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The House of Arden/Chapter 3


Edred crept back to his stool, and took his corner of the marble-backed book of Dr. Watts with fingers that trembled. If you are inclined to despise him, consider that it was his first real adventure. Even in ordinary life, and in the time he naturally lived in, nothing particularly thrilling had ever happened to happen to him until he became Lord Arden and explored Arden Castle. And now he and Elfrida had not only discovered a disused house and a wonderful garret with chests in it, but had been clothed by mysterious pigeon noises in clothes belonging to another age. But, you will say, pigeon noises can't clothe you in anything, whatever it belongs to. Well, that was just what Edred told himself at the time. And yet it was certain that they did. This sort of thing it was that made the whole business so mysterious. Further, he and his sister had managed somehow to go back a hundred years. He knew this quite well, though he had no evidence but that one sheet of newspaper. He felt it, as they say, in his bones. I don't know how it was, perhaps the air felt a hundred years younger. Shepherds and country people can tell the hour of night by the feel of the air. So perhaps very sensitive people can tell the century by much the same means. These, of course, would be the people to whom adventures in times past or present would be likely to happen. We must always consider what is likely, especially when we are reading stories about unusual things.

"I say," Edred whispered presently, "we've got back to 1807. That paper says so."

"I know," Elfrida whispered. So she must have had more of that like-shepherds-telling-the time-of-night feeling than even her brother.

"I wish I could remember what was happening in history in 1807," said Elfrida, "but we never get past Edward IV. We always have to go back to the Saxons because of the new girls."

"But we're not in history. We're at Arden," Edred said.

"We are in history. It'll be awful not even knowing who's king," said Elfrida; and then the stiff old lady looked up over very large spectacles with thick silver rims, and said—

"Silence!"

Presently she laid down the Times and got ink and paper—no envelopes—and began to write. She was finishing a letter, the large sheet was almost covered on one side. When she had covered it quite, she turned it round and began to write across it. She used a white goose-quill pen. The inkstand was of china, with gold scrolls and cupids and wreaths of roses painted on it. On one side was the ink-well, on the other a thing like a china pepper-pot, and in front a tray for the pens and sealing-wax to lie in. Both children now knew their unpleasant poem by heart; so they watched the old lady, who was grandmother to the children she supposed them to be. When she had finished writing she sprinkled some dust out of the pepper-pot over the letter to dry the ink. There was no blotting-paper to be seen. Then she folded the sheet, and sealed it with a silver seal from the pen-tray, and wrote the address on the outside. Then—

"Have you got your task?" she asked.

"Here it is," said Elfrida, holding up the book.

"No impudence, miss!" said the grandmother sternly. "You very well know that I mean, have you got it by rote yet? And you know, too, that you should say 'ma'am' whenever you address me."

"Yes, ma'am," said Elfrida; and this was taken to mean that she knew her task.

"Then come and say it. No, no; you know better than that. Feet in the first position, hands behind you, heads straight, and do not fidget with your feet."

So then first Elfrida and then Edred recited the melancholy verses.

"Now," said the old lady, "you may go and play in the garden."

"Mayn't we take your letter to the post?" Elfrida asked.

"Yes; but you are not to stay in the 'George' bar, mind, not even if Mrs. Skinner should invite you. Just hand her the letter and come out. Shut the door softly, and do not shuffle with your feet."

"Yes, ma'am," said Elfrida; and on that they got out.

"They'll find us out-bound to," said Edred; "we don't know a single thing about anything. I don't know where the 'George' is, or where to get a stamp, or anything."

"We must find some one we can trust, and tell them the truth," said Elfrida.

"There isn't any one," said Edred, "that I'd trust. You can't trust the sort of people who stick this sort of baby flummery round a chap's neck. He crumpled his starched frill with hot, angry fingers.

"Mine prickles all round, too," Elfrida reminded him, "and it's lower, and you get bigger as you go down, so it prickles more of me than yours does you."

"Let's go back to the attic and try and get back into our own time. I expect we just got in to the wrong door, don't you? Let's go now."

"Oh, no," said Elfrida. "How dreadfully dull! Why, we shall see all sorts of things, and be top in history for the rest of our lives. Let's go through with it."

"Do you remember which door it was—the attic, I mean?" Edred suddenly asked. "Was it the third on the left?"

