The Wonderful Garden/Chapter 18
Their minds once made up, the children collected the fading armfuls of leopard's-bane and made for the arbour that led to the tunnel. Inside the door they lighted the candle, closed and bolted the door as they had been told to, and went carefully down the steps and along the secret passage. And as they went they heard something moving in the darkness that lay thick beyond the little wavering light of their candle.
They stopped and listened. They heard the sound of breathing, and the next moment they saw, vaguely, in the almost darkness, something four-footed, spotted, furry, creeping along the passage towards them. It uttered a low, fierce, snarling growl.
'Throw it down,' said Caroline, casting her flowers from her. 'It can't pass it. It can't.'
Something four-footed, spotted, furry, creeping along the passage.
A heap of tangled, crushed leaves and flowers was all that there was now between the children and the leopard.
'It can't pass it. It can't,' said Caroline again, in an agonised whisper. Yet none of the children dared to turn and fly. Charlotte had remembered what she had heard of quelling wild animals by the power of the human eye, and was trying, almost without knowing that she tried, to meet the eye of this one. But she could not. It held its head down close to the ground and kept quite still. Everyone felt it was impossible to turn their backs on the creature. Better to face it. If they turned and ran, well, the door at the end of the passage was bolted; and if the flower-spell should fail, then, the moment their backs were turned, the leopard might—with one spring——
'Oh, I wish we hadn't,' said Charles, and burst into tears.
'Don't, oh, don't!' said Caroline; and to the leopard, who had not moved, she said, with wild courage:
'Down, sir! Lie down!'
The leopard lay down, flat—flatter than you would think a leopard could lie.
'It understands,' said Charlotte.
'Oh, yes.' Caroline's voice trembled as much as the hand that held the candlestick. 'It does. Poor pussy! Poor Leopard, then.'
A faint rumbling sound came from the crouching heap of spotted fur.
'I believe it's trying to purr,' whispered Caroline. 'Of course, leopard's purrs would be different.'
'Give a paw, then,' she said, very shakily. And the leopard lifted a ragged-looking forefoot. But even Caroline had not the courage to reach out a hand towards it.
'Go to sleep, good dog, then,' she said, in a distracted whisper. 'Go to sleep, go by-by, good little leopard, then.'
The leopard curled up and lay quite still.
'It's all right, I tell you,' said Caroline. 'Stop snivelling, Charles. I knew the leopard's-bane would do it. New let's go back backwards, very slowly, and if it moves I'll speak to it again.'
Very slowly, still striving to keep their eyes on the leopard, they retreated. They had not gone three steps before they heard it move. They stopped.
'Lie down!' said Caroline. And then, to their mingled horror, wonder, delight, surprise, dismay, and satisfaction, a voice answered them—a curious, choked, husky voice.
'Leopard stay still,' it answered; 'little lady not be frightened. Leopard like flowers. Leopard quite good.'
'Is it?' said Caroline, speaking as well as she could through the beating of her heart. 'Is it the leopard speaking?'
'Ess, little missy,' said the choked voice. 'Pretty flowers loose leopard's tonguey, make him talky. Leopard tell a secret. Little ladies sow seeds, pinky seeds, hearty seeds, the right day, the right way, and see what come up. Run away now. Leopard done talky. He go sleepy by-by. So long!'
None of them ever knew how they got to the end of the tunnel, got the bolts undone, got the door shut and bolted again, and stood in the dusky arbour looking in each other's paper-white faces.
Charlotte made two steps into the sunlight and threw herself face downwards on the path. Her shoulders heaved. Charles was still weeping without moderation or concealment. Caroline stood shivering in the sunshine.
'But we've got to get back,' she said. 'It's all right this side, because of the leopard's-bane. But if somebody came behind the leopard's-bane, from the house, you know? We must climb the wall and get to the house and warn them. Get up, Char. Charles, if you're ever going to be a man, be one now. There'll be plenty of time to howl when it's all over. We must climb the wall somehow.'
One leaves the children in the garden, a locked door between them and the leopard, trying to find a way of climbing a ten-foot wall. No gardener was to be found and the gates were locked.
