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The Mineral Woman

Next day Rupert felt more alive, as he explained.

'Now, look here,' he said at breakfast, 'suppose we go and discover the North Pole?'

'That would be nice,' said Caroline; 'the attics? We've never explored them yet.'

'No, attics are for wet days,' said Rupert.

'Not the real North Pole, you don't mean?' said Charles, quite ready to believe that Rupert might mean anything, however wonderful and adventurous.

'No,' said Rupert. 'What I thought of was a via medias res.'

'Latin,' explained Charles to the girls.

'It means a middle way. You ask your uncle to let us take our lunch out; bread and cheese and cake will do. And to not expect us till tea—time, and perhaps not then. We'll just go where we think we will, and shut our eyes when we pass signposts and post-offices. We might get lost, you know; but I'd take care of you.'

'We mustn't disturb the Uncle,' Caroline reminded them. 'We promised. Not for a week.'

'Write him a letter,' said Rupert. And this is the letter they wrote. At least, Caroline wrote it, and they all signed their names:

Dearest Uncle, ('Dearest is rot,' said Charles, looking at Rupert to be sure that he thought so too; 'put Dear.')

'But Dear is rottener,' answered Caroline, going on; 'it's what you say to the butcher when you write about the ribs that ought to have been Sir something. I know.'

Please may we go out for the day and take our lunch bread and cheese and cake would do Rupert says he will take care of us and not expect us home till tea and perhaps not then with love


'Rupert can't sign because he's "he" in the letter. Only the "we's" can sign,' said Caroline. And Harriet took the letter to the uncle, and the uncle wrote back:

By all means. I am sure you will remember not to administer spells internally or externally to any one you may meet. Be home by half-past six. If anything should detain you, send a telegram. I enclose 2s. 5d. for incidental expenses.—Your Dearest Uncle.

'How sweet of him!' the girls agreed, and Charles wanted to know what sort of expenses he meant.

'Incidental? Oh, if you want an apple or some chocks in a hurry, and don't happen to have any chink on you,' Rupert explained. 'Or ginger beer. Or raw eggs to suck as you go along. They're very sustaining when all other food's despaired of.'

The uncle must have given orders, for Harriet soon brought in four neat brown-paper parcels.

'Your lunches,' she said. 'Hope you'll enjoy yourselves. You've got a nice day for your outing. Bring me a keepsake, won't you? from wherever it is you're going to?'

'Of course we will,' said Charlotte. 'What would you like?'

But Harriet laughed, and said she was only talking.

They put on their thinnest clothes, for it was a very hot day, and they got William to cut them ash-sticks, 'in case we want to be pilgrims with staffs,' said Charles. The girls were very anxious for Rupert to wear his school blazer; and so flattering were their opinions of it, and of him, and of it on him, and of him in it, that he consented. Charles wore his school blazer, and the girls' frocks were of blue muslin, and they had their soft white muslin hats, so they looked very bright and yet very cool as they started off down the drive with their ash-sticks over their shoulders and their brown-paper parcels in knotted handkerchiefs dangling from the ends of the sticks.

'Who shall we be?' Charlotte asked, as they passed into the shadow of the woods where, the road runs through to the lodge gate.

'I'll be Nansen,' said Charles. 'I wish we had some Equismo dogs and a sledge.'

'It's Eskimo,' said Rupert.

'I know it is,' said Charles.

'I don't believe you did,' said Rupert, and Charles turned red and the girls looked at each other uncomfortably.

'I didn't say I did,' Charles answered. 'Not when I said it first. I meant I know now you've told me. It looked like Equismo in the books.'

This was disarming. Rupert could do no less than thump Charles on the back and say, 'Sorry, old man,' and Caroline hastened to say, 'What will you be, Rupert?'

'Why, Rupert, of course. Prince Rupert. He invented Prince Rupert drops, that are glass and crumble to powder if you look at them too hard. And he fought at Naseby—Rupert of the Rhine, you know. "For Charles, King of England, and Rupert of the Rhine!" he shouted.'

'Oh, I say,' Charles urged, 'do let me be Charles if you're Rupert. It's only fair.'

'You can't keep changing,' said Rupert. 'Besides, Charles had his head chopped off afterwards.'

'Well, Rupert died too, if you come to that. You might, Rupert.'

And the girls said, 'Do let him,' so Rupert said, 'All right, he didn't mind.'

Charlotte said she thought she would be Charles the Second, because he was a merry monarch; but it was decided that it might be confusing to have two Charles's; so she had to be content with being Joan of Arc, and Caroline chose Boadicea.