"I don't know. But we can easily find it when we want it."

"I'd like to know now," said Edred obstinately. "You never know when you are going to want things. Mrs. Honeysett says you ought always to be able to lay your hand on anything you want the moment you do want it. I should like to be quite certain about being able to lay our hands on our own clothes. Suppose some one goes and tidies them up. You know what people are."

"All right," said Elfrida, "we'll go and tidy them up ourselves. It won't take a minute."

It would certainly not have taken five—if things had been as the children expected. They raced up the stairs to the corridor where the prints were.

"It's not the first door, I'm certain," said Edred, so they opened the second. But it was not that either. So then they tried all the doors in turn, even opening, at last, the first one of all. And it was not that, even. It was not any of them.

"We've come to the wrong corridor," said the boy.

"It's the only one," said the girl. And it was. For though they hunted all over the house, upstairs and downstairs, and tried every door, the door of the attic they could not find again. And what is more, when they came to count up, there were fifty-seven doors without it.

"Fifty-five, fifty-six, fifty-seven," said Elfrida, and ended in a sob,—"the door's gone! We shall have to stay here for ever and ever. Oh, I want auntie—I do, I do!

She sat down abruptly on a small green mat in front of the last door, which happened to be that of the kitchen.

Edred says he did not cry too. And if what he says is true, Elfrida's crying must have been louder than was usual with her; for the kitchen door opened, and the two children were caught up in two fat arms and hurried into a pleasant kitchen, where bright brass and copper pots hung on the walls, and between a large fire and a large meat screen a leg of mutton turned round and round with nobody to help it.

"Hold your noise," said the owner of the fat arms, who now proved to be a very stout woman in a chocolate-coloured print gown sprigged with blue roses. She had a large linen apron and a cap with flappy frills, and between the frills just such another good, kind, jolly face as Mrs. Honeysett's own. "Here, stop your mouths," she said, "or your granny'll be after you—to say nothing of Boney. Stop your crying, do, and see what cookie's got for you."

She opened a tin canister and picked out two lumps of brown stuff that looked like sand—about the size and shape of prunes they were.

"What's that?" Edred asked.

"Drabbit me," said the cook, "what a child it is! Not know sugar when he sees it! Well, well, Master Edred, what next, I should like to know?"

The children took the lumps and sucked them. They were of sugar, sure enough, but the sugar had a strong, coarse taste behind its sweetness, and if the children had really not been quite extra polite and kind they would have followed the promptings of Nature and—But, of course, they knew that this would be both disgusting and ungrateful. So they got the sugar down somehow, while cook beamed at them with a wide, kind smile between her cap-frills, and two hands, as big as little beefsteak puddings, on her hips.

"Now, no more crybabying," she said; "run along and play."

"We've got to take granny's letter to post," said Edred, "and we don't—"

"Cook," said Elfrida, on a sudden impulse, "can you keep a secret?"

"Can't I?" said the cook. "Haven't I kept the secret of how furmety's made, and Bakewell pies and all? There's no furmety to hold a candle to mine in this country, as well you know."

"We don't know anything," said Elfrida; "that's just it. And we daren't let granny know how much we don't know. Something's happened to us, so that we can't remember anything that happened more than an hour ago."

"Bless me," said the cook, "don't you remember old cookie giving you the baked apple-dumplings when you were sent to bed without your suppers a week come Thursday?"

"No," said Elfrida; "but I'm sure you did. Only what are we to do?"

"You're not deceiving poor cookie, are you now, like you did about the French soldiers being hid in the windmill, upsetting all the village like you did?"

"No; it's true—it's dreadfully true. You'll have to help us. We don't remember anything, either of us."

The cook sat down heavily in a polished armchair with a patchwork cushion.

"She's overlooked you. There's not a doubt about it. You're bewitched. Oh, my pretty little dears, that ever I should see the day—"

The cook's fat, jolly face twisted and puckered in a way with which each child was familiar in the face of the other.

"Don't cry," they said both together; and Elfrida added, "Who's overlooked what?"

"Old Betty Lovell has—that I'll be bound! She's bewitched you both, sure as eggs is eggs. I knew there'd be some sort of a to-do when my lord had her put in the stocks for stealing sticks in the wood. We've got to get her to take it off, my dears, that's what we've got to do, for sure; without you could find a white Mouldiwarp, and that's not likely."

