At noon her lessons came to an end; and in less than three minutes she was ready to go skating. She set out briskly across the common, and found Wiggins waiting for her at his father's garden-gate. He joined her in a fine enthusiasm for the ice and talked of the certainty of its bearing with the most hopeful confidence. She displayed an equal confidence; and they took their brisk way across the white meadows. More than usual Wiggins spurned the earth and advanced by leaps and bounds. His blue eyes were shining very brightly in the cold winter sunlight.
In ten minutes they came to Pringle's pond. The wind had swept the ice fairly clear of snow; and it looked smooth and very tempting. Also it looked quite thick and strong. Erebus stepped on to it gingerly, found that it bore her, and tested it with some care. She even jumped up and down on it. It cracked, but it did not break; and she told herself that ice always cracks, more or less. She set about putting on her skates; and the joyful Wiggins, all fear of disappointment allayed, followed her example.
When presently he stood upright in them ready to take the ice, she looked at him doubtfully, then tossed her head impatiently. No; she would not tell him that the Terror had charged her not to let him skate till he came. . . . She could look after him quite as well as the Terror. . . . She had tested the ice thoroughly. . . . It was perfectly safe.
Wiggins slid down the bank on to the ice; and she followed him. The ice cracked somewhat noisily at their weight, and at intervals it cracked again. Erebus paid no heed to its cracking beyond telling Wiggins not to go far from the edge. She skated round and across the pond several times, then settled down to make a figure of eight, resolved to have it scored deeply in the ice before the Terror came. Wiggins skated about the pond.
She had been at work some time and had got so far with her figure of eight that it was already distinctly marked, when there was a crash and a shrill cry from Wiggins. She turned sharply to see the water welling up out of a dark triangular hole on the other side of the pond, where a row of pollard willows had screened the ice from the full keenness of the wind.
Wiggins was in that hole under the water.
She screamed and dashed toward it. She had nearly reached it when his head came up above the surface; and he clutched at the ice. Two more steps and a loud crack gave her pause. It flashed on her that if she went near it, she would merely widen the hole and be helpless in the water herself.
"Hold on! Hold on!" she cried as she stopped ten yards from the hole; and then she sent a shrill piercing scream from all her lungs ringing through the still winter air.
She screamed again and yet again. Wiggins' face rose above the edge of the ice; and he gasped and spluttered. Then she sank down gently, at full length, face downward on the ice, and squirmed slowly, spread out so as to distribute her weight over as wide a surface as possible, toward the hole. Half a minute's cautious squirming brought her hands to the edge of it; and with a sob of relief she grasped his wrists. The ice bent under her weight, but it did not break. The icy water, welling out over it, began to drench her arms and chest.
Very gently she tried to draw Wiggins out over the ice; but she could not. She could get no grip on it with her toes to drag from.
Wiggins' little face, two feet from her own, was very white; and his teeth chattered.
She set her teeth and strove to find a hold for her slipping toes. She could not.
"C-c-can't you p-p-pull m-m-me out?" chattered Wiggins.
"No, not yet," she said hoarsely. "But it's all right. The Terror will be here in a minute."
She raised her head as high as she could and screamed again.
She listened with all her ears for an answer. A bird squeaked shrilly on the other side of the field; there was no other sound. Wiggins' white face was now bluish round the mouth; and his eyes were full of fear. Again she kicked about for a grip, in vain.
"It's d-d-dreadfully c-c-cold," said Wiggins in a very faint voice; he began to sob; and his eyes looked very dully into hers.
She knew that it was dreadfully cold; her drenched arms and chest were dreadfully cold; and he was in that icy water to his shoulders.
"Try to stick it out! Don't give in! It's only a minute or two longer! The Terror must come!" she cried fiercely.
His eyes gazed at her piteously; and she began to sob without feeling ashamed of it. Then his eyes filled with that dreadful look of hopeless bewildered distress of a very sick child; and they rolled in their sockets scanning the cold sky in desperate appeal.
They terrified Erebus beyond words. She screamed, and then she screamed and screamed. Wiggins' face was a mere white blur through her blinding tears of terror.
She knew nothing till her ankles were firmly gripped; and the Terror cried loudly: "Stop that row!"
She felt him tug at her ankles but not nearly strongly enough to stir her and Wiggins. He, too, could get no hold on the ice with his toes.
Then he cried: "Squirm round to the left. I'll help you."
He made his meaning clearer by tugging her ankles toward the left; and she squirmed in that direction as fast as she dared over the bending ice.
In less than half a minute the Terror got his feet among the roots of a willow, gripped them with his toes, and with a strong and steady pull began to draw them toward the bank. The ice creaked as Wiggins' chest came over the edge of the hole; but it did not break; and his body once flat on the ice, the Terror hauled them to the side of the pond easily. He dragged Erebus, still by the ankles, half up the bank to get most of her weight off the ice. Then he stepped down on to it and picked up Wiggins. Erebus' stiff fingers still grasped his wrists; and they did not open easily to let them go.
The Terror took one look at the deathly faintly-breathing Wiggins; then he pulled off his woolen gloves, drew his knife from his pocket, opened the blade with his teeth for quickness' sake, tossed it to Erebus and cried: "Cut off his skates! Pull off his boots and stockings!"
Then with swift deft fingers he stripped off Wiggins' coat, jersey and waistcoat, pulled on his gloves, caught up a handful of snow and began to rub his chest violently. In the spring the Twins had attended a course of the St. John's Ambulance Society lectures, and among other things had learned how to treat those dying from exposure. The Terror was the quicker dealing with Wiggins since he had so often been the subject on which he and Erebus had practised many kinds of first-aid.
He rubbed hard till the skin reddened with the blood flowing back into it. Erebus with feeble fumbling fingers (she was almost spent with cold and terror) cut the straps of his skates and the laces of his boots, pulled them off, pulled off his stockings, and rubbed feebly at his legs. The Terror turned Wiggins over and rubbed his back violently till the blood reddened that. Wiggins uttered a little gasping grunt.
Forthwith the Terror pulled off his own coat and jersey and put them on Wiggins; then he pulled off Wiggins' knickerbockers and rubbed his thighs till they reddened; then he pulled off his stockings and pulled them on Wiggins' legs. The stockings came well up his thighs; and the Terror's coat and jersey came well down them. Wiggins was completely covered. But the Terror was not satisfied; he called on Erebus for her stockings and pulled them on Wiggins over his own; then he took her jacket and tied it round Wiggins' waist by the sleeves.
Wiggins was much less blue; and the whiteness of his cheeks was no longer a dead waxen color. He opened his eyes twice and shut them feebly.
The Terror shook him, and shouted: "Come on, old chap! Make an effort! We want to get you home!"
With that he raised him on to his feet, put his own cap well over Wiggins' cold wet head, slipped an arm round him under his shoulder, bade Erebus support him in like manner on the other side; and they set off toward the village half carrying, half dragging him along. They went slowly for Wiggins' feet dragged feebly and almost helplessly along. Their arms round him helped warm him. It would have taken them a long time to haul him all the way to his home; but fortunately soon after they came out of Pringle's meadows on to the road, Jakes, the Great Deeping butcher, who supplies also Little Deeping and Muttle Deeping with meat, came clattering along in his cart. Wiggins was quickly hauled into it; and the three of them were at Mr. Carrington's in about four minutes.
As they hauled Wiggins along the garden path, the Terror, said to Erebus: "You bolt home as hard as you can go. You must be awfully wet and cold; and if you don't want to be laid up, the sooner you take some quinine and get to bed the better."
As soon therefore as she had helped Wiggins over the threshold she ran home as quickly as her legs, still stiff and cold, would carry her.
The arrival of the barelegged Terror in his waistcoat, bearing Wiggins as a half-animate bundle, set Mr. Carrington's house in an uproar. The Terror, as the expert in first-aid, took command of the cook and housemaid and Mr. Carrington himself. Wiggins was carried into the hot kitchen and rolled in a blanket with a hot water bottle at his feet. The cook was for two blankets and two hot water bottles; but the expert Terror insisted with a firmness there was no bending that heat must be restored slowly. As Wiggins warmed he gave him warm brandy and water with a teaspoon. In ten minutes Wiggins was quite animate, able to talk faintly, trying not to cry with the pain of returning circulation.
The Terror sent the cook and housemaid to get the sheets off his bed and warm the blankets. In another five minute's Mr. Carrington carried Wiggins up to it, and gave him a dose of ammoniated quinine. Presently he fell asleep.
