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The Portrait

There were now two things for the three C.'s to look forward to: the return of Rupert and Lord Andore's coming-of-age party. The magic of the waxen man had ended so seriously that no one liked to suggest the trying of any new spells, though Charlotte still cherished the hope that it might someday seem possible to try a spell for bringing the picture to life. There were no directions for such a spell in any of the books.

'But,' she thought, 'considering all the experience we've had, we ought to be able to invent something.'

But the banishment of Rupert had left a kind of dull blankness which made it difficult to start new ideas. There was a sort of feeling like a very wet Sunday when there is some one ill in the house and you can't go to church. In Caroline and Charlotte there was a deep unacknowledged feeling that they ought to be very good in order to make up for 'poor Rupert.' And Charles cared little for anything but swimming, in which art he was progressing so far that he sometimes knew, even in the water, which were his arms and which were his legs, and could at least imagine that he was making the correct movements with all four.

Uncle Charles was less frequently visible even than at first, though when he did appear he was mere like an uncle and less like a polite acquaintance. The books the children had discovered had meant a very great deal to him; he told them so more than once. He went away now, almost every other day, to London to the British Museum, to Canterbury to its Library, and once, for two days, to look up some old parchments in the Bodleian Library, which, as of course you knew, meant going to Oxford. Mr. Penfold was very kind, and the children did quite a lot of building under his directions; but altogether it was a flattish time.

Then suddenly things began to grow interesting again, What began it was the visit of a tall gentleman in spectacles. He had a long nose and a thin face, with a slow, pleasant smile. He called when the uncle was out, and left a card. Caroline heard Harriet explaining that the master was out, and rushed after the caller in hospitable eagerness.

'I'm sure Uncle wouldn't like you to go away without resting,' she said, breathlessly, when he stepped at the sound of her pattering feet on the gravel, and she caught up with him; 'after you've come such a long way, and such a hot day, too.'

'After you've brought me out so far and made me trot so quick,' he answered. And after that of course one could no longer regard him as a stranger. Charlotte and Charles, in the meantime, had hastily examined the gentleman's card in the Russian bowl on the hall-table.

'Mr. Alfred Appleby,' it said, and added, as Charlotte said, most of the alphabet, beginning with 'F.R.S., F.S.A.,' and this mingled with his name so that when Caroline privately asked them what was on the card they could only think of 'Mr. Alphabet.'

Mr. Appleby accepted Caroline's invitation, and turned back with her.

'I'm sorry,' she said, 'that I can't take you straight into the drawing-room; but if you don't mind waiting in the dining-room a minute, I'll get the drawing-room key and take you in there; only I'm afraid the dining-room's rather awful, because we've been thinking of playing Red Indians, and the gum is drying on the scalps on most of the chairs.'

Mr. Appleby declined the drawing-room at any price, and was able to tell them several things they did not know about Red Indians, wampum, moccasins, and war-paint. He was felt to be quite the nicest thing that had happened since what Caroline and Charlotte, in private conversation, always spoke of as 'that awful image day.' When Mrs. Wilmington came in to see what those children were up to, Mr. Appleby won her heart by addressing her as Mrs. Davenant. 'Took me for the lady of the house at once,' she told Harriet. And Mrs. Wilmington drew Caroline aside and said:

'If you'd like to ask the gentleman to lunch, Miss Caroline, please yourself. There's fowls, as it happens, and a Paradise pudding, and peas. Perhaps your uncle would wish it.'

So the gentleman stayed to luncheon, and very good company they found him. He told the most amusing stories, all new to the hearers. He carved the fowls in a masterly way, and had two goes of pudding. And all the time he looked with exactly the right admiration and wonder at the portrait of Dame Eleanour in her ruff, with her strange magic philtres and her two wonderful books.

'We found those books, Mr. Alphabet,' said Charlotte. And then the whole story had to be told. Mr. Alphabet—for so we may call him now—was deeply interested, and nodded understandingly as the tale of the different spells unfolded itself.

'And do you propose to continue your experiments?' he asked, when he had heard the tale of the leopard, the last of the adventures which could be told, for the affair of the wax man was, of course, a thing that could never be disclosed.

'There's nothing particular that we want to do a spell about just now,' said Caroline. 'I did think of trying to do one to get Father and Mother home, but it might be very inconvenient to them to leave India just now. You never know, and we shouldn't like to work a spell that would only be a worry to them.'

Mr. Alphabet said, 'Quite so!'

'What I keep on wanting to try,' said Charlotte, 'is to make her come alive,' she nodded towards the picture; 'only there doesn't seem to be any spell for that in any of the books. She looks such a dear, doesn't she? Suppose she made a spell herself and did something magic to that picture, so that it should come alive if someone in nowadays-times got hold of the other end of the spell; you know what I mean?'

