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The House of Arden/Chapter 6

"Where shall we hide him?" Elfrida asked impatiently.

Cousin Bet, fired by Elfrida's enthusiasm, jumped up and began to finger the carved flowers above the chimneypiece.

"The secret room," she said; "but slip the bolt to and turn the key in the lock."

Elfrida locked the room door, and turned to see the carved mantelpiece, open like a cupboard.

Then Elfrida flew to the window and set back the casement very wide, and in climbed the beautiful gentleman and stood there, very handsome and tall, bowing to Miss Betty, who sank on her knees and kissed the white, jewelled hand he held out.

"Quick!" said Elfrida. "Get into the hole."

"There are stairs," said Betty, snatching a candle in its silver candlestick and holding it high.

The Chevalier St. George sprang to a chair, got his knee on the mantelpiece, and went into the hole, just as Alice goes through the looking-glass in Mr. Tenniel's picture. Betty handed him the candle, which his white hand reached down to take. Then Elfrida jumped on the chair and shut the panel, leaped down, and opened the room door just as the maid reached its other side with the supper-tray.

When the cousins were alone Bet threw her arms round Elfrida.

"Don't be afraid, little cousin," she whispered, "your Cousin Bet will see that no harm comes to you from this adventure."

"Well, I do think!" said Elfrida getting out of the embrace most promptly, "when it was me let him in, and you'd have screamed the house down, if I hadn't stopped you—"

"Stop chattering, child," said Bet, drawing a distracted hand over her pretty forehead, "and let me set my wits to work how I may serve my King."

"I," said Elfrida scornfully, "should give him something to eat and see that his bed's aired; but I suppose that would be too vulgar and common for you."

The two looked at each other across the untasted supper.

"Impertinent chit!" said Bet.

"Chit yourself," said Elfrida.

Then she laughed.

"Come, Cousin Bet," she said, "your uncle's away and you're grown up. I'll tell you what to do. You just be wise and splendid, so that your portrait'll be in the illustrated Christmas numbers in white satin and an anxious expression. 'The saviour of her King'—that's what it'll say."

"Don't wander in your speech, child," said Cousin Bet, pressing her hand to her brow, "I've enough to distract me without that. And if you desire to ask my pardon, do so."

"Oh, well, I beg your pardon—there!" said Elfrida, with extreme irritation. "Now perhaps you'll give your King something to eat."

"Climb into that hole—with a tray? And the servants, perhaps, coming in any minute? What would you say to them if they did?"

"All right, then, I'll go," said Elfrida, only too glad of the chance.

Bet touched the secret spring, and when Elfrida had climbed into the dark hole—which she did quite easily—handed her the supper-tray.

"Oh, bother," said Elfrida, setting it down at her feet with great promptness. "It's too heavy. He'll have to come down and fetch it. Give me a candle and shut the panel, and tell me which way to go."

"To the right and up the steps. Be sure you kneel and kiss his hand before you say a word."

Elfrida reached down for the candle in its silver candlestick, the panel clicked into place, and she stood there among the cobwebby shadows of the secret passage, the light in her hand and the tray at her feet.

"It's only a Mouldiwarp magic adventure," she said, to hearten herself, turned to the right, and went up the stairs. They were steep and narrow. At the top she saw the long, light-line of a slightly opened door. To knock seemed unwise. Instead she spoke softly, her lips against the line of light.

"It's me," she said, and instantly the door opened, and the beautiful gentleman stood before her.

The secret room had a little furniture—a couch, a table, chairs—all old-fashioned, and their shapes showed beautiful, even in the dim light of the two candles.

"Your supper," said Elfrida, "is at the bottom of the stairs. The tray was too heavy for me. Do you mind fetching it up?"

"If you'll show me a light," he said, and went.

"You'll stay and eat with me?" said he, when she had lighted him back to the secret room, and he had set the tray on the table.