The Terror had taken his coat off Wiggins; but he was still without stockings and a jersey. He borrowed stockings and a sweater from Mr. Carrington, and now that the business of seeing after Wiggins was over, he told him how he had come to the pond to find Wiggins in the water and Erebus spread out on the ice, holding him back from sinking. He was careful not to tell him that he had forbidden Erebus to let Wiggins go on the ice; and when Mr. Carrington began to thank him for saving him, he insisted on giving all the credit to Erebus.
Mr. Carrington made him also take a dose of ammoniated quinine, and then further fortified him with cake and very agreeable port wine. On his way home the Terror went briskly round by Pringle's pond and picked up the skates and garments that had been left there. When he reached home he found that Erebus was in bed. She seemed little the worse for lying with her arms and chest in that icy water, keeping Wiggins afloat; and when she learned that Wiggins also seemed none the worse and was sleeping peacefully, she ate her lunch with a fair appetite.
The Terror did not point out that all the trouble had sprung from her disregard for his instructions; he only said: "I just told Mr. Carrington that Wiggins was already in the water when I got to the pond."
"That was awfully decent of you," said Erebus after a pause in which she had gathered the full bearing of his reticence.
AND THE MUTTLE DEEPING PEACHES
The dreadful fright she had suffered did not throw a cloud over the spirit of Erebus for as long as might have been expected. She was as quick as any one to realize that all's well that ends well; and Wiggins escaped lightly, with a couple of days in bed. The adventure, however, induced a change in her attitude to him; she was far less condescending with him than she had been; indeed she seemed to have acquired something of a proprietary interest in him and was uncommonly solicitous for his welfare. To such a point did this solicitude go that more than once he remonstrated bitterly with her for fussing about him.
During the rest of the winter, the spring and the early summer, their lives followed an even tenor: they did their lessons; they played their games; then tended the inmates of the cats' home, selling them as they grew big, and replacing the sold with threepenny kittens just able to lap.
In the spring they fished the free water of the Whittle, the little trout-stream that runs through the estate of the Morgans of Muttle Deeping Grange. The free water runs for rather more than half a mile on the Little Deeping side of Muttle Deeping; and the Twins fished it with an assiduity and a skill which set the villagers grumbling that they left no fish for any one else. Also the Twins tried to get leave to fish Sir James Morgan's preserved water, higher up the stream. But Mr. Hilton, the agent of the estate, was very firm in his refusal to give them leave: for no reason that the Twins could see, since Sir James was absent, shooting big game in Africa. They resented the refusal bitterly; it seemed to them a wanton waste of the stream. It was some consolation to them to make a well-judged raid one early morning on the strawberry-beds in one of the walled gardens of Muttle Deeping Grange.
About the middle of June the Terror went to London on a visit to their Aunt Amelia. Sir Maurice Falconer and Miss Hendersyde saw to it that it was not the unbroken series of visits to cats' homes Lady Ryehampton had arranged for him; and he enjoyed it very much. On his return he was able to assure the interested Erebus that their aunt's parrot still said "dam" with a perfectly accurate, but monotonous iteration.
Soon after his return the news was spread abroad that Sir James Morgan had let Muttle Deeping Grange. In the life of the Deeping villages the mere letting of Muttle Deeping Grange was no unimportant event, but the inhabitants of Great Deeping, Muttle Deeping (possibly a corruption of Middle Deeping), and Little Deeping were stirred to the very depths of their being when the news came that it had been let to a German princess. The women, at any rate, awaited her coming with the liveliest interest and curiosity, emotions dashed some way from their fine height when they learned that Princess Elizabeth, of Cassel-Nassau, was only twelve years and seven months old.
The Twins did not share the excited curiosity of their neighbors. Resenting deeply the fact that the tenant of Muttle Deeping was a German princess, they assumed an attitude of cold aloofness in the matter, and refused to be interested or impressed. Erebus was more resentful than the Terror; and it is to be suspected that the high patriotic spirit she displayed in the matter was in some degree owing to the fact that Mrs. Blenkinsop, who came one afternoon to tea, gushing information about the grandfathers, grandmothers, parents, uncles, cousins and aunts of the princess, ended by saying, with meaning, "And what a model she will be to the little girls of the neighborhood!"
Erebus told the Terror that things were indeed come to a pretty pass when it was suggested to an English girl, a Dangerfield, too, that she should model herself on a German.
"I don't suppose it would really make any difference who you modeled yourself on," said the Terror, desirous rather of being frank than grammatical.
When presently the princess came to the Grange, the lively curiosity of her neighbors was gratified by but imperfect visions of her. She did not, as they had expected, attend any of the three churches, for she had brought with her her own Lutheran pastor. They only saw her on her afternoon drives, a stiff little figure, thickly veiled against the sun, sitting bolt upright in the victoria beside the crimson baroness (crimson in face; she wore black) in whose charge she had come to England.
They learned presently that the princess had come to Muttle Deeping for her health; that she was delicate and her doctors feared lest she should develop consumption; they hoped that a few weeks in the excellent Deeping air would strengthen her. The news abated a little the cold hostility of Erebus; but the Twins paid but little attention to their young neighbor.
Their mother was finding the summer trying; she was sleeping badly, and her appetite was poor. Doctor Arbuthnot put her on a light diet; and in particular he ordered her to eat plenty of fruit. It was not the best season for fruit: strawberries were over and raspberries were coming to an end. Mrs. Dangerfield made shift to do with bananas. The Twins were annoyed that this was the best that could be done to carry out the doctor's orders; but there seemed no help for it.
It was in the afternoon, a sweltering afternoon, after the doctor's visit that, as the Twins, bent on an aimless ride, were lazily wheeling their bicycles out of the cats' home, a sudden gleam came into the eyes of the Terror; and he said:
"I've got an idea!"
An answering light gleamed in the eyes of Erebus; and she cried joyfully; "Thank goodness! I was beginning to get afraid that nothing was ever going to occur to us again. I thought it was the hot weather. What is it?"
"Those Germans," said the Terror darkly. "Now that they've got the Grange, why shouldn't we make a raid on the peach-garden. They say the Grange peaches are better than any hothouse ones; and Watkins told me they ripen uncommon early. They're probably ripe now."
"That's a splendid idea! It will just teach those Germans!" cried Erebus; and her piquant face was bright with the sterling spirit of the patriot. Then after a pause she added reluctantly: "But if the princess is an invalid, perhaps she ought to have all the peaches herself."
"She couldn't want all of them. Why we couldn't. There are hundreds," said the Terror quickly. "And they're the very thing for Mum. Bananas are all very well in their way; but they're not like real fruit."
"Of course; Mum must have them," said Erebus with decision. "But how are we going to get into the peach-garden? The door in the wall only opens on the inside."
"We're not. I've worked it out. Now you just hurry up and get some big leaves to put the peaches in. Mum will like them ever so much better with the bloom on, though it doesn't really make any difference to the taste."
Erebus ran into the kitchen-garden and gathered big soft leaves of different kinds. When she came back she found the Terror tying the landing-net they had borrowed from the vicar for their trout-fishing, to the backbone of his bicycle. She put the leaves into her bicycle basket, and they rode briskly to Muttle Deeping.
The Twins knew all the approaches to Muttle Deeping Grange well since they had spent several days in careful scouting before they had made their raid earlier in the summer on its strawberry beds. A screen of trees runs down from the home wood along the walls of the gardens; and the Twins, after coming from the road in the shelter of the home wood, came down the wall behind that screen of trees.
About the middle of the peach-garden the Terror climbed on to a low bough, raised his head with slow caution above the wall, and surveyed the garden. It was empty and silent, save for a curious snoring sound that disquieted him little, since he ascribed it to some distant pig.
He stepped on to a higher branch, leaned over the wall, and surveyed the golden burden of the tree beneath him. The ready Erebus handed the landing-net up to him. He chose his peach, the ripest he could see; slipped the net under it, flicked it, lifted the peach in it over the wall, and lowered it down to Erebus, who made haste to roll it in a leaf and lay it gently in her bicycle basket. The Terror netted another and another and another.
The garden was not as empty as he believed. On a garden chair in the little lawn in the middle of it sat the Princess Elizabeth hidden from him by the thick wall of a pear tree, and in a chair beside her, sat, or rather sprawled, her guardian, the Baroness Frederica Von Aschersleben, who was following faithfully the doctor's instructions that her little charge should spend her time in the open air, but was doing her best to bring it about that the practise should do her as little good as possible by choosing the sultriest and most airless spot on the estate because it was so admirably adapted to her own comfortable sleeping.
