The House of Arden/Chapter 1
It had been a great house once, with farms and fields, money and jewels–with tenants and squires and men-at-arms. The head of the house had ridden out three days' journey to meet King Henry at the boundary of his estate, and the King had ridden back with him to lie in the tall State bed in the castle guest-chamber. The heir of the house had led his following against Cromwell; younger sons of the house had fought in foreign lands, to the honour of England and the gilding and regilding with the perishable gold of glory of the old Arden name. There had been Ardens in Saxon times, and there were Ardens still—but few and impoverished. The lands were gone, and the squires and men-at-arms; the castle itself was roofless, and its unglazed windows stared blankly across the fields of strangers, that stretched right up to the foot of its grey, weather-worn walls. And of the male Ardens there were now known two only–an old man and a child.
The old man was Lord Arden, the head of the house, and he lived lonely in a little house built of the fallen stones that Time and Cromwell's round-shot had cast from the castle walls. The child was Edred Arden, and he lived in a house in a clean, wind-swept town on a cliff.
It was a bright-faced house with bow-windows and a green balcony that looked out over the sparkling sea. It had three neat white steps and a brass knocker, pale and smooth with constant rubbing. It was a pretty house, and it would have been a pleasant house but for one thing–the lodgers. For I cannot conceal from you any longer that Edred Arden lived with his aunt, and that his aunt let lodgings. Letting lodgings is one of the most unpleasant of all possible ways of earning your living, and I advise you to try every other honest way of earning your living before you take to that.
Because people who go to the seaside and take lodgings seem, somehow, much harder to please than the people who go to hotels. They want ever so much more waiting on; they want so many meals, and at such odd times. They ring the bell almost all day long. They bring in sand from the shore in every fold of their clothes, and it shakes out of them on to the carpets and the sofa cushions, and everything in the house. They hang long streamers of wet seaweed against the pretty roses of the new wall-papers, and their washhand basins are always full of sea anemones and shells. Also, they are noisy; their boots seem to be always on the stairs, no matter how bad a headache you may have; and when you give them their bill they always think it is too much, no matter bow little it may be. So do not let lodgings if you can help it.
Miss Arden could not help it. It happened like this.
Edred and his sister were at school. (Did I tell you that he had a sister? Well, he had, and her name was Elfrida.) Miss Arden lived near the school, so that she could see the children often. She was getting her clothes ready for her wedding, and the gentleman who was going to marry her was coming home from South America, where he had made a fortune. The children's father was coming home from South America, too, with the fortune that he had made, for he and Miss Arden's sweetheart were partners. The children and their aunt talked whenever they met of the glorious time that was coming, and how, when father and Uncle Jim–they called him Uncle Jim already–came home, they were all going to live in the country and be happy ever after.
And then the news came that father and Uncle Jim had been captured by brigands, and all the money was lost, too, and there was nothing left but the house on the cliff. So Miss Arden took the children from the expensive school in London, and they all went to live in the cliff house, and as there was no money to live on, and no other way of making money to live on except letting lodgings, Miss Arden let them, like the brave lady she was, and did it well. And then came the news that father and Uncle Jim were dead, and for a time the light of life went out in Cliff House.
This was two years ago; but the children had never got used to the lodgers. They hated them. At first they had tried to be friendly with the lodgers' children, but they soon found that the lodgers' children considered Edred and Elfrida very much beneath them, and looked down on them accordingly. And very often the lodgers' children were the sort of children on whom anybody might have looked down, if it were right and kind to look down on any one. And when Master Reginald Potts, of Peckham, puts his tongue out at you on the parade and says, right before everybody, "Lodgings! Yah!" it is hard to feel quite the same to him as you did before.
When there were lodgers—and there nearly always were, for the house was comfortable, and people who had been once came again–the children and their aunt had to live in the very top and the very bottom of the house–in the attics and the basement, in fact.