'We must get over,' Caroline kept saying. 'Oh, we must, we must! The charm worked perfectly. If we can only get to the other end of the tunnel and throw in some more bane we shall have done the great deed. Try again, Charles. I'll give you a leg up. We must get over. Try again.'
One leaves Charles trying.
Now, although the three C.'s firmly believed that the magic of the green and yellow flowers subdued the leopard and caused it to speak—in a sort of language that somehow recalled the far-off speech of their ayah in India—I cannot quite expect you to believe this. And I feel that I must delay no longer to tell you what it is you can believe. To do this we must go back to Rupert, whom we left with William in the harness-room, fingering the bright buckles and drawing the long, smooth reins through his fingers.
'I say, William,' he said, 'couldn't we play a little trick on that Poad? There's a leopard-skin in the drawing-room. If I got a couple of pillows, and a needle and thread?'
'Eh?' said William, staring at him. Then suddenly he smacked his leg and laughed aloud. 'You've hit it this time, Master Rupert,' he said; 'blessed if you 'aven't. You go along in and get the skin. Careful now, because of Mother Wilmington.'
'The drawing-room's locked,' said Rupert, 'and I don't want to tell the others.'
'The drawing-room windows isn't,' said William. 'We'll watch our time, and I'll make a back for you. An' never you mind about pillows. Straw's good enough stuffing. An' don't forget the needle and cotton. I expect you'll find some lady's working-box in the drawing-room to get them out of.'
Rupert, once safely landed in the drawing-room, found the leopard skin easily enough, but the needle and cotton were not so quickly discovered. He found a work-table, indeed, made of satinwood, inlaid with ivory and lined with faded red velvet, where were reels of silk and flat ivory winders with thread on them, but all the needles were red with rust and fast embedded in their cushions and cases. He looked round. None of the cabinets looked as though they held needles. And, besides, what was the use of finding more rusty needles? One rusty needle was as useful, or rather as useless, as fifty could be. He thought of using the blind-cords instead of cotton, but they were too thick, and one could not push them through the leopard-skin without tearing it. Then he saw the golden quiet harp standing in its far comer. Its strings, perhaps? But he did not know how to unstring a harp, and when he touched one of its fine wires, just the thing for sewing with without a needle, it gave out the thin, sweet ghost of a note of music, faint indeed, but loud enough to warn him of the cry it could, and would, give if he attempted violence. The harp quivered under his hands as he gently let the string go, and something rattled. It was the lid of a sort of box in the pedestal of the harp.
'Perhaps they kept spare string there,' Rupert thought, and opened the lid.
'They,' it seemed, had kept spare strings here, and here the spare strings still lay, coiled neatly in little round boxes. Rupert opened several, and, choosing the thinner strings, put them in his pocket. One box rattled dryly in his hand, and when he opened it there were no strings, only a number of odd flat, pinkish, heart-shaped seeds. On the box was written, 'Seed of the F of H. D. Sow only in the way and on the day.'
He put its lid on and thought, then, no more of the box. But afterwards he remembered it.
And now, with the leopard-skin in his arms and the wires in his pockets, Rupert went cautiously to the window. Yes, all was safe, so William's signal told him. He dropped the bright skin into William's hands, and himself dropped to the ground.
'I've thought of something better than straw,' he said, when he and William and the leopard-skin were alone together in the harness-room. And William, when the new thought was explained to him, slapped his leg harder and laughed more thoroughly than before.
Rupert had only just entered the secret passage, his first match had just gone out, when he heard the children at the other end. He went towards them, fully meaning to explain what sort of leopard he was, and what sort of joke—he called it a joke to himself—he and William had arranged to play upon Poad. But when he heard them speak and saw the showers of leopard's-bane fall on the flags of the passage, he, as he put it later, 'played up.' And when the children had gone he laughed softly to himself and began to think what would be the best spot in the tunnel to wait for Poad in. He had noticed by the light of that first match an arched recess, the one, you remember, where the children stored their sacks of wet rose leaves the night they played at Rosicurians and cured Rupert. He would hide in this, and then, when Poad came along, he would jump out at him with that snarl which had sounded so well when he met the children.
