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The House of Arden/Chapter 5

They both meant what they said. And yet, of course, it is nonsense to promise that you will never do anything again, because, of course, you must do something, if it's only simple subtraction or eating poached eggs and sausages. You will, of course, understand that what they meant was that they would never again do anything to cause Mrs. Honeysett a moment's uneasiness, and in order to make this possible the first thing to do was, of course, to find out how to set the clock back. Slowly munching sausage, and feeling, as she always did when she ate slowly, that she was doing something very virtuous and ought to have a prize or a medal for it, Elfrida asked her mind to be kind enough to get some poetry ready by the time she had finished breakfast. And sure enough, her mind, in its own secret backyard, as it were, did get something ready. And while this was happening Elfrida, in what corresponded to her mind's front garden, was wishing that she had been born a poet.

"Like the one who did the piece about the favourite gold-fish drowned in a tub of cats," she said pensively.

"Yes, or even Shakespeare," said Edred; "only he's so long always."

"I wonder," said the girl, "where the clock is that we've got to set back?"

"Oh, Mouldiwarp'll tell us," said the boy.

But Mouldiwarp didn't.

When breakfast was over they went out into the grassy space round which the ruined walls of the castle rose up so grey and stately, with the wallflowers and toad-flax growing out of them, and sat down among the round-faced, white-frilled daisies and told each other what they had thought, or what they thought they had thought, while they were back in those times when people were afraid of Boney.

And the castle's sward was very green, and the daisies were very white, and the sun shone on everything very grand and golden.

And as they sat there it came over Elfrida suddenly how good a place it was and how lucky they were to be there at home at Arden, rather than in the house with the pale, smooth brass door-knocker that stood in the street with the red pavement, and the lodgers who kept all on ringing their bells—so that she said, quite without knowing she was going to say anything—

    "Arden, Arden, Arden,
     Lawn and castle and garden;
     Daisies and grass and wallflowers gold—
     Mouldiwarp, come out of the mould."

"That's more like poetry, that is," said the Mouldiwarp, sitting on the green grass between the children; "more lik'n anything I've heard ye say yet—so 'tis. An' now den, what is it for you dis fine day an' all?"

It seemed in such a good temper that Elfrida asked a question that had long tried to get itself asked.

"Why," was the question, and it was spoken to the white mole,—"why do you talk like the country people do?"

"Sussex barn an' bred," said the mole, "but I know other talk. Sussex talks what they call 'racy of the soil'—means 'smells of the earth' where I live. I can talk all sorts, though. I used to spit French once on a time, young Fitz-le-seigneur."

"You must know lots and lots," said Edred.

"I do," said the mole.

"How old are you?" Edred asked, in spite of Elfrida's warning "Hush! it's rude."

"'S old as my tongue an' a little older'n me teeth," said the mole, showing them.

"Ah, don't be cross," said Elfrida, "and such a beautiful day, too, and just when we wanted you to show us how to put back the clock and all."

"That's a deed, that is," said the mole, "but you've not quarrelled this three days, so you can go where you please and do what you will. Only you're in the way here if you want to stop the clock. Get up into the gate tower and look out, and when you see the great clock face, come down at once and sit on the second hand. That'll stop it, if anything will."

Looking out through the breezy arch among the swinging ends of ivy and the rustle and whir of pigeon wings, the children saw a very curious sight.

The green and white of grass and daisies began to swim, as it were, before their eyes. The lawn within the castle walls was all uneven because the grass had not been laid there by careful gardeners, with spirit-levels and rollers, who wanted to make a lawn, but by Nature herself, who wanted just to cover up bits of broken crockery and stone, and old birds' nests, and all sorts of odd rubbish. And now it began to stretch itself, as though it were a live carpet, and to straighten and tighten itself till it lay perfectly flat.

And the grass seemed to be getting greener in places. And in other places there were patches of white thicker and purer than before.

"Look! look!" cried Edred; "look! the daisies are walking about!"