"I mustn't," said Elfrida. "Cousin Bet's such a muff; she wouldn't know where to say I was if the servants came in. Oh, I say! I'm so sorry I forgot. She told me to kneel and kiss your hand before I said anything about supper. I'll do it now."

"Nay," said he, "I'll kiss thy cheek, little lady, and drink a health to him who shall have thy lips when thou'rt seventeen and I am—what was it—five hundred?"

"Two hundred and thirty," said Elfrida, returning his kiss cordially. "You are nice, you know. I wish you were real. I'd better go back to Bet now."

"Real?" he said.

"Oh, I'm talking nonsense, I know," said Elfrida. "I'll go now."

"The absent tray will betray you," said he, taking food and wine from it and setting them on the table. "Now I will carry this down again. You have all the courage, but not quite the cunning of a conspirator."

"How long are you going to stay here?" Elfrida asked. "I suppose you're escaping from some one or something, like in history?"

"I shall not stay long," he said. "If any one should ask you if you have seen the King, what would you say?"

"I should say 'no'," said Elfrida boldly. "You see, I can't possibly know that you're the King. You just say so, that's all. Perhaps really you aren't."

"Exquisite!" said he. "So you don't believe me?"

"Oh, yes, I do!" said Elfrida; "but I needn't, you know."

"S'life!" he said. "But I wish I were. There'd be a coronet for somebody."

"You wish you were—"

"Safely away, my little lady. And as for coronets, the jewels are safe. See, I have set them in the cupboard in the corner."

And he had.

Then he carried down the tray, and Elfrida, who was very hungry, tried to persuade Bet that she must eat, if only to keep up her strength for the deeds of daring that might want doing at any moment.

But Bet declared that she could not eat; the least morsel would choke her. And as for going to bed, she was assuring her cousin that she knew her duty to her King better than that, and that she would defend her Sovereign with her life, if need were, when her loyal ecstasies were suddenly interrupted.

For the quiet of the night was broken by a great knocking at the castle door and the heavy voice of a man crying—

"Open, in the Queen's name!"

"They've come for him! All is lost! We are betrayed! What shall we do?"

"Eat," said Elfrida,—"eat for your life."

She pushed Bet into a chair and thrust a plate before her, put a chunk of meat-pie on her plate and another on her own.

"Get your mouth full," she whispered, filling her own as she spoke—"so full you can't speak—it'll give you time to think."

And then the door opened, and in a moment the room was full of gentlemen in riding dress, with very stern faces. And they all had swords.

Betty, with her mouth quite full, was trying not to look towards the panel.

Elfrida, whose mouth was equally full, looked at the gentleman who seemed to be leading the others, and remarked—

"This is a nice time of night to come knocking people up!"

"All hours are alike to a loyal subject," said a round, fat, blue-eyed gentleman in a green suit. "Have you any strangers under your roof to-night?"

"Oh!" cried Bet," all is lost!"

The gentlemen exchanged glances and crowded round her. Elfrida shrugged the shoulders of her mind—if a mind has shoulders—and told herself that it didn't matter. History knew best, no doubt, and whatever seemed to be happening now was only history.

"You have a stranger here?" they asked; and, "Where is he? You cannot refuse to give him up."

"My heart told me so," cried Bet. "I knew it was he you were seeking," and with that she fainted elegantly into the arms of the nearest gentleman, who was dressed in plum-colour, and seemed to be struggling with some emotion which made him look as if he were laughing.

"Ask the child—children and fools speak the truth," said the fat, blue-eyed gentleman.

Elfrida found herself suddenly lifted on to the table, from which she could see over the heads of the gentlemen who stood all round her. She could see Bet reclining on the sofa, and the open door with servants crowding in it, all eyes and ears.

"Now," said a dozen voices, "the truth, little miss."

"What do you want to know?" she asked; and, in a much lower tone, "I shan't tell you anything unless you send the servants away."

The door was closed and the truth was asked for again.

"If you'll only tell me what you want to know," she said again.

"Does any stranger lie here to-night?"