"A white Mouldiwarp?" said both the children, and again they spoke together like a chorus and looked at each other like conspirators.

"You know the rhyme—oh! but if you've forgotten everything you've forgotten that too."

"Say it, won't you?" said Edred.

"Let's see, how do it go?—

    "White Mouldiwarp a spell can make,
     White Mouldiwarp a spell can break;
     When all be well, let Mouldiwarp be,
     When all goes ill, then turn to he."

"Well, all's not gone ill yet," said Elfrida, wriggling her neck in its prickly muslin tucker. "Let's go and see the witch."

"You'd best take her something—a screw of sugar she'd like, and a pinch of tea."

"Why, she'd not say 'Thank you' for it," said Edred, looking at the tiny packets.

"I expect you've forgotten," said cook gently, "that tea's ten shillings a pound and sugar's gone up to three-and-six since the war."

"What war?"

"The French war. You haven't forgotten we're at war with Boney and the French, and the bonfire we had up at the church when the news came of the drubbing we gave them at Trafalgar, and poor dear Lord Nelson and all? And your grandfather reading out about it to them from the 'George' balcony, and all the people waiting to cheer, and him not able to get it out for choking pride and because of Lord Nelson—God bless him!—and the people couldn't get their cheers out neither, for the same cause, and every one blowing their noses and shaking each other's hands like as if it was a mad funeral?"

"How splendid!" said Elfrida. "But we don't remember it."

"Nor you don't remember how you killed all the white butterflies last year because you said they were Frenchies in their white coats? And the birching you got, for cruelty to dumb animals, his lordship said. You howled for an hour together after it, so you did."

"I'm glad we've forgotten that, anyhow," said Edred.

"Gracious!" said the cook. "Half after eleven, and my eggs not so much as broke for my pudding. Off you go with your letter. Don't you tell any one else about you forgetting. And then you come home along by Dering's Spinney—and go see old Betty. Speak pretty to her and give her the tea and sugar, and keep your feet crossed under your chair if she asks you to sit down. And I'll give you an old knife-blade apiece to put in your pockets; she can't do nothing if you've got steel on you. And get her to take it off—the ill-wishing, I mean. And don't let her know you've got steel; they don't like to think you've been beforehand with them."

So the children went down across the fields to the "George," and the bean-flowers smelt as sweet, and the skylarks sang as clearly, and the sun and the sky were just as golden and blue as they had been last week. And last week was really a hundred years on in the future. And yet it was last week too—from where they were. Time is a very confusing thing, as the children remarked to each other more than once.

They found the "George" half-way up Arden village, a stately, great house shaped like an E, with many windows and a great porch with a balcony over it. They gave their letter to a lady in a round cap who sat sewing in a pleasant room where there were many bottles and kegs, and rows of bright pewter ale-pots, and little fat mugs to measure other things with, and pewter plates on a brown dresser. There were greyhounds, too, all sprawling, legs and shoulders and tails entangled together like a bunch of dead eels, before the widest hearth the children had ever seen. They hurried away the moment they had given the letter. A coach, top-heavy with luggage, had drawn up in front of the porch, and as they went out they saw the ostlers leading away the six smoking horses. Edred felt that he must see the stables, so they followed, and the stables were as big as the house, and there were horses going in and horses going out, and hay and straw, and ostlers with buckets and ost1ers with harness, and stalls and loose-boxes beyond counting, and bustle and hurry beyond words.

"How ever many horses have you got?" said Elfrida, addressing a man who had not joined in the kindly chorus of "Hulloa, little 'uns!" that greeted the children. So she judged him to be a new-comer. As he was.

"Two-and-fifty," said the man.

"What for?" Elfrida asked.

"Why, for the coaches, and the post-shays, and the King's messengers, for sure," the man answered. "How else'd us all get about the country, and get to hear the newses, if it wasn't for the stable the 'George' keeps?"

And then the children remembered that this was the time before railways and telegrams and telephones.

It is always difficult to remember exactly where one is when one happens to get into a century that is not one's own.

Edred would have liked to stay all day watching the busyness of every one and the beautifulness of the horses, but Elfrida dragged him away.

