The House of Arden/Chapter 10



Perhaps I had better begin this chapter by telling you exactly how Edred "got even with old Parrot-nose," as he put it. You will remember that Master Parados was the Ardens' tutor in the time of King James I., and that it was through his eavesdropping and tale-bearing that Edred and Elfrida were imprisoned in the Tower of London. There was very little time in which to get even with any one, and, of course, getting even with people is not really at all a proper thing to do. Yet Edred did it.

Edred had got Elfrida out of the Tower just as Lady Nithsdale got her lord out, and now he and she and Cousin Richard were at Arden House, in Soho, and the old nurse, who was also, astonishingly, the old witch, had said that there was no time to be lost.

"But I must be even with old Parrot-nose," said Edred. He was feeling awfully brave and splendid inside, because of the way he had planned and carried out the Nithsdale rescue of Elfrida; and also he felt that he could not bear to go back to his own times without somehow marking his feelings about Mr. Parados.

As to how it was to be done. Cousin Richard was not to have anything to do with it, because while they would be whisked away by some white road that the Mouldiwarp would find for them when they called it to their help by spoken poetry, he would be left behind to bear the blame of everything. This Edred and Elfrida decided in a quick-whispered conference, but Cousin Dick wanted to know what they were talking about, and why he wasn't to help in what he had wanted to do these four years.

"If we tell you," said Elfrida, "you won't believe us."

"You might at least make the trial," said Cousin Richard.

So they told him, and though they were as quick as possible, the story took some time to tell. Richard Arden listened intently. When the tale was told he said nothing.

"You don't believe it," said Edred; "I knew you wouldn't. Well, it doesn't matter. What can we do to pay out old Parrot-nose?"

"I don't like it," said Richard suddenly; "it's never been like this before. It makes it seem not real. It's only a dream really, I suppose. And I always believed so that it wasn't."

"I don't understand a word you're saying," said Edred, "but what we've been saying's true anyhow. Look here." He darted to the dark corner of the parlour, where he had hidden the camera behind a curtain. "Look here, I bet you haven't got anything like this. It comes from our times, ever so far on in history—out of the times where we come from—the times that haven't happened yet—at least now we're here they haven't happened yet. You don't know what it is. It's a machine for the sun to make pictures with."

"Oh, stow that," said Richard wearily. "I know now it's all a silly dream. But it's not worth while trying to dream that I don't know a Kodak when I see it. That's a Brownie!"

There was a pause, full of speechless amazement.

Then—"If you've dreamed about our times," said Elfrida, "you might believe in us dreaming about yours. Did you dream of anything except Brownies? Did you ever dream of fine carriages, fine boats, and—"

"Don't talk as if I were a baby," Richard interrupted. "I know all about railways and steamboats, and the Hippodrome and the Crystal Palace. I know Kent made 615 against Derbyshire last Thursday. Now, then—"

"But I say. Do tell us—"

"I sha'n't tell you anything more. But I'll help you to get even with Parrot-nose. I don't care if I am left here after you go," said Richard. "Let's shovel all the snow off the roof into his room, and take our chance."

Edred and Elfrida would have liked something more subtle, but there was no time to think of anything.

"I know where there are shovels," said Richard, "if they've not got mixed up in the dream."

"I say," said Edred slowly, "I'd like to write that down about Kent, and see if it's right afterwards."

There was a quill sticking out of the pewter inkstand on the table where they were used to do their lessons. But no paper.

"Here, hurry up," said Cousin Richard, and pulled a paper out of the front of his doublet. "I'll write it, shall I?"

He wrote, and gave the thing screwed up to Edred, who put it in the front of his doublet.

Then the three went up on to the roof, groped among the snow till they found the edge of the skylight that was the tutor's window—for learning was lodged in the attic at Arden House. They broke the thick glass with the edges of their spades, and shovelled in the thick, white snow—shovelled all the harder for the shouts and angry words that presently sounded below them. Then, when Mr. Parados came angrily up on to the roof, shivering and stumbling among the snow, they slipped behind the chimney-stack, and so got back to the trap-door before he did, and shut it and bolted it, and said "A-ha!" underneath it, and went away—locking his room door as they passed, and leaving him to stand there on the roof and shout for help from the street below, or else to drop through his broken skylight into the heaped snow in his room. He was quite free, and could do whichever he chose.

