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CHAPTER XI
The Rosicurians


The door of the drawing-room at the Manor House was kept locked, and Mrs. Wilmington dusted the room herself and carried its key in her pocket. After the Uncle had said that about Mrs. Wilmington having expected the children to break everything in the house, the three C.'s began to wonder whether the drawing-room had always been kept in this locked-up state, or whether it was only done on their account.

'Out of compliment to us,' as Charles put it.

'I almost think it must be that,' Caroline said; 'because of course drawing-rooms are for people to sit in, and the Wilmington must expect some one to sit in it or she wouldn't dust it so carefully.'

'I looked in the other day when she was dusting,' said Charlotte. 'I couldn't see much just a bit of the carpet, pink and grey and pretty, and the corner of a black cupboard-thing with trees and birds and gold Chinamen on it, and a table with a soup tureen with red rabbits' heads for handles, and a round looking-glass that you could see some more of the room in, all tiny and all drawn wrong somehow—you know the sort; convict mirrors, Harriet says they are. I asked her.'

'When?' said Charles.

'Oh, I don't know. Just after. And Harriet goes in to sweep it. She says it's full of lovelies.'

'Why don't you ask her if it was shut up out of compliment to us?' Charles asked.

'Because I wasn't going to put ideas into Harriet's head, of course.'

And Caroline agreed that such a question would have been simply giving themselves away.

Each of the three C.'s had turned the handle of the drawing-room door many times to see whether by chance Mrs. Wilmington had just this once not remembered to lock it. But she always had. And their interest in the room had steadily grown. And now here was another wet day, just the day for examining golden Chinamen and looking at yourself in convex mirrors; and the room was locked up so that no one could enjoy these advantages.

Rupert was still in bed. The doctor had decided against measles; but the feverish cold which had given rise to the measles idea was still too bad for Rupert to be anywhere but where he was. And the others were only allowed to see him for a few minutes at a time. Mrs. Wilmington had, so Harriet explained, 'taken to the new young gentleman in a way you'd hardly believe,' and was spending the afternoon reading Masterman Ready to him, after a baffled attempt to read him Eric, or Little by Little, which she fetched from her own room on purpose, but Rupert had stopped his ears with his fingers rather than listen to it.

'It is the time,' said Charlotte; 'there is a time in the affairs of men that they call the Nick. And this is it. Let's try to get in. The Wilmington is safely out of the way. Let's!'

'Yes, let's,' said Charles.

'No, don't let's,' said Caroline. 'The Uncle mightn't want us to. Perhaps there's some wonderful secret kept in there known only to the head of the house and his faithful Wilmington. The Uncle's been so jolly decent. Let's go and ask him for the key.'

The others laughed, and Charles said, 'You know well enough that's no earthly.'

Caroline did not think there could be a secret, because the Uncle was now a member of the Royal Order of the Secret Rose, whose unchangeable motto was 'halves' in all secrets.'

'So if there'd been anything like that he'd have told us without preservation,' Charles added. ' Yes, I agree with Caro.'

'And,' said Charlotte, 'I don't see—— Oh, I say, I've got an idea! Let's have another hunt for that second book the Lady in the picture's got under her elbow. We really ought to find it. It's a sacred duty we owe the Uncle for being so decent about Rupert.'

'The drawing-room door's knob is just the same as this one's,' Charles pointed out; 'and the morning-room's and the library's door knobs are the same too. Let's see if this key won't fit the drawing-room.' He rattled the key of the dining-room door as he spoke.

'I wish you wouldn't,' said Caroline. 'It's jolly rough on me. Everybody always blames the eldest. I wish you'd been the eldest, Charles.'

'I would have if I could, you bet,' said Charles. 'Come on.'

'No, look here,' said Caroline desperately, 'please don't. And I'll go and ask uncle if we mayn't. There!'

'But we're forbidden to disturb him.'

'I'd rather disturb him than go poking into places he doesn't want us to go poking into. Don't you see? If he doesn't mind us going in he'll say "Yes," and if he does mind he'll say "No," and then we shall be glad we didn't without asking him.'

'But what could be in there that he doesn't want us to see?' Charles wanted to know.

'Oh, anything! Clouds of live butterflies that are let out after lunch, and go back to their cages when the tea-bell rings. I think Caro's right about asking the Uncle,' Charlotte said.