When there were no lodgers they used all the rooms in turn, to keep them aired. But the children liked the big basement parlour room best, because there all the furniture had belonged to dead-and-gone Ardens, and all the pictures on the walls were of Ardens dead and gone. The rooms that the lodgers had were furnished with a new sort of furniture that had no stories belonging to it such as belonged to the old polished oak tables and bureaux that were in the basement parlour.
Edred and Elfrida went to school every day and learned reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, history, spelling, and useful knowledge, all of which they hated quite impartially, which means they hated the whole lot–one thing as much as another.
The only part of lessons they liked was the home-work, when, if Aunt Edith had time to help them, geography became like adventures, history like story-books, and even arithmetic suddenly seemed to mean something.
"I wish you could teach us always," said Edred, very inky, and interested for the first time in the exports of China; "it does seem so silly trying to learn things that are only words in books."
"I wish I could," said Aunt Edith, "but I can't do twenty-nine thousand and seventeen things all at once, and–" A bell jangled. "That's the seventh time since tea." She got up and went into the kitchen. "There's the bell again, my poor Eliza. Never mind; answer the bell, but don't answer them, whatever they say. It doesn't do a bit of good, and it sometimes prevents their giving you half-crowns when they leave."
"I do love it when they go," said Elfrida.
"Yes," said her aunt. "A cab top-heavy with luggage, the horse's nose turned stationward, it's a heavenly sight–when the bill is paid and—But, then, I'm just as glad to see the luggage coming. Chickens! when my ship comes home we'll go and live on a desert island where there aren't any cabs, and we won't have any lodgers in our cave."
"When I grow up," said Edred, "I shall go across the sea and look for your ship and bring it home. I shall take a steam-tug and steer it myself."
"Then I shall be captain," said Elfrida.
"No, I shall be captain."
You can't if you steer."
"Yes, I can!"
"No, you can't!"
"Yes, I can!"
"Well, do, then!" said Elfrida; "and while you're doing it—I know you can't—I shall dig in the garden and find a gold-mine, and Aunt Edith will be rolling in money when you come back, and she won't want your silly old ship."
"Spelling next," said Aunt Edith. "How do you spell 'disagreeable'?"
"Which of us?" asked Edred acutely.
"Both," said Aunt Edith, trying to look very severe.
When you are a child you always dream of your ship coming home–of having a hundred pounds, or a thousand, or a million pounds to spend as you like. My favourite dream, I remember, was a thousand pounds and an express understanding that I was not to spend it on anything useful. And when you have dreamed of your million pounds, or your thousand, or your hundred, you spend happy hour on hour in deciding what presents you will buy for each of the people you are fond of, and in picturing their surprise and delight at your beautiful presents and your wonderful generosity. I think very few of us spend our dream fortunes entirely on ourselves. Of course, we buy ourselves a motor-bicycle straight away, and footballs and bats–and dolls with real hair, and real china tea-sets, and large boxes of mixed chocolates, and "Treasure Island," and all the books that Mrs. Ewing ever wrote, but, when we have done that we begin to buy things for other people. It is a beautiful dream, but too often, by the time it comes true–up to a hundred pounds or a thousand–we forget what we used to mean to do with our money, and spend it all in stocks and shares, and eligible building sites, and fat cigars and fur coats. If I were young again I would sit down and write a list of all the kind things I meant to do when my ship came home, and if my ship ever did come home I would read that list, and–But the parlour bell is ringing for the eighth time, and the front-door bell is ringing too, and the first-floor is ringing also, and so is the second-floor, and Eliza is trying to answer four bells at once–always a most difficult thing to do.
The front-door bell was rung by the postman; he brought three letters. The first was a bill for mending the lid of the cistern, on which Edred had recently lighted a fire, fortified by an impression that wood could not burn if there were water on the other side–a totally false impression, as the charred cistern lid proved. The second was an inquiry whether Miss Arden would take a clergyman in at half the usual price, because he had a very large family which had all just had measles. And the third was THE letter, which is really the seed, and beginning, and backbone, and rhyme, and reason of this story.
Edred had got the letters from the postman, and he stood and waited while Aunt Edith read them. He collected postmarks, and had not been able to make out by the thick half-light of the hall gas whether any of these were valuable.