They never knew which he did choose, and you will never know either.

And then Richard was sent to bed by the old witch nurse, and went.

And the Mouldiwarp was summoned, and insisted that the only way back to their own times was by jumping off the roof. And, of course, Mr. Parados was on the roof, which made all the difference. And the soldiers of the guard were knocking at the front door with the butts of their pistols.

"But we can't go on to the roof," said Edred and explained about Mr. Parados.

"Humph," said the Mouldiwarp, "that's terr'ble unfortunate, that is. Well, the top landing window will have to do, that's all. Where's the other child?"

"Gone to bed," said the witch-nurse shortly.

"Te-he!" chuckled the Mouldiwarp. "Some people's too clever by half. Think of you not having found that out, and you a witch too. Te-he!"

And all the time the soldiers were hammering away like mad at the front door.

Elfrida caught the Mouldiwarp and the nurse caught Edred's hand, and the four raced up the stairs to the very top landing, where there was a little window at the very end. The air was keen and cold. The window opened difficultly, and when it was opened the air was much colder than before.

"Now, then, out with you—ladies first," cried the Mouldiwarp.

"You don't really mean," said Elfrida,—"you can't mean that we're to jump out into—into nothing?"

"I mean you're to jump out right enough," said the Mouldiwarp. "What you're to jump into's any pair of shoes—and it's my look-out, anyway."

"It's ours a little too, isn't it?" said Elfrida timidly, and her teeth were chattering; she always said afterwards that it was with cold.

"Then get along home your way," said the Mouldiwarp, beginning to vanish.

"Oh, don't! Don't go!" Elfrida cried, and the pounding on the door downstairs got louder and louder.

"If I don't then you must," said the Mouldiwarp testily. But it stopped vanishing.

"Put me down," it said. "Put me down and jump, for goodness' sake!"

She put it down.

Suddenly the nurse caught Elfrida in her arms and kissed her many times.

"Farewell, my honey love," she said. "All partings are not for ever, else I could scarce let thee go. Now, climb up; set thy foot here on the beam, now thy knee on the sill. So—jump!"

Elfrida crouched on the window-ledge, where the snow lay thick and crisp. It was very, very cold. Have you ever had to jump out of a top-floor window into the dark when it was snowing heavily? If so, you will remember how much courage it needed. Elfrida set her teeth, looking down into black nothing dotted with snowflakes. Then she looked back into a black passage, lighted only by the rushlight the nurse carried.

"Edred'll be all right?" she asked. "You're sure he'll jump all right?"

"Of course I shall," said Edred, in his new voice. "Here, let me go first, to show you I'm not a coward."

Of course, Elfrida instantly jumped. And next moment Edred jumped too.

It was a horrible moment because, however much you trusted the Mouldiwarp, you could not in an instant forget what you had been taught all your life—that if you jumped out of top-floor windows you would certainly be smashed to pieces on the stones below. To remember this and, remembering it, to jump clear, is a very brave deed. And brave deeds, sooner or later, have their reward.

The brave deed of Edred and Elfrida received its reward sooner. As Elfrida jumped she saw the snowflakes gather and thicken into a cloud beneath her. The cloud was not the sort that lets you through, either. It was solid and soft as piled eiderdown feathers; she knew this as it rose up and caught her, or as she fell on it—she never knew which. Next moment Edred was beside her, and the white, downy softness was shaping itself round and under them into the form of a seat—a back, arms, and place for the feet to rest.

"It's—what's that in your hand?" Elfrida asked.

"Reins," said Edred, with certainty. "White reins. It's a carriage."

It was—a carriage made of white snowflakes—the snowflakes that were warm and soft as feathers. There were white, soft carriage-rugs that curled round and tucked themselves in entirely of their own accord. The reins were of snowflakes, joined together by some magic weaving, and warm and soft as white velvet. And the horses!