'Butterflies are simply piffle,' Charles pointed out. 'They'd be laying their eggs all over everything and turning into cocoons all the time. I know, because of silkworms.'

'Well, a snake then,' said Charlotte briskly: 'an enormous king-serpent, with a crown on its head, and yards and yards long, that comes out of a cupboard from two to four every day, and twines pieces of itself round the legs of the furniture, or your legs if you go in. It wouldn't mind what legs they were it twined round, I expect.'

'I like snakes,' said Charles briefly. 'Let Caro go to the Uncle if she wants to.'

They all went. It was deemed respectful to wash themselves a little.

'They like you to be clean when you ask for things,' said Caroline.

'It's always "wash!" whatever you do,' Charlotte complained. 'While there's life there's soap.' But she washed too.

There was an agitated pause on the sheepskin mat outside the uncle's study door.

'Shall we knock?' Charles asked.

'You don't knock at sitting-room doors,' said Caroline, as she turned the handle and opened the door three inches and three-eighths.

'Who's that?' said the voice of the uncle. 'How often am I to give orders that I am not to be disturbed on any pretence?'

'There isn't any pretence,' Charles was beginning, when Caroline broke in with:

'It's a depredation of the Secret Rose.'

'So I perceive. But I am too busy to play now,' said the Uncle; and you could tell by the very way he spoke that he had his thumb in a book and was afraid of losing his place.

'It isn't play. We want to ask your permission for something.'

'Well, if I receive this deputation, will it undertake not to do it again for a week, on any pretence? Then come in.'

They came in, to a room that seemed quite full of books. There were books on the tables, books on the floor, books on the mantelpiece and on the window-ledge, books open and books shut, books old and new, books handsome and ugly. The uncle seemed even to have used books to cover the walls with, as ordinary people use wall-paper. He was sitting at a wide green-leather-covered writing-table and had his thumb in a tall brown folio.

They all said 'Good morning' politely, and Caroline coughed and said:

'If you please, Uncle, we want to explore the whole house to look for the other book—the book, I mean, that is lost out of the picture. Dame Eleanour's book, I mean. You said we might. But the drawing-room door's locked.'

'Dear me!' said the Uncle, impatiently, 'can't you unlock it?'

'No,' Charles told him. 'The Wil—I mean, Mrs. Wilmington keeps the key in her under-pocket.'

'Oh, she does, does she? You won't break anything? But of course you won't,' said the Uncle, rather in a hurry. 'Well, as members of the Society of the Secret Rose, I'll let you through my secret door.'

He put a folded paper in his book to mark the place, got up, and crossed the room to a low, narrow door by the fireplace that looked as though it led to a cupboard. He went through the door, and the children followed him. They found themselves in a little carpeted corridor. At the left was a door—closed and barred; to the right a flight of stairs, and in front another door. This the uncle opened.

'Here is the drawing-room,' he said, and there it was. They could see a corner of its carpet, and it was the same pink and grey rose-pattern as the other corner that Charlotte had seen.

'Now come up here,' said the UJncle, and led the way. At the top of the stairs was another door. The Uncle opened it, and behold, the well-known corridor, with the stuffed birds and fishes, from which their bedroom doors opened.

'I will give you the key of this door to keep,' said the uncle, 'and then you can visit the drawing-room when you please. If you do not disturb anything and refrain from making your visits in muddy boots, Mrs. Wilmington need never know. It will be a secret between us—my little contribution to the Society of the Rose. Like a conspiracy, isn't it?' he asked, anxiously.

'Just exactly like,' everyone agreed, and asked whether it was really a secret staircase.

'It is now, at any rate,' said the uncle. 'It used to be merely the humble back stairs, but I had it shut up because I dislike noise.'

'We'll always come down in our bath slippers,' Caroline promised him. 'Oh, Uncle, you are a darling!'

The Uncle submitted to a complicated threefold embrace, and went back to his brown folio.

'Now, then,' said the three, and entered the drawing-room.