The third letter had a very odd effect on Aunt Edith. She read it once, and rubbed her hand across her eyes. Then she got up and stood under the chandelier, which wanted new burners badly, and so burned with a very unlighting light, and read it again. Then she read it a third time, and then she said, "Oh!"
"What is it, auntie?" Elfrida asked anxiously; "is it the taxes?" It had been the taxes once, and Elfrida had never forgotten. (If you don't understand what this means ask your poorest relations, who are also likely to be your nicest and if they don't know, ask the washerwoman.)
"No; it's not the taxes, darling," said Aunt Edith; "on the contrary."
I don't know what the contrary (or opposite) of taxes is, any more than the children did–but I am sure it is something quite nice–and so were they.
"Oh, auntie, I am so glad," they both said, and said it several times before they asked again, "What is it?"
"I think–I'm not quite sure–but I think it's a ship come home–oh, just a quite tiny little bit of a ship–a toy boat–hardly more than that. But I must go up to London to-morrow the first thing, and see if it really is a ship, and, if so, what sort of ship it is. Mrs. Blake shall come in, and you'll be good as gold, children, won't you?"
"Yes–oh, yes," said the two.
"And not make booby traps for the butcher, or go on the roof in your nightgowns, or play Red Indians in the dust-bin, or make apple-pie beds for the lodgers?" Aunt Edith asked, hastily mentioning a few of the little amusements which had lately enlivened the spare time of her nephew and niece.
"No, we really won't," said Edred; "and we'll truly try not to think of anything new and amusing," he added, with real self-sacrifice.
"I must go by the eight-thirty train. I wish I could think of some way of–of amusing you," she ended, for she was too kind to say "of keeping you out of mischief for the day," which was what she really thought. "I'll bring you something jolly for your birthday, Edred. Wouldn't you like to spend the day with nice Mrs. Hammond?"
"Oh, no," said Edred; and added, on the inspiration of the moment, "Why mayn't we have a picnic–just Elf and me–on the downs, to keep my birthday? It doesn't matter it being the day before, does it? You said we were too little last summer, and we should this, and now it is this and I have grown two inches and Elf's grown three, so we're five inches taller than when you said we weren't big enough."
"Now you see how useful arithmetic is," said the aunt. "Very well, you shall. Only wear your old clothes, and always keep in sight of the road. "Yes; you can have a whole holiday. And now to bed. Oh, there's that bell again! Poor, dear Eliza."
A Clapham cub, belonging to one of the lodgers, happened to be going up to bed just as Edred and Elfrida came through the baize door that shut off the basement from the rest of the house. He put his tongue out through the banisters at the children of the house and said, "Little slaveys." The cub thought he could get up the stairs before the two got round the end of the banisters, but he had not counted on the long arm of Elfrida, whose hand shot through the banisters and caught the cub's leg and held on to it till Edred had time to get round. The two boys struggled up the stairs together and then rolled together from top to bottom, where they were picked up and disentangled by their relations. Except for this little incident, going to bed was uneventful.
Next morning Aunt Edith went off by the eight-thirty train. The children's school satchels were filled, not with books, but with buns; instead of exercise-books there were sandwiches; and in the place of inky pencil-boxes were two magnificent boxes of peppermint creams which had cost a whole shilling each, and had been recklessly bought by Aunt Edith in the agitation of the parting hour when they saw her off at the station.
They went slowly up the red-brick-paved sidewalk that always looks as though it had just been washed, and when they got to the top of the hill they stopped and looked at each other.
"It can't be wrong," said Edred.
"She never told us not to," said Elfrida.
"I've noticed," said Edred, "that when grownup people say 'they'll see about' anything you want it never happens."
"I've noticed that, too," said Elfrida. "Auntie always said she'd see about taking us there."
"Yes, she did."
"We won't be mean and sneaky about it," Edred insisted, though no one had suggested that he would be mean and sneaky. "We'll tell auntie directly she gets back."