The baroness added nothing to the old-world charm of the garden. Her eyes were shut, her mouth was open, her face was most painfully crimson, and from her short, but extremely tip-tilted nose, came the sound of snoring which the Terror had ascribed to some distant pig.
The princess was warmly—very warmly—dressed for the sweltering afternoon and sweltering spot; little beads of sweat stood on her brow; the story-book she had been trying to read lay face downward in her lap; and she was looking round the simmering garden with a look of intolerable discomfort and boredom on her pretty pale face.
Then a moving object came into the range of her vision, just beyond the end-of the wall of pear tree—a moving object against the garden wall. She could not see clearly what it was; but it seemed to her that a peach rose and vanished over the top of the wall. She stared at the part of the wall whence it had risen; and in a few seconds another peach seemed to rise and disappear.
This curious behavior of English peaches so roused her curiosity that, in spite of the heat, she rose and walked quietly to the end of the wall of pear-tree. As she came beyond it, she saw, leaning over the wall, a fair-haired boy. Even as she saw him something rose and vanished over the wall far too swiftly for her to see that it was a landing-net.
Surprise did not rob the Terror of his politeness; he smiled amicably, raised his cap and said in his most agreeable tone: "How do you do?"
He did not know how much the princess had seen, and he was not going to make admission of guilt by a hasty and perhaps needless flight, provoke pursuit and risk his peaches.
"How do you do?" said the princess a little haughtily, hesitating. "What are you doing up there?"
"I'm looking at the garden," said the Terror truthfully, but not quite accurately; for he was looking much more at the princess.
She gazed at him; her brow knitted in a little perplexed frown. She thought that he had been taking the peaches; but she was not sure; and his serene guileless face and limpid blue eyes gave the suspicion the lie. She thought that he looked a nice boy.
He gazed at her with growing interest and approval—as much approval as one could give to a girl. The Princess Elizabeth had beautiful gray eyes; and though her pale cheeks were a little hollow, and the line from the cheek-bone to the corner of the chin was so straight that it made her face almost triangular, it was a pretty face. She looked fragile; and he felt sorry for her.
"This garden's very hot," he said. "It's like holding one's face over an oven."
"Oh, it is," said the princess, with impatient weariness.
"Yet there's quite a decent little breeze blowing over the top of the walls," said the Terror.
The princess sighed, and they gazed at each other with curious examining eyes. Certainly he looked a nice boy.
"I tell you what: come out into the wood. I know an awfully cool place. You'd find it very refreshing," said the Terror in the tone of one who has of a sudden been happily inspired.
The princess looked back along the wall of pear tree irresolutely at the sleeping baroness. The sight of that richly crimson face made the garden feel hotter than ever.
"Do come. My sister's here, and it will be very jolly in the wood—the three of us," said the Terror in his most persuasive tone.
The princess hesitated, and again she looked back at the sleeping but unbeautiful baroness; then she said with a truly German frankness:
"Are you well-born?"
The Terror smiled a little haughtily in his turn and said slowly: "Well, from what Mrs. Blenkinsop said, the Dangerfields were barons in the Weald before they were any Hohenzollerns. And they did very well at Crecy and Agincourt, too," he added pensively.
The princess seemed reassured; but she still hesitated.
"Suppose the baroness were to wake?" she said.
A light of understanding brightened the Terror's face: "Oh, is that the baroness snoring? I thought it was a pig," he said frankly. "She won't wake for another hour. Nobody snoring like that could."
The assurance seemed to disperse the last doubts of the princess. She cast one more look back at her crimson Argus, and said: "Very goot; I will coom."
She walked to the door lower down the garden wall. When she came through it, she found the Twins wheeling their bicycles toward it. The Terror, in a very dignified fashion, introduced Erebus to her as Violet Anastasia Dangerfield, and himself as Hyacinth Wolfram Dangerfield. He gave their full and so little-used names because he felt that, in the case of a princess, etiquette demanded it. Then they moved along the screen of trees, up the side of the garden wall toward the wood.
The Twins shortened their strides to suit the pace of the princess, which was uncommonly slow. She kept looking from one to the other with curious, rather timid, pleased eyes. She saw the landing-net that Erebus had fastened to the backbone of the Terror's bicycle; but she saw no connection between it and the vanishing peaches.
They passed straight from the screen of trees through a gap into the home wood, a gap of a size to let them carry their bicycles through without difficulty, took a narrow, little used path into the depths of the wood, and moved down it in single file.
"I expect you never found this path," said the Terror to the princess who was following closely on the back wheel of his bicycle.
"No, I haf not found it. I haf never been in this wood till now," said the princess.
"You haven't been in this wood! But it's the home wood—the jolliest part of the estate," cried the Terror in the liveliest surprise. "And there are two paths straight into it from the gardens."
"But I stay always in the gardens," said the princess sedately. "The Baroness Von Aschersleben does not walk mooch; and she will not that I go out of sight of her."
"But you must get awfully slack, sticking in the gardens all the time," said Erebus.
"Slack? What is slack?" said the princess.
"She means feeble," said the Terror. "But all the same those gardens are big enough; there's plenty of room to run about in them."
"But I do not run. It is not dignified. The Baroness Von Aschersleben would be shocked," said the princess with a somewhat prim air.
"No wonder you're delicate," said Erebus, politely trying to keep a touch of contempt out of her tone, and failing.
"One can not help being delicate," said the princess.
"I don't know," said the Terror doubtfully. "If you're in the open air a lot and do run about, you don't keep delicate. Wiggins used to be delicate, but he isn't now."
"Who is Wiggins?" said the princess.
"He's a friend of ours—not so old as we are—quite a little boy," said Erebus in a patronizing tone which Wiggins, had he been present, would have resented with extreme bitterness. "Besides, Doctor Arbuthnot told Mrs. Blenkinsop that if you were always in the open air, playing with children of your own age, you'd soon get strong."
"That's what I've come to England for," said the princess.
"I don't think there's much chance of your getting strong in that peach-garden. It didn't feel to me like the open air at all," said the Terror firmly.
"But it is the open air," said the princess.
They came out of the narrow path they had been following into a broader one, and presently they turned aside from that at the foot of a steep and pathless bank. The Twins started up it as if it were neither here nor there to them; as, indeed, it was not.
But the princess stopped short, and said in a tone of dismay:
"Am I to climb this?"
The Terror stopped, looked at her dismayed face, set his bicycle against the trunk of a tree, and said:
"I'll help you up."
With that, dismissing etiquette from his mind, he slipped his arm round the slender waist of the princess, and firmly hauled her to the top of the bank. He relieved her of most of the effort needed to mount it; but none the less she reached the top panting a little.
"You certainly aren't in very good training," he said rather sadly.
"Training? What is training?" said the princess.
"It's being fit," said Erebus in a faintly superior tone.
"And what is being fit?" said the princess.
"It's being strong—and well—and able to run miles and miles," said Erebus raising her voice to make her meaning clearer.
"You needn't shout at her," said the Terror.
"I'm trying to make her understand," said Erebus firmly.
"But I do understand—when it is not the slang you are using. I know English quite well," said the princess.
"You certainly speak it awfully well," said the Terror politely.
He went down the bank and hauled up his bicycle. They went a little deeper into the wood and reached their goal, the banks of a small pool.
They sat down in a row, and the princess looked at its cool water, in the cool green shade of the tall trees, with refreshed eyes.
"This is different," she said with a faint little sigh of pleasure.
"Yes; this is the real open air," said the Terror.
"But I do get lots of open air," protested the princess. "Why, I sleep with my window open—at least that much." She held out her two forefingers some six inches apart. "The baroness did not like it. She said it was very dangerous and would give me the chills. But Doctor Arbuthnot said that it must be open. I think I sleep better."
"We have our bedroom windows as wide open as they'll go; and then they're not wide enough in this hot weather," said Erebus in the tone of superiority that was beginning to sound galling.
"I think if you took off your hat and jacket, you'd be cooler still," said the Terror rather quickly.
The princess hesitated a moment; then obediently she took off her hat and jacket, and breathed another soft sigh of pleasure. She had quite lost her air of discomfort and boredom. Her eyes were shining brightly; and her pale cheeks were a little flushed with the excitement of her situation.
It is by no means improbable that the Twins, as well-brought-up children, were aware that it is not etiquette to speak to royal personages unless they first speak to you. If they were, they did not let that knowledge stand in the way of the gratification of their healthy curiosity. It may be they felt that in the free green wood the etiquette of courts was out of place. At any rate they did not let it trammel them; and since their healthy curiosity was of the liveliest kind they submitted the princess to searching, even exhaustive, interrogation about the life of a royal child at a German court.