They were. Stiffly and steadily, like well-drilled little soldiers, the daisies were forming into twos, into fours, into companies. Looking down from the window of the gate tower it was like watching thousands of little white beads sort themselves out from among green ones.

"What are they going to do?" Edred asked, but naturally Elfrida was not able to answer.

The daisies marched very steadily, like little people who knew their business very well. They massed themselves together in regiments, in armies. On certain parts of the smooth grass certain companies of them stopped and stayed.

"They're making a sort of pattern," said Edred. "Look! there's a big ring all round—a sort of pattern."

"I should think they were!" cried Elfrida. "Look! look! It's the clock."

It was. On the pure green face of the lawn was an enormous circle marked by a thick line of closely packed white daisies. Within it were the figures that are on the face of a clock—all twelve of them. The hands were of white daisies, too, both the minute hand and the hand that marks the hours, and between the VI and the centre was a smaller circle, also white and of daisies—round which they could see a second hand move—a white second hand formed of daisies wheeling with a precision that would have made the haughtiest general in the land shed tears of pure admiration.

With one accord the two children blundered down the dark, dusty, cobwebby, twisty stairs of the gate tower and rushed across the lawn. In the very centre of the clock-face sat the Mouldiwarp, looking conscious and a little conceited.

"How did you do it?" Elfrida gasped.

"The daisies did it. Poor little things! They can't invent at all. But they do carry out other people's ideas quite nicely. All the white things have to obey me, of course," it added carelessly.

"And this is The Clock?"

The Mouldiwarp giggled. "My child, what presumption! The clock is much too big for you to see ever—all at once. The sun's the centre of it. This is just a pretending clock. It'll do for what we want, of course, or I wouldn't have had it made for you. Sit down on the second hand—oh no, it won't hurt the daisies. Count a hundred—yes, that's right."

They sat down on the close, white line of daisies and began to count earnestly.

"And now," the Mouldiwarp said, when the hundred was counted, "it's just the same time as it was when you began! So now you understand."

They said they did, and I am sure I hope you do.

"But if we sit here," said Elfrida, "how can we ever be anywhere else?"

"You can't," said the Mouldiwarp. "So one of you will have to stay and the other to go."

"You go, Elfie," said Edred. "I'll stay till you come back."

"That's very dear of you," said Elfrida, "but I'd rather we went together. Can't you manage it?" she asked the mole.

"I could, of course," it said; "but . . . he's afraid to go without you," it said suddenly.

"He isn't, and he's two years younger than me, anyway," Elfrida said hotly.

"Well, go without him," said the mole. "You understand perfectly, don't you, that when he has stopped the clock your going is the same as your not going, and your being here is the same as not being, and—What I mean," it added, hastily returning to Sussex talk, "you needn't be so turble put out. He won't know you've gone nor yet 'e won't believe you've come back. Be off with 'e, my gell."

Elfrida hesitated. Then, "Oh, Edred," she said, "I have had such a time! Did it seem very long? I know it was horrid of me, but it was so interesting I couldn't come back before."

"Nonsense," said Edred. "Well, go if you like; I don't mind."

"I've been, I tell you," said Elfrida, dragging him off the second hand of the daisy clock, whose soldiers instantly resumed their wheeling march.

"So now you see," said the mole. "Tell you what—next time you wanter stop de clock we'll just wheel de barrer on to it. Now you go along and play. You've had enough Arden magic for this 'ere Fursday, so you 'ave, bless yer hearts an' all."

And they went.

That was how Edred perceived the adventure of "The Highwayman and the —." But I will not anticipate. The way the adventure seemed to Elfrida was rather different.

After the mole said "my gell" she hesitated, and then went slowly towards the castle where the red roof of the house showed between the old, ivy-grown grey buttresses. She looked back, to see Edred and the Mouldiwarp close together on the face of the wonderful green and white clock. They were very still. She made her mind up—ran indoors and up the stairs and straight to The Door—she found it at once—shut the door, and opened the second chest to the right.

    "You change your clothes and the times change too—
    Change, that is what you've got to do;
    Cooroo, cooroo, cooroo, cooroo,"

said the pigeons or the silence or Elfrida.