"No," said Elfrida. She knew that the beautiful gentleman in the secret chamber was not lying down, but sitting to his supper.

"But Miss Arden said 'All is lost,' and she knew 'twas he whom we sought."

"Well," Elfrida carefully explained, "it's like this. You see, we were robbed by a highwayman to-day, and I think that upset my cousin. She's rather easily upset, I'm afraid."

"Very easily," several voices agreed, and some one added that it was a hare-brained business.

"The shortest way's the best," said the plum-coloured gentleman. "Is Sir Edward Talbot here?"

"No, he isn't," said Elfrida downrightly, "and I don't believe you've got any business coming into people's houses and frightening other people into fits, and I shall tell Lord Arden when he comes home. So now you know."

"Zooks!" some one cried, "the child's got a spirit; and she's right, too, strike me if she isn't."

"But, snails!" exclaimed another, "we do but protect Lord Arden's house in his absence."

"If," said Elfrida, "you think your Talbot's playing hide-and-seek here, and if he's done anything wrong, you can look for him if you like. But I don't believe Lord Arden will be pleased. That's all. I should like to get down on to the floor, if you please!"

I don't know whether Elfrida would have had the courage to say all this if she had not remembered that this was history-times, and not now-times. But the gentlemen seemed delighted with her bravery.

They lifted her gently down, and with many apologies for having discommoded the ladies, they went out of the room and out of the castle. Through the window Elfrida heard the laughing voices and clatter and stamp of their horses' hoofs as they mounted and rode off. They all seemed to be laughing. And she felt that she moved in the midst of mysteries.

She could not bear to go back into her own time without seeing the end of the adventure. So she went to bed in a large four-poster, with Cousin Bet for company. The fainting fit lasted exactly as long as the strange gentlemen were in the house and no longer, which was very convenient.

Elfrida got up extremely early in the morning and went down into the parlour. She had meant to go and see how the King was, and whether he wanted his shaving-water first thing, as her daddy used to do. But it was so very, very early that she decided that it would be better to wait a little. The King might be sleepy, and sleepy people were not always grateful, she knew, for early shaving-water.

So she went out into the fields where the dew was grey on the grass, and up on to Arden Knoll. And she stood there and heard the skylarks, and looked at the castle and thought how new the mortar looked in the parts about the living house. And presently she saw two figures coming across the fields from where the spire of Arden Church rose out of the tops of trees as round and green as the best double-curled parsley. And one of the gentlemen wore a green coat and the other a purple coat, and she thought to herself how convenient it was to recognise people half a mile away by the colour of their clothes.

Quito plainly they were going to the castle—so she went down, too, and met them at the gate with a civil "Good morning."

"You are no lie-abed at least," said the green gentleman. "And so no stranger lay at Arden last night, eh?"

Elfrida found this difficult to answer. No doubt the King had lain—was probably still lying—in the secret chamber. But was he a stranger? No, of course he wasn't. So—

"No," she said.

And then through the open window of the parlour came, very unexpectedly and suddenly, a leg in a riding-boot, then another leg, and the whole of the beautiful gentleman stood in front of them.

"So-ho!" he said. "Speak softly, for the servants are not yet about."

"They are," said Elfrida, "only they're at the back. Creep along under the wall; you will get away without their seeing you then."

"Always a wonderful counsellor," said the beautiful gentleman, bowing gracefully. "Come with us, little maid. I have no secrets from thee."

So they all crept along close to the castle wall to that corner from which, between two shoulders of down, you can see the sea. There they stopped.

"And the wager's mine," said the beautiful gentleman, "for all you tried to spoil it. That was not in the bond, Fitzgerald, entering Arden at night at nine of the clock, to ferret me out like a pack of hounds after Reynard."

"There was nothing barred," said the green gentleman. "We tried waylaying you on the road, but you were an hour early."

"Ah," said the beautiful gentleman, "putting back clocks is easy work. And the ostler at the 'Bull' loves a handsome wager nigh as well as he loves a guinea."