'She was British, you see,' Caroline explained, 'and Aunt Emmeline says you ought to support home industries.'

'Now we all call each other by our play-names all day,' Charlotte said, 'and if you make a mistake you lose a mark.'

'Who keeps the marks?'

'You keep your own, of course—counting on your fingers; and if you did it ten times you'd tie a knot in your handkerchief. Aunts do it ten times if they play often. We don't.'

Here Boadicea, Joan of Arc, Prince Rupert, and King Charles turned out of the lodge gate, and the exploring expedition began at seventeen minutes past ten precisely. The three C.'s kept up the game, calling each other by the new names with frequency and accurateness; but Rupert grew more and more silent, and when Charlotte addressed him as Prince Rupert, the stainless knight, he told her not to be silly.

At a quarter past twelve the four children, very dusty, very hot, and rather tired, reached a level crossing. The gates were shut because a train was coming, and already, as you looked along the line, you could see the front of the engine getting bigger and blacker, and the steam from it getting whiter and puffier, and you could feel the vibration of its coming in the shuddering of the gate you leaned on.

The train stopped, in a snorting, panting hurry, at the little station just beside the gates, let out a few passengers, shook itself impatiently, screamed, and went on. The big gates across the road swung slowly back till they stretched across the railway, and the people who had got out of the train came down the sloping end of the platform and through the small swing-gates, and the four children, who were crossing the line, met the little crowd from the train half-way. There were two women with baskets, a man with a handy-legged dog, and a girl with a large band-box partly hidden by brown paper, and the four children were face to face with him before they knew that there was anyone coming from that train whom they had rather not be face to face with—the Murdstone man himself. He was not a yard from them. Rupert threw up his head and backed a little as if he expected to be hit. The three C.'s breathed a deep concerted 'Oh!' and trembled on the edge of what might be going to happen. No one knew what Mr. Murdstone's power might be. Could he seize on Rupert and take him away? Could he call the police? Anything seemed possible in that terrible instant when they were confronted, suddenly and beyond hope of retreat, with the hated master.

And nothing happened at all. The Murdstone man passed by. He gave a cold, sour, unrecognising glance at the three C.'s, but he never looked at Rupert. He looked over his head as though Rupert had not been there, and passed on.

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He looked over his head as though Rupert had not been there.

Rupert grew very red and said nothing. The girls looked at each other.

'Let's walk along by the river,' said Caroline, 'and then we'll tell you why he didn't look at you.'

'You'll tell me now,' said Rupert, firmly, 'or I won't go another step.'

'He didn't look at you,' said Charlotte, 'because he didn't see you. And he didn't see you because you were invisible just when you wanted to be.'

I didn't want to be,' said Rupert. 'at least—— Oh, well, come on.'

When they had reached a green meadow that sloped pleasantly to the willow-fringed edge of the River Medway, Charlotte said:

'You were invisible to him. That's the magic. Perhaps you'll believe in spells now.'

'But there wasn't any spell,' said Rupert, impatiently.

And the girls said, with one voice, 'You take off your blazer and see!'

'I hate hanky-panky,' said Rupert, but he took off his coat.

'Look, in there,' said Caroline, turning back that loose fold which the button-holes are made in—fern-seed. Char and I seccotined it on while you and Charles were washing your hands. We meant to ask you to wish to be invisible when we went into a shop or something, just to prove about spells, but you did it without our asking. And now you will believe, won't you?'

'I can't,' said Rupert; 'don't talk about it any more. Let's have the grub out.'

They opened the parcels and 'had the grub out,' and it was sandwiches, and jam tarts packed face to face, and raspberries in a card-board box that had once held chocolates that was in Rupert's parcel—and biscuits and large wedges of that pleasant, solid cake which you still get sometimes in old-fashioned houses where baking-powder and self-raising flour are unknown.

'This is the first picnic we've ever had by ourselves. Don't you like it, Prince Rupert?'

Rupert's mouth was full of sandwich. He was understood to say that it was 'all right.'

'King Charles is gracefully pleased to like it,' said Charles. 'Boadicea had better pour out the Rhine wine, for it's a thirsty day.'

'Oh!' said Boadicea, in stricken tones. 'There isn't any!'

And there wasn't. Not a drop of milk or water or ginger-beer or anything drinkable. No nephew or niece of Aunt Emmeline's was likely to do anything so rash as drinking water from a strange river to which it had not been properly introduced, so there was nothing to be done but to eat the raspberries and pretend that raspberries quenched thirst, which, as you probably know too well, they don't.

