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The Dwellers

BY

E. NESBIT

WE live at Yalding in a big, square red house with servants and gardens and gardeners, and a carriage and three horses and a dog-cart, and a donkey and cart of our own. The other things are father's and mother's. I tell you this, not because I am a purse-proud aristocrat like the unfortunate perishers in the French Revolution, but just to show you that we do not live in horrible alleys, where the light of day hardly penetrates, and we are not villa-dwellers either. It was Uncle Reginald who told us about villa-dwellers, and of course lots of our friends do—villa-dwell, I mean; and he also told us about lake-dwellers and tree-dwellers and cave-dwellers, all of it most interesting, though, I believe, perfectly true. They have found the bones of cave-men mixed with bears and mammoths, I believe, and they used flint weapons, and used to draw pictures in dark caves, and it is considered mysterious how they could see to do it—because matches and candles had not yet been thought of. And the lake-dwellers did not live in the lake, like the cave-dwellers did in the caves, but in houses built on stilts, that had their feet in the water. And the tree-dwellers lived in trees, as naturally they would. Uncle Reginald said he did not think there were any tree-dwellers alive now, except our poor relations. He meant the monkeys. But he said people still lived in stilted houses, and also in caves. If you are going to understand our story at all, you will have to attend to what I am now saying, even if I do seem instructive. I give you my word, I will not go on being—not a single moment more than necessary. I do not like it myself. These different kind of dwellers I have been telling you about were ferocious savages, who sometimes ate their enemies. They were as fierce as they could possibly be, and wore hardly any clothes—only beast-skins. They were all like this except the villa-dwellers, who are quite different, and just like other people. That is all the instructive part; we now come to the narrative.

I will begin by saying that I am Clifford, and there are four others, not counting Madeline, who is but a mere cousin, and not really one of us. The other names are Olive, Alan, Martin, and Laura. I never can see that it is any use telling people's names if you don't at once tell what they are like. But the finest authors do it—so I suppose it is right.

I need not really have said anything about Martin and Laura, because they were having measles, and were in bed at the time, and so were wholly out of it—I mean, out of the adventure.

Their measled condition was half the cause of everything that happened. Measles is an infected disease,, which means that if you are anywhere about where it is you catch it. It is a painful and sniveling disorder. I wonder Madeline did not catch it. She is always catching hay-fever, and I should have thought one sniffing disease was as easy to catch as another. But Madeline thought otherwise. She often thinks otherwise. So when the fell plague had become known, and the others were put to bed, Olive and Alan and Madeline and the present author were sent off at once to stay with our uncle at Chislehurst, a spot we had never before visited. He was a newish uncle, having but recently retired from the army (artillery), in which, and in India, he had spent most of his manhood's prime. Uncles who have been in the army are more difficult to please than the plain kind of uncle. Accustomed as they are to the unquestioning obedience of their regiments, they jump down your throat if you do the least thing. And there are not many books in their houses that you care about reading. At least, this was the case with the uncle on whose hospitable shore we were cast up by the measles. Noise upsets this kind of uncle more than you would think when you remember how noisy drums are, and soldiers' boots, to say nothing of trumpets and the clash of battle. When we had been at his house about forty-eight hours, we were as near bursting as I ever wish to be. We seemed to have been holding our breaths ever since we came, and there was no getting away from the uncle. He pounced on you in his stiff military way, in spots you would have thought far out of his beat. But the artillery motto is Ubique, which means all over the shop, and I suppose he had had to practise being it.

It was on the second morning after breakfast, which was porridge, eggs and bacon, cold beef, marmalade and toast, and only speak when you're spoken to. We met together in cautious despair in a summer-house—very tidy and shiny with green paint, at the bottom of the garden—and Alan said: "Measles lasts three weeks."

"Mere than we shall if this goes on," said Clifford.

Madeline said: "I shouldn't mind it so much if everything was different."

And Olive said: "Well, it is different from home; but it's no use repining."

"No," said Clifford, "we've jolly well got to stick it!"

"Couldn't we tame him?" Madeline suggested, as if retired colonels were mice.

"It isn't taming he wants, my child," said Clifford, "he wants warming. It is iced water that flows in those veins—not blood at all."