He waited till the garden door was locked, and then felt for his matches. He could not find them. He must have dropped them when he was pretending to the children. He felt along the floor, but there were no matches to be found. Never mind, he could feel his way in the dark. He knew exactly where the arch was. To the left, about three-quarters of the way down the passage. He stood up and laid his hand upon the wall, walked forward till he felt the corner of the recess, and stooped to curl himself up in it and wait for Poad. He put his hand out to steady himself as he sat down, and his hand touched not the stone floor, but soft, warm fur. And not dry, hard fur like that which he himself wore, sewn tightly round him with harp-strings, but living fur, on a living creature. He drew back his hand, and a cold sweat of horror broke out on his forehead, and the little hairs on the back of his neck seemed to move by themselves. His hand still felt the dreadful warm softness of that fur. It almost seemed to him that he had felt the spots on it.
'Oh, I wish I hadn't!' said Rupert to himself, as so many of us have said when it was too late to say anything. 'Oh, I wish I hadn't!'
He stood perfectly still in the mockery of his sewn-on leopard-skin, waiting for the real leopard to move or to settle down. Perhaps it would settle down? The leopard must have crept in when the door into the garden was opened in readiness for the children to pass through. It must have gone to sleep there, and perhaps he had not roused it.
'Oh, why didn't I go with the others?' Rupert thought. And then a good thought came to him.
'If I had,' he told himself, 'I should have been out there, and they wouldn't have met me and turned back, and then they might have found the real leopard, and it might have jumped on them. I'm glad it's only me.'
This good thought came to him as he rose up and steadied himself by the wall. Then in an instant all thoughts were drowned in a flood of terror, and Rupert found himself almost running, feeling his way by the wall towards the house entrance. If he could only get out before the leopard was up and after him! He reached the end of the passage. The door at the foot of the stairs was shut and locked. He was alone there in the dark, with a locked door at each end of the passage. He crouched down by the door. In spite of his agony of fear, he had enough sense not to beat on the door and scream for help—which was, of course, his first mad impulse.
'Keep quiet,' he kept telling himself. 'Someone must come soon. If you keep quiet, the leopard will go on sleeping, perhaps. The children will open the garden door when they hear the dinner-bell. Then you can get out. If you make a row the leopard will wake up and come for you.'
So he crouched and waited. But no one came. Then suddenly he remembered. When the children heard the dinner-bell they would come down the passage. They would find the real leopard. It would certainly wake. His own feelings about the leopard now made him certain that the children, when they were safe in the sunshine, would see that what talked to them, dressed in a leopard's skin, could only have been a human being dressed up. Most likely they knew already who it was. So they would come back without fear—come back to find him, Rupert, and would find that!
Then Rupert did what was really an heroic thing. He stood up, and, as quickly as he could, began to feel his way back along the side of the passage farthest from the arched recess. He would go to the garden door, and when the children opened it, he could prevent their coming in. To do this he must pass the leopard.
A warm, delicious glow stole through him. This was worth it. Better than crouching like a coward at the far side, and letting those children come laughing and talking down the passage to meet that, savage from a sudden awakening. He crept quietly along. No sound broke the black silence. He reached the flight of steps, gained the other door, sat down on the top step, and waited.
Nothing had stirred in the silence.
'Anyhow,' said Rupert, 'I feel safer at the top of the stair than at the bottom.'
Rupert will never know how long he sat there in the darkness. The cracks in the door which showed as pale vertical streaks were his only comfort. He tried to get off the leopard's skin, but the harp-strings were too strong. It seemed to him that he had been there a week.
There were voices, many voices, Charlotte's voice high above the others. Rupert hoped the leopard was too far away to hear, but how could he know where the leopard was? It might have crept quite close to him on its padded, noiseless feet, and he would never have known. It might be within a yard of him now.
Rupert understood in that hour what sort of practical joke it was that he had prepared for the policeman.
'Because, of course,' said Rupert, 'I should have been just as dreadful for Poad as that is for me. He'd have thought I was It.'
The voices and footsteps came nearer. They were talking outside.