"There aren't any horses; they're swans—white swans!" cried Elfrida, and the voice of the Mouldiwarp, behind and above, cried softly, "All white things obey me."

Edred knew how to drive. And now he could not resist the temptation to drive the six white swans round to the front of the house and to swoop down, passing just over the heads of the soldiers of the guard who were still. earnestly pounding at the door of Arden House, and yelled to them, "Ha, ha! Sold again!" Which seemed to startle them very much. Then he wheeled the swans round and drove quickly through the air along the way which he knew quite well, without being told, to be the right way. And as the snow-carriage wheeled, both Edred and Elfrida had a strange, sudden vision of another smaller snow-carriage, drawn by two swans only, that circled above theirs and vanished in the deep dark of the sky, giving them an odd, tantalising glimpse of a face they knew and yet couldn't remember distinctly enough to give a name to the owner of it.

Then the swans spread their white, mighty wings to the air, and strained with their long, strong necks against their collars, and the snow equipage streamed out of London like a slender white scarf driven along in the wind. And London was left behind, and the snowstorm, and soon the dark blue of the sky was over them, jewelled with the quiet silver of watchful stars, and the deeper dark of the Kentish county lay below, jewelled with the quiet gold from the windows of farms already half-asleep, and the air that rushed past their faces as they went was no longer cold, but soft as June air is, and Elfrida always declared afterwards that she could smell white lilies all the way.

So across the darkened counties they went, and the ride was more wonderful than any ride they had ever had before or would ever have again.

All too soon the swans hung, poised on long, level wings, outside the window of a tower in Arden Castle—a tower they did not know.

But though they did not know the tower, it was quite plain that they were meant to get in at the window of it.

"Dear swans," said Elfrida, who had been thinking as she sat clutching her Brownie, "can't we stay in your carriage till it's light? We do so want to take a photograph of the castle."

The swans shook their white, flat, snake-like heads, just as though they understood. And there was the open window, evidently waiting to welcome the children.

So they got out—very much against their wills. And there they were in the dark room of the tower, and it was very cold.

But before they had time to begin to understand how cold it was, and how comfortable they were likely to be for the rest of the night, six swans' heads appeared at the window and said something.

"Oh," said Elfrida, "I do wish we'd learned Swanish instead of French at school!"

But it did not matter. The next moment the swans' heads ducked and reappeared, holding in their beaks the soft, fluffy, white rugs that had kept the children so warm in the snow-carriage. The swans pushed the rugs through the window with their strong, white wings, and made some more remarks in swan language.

"Oh, thank you!" said the children. "Goodbye, goodbye."

Then there was the rush of wide-going wings, and the children, tired out, cuddled on the floor, wrapped in the soft rugs.

The happiest kind of dreams were tucked up in that coverlet, and it seemed hardly any time at all before the children woke to find the winter sunshine looking in at them through the narrow windows of the tower.

Elfrida jumped up and threw off the silver-white, downy-soft coverlet. It instantly tore itself into five pieces of different shapes and sizes, and these screwed themselves up, and drew themselves in, and blew themselves out, and turned before her very eyes into a silver basin of warm water, a piece of lily-scented soap, a towel, a silver comb, and an ivory tooth-brush.

"Well!" said Elfrida. When she had finished her simple toilet, the basin, soap, towel, tooth-brush, and comb ran together like globules of quicksilver, made a curious tousled lump of themselves, and straightened out into the fluffy coverlet again.

"Well!" said Elfrida again. Then she woke Edred, and his coverlet played the same clever and pretty trick for him.

And when the children started to go down with the Brownie and take the photographs of the castle, the shining coverlets jumped up into two white furry coats, such as the very affluent might wear when they went a-motoring—if the very affluent ever thought of anything so pretty. And one of the coats came politely to the side of each child, holding out its arms as if it were saying—

"Do, please, oblige me by putting me on."

Which, of course, both the children did.