This was why, when they had eaten everything there was to eat, and buried the bits of paper deeply in a hollow tree so as not to spoil the pretty picture of grey-green willows and blue-green water and grass-green grass, they set out to find a cottage where ginger-beer was sold. There was such a cottage, and they had passed it on the way. It had a neat, gay little garden, and a yellow rose clambering over its porch, and on one of its red brick sides was a pear-tree that went up the wall with level branches like a double ladder, and on the other a deep-blue iron plate which said in plain white words, 'Bateyes Minerals.' A stranger from Queen Victoria's early days might have supposed this to mean that the cottage had a small museum of geological specimens, such as you find now and then in Derbyshire, but Rupert and the three C.'s knew that 'Minerals' was just short for ginger-beer and the other things that fizz.

So, after making sure that they had not lost their two shillings and their sixpence, they unlatched the white gate and went in.

The front door, which was green and had no knocker, was open, and one could see straight into the cottage's front parlour. It was very neat and oil-clothy, with sea-shells on pink wool mats and curly glass vases and a loud, green-faced clock on the mantelpiece. There was a horse-hair sofa and more white crochet antimacassars than you would have thought possible, even in the most respectable sea-side lodgings. A black and white cat was asleep in the sun, hedged in among the pots of geraniums that filled the window. In fact, it was a very clean example of the cottage homes of England, how beautiful they stand!

The thirsty children waited politely as long as they could bear to wait, and then Caroline tip-toed across the speckless brown-and-blue linoleum and tapped at the inner door. Nothing happened. So she pushed the door, which was ajar, a little more open and looked through it. Then she turned, shook her head, made a baffling sign to the others to stay where they were, and went through the door and shut it after her.

The others waited; the sign Caroline had made was a secret only used in really serious emergencies.

'I expect there's a bird in there and she wants to catch it,' said Charles; but the others could not believe this, and they were right.

Quite soon Caroline returned, bearing a wrinkled black tray with three bottles of lemonade, three glasses, and a little round wooden thing that you press the glass marble down with into the neck of the bottle.

'Here,' she said in a hurry, 'you go round to the other side of the cottage, and there's a hornbeam arbour and a bench and a table, and you're very welcome to sit there. I'll tell you all about it afterwards,' she added, whispering. 'Only do take it and go.'

'But what is it?' Rupert asked.

'She's crying dreadfully. I don't know what it is yet. Oh, do go!'

And she thrust the tray on him and went back through the door with an air of importance which even the other C.'s found just a little trying. However, they were thirsty and loyal, so they did as they were asked to do; found the hornbeam arbour, and settled down on the blue-painted benches to drink their lemonade and tell each other how thirsty they had been, drawing deep breaths between the draughts to say so with.

Caroline, in the meantime, was in the back kitchen of the strange cottage, gently patting the shoulder of a perfect stranger who sat with her elbows on the mangle and her head in her hands, crying, crying, crying.

'Don't! Oh, please don't!' said Caroline, again and again; and again and again the woman who was crying said, 'Go away. I can't attend to you. Go away!'

She was a middle-aged woman, and her dark hair, streaked with grey, was screwed up behind in a tight knob. Her sleeves were tucked up, and all round her were piles of those square boxes with wooden divisions in which lemonade and ginger-beer travel about. The boxes were dotted with greeny bottles, some full, some empty, and the boxes were everywhere—on the sink, under the sink, on the copper, on the bricks, and outside the open back door.

'Don't cry,' said Caroline, in a voice that would have soothed an angry bear. 'Do tell me what's the matter. I might be able to help you.'

'Oh, go along, do,' said the woman, trying to dry her eyes with the corner of a blue-checked apron. 'You seem a kind little gell, but it ain't no good. Run along, dearie.'

'But,' said Caroline, 'if you don't stop crying, how am I going to pay you for the lemonade I took when you said I might? Three bottles it was.'

'Sixpence,' said the woman, sniffing.

'You poor dear,' said Caroline, and put her arms round the woman's neck. 'Now,' she said, comfortably, 'you just fancy I'm your own little girl and tell me what's the matter.'

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'I can't attend to you. Go away!'

The woman turned her face and kissed Caroline.

'Bless you for a silly little duck,' she said. 'My own little gel's in service over Tonbridge way. It's silly of me taking on like that. But it come so sudden.'

'What did?' Caroline asked. 'Do tell me. Perhaps I can help. I've got an uncle, and I know he'd give me some money for you, if that's it. And, besides, I can make nice things happen sometimes—I really can.'

'It isn't money,' said the woman, drearily, 'and I don't know why I should tell you.'

'It eases the heart, you know,' said Caroline; 'my aunt says it does. Do tell me. I'm so sorry you're unhappy.'