They questioned her about the hour she rose, the breakfast she ate, the lessons she learned, the walks she took, the lunch she ate, the games she played, her afternoon occupations, her dolls, her pets, her tea, her occupations after tea, her dinner, her occupations after dinner, the hour she went to bed.
There seemed nothing impertinent in their curiosity to the princess; it was only natural that every detail of the life of a person of her importance should be of the greatest interest to less fortunate mortals. She was not even annoyed by their carelessness of etiquette in not waiting to be spoken to before they asked a question. Indeed she enjoyed answering their questions very much, for it was seldom that any one displayed such a genuine interest in her; it was seldom, indeed, that she found herself on intimate human terms with any of her fellow creatures. She had neither brothers nor sisters; and she had never had any really sympathetic playmates. The children of Cassel-Nassau were always awed and stiff in her society; their minds were harassed by the fear lest they should be guilty of some appalling breach of etiquette. The manner of the Twins, therefore, was a pleasant change for her. They were polite, but quite unconstrained; and the obsequious people by whom she had always been surrounded had never displayed that engaging quality, save when, like the baroness, they were safely asleep in her presence.
But her account of her glories did not have the effect on her new friends she looked for. As she exposed more and more of the trammeling net of etiquette in which from her rising to her going to bed she was enmeshed, their faces did not fill with the envy she would have found so natural on them; they grew gloomy.
At the end of the interrogation Erebus heaved a great sigh, and said with heart-felt conviction:
"Well, thank goodness, I'm not a princess! It must be perfectly awful!"
"It must be nearly as bad to be a prince," said the Terror in the gloomy tone of one who has lost a dear illusion.
The princess could not believe her ears; she stared at the Twins with parted lips and amazed incredulous eyes. Their words had given her the shock of her short lifetime. As far as memory carried her back, she had been assured, frequently and solemnly, that to be a princess, a German princess, a Hohenzollern princess, was the most glorious and delightful lot a female human being could enjoy, only a little less glorious and delightful than the lot of a German prince.
"B-b-but it's sp-p-plendid to be a princess! Everybody says so!" she stammered.
"They were humbugging you. You've just made it quite clear that it's horrid in every kind of way. Why, you can't do any single thing you want to. There's always somebody messing about you to see that you don't," said Erebus with cold decision.
"B-b-but one is a p-p-princess," stammered the princess, with something of the wild look of one beneath whose feet the firm earth has suddenly given way.
The Terror perceived her distress; and he set about soothing it.
"You're forgetting the food," he said quickly to Erebus. "I don't suppose she ever has to eat cold mutton; and I expect she can have all the sweets and ices she wants."
"Of course," said the princess; and then she went on quickly: "B-b-but it isn't what you have to eat that makes it so—so—so important being a princess. It's—"
"But it's awfully important what you have to eat!" cried the Terror.
"I should jolly well think so!" cried Erebus.
The princess tried hard to get back to the moral sublimities of her exalted station; but the Twins would not have it. They kept her firmly to the broad human questions of German cookery and sweets. The princess, used to having information poured into her by many elderly but bespectacled gentlemen and ladies, was presently again enjoying her new part of dispenser of information. Her cheeks were faintly flushed; and her eyes were sparkling in an animated face.
In these interrogations and discussions the time had slipped away unheeded by the interested trio. The crimson baroness had awakened, missed her little charge, and waddled off into the house in search of her. A slow search of the house and gardens revealed the fact that she was not in them. As soon as this was clear the baroness fell into a panic and insisted that the whole household should sally forth in search of her.
The princess was earnestly engaged in an effort to make quite dear to the Twins the exact nature of one of the obscure kinds of German tartlet, a kind, indeed, only found in the principality of Cassel-Nassau, where the keen ears of the Terror caught the sound of a distant voice calling out.
He rose sharply to his feet and said: "Listen! There's some one calling. I expect they've missed you and you'll have to be getting back."
The princess rose reluctantly. Then her face clouded; and she said in a tone of faint dismay: "Oh, dear! How annoyed the baroness will be!"
"You take a great deal too much notice of that baroness," said Erebus.
"But I have to; she's my—my gouvernante," said the princess.
"I don't see what good it is being a princess, if you do just what baronesses tell you all the time," said Erebus coldly.
The princess looked at her rather helplessly; she had never thought of rebelling.
"I don't think I should tell her that you've been with us. She mightn't think we were good for you. Some people round here don't seem to understand us," said the Terror suavely.
The princess looked from one to the other, hesitating with puckered brow; and then, with a touch of appeal in her tone, she said, "Are you coming to-morrow?"
The Twins looked at each other doubtfully. They had no plans for the morrow; but they had hopes that Fortune would find them some more exciting occupation than discussing Germany with one of its inhabitants.
At their hesitation the princess' face fell woefully; and the appeal in it touched the Terror's heart.
"We should like to come very much," he said.
The face of the princess brightened; and her grateful eyes shone on him.
"I don't think I shall be able to come," said Erebus with the important air of one burdened with many affairs.
The face of the princess did not fall again; she said: "But if your brother comes?"
"Oh, I'll come, anyhow," said the Terror.
The voice called again from the wood below, louder.
"Oh, it isn't the baroness. It's Miss Lambart," said the princess in a tone of relief.
"You take too much notice of that baroness," said Erebus again firmly. "Who is Miss Lambart?"
"She's my English lady-in-waiting. I always have one when I'm in England, of course. I like her. She tries to amuse me. But the baroness doesn't like her," said the princess, and she sighed.
"Come along, I'll help you down the bank and take you pretty close to Miss Lambart. It wouldn't do for her to know of this place. It's our secret lair," said the Terror.
"I see," said the princess.
They walked briskly to the edge of the steep bank; and he half carried her down it; and he led her through the wood toward the drive from which Miss Lambart had called. As they went he adjured her to confine herself to the simple if incomplete statement that she had been walking in the wood. His last words to her, as they stood on the edge of the drive, were:
"Don't you stand so much nonsense from that baroness."
Miss Lambart called again; the princess stepped into the drive and found her thirty yards away. The Terror slipped noiselessly away through the undergrowth.
Miss Lambart turned at the sound of the princess' footsteps, and said: "Oh, here you are, Highness. We've all been hunting for you. The baroness thought you were lost."
"I thought I would walk in the wood," said the princess demurely.
"It certainly seems to have done you good. You're looking brighter and fresher than you've looked since you've been down here."
"The wood is real open air," said the princess.
AND THE CAUSE OF FREEDOM
The Terror returned to Erebus and found her stretched at her ease, eating a peach.
"I should have liked one a good deal sooner," he said, as he took one from the basket. "But I didn't like to say anything about them. She mightn't have understood."
"It wouldn't have mattered if she hadn't," said Erebus somewhat truculently.
She was feeling some slight resentment that their new acquaintance had so plainly preferred the Terror to her.
"She's not a bad kid," said the Terror thoughtfully.
"She's awfully feeble. Why, you had to carry her up this bit of a bank. She's not any use to us," said Erebus in a tone of contempt. "In fact, if we were to have much to do with her, I expect we should find her a perfect nuisance."
"Perhaps. Still we may as well amuse her a bit. She seems to be having a rotten time with that old red baroness and all that etiquette," said the Terror in a kindly tone.
"She needn't stand it, if she doesn't like it. I shouldn't," said Erebus coldly; then her face brightened, and she added: "I tell you what though: it would be rather fun to teach her to jump on that old red baroness."
"Yes," said the Terror doubtfully. "But I expect she'd take a lot of teaching. I don't think she's the kind of kid to do much jumping on people."
"Oh, you never know. We can always try," said Erebus cheerfully.
"Yes," said the Terror.
Warmed by this noble resolve, they moved quietly out of the wood. It was not so difficult a matter as it may sound to move, even encumbered by bicycles, about the home wood, for it was not so carefully preserved as the woods farther away from the Grange; indeed, the keepers paid but little attention to it. The Twins moved out of it safely and returned home with easy minds: it did not occur to either of them that they had been treating a princess with singular firmness. Nor were they at all troubled about the acquisition of the peaches since some curious mental kink prevented them from perceiving that the law of meum and tuum applied to fruit.