"Of course," said Elfrida, rather relieved, for she had not felt at all sure that Edred meant to do this.
"After all," said Edred, "it's our castle. We ought to go and see the cradle of our race. That's what it calls it in 'Cliffgate and its Envions.' I say, let's call it a pilgrimage. The satchels will do for packs, and we can get halfpenny walking-sticks with that penny of yours. We can put peas in our shoes, if you like," he added generously.
"We should have to go back for them, and I don't expect the split kind count, anyhow. And perhaps they'd hurt," said Elfrida doubtfully. "And I want my penny for–" She stopped, warned by her brother's frown. "All right, then," she ended; "you can have it. Only give me half next time you get a penny; that's only fair."
"I'm not usually unfair," said Edred coldly. "Don't let's be pilgrims."
"But I should like to," said Elfrida.
Edred was obstinate. "No," he said, "we'll just walk."
So they just walked, rather dismally.
The town was getting thinner, like the tract of stocking that surrounds a hole; the houses were farther apart and had large gardens. In one of them a maid was singing to herself as she shook out the mats–a thing which, somehow, maids don't do much in towns.
"Good luck!" says I to my sweetheart,
"For I will love you true;
And all the while we've got to part,
My luck shall go with you."
"That's lucky for us," said Elfrida amiably.
"We're not her silly sweetheart," said Edred.
"No; but we heard her sing it, and he wasn't here, so he couldn't. There's a sign-post. I wonder how far we've gone? I'm getting awfully tired."
"You'd better have been pilgrims," said Edred. "They never get tired, however many peas they have in their shoes."
"I will now," said Elfrida.
"You can't," said Edred; "it's too late. We're miles and miles from the stick shop."
"Very well, I shan't go on," said Elfrida. "You got out of bed the wrong side this morning. I've tried to soft-answer you as hard as ever I could all the morning, and I'm not going to try any more, so there."
"Don't, then," said Edred bitterly. "Go along home if you like. You're only a girl."
"I'd rather be only a girl than what you are," said she.
"And what's that, I should like to know?"
Elfrida stopped and shut her eyes tight.
"Don't, don't, don't, don't!" she said. "I won't be cross, I won't be cross, I won't be cross! Pax. Drop it. Don't let's!
"Don't let's what?"
"Quarrel about nothing," said Elfrida, opening her eyes and walking on very fast. "We're always doing it. Auntie says it's a habit. If boys are so much splendider than girls, they ought to be able to stop when they like."
"Suppose they don't like?" said he, kicking his boots in the thick, white dust.
"Well," said she, "I'll say I'm sorry first. Will that do?"
"I was just going to say it first myself," said Edred, in aggrieved tones. "Come on," he added more generously, "here's the sign-post. Let's see what it says."
It said, quite plainly and without any nonsense about it, that they had come a mile and three-quarters, adding, most unkindly, that it was eight miles to Arden Castle. But, it said, it was a quarter of a mile to Ardenhurst Station.
"Let's go by train," said Edred grandly.
"No money," said Elfrida, very forlornly indeed.
"Aha!" said Edred; "now you'll see. I'm not mean about money. I brought my new florin."
"Oh, Edred," said the girl, stricken with remorse, "you are noble."
"Pooh!" said the boy, and his ears grew red with mingled triumph and modesty; "that's nothing. Come on."
So it was from the train that the pilgrims got their first sight of Arden Castle. It stands up boldly on the cliff where it was set to keep off foreign foes and guard the country round about it. But of all its old splendour there is now nothing but the great walls that the grasses and wild flowers grow on, and round towers whose floors and ceilings have fallen away, and roofless chambers where owls build, and brambles and green ferns grow strong and thick.
The children walked to the castle along the cliff path where the skylarks were singing like mad up in the pale sky, and the bean-fields, where the bees were busy, gave out the sweetest scent in the world–a scent that got itself mixed with the scent of the brown seaweed that rises and falls in the wash of the tide on the rocks at the cliff-foot.
"Let's have dinner here," said Elfrida, when they reached the top of a little mound from which they could look down on the castle. So they had it.