"I do wish you'd explain," said Elfrida, almost stamping with curiosity and impatience.

"And so I will, my pretty," said he, laughing.

"Aren't you the King? You said you were."

"Nay, nay—not so fast. I asked thee what thou wouldst say if I told you I was King James."

"Then who are you?" she asked.

"Plain Edward Talbot, Baronet, at your ladyship's service," he said, with another of his fine bows.

"But I don't understand," she said, "do tell me all about it from the beginning." So he told her, and the other gentlemen stood by, laughing.

"The other night I was dining with Mr. Fitzgerald here, and the talk turned on highway robbery, and on Arden Castle here, with other matters. And these gentlemen, with others of the party, laid me a wager—five hundred guineas it was—that I would not rob a coach. I took the wager. And I wagered beside that I would rob a coach of the Arden jewels, and that I would lie a night at Arden beside, and no one should know my name there. And I have done all three and won my wager. I am but newly come home from foreign parts, so your cousin could not know my face. But zounds, child! had it not been for thee I had lost my wager. I counted on Miss Arden's help—and a pale-faced, fainting, useless fine lady I should have found her. But thou—thou'rt a girl in a thousand. And I'll buy thee the finest fairing I can find next time I go to London. We are all friends. Tell pretty miss to hold that tongue of hers, and none shall hear the tale from us."

"But all these gentlemen coming last night. All the servants know."

"The gentlemen came, no doubt, to protect Miss Arden, in case the villainous highwayman should have hidden behind the window curtain. Oh, but the wise child it is—has a care for every weak point in our armour!"

Then he told his friends the whole of the adventure, and they laughed very merrily, for all they had lost their wager, and went home to breakfast across the dewy fields.

"It's nice of him to think me brave and all that," Elfrida told herself, "but I do wish he'd really been the King."

When she had told Betty what had happened everything seemed suddenly to be not worth while; she did not feel as though she cared to stay any longer in that part of the past—so she ran upstairs, through the attic and the pigeon noises, back into her own times, and went down and found Edred sitting on the second hand of the daisy-clock; and he did not believe that she had been away at all. For all the time she had been away seemed no time to him, because he had been sitting on that second hand.

So when the Mouldiwarp told them to go along in, they went; and the way they went was not in, but out, and round under the castle wall to the corner from which you could see the sea. And there they lay on the warm grass, and Elfrida told Edred the whole story, and at first he did not believe a word of it.

"But it's true, I tell you," said she. "You don't suppose I should make up a whole tale like that, do you?"

"No," said Edred. "Of course, you're not clever enough. But you might have read it in a book."

"Well, I didn't," said Elfrida,—"so there!"

"If it was really true, you might have come back for me. You know how I've always wanted to meet a highwayman—you know you do."

"How could I come back? How was I to get off the horse and run home and get in among the chests and the pigeon noises and come out here and take you back? The highwayman—Talbot, I mean—would have been gone long before we got back."

"No, he wouldn't," said Edred obstinately. "You forget I was sitting on the clock and stopping it. There wasn't any time while you were gone—if you were gone."

"There was with me," said Elfrida. "Don't you see—"

"There wouldn't have been if you'd come back where I was," Edred interrupted.

"How can you be so aggravating?" Elfrida found suddenly that she was losing her temper. "You can't be as stupid as that, really."

"Oh, can't I?" said Edred. "I can though, if I like. And stupider—much stupider," he added darkly. "You wait."

"Edred," said his sister slowly and fervently, "sometimes I feel as if I must shake you."

"You daren't!" said Edred.

"Do you dare me to?"

"Yes," said Edred fiercely.

Of course, you are aware that after that, by all family laws, Elfrida was obliged to shake him. She did, and burst into tears. He looked at her for a moment and—but no—tears are unmanly. I would not betray the weakness of my hero. Let us draw a veil, or take a turn round the castle and come back to them presently.