"I wonder," she said, slipping on a quilted green satin petticoat with pink rosebuds embroidered on it, "whether Shakespeare began being a poet like that—just little odd lines coming into his head without him meaning them to." And her mind as she put on a pink-and-white brocaded dress, was busy with such words as "Our great poet, Miss Elfrida Arden," or "Miss Arden, the female Milton of nowadays."

She tied a white, soft little cap with pink ribbons under her chin and ran to open the door. She was not a bit afraid. It was like going into a dream. Nothing would be real there. Yet as she ran through the attic door and the lace of her sleeve caught on a big rusty nail and tore with a harsh hissing noise, she felt very sorry. In a thing that was only a dream that lace felt very real, and was very beautiful.

But she had only half the first half of a thought to give to the lace—for the door opened, not on the quiet corridor with the old prints at Arden Castle, but on a quite strange panelled room, full of a most extraordinary disorder of stuffs—feathers, dresses, cloaks, bonnet-boxes, parcels, rolls, packets, lace, scarves, hats, gloves, and finery of all sorts. There were a good many people there: serving-maids—she knew they were serving-maids—a gentleman in knee-breeches showing some fine china on a lacquered tray, and in the middle a very pretty, languishing-looking young lady with whom Elfrida at once fell deeply in love. All the women wore enormous crinolines—or hoops.

"What! Hid in the closet all the while, cousin?" said the young lady. "Oh, but it's the slyest chit! Come, see how the new scarf becomes thy Bet. Is it not vastly modish?"

"Yes," said Elfrida, not knowing in the least what to say.

Everything gave a sort of tremble and twist, like the glass bits in a kaleidoscope give just before they settle into a pattern. Then, as with the bits of glass, everything was settled, and Elfrida, instead of feeling that she was looking at a picture, felt that she was alive, with live people.

Some extraordinary accident had fixed in Elfrida's mind the fact that Queen Anne began to reign in 1702. I don't know how it was. These accidents do sometimes occur. And she knew that in Queen Anne's day ladies wore hoops. Also, since they had gone back a hundred years to Boney's time, perhaps this second venture had taken her back two hundred years. If so—

"Please," she said, very quickly, "is this 1707 and is Queen Anne dead?"

"Heaven forbid," said every one in the room; and Bet added, "La, child, don't delay us with your prattle. The coach will be here at ten, and we must lie at Tonbridge to-night."

So Elfrida, all eyes and ears, squeezed into a corner between a band-box and a roll of thick, pink-flowered silk and looked and listened.

Bet, she gathered, was her cousin—an Arden, too, She and Bet and the maids, and an escort of she couldn't quite make out how many men, were to go down to Arden together. The many men were because of the Arden jewels, that had been reset in the newest mode, and the collar of pearls and other presents Uncle Arden had given to Bet; and the highwaymen, who, she learned, were growing so bold that they would attack a coach in St. Paul's Churchyard in broad daylight. Bet, it seemed, had undertaken commissions for all her girl friends near Arden, and had put off most of them till the last moment; She had carefully spent her own pin-money during her stay in town, and was now hastily spending theirs. The room was crowded with tradesmen and women actually pushing each other to get near the lady who had money to spend. One woman with a basket of china was offering it in exchange for old clothes or shoes, just as old women do now at back doors. And Cousin Bet's maid had a very good bargain, she considered, in a china teapot and two dishes, in exchange for a worn, blue lutestring dress and a hooped petticoat of violet quilted satin. Then there was a hasty meal of cakes and hot chocolate, and, Elfrida being wrapped up in long-skirted coat and scarves almost beyond bearing, it was announced that the coach was at the door. It was a very tight fit when at last they were all packed into the carriage, for though the carriage was large there was a great deal to fill it up, what with Cousin Bet and her great hoops, and the maids, and the band-boxes and packages of different sizes and shapes, and the horrid little pet dog that yapped and yahed, and tried to bite every one, from the footmen to Elfrida. The streets were narrow and very dirty, and smelt very nasty in the hot June sun.