Mrs. Dangerfield was presented with only two peaches at tea that afternoon; and she took it that the Twins had ridden into Rowington and bought them for her there. When two more were forthcoming for her dessert after dinner, she reproached them gently for spending so much of their salary for "overseering" on her. The Twins said nothing. It was only when two more peaches came up on her breakfast tray that she began to suspect that they had come by the ways of warfare and not of trade. Then, having already eaten four of them, it was a little late to inquire and protest. Moreover, if there had been a crime, the Twins had admitted her to a full share in it by letting her eat the fruit of it. Plainly it was once more an occasion for saying nothing.
On the next afternoon Erebus set out with the Terror to Muttle Deeping home wood early enough; but owing to the matter of a young rabbit who met them on their way, they kept the princess waiting twenty minutes. This was, indeed, a new experience to her; but she did not complain to them of this unheard-of breach of etiquette. She was doubtful how the complaint would be received at any rate by Erebus.
They betook themselves at once to the cool and shady pool; and since the sensation was no longer new and startling, the princess found it rather pleasant to be hauled up the bank by the Terror. There was something very satisfactory in his strength. Again they settled themselves comfortably on the bank of the pool.
They were in the strongest contrast to one another. Beside the clear golden tan of the Terror and the deeper gipsy-like brown of Erebus the pale face of the princess looked waxen. The blue linen blouse, short serge skirt and bare head and legs of Erebus and the blue linen shirt, serge knickerbockers and bare head and legs of the Terror gave them an air not only of coolness but also of a workmanlike freedom of limb. In her woolen blouse, brown serge jacket and skirt, woolen stockings and heavily-trimmed drooping hat the poor little princess looked a swaddled sweltering doll melting in the heat.
She needed no pressing to take off her jacket and hat; and was pleased by the Terror's observing that it was just silly to wear a hat at all when one had such thick hair as she. But she was some time acting on Erebus' suggestion that she should also pull off her stockings and be more comfortable still.
At last she pulled them off, and for once comfortable, she began to tell of the fuss the excited baroness had made the day before about her having gone alone into such a fearful and dangerous place as the home wood.
"I tell you what: you've spoilt that baroness," said the Terror when she came to the end of her tale; and he spoke with firm conviction.
"But she's my gouvernante. I have to do as she bids," protested the princess.
"That's all rubbish. You're the princess; and other people ought to do what you tell them; and no old baroness should make you do any silly thing you don't want to. She wouldn't me," said Erebus with even greater conviction than the Terror had shown.
"I don't think she would," said the princess with a faint sigh; and she looked at Erebus with envious eyes. "But when she starts making a fuss and gets so red and excited, she—she—rather frightens me."
"It would take a lot more than that to frighten me," said Erebus with a very cold ferocity.
"I rather like people like that. I think they look so funny when they're really red and excited," said the Terror gently. "But what you've got to do is to stand up to her."
"Stand up to her?" said the princess, puzzled by the idiom.
"Tell her that you don't care what she says," said the Terror.
"Cheek her," said Erebus.
"I couldn't. It would be too difficult," said the princess, shaking her head.
"Of course it isn't easy at first; but you'll be surprised to find how soon you'll get used to shutting her up," said the Terror. "But I don't believe in cheeking her unless she gets very noisy. I believe in being quite polite but not giving way."
"She is very noisy," said the princess.
"Oh, then you'll have to shout at her. It's the only way. But mind you only have rows when you're in the right about something," said the Terror. "Then she'll soon learn to leave you alone. It's no good having a row when you're in the wrong."
"I think it's best always to have a row," said Erebus with an air of wide experience.
"Well, it isn't—at least it wouldn't be for the princess—she's not like you," said the Terror quickly.
"Oh, no: not always—only when one is in the right. I see that," said the princess. "But what should I have a row about?"
The Twins puckered their brows as they cudgeled their brains for a pretext for an honest row.
Presently the Terror said: "Why don't you make them let you have some one to play with? It's silly being as dull as you are. What's the good of being a princess, if you haven't any friends?"
"Oh, yes!" cried the princess; and her cheeks flushed, and her eyes sparkled. "It would be nice! You and Erebus could come to tea with me and sooper and loonch often and again!"
The Twins looked at each other with eyes full of a sudden dismay. It was not in their scheme of things as they should be that they should go to the Grange in the immaculate morning dress of an English boy and girl, and spend stiff hours in the presence of a crimson baroness.
"That wouldn't do at all," said the Terror quickly. "You had better not tell them anything at all about us. They wouldn't let us come to the Grange; and they'd stop you coming here. It's ever so much nicer meeting secretly like this."
"But it would be very nice to meet at the Grange as well as here," said the princess, who felt strongly that she could not have enough of this good thing.
"It couldn't be done. They wouldn't have us at the Grange," said Erebus, supporting the Terror.
"But why not?" said the princess in surprise.
"The people about here don't understand us," said the Terror somewhat sadly. "They'd think we should be bad for you."
"But it is not so! You are ever so good to me!" cried the princess hotly.
"It's no good. You couldn't make grown-ups see that—you know what they are. No; you'd much better leave it alone, and sit tight and meet us here," said the Terror.
The princess sat thoughtful and frowning for a little while; then she sighed and said: "Well, I will do what you say. You know more about it."
"That's all right," said the Terror, greatly relieved.
There was a short silence; then he said thoughtfully: "I tell you what: it would be a good thing if you were to get some muscle on you. Suppose we taught you some exercises. You could practise them at home; and soon you'd be able to do things when you were with us."
"What things?" said the princess.
"Oh, you'd be able to run—and jump. Why we might even be able to teach you to climb," said the Terror with a touch of enthusiasm in his tone as the loftier heights of philanthropy loomed upon his inner vision.
"Oh, that would be nice!" cried the princess. Forthwith the Twins set about teaching her some of the exercises which go to the making of muscle; and the princess was a painstaking pupil. In spite of the seeds of revolt they had sown in her heart, she was eager to get back to the peach-garden before the baroness should awake, or at any rate before she should have satisfied herself that her charge was not in the house or about the gardens. The Terror therefore conducted her down the screen of trees to the door in the wall. She had left it unlatched; and he pushed it open gently. There was no sound of snoring: the baroness had awoke and left the garden.
"I expect she is still looking for me in the house," said the princess calmly. "They'd be shouting if she weren't."
"Yes. I say; do you want all these peaches?" said the Terror, looking round the loaded walls.
"Me? No. I have a peach for breakfast and another for lunch. But I don't care for peaches much. It's the way the baroness eats them, I think—the juice roonning down, you know. And she eats six or seven always."
"That woman's a pig. I thought she looked like one," said the Terror with conviction. "But if you don't want them all, may I have some for my mother? The doctor has ordered her fruit; and she's very fond of peaches."
"Oh, yes; take some for your mother and yourself and Erebus. Take them all," said the princess with quick generosity.
"Thank you; but a dozen will be heaps," said the Terror.
The princess helped him gather them and lay them in a large cabbage-leaf; and then they bade each other good-by at the garden-gate.
The Twins returned home in triumph with the golden spoil. But when she was provided with two peaches for seven meals in succession, Mrs. Dangerfield could no longer eat them with a mind at ease, and she asked the Twins how they came by them. They assured her that they had been given to them by a friend but that the name of the donor must remain a secret. She knew that they would not lie to her; and thinking it likely that they came from either the squire or the vicar, both of whom took an uncommonly lively interest in her, judging from the fact that either of them had asked her to marry him more than once, she went on eating the peaches with a clear conscience.
The next afternoon the Twins devoted themselves to strengthening the princess' spirit with no less ardor than they devoted themselves to strengthening her body. They adjured her again and again to thrust off the yoke of the baroness. The last pregnant words of Erebus to her were: "You just call her an old red pig, and see."
Their efforts in the cause of freedom bore fruit no later than that very evening. The princess was dining with the Baroness Von Aschersleben and Miss Lambart; and the baroness, who was exceedingly jealous of Miss Lambart, had interrupted her several times in her talk with the princess; and she had done it rudely. The princess, who wanted to hear Miss Lambart talk, was annoyed. They had reached dessert; and Miss Lambart was congratulating her on the improvement in her appetite since she had just made an excellent meal, and said that it must be the air of Muttle Deeping. The baroness uttered a loud and contemptuous snort, and filled her plate with peaches. The princess looked at her with an expression of great dislike. The baroness gobbled up one peach with a rapidity almost inconceivable in a human being, and very noisily, and was midway through the second when the princess spoke.
"I want some children to play with," she said.
Briskly and with the sound of a loud unpleasant sob the baroness gulped down the other half of the peach, and briskly she said: "Zere are no children in zis country, your Royal Highness."
It was the custom for the princess to speak and hear only English in England.
"But I see plenty of children when I drive," said the princess.