They crept down the corkscrew stairs, and through a heavy door that opened under the arch of the great gateway. The great gate was open, and on the step of the door opposite to the one by which they had come out a soldier sat. He held his helmet between his knees, and was scouring it with sand and whistling as he scoured. He touched his forehead with his sandy hand, but did not get up.

"You're early afield," he said, and went on rubbing the sand on the helmet.

"It's such a pretty day," said Elfrida. "May we go out?"

"And welcome," said the man simply; "but go not beyond the twelve acre, for fear of rough folk and Egyptians. And go not far. But breakfast will have a strong voice to call you back."

They went out, and instead of stepping straight on to the turf of the downs, their stout shoes struck echoing notes from the wooden planks of a bridge.

"It's a drawbridge," said Edred, in tones of awe; "and there's a moat, look—and it's covered with cat-ice at the edges."

There was, and it was. And at the moat's far edge, their feet fast in the cat-ice, were reeds and sedge—brown and yellow and dried, that rustled and whispered as a wild duck flew out of them.

"How lovely!" said Elfrida. "I do wish Arden had moat now."

"If we found out where the water comes from," said Edred practically, "we might get the moat back when we'd found the treasure."

So when they crossed the moat, and felt the frozen, dew crackle under their feet as they trod the grass, they set out, before photographing the castle, to find out where the moat water came from.

The moat, they found, was fed by a stream that came across the field from Arden Knoll and entered the moat at the north-east corner, leaving it at the corner that was in the south-west. They followed the stream, and it was not till they had got quite into the middle of the field, and well away from the castle, that they saw how very beautiful the castle really was. It was quite perfect—no crumbled arches, no broken pillars, no shattered, battered walls.

"Oh," said Edred, "how beautiful it is! How glad I am that we've got a castle like this!"

"Our castle isn't like this," said Elfrida.

"No; but it shall be, when we've found the treasure. You've got the two film rolls all right?"

"Yes," said Elfrida, who had got them in a great unwieldy pocket that was hanging and banging against her legs under the full skirt. "Oh, look! Where's the river? It stops short!"

It certainly seemed to. They were walking beside it, and it ran swiftly—looking like a steel-grey ribbon on the green cloth of the field—and half-way across the field it did stop short; there wasn't any more of it—as though the ribbon had been snipped off by a giant pair of scissors, and the rest of it rolled up and put by safely somewhere out of the way.

"My hat!" said Edred; "it does stop short, and no mistake." Curiosity pricked him, and he started running. They both ran. They ran to the spot where the giant scissors seemed to have snipped off the stream, and when they got there they found that the stream seemed to have got tired of running above ground, and without any warning at all, any sloping of its bed, or any deepening of its banks, plunged straight down into the earth through a hole not eight feet across.

They stood fascinated, watching the water as it shot over the edge of the hole, like a steel band on a driving-wheel, smooth and shining, and moving so swiftly that it hardly seemed to move at all. It was Edred who roused himself to say, "I could watch it for ever. But we'll have it back; we'll have it back. Come along; let's go and see where it comes from."

"Let's photograph this place first," said Elfrida, "so as to know, you know." And the Brownie clicked twice.

Then they retraced their steps beside the stream and round two sides of the moat and across the field to Arden Knoll, and there—oh, wonderful to see!—the stream came straight out of the Knoll at the part where it joined on to the rest of the world—came out under a rough, low arch of stone that lay close against the very lip of the water.

"So that's where it came from and that's where it goes to," said Elfrida. "I wonder what became of it, and why it isn't at Arden now?"

"We'll bring it back," said Edred firmly,—"when we find the treasure."

And again the Brownie clicked.

"And we'll make the castle like it is now," said Elfrida. "Come on; let's photograph it."

So they went back, and they photographed the castle. They photographed it from the north and the south and the east and the west, and the north-east and the south-east, and the north-north-west—and all the rest of the points of the compass that I could easily tell you if I liked; but why be wearisome and instructive?

And they went back across the hollow-echoing drawbridge, and past the soldier, who had now polished his helmet to his complete satisfaction and was wearing it.