"We could do something to wake him up," said Alan cheerfully.

"Let sleeping uncles lie," said Clifford. "What we've got to do is to devise a plan to alleviate our desperate existence. Can't any one think of anything?"

Curiously enough, nobody could. Only at last Madeline said: "We might take him out into a wood, and leave him there!"

This was what we once did to her, though very sorry for it afterwards.

"I think some noble task would help us most," said Olive, taking no notice of Madeline. "I shall buy some blue wool and knit him some bed-socks—in two shades."

"My only comfort," said Clifford, "is that my collars won't hold out. Three a day isn't what they've been used to!"

It is rare indeed for an uncle to notice what you have got on. Aunts are more observative.

"I suppose it's being tidy himself," said Olive. He was tidy; more so than I have ever seen any one in human shape. No matter where he went, he never got dusty. The muddiest day had no power over his boots. He never got blacks on his nose, even in trains. There are few uncles like him in this fair and untidy world. This was why he was always sending Clifford to put on a clean collar, little knowing how near the end of them was.

"But what can we do?" Martin impatiently asked.

"Grin and bear it," said Clifford.

"I will bear it," said Madeline, who always thinks what you say is exactly the same thing as you mean. "But grinning is vulgar, and it wasn't my fault I upset my coffee at breakfast. I expected it to be tea, and it upset me when I found it wasn't."

Nothing whatever came of this talk. I only tell it you to show you what it was like staying with that uncle.

Up to now the uncle had not punished us, and we had really not done anything deserving such conduct, either. But he had jawed, and that was enough to show us what it would be like when he did begin to punish. And we knew it would be improbable for us to go on doing nothing to excite his just vengeance. We feared the worst—and the worst happened, as it so often does, quite unexpectedly.

Like Minerva out of the head of Jupiter, the worst sprang full-armed out of a tea and address to Serious Sergeants. The tea was in the garden, with lots of buns and cakes, and the address was not quite fair really, because, when once our uncle had got the Serious Sergeants there, he loosed a whole pack of addressers on them—all old gentlemen, very long-winded and eloquent, and they jawed quite without pause or tiredness. They were good stayers. One was a bishop.

We fled the scene as soon as the buns were over. The time seemed ripe for a game of silent "I spy," which we had long thought would be the bow-what-do-you-call-it of excitement. We never thought we should get to do it; but now every one was out in the grounds—even the servants—being addressed like mad, and the large, quiet house, with three staircases, lay waiting our manoeuvers. It is rather a fine game, really. Clifford invented it. Instead of shouting "I spy!" you exchange meaning glances with the found, and there is always a paralyzed period of glare before you start running or he starts catching you. The others have to take their chance. You run as quietly as you can; but somehow your movements are usually heard by the others.

Before beginning the game, Clifford thought he would do a kind act for the tidy uncle. There was a bit of string, with a knot, sticking out from behind a piece of furniture, and Clifford cut it with his new knife and threw it away. Then, with a happy something-attempted-something-done sort of feeling, he started on "I spy."

It was all right till Madeline and Olive were chasing Alan and me, and we came down the front stairs, and they came down the back to head us off, and we met at the hat-stand in the hall. We were all going at a pretty good lick, and it was like four locomotives meeting at a railway accident—or rather five, for the hat-stand took a sudden and spirited part in the game. It waved itself a little in the air, and then down it came, burying us under an avalanche of coats, while high hats thundered around us on the marble floor like discharges of artillery. There were losses on both sides. The hat-stand lost several pegs, Madeline's head was bumped, Olive hurt her elbow, and I know I felt the place on my back for weeks. We freed ourselves from the hurtling hat-stand. It turned out afterwards it had always been of a wavering disposition and had to be controlled by string, which was what I had cut. And how was I to know? The uncle was simply frightful to the butler about it afterwards—said it was a living lie, and he ought to have had lead nailed under it, if it wouldn't stand upright by itself.

