and seldom got to work before half-past eight, so she always had plenty of time for this.
Then came lessons with dear old Professor Ouatidontnoisuntwuthnoing, and then more play, and dinner, and needlework, and play again.
And now it was teatime.
'Eat up your bread-and-butter, your Highness,' said nurse, 'and then you shall have some nice plummy cake.'
'I don't feel plum-cakey at all to-day, somehow,' said the Princess. 'I feel just exactly as if something was going to happen.'
'Something's always happening,' said nurse.
'Ah! but I mean something horrid,' said the Princess. 'I expect uncle's going to make some nasty new law about me. Last time it was: "The Princess is only to wear a white frock on the first Sunday in the month." He said it was economy, but I know it was only spite.'
'You mustn't say that, dear,' said nurse. 'You know your rosy and bluey frocks are just as pretty as the white;' but in her heart she agreed with the Princess Everilda.
The Princess's father and mother had died when she was quite little, and her uncle was Regent. Now, you will have noticed that there is something about uncles which makes it impossible for them to be good in fairy stories. So of course this uncle was bad, as bad as he could be, and everyone hated him.
In fact, though it was now, as I have said, everybody's teatime, nobody was making any tea: instead they were making a revolution. And just as the Princess was looking at the half-moon-shaped hole left by her first bite into her first piece of bread-and-butter, the good Professor burst into the nursery with his great gray wig all on one side, crying out in a very loud and very choky voice:
'The revolution! It's come at last. I knew the people would never stand that last tax on soap.'
'The Princess!' said nurse, turning very pale.
'Yes, I know,' said the Professor. 'There's a boat on the canal, blue sails with gold letters "P.P."—Pupil of the Professor. It's waiting. You go down there at once. I'll take the Princess out down the back stairs.'
He caught the Princess by her pink bread-and-buttery hand, and dragged her away.
'Hurry, my dear,' he panted; 'it's as much as your life is worth to delay a minute.'
But he himself delayed quite three minutes, and that was one minute too long. He had just run into the palace library for the manuscript of his life's work, 'Everything Easily Explained,' when the revolutionary crowd burst in, shouting 'Liberty and Soap!' and caught him. They did not see the Princess Everilda, because he had just time, when he heard them coming, to throw a red and green crochet antimacassar over her, and to hide her behind an armchair.
'When they've taken me away, go down the back stairs, and try to find the boat,' he whispered, just before they came and took him away.
And then Everilda was left alone. When everything was quiet, she said to herself: 'Now, you mustn't cry; you must do as you're told.' And she went down the palace back-stairs, and out through the palace kitchen into the street.
She had never set foot in the streets before, but she had been driven through them in a coach with four white horses, and she knew the way to the canal.
The canal boat with the blue sails was waiting, and she would have got to it safely enough, but she heard a rattling sound, and when she looked she saw two boys tying an old rusty kettle to a cat's tail.
'You horrid boys!' she said; 'let poor pussy alone.'
'Not us,' said the boys.
Everilda instantly slapped them both, and they were so surprised that they let the cat go. It scuttled and scurried off, and so did the Princess. The boys threw stones after her and also after the cat, but fortunately they were both very bad shots and nobody was hit.
Even then the Princess would have got safely away, but she saw a boy sitting on a doorstep crying. So she stopped to ask what was the matter.
'I'm hungry,' said the boy, 'and father and mother are dead, and my uncle beat me, so I'm running away——'
'Oh,' said the Princess, 'so am I. What fun! And I've got a horrid uncle, too. You come with me, and we'll find my nurse. She's running away, too. Make haste, or it'll be too late.'
But when they got to the corner, it was too late.
The revolutionary crowd caught them; they shouted 'Liberty and Soap!' and they sent the boy to the workhouse, and they put the Princess in prison; and a good many of them wanted to cut off her pretty little head then and there, because they thought she would be sure to grow up horrid like her uncle the Regent.
But all the people who had ever been inside the palace said what a nice little girl the Princess really was, and wouldn't hear of cutting off her darling head. So at last it was decided to get rid of her by enchantment, and the Head Magician to the Provisional Revolutionary Government was sent for.
'Certainly, citizens,' he said, 'I'll put her in a tower on the Forlorn Island, in the middle of the Perilous Sea—a nice strong tower, with only one way out.'
'That's one too many. There's not to be any way out,' said the people.
'Well, there's a way out of everything, you know,' said the Magician timidly—he was trembling for his own head—'but it's fifty thousand millions to one against her ever finding it.'
So they had to be content with that, and they fetched Everilda out of her prison; and the Magician took her hand and called his carriage, which was an invention of his own—half dragon, and half motor-car, and half flying-machine—so that it was a carriage and a half, and came when it was called, tame as any pet dog.
He lifted Everilda in, and said 'Gee up!' to his patent carriage, and the intelligent creature geed up right into the air and flew away. The Princess shut her eyes tight, and tried not to scream. She succeeded.
When the Magician's carriage got to the place where it knew it ought to stop, it did stop, and tumbled Everilda out on to a hard floor, and went back to its master, who patted it, and gave it a good feed of oil, and fire, and water, and petroleum spirit.
The Princess opened her eyes as the sound of the rattling dragon wings died away. She was alone—quite alone. 'I won't stay here,' said Everilda; 'I'll run away again.'
She ran to the edge of the tower and looked down. The tower was in the middle of a garden, and the garden was in the middle of a wood, and the wood was in the middle of a field, and after the field there was nothing more at all except steep cliffs and the great rolling, raging waves of the Perilous Sea.
'There's no way to run away by,' she said; and then she remembered that even if she ran away, there was now nowhere to run to, because the people had taken her palace away from her, and the palace was the only home she had ever had—and where her nurse was goodness only knew.
'So I suppose I've got to live here till someone fetches me,' she said, and stopped crying, like a brave King's daughter as she was.
'I'll explore,' said Everilda all alone; 'that will be fun.' She said it bravely, and really it was more fun than she expected. The tower had only one room on each floor. The top floor was Everilda's bedroom; she knew that by her gold-backed brushes and things with 'E. P.' on them that lay on the toilet-table. The next floor was a sitting-room, and the next a dining-room, and the last of all was a kitchen, with rows of bright pots and pans, and everything that a cook can possibly want.
'Now I can play at cooking,' said the Princess. 'I've always wanted to do that. If only there was something to cook!'
She looked in the cupboards, and there were lots of canisters and jars, with rice, and flour, and beans, and peas, and lentils, and macaroni, and currants, and raisins, and candied peel, and sugar, and sago, and cinnamon. She ate a whole lump of candied citron, and enjoyed it very much.
'I shan't starve, anyway,' she said. 'But oh! of course, I shall soon eat up all these things, and then——'
In her agitation she dropped the jar; it did not break, but all the candied peel rolled away into corners and under tables. Yet when she picked the jar up it was as full as ever.
'Oh, hooray!' cried Everilda, who had once heard a sentry use that low expression; 'of course it's a magic tower, and everything is magic in it. The jars will always be full.'
The fire was laid, so she lighted it and boiled some rice, but it stuck to the pot and got burned. You know how nasty burned rice is? and the macaroni she tried to cook would not get soft. So she went out into the garden, and had a very much nicer dinner than she could ever have cooked. Instead of meat she had apples, and instead of vegetables she had plums, and she had peaches instead of pudding.