"Zey are nod children; zey are nod 'igh an' well-born," said the baroness in rasping tones.
"Then you must find some high and well-born children for me to play with," said the princess.
"Moost? Moost?" cried the baroness in a high voice. "Bud eed ees whad I know ees goot for you."
"They're good for me," said the princess firmly. "And you must find them."
The baroness was taken aback by this so sudden and unexpected display of firmness in her little charge; her face darkened to a yet richer crimson; and she cried in a loud blustering voice: "Bud eed ees eembossible whad your royal highness ask! Zere are no 'igh an' well-born children 'ere. Zey are een Loondon."
"Well, you must send for some," said the princess, who, having taken the first step, was finding it pleasant to be firm.
"Moost? Moost? I do nod know whad ees 'appen to you, your Royal Highness. I say eed ees eembossible!" shouted the baroness; and she banged on the table with her fist.
"But surely her highness' request is a very natural one, Baroness; and there must be some nice children in the neighborhood if we were to look for them. Besides, Doctor Arbuthnot said that she ought to have children of her own age to play with," said Miss Lambart who had been pitying the lonely child and seized eagerly on this chance of helping her to the companionship she needed.
"Do nod indervere, Englanderin!" bellowed the baroness; and her crimson was enriched with streaks of purple. "I am in ze charge of 'er royal highness; and I zay zat she does not wiz zese children blay."
The fine gray eyes of the princess were burning with a somber glow. She was angry, and her mind was teeming with the instructions of her young mentors, especially with the more violent instructions of Erebus.
She gazed straight into the sparkling but blood-shot eyes of the raging baroness, and said in a somewhat uncertain voice but clearly enough:
Miss Lambart started in her chair; the baroness uttered a gasping grunt; she blinked; she could not believe her ears.
"But whad—but whad—" she said faintly.
"Old—red—peeg," said the princess, somewhat pleased with the effect of the words, and desirous of deepening it.
"Bud whad ees eed zat 'appen?" muttered the bewildered baroness.
"If you do not find me children quickly, I shall write to my father that you do not as the English doctor bids; and you were ordered to do everything what the English doctor bids," said the princess in a sinister tone. "Then you will go back to Cassel-Nassau and the Baroness Hochfelden will be my gouvernante."
The baroness ground her teeth, but she trembled; it might easily happen, if the letter of the princess found the grand duke of Cassel-Nassau in the wrong mood, that she would lose this comfortable well-paid post, and the hated Baroness Hochfelden take it.
"Bud zere are no 'igh an' well-born children, your Royal Highness," she said in a far gentler, apologetic voice.
The princess frowned at her and said: "Mees Lambart will find them. Is it not, Mees Lambart?"
"I shall be charmed to try, Highness," said Miss Lambart readily.
"Do nod indervere! I veel zose childen vind myzelf!" snapped the baroness.
The princess rose, still quivering a little from the conflict, but glowing with the joy of victory. At the door she paused to say:
"And I want them soon—at once."
Then, though the baroness had many times forbidden her to tempt the night air, she went firmly out into the garden. The next morning at breakfast she again demanded children to play with.
Accordingly when Doctor Arbuthnot paid his visit that morning, the baroness asked him what children in the neighborhood could be invited to come to play with the princess. She only stipulated that they should be high and well-born.
"Well, of course the proper children to play with her would be the Twins—Mrs. Dangerfield's boy and girl. They're high and well-born enough. But I doubt that they could be induced to play with a little girl. They're independent young people. Besides, I'm not at all sure that they would be quite the playmates for a quiet princess. It would hardly do to expose an impressionable child like the princess to such—er—er ardent spirits. You might have her developing a spirit of freedom; and you wouldn't like that."
"Mein Gott, no!" said the baroness with warm conviction.
"Then there's Wiggins—Rupert Carrington. He's younger and quieter but active enough. He'd soon teach her to run about."
"But is he well-born?" said the careful baroness.
"Well-born? He's a Carrington," said Doctor Arbuthnot with an impressive air that concealed well his utter ignorance of the ancestry of the higher mathematician.
The baroness accepted Wiggins gloomily. When the princess, who had hoped for the Twins, heard that he had been chosen, she accepted him with resignation. Doctor Arbuthnot undertook to arrange the matter.
The disappointed princess informed the Twins of the election of Wiggins; and they cheered her by reporting favorably on the qualifications of their friend, though Erebus said somewhat sadly:
"Of course, he'll insist on being an Indian chief and scalping you; he always does. But you mustn't mind that."
The princess thought that she would not mind it; it would at any rate be a change from listening monotonously to the snores of the baroness.
The Twins found it much more difficult to comfort and cheer their fair-haired, freckled, but infuriated friend. Not only was his reluctance to don the immaculate morning dress of an English young gentleman for the delectation of foreign princesses every whit as sincere as their own, but he felt the invitation to play with a little girl far more insulting than they would have done. They did their best to soothe him and make things pleasant for the princess, pointing out to him the richness of the teas he would assuredly enjoy, and impressing on him the fact that he would be performing a noble charitable action.
"Yes; that's all very well," said Wiggins gloomily. "But I've been seeing ever such a little of you lately in the afternoons; and now I shall see less than ever."
Naturally, he was at first somewhat stiff with the princess; but the stiffness did not last; they became very good active friends; and he scalped her with gratifying frequency. In this way it came about that, in the matter of play, the princess led a double life. She spent the early part of the afternoon in the wood with the Twins; and from tea till the dressing-bell for dinner rang she enjoyed the society of Wiggins. She told no one of her friendship with the Twins; and Wiggins was surprised by her eagerness to hear everything about them he could tell. Between them she was beginning to acquire cheerfulness and muscle; and she was losing her air of delicacy, but not at a rate that satisfied the exigent Terror.
AND THE ENTERTAINMENT OF ROYALTY
The time had come for the Twins to take their annual change of air. They took that change at but a short distance from their home, since the cost of a visit to the sea was more than their mother could afford. They were allowed to encamp for ten days, if the weather were fine, in the dry sandstone caves of Deeping Knoll, which rises in the middle of Little Deeping wood, the property of Mr. Anstruther.
Kind-hearted as the Twins were, they felt that to make the journey from the knoll to Muttle Deeping home wood was beyond the bounds of philanthropy; and they broke the news to the princess as gently as they could. She was so deeply grieved to learn that she was no longer going to enjoy their society that, in spite of the fact that she had been made well aware that they despised and abhorred tears, she was presently weeping. She was ashamed; but she could not help it. The compassionate Twins compromised; they promised her that they would try to come every third afternoon; and with that she had to be content.
None the less on the eve of their departure she was deploring bitterly the fact that she would not see them on the morrow, when the Terror was magnificently inspired.
"Look here: why shouldn't you come with us into camp?" he said eagerly. "A week of it would buck you up more than a month at the Grange. You really do get open air camping out at the knoll."
The face of the princess flushed and brightened at the splendid thought. Then it fell; and she said: "They'd never let me—never."
"But you'd never ask them," said the Terror. "You'd just slip away and come with us. We've kept our knowing you so dark that they'd never dream you were with us in the knoll caves."
The princess was charmed, even dazzled, by the glorious prospect. She had come to feel strongly that by far the best part of her life was the afternoons she spent with the Twins in the wood; whole days with them would be beyond the delight of dreams. But to her unadventured soul the difficulties seemed beyond all surmounting. The Twins, however, were used to surmounting difficulties, and at once they began surmounting these.
"The difficult thing is not to get you there, but to keep you there," said the Terror thoughtfully. "You see, I've got to go down every day for milk and things, and they're sure to ask me if I've seen anything of you. Of course, I can't lie about it; and then they'll not only take you away, but they'll probably turn us out of the caves."
"That's the drawback," said Erebus.
The Twins gazed round the wood seeking enlightenment. A deep frown furrowed the Terror's brow; and he said: "If only you weren't a princess they wouldn't make half such a fuss hunting for you, and I might never be asked anything about you."
"I should have to come to the camp incognita, of course," said the princess.
The Terror looked puzzled for a moment; then his face cleared into a glorious smile, and he cried:
"By Jove! Of course you would! I never thought of that! Why, you'd be some one else and not the princess at all! We shouldn't know where the princess was if we were asked."
"Of course we shouldn't!" said Erebus, perceiving the advantage of this ignorance.
"I generally am the Baroness von Zwettel when I travel," said the princess.
The Terror considered the matter, again frowning thoughtfully: "I suppose you have to have a title. But I think an English one would be best here: Lady Rowington now. No one would ever ask us where Lady Rowington is, because there isn't any Lady Rowington."