And when we had got free, and gazed around on the wreckish results, the stoutest of us quailed. There was a Chinese jar that a missionary had looted from China and given to the uncle. It must have been a noble smash, if only we could have seen it. And a brass tray dented. Three umbrellas smashed right through their ribs, looking like broken-winged birds. But the high hats! The others did not seem to know; but Clifford knew, for he is nearly a man. They were bent, and rubbed up, and scratched. The hat-stand had fallen on one, and Olive had sat on another. All poetical dreamers, who ever imagine anything, must have imagined sitting down hard on a high hat as one of the heights of worldly bliss; but to do it like this, without knowing about it at the time, is not at all the same thing—it is a wasted joy, besides being a devastating accident that no being awfully sorry for can wipe out. And of course, when we picked up the most firmly sat-on hat, we saw the loops of cord, and knew it was the bishop's. It would be. Life is like that.

We looked at each other, and at the ruins of that once happy hat and hall and hat-stand. And we heard the Serious Sergeants clapping one of the addressers—we never knew which.

"Oh," said Madeline, "I can't bear it! Let's hide till he's got over it a little."

"We ought to face the music," said Clifford, who wishes to be a conscientious hero.

"We needn't face it yet," said Alan. "Wait till the Serious Sergeants have gone."

"Let's fly," said Olive. "We can come back and face it better, when our hearts aren't going it like this, and when we've had time to find out exactly where we're hurt, and how much."

"We'll leave a letter, then," said Clifford. And with fingers that trembled, not from fear, but because the hat-stand had trampled on them with its mahogany foot, he wrote on a leaf of his pocket-book:

"We are guilty, and we will come back and suffer it when the Serious Sergeants are over."

We signed our names, put the paper amid the ruins of the bishop's hat, and stealthily fled. Clifford had the sense to conduct the flight by a roundabout route that did not pass the addressed lawn, and that did happen to go through the pantry. Here the instincts of a born general taught him to provision his men for the march. We took bread and jam tarts, cake, and the departed remains of what was once a large fowl; also cold sausages; and some stoned raisins we found in a basin—ready for a pudding, I suppose.

Clifford, at the risk of capture, honestly went back and wrote on the paper: "We have taken some grub—necessity nos no law." So it was not stealing.

We fled to the fence that is the end of the uncle's domain. But this did not seem far enough, so we climbed the fence. I don't know how we got Madeline over, but we did, and the tear in her frock has been mended since, and does not show so very much.

"Only a fence, a simple oak fence," like they say in books about faded flowers; but what a difference! The uncle's garden was tidy and gravelly—you couldn't drop a bit of silver-paper off butter-scotch or spit out a cherry-stone without its showing. But here all was wildness and adventure. The trees were much taller, the undergrowth was thick and close like in tropical forests; there were ferns and brambles and dried branches and dead leaves thick and deep and rustling; and here and there patches of fine green turf and soft, cushiony green moss.

"No human eye," said Clifford, throwing himself down on the green cushioniness, "can mark our proceedings."

"It is a jolly place," said Alan, and he sat down too, and so did Olive.

But not Madeline. Oh, no. She said it was sure to be damp, and she thought the nice dry leaves would be much better for us. So she went prowling about looking for an extra dry place.

Clifford was lying on his injured back, looking up into the trees, where it is so light and green, and you would like to nail a house up there and live like the Swiss Family Robinson.

He had just cut off six-feet lengths of nine by two and a half dream-boards with an imaginary saw to begin making the house, when howls met his ear.

Madeline, a prey as usual to conflicting destiny, was rustling and struggling among the leaves, and saying "Ow! Ow!" with despairing violence. She appeared to be on her knees.

"Ware snakes," said Clifford, with calm decision, and we all went—really quite quickly—toward Madeline.

We were nearly there—only the brambles were strong and twisty, because we went the nearest way, and interpeded our advance—when Madeline began to disappear. I saw her head going lower and lower, and if I had not known geography I should have said a boa-constrictor had entwined itself about her reluctant form and was dragging her to its fell lair. But, of course, in Chislehurst this would be far from an every-day occurrence. On the other hand, if not a boa-constrictor, what was it?

This was the question we all asked.

"What is it, Mad?" we asked, in variating tones. "What is it?"

We now saw Madeline, buried in the leaves up to her elbows, which she was leaning on.

"What is it?" we kept on saying.

And she answered in the following remarkable remark: "I have lost my legs," was what she said.

Again the serpent writhed through the fragile brain of Clifford, but was rejected as not likely in the garden of England, which I believe Kent is called.