There were rows and rows of beautiful books in the sitting-room, and she read a little, and wrote a long letter to nurse, in case anyone ever came who knew nurse's address and would post it for her. And then she had a nectarine-and-mulberry tea.
By this time the sun was sinking all red and splendid beyond the dark waters of the Perilous Sea, and Everilda sat down on the window seat to watch it.
I shall not tell you whether she cried at all then. Perhaps you would have cried just a little if you had been in her place.
'Oh dear! oh dear! oh dear!' she said, sniffing slightly. (Perhaps she had a cold.) 'There's nobody to tuck me up in bed—nobody at all.'
And just as she said it something fat and furry flew between her and the sunset. It hovered clumsily a moment, and then swooped in at the window.
'Oh!' cried the Princess, very much frightened indeed.
'Don't you know me?' said the stout furry creature, folding its wings. 'I'm the cat you saved from the indignity of a rusty kettle in connection with my honourable tail.'
'But that cat hadn't got wings,' said Everilda, 'and you're much bigger than it, and it couldn't talk.'
'How do you know it couldn't talk,' said the Cat; 'did you ask it?'
'No,' said the Princess.
'Well, then!' said the Cat 'And as for wings, I needn't wear them if you'd rather I didn't.'
The Cat took off her wings, rolled them neatly up, like your father rolls his umbrella, tied them round with a piece of string, and put them in the left-hand corner drawer in the bureau.
'That's better,' said Everilda.
'And as for size,' said the Cat, 'if I stayed ordinary cat-size I shouldn't be any use to you. And I've come to be cook, companion, housemaid, nurse, professor, and everything else, so——'
'Oh, don't,' said the Princess—'don't get any bigger.'
For while she was speaking the Cat had been growing steadily, and she was now about the size of a large leopard.
'Certainly not,' said the Cat obligingly; 'I'll stop at once.'
'I suppose,' said the Princess timidly, 'that you're magic?'
'Of course,' said the Cat; 'everything is, here. Don't you be afraid of me, now! Come along, my pet, time for bed.'
Everilda umped, for the voice was the voice of her nurse; but it was also the voice of the Cat.
'Oh!' cried the Princess, throwing her arms round the cat's large furry neck, 'I'm not afraid of any thing when you speak like that.'
So, after all, she had someone to tuck her up in bed. The Cat did it with large, soft, furry, clever paws, and in two minutes Everilda was fast asleep.
And now began the long, lonely, but all the same quite happy time which the Princess and the Cat spent together on the Forlorn Island.
Everilda had lessons with the Cat—and then it was the Professor's voice that the Cat spoke with; and the two did the neat little housework of the tower together—and then the Cat's voice was like the voices of the palace housemaids. And they did the cooking and then the Cat's voice was the cook's voice. And they played games together—and then the voice of the Cat was like the voices of all sorts of merry children. It was impossible to be dull with a companion who changed so often.
'But who are you really?' the Princess used to ask.
And the Cat always answered:
'I give it up! Ask another!' as if the Princess had been playing at riddles.
'How is it our garden is always so tidy and full of nice fruit and vegetables?' the Princess asked once, when they had been on the island about a year.
'Oh,' said the Cat, 'didn't you know? The moles you used to let out of the traps do the digging, and the birds you used to feed bring the seeds in their little beaks, and the mice you used to save from the palace mouse-traps do the weeding and raking with their sharp little teeth, and their fine, neat, needly claws.'
'But how did they get here?' asked the Princess.
'The usual way—swimming and flying,' said the Cat.
'But aren't the mice afraid of you?'
'Of me?' The great Cat drew herself up to her full height. 'Anyone would think, to hear you, that I was a common cat.' And she was really cross for nearly an hour.
That was the only approach to a quarrel that the two ever had.
Sometimes, at first, the Princess used to say:
'How long am I to stay here, pussy-nurse?'
And the Cat always said in nurse's voice:
'Till you're grown up, my dear.'
And the years went by, and each year found the Princess more good, and clever, and beautiful. And at last she was quite grown up.
'Now,' said the Cat briskly, 'we must get to work. There's a Prince in a kingdom a long way off, and he's the only person who can get you off this island.'
'Does he know?' asked Everilda.
'He knows about you, but he doesn't know that he's the person to find you, and he doesn't know where you are. So now every night I must fly away and whisper about you in his ear. He'll think it's dreams, but he believes in dreams; and he'll come in a grand ship with masts of gold and sails of silk, and carry my Pretty away and make a Queen of her.'
'Shall I like that, pussy-nurse, do you think?' asked the Princess.
And the Cat replied:
'Yes, very much indeed. But you wouldn't like it if it were any other King than this one, so it's just as well that it's quite impossible for it to be any other.'
'How will he come?' asked the Princess.
'Don't I tell you? In a ship, of course,' said the Cat.
'Aren't the rocks dangerous?' asked the Princess.
'Oh, very,' the Cat answered.
'Oh,' said the Princess, and grew silent and thoughtful.
That night the Cat got out its rolled-up wings, and unrolled them, and brushed them, and fitted them on; then she lighted a large lamp and set it in the window that looked out on the Perilous Sea.
'That's the beacon to guide the King to you,' she said.
'Won't it guide other ships here?' asked the Princess, 'with perhaps the wrong Kings on board—the ones I shouldn't like being Queen with?'
'Very likely,' said the Cat; 'but it doesn't matter: they'd only be wrecked. Serve them right, coming after Princesses that don't want them.'
'Oh,' said Everilda.
The Cat spread her wings, and after one or two trial flights round the tower, she spread them very wide indeed, and flew away across the black Perilous Sea, towards a little half moon that was standing on its head to show sailors that there would be foul weather.
The Princess leaned her elbows on the window-sill and looked out over the sea. Down below in the garden she could hear the kind moles digging industriously, and the good little mice weeding and raking with their sharp teeth and their fine needly claws. And far away against the low-hanging moon she saw the sails and masts of a ship.
'Oh,' she cried, 'I can't! It's sure not to be his ship. It mustn't be wrecked.'
And she turned the lamp out. And then she cried a little, because perhaps after all it might be his ship, and he would pass by and never know.
Next night the Cat went out on another flying excursion, leaving the lamp lighted. And again the Princess could not bear to go to bed leaving a lamp burning that might lure honest Kings and brave mariners to shipwreck, so she put out the lamp and cried a little. And this happened for many, many, many nights.
When the Cat swept the room of a morning she used to wonder where all the pearls came from that she found lying all about the floor. But it was a magic place, and one soon ceased to wonder much about anything. She never guessed that the pearls were the tears the Princess shed when she had put out the lamp, and seen ship after ship that perhaps carried her own King go sailing safely and ignorantly by, no one on board guessing that on that rock was a pretty, dear Princess waiting to be rescued—the Princess, the only Princess that that King would be happy and glad to have for his Queen.
And the years went on and on. Every night the Cat lighted the lamp and flew away to whisper dreams into the ears of the only King who could rescue the Princess, and every night the Princess put out the lamp and cried in the dark. And every morning the Cat swept up a dustpan full of pearls that were Everilda's tears. And again and again the King would fit out a vessel and sail the seas, and look in vain for the bright light that he had dreamed should guide him to his Princess.