And it was very hot and stuffy inside the carriage, and more bumpety than you would think possible—more bumpety even than a wagon going across a furrowed corn-field. Elfrida felt rather headachy, as you do when you go out in a small boat and every one says it is not at all rough. By the time the carriage got to Lewisham Elfrida's bones were quite sore, and she felt as though she had been beaten. There were no springs to the carriage, and it reminded her of a bathing-machine more than anything else—you know the way it bumps on the shingly part of the shore when they are drawing you up at the beach, and you tumble about and can't go on dressing, and all your things slide off the seats. The maids were cross and looked it. Cousin Bet had danced till nigh midnight, and been up with the lark, so she said. And, having said it, went to sleep in a corner of the carriage looking crosser than the maids. Elfrida began to feel that empty, uninterested sensation which makes you wish you hadn't come. The carriage plunged and rattled on through the green country, the wheels bounding in and out of the most dreadful ruts. More than once the wheel got into a rut so deep that it took all the men to heave it out again. Cousin Bet woke up to say that it was vastly annoying, and instantly went to sleep again.

Elfrida, being the smallest person in the carriage except Amour, the dog, was constantly being thrown into somebody's lap—to the annoyance of both parties. It was very much the most uncomfortable ride she had ever had. She thought of the smooth, swift rush of the train—even the carrier's cart was luxury compared to this. "The roads aren't like roads at all," she told herself, "they're like ploughed fields with celery trenches in them"—she had a friend a market gardener, so she knew.

Long before the carriage drew up in front of the "Bull" at Tonbridge, Elfrida felt that if she only had a piece of poetry ready she would say it, and ask the Mouldiwarp to take her back to her own times, where, at any rate, carriages had springs and roads were roads. And when the carriage did stop she was so stiff she could hardly stand.

"Come along in," said a stout, pleasant-faced lady in a frilled cap; "come in, my poppet. There's a fine supper, though it's me says it, and a bed that you won't beat in Kent for soft and clean, you may lay to that."

There was a great bustle of shouting ostlers and stablemen; the horses were taken out before the travellers were free of the carriage. Supper was laid in a big, low, upper room, with shining furniture and windows at both ends, one set looking on the road where the sign of the "Bull" creaked and swung, and the other looking on a very neat green garden, with clipped box hedges and yew arbours. Getting all the luggage into the house seemed likely to be a long business. Elfrida saw that she would not be missed, and she slipped down the twisty-cornery back-stairs and through the back kitchen into the green garden. It was pleasant to stretch one's legs, and not to be cramped and buffeted and shaken. But she walked down the grass-path rather demurely, for she was very stiff indeed.

And it was there, in a yew arbour, that she came suddenly on the grandest and handsomest gentleman that she had ever seen. He wore a white wig, very full at the sides and covered with powder, and a full-skirted coat of dark-blue silk, and under it a long waistcoat with the loveliest roses and forget-me-nots tied in bunches with gold ribbons, embroidered on silk. He had lace ruffles and a jewelled brooch, and the jolliest blue eyes in the world. He looked at Elfrida very kindly with his jolly eyes.

"A lady of quality, I'll be bound," he said, "and travelling with her suite."

"I'm Miss Arden of Arden," said Elfrida.

"Your servant, madam," said he, springing to his feet and waving his hat in a very flourishing sort of bow.

Elfrida's little curtsey was not at all the right kind of curtsey, but it had to do.

"And what can I do to please Miss Arden of Arden?" he asked. "Would she like a ride on my black mare?"

"Oh, no, thank you," said Elfrida, so earnestly that he laughed as he said—

"Sure I should not have thought fear lived with those eyes."

"I'm not afraid," said Elfrida contemptuously; "only I've been riding in a horrible carriage all day, and I feel as though I never wanted to ride on anything any more."

He laughed again.

"Well, well," he said, "come and sit by me and tell me all the town news."