There was a brief and ardent conference on the drawbridge; the subject of it, breakfast. Edred wanted to stay; he was curious to see what sort of breakfast people had in the country in James the First's time, Elfrida wanted to get back to 1908, and the certainty of eggs and bacon.

"If we stay here we shall only be dragged into some new adventure," she urged, "I know we shall. I never in my life knew such a place as history for adventures to happen in. And I'm tired, besides. Oh, Edred, do come along!"

"I believe it's ducks," said Edred, and he sniffed questioningly; "it smells like onion stuffing."

"Stuff and nonsense," said Elfrida; "that's for dinner, most likely. I expect breakfast for us would be bread and water. You'd find we'd done something wrong, as likely as not. Oh, come along, do, before we get punished for it. Besides, don't you want to know whether what Cousin Richard said about the cricket was right?"

"Well, yes," said Edred, "and we can always come back here, can't we?"

"Of course we can," Elfrida said eagerly. "Oh, come on."

So they climbed up to the twisty-twiny, corkscrew staircase, and found the door of the room where they had slept under the wonderful white coverlets that now were coats. Then they stood still and looked at each other, with a sudden shock.

"How are we to get back?" was the unspoken question that trembled on each lip.

The magic white coats cuddled close round their necks. There was, somehow, comfort and confidence in the soft, friendly touch of that magic fur. When you are wearing that sort of coat, it is quite impossible to feel that everything will not come perfectly right the moment you really, earnestly, and thoroughly wish that it should come right.

"Our clothes," said Elfrida.

"Oh, yes, of course," said Edred "I was forgetting."

"You may as well go on forgetting," said his sister, "because the clothes aren't here. They're the other side of that twisty-twiny, inside-out, upside-down shakiness that turned the attic into the tower. I suppose the tower would turn back into the attic if we could only start that shaky upside-downness going—wrong way before, you know."

"I suppose it would," said Edred, stopping short, with his fingers between the buttons of his doublet. "Hallo! What's this?"

He pulled out a folded paper.

"It's the thing about cricket that Cousin Richard gave you. Don't bother about that now. I want to get back. I suppose we ought to make some poetry."

But Edred pulled out the paper and unfolded it.

"It might vanish, you know," he said, "or get stuck here, and when we got home we should find it gone when we came to look for it. Let's just see what he says Kent did make."

He straightened out the paper, looked at it, looked again, and held it out with a sudden arm's-length gesture.

"Look at that," he said. "If that's true, Richard has dreamed our times, and no mistake. And, what's more, he's brought things back here out of our times."

Elfrida took the paper and looked at it, and her mouth dropped open. "If it's true?" said she. "But it must be true!" The paper almost fell from her hand, for it was a bill from Gamage's for three ships' guns, a compass, and a half-dozen flags—and the bill was made out to Mr. R. D. Arden, 117, Laurie Grove, New Cross, London, S.E. On the other side was the pencilled record of the runs made by Kent the previous Thursday.

"I say," said Elfrida, and was going on to say I don't know what clever and interesting things, when she felt the fur coat creep and wriggle all through its soft length, and along its soft width, and no wriggle that ever was wriggled expressed so completely "Danger! danger! danger! You'd better get off while you can—while you can." A quite violent ruffling of the fur round the neck of her coat said, as plain as it could speak, "Don't stop to jaw. Go now—now—now!"

When you say a lady is a "true daughter of Eve" you mean that she is inquisitive. Elfrida was enough Eve's daughter to scurry to the window and look out.

A thrill ran right down her backbone and ended in an empty feeling at the ends of her fingers and feet.

"Soldiers!" she cried. "And they're after us—I know they are."

The fur coat knew it too, if knowledge can be expressed by wriggling.

"Oh, and they're pulling up the drawbridge! What for?" said Edred, who had come to the window too, "And, I say, doesn't the portcullis look guillotinish when it comes down like that?"

Through the window one looked straight down on to the drawbridge, and as the tower stuck out beyond the gate, its side window gave an excellent view of the slowly descending portcullis.