"Lost your legs?" said Olive. "You can't have."

"Hold on to me," said Madeline, in accents of great terrifiedness; "if you don't I shall lose all the rest of myself."

"Why," said Clifford, declining the serpent for good and all, "you must have fallen into a hole." And he caught her by one arm, signing to Alan to catch the other.

But Alan was not quick enough. Already the hem of Madeline's dress was standing up round her in a frill. It looked like the petals of a black rose, which is a silly, romantic idea, and it was Olive who thought of it afterwards.

And now, before Alan had time to obey the ready Clifford and catch her other arm, Madeline's arms went up over her head, and she sank out of sight.

I need not assure the reader that Clifford held on as long as he could, but all was vain. You can't hold a great girl like that up with one hand. As it was, Clifford's arm was very near disconnected at the socket.

"Ow!" said Madeline, just before her mouth went under the dead leaves.

The last that was seen of her was the ends of her hair. Then they vanished with a quiet rustling of the leaves.

And there we were in the wood—just three of us, who had been four—and Madeline had disappeared into the ground.

We listened in vain for the sickening thud that always happens in newspapers when people fall from any height. There was none, and the leaves seemed to have closed over her disappearance like waves; Only some of the damp leaves turned up from underneath marked the fatal spot.

We hastened to clear away the leaves in armfuls. They were very thick indeed. The voice of Madeline suddenly yelling just underneath us made us stop for a minute, and then go on harder than ever, replying to the buried one by whispered yells, so as not to be heard by the Serious Sergeants, of "All right," "You hold on," and "We're coming."

We had lifted away quite a lot of leaves—you see, they kept tumbling in from the sides and choking up the hollow as fast as we made it—before we found the hole in the ground through which our cousin had happened to sift.

It was just about big enough for a man to get through, not more.

"Are you hurt?" "Where are you?" "Can't you get out?" we now said all at once.

And Madeline replied from the depths of the earth: "I'm here—no, of course I can't. It's all soft leaves. I'm not hurt. I wish you'd come down and help me."

Clifford's ambition is, of course, to be the bravest brave that was ever tolled for, but he owns that he said: "Is it far?—far down, I mean?"

"Oh, no," said Madeline, "you can drop quite easily."

So then he put his boots into the hole and followed them. No hero can do more.

He felt about with his feet, and found stones sticking out of the side of the hole that he might have climbed down by, but he thought it safest to drop from the top in case dropping became needful farther down, at some spot where he couldn't get a good grip and swing clear.

You would not believe how little he liked to do that drop into the unknown, and perhaps on to Madeline, though he had already shouted "Stand from under!" before inserting his boots.

Well, no matter what his feelings, he did drop—and it was a much longer drop than he expected, though I don't suppose Madeline meant to deceive. He fell quite soft, into a heap of dry leaves and crisp twigs. And when he had recovered from all fours, which is what he landed on, owing to the springiness of the leaves, he stood up and felt for solid ground and found it.

Then he said, "Where are you?" And Madeline said, "Here, of course!" And he struck a match and lit a bit of candle. All us boys always carry matches and candles. You never know. And how true that was in this case!

The unintending explorers found themselves not, of course, in a serpent's lair, nor even, which Clifford had also thought of, a bear-pit long disused since the days in history when they used to bait them. No; it was better than that by long chalks. It was, quite really and truly, and with no nonsense about it, a cave. It arched up over our heads about as high as a ceiling, and quite as white. The floor, except where the leaves had fallen through the hole and heaped up under it for countless ages, was covered with smooth sand. And it was large—not just a hole-and-corner sort of cave, but a big cavern that stretched out behind us and before us like a winding underground tunnel.

"I want to get out," said Madeline.

"I daresay you do," said Clifford brightly, and he looked up at the roof of the cave where the hole was that we had come down by. Of course, it was far beyond our reach.

"Hi!" was now heard to be being shouted by Olive and Alan above, "what is it?"

"It's a cave," said Clifford; "a jolly big one."

"I say—I'm on," remarked Alan. And as the hole shut up, I knew he had put his boots into it.

"You can't get out again!" I shouted, but too late; his boots and his body had shut off our voices from his ears. Next moment he stood beside us—on all fours.