You went up three steps to it. That was why you could not reach up from the outside to look through the windows, of which there were three. They were curtained with grey and pink brocade that rhymed with the carpet. There were tall gold-framed mirrors set over marble tables with golden legs, and round mirrors whose frames had round knobs on them, and oval mirrors with candlesticks branching out from underneath them. There was a golden harp, with hardly any of its strings broken, in one corner, and a piano with inlaid woods of varied colours on which Caroline would have dearly loved to play 'The Blue-bells of Scotland' and Haydn's 'Surprise,' but, as this would have meant Mrs. Wilmington's surprise too, it was not to be thought of. There were carved Indian cabinets with elephants and lions on them, and Chinese cabinets with mandarins, and little-footed gold ladies and pagodas in ivory under glass cases, and wax flowers also glass-cased. There were statues, tall and white and cold, and boxes of carved ivory and carved ebony; and one of porcupine quills and one of mother-of-pearl and silver—a work-box, that was. There were cushions and chair-seats of faded needlework, old and beautiful, and straight-backed chairs and round-backed chairs, two crystal chandeliers that looked like fountains wrong way up; china of all sorts, including a Chinaman who wagged his head when you came near him.

In fact, the room was the kind you sometimes find in houses where the same family has lived for many, many, many years, and each generation has taken care of the beautiful things left by its ancestors, and has added one or two more beautiful things, to be taken care of by the generation that is to come after. You could have amused yourself there for an hour just by looking; and the three C.'s remembered joyously that they had not been forbidden to touch.

It is wonderful how careful children can be if they do not allow their minds to wander from their determination to be careful. The three C.'s looked at everything and touched a good many things, and did not break or hurt anything at all. They examined the cabinets, opening their doors and pulling out every drawer in the hope of discovering some secret place where the book might be. But they only found coins and medals and chessmen and draughts and spilikins, bright foreign sea-shells, a sea-horse and a snakeskin, some mother-of-pearl counters and ivory draughts, and an ivory cribbage-board inlaid with brass that shone like gold.

'It's no good,' said Charles at last, pulling out one of the lacquered drawers. 'Let's play spellicans. It's a nice, quiet game that grown-ups like you to play, and we owe the Uncle something.'

'Let's have just one more look,' Charlotte pleaded. 'Oh, I say, we haven't looked at the books yet.'

There were books, not many, on some of the tables—large books with pictures, and one, a photograph book, so heavy that Caroline could not lift it up.

'I say, look here!' she called out. 'This book's only got about three pages of uncles and aunts, the rest is solid like a box, made to imitate a book. Suppose the book were inside the box part?'

'Won't it open?' The others were crowding close to look.

'There's a sort of catch there,' said Charles, putting his finger on a little brass button.

'Oh, crikey!' He started back. So did the others. For a low, whirring sound had come from the book, and Charlotte had hardly time to say, 'It's a Nihilist bomb; come away!' before the book broke into the silvery chiming cadence of 'Home, Sweet Home.'

'It's a musical-box,' Charlotte explained, needlessly. And then the same thought struck each mind.

'Mrs. Wilmington!' For the musical-box was a fine one, and its clear, silvery notes rang out through the room. Mrs. Wilmington must hear, wherever she was. She would hear and come.


The Wonderful Garden -p187.jpg

'It's a Nihilist bomb, come away!'


'Fly!' said Caroline, and they fled. They got out, locked the door, rushed softly yet swiftly up the stairs, and waited behind the upper door till they heard Mrs. Wilmington's alpaca sweep down the front stairs. Then out, and down after her, quickly and quietly, so that when, having found the musical-box playing with sweet, tinkling self-possession to an empty drawing-room whose doors were locked, and having satisfied herself that no intruder lurked behind brocaded curtain or Indian screen, she came to the dining-room, she found the three C.'s quietly seated there, each with a book, a picture of good little children on a rainy day. She could not see that Charles's book was a Bradshaw and Caroline's Zotti's Italian Grammar, wrong way up.

'Oh, you are here,' she said. 'Did you hear that musical-box?'

'Yes,' said the children, meekly.

Mrs. Wilmington stood a moment in the door. She did not understand machinery, and to her it seemed quite possible that a musical-box might begin to play all on its own account without any help from outside. On the other hand, it had never chosen to do so before these children came.

'You ought not to wear bedroom slippers in the sitting-rooms,' she said, and went away without more words.

'I nearly burst,' said Charles then, 'especially when she noticed our feet.'

'But she'll find out,' Charlotte said. 'She found out about Rupert. Let's go back now; because she won't think we're there now she knows we're here. There was another book, all heavy too. We'll start that and wake her up again.'

'I say, isn't it a lark?' Caroline whispered, as they crept up the stairs.