The House of Arden/Chapter 13

The King came slowly on a great black horse, riding between the green trees. He himself wore white and green like the May-bushes, and so did the gracious lady who rode beside him on a white horse, whose long tail almost swept the ground and whose long mane fluttered in the breeze like a tattered banner.

The lady had a fine face—proud and smiling—and as her brave eyes met the King's even the children could see that for the time at least, she and the King were all the world to each other. They saw that in the brief moment when, in the whirl of the ringed dance, their eyes were turned the way by which the King came with his Queen.

"I wish I didn't know so much history," gasped Elfrida through the quick music. "It's dreadful to know that her head—" She broke off in obedience to an imperative twitch of Richard's hand on hers.

"Don't!" he said. "I have not to think. And I've heard that history's all lies. Perhaps they'll always be happy like they are now. The only way to enjoy the past is not to think of the future—the past's future, I mean—and I've got something else to say to you presently," he added rather sternly.

The ring broke up into an elaborate figure. The children found themselves fingering the coloured ribbons that hung from the Maypole that was the centre of their dance, twining, intertwining, handing on the streamers to other small, competent fingers. In and out, in and out—a most complicated dance. It was pleasant to find that one's feet knew it, though one's brain could not have foreseen, any more than it could have remembered, how the figures went. There were two rings round the Maypole—the inner ring, where Edred and Elfrida were, of noble children in very fine clothes, and the outer ring, of village children in clothes less fine but quite as pretty. Music from a band of musicians on a raised platform decked with May-boughs and swinging cowslip balls inspired the dancers. The King and Queen had reined up their horses and watched the play, well pleased.

And suddenly the dance ended and the children, formed into line, were saluting the royal onlookers.

"A fair dance and footed right featly," said the King in a great, jolly voice. "Now get you wind, my merry men all, and give us a song for the honour of the May Queen and of my dear lady here."

There was whispering and discussion. Then Richard Arden stepped out in front of the group of green-clad noble children.

"With a willing heart, my liege," he said, "but first a song of the King's good Majesty."

And with that all the children began to sing—

    "The hunt is up, the hunt is up,
       And it is well-nigh day,
     And Harry our King is gone a-hunting
       To bring his deer to bay."

It is a rousing tune, and it was only afterwards that Edred and Elfrida were surprised to find that they knew it quite well.

But even while they were singing Elfrida was turning over in her mind the old question, Could anything they did have any effect on the past? It seemed impossible that it should not be so. If one could get a word alone with that happy, stately lady on the white horse, if one could warn her, could help somehow! The thought of the bare scaffold and the black block came to Elfrida so strongly that she almost thought she saw them darkling among the swayed, sun-dappled leaves of the greenwood.

Somebody was pulling at her green skirt. An old woman in a cap that fitted tightly and hid all her hair—an old woman who was saying, "Go to her! go!" and pushing her forward. Some one else put a big bunch of wild flowers into her hand, and this person also pushed her forward. And forward she had to go, quite alone, the nosegay in her hand, across the open space of greensward under the eyes of several hundreds of people, all in their best clothes and all watching her.

She went on till she came to the spot where the King and Queen were, and then she paused and dropped two curtsies, one to each of them. Then, quite without meaning to do it, she found herself saying—

    "May-day! May-day!
     This is the happy play day!
     All the woods with flowers are gay,
     Lords and ladies, come and play!
     Lords and ladies, rich and poor,
     Come to the wild woods' open door!
     Hinds and yeomen, Queen and King,
     Come do honour to the Spring!
     And join us in our merrymaking."

And when she had said that she made two more nice little curtsies and handed up the flowers to the Queen.

"If we had known your Majesties' purpose," said a tall, narrow-faced man in a long gown, "your Majesties had had another than this rustic welcome."

"Our purpose," said the King, "was to surprise you. The Earl of Arden, you say, is hence?"

"His son and daughter are here to do homage to your Highness," said the gowned man, and then Elfrida saw that Edred was beside her.

"Hither, lad," said the King, and reaching down a hand caught Edred's. "Your foot on mine," said his Majesty. "So!" and he swung Edred up on to the saddle in front of him. Elfrida drew nearer to the white horse as the Queen beckoned her, and the Queen stooped low over her saddle to ask her name. Now was the moment that Elfrida had wished for, now was the chance, if ever, to warn the Queen.

"Elfrida Arden's my name," she said. "Your Majesty, may I say something?"

"Say on," said the Queen, raising fine eyebrows, but smiling too.

"I should like to come quite close and whisper," said Elfrida stoutly.

