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The House of Arden/Chapter 4


Then they had dinner. The children had to sit very straight and eat very slowly, and their glasses were filled with beer instead of water; and when they asked for water Lady Arden asked how many more times they would have to be told that water was unwholesome. Lord Arden was very quiet. At quite the beginning of dinner he had told his wife all about the wise woman, and the landing of the French, and the three signs, and she had said, "Law, save us, my lord; you don't say so?" and gone on placidly cutting up her meat. But when the cloth had been drawn, and decanters of wine placed among the dishes of dried plums and preserved pears, Lord Arden brought down his fist on the table and said—

"Not more than three glasses for me to-day, my lady. I am not superstitious, as well you know; but facts are facts. What did you do with that white Mouldiwarp?"

Elfrida had put it in the bottom drawer of the tallboys in her room (cook had told her which room that was), and said so rather timidly.

"It's my belief," said Lady Arden, who seemed to see what was her husband's belief and to make it her own—a very winning quality—"it's my belief that it's a direct warning; in return, perhaps, for the tea and sugar."

"Ah!" said Lord Arden. "Well, whether or no, every man in this village shall be armed and paraded this day, or I'll know the reason why. I'm not going to have the French stepping ashore as cool as cucumbers, without 'With your leave,' or 'By your leave,' and any one to say afterwards, 'Well, Arden, you had fair warning, only you would know best.'"

"No," said Lady Arden, "that would be unpleasant."

Lord Arden's decision was made stronger by the arrival of a man on a very hot horse.

"The French are coming," he said, quite out of breath. But he could not say how he knew. "They all say so," was all that could be got out of him, and "They told me to come tell you, my lord, and what's us to do?"

We live so safely now; we have nothing to be afraid of. When we have wars they are not in our own country. The police look after burglars, and even thunder is attended to by lightning-rods. It is not easy for us to understand the frantic terror of those times, when, from day to day, every man, woman, and child trembled in its shoes for fear lest "the French should come"—the French, led by Boney. Boney, to us, is Napoleon Buonaparte, a little person in a cocked hat out of the history books. To those who lived in England when he was a man alive, he was "the Terror that walked by night," making children afraid to go to bed, and causing strong men to sleep in their boots, with sword and pistol by the bed-head, within easy reach of the newly awakened hand.

Edred and Elfrida began to understand a little, when they saw how the foretelling of the wise woman, strengthened by the rumours that began to run about like rats in every house in the village, stirred the people to the wildest activity.

Lord Arden was so busy giving orders, and my lady so busy talking his orders over with the maidservants, that the children were left free to use their eyes and ears. And they went down into the village and saw many strange things. They saw men at the grindstone sharpening old swords, and others who had no swords putting a fine edge on billhooks, hatchets, scythes, and kitchen choppers. They saw other men boarding up their windows and digging holes in their gardens and burying their money and their teaspoons in the holes. No one knew how the rumour had begun, but every one believed it now.

They went in and out of the cottages as they chose. Every one seemed to know them and to be pleased, in an absent sort of way, to see them, but nobody had time to talk to them, so they soon lost the fear they had had at first of being found out to be not the people they were being taken for. They found the women busy brushing and mending old scarlet coats and tight white trousers, and all along the dip of the cliff men were posted, with spy-glasses, looking out to sea. Other men toiled up the slope with great bundles of brown brush-wood and dried furze on their backs, and those bundles were piled high, ready to be lighted the moment it should be certain that the French were coming.

Elfrida wished more than ever that she knew more about the later chapters of the history book. Did Boney land in England on the 17th of June, 1807? She could not remember. There was something, she knew, in the book about a French invasion, but she could not remember what it was an invasion of, nor when it took place. So she and Edred knew as little as any one else what really was going to happen. The Mouldiwarp, in the hurried interview she had had with it before dinner, had promised to come if she called it, "With poetry, of course," it added, as it curled up in the corner of the drawer, and this comforted her a good deal when, going up to get her bonnet, she found the bottom drawer empty. So, though she was as interested as Edred in all that was going on, it was only with half her mind. The other half was busy trying to make up a piece of poetry, so that any emergency which might suddenly arise would not find her powerless because poetry-less.

So for once Edred was more observant than she, and when he noticed that the men built a bonfire not at all on the spot which Lord Arden had pointed out as most convenient, he wondered why.

And presently, seeing a man going by that very spot, he asked him why. To his surprise, the man at once poked him in the ribs with a very hard finger, and said—

"Ah, you're a little wag, you are! But you're a little gentleman, too, and so's the little lady, bless her. You never gave us away to the Preventives—for all you found out."

"Of course," said Elfrida cautiously, "we should never give any one away."

"Want to come along down now?" the man asked. He was a brown-faced, sturdy, sailor-looking man, with a short pigtail sticking out from the back of his head like the china handle of a Japanese teapot.

"Oh, yes," said Elfrida, and Edred did not say "Oh, no."

"Then just you wait till I'm out of sight, and then come down the way you see me go. Go long same as if you was after butterflies or the like—a bit this way and a bit that—see?" said the man. And they obeyed.