"I say," said Elfrida, "my fluffy coat says 'Go!' Doesn't yours?"

"It would if I'd listen to it," said Edred carelessly.

The soldiers were quite near now—so near that Elfrida could see how fierce they looked. And she knew that they were the same soldiers who had hammered so loud and so hard at the door of Arden House, in Soho. They must have ridden all night. So she screwed her mind up to make poetry, just as you screw your muscles up to jump a gate or run a hundred yards. And almost before she knew that she was screwing it up at all the screw had acted and she had screwed out a piece of Mouldiwarp poetry and was saying it aloud—

    "Dear Mouldiwarp, since Cousin Dick
      Buys his beautiful flags from Gamage's
    Take us away, and take us quick,
      Before the soldiers do us any damages."

And the moment she had said it, the white magic coats grew up and grew down and wrapped the children up as tight and as soft as ever a silkworm wrapped itself when it was tired of being a silkworm and entered into its cocoon, as the first step towards being a person with wings.

Can you imagine what it would be like to have lovely liquid sleep emptied on you by the warm tubful? That is what it felt like inside the white, wonderful cocoons. The children knew that the tower was turning wrong way up and inside out, but it didn't matter a bit. Sleep was raining down on them in magic showers—no; it was closing on them, closer and closer, nearer and nearer, soft, delicious layers of warm delight. A soft, humming sound was in their ears, like the sound of bees when you push through a bed of Canterbury bells, and the next thing that happened was that they came out of the past into the present with a sort of snap of light and a twist of sound. It was like coming out of a railway tunnel into daylight.

The magic coverlet-coat-cocoons had even saved them the trouble of changing into their own clothes, for they found that the stiff, heavy clothes had gone, and they were dressed in the little ordinary things that they had always been used to.

"And now," said Elfrida, "let's have another look at that Gamage paper, if it hasn't disappeared. I expect it has though."

But it hadn't.

"I should like to meet Dick again," said Edred, as they went downstairs. "He was much the jolliest boy I ever met."

"Perhaps we shall," Elfrida said hopefully. "You see he does come into our times. I expect that New Cross time he stayed quite a long while, like we did when we went to Gunpowder Plot times. Or we might go back there, a little later, when the Gunpower Plot has all died away and been forgotten."

"It isn't forgotten yet," said Edred, "and it's three hundred years ago. Now let's develop our films; I'm not at all sure about those films. You see, we took the films with us, and of course we've brought them back, but the picture that's on the films—we didn't take that with us. I shouldn't be a bit surprised if the films are all blank."

"It's very, very clever of you to think of it," said Elfrida respectfully; "but I do hope it's a perfectly silly idea of yours. Let's ask Mrs. Honeysett if we may use the old room she said used to be the still-room to develop them in. It'll be a ripping dark-room when the shutters are up."

"Course you may," said Mrs. Honeysett. "Yes; an' I'll carry you in a couple of pails of water. The floor's stone; so it won't matter if you do slop a bit. You pump, my lord, and I'll hold the pails."

"Why was that part of the house let to go all dirty and cobwebby?" asked Elfrida, when the hoarse voice of the pump had ceased to be heard.

"It's always been so," said Mrs. Honeysett. "I couldn't take upon me to clear up without Miss Edith's orders. Not but what my fingers itch to be at it with a broom and a scrubbing brush."

"But why?" Elfrida persisted.

"Oh, it's one of them old, ancient tales," said Mrs. Honeysett. "Old Beale could tell you, if any one could."

"We'll go down to old Beale's," said Edred decidedly, "as soon as we've developed our pictures of the castle—if there are any pictures," he added.

"You never can tell with them photo-machines, can you?" said Mrs. Honeysett sympathetically. "My husband's cousin's wife was took, with all her family, by her own back door, and when they come to wash out the picture it turned out they'd took the next door people's water-butt by mistake, owing to their billy goat jogging the young man's elbow that had got the camera. And it wasn't a bit like any of them."