"Oh, yes: Lady Rowington—I would wish an English title," said the princess readily.
"If we could only think of some way of making them think that she'd been stolen by gipsies, it would be safer still," said Erebus.
"Gipsies don't steal children nowadays," said the Terror; and he paused considering. Then he added, "I tell you what though: Nihilists would—at least they'd steal a princess. Are there any Nihilists in Cassel-Nassau?"
"I never heard of any," said the princess. "There are thousands of Socialists."
"Socialists will do," said the Terror cheerfully.
They were quick in deciding that the princess should not join them till the second night of their stay in camp, to give them time to have everything in order. Then they discussed her needs. She could not bring away with her any clothes, or it would be plain that she had not been stolen. She must share the wardrobe of Erebus.
"But, no. I have money," said the princess, thrusting her hand into her pocket. "Will you not buy me clothes?"
She drew out a little gold chain purse with five sovereigns in it, and handed it to the Terror. He and Erebus examined it with warm admiration, for it was indeed a pretty purse.
"We should have had to buy you a bathing-dress, anyhow. There's a pool just under the knoll," said the Terror. "How much shall we want, Erebus?"
"You'd better have two pounds and be on the safe side," said Erebus.
The Terror transferred two sovereigns from the purse of the princess to his own. Then he arranged that she should meet him outside the door of the peach-garden at nine o'clock, or thereabouts at night. He would wait half an hour that she might not have to hurry and perhaps arouse the suspicion that she had gone of her own free will. He made several suggestions about the manner of her escape.
When she left them, they rode straight to Rowington and set about purchasing her outfit. They bought a short serge skirt, two linen shirts, a blue jersey against the evening chill, a cap, sandals, stockings, underclothing and a bathing-dress. They carried the parcels home on their bicycles. When she saw them on their arrival Mrs. Dangerfield supposed that they were parts of their own equipment.
That evening the Terror worked hard at his ingenious device for throwing the searchers off the scent. It was:
He went to bed much pleased with his handiwork.
They spent a busy morning carrying their camping outfit to Deeping Knoll. The last two hundred yards of path to it was very narrow so that they transported their belongings to the entrance to it in Tom Cobb's donkey-cart, and carried them up to the knoll on their backs.
In other years their outfit had been larger, for their mother had encamped with them. This year she had not cared for the effort; and she had also felt that ten days' holiday out of the strenuous atmosphere which spread itself round the Twins, would be restful and pleasant. She was sure that they might quite safely be trusted to encamp by themselves on Deeping Knoll. Not only were they of approved readiness and resource; but buried in the heart of that wood, they were as safe from the intrusion of evil-doers as on some desert South Sea isle. She was somewhat surprised by the Terror's readiness to take as many blankets as she suggested. In other years he had been disposed to grumble at the number she thought necessary.
The Twins had carried their outfit to the knoll by lunch-time; and they lunched, or rather dined, with a very good appetite. Then they began to arrange their belongings, which they had piled in a heap as they brought them up, in their proper caves. With a break of an hour for a bath this occupied them till tea-time. After tea they bathed again and then set about collecting fuel from the wood. They were too tired to spend much time on cooking their supper; and soon after it, rolled in their blankets on beds of bracken, they were sleeping like logs. They were up betimes, bathing.
This day was far less strenuous than the day before. They spent most of it in the pool or on its bank. In the afternoon Wiggins came and did not leave them till seven. Soon after eight o'clock the Terror set out to keep his tryst with the princess. He took with him the Socialist manifesto and pinned it to the post of a wicket gate opening from the gardens into the park on the opposite side of the Grange to Deeping Knoll. Then he came round to the door in the peach-garden wall two or three minutes before the clock over the stables struck nine.
He had not long to wait; he heard the gentle footfall of the princess on the garden path, the door opened, and she came through it. He shook hands with her warmly; and as they went up the screen of trees she told him how she had bidden the baroness and Miss Lambart good night, gone to her bedroom, ruffled the bed, locked the door, and slipped, unseen, down the stairs and out of the house. He praised her skill; and she found his praise very grateful.
The path to the knoll lay all the way through the dark woods; and the princess found them daunting. They were full of strange noises, many of them eery-sounding; and in the dimness strange terrifying shapes seemed to move. The Terror was not long discovering her fear, and forthwith put his arm round her waist and kept it there wherever the path was broad enough to allow it. When she quivered to some woodland sound, he told her what it was and eased her mind.
She was not strong enough in spite of her exercises and the active games with Wiggins, to make the whole of the journey over that rough ground at a stretch; and twice when he felt her flagging they sat down and rested. The princess was no longer frightened; she still thrilled to the eeriness of the woods, but she felt quite safe with the Terror. When they rested she snuggled up against him, stared before her into the dark, and thought of all the heroes wandering through the forests of Grimm, with the sense of adventure very strong on her. She was almost sorry when they came at last to the foot of the knoll and saw its top red in the glow of the fire Erebus was keeping bright.
Also Erebus had hot cocoa ready for them; and after her tiring journey the princess found it grateful indeed. They sat for a while in a row before the glowing fire, talking of the Hartz Mountains, which the princess had visited. But soon the yawns which she could not repress showed her hosts how sleepy she was, and the Terror suggested that she should go to bed.
With true courtesy, the Twins had given her the best sleeping-cave to herself, but she displayed such a terrified reluctance to sleep in it alone, that her couch of bracken and her blankets were moved into the cave of Erebus. After the journey and the excitement she was not long falling into a dreamless sleep.
When she awoke next morning, she found the Terror gone to fetch milk. Erebus conducted her down to the pool for her morning bath. The princess did not like it (she had had no experience of cold baths) but under the eye of Erebus she could not shrink; and in she went. She came out shivering, but Erebus helped rub her to a warm glow, and she came to breakfast with such an appetite as she had never before in her life enjoyed.
The knoll was indeed the ideal camping-ground for the romantic; the caves with which it was honeycombed lent themselves to a score of games of adventure; and the princess soon found that she had been called to an active life. It began directly after breakfast with dish-washing; after that she was breathless for an hour in two excited games both of which meant running through the caves and round and over the knoll as hard as you could run and at short intervals yelling as loud as you could yell. After this they put on their bathing-dresses and disported themselves in the pool till it was time to set about the serious business of cooking the dinner, which they took soon after one o'clock.
The Terror kept a careful and protective eye on the princess, helping her, for the most part vigorously, to cover the ground at the required speed. Also he turned her out of the pool, to dry and dress, a full half-hour before he and Erebus left it. After dinner the princess was so sleepy that she could hardly keep her eyes open; and the Terror insisted that she should lie down for an hour. She protested that she did not want to rest, that she did not want to lose a moment of this glorious life; but presently she yielded and was soon asleep.
They were expecting Wiggins in the afternoon. But he could be admitted safely into the secret, since, once he knew that the princess had become Lady Rowington, he would be able with sufficient truthfulness to profess an entire ignorance of her whereabouts. Also he would be very useful, for he could bring them word if suspicion had fallen on them.
At about half past two he arrived, bringing a great tale of the excitement of the countryside at the kidnaping of the princess. So far its simple-minded inhabitants and the suite of the princess were content with the socialist explanation of her disappearance; and three counties round were being searched by active policemen on bicycles for some one who had seen a suspicious motor-car containing Socialists and a princess. It was the general belief that she had been chloroformed and abducted through her bedroom window.
With admirable gravity the Twins discussed with Wiggins the probabilities of their success and of the recovery of the princess, the routes by which the Socialists might have carried her off, and the towns in which the lair to which they had taken her might be. At the end of half an hour of it the princess came out of her cave, her eyes, very bright with sleep, blinking in the sunlight.
Wiggins cried out in surprise; and the Twins laughed joyfully.
Wiggins greeted the princess politely; and then he said reproachfully: "You might have told me that she was coming here."
"You ought to have known as soon as you heard she was missing," said Erebus sternly.
"So I should, if I'd known you knew her at all," said Wiggins.
"That's what nobody knows," said Erebus triumphantly.
"And look here: she's here incognita," said the Terror. "She's taken the traveling name of Lady Rowington; and she's not the princess at all. So if you're asked if the princess is here, you can truthfully say she isn't."
"Of course—I see. This is a go!" said Wiggins cheerfully; and he spurned the earth.
"The only chance of her being found is for somebody to come up when we're not expecting them and see her," said the Terror. "So I'm going to block the path with thorn-bushes; and any one who comes up it will shout to us. But there's no need to do that yet; nobody will think about us for a day or two."