The Cat was a good deal vexed; she could not understand how any King could be so stupid. She always stayed out all night. She used to go and see her friends after she had done whispering dreams to the King, and only got home in time to light the fire for breakfast, so she never knew how the Princess put out the lamp every night, and cried in the dark.
The years went by and went by, and the Princess grew old and gray, for she had never had the heart to leave the lamp alight, for fear that some poor mariners who were not her King should be drawn by the lamp to those cruel rocks and wrecked on them, for of course it wouldn't and couldn't be the poor mariners' fault that they didn't happen to be the one and only King who could land safely on the Forlorn Island.
And when the Princess was quite old, and the tear pearls that had been swept up by the Cat filled seven big chests in the back-kitchen, the Princess fell ill.
'I think I am going to die,' she said to the Cat, 'and I am not really at all sorry except for you. I think you'll miss me. Tell me now—it's almost all over—who are you, really?'
'I give it up,' said the Cat as usual. 'Ask another.'
But the Princess asked nothing more. She lay on her bed in her white gown and waited for death, for she was very tired of being alive. Only she said:
'Put out that lamp in the window; it hurts my eyes.'
For even then she thought of the poor men whose ships might be wrecked just because they didn't happen to be the one and only King with whom she could be happy.
So the Cat took the lamp away, but she did not put it out; she set it in the window of the parlour, and its light shone out over the black waters of the Perilous Sea.
And that very night the one and only King—who in all these years had never ceased to follow the leading of the dreams the Cat whispered in his ear—came in the black darkness sailing over the Perilous Sea. And in the black darkness he saw at last the bright white light that his dreams had promised, and he knew that where the light was his Princess was, and his heart leaped up, and he bade the helmsmen steer for the light.
And for the light they steered. And because he was the only possible King to mate that Princess, the helmsman found the only possible passage among the rocks, and the ship anchored safely in a little quiet creek, and the King landed and went up to the door of the tower and knocked.
'Who's there?' said the Cat.
'Me,' said the King, just as you or I might have done.
'You're late,' said the Cat. 'I'm afraid you've lost your chance.'
'I took the first chance I got,' said the King. 'Let me in, and let me see her.'
He had been so busy all these years trying to find the bright white light of his dreams that he had not noticed that his hair had gone gray long ago.
So the Cat let him in, and led him up the winding stair to the room where the Princess, very quiet, lay on her white bed waiting for death to come, for she was very tired.
The old King stumbled across the bar of moonlight on the floor, flung down a clanking wallet, and knelt by the bed in the deep shadow, saying:
'Oh, my dear own Princess, I have come at last.'
'Is it really you?' she said, and gave him her hands in the shadow. I hoped it was Death's foot-step I heard coming up the winding stair.'
'Oh, did you hope for death,' he cried, 'while I was coming to you?'
'You were long in coming,' said she, 'and I was very tired.'
'My beautiful dear Princess,' he said, 'you shall rest in my arms till you are not tired any more.'
'My beautiful King,' she said, 'I am not tired any more now.'
And then the Cat came in with the lamp, and they looked in each other's eyes.
Instead of the beautiful Princess of his dreams the King saw a white, withered woman whose piteous eyes met his in a look of longing love. The Princess saw a bent, white-haired man, but love was in his eyes.
'I don't mind.'
'I don't mind.'
They both spoke together. And both thought they spoke the truth. But the truth was that both were horribly disappointed.
'Yet, all the same,' said the King to himself, 'old and withered as she is, she is more to me than the youngest and loveliest of all other Princesses.'
'I don't care if he is gray,' said the Princess to herself; 'whatever he is, he's the only possible one.'
'Here's a pretty kettle of fish!' said the Cat. 'Why on earth didn't you come before?'
'I came as soon as I could,' said the King.
The Cat, walking about the room in an agitated way, kicked against the wallet the King had dropped.
'What's this,' she said crossly, rubbing her toes, for the wallet was hard, and she had hurt herself more than a little.
'Oh, that,' said the King—'that's just the steel bolts and hammers and things that my resolves to find the Princess turned into when I failed and never did find her. I never could bear to throw them away; I had a sort of feeling that they might be good for something, since they hurt me so much when they came to me. I thought perhaps I could batter down the doors of the Princess's tower with them.'
'They're good for something better than that,' said the Cat joyously.
She went away, and the two heard her hammering away below. Presently she staggered in with a great basket of white powder, and emptied it on the floor; then she went away for more.
The King helped her with the next basketful, and the next, and the next, and the next, and the next, and the next, for there were seven of them, and the heap of white powder stood up in the room as high as the King's middle.
'That's powder of pearls,' said the Cat proudly. 'Now, tell me, have you been a good King?'
'I have tried to be,' said the white-haired King 'I was a workhouse boy, and then I was apprenticed to a magician, who taught me how to make people happy. There was a revolution just at the time when I was put into the workhouse, and they had a Republic. And I worked my way up till they made me President.'
'What became of the King in that revolution?'
'There wasn't a King, only a Regent. They had him taught a trade, and he worked for his living. It was the worst punishment they could invent for him. There was a Princess, too, but she was hidden by a magician. I saw her once when she was trying to run away. She asked me to run too—to her nurse——'
Here his eyes met the Princess's.
'Oh,' she said, 'that was you, was it?'
'Oh,' said he, 'then that was you!'
And they looked long and lovingly in each other's faded eyes.
'Hurry up,' said the Cat impatiently; 'you were made President. And then——'
'Oh, why, then,' said the King, 'they thought it wouldn't be any more dangerous or expensive to have a King than a President, and prettier at State shows—ermine, crown, and sceptre, and all that—prettier than frock-coat and spats. So I agreed.'
'And do your people love you?' the Cat asked.
'I don't know,' said the King simply; 'I love them——'
As he spoke there came a flutter and flicker of many thousand wings at the closed casement. The Cat threw the window wide, and in swarmed a countless crowd of white pigeons.
'These are the blessings of your people,' said the Cat.
The wings fluttered and flickered and fanned the heap of pearl dust on the floor till it burst into flame, and the flame rose up high and white and clear.
'Quick!' cried the Cat, 'walk through it. Lead her through.'
The old King gave his hand to his poor faded love, and raised her from her couch, and together they passed through the clear fire made of her patience and self-sacrifice, his high resolve, and the blessings of his people. And they came out of that fire on the other side.
'Oh, love, how beautiful you are!' cried the King.
'Oh, my King, your face is the face of all my dreams!' cried the Princess.
And they put their arms round each other and cried for joy, because now they were both young and beautiful again.
The Cat cried for sympathy.
'And now we shall live happy ever after,' said the Princess, putting her other arm round the Cat. 'Dear pussy-nurse, do tell me, now it's all over, who you really are.'
'I give it up. Ask another,' said the Cat.
But as she spoke she went herself through the fire, and on the other side came out—not one person, but eleven. She was, in fact, the Professor, the nurse, the palace butler, footman, housemaid, parlourmaid, between-maid, boots, scullion, boy in buttons, as well as the rescued cat—all rolled into one!
'But we only used one part of ourselves at a time,' they all said with one voice, 'and I hope we were useful.'
'You were a darling,' said the Princess—'darlings, I mean. But who turned you all into exactly the pussy-nurse I wanted?'