"Stay where you are!" Clifford yelled up to Olive. "Look here, you mustn't come down. I'm sorry for you—you'll have to break it to Uncle, and make him send ropes and rescues. I should wait till the Serious Sergeants are out of the way. We shall be all right here."

She said it was perfectly beastly of us, shoving it on to her; but Clifford explained patiently how we couldn't help it. We got her to roll most of the grub up in her pinafore and drop it down the hole, in case of t h e Serious Sergeants being a long time going.

"And now," said Clifford, "I vote we explore a bit." We explored. It was like the Hampton Court maze, only, instead of being hot sun, and grit under your feet, it was quite cool, and soft sand, and very dark. And it went on and on. It was rather like the crypt of Rochester Cathedral, only the pillars were too big, and not carved at all. There were rough arches in the walls here and there, and flat stones inside, something like the tombs in a church, only much rougher. And we went on and on and on, and it was most interesting—even Madeline said so. We ate our grub in one of the tomb-like arches, and there was a stream running along through the sand in one place that we drank out of like dogs.

And then we suddenly remembered that it was time to get back to the hole we had tumbled in by, so as to be ready to be hauled up by ropes and royally rowed—which we knew must be, however undeserved. You will hardly believe that Clifford had quite forgotten the injurious hat-stand, and the others said afterwards that they had too.

"We came round by that pillar," said Madeline.

"It is the first to the left," Alan said.

And perhaps it was. Only what happened is exactly what you are expecting, so why waste pages and pages in working you up to it, as if I was a grown-up author? The plainest words are the best, as some great author beautifully observes. And no decorated words can express our horrible state better than these plain ones: We were lost in those caves, and we could not find the hole we had come in by.

The author begs you to stop and make despairing reflections, which you can do quite as well as us, especially when you learn that we had not thought we should-be lost, and so had spent the candles with the freedom of a royal ransom.

There was about two inches of candle left; it was in two pieces.

When we had owned that we were lost, and I am sorry to say blamed each other, which I will draw a veil and dots over, Clifford assumed command.

"Out with the candles," he said, and suiting the action to the word he blew.

The darkness was like black velvet.

Madeline screamed.

"Do not scream," said Clifford patiently; "it won't do any good, and it makes your throat sore if you go on. Yes, certainly; Alan and I will sit on each side of you and hold your hands. There's nothing to be afraid of. When they find we aren't at the opening, they'll send down the butler or one of the footmen to hunt for us with stable lanterns."

Clifford said this, but he did not altogether feel it.

We sat down in the sand and were silent.

"We'd better yell every now and then," said Alan presently. I do really think Alan and Clifford behaved rather well. Madeline, also, might have been worse. She pinched our hands like mad, and burbled, but she did not yell. And the darkness went on being like black velvet.

We said poetry, and tried to tell each other tales, but it was difficult. If we had had more candle, of course, we wouldn't have given up like that; but it is easier to sit in the velvet dark if you know you can light it up whenever you choose, than to have no candle ends left for emergencies.

We explained this to Madeline so often, that I think in the end she began to understand that there might be something in it.

And after a very long, dark time, when our ears had got quite stiff inside with listening to hear if any one was shouting to us from the hole, Alan suddenly said: "I see a light—sunlight, I think. Let's go to it—perhaps it's another way out." And then, like a true duffer, he struck a match. Clifford blew it out again at once, but of course we couldn't see anything for ever so long afterwards.

But at last, by Alan explaining very carefully what he meant, and it was a streak of yellow light, we crawled towards it, and it got brighter and brighter like a star would if it was shaped like a line instead of a point (Euclid), and then Clifford, leading as usual, saw many stars, because he bumped his head. It was against the wall of the cave, we found, when we lighted a match, and the light proved, when darkness, again appeared, to come from under the wall. So then we all knelt down and began to scratch away the sand with our hands, digging exactly like you have seen your fox-terrier do when he is gardening in the flower-beds of your kind parents. And we dug and scratched, and the sand was very loose—and the light got larger. And the light was redder than we expected, and we thought what hours we must have been there, and that it was sunset.