'You wouldn't understand,' said the woman, drying her eyes. 'It's silly, I know. But I only heard this morning, and just now it all come over me when I was sorting out the bottles. I was born in this little house, you see, and lived here all my life. And now to leave! A week's notice, too! Where'm I to go to? How'm I to manage? What'm I to get my living by? You see, being right on the highroad I get all the thirsty customers as they comes by. Where'm I to go to? There's a cottage back by Wright's farm; ne'er a bit of garden to it, and nobody passes it one year's end to another. I'd never sell a single bottle if I lived there to be a hundred.'

'But why must you leave here?' Caroline asked.

'Gentlefolks,' said the woman, bitterly; 'got a grand 'ouse of their own up in London. But they gone and took a fancy to my little bit, cause it looks so pretty with the flowers I planted, and the arbour my father made, and the roses as comes from Mother's brother in Cambridgeshire.

'"Such a sweet, pretty cottage to stay in for week-ends," they says; an' I may go to the Union and stay there, week in, week out, and much they care. There's something like it in the Bible, only there ain't no prophets now like there was of old to go and rebuke the folks that takes away poor folks' vineyards and lambs and things to make week-end cottages of. And, of course, they can pay for their fancy. An' it comes a bit 'ard, my dear. An' that's all. So now you know.'

'But that's dreadful,' said Caroline; 'the landlord must be a very wicked man.'

'It ain't 'is doing,' said the woman, sorting bottles swiftly; ''e's but a lad when all's said and done. Comes of age in a week or two. Ain't never been 'is own master yet, so to say. It's 'is cousin as manages the property.'E's got it into 'is 'ead to screw another shilling or two out of us somehow; 'ere, there, and everywhere, as they say. To pay for the harches and the flags when Milord comes of age, I suppose. Now you see you can't do anything, so run along, lovey. You're a good little gel to trouble about it, and you're the only one as has. It'll come home to you all right, never fear. Kind words is never lost, nor acts neither. Good day to you, Missy.'

'Good-bye,' said Caroline; 'but I'm not so sure that I can't do anything. I'll ask my uncle. Perhaps he knows my Lord, whoever it is.'

'Andore,' said the woman; 'but nobody don't know him about here. He's been abroad for his education, being weak in the chest from a child. But it ain't no good, dearie. I'll 'ave to go, same as other folks 'as 'ad to go afore me.'

'I shall think of something, you see if I don't,' said Caroline. 'I've got an aunt as well as an uncle, and she says you can make things happen. You just keep on saying, "Everything's going to be all right. I'm not going to worry." And then everything will be all right. You'll see. And I'll come again to-morrow or next day. Good-bye, dear.'

She kissed the woman, paid the sixpence, and went out to the hornbeam arbour with the air of one who has a mission.

'Come on,' She said, 'I'll tell you as we go along. No, I'm not thirsty now. Oh, well, if you've saved some for me. That was jolly decent of you.' She drank. 'Now,' she said, 'there's not a moment to be lost; it's a matter of life and death to the Mineral woman. Come on.'

And as they went back along the dusty road she told them what had happened.

'I must ask the Uncle at once if he knows Lord Andore,' she said; 'and he can telegraph to him like he did to India, and then everything will be all right.'

'But,' said Charlotte, 'we promised we wouldn't disturb him for anything. Suppose he doesn't appear at tea?'

'Then we must do something else,' said Caroline., 'It's the realest thing I've ever had the chance of doing—except you, Rupert,' she added, politely; 'and if we can't get at the Uncle we'll try a spell. Every single spell we've tried has come right. First the fern-seed; then the——'

'Yes, I know,' said Rupert, hastily, 'and it's all right to play at. But this is a real thing. I've got a godfather that's a baronet. I'll write to him to go to the House of Lords and tell this Lord Andore. Appeal to Cæsar himself. How's that?'

'Yes, do,' said Charlotte; 'but we'll work the spell as well. We may as well have two strings to our harp like that blind girl in the picture. What spell can we do?'

'We'll look it up in the books,' Caroline said, importantly; 'and, Rupert, if we pull it off and she doesn't get turned out of her house, you will believe the spell, won't you?'

'I'll try,' said Rupert, cautiously; 'and, anyway, I'll write to my godfather. Only he's in Norway. I'd better telegraph, perhaps?'

'It'll cost pounds, won't it?' said Charles, admiringly.

'Never mind,' said Rupert, carelessly. 'Mrs. Wilmington will lend me the chink till I get my allowance. Let's do the thing properly while we're about it. You may as well be hanged for a sheep as——'

'As a cow. Yes, indeed,' said Charlotte, with approval.