Two bites of sandwich and one of peppermint cream; that was the rule.
And all the time they were munching they looked down on the castle, and loved it more and more.
"Don't you wish it was real, and we lived in it?" Elfrida asked, when they had eaten as much as they wanted–not of peppermint creams, of course; but they had finished them.
"It is real, what there is of it."
"Yes; but I mean if it was a house with chimneys, and fireplaces, and doors with bolts, and glass in the windows."
"I wonder if we could get in?" said Edred.
"We might climb over," said Elfrida, looking hopefully at the enormous walls, sixty feet high, in which no gate or gap showed.
"There's an old man going across that field no, not that one; the very green field. Let's ask him."
So they left their satchels lying on the short turf, that was half wild thyme, and went down. But they were not quite quick enough; before they could get to him the old man had come through the field of young corn, clambered over a stile, and vanished between the high hedges of a deep-sunk lane. So over the stile and down into the lane went the children, and caught up with the old man just as he had clicked his garden gate behind him and had turned to go up the bricked path between beds of woodruff, and anemones, and narcissus, and tulips of all colours.
His back was towards them. Now it is very difficult to address a back politely. So you will not be surprised to learn that Edred said, "Hi!" and Elfrida said, "Halloa! I say!"
The old man turned and saw at his gate two small figures dressed in what is known as sailor costume. They saw a very wrinkled old face with snowy hair and mutton-chop whiskers of a silvery whiteness. There were very bright twinkling blue eyes in the sun-browned face, and on the clean-shaven mouth a kind, if tight, smile.
"Well," said he, "and what do you want?"
"We want to know—" said Elfrida.
"About the castle," said Edred, "Can we get in and look at it?"
"I've got the keys," said the old man, and put his hand in at his door and reached them from a nail.
"I s'pose no one lives there?" said Elfrida.
"Not now," said the old man, coming back along the garden path. "Lord Arden, he died a fortnight ago come Tuesday, and the place is shut up till the new lord's found."
"I wish I was the new lord," said Edred, as they followed the old man along the lane.
"An' how old might you be?" the old man asked.
"I'm ten nearly. It's my birthday to-morrow," said Edred. "How old are you?"
"Getting on for eighty. I've seen a deal in my time. If you was the young lord you'd have a chance none of the rest of them ever had–you being the age you are."
"What sort of chance?"
"Why," said the old man, "don't you know the saying? I thought every one knowed it hereabouts."
"I ain't got the wind for saying and walking too," said the old man, and stopped; "leastways, not potery." He drew a deep breath and said–
"When Arden's lord still lacketh ten
And may not see his nine again,
Let Arden stand as Arden may
On Arden Knoll at death of day.
If he have skill to say the spell
He shall find the treasure, and all be well!"
"I say!" said both the children. "And where's Arden Knoll?" Edred asked.
"Up yonder." He pointed to the mound where they had had lunch.
Elfrida inquired, "What treasure?"
But that question was not answered–then.
"If I'm to talk I must set me down," said the old man. "Shall we set down here, or set down inside of the castle?"
Two curiosities struggled, and the stronger won. "In the castle," said the children.
So it was in the castle, on a pillar fallen from one of the chapel arches, that the old man sat down and waited. When the children had run up and down the grassy enclosure, peeped into the ruined chambers, picked their way along the ruined colonnade, and climbed the steps of the only tower that they could find with steps to climb, then they came and sat beside the old man on the grass that was white with daisies, and said, "Now, then!"
"Well, then," said the old man, "you see the Ardens was always great gentry. I've heard say there's always been Ardens here since before William the Conker, whoever he was."
"Ten-sixty-six," said Edred to himself.
"An' they had their ups and downs like other folks, great and small. And once, when there was a war or trouble of some sort abroad, there was a lot of money, and jewellery, and silver plate hidden away. That's what it means by treasure. And the men who hid it got killed–ah, them was unsafe times to be alive in, I tell you–and nobody never knew where the treasure was hid."
"Did they ever find it?"