And at last the hole looked big enough to crawl through. So we tried—but of course it wasn't. So dog-digging was resumed. And at last it was big enough, and Clifford crawled through flat on his front, like a serpent is doomed to go. He had to shut his eyes because of the sand, and when he felt he was through the hole he opened them again, and the light was gone, and all was black velvet once more. It was a baffling moment, and if Clifford's voice was choky as he said, "Hold on!" and struck a match, I for one do not blame him. He lit his candle, and looked, and it was just another cave that the young explorers had so carefully dog-dug their way into.

"Come on," said Clifford, "it's just another cave, but there must be some one here, because of the light." So they came on, and we began to walk with one candle, hoping to find the human aid which is so often despaired of. But we couldn't find any. And the candle was nearly done when we heard a confused sound of voices very loud and echoing. They were quite close—just a turning or two off, I should say, and we could hear all their words very distinctly. But we could not understand them. And almost at the same moment I stumbled over something, and it was a pick-ax, very old and worn. And then the voices grew louder, and there was a peal of fiend-like laughter.

Clifford caught Madeline's arm. "Back!" he cried—"back to the dog-hole! They aren't human aid: they're cave-dwellers!"

We all backed for all we were worth, but we couldn't find the dog-hole—of course. But there was an arch, and the roof or the sides or something had fallen in and made a mound that nearly reached the roof. We climbed up on this, and lay flat on the top of the mound under the roof. There was just room.

I will not deceive the reader. Our hearts were not strangers to alarm. We knew all about cave-dwellers, you remember, and how fierce they were, and what, very likely, they ate—and about their axes (pick ones as well, no doubt). In fact, I scorn to deny it—we were jolly frightened. Villa-dwellers we knew still existed, also lake-dwellers. Why not cave-dwellers, who had gone on unsuspected by the busy world—like in Mr. Wells' "Time Machine"—lurking underground. I did wish then that I hadn't read the "Time Machine."

We lay there flat and frightened, and we heard the voices go by, and light shone on the stone roof just above our faces. And again we heard the voices, and could not understand a word they said.

They did not now sound fierce. The present writer thought their tones were more as if they were having one of their primeval jollifications than as if they were up to any of their dark cave-dwelling dodges. But he felt it would not do to trust to their feeling jolly at the moment. For of course they would never let any one out who could tell the people outside about how the long-lost cave-dwellers still subsisted in their primitive way, unknown to the police, and most likely living by secret burglary when people were asleep in their beds.

You cannot look down when you are lying on your back on the top of a mound. But we heard the voices go by, and lights gleamed on the chalk roof that our faces were quite close to. Some of the dust had got into Clifford's throat, and he wanted to cough more than he ever has in his life, and he was holding his breath, and determining to choke rather than betray his presence in that silly way, when suddenly the worst—once more—occurred. There was a rattling, rustling sound, a stifled cry, a scrabbling and a scratching, and one of us rolled from the top of the mound down its earthy sides. Need you ask which one? It was Madeline. And Clifford hastily rolled over on his front in time to see her land bang in the middle of the astonished cave-dwellers. He only saw very dimly, because her rolling had made clouds of dust. He scrambled down after her.

I do not say it was a hero's deed. I only say it was better to do that and feel comfortable in your inside, than to wait where you were and be discovered later feeling like a skunk. And the end would be the same anyhow. As he scrambled, he shouted, "All right, Mad, I'm coming!"

[This was really all he did, but when it came to facing the uncle, the way Madeline told about it made the uncle a different being. He was most frightfully jolly afterwards, and said things about heroes, and the hat-stand was forgiven and forgotten.]

All this time Madeline and our young hero were in the cave surrounded by the crowd of dread cave-dwellers. It was an awful moment, you will think? You are wrong. For, strange to say, they turned out not to be cave-dwellers at all, but a party of Italian tourists being shown over the caves by a proper English guide with a lantern. And the caves are just show-caves, though very old and wonderful, and every one knew they were there except us! It was a silly ending to the finest adventure we ever had.

Only there was same glory in it—because nobody knew of the hole we had fallen in by, nor yet the hole we had scraped under the wall. The part we fell into was unknown to man, and the guide, who proved most jolly, said he should call that part "the Clifford Caves." What we fell down was a dene-hole. If you go to the Chislehurst caves you'll see it. But it is better to go in by the front way.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1924, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.