Alas! too few children in these uninteresting times of ours have ever been in a smuggler's cave. To Edred and to Elfrida it was as great a novelty as it would be to you or to me.

When they came up with the brown man he was crouching in the middle of a patch of furze.

"Jump they outside bushes," he said. And they jumped, and wound their way among the furze-bushes by little narrow rabbit-paths till they stood by his side.

Then he lifted a great heap of furze and bramble that looked as if it had lived and died exactly where it was. And there was a hole—with steps going down.

It was dark below, but Elfrida did not hesitate to do as she was told and to go forward. And if Edred hesitated it was only for a minute.

The children went down some half a dozen steps. Then the brown man came into the hole too, and drew the furze after him. And he lighted a lantern; there was a tallow candle in it, and it smelt very nasty indeed. But what are smells, even those of hot tallow and hot iron, compared with the splendid exploring of a smuggler's cave? It was everything the children had ever dreamed of—and more.

There was the slow descent with the yellowness of the lantern flame casting golden lights and inky shadows on the smooth whiteness of the passage's chalk walls. There were steps, there was a rude heavy door, fastened by a great lock and a key to open it—as big as a church key. And when the door had creaked open there was the great cave. It was so high that you could not see the roof—only darkness. Out of an opening in the chalk at the upper end a stream of water fell, slid along a smooth channel down the middle of the cave and ran along down a steep incline, rather like a small railway cutting, and disappeared under a low arch.

"So there'd always be water if you had to stand a siege," said Edred.

On both sides of the great cave barrels and bales were heaped on a sanded floor. There were a table and benches cut out of solid chalk, and an irregular opening partly blocked by a mass of fallen cliff, through which you saw the mysterious twilit sea, with stars coming out over it.

You saw this, and you felt—quite suddenly, too—a wild wind that pressed itself against you like a wrestler trying a fall, and whistled in your ears and drove you back to the big cave, out of breath and panting.

"There'll be half a gale to-night," said the smuggler; for such, no doubt, he was.

"Do you think the French will land to-morrow in Lymchurch Bay?" Edred asked.

By the light of the lantern the smuggler solemnly winked.

"You two can keep a secret, I know," he said. "The French won't land; it's us what'll land, and we'll land here and not in bay; and what we'll land is a good drop of the real thing, and a yard or two of silk or lace maybe. I don't know who 'twas put it about as the French was a-coming, but you may lay to it they aren't no friends of the Revenue."

"Oh, I see," said Elfrida. "And did—"

"The worst of it'll be the look-out they'll keep. Lucky for us it's all our men as has volunteered for duty. And we know our friends."

"But do you mean," said Edred, "that you can be friends with a Frenchman, when we're at war with them?"

"It's like this, little man," said the smuggler, sitting down on a keg that stood handily on its head ready for a seat. "We ain't no quarrel with the free-trade men—neither here nor there. A man's got his living to get, hasn't he now? So you see a man's trade comes first—what he gets his bread by. So you see these chaps as meet us mid-channel and hand us the stuff—they're free traders first and Frenchies after—the same like we're merchants before all. We ain't no quarrel with them. It's the French soldiers we're at war with, not the honest French traders that's in the same boat as us ourselves."

"Then somebody's just made up about Boney coming, so as to keep people busy in the bay while you're smuggling here?" said Edred.

"I wouldn't go so far as that, sir," said the man, "but if it did happen that way it 'ud be a sort of special dispensation for us free-trade men that get our living by honest work and honest danger; that's all I say, knowing by what's gone before that you two are safe as any old salt afloat."

The two children would have given a good deal to know what it was that had "gone before." But they never did know. And sometimes, even now, they wonder what it was that the Edred and Elfrida of those days had done to win the confidence of this swaggering smuggler. They both think, and I daresay they are right, that it must have been something rather fine.

Having seen all the ins and outs of the cave, the children were not sorry to get back to Arden Castle, for it was now dark, and long past their proper bedtime, and it really had been rather a wearing day.

They were put to bed, rather severely, by Lady Arden's own maid, whom they had not met before and did not want to meet again—so shrivelled and dry and harsh was she. And they slept like happy little tops, in the coarse homespun linen sheets scented with lavender grown in the castle garden, that were spread over soft, fat, pincushion-beds, filled with the feathers of geese eaten at the castle table.

Only Elfrida woke once and found the room filled with red light, and, looking out of the window, saw that one of the beacon bonfires was alight and that the flames and smoke were streaming across the dark summer sky—driven by the wind that shouted and yelled and shook the windows, and was by this time, she felt sure, at least three-quarters of a gale. The beacon was lighted; therefore the French were coming. And Elfrida yawned and went back to bed. She was too sleepy to believe in Boney. But at that time, a hundred years ago, hundreds of little children shivered and cried in their beds, being quite sure that now at last all the dreadful prophecies of mothers and nurses would come true, and that Boney, in all his mysterious, unknown horror, would really now, at last, "have them."