"Ain't I telling you? An' a wise woman that lived in them old ancient times, they went to her to ask her what to do to find the treasure, and she had a fit directly, what you'd call a historical fit nowadays. She never said nothing worth hearing without she was in a fit, and she made up the saying all in potery whilst she was in her fit, and that was all they could get out of her. And she never would say what the spell was. Only when she was a-dying, Lady Arden, that was then, was very took up with nursing of her, and before she breathed her lastest she told Lady Arden the spell." He stopped for lack of breath.
"And what is the spell?" said the children, much more breathless than he.
"Nobody knows," said he.
"But where is it?"
"Nobody knows. But I've 'eard say it's in a book in the libery in the house yonder. But it ain't no good, because there's never been a Lord Arden come to his title without he's left his ten years far behind him."
Edred had a queerer feeling in his head than you can imagine; his hands got hot and dry, and then cold and damp.
"I suppose," he said, "you've got to be Lord Arden? It wouldn't do if you were just plain John or James or Edred Arden? Because my name's Arden, and I would like to have a try?"
The old man stooped, caught Edred by the arm, pulled him up, and stood him between his knees.
"Let's have a look at you, sonny," he said; and had a look. "Aye," he said, "you're an Arden, for sure. To think of me not seeing that. I might have seen your long nose and your chin that sticks out like a spur. I ought to have known it anywhere. But my eyes ain't what they was. If you was Lord Arden—What's your father's name–his chrissened name, I mean?"
"Edred, the same as mine. But father's dead," said Edred gravely.
"And your grandf'er's name? It wasn't George, was it–George William?"
"Yes, it was," said Edred. "How did you know?"
The old man let go Edred's arms and stood up. Then he touched his forehead and said—
"I've worked on the land 'ere man and boy, and I'm proud I've lived to see another Lord Arden take the place of him as is gone. Lauk-alive, boy, don't garp like that," he added sharply. "You're Lord Arden right enough."
"I–I can't be," gasped Edred.
"Auntie said Lord Arden was a relation of ours–a sort of great-uncle–cousin."
"That's it, missy," the old man nodded. "Lord Arden–chrissen name James–'e was first cousin to Mr. George as was your grandf'er. His son was Mr. Edred, as is your father. The late lord not 'avin' any sons–nor daughters neither for the matter of that–the title comes to your branch of the family. I've heard Snigsworthy, the lawyer's apprentice from Lewis, tell it over fifty times this last three weeks. You're Lord Arden, I tell you."
"If I am," said Edred, "I shall say the spell and find the treasure."
"You'll have to be quick about it," said Elfrida. "You'll be over ten the day after to-morrow."
"So I shall," said Edred.
"When you're Lord Arden," said the old man very seriously,–"I mean, when you grow up to enjoy the title–as, please God, you may–you remember the poor and needy, young master–that's what you do."
"If I find the treasure I will," said Edred.
"You do it whether or no," said the old man. "I must be getting along home. You'd like to play about a bit, eh? Well, bring me the keys when you've done. I can trust you not to hurt your own place, that's been in the family all these hundreds of years."
"I should think you could!" said Edred proudly. "Goodbye, and thank you."
"Goodbye, my lord," said the old man, and went.
"I say," said Edred, with the big bunch of keys in his hand,–"if I am Lord Arden!"
"You are! you are!" said Elfrida. "I am perfectly certain you are. And I suppose I'm Lady Arden. How perfectly ripping! We can shut up those lodging-children now, anyhow. What's up?"
Edred was frowning and pulling the velvet covering of moss off the big stone on which he had absently sat down.
"Do you think it's burglarish," he said slowly, "to go into your own house without leave?"
"Not if it is your own house. Of course not," said Elfrida.
"But suppose it isn't? They might put you in prison for it."
"You could tell the policeman you thought it was yours. I say, Edred, let's!"
"It's not vulgar curiosity, like auntie says; it's the spell I want," said the boy.
"As if I didn't know that," said the girl contemptuously. "But where's the house?"