'Oh, that was the Magician,' said all the voices in unison; 'he was your fairy-godfather, you know.'
'What has become of him?' asked the Princess, clinging to her lover's arm.
'He's been asleep all this time. It was the condition, the only way he got leave to work the good magic for all of us,' said the many voices that were one.
'Let's go and wake him,' said the King.
So they all went. And when they woke the Magician, who was sleeping quietly in his own private room in the palace where the Princess had once lived, he sneezed seven times for pure joy, and then called for Welsh rabbit and baked Spanish onions for supper.
'For after all these years of starvation,' he said, 'I do really think I may for once take a liberty with my digestion.'
So he had the supper he wanted; but the King and the Princess had roses and lilies and wedding-cake, because they were married that very evening.
And when you have passed through exactly the sort of fire those two had passed through, you can never be old, or ugly, or unhappy again, so those two are happy, and beautiful, and young to this very hour.
THE WHITE HORSE
'Please, father,' Diggory said, 'I want to go out and seek my fortune.'
'Seek your grandmother,' said his father, but not unkindly. He was smoking a pipe outside his cottage door, and he had a red-spotted handkerchief over his head because of the flies. There were flies then, just the same as there are now, though it was a hundred years ago by the church clock.
'I wasn't thinking of my grandmother,' said Diggory; 'I was thinking of my Uncle Diggory. He was the third son of a woodcutter, just like I am, and he saw right enough that that's the sort that has to go out and seek its fortune. And I'm getting on, father; I shall be twenty before you know where you are.'
'You'll have to be twenty and more before I agree not to know where you are,' said his father. 'Your Uncle Diggory did well for himself, sure enough, and many a turkey and chine he's sent us at Christmas-time; but he started a-horseback, he did. He got the horse from his Uncle Diggory, and he was a rover too. Now, if you went, you'd have to go on Shank's mare, and them that go a-foot comes back a-foot.'
'Will you let me go, then, if I can get a horse?' said Diggory coaxingly. 'Do say yes, dad, and then I won't say another word about it till I've got the horse.'
'Drat the lad—yes, then!' shouted the father.
Diggory jumped up from the porch seat.
'Then farewell home and hey for the road,' cried he, 'for I've got the horse, dad. My Uncle Diggory sent it to me this very day, and it's tied up behind the lodge; white it is, and a red saddle and bridle fit for a King.'
The woodcutter grumbled, but he was a woodcutter of honour, and having said 'Yes,' he had to stick to yes.
So Diggory rode off on the white horse with the scarlet saddle, and all the village turned out to see him go. He had on his best white smock, and he had never felt so fine in all his days.
So he rode away. When he came to the round mound windmill he stopped, for there was Joyce taking in the clean clothes from the hedge, because it was Monday evening.
He told her where he was going.
'You might take me with you,' she said. 'I'm not so very heavy but what we could both ride on that great big horse of yours.' And she held up a face as sweet as a bunch of flowers.
But Diggory said, 'No, my dear. Why, you little silly, girls can't go to seek their fortunes. You'd only be in my way! Wish me luck, child.'
So he rode on, and she folded up the linen all crooked, and damped it down with her tears, so that it was quite ready for ironing.
Diggory rode on, and on, and on. He rode through dewy evening, and through the cool black night, and right into the fresh-scented pinky pearly dawning. And when it was real live wide-awake morning, Diggory felt very thin and empty inside his smock, and he remembered that he had had nothing to eat since dinner-time yesterday, and then it was pork and greens.
He rode on, and he rode on, and by-and-by he came to a red brick wall, very strong and stout, with big buttresses and a stone coping. His horse (whom he had christened Invicta, and perhaps if he had known as much Latin as you do he would have called him something different) was a very high horse indeed, and by standing up in his stirrups Diggory could see over the wall. And he saw that on the other side was an orchard full of trees full of apples, red, and yellow, and green. He reined Invicta in close under the wall and said, 'Woa, there! stand still, will 'e?' And he stood up on the broad saddle and made a jump and caught at the stone coping of the wall, and next moment he had hung by his hands and dropped into the orchard. And it was a very long drop indeed. For he had quite made up his mind to take some of the apples. First, because he was hungry, and, secondly, because boys will take apples—in stories that is, of course; really, they would never think of such a thing.
With a practised eye, Diggory chose the tree with the fattest, rosiest apples on it. He climbed the tree, and had just settled himself astride a convenient bough when he heard a voice say: 'Hi! You up there!'
And, looking down, he saw a flat-faced old man with a red flannel waistcoat standing under the tree looking up spitefully.
'Good-morning, my fine fellow,' said the old man. 'You seem a nice honest lad, and I'm sorry for your sake that apple stealing's punished so severely in these parts.'
'I've not had any apples yet,' said Diggory. 'Look here, I'll go away if you like, and we'll say no more about it.'
'That's a handsome offer, very,' said the nasty old man; 'but this is an enchanted orchard, and you can't go away without with your leave or by your leave, as you came in. Why, you can't even get out of the tree—and as for climbing the wall, no one can do it without a white horse to help him. So now where are you?'
Diggory knew very well where he was, and he tried at once to be somewhere else, but the old man was right. He could move all about the tree from branch to branch, but the tree felt wrong way up and he felt wrong way up; that is to say, he could not get to the ground except by jumping much harder than he knew how to, and then he knew he would only have fallen back again, just as you would fall back if you jumped up to the ceiling. He could have fallen off the tree the other way, of course, but then he would have fallen up into the sky, and there seemed to be nothing there to stop his falling for ever and ever. So he held tight and looked at the old man. And Diggory thought he looked nastier than ever.
So he said: 'Well?'
And the old man said: 'Not at all! However, since you had the sense not to fall off wrong way, I suppose you're the boy I want. Now, look here, you throw me down those ten big apples, one by one, so that I can catch them, and I'll let you go out by the Apple Door that no one but me has the key of.'
'Why don't you pick them yourself?' Diggory asked.
'I'm too old; you know very well that old men don't climb trees. Come, is it a bargain?'
'I don't know,' said the boy; 'there are lots of apples you can reach without climbing. Why do you want these so particularly?'
As he spoke, he picked one of the apples and threw it up and caught it. I say up, but it was down instead, because of the apple-tree being so very much enchanted.
'Oh, don't!' the old man squeaked like a rat in a trap—'don't drop it! Throw it down to me, you nasty slack-baked, smock-frocked son of a speckled toad!'
Diggory's blood boiled at hearing his father called a toad.
'Take that!' cried he, aiming the apple at the old man's head.' I wish I could get out of this tree.'
The apple hit the old man's head and bounced on to the grass, and the moment that apple touched the ground Diggory found that he could get out of the tree if he liked, for he felt that he was now the proper way up once more, and so was the tree.
'So,' he said, 'these are wish-apples, are they?'
'No, no, no, no!' shrieked the old man so earnestly that Diggory knew he was lying. 'I've just disenchanted you, that's all. You see, most people fall up out of the tree and you didn't, so I thought I'd let you go, because I'm a nice kind old man, I am, and I wouldn't so much as hurt a fly. They aren't wish-apples, indeed they aren't.'
'Really,' said Diggory. 'I wish you'd speak the truth.'