It was grey morning when the wind, wearied of the silly resistance of the leaded window, suddenly put forth his strength, tore the window from its hinges, drove it across the window frame, and swept through the room, flapping the bedclothes like wet sails, and wakening the children most thoroughly, far beyond any hope of "one more snooze." They got up and dressed. No one was about in the house, but the front door was open. It was quite calm on that side, but as soon as the children left the shelter of the castle wall the wind caught at them, hit, slapped, drove, worried, beat them, till they had hard work to stand upright, and getting along was very slow and difficult. Yet they made their way somehow to the cliff, where a thick, black crowd stood—a crowd that was not really black when you got quite close and could look at it in the grey dawn-light, but rather brilliantly red, white, and blue, like the Union Jack, because they were the armed men in their make-shift uniforms whom old Lord Arden had drilled and paraded the evening before. And they were all looking out to sea.

The sea was like the inside of an oyster-shell, barred with ridges of cold silver, the sky above was grey as a gull's wing, and between sea and sky a ship was driving straight on to the rocks a hundred feet below.

"'Tis a French ship, by her rig," some one said.

"The first of the fleet—a scout," said another, "and Heaven has sent a storm to destroy them like it destroyed the accursed Armada in Queen Bess's time."

And still the ship came nearer.

"'Tis the Bonne Esperance," said the low voice of the smuggler friend close to Elfrida's ear, and she could only just hear him through the whistling of the gale. "'Tis true what old Betty said; the French will land here to-day—but they'll land dead corpses. And all our little cargo—they've missed our boat in the gale—it'll all be smashed to bits afore our eyes. It's poor work being a honest merchant."

The men in their queer uniforms, carrying their queer weapons, huddled closer together, and all eyes were fixed on the ship as it came on and on.

"Is it sure to be wrecked?" whispered Elfrida, catching at old Lord Arden's hand.

"No hope, my child. Get you home to bed," he said.

It did not make any difference that all this had happened a hundred years ago. There was the cold, furious sea lashing the rocks far down below the cliff. Elfrida could not bear to stay and see that ship smash on the rocks as her carved work-box had smashed when she dropped it on the kitchen bricks. She could not even bear to think of seeing it. Poetry was difficult, but to stay here and see a ship wrecked—a ship that had men aboard—was more difficult still.

    "Oh, Mouldiwarp, do come to me;
     I cannot bear it, do you see,"

was not, perhaps, fine poetry, but it expressed her feelings exactly, and, anyhow, it did what it was meant to do. The white mole rubbed against her ankles even as she spoke. She caught it up.

"Oh, what are we to do?"

"Go home," it said, "to the castle—you'll find the door now."

And they turned to go. And as they turned they heard a grinding crunch, mixed with the noise of the waves and winds, enormously louder, but yet just the sort of noise a dog makes when he is eating the bones of the chicken you had for dinner and gets the chicken's ribs all at once into his mouth. Then there was a sort of sighing moan from the crowd on the cliff, who had been there all night for the French to land, and then Lord Arden's voice—

"The French have landed. She spoke the truth. The French have landed—Heaven help them!"

And as the children ran towards the house they knew that every man in that crowd would now be ready to risk his life to save from the sea those Frenchies whom they had sat up all night to kill with swords and scythes and bills and meat-choppers. Men are queer creatures!

To get out of it—back to the safe quiet of a life without shipwrecks and witches—that was all Elfrida wanted. Holding the mole in one hand and dragging Edred by the other, she got back to the castle and in at the open front door, up the stairs, and straight to a door—she knew it would be the right one, and it was.

There was the large attic with the beams, and the long, wonderful row of chests under the sloping roof. And the moment the door was shut, the raging noise of the winds ceased, as the flaring noise of gas ceases when you turn it off. And now once more the golden light filtered through the chinks of the tiles, and outside was the "tick, tick" of moving pigeon feet, the rustling of pigeon feathers, and the cooroocoo of pigeon voices.

On the ground lay their own clothes. "Change," said the white mole, a little out of breath because it had been held very tight and carried very fast.

And the moment they began to put on their own clothes it seemed that the pigeon noises came closer and closer, and somehow helped them out of the prickly clothes of 1807 and back into the comfortable sailor suits of 1907.

"Did ye find the treasure?" the mole asked, and the children answered—

"Why no; we never thought of it."

"It don't make no odds," said the mole. "'Twaren't dere."

"There?" said Elfrida. "Then we're here? We're now again, I mean? We're not then?"

"Oh, you're now, sure enough," said the mole, "and won't you catch it! Dame Honeysett's been raising the countryside arter ye. Next time ye go gallivantin' into old ancient days you'd best set the clock back. Young folks don't know everything. Get along down and take your scolding.

    "What must be must.
     If you can't get crumb, you must put up with crust.

Goodbye."

It ran under one of the chests, and Edred and Elfrida were left looking at each other in the attic between the rows of chests.

"Do you like adventures?" said Edred slowly.

"Yes," said Elfrida firmly; "and so do you. Come along down."