Elfrida smiled to think what news she could tell him, and then frowned in the effort to think of any news that wouldn't seem nonsense.

She told him all that she knew of Cousin Bet and the journey. He was quite politely interested. She told of Cousin Bet's purchases—the collar of pearls, and the gold pomander studded with corals, the little gold watch, and the family jewels that had been reset.

"And you have all to-night to rest in from that cruel coach?" he said.

"Yes," said Elfrida, "we don't go on again till after breakfast to-morrow. It's very dull—and oh, so slow! Don't you think you'd like to have a carriage drawn by a fiery iron horse that went sixty miles an hour?"

"You have an ingenious wit," said the beautiful gentleman, "such as I should admire in my wife. Will you marry me when you shall be grown a great girl?"

"No," said Elfrida; "you'd be too old—even if you were to be able to stop alive till I was grown up, you'd be much too old."

"How old do you suppose I shall be when you're seventeen?"

"I should have to do sums," said Elfrida, who was rather good at these exercises. She broke a twig from a currant bush and scratched in the dust.

"I don't know," she said, raising a flushed face, and trampling out her "sum" with little shoes that had red heels, "but I think you'll be two hundred and thirty."

On that he laughed more than ever and vowed she was the lady for him. "Your ciphering would double my income ten times over," he said.

He was very kind indeed—would have her taste his wine, which she didn't like, and the little cakes on the red and blue plate, which she did.

"And what's your name?" she asked.

"My name," said he, "is a secret. Can you keep a secret?"

"Yes," said Elfrida.

"So can I," said he.

And then a flouncing, angry maid came suddenly sweeping down between the box hedges and dragged Elfrida away before she could curtsey properly and say, "Thank you for being so kind."

"Farewell," said the beautiful gentleman, "doubt not but we shall meet again. And next time 'tis I shall carry thee off and shut thee in a tower for two hundred years till thou art seventeen and hast learned to cipher."

Elfrida was slapped by the maid, which nearly choked her with fury, and set down to supper in the big upstairs room. The maid indignantly told where she had found Elfrida "talking with a strange gentleman," and when Cousin Betty had heard all about it Elfrida told her tale.

"And he was a great dear," she said.

"A —?"

"A very beautiful gentleman. I wish you'd been there, Cousin Betty. You'd have liked him too."

Then Cousin Bet also slapped her. And Elfrida wished more than ever that she had some poetry ready for the Mouldiwarp.

The next day's journey was as bumpety. as the first, and Elfrida got very tired of the whole business. "Oh, I wish something would happen!" she said.

It was a very much longer day too, and the dusk had fallen while still they were on the road. The sun had set red behind black trees, and brown twilight was thickening all about, when at a cross-roads, a man in a cloak and mask on a big black horse suddenly leaped from a hedge, stooped from his saddle, opened the carriage door, caught Elfrida with one hand by the gathers of her full travelling coat (he must have been frightfully strong, and so must the gathers), set her very neatly and quite comfortably on the saddle before him, and said—

"Hand up your valuables, please—or I shoot the horses. And keep your barkers low, for if you aim at me you shoot the child. And if you shoot my horse, the child and I fall together."

But even as he spoke through his black mask, he wheeled the horse so that his body was a shield between her and the pistols of the serving-men.

"What do you want?" Cousin Bet's voice was quite squeaky. "We have no valuables; we are plain country people, travelling home to our farm."

"I want the collar of pearls," said he, "and the pomander, and the little gold watch, and the jewels that have been reset."

Then Elfrida knew who he was.

"Oh," she cried, "you are mean!"

"Trade's trade," said he, but he held her quite gently and kindly. "Now, my fair madam—"

The men were hesitating, fingering their pistols. The horses, frightened by the sudden check, were dancing and prancing all across the road: the maidservants were shouting that it was true; he had the child, and better lose a few jewels than all their lives, and Cousin Bet was sobbing and wailing inside the dark coach.

Well, the jewels were handed out—that was how it ended—handed out slowly and grudgingly, and the hand that reached for them through the dusk was very white, Cousin Bet said afterwards.