They had to find the witch, she reminded him; and in a dreadful tumble-down cottage, with big holes in its roof of rotten thatch, they did find her.

She was exactly like the pictures of witches in story books, only she had not a broomstick or a high-pointed hat. She had instead a dirty cap that had once been white, and a rusty gown that had once been black, and a streaky shawl that might once, perhaps, have been scarlet. But nobody could be sure of that now. There was a black cat sitting on a very dirty wooden settle, and the old woman herself sat on a rickety three-legged stool, her wrinkled face bent over a speckled hen which she was nursing in her lap and holding gently in her yellow, wrinkled hands.

As soon as Edred caught sight of her through the crooked doorway, he stopped. "I'm not going in," he said, "what's the good? We know jolly well she hasn't bewitched us. And if we go cheeking her she may, and then we shall be in a nice hole."

"There's the tea and sugar," said Elfrida.

"You just give it her and come away. I'll wait for you by the stile."

So Elfrida went into the cottage alone, and said "Good morning" in rather a frightened way.

"I've brought you some tea and sugar," she said, and stood waiting for the "Thank you," without which it would not be polite to say "Good morning" and to go away.

The "Thank you" never came. Instead, the witch stopped stroking the hen, and said—

"What for? I've not done you no 'arm."

"No," said Elfrida. "I'm sure you wouldn't."

"Then what have you brought it for?"

"For—oh, just for you," said Elfrida. "I thought you'd like it. It's just a—a love-gift, you know."

This was Aunt Edith's way of calling a present that didn't come just because it was your birthday or Christmas, or you had had a tooth out.

"A love-gift?" said the old woman slowly. "After all this long time?"

Elfrida did not understand. How should she? It's almost impossible for even the most grown up and clever of us to know how women used to be treated—and not so very long ago either—if they were once suspected of being witches. It generally began by the old woman's being cleverer than her neighbours, having more wit to find out what was the matter with sick people, and more still to cure them. Then her extra cleverness would help her to foretell storms and gales and frosts, and to find water by the divining rod—a very mysterious business. And when once you can find out where water is by just carrying a forked hazel twig between your hands and walking across a meadow, you can most likely find out a good many other things that your stupid neighbours would never dream of. And in those long-ago days—which really aren't so very long ago—your being so much cleverer than your neighbours would be quite enough. You would soon be known as the "wise woman"—and from "wise woman" to witch was a very short step indeed.

So Elfrida, not understanding, said, "Yes; is your fowl ill?"

"'Twill mend," said the old woman,—"'twill mend. The healing of my hands has gone into it." She rose, set the hen on the hearth, where it fluttered, squawked, and settled among grey ashes, very much annoying the black cat, and laid her hands suddenly on Elfrida's shoulders.

"And now the healing of my hands is for you," she said. "You have brought me a love-gift. Never a gift have I had these fifty years but was a gift of fear or a payment for help—to buy me to take off a spell or put a spell on. But you have brought me a love-gift, and I tell you you shall have your heart's desire. You shall have love around and about you all your life long. That which is lost shall be found. That which came not shall come again. In this world's goods you shall be blessed, and blessed in the goods of the heart also. I know—I see—and for you I see everything good and fair. Your future shall be clean and sweet as your kind heart."

She took her hands away. Elfrida, very much impressed by these flattering remarks which she felt she did not deserve, stood still, not knowing what to say or do; she rather wanted to cry.

"I only brought it because cook told me," she said.

"Cook didn't give you the kind heart that makes you want to cry for me now," said the witch.

The old woman sank down in a crouching heap, and her voice changed to one of singsong.

"I know," she said,—"I know many things. All alone the livelong day and the death-long night, I have learned to see. As cats see through the dark, I see through the days that have been and shall be. I know that you are not here, that you are not now. You will return whence you came, and this time that is not yours shall bear no trace of you. And my blessing shall be with you in your own time and your own place, because you brought a love-gift to the poor old wise woman of Arden."

"Is there anything I can do for you?" Elfrida asked, very sorry indeed, for the old woman's voice was very pitiful.

"Kiss me," said the old woman,—"kiss me with your little child's mouth, that has come back a hundred years to do it."

Elfrida did not wish to kiss the wrinkled, grey face, but her heart wished her to be kind, and she obeyed her heart.