With that he picked the second apple and threw it. And the old man began to speak the truth as hard as ever he could speak. It was like a child saying a lesson it has just learned, and is afraid of forgetting before it can get it said.
'I am a wicked magician. I have turned hundreds of people's heads in that tree so that they fall into the sky, and when they fall back again, as they have to do when the tide turns, I make them into apple-trees. I don't know why I do, but I like to. I suppose it's because I'm wicked. I never did anything useful with my magic, but I can hurt. And there's only one way out of this, and I don't mean to show it you.'
'It's a pity you're so wicked,' said Diggory. 'I wish you were good.'
He threw down another apple, and instantly the magician became so good that he could do nothing but sit down and cry to think how wicked he had been. He was now perfectly useless. But Diggory was no longer afraid of him, so he gathered the ten apples that were left and put them inside his shirt, and came down the tree.
The old man couldn't tell him how to get out, and he couldn't disenchant the fruit-trees or anything. So Diggory had to spend three wish-apples. First he spent one on making the old man happy. This was done as it is in Miss Edgeworth's stories—by giving him a thatched cottage and a garden, and a devoted grand-daughter to look after him. The next apple showed Diggory the Apple Door, which he had not been able to find, and he went out by it. You, of course, can find it on the map, but he had no map, and, besides, it is spelt differently. Before he went out of the orchard he threw down another apple, and wished the apple-trees to be disenchanted. And they were. And then the red-walled orchard was full of Kings and Princesses, and swineherds and goosegirls, and statesmen and stevedores, and every kind of person you can or can't think of.
Diggory left them to find their own ways home—some of them lived ever so long before, and ever so far away—and he himself went out by the Apple Door, and found his good white horse, who had been eating grass very happily all the time he had been in the company of the magician, and that had been two days and a night.
So Invicta was not hungry, but Diggory was; and, in fact, he was so hungry that he had to use a wish-apple to get his supper, and that was very, very wasteful of him, and he often regretted it in after years. It is true that he wished for the best supper in the world, and had it; but it was only bread-and-milk! If he had wished for the nicest supper it would have been different, no doubt.
Diggory rode on anxiously, arranging what wishes he should have with the rest of the apples, but in the dusk he missed his way and was nearly drowned in a rain-flooded ford, and poor white Invicta was quite carried away.
Then Diggory took off his shirt to wring the water out, and as he took it off he said: 'I wish I had my good white horse again.'
And as he said it all the apples but one tumbled out of his shirt on to the ground, and he heard soft neighings and stampings and hustlings and rustlings all round him in the dark, and when the moon rose he saw that he had had his wish—he had his good white horse back again. But as he had dropped eight apples, he had his good white horse back eight times, and as eight times one is eight, he had now eight good white horses, all called Invicta.
'Well, eight horses are better than nothing!' he said; and when he had tethered the horses he went to sleep, for he felt strangely feeble and tired.
In the morning he woke with pains in every limb. He thought it was a cold from the wetting in the ford, but it was really rheumatism. And he could not get rid of it. He tied seven horses together and led them, riding on the eighth.
'Eight horses are a pretty good fortune for a woodcutter's son,' he said to himself, 'and, anyway, I'm too tired to go looking for any better one.'
So he rode home.
He knew the roads well enough, and yet they seemed different; they were much better roads to ride over, for one thing, and the hedges and trees were odd somehow. And the big wood near his father's house seemed very small as he looked down on it from the hill. But when he got to the village he thought he must have gone mad, for in the day and two nights and a day that he had been away the village had grown big and ugly and yellow-bricky, and there were eight shops and six public-houses besides the Bill and Billet, and many more people than there used to be, all in ugly, untidy clothes, and the Round Mound windmill was gone! The people came crowding round him.
'What's become of the mill?' he asked, trembling all over.
The boys and girls and men and women stared, and a very old man stepped out of the crowd.
'It were pulled down,' he said, 'when I were a boy.'
'And the woodcutter's cottage?'
'That were burnt down a matter of fifty year ago. Was you a native of these parts, old man?'
There was a large plate-glass shop-window just opposite the crowd that surrounded Diggory. A dark blind was pulled down inside, because it was Wednesday and early-closing day. This made a fine mirror, and Diggory happened to look in it, and there he saw himself—an old, old white-haired man on a white horse. He had a white beard, too, but it was quite short, because it had only had since bedtime last night to grow in.
He almost tumbled off his horse. The landlord of the Ship led him in to sit by the fire in the bar parlour, and the eight horses were put up in the stable.
The old man who had told him about the mill came and sat by him, and poor old Diggory asked questions till he grew tired of hearing the answer, which was always the same: 'Dead, dead, dead!'
Then he sat silent, and the people in the bar talked about his horses, and a young man said:
'I wish I'd got e'er a one on 'em. I'd do a tidy bit in fish, an' set up for myself—so I would.'
'Young man,' said Diggory, 'you may take one of them; its name is Invicta.'
The young man could hardly believe his fortunate ears. Diggory felt his heart warm to think that he had made someone else so happy. He felt actually younger. And next morning he made up his mind to give away all the horses but one. That one he would sell, and its price would keep him for the rest of his life: he hoped that would not be long, for he did not care to go on living now that he had seen the tombstones in the churchyard with the names of his father and brothers and little Joyce of the mill.
He led his horses away next day. He did not want to give them all away in one village, because that would have lessened the value of his gift to the young man who was going into fish, and, besides, it would have been awkward to have so many horses of the same name in one village.
He gave away a horse at each village he passed through, and with every horse he gave away he felt happier and lighter. And when he had given away the fourth his rheumatism went, and when he had given away the seventh his beard was gone.
'Now,' he said to himself, 'I will ride home and end my days in my own village, and be buried with my own people.'
So he turned his horse's head towards home, and he felt so gay and light-limbed he could hardly believe that he was really an old, old man. And he rode on.
And at the end of the village he stopped and rubbed his eyes, for there stood the Round Mound windmill, and on the slope was Joyce, looking prettier than ever in a russet petticoat and a white neckerchief and a pink print gown with little red rosebuds on it.
'Oh, Diggory, Diggory,' she cried, 'you've come back, then! You'll take me with you now, won't you?'
'Have you got a looking-glass, my dear?' said he. 'Then run in and fetch it.'
She ran. He took it and looked in it. And he saw the same young brown face and the same bright brown hair that he had always known for him, and he was not old any more. And there was Joyce holding up a face as sweet as a bunch of flowers.
'Will you take me?' said she.
He stooped down and kissed the face that was so sweet.
'I'll take you,' said he.
And as they went along to his home he told her all the story.
'Well, but,' she said, 'you've got one wish-apple left.'
'Why, so I have,' said he; 'if I hadn't forgotten it!'
'We'll make that into the fortune you went out to find. Do, do let me look at it!'
He pulled out the apple, and she took it in her hand as she sat behind him on the big white horse.
'Yes, our fortune's made,' he said; 'but I do wish I knew why I turned old like that.'
Just then Invicta stumbled, and Joyce caught at her lover to save herself from falling, and as she caught at him the apple slipped from her hand and the last wish was granted. For as it bounced on the road Diggory did know why he had grown old like that. He knew that the magician had arranged long before that every wish-apple that was used outside the orchard should add ten years to the wisher's age. So that the eight horses had made him a hundred years old, and the spell could only be undone by the wisher's giving away what he'd wished for. So that it was Diggory's generosity in giving away the horses that had taken him back to the proper age for being happy in. I don't want to be moral, and I'm very sorry—but it really was that.