It is just as well that we went away when we did, for we really turned our backs on a most unpleasant scene. And now that we come back to them, though crying is still going on, Elfrida is saying that she is very sorry, and is trying to find her handkerchief to lend to Edred, whose own is unexpectedly mislaid.

"Oh, all right," he says, "I'm sorry too. There! But us saying we're sorry won't make us unquarrel. That's the worst of it. We shan't be able to find The Door for three days now. I do wish we hadn't. It is sickening."

"Never mind," said Elfrida; "we didn't have a real I'll-never-speak-to-you-again-you-see-if-I-do quarrel, did we?"

"I don't suppose it matters what sort of quarrel you had," said the boy in gloom. "Look here—I'll tell you what—you tell me all about it over again and I'll try to believe you. I really will, on the honour of an Arden."

So she told him all over again.

"And where," said Edred, when she had quite finished,—"where did you put the jewels?"

"I—they—he put them in the corner cupboard in the secret room," said Elfrida.

"If you'd taken me and not been in such a hurry—no, I'm not quarrelling, I'm only reasoning with you like Aunt Edith—if I'd been there I should have buried those jewels somewhere and then come back for me, and we'd have dug them up, and been rich beyond the dreams of—what do they call it?"

"But I never told Betty where they were. Perhaps they're there now. Let's go and look."

"If they are," said he, "I'll believe everything you've been telling me without trying at all."

"You'll have to do that—if there's a secret room, won't you?"

"P'r'aps," said Edred; "let's go and see. I expect I shall have got a headache presently. You didn't ought to have shaken me. Mrs. Honeysett says it's very bad for people to be shaken—it mixes up their brains inside their heads so that they ache, and you're stupid. I expect that's what made you say I was stupid."

"Oh, dear," said Elfrida despairingly. "You know that was before I shook you, and I did say I was sorry."

"I know it was, but it comes to the same thing. Come on—let's have a squint at your old secret room."

But, unfortunately it was now dinner-time. If you do happen to know the secret of a carved panel with a staircase hidden away behind it, you don't want to tell that secret lightly—as though it were the day of the week, or the date of the Battle of Waterloo, or what nine times seven is—not even to a grown-up so justly liked as Mrs. Honeysett. And, besides, a hot beefsteak pudding and greens do not seem to go well with the romances of old days. To have looked for the spring of that panel while that dinner smoked on the board would have been as unseemly as to try on a new gold crown over curl-papers. Elfrida felt this. And Edred did not more than half believe in the secret, anyway. And besides he was very hungry.

"Wait till afterwards," was what they said to each other in whispers, while Mrs. Honeysett was changing the plates.

"You do do beautiful cooking," Edred remarked, as the gooseberry pie was cut open and revealed its chrysoprase-coloured contents.

"You do the beautiful eating then," said Mrs. Honeysett, "and you be quick about it. You ain't got into no mischief this morning, have you? You look as though butter wouldn't melt in either of your mouths, and that's always a sign of something being up with most children."

"No, indeed we haven't," said Elfrida earnestly, "and we don't mean to either. And our looking like that's only because we brushed our hairs with wet brushes, most likely. It does make you look good, somehow; I've often noticed it."

"I've been flying round this morning," Mrs. Honeysett went on, "so as to get down to my sister's for a bit this afternoon. She's not so well again, poor old dear, and I might be kept late. But my niece Emily's coming up to take charge. She's a nice lively young girl; she'll get you your teas, and look after you as nice as nice. Now don't you go doing anything what you wouldn't if I was behind of you, will you? That's dears."

Nothing could have happened better. Both children felt that Emily, being a young girl, would be more easy to manage than Mrs. Honeysett. As soon as they were alone they talked it over comfortably, and decided that the best thing would be to ask Emily if she would go down to the station and see if there was a parcel there for Master Arden or Miss Arden.

"And if there isn't," Elfrida giggled, "we'll say she'd better wait till it comes. We'll run down and fetch her as soon as we've explored the secret chamber."

"I say," Edred remarked thoughtfully, "we haven't bothered much about finding the treasure, have we? I thought that was what we were going into history for."