'Best shoot it when it rushes out at us. I've got a revolver,' said Poad. And a cold shiver ran down Rupert's back. Suppose he had met Poad alone in that dark passage as he had planned!
'Let me get at him with the garden-fork,' said another voice—the gardener's.
Then another, a strange voice this time:
'Don't hurt the beast. It's valuable. An' it's tame, don't I tell you? You leave be. Stand back. I'll tackle him.'
'It's me; it's Rupert,' he shouted.
Rupert wretchedly wondered how he was to be tackled; also how near the real leopard really was. He decided that a little noise more or less couldn't matter now. He tapped at the door and cried, 'Let me out. It's Rupert.'
But his words were drowned in the chorus of alarm that arose when he knocked at the door. And the leopard? In the midst of the babel of voices a bolt was drawn, the door opened. Rupert sprang out and turned to shut the door. But his feet and arms and head were entangled in strings, and he fell to the ground.
'It's me; it's Rupert,' he shouted; 'shut the door! The real leopard's inside.'
'Why!' said the leopard's owner—he who had thrown a net over Rupert—'it's a beastly boy, dressed up!' He spoke in tones of deep disgust.
There was a crowd of people. The three C.'s had managed to scale the wall by means of a pear tree. They had brought back William—a prey to secret laughter, and the leopard's owner, and a dozen other people. A score of hands helped to loose Rupert from the net.
'Oh, I don't know. I did it for a lark. To take a rise out of someone. But I've been paid out. The leopard's in there. I touched it, in the dark.'
'There,' said William to the policeman, 'I told you half an hour ago there was a good chance the beast 'ad taken cover in the passage, and you would have it you see 'is tail up a tree somewhere and wouldn't go down.'
'I certainly thought I see 'is tail,' said Poad, scratching his ear; 'and this gentleman's pal and half-a-dozen others is after 'im now, down by the other lodge. But perhaps it wasn't really 'is tail. In fact, it couldn't be, if the animal's in here like what the young gentleman says it is.'
'I tell you the leopard's in here, now,' said Rupert. 'Oh, get me out of this beastly skin, somebody.'
William unlaced him and he stepped out, a pale boy in shirt and knickerbockers.
'In there now, is he?' said the leopard's keeper, rudely taking no notice of Poad; 'then, if someone'll get a lantern or two, we'll go in and get him.'
Someone got a lantern or two—it was William, in point of fact; the lanterns happened to be ready in the summer-house.
The keeper went down the steps.
'On the right-hand side?' he said, quite unconcernedly.
And Rupert said, 'Yes, to the right.'
William and three other men followed warily, but to most of the party it seemed best to remain by the door. Five people and a net were surely enough to catch one leopard. But everyone crowded round the door, and some even went down a few steps, bending over to catch the first sounds of anything that might be happening.
All of a sudden a sound came from the dark passage below, and the listeners started back—a strange sound, the sound of long, loud laughter. It echoed and re-echoed through the vaulted passage, coming nearer and nearer. The crowd drew back.
Out came the leopard keeper, laughing, with his net; out came William, laughing, with his pitchfork; out came Poad, half laughing and half angry.
'What is it? What is it?' said everyone outside. And for a moment none of those from inside could get breath to answer.
'What is it?' they asked again, and at last William answered:
'Mrs. Wilmington's old cat! Gone in there to have her kittens in peace away front the children. They've caught your little bit all right,' he said to the leopard keeper. 'Look!'He pointed to something white among the trees beyond the wall. 'I told Bill to run up a signal if they found the rest of him where Poad said he'd seen his spotted tail.'
'Did you know that before we went in?' Poad asked, sternly.
''Course I did,' said William, his hands on his knees and his ruddy face deeply creased with the joke. 'You wouldn't have catched me going in there without I'd known where my Lord was, him and his spotted tail. I thought it was Master Rupert up to some more of his larks, I did. I wasn't a-going to spoil sport.'
'You 'aven't 'eard the last of this.'
'No more ain't you,' said William; 'so don't you think it, James Poad. You that believed one tale when you'd seen the other. You that wouldn't believe the sworn evidence of your own eyes and a spotted tail!'