She might well ask, for there was no house to be seen–only the great grey walls of the castle, with their fine fringe of flowers and grass showing feathery against the pale blue of the June sky. Here and there, though, there were grey wooden doors set in the grey of the stone.
"It must be one of those," Edred said. "We'll try all the keys and all the doors till we find it."
So they tried all the keys and all the doors. One door led to a loft where apples were stored. Another to a cellar, where brooms and spades and picks leaned against the damp wall, and there were baskets and piles of sacks. A third opened into a tower that seemed to be used as a pigeon-cote. It was the very last door they tried that led into the long garden between two high walls, where already the weeds had grown high among the forget-me-nots and pansies. And at the end of this garden was a narrow house with a red roof, wedged tightly in between two high grey walls that belonged to the castle.
All the blinds were down; the garden was chill and quiet, and smelt of damp earth and dead leaves.
"Oh, Edred, do you think we ought?" Elfrida said, shivering.
"Yes, I do," said Edred; "and you're not being good, whatever you may think. You're only being frightened."
Elfrida naturally replied, "I'm not. Come on."
But it was very slowly, and with a feeling of being on tiptoe and holding their breaths, that they went up to those blinded windows that looked like sightless eyes.
The front door was locked, and none of the keys would fit it.
"I don't care," said Edred. "If I am Lord Arden I've got a right to get in, and if I'm not I don't care about anything, so here goes."
Elfrida almost screamed, half with horror and half with admiration of his daring, when he climbed up to a little window by means of an elder-tree that grew close to it, tried to open the window, and when he found it fast deliberately pushed his elbow through the glass.
"Thus," he said rather unsteadily, "the heir of Arden Castle re-enters his estates."
He got the window open and disappeared through it. Elfrida stood clasping and unclasping her hands, and in her mind trying to get rid of the idea of a very large and sudden policeman appearing in the garden door and saying, in that deep voice so much admired in our village constables, "Where's your brother?"
No policeman came, fortunately, and presently a blind went up, a French window opened, and there was Edred beckoning her with the air of a conspirator.
It needed an effort to obey his signal, but she did it. He closed the French window, drew down the blind again, and–
"Oh, don't let's," said Elfrida.
"Nonsense," said Edred; "there's nothing to be frightened of. It's just like our rooms at home."
It was. They went all over the house, and it certainly was. Some of the upper rooms were very bare, but all the furniture was of the same kind as Aunt Edith's, and there were the same kind of pictures. Only the library was different. It was a very large room, and there were no pictures at all. Nothing but books and books and books, bound in yellowy leather. Books from ceiling to floor, shelves of books between the windows and over the mantelpiece–hundreds and thousands of books. Even Edred's spirits sank. "It's no go. It will take us years to look in them all," he said.
"We may as well look at some of them," said Elfrida, always less daring, but more persevering than her brother. She sat down on the worn carpet. and began to read the names on the backs of the books nearest to her. "Burton's Atomy of Melon something," she read, and "Locke on Understanding," and many other dull and wearying titles. But none of the books seemed at all likely to contain a spell for finding treasure. "Burgess on the Precious Metals" beguiled her for a moment, but she saw at once that there was no room in its closely-printed, brown-spotted pages for anything so interesting as a spell. Time passed by. The sunlight that came through the blinds had quite changed its place on the carpet, and still Elfrida persevered. Edred grew more and more restless.
"It's no use," he kept saying, and "Let's chuck it," and "I expect that old chap was just kidding us. I don't feel a bit like I did about it," and "Do let's get along home."
But Elfrida plodded on, though her head and her back both ached. I wish I could say that her perseverance was rewarded. But it wasn't; and one must keep to facts. As it happened, it was Edred who, aimlessly running his finger along the edge of the bookshelf just for the pleasure of looking at the soft, mouse-coloured dust that clung to the finger at the end of each shelf, suddenly cried out, "What about this?" and pulled out a great white book that had on its cover a shield printed in gold with squares and little spots on it, and a gold pig standing on the top of the shield, and on the back, "The History of the Ardens of Arden."