"Thou'rt a bold lass," said the Queen, but she stooped still lower.

"I want to warn you," said Elfrida, quickly whispering, "and don't not pay attention because I'm only a little girl. I know. You may think I don't know, but I do. I want to warn you—"

"Already once, this morning I have been warned," said the Queen. "What croaking voices for May-day!"

"Who warned you, your Majesty?"

"An old hag who came to my chamber in spite of my maids, said she had a May charm to keep my looks and my lord's love."

"What was the charm?" Elfrida asked eagerly, forgetting to say "Majesty" again.

"It was quite simple," said the Queen. "I was to keep my looks and my love so long as I never dropped a kerchief. But if I dropped a kerchief I should lose more than my looks and my love; she said I should lose my head,"—the Queen laughed low,—"within certain days from the dropping of that kerchief—this head you see here;" she laughed again.

"Don't, oh, don't!" said Elfrida. "Nineteen days, that's the warning—I do hope it'll do some good. I do like you, dear Queen. You are so strong and splendid. I would like to be like you when I grow up."

The Queen's fine face looked troubled.

"Please Heaven, thou'lt be better than I," she said, stooping lower still from her horse; Elfrida standing on tip-toe, she kissed her.

"Oh, do be careful," said Elfrida. "Your darling head!" and the Queen kissed her again.

Then a noise rather like bagpipes rose shrill and sudden, and all drew back, making room for the rustic maids and swains to tread the country dance. Other instruments joined in, and suddenly the King cried, "A merry tune that calls to the feet. Come, my sweeting, shall we tread a measure with the rest?" So down they came from their horses, King and Queen, and led the country dance, laughing and gay as any country lad and lass.

Elfrida could have cried. It seemed such a pity that everybody should not always be good and happy, as everybody looked to-day.

The King had sprung from his horse with Edred in his arms, and now he and his sister drew back towards Cousin Richard.

"How pretty it all is!" said Edred. "I should like to stay here for ever."

"If I were you," said Richard, very disagreeably indeed, "I would not stay here an hour."

"Why? Is it dangerous? Will they cut our heads off?"

"Not that I know of," said Cousin Richard, still thoroughly disagreeable. "I wasn't thinking about your heads. There are more important things than your heads in the world, I should think."

"Not so very much more," said Elfrida meekly,—"to us, I mean. And what are you so cross about?"

"I should have thought," Richard was beginning, when the old woman who told Elfrida to go forward with the nosegay of ceremony sidled up to them.

"Into the woods, my children," she whispered quickly, "into the woods. In a moment the Queen will burst into tears, and the King will have scant kindness for those whose warnings have set his Queen to weeping."

They backed into the bushes, and the green leaves closed behind the four.

"Quick!" said the witch; "this way." They followed her through the wood under oaks and yew-trees, pressing through hazels and chestnuts to a path.

"Now run!" she said, and herself led the way nimbly enough for one of her great age. Their run brought them to a thinning of the wood—then out of it—on to the downs, whence they could see Arden Castle and its moat, and the sea.

"Now," the old woman said, "mark well the spot where the moat stream rises. It is there that the smugglers' cave was, when Betty Lovell foretold the landing of the French."

"Why," said Edred and Elfrida, "you're the witch again! You're Betty Lovell!"

"Who else?" said the old woman. "Now, call on the Mouldiwarp and hasten back to your own time. For the King will raise the country against the child who has made his sweeting to shed tears. And she will tell him, she keeps nothing from him, and . . . yet—"

"She won't tell him about the kerchief?"

"She will, and when she drops it on that other May-day at Greenwich he will remember. Come, call your Mouldiwarp and haste away."

"But we've only just come," said Edred, "and what's Elfrida been up to?"

"Oh bother!" said Elfrida. "I want to know what Richard meant about our heads not being important."

"Your heads will be most important if you wait here much longer!" said the witch sharply. "Come, shall I call the Mouldiwarp, or will you?"

"You do," said Elfrida. "I say, Dicky, what did you mean? Do tell us—there's a dear."

Betty Lovell was tearing up the short turf in patches, and pulling the lumps of chalk from under it.

"Help me," she cried, "or I shan't be in time!" So they all helped.

"Couldn't Dick go with us—if we have to go?" said Elfrida suddenly.

"No," said Richard, "I'm not going to—so there!"

"Why?" Elfrida gasped, tugging at a great piece of chalk.

"Because I shan't."

"Then tell us what you meant before the Mouldiwarp comes."

"You can't," said a little voice, "because it's come now."

Every one sat back on its heels, and watched where out of the earth the white Mouldiwarp was squeezing itself between two blocks of chalk, into the sunlight.