He carried Joyce home to his father's house. They were much too pleased with each other to bother about the wasted wish-apples.
'You're soon back, my son,' said the woodcutter, laughing.
'Yes,' said Diggory.
'Have you found your fortune?'
'Yes,' said Diggory; 'here she is!'
And he presented Joyce. The woodcutter laughed more than ever, for the miller's daughter was a bit of an heiress.
'Well, well!' he said.
So they were married, and they had a little farm, and the white horse was put to the plough, and to the cart, and the harrow, and the waggon; and he worked hard, and they worked hard, so that they all throve and were very happy as long as ever they lived.
Said Joyce one day to Diggory, 'How was it you wanted to take me with you directly you came back, and when you were going away you didn't.'
'I've often wondered about that myself,' he said; 'I think it must have been the bread-and-milk. You see, it was one of the wish-apple things, just like the horses were, only they were outside things, so they made me old outside; but the bread-and milk——'
'Was an inside thing, of course—quite inside.'
'Yes, so it made me old inside of my mind, just old enough to have the sense to see that you were all the fortune I wanted, and more than I deserved.'
'I didn't have to be so very old to know what fortune I wanted,' said Joyce, 'but, then, I was a girl. Boys are always much stupider than girls, aren't they?'
* * * * *
The only person in this story you are likely to have heard of is, of course, Invicta, and he is better known as the White Horse of Kent.
You can see pictures of him all over his county: on brewers circulars and all sorts of documents, and carved in stone on buildings, and even on the disagreeable, insulting fronts of traction-engines. Traction-engines pretend to despise horses, but they carry the image of the White Horse on their hearts. And his name is generally put underneath his picture, so that there shall be no mistake.
SIR CHRISTOPHER COCKLESHELL
The children called him Sir Christopher Cockleshell.—'Sir,' in token of respect for his gray hairs and noble-looking face; Christopher, because he had once carried Mabel across the road on a very muddy day, when thunder showers and the parish water-carts had both been particularly busy; and Cockleshell, because of the house he lived in.
It was a most wonderful house—like the gateway of an old castle. It had a big arch in the middle and a window over the arch, and there were windows, too, in the towers on each side of the arch. All along the top were in-and-out battlements. It had been covered with white plaster once, but flakes of this had fallen away and showed the pinky bricks underneath. But the oddest thing about the house was the trimming that ran all round the bottom story about the height of a tall man. This trimming was of oyster-shells, and cockle-shells, and mussel-shells, and whelk-shells, and scallop-shells, all stuck on the wall of the house in patterns. It was a very wonderful house indeed, and the children always tried to go past it on their way to everywhere.
The children themselves lived in a large, square, ordinary brown-brick house among other ordinary brown-brick houses. Their house had a long garden with tall old trees in it, and so had the other houses. Looking out of the boxroom window was like looking down on the top of a green forest, Phyllis always thought. Only now, of course, the trees were not green any more, because it was nearly Christmas.
'I wish Sir Christopher had a garden to his house,' Phyllis said one day to the new housemaid.
'There used to be a pleasure-gardens there, I've heard father tell,' said the new housemaid. 'Quite a big gardens, it was. The gent as owned it was as rich as rich, kep' his carriage and butlers and all. But when his son come into the property he sold the gardens for building on, and only kep' the gate-house—the Grotto they calls it. An' there 'e's lived ever since in quite a poor way. Nasty old miser, that's what he is!'
'He may be a miser,' said Phyllis, 'but he's not nasty. He carried Mabel as kind as could be.'
'Have you ever spoke to him since?' demanded the housemaid.
'No,' said Phyllis; 'he always smiles at us, but he's always in a hurry.'
'That's it,' said the housemaid; ''e's afraid to let anyone inside of his house, fear they should get to see all the sacks of money he's got there. And he pokes about and picks things outer the gutters, so he won't get to know anyone. My young brother he knocked at the door once to arst for a drink of water—thought he'd get a squint at the inside of the house while the old chap was gone to draw it. But he shuts the door in Elf's face, and only opens it a crack to hand him the mug through.'
'It was kind of him to give your brother the water,' said Phyllis.
'Elf didun want the water,' said Alf's sister; ''e'd just 'ad a lemonade at the paper shop.'
Phyllis had often wanted to do something kind for Sir Christopher, but she could not think of anything that wasn't just as likely to annoy him as to please him. If she had known when his birthday was, she would have put a birthday card under his door; but no one can be pleased at having a card with 'Bright be thy natal morn' on it when really the natal morn is quite a different date. She would have taken him flowers at the time when dahlias and sunflowers grew at the end of the garden, but perhaps he would not like the bother of putting them in water; and, if he was really poor, and not a miser, as Jane said, he might not have a vase or jug to put them in.
And now it was Christmas-time. Guy was home for the holidays, and that was splendid. But, on the other hand, mother and father had had to go to granny, who was ill. So there would be no real Christmas in the brown house.
'But I'll tell you what,' said Phyllis; 'there's the Christmas-tree for the poor children at the schools. Suppose we were to make some things for that, and buy some, and go down and help decorate? Mother said we might.'
Guy was rather clever with his fingers, and as we all like doing what we can do really well, he did not make such a fuss over making things as some boys do. He could make doll's furniture out of pins and wool, and armchairs out of the breast-bones of geese; only there are so seldom enough breast-bones of geese to make a complete set of furniture.
There was nearly a week to make things in, and long before its end the schoolroom began to look like a bazaar. There were little boxes of sweets covered with silver paper, and scrapbooks made of postcards covered with red calico, and some little dolls that the girls dressed, as well as all the things that Guy made.
'How ravishingly beautiful!' said Mabel, when the shiny, shimmery, real Christmas-tree things bought at the shop were spread out with the others.
The day before Christmas Eve the children were very happy indeed, although they had had to be made thoroughly tidy before Jane would allow them to go down to the school; and being thoroughly tidy, as you know, often means a lot of soap in your eyes, and having your nails cleaned by someone who does not know as well as you do where the nail leaves off and the real you begins.
They went to the side-door of the school, and left the baskets and bundles of pretty things in the porch and went in.
The big tree was there, but it was just plain fir-tree so far, nothing Christmassy about it, except that it was planted in a tub.
'How do you do?' said Guy politely to the stout lady in a bonnet with black beads and a violet feather; 'I'm so glad we're in time.'
'What for?' said the stout lady. 'The tree's not till to-morrow. Run away, little boy.'
'Oh, Mrs. Philkins,' said Phyllis, 'he's not a little boy, he's Guy; don't you remember him?'
'I remember him in petticoats,' said Mrs. Philkins: 'he's grown. Good-afternoon.'
'Mother said,' said Guy, keeping his temper beautifully, 'that we might come and help.'
'Very kind of your mother to arrange it like that. But I happen to be in charge of the tree, and I don't want any outside assistance.'
The children turned away without a word. When they got outside Guy said:
'I hate Mrs. Philkins!'
'We oughtn't to hate anybody,' said Mabel.