In an instant it was open on the floor between them, and they were turning its pages with quick, anxious hands. But, alas! it was as empty of spells as dull old Burgess himself.
It was only when Edred shut it with a bang and the remark that he had had jolly well enough of it that a paper fluttered out and swept away like a pigeon, settling on the fireless hearth. And it was the spell. There was no doubt of that.
Written in faint ink on a square yellowed sheet of letter-paper that had been folded once, and opened and folded again so often that the fold was worn thin and hardly held its two parts together, the writing was fine and pointed and ladylike. At the top was written: "The Spell Aunt Anne Told Me.–December 24, 1793."
And then came the spell:–
"Hear, Oh badge of Arden's house,
The spell my little age allows;
Arden speaks it without fear,
Badge of Arden's house, draw near,
Make me brave and kind and wise,
And show me where the treasure lies."
"To be said," the paper went on, "at sun-setting by a Lord Arden between the completion of his ninth and tenth years. But it is all folly and not to be believed."
"This is it, right enough," said Edred. "Come on, let's get out of this." They turned to go, and as they did so something moved in the corner of the library–something little, and they could not see its shape.
Neither drew free breath again till they were out of the house, and out of the garden, and out of the castle, and on the wide, thymy downs, with the blue sky above, where the skylarks sang, and there was the sweet, fresh scent of the seaweed and the bean-fields.
"Oh," said Elfrida, then, "I am so glad it's not at midnight you've got to say the spell. You'd be too frightened."
"I shouldn't," said Edred, very pale and walking quickly away from the castle. "I should say it just the same if it was midnight." And he very nearly believed what he said.
Elfrida it was who had picked up the paper that Edred had dropped when that thing moved in the corner. She still held it fast.
"I expect it was only a rat or something," said Edred, his heart beating nineteen to the dozen, as they say in Kent and elsewhere.
"Oh, yes," said Elfrida, whose lips were trembling a little; "I'm sure it was only a rat or something."
When they got to the top of Arden Knoll there was no sign of sunset. There was time, therefore, to pull oneself together, to listen to the skylarks, and to smell the bean-flowers, and to wonder how one could have been such a duffer as to be scared by a "rat or something." Also there were some bits of sandwich and crumbled cake, despised at dinner-time, but now, somehow, tasting quite different. These helped to pass the time till the sun almost seemed to rest on a brown shoulder of the downs, that looked as though it were shrugging itself up to meet the round red ball that the evening mists had made of the sun.
The children had not spoken for several minutes. Their four eyes were fixed on the sun, and as the edge of it seemed to flatten itself against the hill-shoulder Elfrida whispered, "Now!" and gave her brother the paper.
They had read the spell so often, as they sat there in the waning light, that both knew it by heart, so there was no need for Edred to read it. And that was lucky, for in that thick, pink light the faint ink hardly showed at all on the yellowy paper.
Edred stood up.
"Now!" said Elfrida, again. "Say it now." And Edred said, quite out loud and in a pleasant sort of sing-song, such as he was accustomed to use at school when reciting the stirring ballads of the late Lord Macaulay, or the moving tale of the boy on the burning deck:–
"'Hear, Oh badge of Arden's house,
The spell my little age allows;
Arden speaks it without fear,
Badge of Arden's house, draw near,
Make me brave and kind and wise,
And show me where the treasure lies.'"
He said it slowly and carefully, his sister eagerly listening, ready to correct him if he said a word wrong. But he did not.
"Where the treasure lies," he ended, and the great silence of the downs seemed to rush in like a wave to fill the space which his voice had filled.
And nothing else happened at all. A flush of pink from the sun-setting spread over the downs, the grass-stems showed up thin and distinct, the skylarks had ceased to sing, but the scent of the bean-flowers and the seaweed was stronger than ever. And nothing happened till Edred cried out, "What's that?" For close to his foot something moved, not quickly or suddenly so as to startle, but very gently, very quietly, very unmistakably–something that glittered goldenly in the pink, diffused light of the sun-setting.
"Why," said Elfrida stooping, "why, it's—"