"Why, I hadn't said any poetry," said Elfrida.

"I hadn't made the triangle and the arch," said old Betty Lovell. "Well, if ever I did!"

"I've been here," said the mole, looking round with something astonishingly like a smile of triumph, "all the time. Why shouldn't I go where I do please, nows and again? Why should I allus wait on your bidding—eh?" it asked a little pettishly.

"No reason at all," said Elfrida kindly; "and now, dear, dear Mouldiwarp, please take us away."

A confused sound of shouting mixed with the barking of dogs hurried her words a little.

"The hunt is up," said the old witch-nurse.

"I don't hold with hunting," said the Mouldiwarp hastily, "nor yet with dogs. I never could abide dogs, drat the nasty, noisy, toothy things! Here, come inside."

"Inside where?" said Edred.

"Inside my house," said the mole.

And then, whether they all got smaller or whether the crack in the chalk got bigger they never quite knew, but they found themselves walking that crack one by one. Only Elfrida got hold of Richard's hand and held it fast, though he wriggled and twisted to get it free.

"I'm not going back to your own times with you," he said. "I'll go my own way."

"Where to?" said Elfrida.

"To wherever I choose," said Richard savagely, and regained possession of his own hand. It was too late—the chalk had closed over them all.

As the chalk had closed so thoroughly that not a gleam of daylight could be seen, you might have expected the air they had to breathe to be close and stuffy. Not a bit of it! Coming into the Mouldiwarp's house out of the May sunshine was like coming out of a human house into the freshness of a May night. But it was darker than any night that ever was. Elfrida got hold of Edred's hand and then of Richard's. She always tried to remember what she was told, and the Mouldiwarp had said, "Always hold hands when there's magic about."

Richard let his hand be taken, but he said, quite sternly, "You understand I mean what I say: I won't go back to their times with them."

"You were much nicer in James the First's time," said Elfrida.

Then a sound like thunder shook the earth overhead, an almost deafening noise that made them thrill and hold each other very tight.

"It's only the King's horses and the King's men hunting after you," said the Mouldiwarp cheerfully. "Now I'll go and make a white clock for you to go home on. You set where you be, and don't touch nothing till I be come back again."

Left alone in the fresh, deep darkness, Elfrida persisted in her questions.

"Why don't you want to come with us to our times?"

"I hate your times. They're ugly, they're cruel," said Richard.

"They don't cut your head off for nothing anyhow in our times," said Edred, "and shut you up in the Tower."

"They do worse things," Richard said. "I know. They make people work fourteen hours a day for nine shillings a week, so that they never have enough to eat or wear, and no time to sleep or to be happy in. They won't give people food or clothes, or let them work to get them; and then they put the people in prison if they take enough to keep them alive. They let people get horrid diseases, till their jaws drop off, so as to have a particular kind of china. Women have to go out to work instead of looking after their babies, and the little girl that's left in charge drops the baby and it's crippled for life. Oh! I know. I won't go back with you. You might keep me there for ever." He shuddered.

"I wouldn't. And I can't help about people working, and not enough money and that," said Edred.

"If I were Lord Arden," said Richard, through the darkness, "I'd make a vow, and I'd keep it too, never to have a day's holiday or do a single thing I liked till all those things were stopped. But in your time nobody cares."

"It's not true," said Elfrida; "we do care—when we know about it. Only we can't do anything."

"I am Lord Arden," said Edred, "and when I grow up I'll do what you say. I shall be in the House of Lords, I think, and of course the House of Lords would have to pay attention to me when I said things. I'll remember everything you say, and tell them about it."

"You're not grown up yet," said Richard, "and your father's Lord Arden, not you."

"Father's dead, you know," said Elfrida, in a hushed voice.

"How do you know?" asked Richard.

"There was a letter—"

"Do you think I'd trust a letter?" Richard asked indignantly. "If I hadn't seen my daddy lying dead, do you think I'd believe it? Not till I'd gone back and seen how he died, and where, and had vengeance on the man who'd killed him."

"But he wasn't killed."

"How do you know? You've been hunting for the beastly treasure, and never even tried to go back to the time when he was alive—such a little time ago—and find out what really did happen to him."

"I didn't know we could," said Elfrida, choking. "And even if we could, it wouldn't be right, would it? Aunt Edith said he was in heaven. We couldn't go there, you know. It isn't like history—it's all different."

