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CHAPTER II
The Manor House

You can imagine the packing, the running up and down stairs, the difficulty of choosing what to leave behind—for that is, after all, what it comes to when you are going away, much more than the difficulty of choosing what you will take with you. Miss Sandal, surrounded by heaps of toys and books—far too large to have been got into the trunks, even if all the clothes had been left out—at last settled the question by promising to send on, by post or by carrier, any little thing which had been left behind and which the children should all agree was necessary to their happiness. 'And the leopard-skin takes so much room,' she said, 'and I believe there are wild-beast-skins as well as stuffed animals at your uncle's house. So they left the leopard-skin behind too. There was a good deal of whispered talk and mystery and consulting of books that morning, and Aunt Emmeline most likely wondered what it was all about. But perhaps she didn't. She was very calm. Anyway, she must have known, when, as the cab drew up in front of the door, the three children presented themselves before her with bouquets in their hands.

'They are for you,' said all three at once.

Then Charlotte presented Aunt Emmeline with a bunch of balm from the garden.

'It means sympathy,' she said; 'because, of course, it's nice of you to say so, but we know that those geography places you’re going to can't be really as nice as Uncle Charles's.'

Charles’s bouquet was of convolvulus. 'It means dead hope,’ he explained; 'but it's very pretty, too. And here's this.' He suddenly presented a tiny cactus in a red pot. 'I bought it for you,' he said; 'it means, "Thou leavest not."'

'How charming of you!' said Aunt Emmeline, and turned to Caroline, who was almost hidden behind a huge bunch of ivy and marigolds.

'The ivy means friendship,' said Caroline, 'and the marigolds don’t count. I only put them because they are so goldy-bright. But if they must count, then they mean cruelty—Fate's, you know, because you’re not coming. And there’s a purple pansy in among it somewhere, because that means, "I think of you."'

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There was a good deal of whispered talk and mystery.

'Thank you very, very much,' said Aunt Emmeline. 'I can't tell you how pleased I am. It is very sweet of you all.'

This floral presentation gave a glow and glory to their departure. At the very last moment Caroline leaned out of the window to say:

'Oh, Aunt Emmeline, when Miss Peckitt comes to finish those muslin frocks that you're going to send us, would you try to manage to give her a Canterbury bell from me? She'll know what it means. But in case she doesn't, it's gratitude—in the book. And we'll put flowers in our letters expressing our feelings. Good-bye.'

Uncle Percival took them to the station and——

But why should I describe a railway journey? You know exactly what it is like. I will only say that it was very dusty, and so sunny that the children wanted the blinds down, only a very tailor-made lady with a cross little grey dog said 'No.' And you know how black your hands get in the train, and how gritty the cushions are, and how your faces get black too, though you are quite certain you haven't touched them with your hands. The one who got the little bit of the engine in its eye was Charles that time. But someone always gets it, because someone always puts its head out of the carriage window, no matter what the printed notices may say. You know all this. What you don't know is what happened at the junction where, carefully attended by the guard, they changed trains. They had to wait for some time, and when they had looked at the book-stall—which was small and dull, and almost entirely newspapers—they looked at the other people who had to wait too. Most of them were of dull appearance; but there was one tall gentleman who looked, they all agreed, exactly like Mr. Murdstone in David Copperfield.

'And he's got David with him, too,' said Charlotte. 'Look!'

The Murdstone gentleman, having bought the Athenæum, the Spectator, and a seven-penny reprint of the works of Marcus Aurelius, had gone to a bench on which sat a small, sulky-looking boy. He spoke to the boy, and the boy answered. And the gentleman walked off.

'He's gone to have a bun all by himself,' said Charles. 'Selfish pig!'

'I say, let's sit down on the bench. You sit next him, Charles. Perhaps he'd talk to us.' This was Caroline's idea.

They did; and 'he,' who was, of course, the sulky little boy, did speak to them. But not till they'd spoken to him. It was Charles who did it.

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'You sit next him, Charles.'

'Are you going on in this next train?' he said, 'because, if you are, we can get into your carriage. We shall be company for you.'

'What's the good?' said the little boy, unexpectedly; 'it'll only make it worse afterwards.'

'What worse?'

'The being alone.'

'Well, anyhow,' said Caroline, coming round to sit on the other side of him, 'you're not alone now. What's up? Who is he?'

'He's a schoolmaster. I should have thought you could have seen that.'

'We thought he was like Mr. Murdstone.'

'He is,' said the strange boy; 'exactly.'

'Oh,' said Charlotte, joyously, 'then you've read David. I say!'

They were all delighted. There is no bond like the bond of having read the same books. A tide of friendliness swept over the party, and when they found that he had also read Alice in Wonderland, Wild Animals I Have Known, and Hereward the Wake, as well as E. Nesbit's stories for children in The Strand Magazine, they all felt that they had been friends for years.

'But tell us all about it, quick, before he comes back,' urged Charles. 'Perhaps we could help you—bring you jam tarts and apples with a rope ladder or something. We are yours to the death—you won't forget that, will you? And what's your name? And where do you live? And where are you going? Tell us all about it, quick!' he urged.