Elfrida, held by the highwayman's arm, kept very still. Suddenly he stooped and whispered in her ear.

"Are you afraid that I shall do you any harm?"

"No," whispered Elfrida. And to this day she does not know why she was not afraid.

"Then—" said he. "Oh, the brave little lady—"

And on that suddenly set spurs to his horse, leapt the low hedge, and reined up sharply.

"Go on home, my brave fellows," he shouted, "and keep your mouths shut on this night's work. I shall be at Arden before you—"

"The child!" shrieked the maids; "oh, the child!" and even Cousin Bet interrupted her hysterics, now quite strong and overwhelming, to say, "The child—"

"Shall I order supper for you at Arden?" he shouted back mockingly, and rode on across country, with Elfrida, breathlessly frightened and consciously brave, leaning back against his shoulder. It is a very wonderful feeling, riding on a great strong, dark horse, through a deepening night in a strange country, held fast by an arm you can trust, and with the muscles of a horse's great shoulder rippling against your legs as they hang helplessly down. Elfrida ceased to think of Mouldiwarps or try to be a poet.

And quite soon they were at the top of Arden Hill, and the lights of the castle gleamed and blinked below them.

"Now, sweetheart," said the highwayman, "I shall set you down in sight of the door and wait till the door opens. You can tell them all that has chanced, save this that I tell you now. You will see me again. They will not know me, but you will. Keep a still tongue till to-morrow, and I swear Miss Arden shall have all her jewels again, and you shall have a gold locket to put your true love's hair in when you're seventeen and I'm two hundred and thirty. And leave the parlour window open. And when I tap, come to it. Is it a bargain?"

"Then you're not really a highwayman?"

"What should you say," he asked, "If I told you that I was the third James, the rightful King of England, come to claim my own?"

"Oh!" said Elfrida, and he set her down, and she walked to the door of the castle and thumped on it with her fists.

Her tale had been told to the servants, and again to Cousin Bet and the maids, and the chorus of lament and astonishment was settling down to a desire to have something to eat; anyhow, the servants had gone to the kitchen to hurry the supper. Cousin Bet and Elfrida were alone in the parlour, where Elfrida had dutifully set the window ajar.

The laurel that was trained all up that side of the house stirred in the breeze and tapped at the window. Elfrida crossed to the window-seat. No, it was only the laurel. But next moment a hand tapped—a hand with rings on it, and a white square showed in the window—a letter.

"For Miss Betty Arden," said a whispering voice.

Elfrida carried the letter to where her cousin sat, and laid it on her flowered silk lap.

"For me, child? Where did you get it?"

"Read it," said Elfrida, "it's from a gentleman."

"Lud!" said Cousin Bet. "What a day!—a highwayman and the jewels lost, and now a love-letter."

She opened it, read it—read it again and let her hand flutter out with it in a helpless sort of way towards Elfrida, who, very brisk and businesslike, took it and read it. It was clearly and beautifully written.

"The Chevalier St. George," it said, "visiting his kingdom in secret on pressing affairs of State, asks housing and hiding beneath the roof of the loyal Ardens."

"Now, don't scream," said Elfrida sharply; "who's the Chevalier St. George?"

"Our King," said Betty in a whisper—"our King over the water—King James the Third. Oh, why isn't my uncle at home? They'll kill the King if they find him. What shall I do? What shall I do?"

"Do?" said Elfrida. "Why don't be so silly. That's what you've got to do. Why, it's a glorious chance. Think how every one will say how brave you were. Is he Bonnie Prince Charlie? Will he be King some day?"

"No, not Charles—James; uncle wants him to be King."

"Then let's help him," said Elfrida, "and perhaps it'll be your doing that he is King." Her history had never got beyond Edward the Fourth on account of having to go back to 1066 on account of new girls, and she had only heard of Prince Charlie in ballads and story books. "And when he's King he'll make you dowager-duchess of somewhere and give you his portrait set in diamonds. Now don't scream. He's outside. I'll call him in. Where can we hide him?"