"Well, then," said Richard, "I shall have to tell you. You know, I rather took a fancy to you two kids that Gunpowder Plot time; and after you'd gone back to your own times asked Betty Lovell who you were, and she said you were Lord Arden. So the next time I wanted to get away from—from where I was—I gave orders to be taken to Lord Arden. And it—"

"Come along, do, dear," said the sudden voice of the Mouldiwarp. "The clock's all ready."

A soft light was pressing against their eyes—growing, growing. They saw now that they were in a great chalk cave—the smugglers' cave, Edred had hardly a doubt. And in the middle of its floor of smooth sand was a great clock-face—figures and hands and all—made of softly gleaming pearls set in ivory. Light seemed to flow from this, and to be reflected back on it by the white chalk walls. It was the most beautiful piece of jeweller's work that the children—or, I imagine, any one else—had ever seen.

"Sit on the minute hand," said the Mouldiwarp, "and home you go."

"But I can't go," said Edred grimly, "till I've heard what Richard was saying."

"You'll be caught, then, by the King and his soldiers," said the witch.

"I must risk that," said Edred quite quietly. "I will not go near the white clock till Richard has told me what he means."

"I'll give him one minute," said the Mouldiwarp crossly, "not no more than that. I'm sick to death of it, so I am."

"Oh, don't be cross," said Elfrida.

"I bain't," said the Mouldiwarp, "not under my fur. It's this Chop-and-change, I-will-and-I-won't as makes me so worritable."

"Tell me, what did you mean—about my father?" Edred said again.

"I tried to find you—I asked for Lord Arden. What I found wasn't you—it was your father. And the time was your time, July, 1908."

"WHAT!" cried Edred and Elfrida together.

"Your father—he's alive—don't you understand? And you've been bothering about finding treasure instead of finding him."

"Daddy—alive!" Elfrida clung to her brother. "Oh, it's not right, mixing him up with magic and things. Oh, you're cruel—I hate you! I know well enough I shall never see my daddy again."

"You will if you aren't little cowards as well as little duffers," said Richard scornfully. "You go and find him, that's what you've got to do. So long!"

And with that, before the Mouldiwarp or the nurse could interfere, he had leapt on to the long pearl and ivory minute hand of the clock and said, "Home!" just as duchesses (and other people) do to their coachmen (or footmen).

And before anything could be done the hands of the clock began to go round, slowly at first, then faster and faster, till at last they went so fast that they became quite invisible. The ivory and pearl figures of the clock could still be seen on the sand of the cave.

Edred and Elfrida, still clinging together, turned appealing eyes to the Mouldiwarp. They expected it to be very angry indeed, instead of which it seemed to be smiling. (Did you ever see a white mole smile? No? But then, perhaps you have never seen a white mole, and you cannot see a smile without seeing the smiler, except of course in the case of Cheshire cats.)

"He's a bold boy, a brave boy," said the witch.

"Ah!" said the Mouldiwarp, "he be summat like an Arden, he be."

Edred detached himself from Elfrida and stiffened with a resolve to show the Mouldiwarp that he too was not so unlike an Arden as it had too hastily supposed.

"Can't we get home?" Elfrida asked timidly. "Can't you make us another white clock, or something?"

"Waste not, want not," said the mole. "Always wear out your old clocks afore you buys new 'uns. Soon's he gets off the hand the clock'll stop; then you can get on it and go safe home."

"But suppose the King finds us?" said Elfrida.

"He shan't," said Betty Lovell. "You open the chalky door, Mouldy, my love, and I'll keep the King quiet till the young people's gone home."

"They'll duck you for a witch," said the Mouldiwarp, and it did not seem to mind the familiar way in which Betty spoke to it.

"Well, it's a warm day," said Betty; "by the time they get me to the pond you'll be safe away. And the water'll be nice and cool."

"Oh, no," said Edred and Elfrida together. "You'll be drowned." And Edred added, "I couldn't allow that."

"Bless your silly little hearts," said the Mouldiwarp, "she won't drown. She'll just get home by the back door, that's all. There's a door at the bottom of every pond, if you can only find it."

So Betty Lovell went out through the chalk to meet the anger of the King, with two kisses on her cheeks.

And suddenly there was the pearl and ivory clock again, all complete, minute hand and hour hand and second hand.

Edred and Elfrida sat down on the minute hand, and before the Mouldiwarp could open its long, narrow mouth to say a word Edred called out in a firm voice, "Take us to where Daddy is;" for he had learned from Richard that white clocks can be ordered about.

And the minute hand of pearl and ivory began to move, faster and faster and faster, till if there had been any one to look at it, it would have been invisible.

But there wasn't any one to look at it, for the Mouldiwarp had leapt on to the hour hand at the last moment, and was hanging on there by all its claws.