"Now, Edred," said his sister, "you know very well we didn't go into history on purpose."

"No; but," said Edred, "we ought to have. Suppose the treasure is really those jewels. We'd sell them and rebuild Arden Castle like it used to be, wouldn't we?"

"We'd give Auntie Edith a few jewels, I think, wouldn't we? She is such a dear, you know."

"Yes; she should have first choice. I do believe we're on the brink, and I feel just exactly like as if something real was going to happen—not in history, but here at Arden—Now-Arden."

"I do hope we find the jewels," said Elfrida. "Oh, I do! And I do hope we manage the lively young girl all right."

Mrs. Honeysett's best dress was a nice bright red—the kind of colour you can see a long way off. They watched it till it disappeared round a shoulder of the downs, and then set about the task of managing Emily.

The lively young girl proved quite easy to manage. The idea of "popping on her hat" and running down to the station was naturally much pleasanter to her than the idea of washing the plates that had been used for beefsteak pudding and gooseberry-pie, and then giving the kitchen a thorough scrub out—which was the way Mrs. Honeysett had meant her to spend the afternoon.

Her best dress—she had slipped the skirt over her print gown so as to look smart as she came up through the village—was a vivid violet, another good distance colour. It also was watched till it dipped into the lane.

"And now," cried Elfrida, "we're all alone, and we can explore the great secret!"

"But suppose somebody comes," said Edred, "and interrupts, and finds it out, and grabs the jewels, and all is lost. There's tramps, you know, and gipsy-women with baskets."

"Yes—or drink of water, or to ask the time. I'll tell you what—we'll lock up the doors, back and front."

They did. But even this did not satisfy the suddenly cautious Edred.

"The parlour door, too," he said.

So they locked the parlour door, and Elfrida put the key in a safe place, "for fear of accidents," she said. I do not at all know what she meant, and when she came to think it over she did not know either. But it seemed all right at the time.

They had provided themselves with a box of matches and a candle—and now the decisive moment had come, as they say about battles.

Elfrida fumbled for the secret spring.

"How does it open?" asked the boy.

"I'll show you presently," said the girl. She could not show him then, because, in point of fact, she did not know. She only knew there was a secret spring, and she was feeling for it with both hands among the carved wreaths of the panels, as she stood with one foot on each of the arms of a very high chair—the only chair in the room high enough for her to be able to reach all round the panel. Suddenly something clicked and the secret door flew open—she just had time to jump to the floor, or it would have knocked her down.

Then she climbed up again and got into the hole, and Edred handed her the candle.

"Where's the matches?" she asked.

"In my pocket," said he firmly. "I'm not going to have you starting off without me—again."

"Well, come on, then," said Elfrida, ignoring the injustice of this speech.

"All right," said Edred, climbing on the chair. "How does it open?"

He had half closed the door, and was feeling among the carved leaves, as he had seen her do.

"Oh, come on," said Elfrida, "oh, look out!"

Well might she request her careless brother to look out. As he reached up to touch the carving, the chair tilted, he was jerked forward, caught at the carving to save himself, missed it, and fell forward with all his weight against the half-open door. It shut with a loud bang. Then a resounding crash echoed through the quiet house as Edred and the big chair fell to the floor in, so to speak, each other's arms.

There was a stricken pause. Then Elfrida from the other side of the panel beat upon it with her fists and shouted—

"Open the door! You aren't hurt, are you?"

"Yes, I am—very much," said Edred, from the outside of the secret door, and also from the hearthrug. "I've twisted my leg in the knickerbocker part, and I've got a great bump on my head, and I think I'm going to be very poorly."

"Well, open the panel first," said Elfrida, rather unfeelingly. But then she was alone in the dark on the other side of the panel.

"I don't know how to," said Edred, and Elfrida heard the sound of some one picking himself up from among disordered furniture.

"Feel among the leaves, like I did," she said. "It's quite easy. You'll soon find it."