Then out it all came. The strange boy's name was Rupert Wix, and he was at a school—not half bad, the school was—and old Filon—he was the classical chap—was going to take Rupert and two other chaps to Wales for the holidays—and now the other chaps had got measles, and so had old Filon. And old Mug's brother—his name wasn't really Mug, of course, but Macpherson, and the brother was the Rev. William Macpherson—yes, that was him, the Murdstone chap—he was going to take Rupert to his beastly school in the country.

'And there won't be any other chaps,' said Rupert, 'because, of course, it's vac—just old Mug's beastly brother and me, for days and weeks and years—until the rest of the school comes back. I wish I was dead!'

'Oh, don't!' said Caroline; 'how dreadful! they've got scarlet fever at our school, that's why our holidays have begun so early. Do cheer up! Have some nut-chocolate.' A brief struggle with her pocket ended in the appearance of a packet—rather worn at the edges—the parting gift of Aunt Emmeline.

'Is old Mug's brother as great a pig as he looks?' Charles asked, through Rupert's 'Thank-yous.'

'Much greater,' said Rupert, cordially.

'Then I know what I'd do,' said Charlotte. 'I'd run away from school, like a hero in a book, and have some adventures, and then go home to my people.'

'That's just it,' said Rupert. 'I haven't got anywhere to run to. My people are abroad. That's why I have to have my hols at a beastly school. I'd rather be a dog in a kennel—much.'

'Oh, so would I,' said Charlotte. 'But then I'd almost rather be a dog than anything. They're such dears. I do hope there'll be dogs where we're going to.'

'Where's that?' Rupert asked, more out of politeness than because he wanted to know.

'I'll write it down for you,' said Caroline, and did, on a page of the new grey leather pocket-book Uncle Percival had given her. 'Here, put it in your pocket, and you write and tell us what happens. Perhaps it won't be so bad. Here he comes—quick!'

She stuffed the paper into Rupert's jacket pocket as the tall Murdstone-like figure advanced towards them. The three children left Rupert and walked up the platform.

'I'm glad we gave him the chock,' said Charles, and the word was hardly out of his mouth before a cold, hard hand touched his shoulder (and his cheek as he turned quickly) and a cold, hard voice said:

'Little boy, I do not allow those under my charge to accept sweetmeats from strange children, especially dirty ones.'

And with that the Murdstone gentleman pushed the chocolate into Charles's hand and went back to his prey.

'Beast! Brute! Beast!' said Charles.

After this it was mere forlorn-hopishness and die-on-the-barricade courage, as Charlotte said later, that made the children get into the same carriage with Rupert and his captor. They might as well have saved themselves the trouble. The Murdstone gentleman put Rupert in a corner and sat in front of him with a newspaper very widely opened. And at the next station he changed carriages, taking Rupert by the hand as though he had been, as Charles put it, 'any old baby-girl.'

But as Rupert went out, Caroline whispered to him:

'You get some borage and eat it,' and Rupert looked 'Why?

'Borage gives courage, you know,' she said, too late, for he was whisked away before he could hear her, and they saw him no more.

They talked about him, though, till the train stopped at East Farleigh, which was their station.

There was a wagonette to meet them and a cart for their luggage, and the coachman said he would have known Caroline anywhere, because she was so like her mother, whom he had taken out riding on her pony when Mother was a little girl, and this made everyone feel pleasantly as though they were going home.

It was a jolly drive, across the beautiful bridge and up the hill and through the village and along a mile or more of road, where the green hedges were powdered with dust and tufts of hay hung, caught by the brambles from the tops of passing wagons. These bits of hay made one feel that one really was in the country—not just the bare field-country of the suburb where Aunt Emmeline and Uncle Percival lived, where one could never get away from the sight of red and yellow brick villas.

And then the boy who was driving the luggage-cart got down and opened a gate, and they drove through and along a woodland road, where ferns and blossoming brambles grew under trees very green and not dusty at all.

From the wood, they came to a smooth green, grassy park dotted with trees, and in the middle of it, standing in a half-circle of chestnuts and sycamores, was the house.

It was a white, bow-windowed house, with a balcony at one end, and a porch, with white pillars and two broad steps; and the grass grew right up to the very doorsteps, which is unusual and very pretty. There was not a flower to be seen—only grass. The wagonette, of course, kept to the drive, which ran round to a side door—half glass.

And here Mrs. Wilmington, the housekeeper, received them. She was a pale, thin person—quite kind, but not at all friendly.

'I don't believe she has time to think of anything but being ladylike,' said Charlotte. 'She ought to wear mittens.'

This was while they were washing their hands for tea.

'I suppose if you're a housekeeper you have to be careful people don't think you're a servant,' said Caroline. 'What drivel it is! I say, isn't this something like?'

She was looking out of the bow window of the big room, spread with a blue rose-patterned carpet, at the green glory of the park, lying in the sun like another and much more beautiful carpet, with a pattern of trees on it.