'Quite so,' said the visitor; 'why not'

'It wouldn't be the real her, I suppose?' said Charlotte; 'but it might be like a cinematograph and a phonograph mixed up. I want to see her move and hear her speak, like she did when she was alive.'

And again the gentleman said, 'Why not?'

'If only we could find out the proper spell,' said Charles. 'You see, everything came right that we've done, from the fern-seed on. only we can't.'

'I must think it over,' said Mr. Alphabet; 'and now I think, as I've stayed so long, I'll take the liberty of inviting myself to stay till your uncle returns. I should very much like to see this Wonderful Garden. And perhaps you'll permit me to smoke an after-dinner pipe there?'

The afternoon passed delightfully. Mr. Alphabet was one of those people with whom you feel comfortable from the first. He understood what you said, which is one of the two feet on which comfortable companionship stands; and he said nothing that you could not understand if you really used your brains, and that is the other foot. He told them the names of many flowers which had been strangers to them, and he talked of magic—Indian magic and Chinese magic, the magic of Egypt and of Ceylon, of Australia and of Mexico; and they listened and longed for more and got more to listen to. When, after tea, the Uncle returned, and having warmly greeted Mr. Alphabet took him away to his study, the children agreed that their new friend was 'the right sort,' and that they hoped they would see him again often.

'Once a week, at least,' said Caroline.

'Once a day,' said Charles.

They saw him once again, and once only.

And that was when, he and the Uncle having come out of the study together, the uncle went to see William about putting the horse in to drive Mr. Alphabet to the station, and Mr. Alphabet came into the dining-room to say good-bye to the children.

'I've been thinking over what you said about Dame Eleanour,' he said to Charlotte, 'and I'll tell you what. You ask your uncle to allow you to hang a green curtain over her, frame and all, and then make garlands of suitable flowers. Then hang the garlands across the picture and wait. You must never lift the curtain, of course, and the curtain must be green. And you must wish very much to see her move and to hear her speak. And I shall be very much surprised if you don't in—let me see—in about three weeks. The curtain must be green, mind. Nothing else will do. Don't let your housekeeper fob you off with a red moreen or an old blue damask. Green's the colour.'

'And do you really think?' asked Charlotte, with gleaming eyes.

'Well, with anyone else I shouldn't dare to think anything. But you've been so exceptionally fortunate hitherto, haven't you? With you I should think there could be no doubt of success. I don't say you'll see her here, mind you. I don't say how or when you will see her. These things are among the great mysteries. Perhaps one day when you're at breakfast you'll see the curtain move slightly, and at first you'll think it is the air from the open window, and then you'll see a bulge in the green curtain—don't forget it's to be green—and then a white hand will draw it back, and she will come stepping down out of her frame on to the nearest chair, with her rustling silk petticoat and her scarlet, high-heeled shoes. Perhaps that's how she'll come. I only say "perhaps," mind. Because, of course, you might meet her in the wood, or in some scene of gay revelry, or in the Wonderful Garden itself—her garden, which is kept just as she planted it. There's an old document your uncle's been showing me—she leaves her blessing to the family so long as the garden's kept as it was in her time—with a long list of the flowers and a plan of the garden, with the proper places for the flowers all marked. Did you know that? No? I must get your uncle to show you. I should think she would be very likely to appear in the garden.'

'You're not kidding us?' Charles asked, suddenly.

'Could you think it of me? No, I see you couldn't. You try my spell and write and tell me how it works. All right, Davenant—coming. Where's my hat?—oh, outside, yes—and my umbrella, right. Good-bye, all of you. Thank you very much for a most delightful day.'

'Thank you.' said Caroline, and they all said 'Good-bye, and come again soon!'

'Don't forget green!' were this amiable gentleman's parting words as he climbed into the dogcart beside William and waved a cheery farewell with his umbrella to the party at the front door (at the side).

Uncle Charles, when the matter was laid before him, raised no objection to the curtaining of the picture. He even drove with them to Maidstone and bought special curtains for the purpose, soft, wide, green woollen stuff it was, very soft, very wide, very green. Mrs. Wilmington hemmed the curtains and the uncle himself, tottering on the housemaid's steps, hung the curtains in place.

The Wonderful Garden -p379.jpg

'Take your last look,' he said.

'Take your last look.' he said, coming down the steps and holding the green curtains apart, so that Dame Eleanour looked out of the dusk of the curtains almost as if she were alive. 'Take a good look at her, so that you will knew her again if you do see her.'