"Ah!" said the wise woman, "now I see. Oh, never have I had such a vision. None of them all has ever been like this. I see great globes of light like the sun in the streets of the city, where now are only little oil-lamps and guttering lanterns. I see iron roads, with fiery dragons drawing the coaches, and rich and poor riding up and down on them. Men shall speak in England and their voice be heard in France—more, the voices of men dead shall be kept alive in boxes and speak at the will of those who still live. The handlooms shall cease in the cottages, and the weavers shall work in palaces with a thousand windows lighted as bright as day. The sun shall stoop to make men's portraits more like than any painter can make them. There shall be ships that shall run under the seas like conger-eels, and ships that shall ride over the clouds like great birds. And bread that is now a shilling and ninepence shall be five pence, and the corn and the beef shall come from overseas to feed us. And every child shall be taught who can learn, and—"

"Peace, prater," cried a stern voice in the doorway. Elfrida turned. There stood the grandfather, Lord Arden, very straight and tall and grey, leaning on his gold-headed cane, and beside him Edred, looking very small and found-out.

The old witch did not seem to see them; her eyes, that rolled and blinked, saw nothing. But she must have heard, for—

"Loss to Arden," she said; "loss and woe to Arden. The hangings of your house shall be given to the spider, and the mice shall eat your carved furnishings. Your gold shall be less and less, and your house go down and down till there is not a field that is yours about your house."

Lord Arden shrugged his shoulders.

"Likely tales," he said, "to frighten babes with. Tell me rather, if you would have me believe, what shall hap to-morrow."

"To-morrow," said the wise woman, "the French shall land in Lymchurch Bay."

Lord Arden laughed.

"And I give you a sign—three signs," said the woman faintly; for it is tiring work seeing into the future, even when you are enlightened with a kiss from some one who has been there. "You shall see the white Mouldiwarp, that is the badge of Arden, on your threshold as you enter."

"That shall be one sign," said the old man mockingly.

"And the second," she said, "shall be again the badge of your house, in your own chair in your own parlour."

"That seems likely," said Lord Arden, sneering.

"And the third," said she, "shall be the badge of your house in the arms of this child."

She turned her back, and picked the hen out of the ashes.

Lord Arden led Edred and Elfrida away, one in each hand, and as he went he was very severe on disobedient children who went straying after wicked witches, and they could not defend themselves without blaming the cook, which, of course, they would not do.

"Bread and water for dinner," he said, "to teach you better ways."

"Oh, grandfather," said Elfrida, catching at his hand, "don't be so unkind! Just think about when you were little. I'm sure you liked looking at witches, didn't you, now?"

Lord Arden stared angrily at her, and then he chuckled. "It's a bold girl, so it is," he said. "I own I remember well seeing a witch ducked no further off than Newchurch, and playing truant from my tutor to see it, too."

"There now, you see," said Elfrida coaxingly, "we don't mean to be naughty; we're just like what you were. You won't make it bread and water, will you? Especially if bread's so dear."

Lord Arden chuckled again.

"Why, the little white mouse has found a tongue, and never was I spoken to so bold since the days I wore petticoats myself," he said. "Well, well; we'll say no more about it this time."

And Edred, who had privately considered that Elfrida was behaving like an utter idiot, thought better of it.

So they turned across the summer fields to Arden Castle. There seemed to be more of the castle than when the children had first seen it, and it was tidier, much. And on the doorstep sat a white mole.

"There now!" said Elfrida. The mole vanished like a streak of white paint that is rubbed out.

"Pooh!" said Lord Arden. "There's plenty white moles in the world."

But when he saw the white mole sitting up in his own carved arm-chair in the parlour, he owned that it was very unusual.

Elfrida stooped and held out her arms. She was extremely glad to see the mole. Because ever since she and her brother had come into this strange time she had felt that it would be the greatest possible comfort to have the mole at hand—the mole, who understood everything, to keep and advise; and, above all, to get them safely back into the century they belonged to.

And the Mouldiwarp made a little run and a little jump, and Elfrida caught it and held it against her waist with both her hands.

"Stay with me," whispered Elfrida to the mole.

"By George!" said Lord Arden to the universe.

"So now you see," said Edred to Lord Arden.