"No; of course they won't. I didn't," said Wiggins.
The active life persisted throughout that day and the days that followed. It kept the princess always beside the Terror. Always he was using his greater strength to help her lead it at the required speed. Never in the history of the courts of Europe has a princess been so hauled, shoved, dragged, jerked, towed and lugged over rough ground. On the second morning she awoke so stiff that she could hardly move; but by the fifth evening she could give forth an ear-piercing yell that would have done credit to Erebus herself.
All her life the princess had been starved of affection; her mother had died when she was in her cradle; her father had been immersed in his pleasures; no one had been truly fond of her; and she had been truly fond of no one. It is hardly too much to say that she was coming to adore the Terror. Even at their most violent and thrilling moments his care for her never relaxed. He rubbed the ache out of her bruises; he plastered her scratches. He saw to it that she came out of the pool the moment that she looked chill. He picked out for her the tidbits at their meals. He even brushed out her hair, for the thick golden mass was quite beyond the management of the princess; and Erebus firmly refused to play the lady's-maid. Since the Terror was one of those who enjoy doing most things which they are called upon to do, he presently forgot the unmanliness of the occupation, and began to take pleasure in handling the silken strands.
It was on the fifth day, after a bath, when he was brushing out her hair in the sun on the top of the knoll that he received the severe shock. Heaven knows that the princess was not a demonstrative child; indeed, she had never had the chance. But he had just finished his task and was surveying the shining result with satisfaction, when, of a sudden, without any warning, she threw her arms round his neck and kissed him.
"Oh, you are nice!" she said.
The Terror's ineffable serenity was for once scattered to the winds. He flushed and gazed round the wood with horror-stricken eyes: if any one should have seen it!
The princess marked his trouble, and said in a tone of distress: "Don't you like for me to kiss you?"
The Terror swallowed the lump of horror in his throat, and said, faintly but gallantly: "Yes—oh, rather."
"Then kiss me," said the princess simply, snuggling closer to him.
The despairing eyes of the Terror swept the woods; then he kissed her gingerly.
"I am fond of you, you know," said the princess in a frankly proprietary tone.
The Terror's scattered wits at last worked. He rose to his feet, and said quickly:
"Yes; let's be getting to the others."
The princess rose obediently.
But the ice was broken; and the kisses of the princess, if not frequent, were, at any rate, not rare. The Terror at first endured them; then he came rather to like them. But he strictly enjoined discretion on her; it would never do for Erebus to learn that she kissed him. The princess had no desire that Erebus, or any one else for that matter, should learn; but discretion and kisses have no natural affinity; and, without their knowing it, Wiggins became aware of the practise.
He had always observed that the Twins had no secrets from each other; and he never dreamed that he was letting an uncommonly awkward cat out of a bag when during a lull in the strenuous life, he said to Erebus:
"I suppose the Terror's in love with the princess, kissing her like that. I think it's awfully silly." And he spurned the earth.
Erebus grabbed his arm and cried fiercely: "He never does!"
Wiggins looked at her in some surprise; her face was one dusky flush; and her eyes were flashing. He had seen her angry often enough, but never so angry as this; and he saw plainly that he had committed a grievous indiscretion.
"Perhaps she kissed him," he said quickly.
"He'd never let her!" cried Erebus fiercely.
"Perhaps they didn't," said Wiggins readily.
"You know they did!" cried Erebus yet more fiercely.
"I may have made a mistake. It's quite easy to make a mistake about that kind of thing," said Wiggins.
Erebus would not have it, and very fiercely she dragged piecemeal from his reluctant lips the story of the surprised idyl. He had seen the princess with an arm round the Terror's neck, and they had kissed.
With clenched fists and blazing eyes Erebus, taking the line of the least resistance, sought the princess. She found her lying back drowsily against a sunny bank.
Erebus came to an abrupt stop before her and cried fiercely: "Princess or no princess, you shan't kiss the Terror!"
The drowsiness fled; and the princess sat up. Her gray eyes darkened and sparkled. She had never made a face in her life; it is not improbable, seeing how sheltered a life she had led, that she was ignorant that faces were made; but quite naturally she made a hideous face at Erebus, and said:
"If you do, I'll smack you!" cried Erebus; and she ground her teeth.
For all her Hohenzollern blood, the princess was a timid child; but by a gracious provision of nature even the timidest female will fight in the matter of a male. She met Erebus' blazing eyes squarely and said confidently:
"He won't let you. And if you do he'll smack you—much harder!"
Had the princess been standing up, Erebus would have smacked her then and there. But she was sitting safely down; and the Queensberry rules only permit you to strike any one standing up. Erebus forgot them, stooped to strike, remembered them, straightened herself, and with a really pantherous growl dashed away in search of the Terror.
She found him examining and strengthening the barrier of thorns; and she cried:
"I know all about your kissing the princess! I never heard of such silly babyishness!"
It was very seldom, indeed, that the Terror showed himself sensible to the emotions of his sister; but on this occasion he blushed faintly as he said:
"Well, what harm is there in it?"
"It's babyish! It's what mollycoddles do! It's girlish! It's—"
The Terror of a sudden turned brazen; he said loudly and firmly:
"You mind your own business! It isn't babyish at all! She's asked me to marry her; and when we're grown up I'm going to—so there!"
AND THE UNREST CURE
Erebus knew her brother well; she perceived that she was confronted by what she called his obstinacy; and though his brazen-faced admission had raised her to the very height of amazement and horror, she uttered no protest. She knew that protest would be vain, that against his obstinacy she was helpless. She wrung her hands and turned aside into the wood, overwhelmed by his defection from one of their loftiest ideals.
Then followed a period of strain. She assumed an attitude of very haughty contempt toward the errant pair, devoted herself to Wiggins, and let them coldly alone. From this attitude Wiggins was the chief sufferer: the Terror had the princess and the princess had the Terror; Erebus enjoyed her display of haughty contempt, but Wiggins missed the strenuous life, the rushing games, in which you yelled so heartily. As often as he could he stole away from the haughty Erebus and joined the errant pair. It is to be feared that the princess found the kisses sweeter for the ban Erebus had laid on them.
No one in the Deepings suspected that the missing princess was on Deeping Knoll. There had been sporadic outbursts of suspicion that the Twins had had a hand in her disappearance. But no one had any reason to suppose that they and the princess had even been acquainted. Doctor Arbuthnot, indeed, questioned both Wiggins and the Terror; but they were mindful of the fact that Lady Rowington (they were always very careful to address her as Lady Rowington) and not the princess, was at the knoll, and were thus able to assure him with sufficient truthfulness that they could not tell him where the princess was. The bursts of suspicion therefore were brief.
But there was one man in England in whom suspicion had not died down. Suspicion is, indeed, hardly the word for the feeling of Sir Maurice Falconer in the matter. When he first read in his Morning Post of the disappearance of the Princess Elizabeth of Cassel-Nassau from Muttle Deeping Grange he said confidently to himself: "The Twins again!" and to that conviction his mind clung.
It was greatly strengthened by a study of the reproduction of the Socialist manifesto on the front page of an enterprising halfpenny paper. He told himself that Socialists are an educated, even over-educated folk, and if one of them did set himself to draw a skull and cross-bones, the drawing would be, if not exquisite, at any rate accurate and unsmudged; that it was highly improbable that a Socialist would spell desperate with two "a's" in an important document without being corrected by a confederate. On the other hand the drawing of the skull and cross-bones seemed to him to display a skill to which the immature genius of the Terror might easily have attained, while he could readily conceive that he would spell desperate with two "a's" in any document.
But Sir Maurice was not a man to interfere lightly in the pleasures of his relations; and he would not have interfered at all had it not been for the international situation produced by the disappearance of the princess. As it was he was so busy with lunches, race meetings, dinners, theater parties, dances and suppers that he was compelled to postpone intervention till the sixth day, when every Socialist organ and organization from San Francisco eastward to Japan was loudly disavowing any connection with the crime, the newspapers of England and Germany were snarling and howling and roaring and bellowing at one another, and the Foreign Office and the German Chancellery were wiring frequent, carefully coded appeals to each other to invent some plausible excuse for not mobilizing their armies and fleets. Even then Sir Maurice, who knew too well the value of German press opinion, would not have interfered, had not the extremely active wife of a cabinet minister consulted him about the easiest way for her to sell twenty thousand pounds' worth of consols. He disliked the lady so strongly that after telling her how she could best compass her design, he felt that the time had come to ease the international situation.