'"If"?' said Charlotte.

'I mean when,' said the uncle, letting the long, straight folds of the curtains fall into place.

The question of garlands now occupied all thoughts, even these of the Uncle.

'Arbor vitæ,' said he, 'means tree of life.'

'Then we'll have that,' said Caroline, 'especially as it means "unchanging friendship" too.' She thought of Rupert. 'I hope Rupert's back before she appears.' she added. 'that would make him believe in magic, wouldn't it?'

The uncle, for the first time, was introduced to the Language of, and he seemed much struck by the literary style of that remarkable work.

'"Never did the florographist select from cunning Nature's wondrous field a more appropriate interpreter of man's innermost passions than when he chose the arbor vitæ to formulate the significance, 'Live for me.' I was not aware that human beings could write like that,' he said; 'and I thought you said arbor vitæ meant something quite different.'

'They often do,' said Caroline. 'We used to think the book didn't know its own mind, but we think now it put in new meanings when it found them out. It's rather confusing at first. But "live for me" is fine. It's just what we want the picture to do, isn't it? What else?'

'I leave it to you,' said the Uncle, laying down the book. 'Your author's style is too attractive. I could waste all the rest of the daylight on him. Farewell. If I can be of any assistance in hanging the garlands, let me know.'

They thanked him warmly and hesitated. Then Charles said, 'It was us that she was to come alive to, so I expect it had better be us to hang the garlands.'

'We,' said the Uncle gently, 'not us.'

But I meant us,' said Charles. 'Not we with you in it.'

'I was trying to correct your grammar, not your statement,' said the Uncle; 'but never mind. Good-bye.'

Nobody was quite sure what a garland was, because in books people sometimes wore garlands on their heads, when of course they would be wreaths, and sometimes twined them round pillars, in which case they would be like Christmas decorations.

'We had better have both kinds,' said Caroline, 'to be quite sure.'

On a foundation of twigs of the arbor vitæ twined round with Jaeger wool, originally bought for Caroline to knit a vest for her Aunt Emmeline ('but I know I shall never finish it,' she said), symbolic flowers were tied, some in circlets or wreaths, others in long straight lengths. 'Rye grass, which means a changeable disposition,' was suggested by Charlotte, 'because we do want her to change: from paint to alive,' she said; 'and pink verbena means "family reunion," and she is a relation, after all. Besides, pink's such a pretty colour.'

Caroline ascertained that yew meant life; but Charles was considered to have made the hit of the afternoon by his discovery that Jacob's ladder meant 'come down,' which was, of course, exactly what they wanted the lady to do.

The gardener knew what Jacob's ladder was, though the children did not; and their fear that it might be a dull shrub with invisible flowers was dispelled when they beheld its blue brightness.

'We ought to wear coronilla ourselves,' said Caroline—'a new piece every day. It means "success attend your wishes."' But the gardener had not heard of coronilla. 'The book says it's "a flowering shrub of the pea family,"' Caroline read from the Language of, which, as usual, she had been carrying under her arm, '"with small pinnate leaves"—whatever they are. "An elegant bush with reddish-brown blossoms when first expanded, varying to yellow at a later period of their graceful existence."'

'Oh, that?' said the gardener. 'That'll be scorpion's senna. That's what that be. Something to do with the shape of the stars in the sky. Old women sells it for a charm for shy sweethearts.'

'In our book it says "Success crown your wishes."'

'Just so,' said the gardener, 'and she names the day. That's it along there.'

The garlands looked very handsome and the wreaths very beautiful. It was Caroline who made this distinction. And their dark foliage and the bright pink and blue and yellow of their flowers showed charmingly against the green curtain.

'And now,' said Caroline, 'we've just got to wait, and Charlotte and I must stick to our glove and handkerchief cases if they're going to be ready to go in time for Mother's birthday. And Charles, if I were you, I should get Mr. Penfold to show you chip-carving like he offered to, and do a box for her. And we mustn't forget that we're not to look behind the curtain.'

'I shan't forget that,' said Charlotte. 'What I should like to forget's my head. It feels twice its proper size.'

'I've got a headache, too,' said Caroline. 'I expect it's the sun.'

'If it was the sun, mine would ache too,' said Charles; 'but with me it's the nose. I've had four hankies since breakfast. And one of those was the Wilmington's.'

'Well, let's go and get on with our embroidery. All my silks are frightfully tangled.'

They were not disentangled that day. The headaches were worse. I will not dwell on the development of the catastrophe. The doctor put it in a few brief, well-chosen words the next day.

'The girls have got measles right enough, and the boy hasn't yet.'