'She isn't anybody—at least, not anybody in particular,' said Phyllis; 'I heard father say so.'
'She wouldn't have been such a pig to us if she'd known what we'd brought for the tree,' said Phyllis.
'I'm glad she didn't know. I wish we hadn't done the things at all,' said Guy; 'it's always the way if you try to do good to others.'
'It isn't,' said the others indignantly; 'you know it isn't.'
'That's right!' said Guy aggravatingly, 'let's begin to quarrel about it—us—that would just please her. Let's drop the whole lot into the canal, and say no more about it.'
'Oh no!' cried both the girls together, clutching the precious parcels they carried.
'But what's the good?' said Guy; 'we don't know anyone who's got a Christmas-tree to give them to.'
Phyllis stopped short on the pavement, struck motionless by an idea.
'I know,' she said: 'we'll have a tree of our very own.'
'What's the good if there's no one to see it?'
'We'll ask someone to see it.'
The daring and romance of this idea charmed even Guy. But he thought it would be better not to ask Sir Christopher to come to their house: 'Servants are so odd,' he said; 'they might be rude to him, or something. No; we'll get it ready, and we'll wheel it round after dark, and ask him to let us light it in his yard. Then he won't think we're trying to pry into his house.'
Half an hour later Guy staggered in, bearing a fir-tree.
'Only ninepence,' he said; 'it's a bit lop-sided, but we can tie ivy on or something to make that right. I'm glad that old cat wouldn't let us help. It's much jollier like this.'
The tree was planted in a pot that a dead azalea had lived in; and Mrs. Philkins was quite forgotten in the joy of trimming their own tree. Besides the things they had made there were the lovely things they had bought—stars and flags, and a sugar bird-cage with a yellow bird in it, and a glass boat with glass sails, and a blue china bird with a tail of spun glass.
Guy went out and borrowed a wheelbarrow from the gardener who cut their grass when it was cut, and when the tree was trimmed he and Phyllis carried it downstairs. The top branch with the star on it got banged against the banisters, and the side branch got into Guy's eye, and Phyllis's thumb got jammed between the pot and the banister rail. But what are trifles like these in an adventure like this?
They got the tree out of the front-door without being seen by the servants—a real triumph. They stood the pot in the barrow, and started to wheel it out of the front-gate. But directly they lifted the handles of the barrow the floor of it naturally ceased to be straight, and the flower-pot toppled over and cracked itself slightly against the side of the barrow, while the boughs of the tree, with their gay decorations, took the opportunity to entangle themselves in the bad-tempered leaves of the holly that stood there, and were disengaged with difficulty.
Then the pot refused to stand up, and at last it had to be laid down in the barrow, with its shiny treasures dangling over the front-wheel.
Then, the barrow was extremely heavy even without the tree in it; and the children did not go the nearest way to the Grotto, because they did not want to meet people, so they were thoroughly tired and extremely hot by the time they approached Sir Christopher Cockleshell's castle.
There was a bit of waste land close to it, where someone had once begun to build a house and had then thought better of it. A bit of this house's wall was standing on each side of the space where its front-door would have been if it had ever come to the point of having one. They wheeled the barrow in, and the light of a street lamp that obligingly shone through the door-space made it possible for them to disentangle the little strings that had got twisted round each other, to disengage the gilt fish from the sugar bird-cage, and to take the glass bird out of the goose-bone armchair in which it was trying to sit. Also they set up all the candles—six dozen of them. This is done with tin-tacks, as no doubt you know.
'Now,' said Guy, 'one of us must go and ask if he'll let us light it in his yard, and one of us must wait here with the tree.'
'What about me?' said Mabel.
'You can do which you like,' said Guy.
'I want to do both,' said Mabel; 'I want to stay with the pretty tree, and I want to go and ask him if he wants us.'
Mabel was still too small to understand thoroughly how hard it is, even for a grown-up person, to be in two places at once.
It ended in Guy's staying with the tree.
'In case of attacks by boys,' he said.
'Then I shall go with Phyllis,' said Mabel.
Both girls felt their hearts go quite pitter-pattery when at last they stood on the doorstep of the castle.
'Why don't you knock?' Mabel asked.
'I don't like to,' said Phyllis.
Mabel instantly knocked very loudly with a wooden ninepin-ball that she happened to have in her pocket.
'Oh, I wish you hadn't!' said Phyllis; 'I wanted to think what to say first, and now there's no time.'
There certainly was not. The door opened a cautious inch, and a voice said:
'It's us,' said Phyllis, 'please. We don't want to pry into your beautiful house like Jane's brother Alf when he asked you for the drink of water, only we've made up a Christmas-tree, and may we stand it in your yard and light it—the candles, I mean?'
The door opened a little further, and a face looked out—the face, of course, of Sir Christopher. All the house that showed through the crack of the door didn't, as Mabel said afterwards, show at all, because it was pitch-dark.
'I don't quite understand,' said Sir Christopher gently. Phyllis was a little surprised to find that the voice was what she called a gentleman's voice.
'We—you were so kind carrying Mab across the road that water-carty day when it thundered——'
'Oh, it's you, is it?' he said.
'Yes, it's us; and they wouldn't let us help with the school tree, and so we made one of our own and then we wanted someone to see it. And we thought of you, because you don't seem to have many friends, and we thought—— But we'll take it home again if you don't care about it.'
She stopped, just on the right side of tears.
'There's a glass bird with a spun-lovely tail,' said Mabel persuasively, 'and sweets and fishes, and a crocodile that goes waggle-waddle when you wind him up.'
'My dears,' said Sir Christopher, and cleared his throat. 'My dears,' he began again, and again he stopped.
'We'll go away if—if you'd rather,' said Phyllis, and sniffed miserably.
'No, no!' he said; 'no, no—I was only thinking. I never thought—would you like to bring the tree into the house? It's just the sort of thing my little girl always liked.'
'Oh yes,' said Phyllis; 'we'll go and fetch it now.'
He closed the door gently. The children flew back to Guy and the tree.
'Oh, Guy! we've to take the tree inside the house! And he's got a little girl—at least, he says so. Come on, quick. We'd better carry it. The barrow's so heavy, and it does interfere so!'
They carried the pot between them. It was very heavy, and they had to put it down and rest several times. But at last they dumped it down in the dark on the front-door step of the castle, and breathed deep breaths of fatigue, relief, and excitement.
The door opened, and opened wide, and this time light streamed from within.
'Welcome!' said Sir Christopher. 'Come in. Let me help to lift it. What a beautiful tree!'
'It is rather decent, isn't it?' said Guy dispassionately.
Sir Christopher raised the pot, carried it in, and the door was shut. The children found themselves in a small square hall. A winding staircase of iron corkscrewed upwards in one corner. The hall was lighted only by two candles.
The old gentleman led the way through a door on the right into a round room with white walls.
'We're inside the tower now,' said Guy.
'Yes,' said their host, 'this is part of the tower.'
He hastily lighted a big lamp, and then a deep 'Oh!' broke from the children. For the walls were not white, they were all of mother-of-pearl, and here and there all over the walls round pearls shone with a starry, milky radiance.
'How radishing!' said Mabel in a whisper. 'I always said he wasn't a miser. He's a magician.'
'What a lovely, lovely room!' sighed Phyllis.
'What's it made of?' asked Guy downrightly.