Then they went down to tea. Such a house—full of beautiful things! But the children hadn't time to look at them then, and I haven't time to tell you about them now.

I will only say that the dining-room was perfect in its Turkey-carpet-and-mahogany comfort, and that it had red curtains.

'Will you please pour the tea, Miss Caroline?' said Mrs. Wilmington, and went away.

'I'm glad we haven't got to have tea with her, anyway,' said Charles.

And then Uncle Charles came in. He was not at all what they expected. He could not have been what anybody expected. He was more shadowy than you would think anybody could be. He was more like a lightly printed photograph from an insufficiently exposed and imperfectly developed negative than anything else I can think of. He was as thin and pale as Mrs. Wilmington, but there was nothing hard or bony about him. He was soft as a shadow—his voice, his hand, his eyes.

'And what are your names?' he said, when he had shaken hands all round.

Caroline told him, and Charles added:

'How funny of you not to know, Uncle, when we're all named after you!'

'Caroline, Charles, Charlotte,' he repeated. 'Yes, I suppose you are. I like my tea very weak, please, with plenty of milk and no sugar.'

Caroline nervously clattered among the silver and china. She was not used to pouring out real tea for long-estranged uncles.

'I hope you will enjoy yourselves here,' said Uncle Charles, taking his cup; 'and excuse me if I do not always join you at meals. I am engaged on a work—I mean I am writing a book,' he told them.

'What fun!' said everyone but Caroline, who had just burnt herself with the urn; and Charles added:

'What's it about?'

'Magic,' said the uncle; 'or, rather, a branch of magic. I thought of calling it "A Brief Consideration of the Psychological and Physiological Part Played by Suggestion in So-called Magic."'

'It sounds interesting; at least I know it would if I knew anything about it,' said Caroline, trying to be both truthful and polite.

'It's very long,' said Charles. 'How would you get all that printed on the book's back?'

'And don't say "so-called,"' said Charlotte. 'It looks as if you didn't believe in magic.'

'If people thought I believed in magic they wouldn't read my books,' said Uncle Charles. 'They'd think I was mad, you know.'

'But why?' Charlotte asked. 'We aren't mad, and we believe in it. Do you know any spells, Uncle? We want awfully to try a spell. It's the dream of our life. It is, really.'

The ghost of a smile moved the oyster-shell-coloured face of Uncle Charles.

'So you take an interest in magic?' he said. 'We shall have at least that in common.'

'Of course we do. Everyone does, only they're afraid to say so. Even servants do. They tell fortunes and dreams. Did you ever read about the Amulet, or the Phœnix, or the Words of Power? Bread and butter, please,' said Charles.

'You have evidently got up the subject,' said Uncle Charles. 'Who told you about Words of Power?'

'It's in The Amulet,' said Charlotte. 'I say, Uncle, do tell us some spells.'

'Ah!' Uncle Charles sighed. 'I am afraid the day of spells has gone by—except, perhaps, for people of your age. She could have told you spells enough—if all the stories of her are true.'

He pointed to a picture over the mantelpiece, a fair-haired, dark-eyed lady in a ruff.

'She was an ancestress of ours,' he said; 'she was wonderfully learned.'

'What became of her?' Charlotte asked.

'They burned her for a witch. It is sometimes a mistake to know too much,' said the uncle.

This contrasted agreeably with remembered remarks of Uncle Percival and Aunt Emmeline, such as 'Knowledge is power' and 'There is no darkness but ignorance'.

The children looked at the lady in the white ruff and black velvet dress, and they liked her face.

'What a shame!' they said.

'Yes,' said the uncle. 'You see she's resting her hand on two books. There's a tradition that those books contain her magic secret. I used to look for the books when I was young, but I never found them—I never found them.' He sighed again.

'We'll look, Uncle,' said Charlotte, eagerly. 'We may look, mayn't we? Young heads are better than old shoulders, aren't they? At least, that sounds rude, but you know I mean two heads are better than yours—— No, that's not it. Too many cooks spoil the—— No, that's not it either. We wouldn't spoil anything. Many hands make light work. That's what I meant.'

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'They burnt her for a witch.'

'Your meaning was plain from the first,' said the uncle, finishing his tea and setting down his cup—a beautiful red and blue and gold one—very different from Aunt Emmeline's white crockery. 'Certainly you may look. But you’ll respect the field of your search.'

'Uncle,' said Caroline, from behind the silver tea-tray, 'your house is the most lovely, splendid, glorious, we've ever seen, and——'

'We wouldn't hurt a hair of its head,' said Charles.

Again the uncle smiled. 'Well, well,' he said, and faded away like a shadow.

'We'll find those books or perish,' said Charlotte, firmly.

'Ra-ther,' said Charles.

'We'll look for them, anyway,' said Caroline. 'Now let's go and pick an ivy leaf and put it in a letter for poor dear Aunt Emmeline. I'll tell you something.'

'Well?' said the others.

'This is the sort of house I've always dreamed of when it said luxury—in books, you know.'

'Me too,' said Charlotte.

'And me,' said Charles.