'Oyster-shells,' said Sir Christopher, 'and pearl beads.'
And it was.
'Oh!' said Mabel gaily, 'then that's what you go prowling about in dirty gutters for?'
'Don't be rude, Mab dear!' whispered Phyllis.
But the old gentleman did not seem to mind. He just said, 'Yes, that's it,' in an absent sort of way. He seemed to be thinking about something else. Then he said, 'The Christmas-tree.'
The children had forgotten all about the Christmas-tree.
When its seventy-two candles were lighted the pearly room shone and glimmered like a fairy palace in a dream.
'It's many a year since my little girl had such a Christmas-tree,' he said. 'I don't know how to thank you.'
'Seeing your pearly halls is worth all the time and money,' said Mabel heartily.
And Phyllis added in polite haste:
'And you being pleased.'
'Would you like to see the black marble hall?' asked Sir Christopher.
And, of course, they said, 'Yes, awfully.'
So he led them into the room on the other side of the hall, and lighted a lamp. And the room was like a room of black marble, carved into little round knobs.
'How lovely!' said Phyllis.
'It's not lovely like the other,' said Mabel; 'but it's more serious, like when the organ plays in church.'
'Why,' said Guy suddenly, 'it's winkle-shells!'
And it was. Hundreds and thousands of winkle-shells sorted into sizes and stuck on the walls in patterns, and then, it seemed, polished or varnished.
'Come,' said Sir Christopher, 'I'll show you the red-room.'
As they turned to go a tall, white figure by the door seemed to come suddenly into the lamplight. It was covered with a sheet.
'Oh!' said all three, starting back, 'what's that?'
'That's my little girl,' he said.
'Is she trying to frighten us? Is she playing ghosts?' asked Guy.
'No,' he said; 'she never plays at ghosts. It isn't her really. That's only my fun. It's a statue really.'
'Aren't statues very dear?' asked Guy.
'Very,' said Sir Christopher—'very, very dear.'
He led the way up the winding iron stair and showed them the red-room. Its walls were covered with bits of red lobster-shells, overlapping like a fish's scales or the plates of armour.
'How resplendid!' said Mabel; 'I believe you're a mighty magician.'
'No,' he said; 'at least—no, not exactly. There's only one more room.'
The other room was a bedroom, quite dull and plain, with whitewashed walls and painted deal furniture.
'I like the pearly halls best,' said Mabel: 'they're more eloquent;' and they all went down to the room where the seventy-two candles of the Christmas-tree were burning steadily and brightly, though there was no one to see them.
'Won't you call your little girl?' said Phyllis. 'The candles won't last so very long; they're the cheap kind.'
Sir Christopher twisted his fingers together.
'It's no use calling her,'he said. 'Would you mind—do you mind leaving the tree for to-night? You could fetch it to-morrow. And you won't tell anyone about the inside of my house, will you? They'd only laugh at it.'
'I don't see how they could,' said Mabel indignantly; 'it's the beautifullest, gorgerest house that ever was.'
'But we won't tell anyone,' said Guy. 'And we'll come again to-morrow—about the same time.'
Sir Christopher said, 'Yes, please.'
And they all shook hands with him and came away, leaving the Christmas-tree, with all its seventy-two candles, still making the pearly room a dream of fairy beauty.
They ran all the way home, because it was rather late, and they did not want the servants to fetch them from the parish schoolroom, where they had not spent the evening. It would have been very difficult to explain exactly where and how they had spent it, and the fact that they had promised not to say anything about it would have added considerably to the difficulty.
When they had been let in, and had taken off their hats and jackets and got their breaths, they looked at each other.
'Well?' said Phyllis.
'Yes,' said Mabel; 'what an inciting adventure! What a dear he is! I do hope we shall see his little girl to-morrow.'
'Yes,' said Guy slowly, 'but I don't think we shall.'
'Why ever not?'
'Because I don't believe he's got any little girl. We went into all the rooms, and the hall and landing. There wasn't any other room for the little girl to be in.'
'Perhaps it was really her under the sheet, trying to be ghosts,' said Phyllis.
'It was too high up,' said Mabel.
'She might have been standing on a stool,' said Phyllis.
'Well,' said Guy, with a satisfied look; 'it's a very thrilling mystery.'
It was. And it gave them something to think of for the next few days. For that evening when they went to fetch the Christmas-tree, they found the door of Sir Christopher's castle tight shut, and their Christmas-tree was standing alone on the doorstep in the dark.
After vainly knocking several times, they put the tree into the wheelbarrow and got it home, only upsetting it three times by the way.
When they got it into the light of their schoolroom they saw that there was a piece of paper on it—a note.
'My dears,' it said, 'here is your beautiful tree. Thank you very much. If you knew how much pleasure it had given me you would be glad. Why not give the tree to some poor child? Good-bye. God bless you!'
There were some letters tangled together at the bottom of the page.
'His initials, I suppose,' said Guy. But nobody could read them.
'Anyway, it means he doesn't want to see us any more,' said Phyllis. 'Oh, I do wish we knew something more about him.'
But they took his advice, and the tree went to the gardener's little boy, who was ill. It made him almost forget his illness for days and days.
When father came home they asked him who lived in the Grotto. He told them.
'He has lived there for years,' he said. 'I have heard that when he came into his property he found that his property was almost all debts. So he sold the tea-gardens for building on, and has lived there in the Grotto on next to nothing, and all these years he's been paying off his father's creditors. I should think they're about paid off by now.'
'Has he a little girl?' asked Phyllis.
'Yes—I believe so,' said father absently.
'It's very odd,' Mabel was beginning, but the others silenced her.
After this the children were more interested than ever in Sir Christopher. They used to paint illuminated texts, and make picture-frames of paper rosettes, and buy toys, and leave them on his doorstep in the dark, 'For the little girl,' and as the spring came on, bunches of flowers.
It was one evening when Phyllis came to the castle with a big bunch of plumy purple lilac. She was earlier than usual, and it was not quite dark, and—wonder of wonders—the door of the castle was open. Still more wonderful, Sir Christopher stood on the doorstep.
'I was watching for you,' he said. 'I had a sort of feeling you'd come to-night. Will you come in?'
He led her into the black marble room and stood looking wistfully at her.
'Would you like to see my little girl?' he said suddenly.
'Yes,' said Phyllis.
'I didn't think you'd understand,' he said, 'when you came at Christmas. But you've been so kind and faithful all these months. I think you will understand. Look!'
He pulled the sheet from the statue, and Phyllis looked on the white likeness of a little girl of her own age, dressed in a long gown like a nightgown.
'It is very beautiful,' she said.
'Yes,' he said. 'Have you ever heard any tales about me?' he asked.
'Yes,' said Phyllis, and told him.
'It's not true,' he said. My father had no debts. But I married someone he didn't like; and then I got ill, and couldn't work. My father was very hard. He wouldn't help us. My wife died, and then my father died, and all his great wealth came to me. Too late! too late! The letter that told me I was rich came to me when I was sitting beside my dead child. The money came then—the money that would have saved her. The first money I spent out of it all was spent on that statue. It was done as she lay dead.'
Phyllis looked at the statue, and felt—she didn't know why—very frightened. Then she looked at him, and she was not frightened any more. She ran to him and put her arms round him.