The Wonderful Garden/Chapter 4
Now you may say it was chance, or you may say it was fate; or you may say it was destiny, or fortune; in fact, you may say exactly what you choose. But the fact remains unaltered by your remarks.
When Mrs. Wilmington placed a fat brown volume of sermons on the shelf, and said: 'There, that's the last,' she, quite without meaning it, said what was not true. For when tea was over the children found that the fat sermon book had not been the last. The last was Shadoxhurst on Thessalonians, a dull large book, and Mrs. Wilmington had not put it back in its place because she had not seen it. It was, in fact, lying on the floor, hidden by the tablecloth. If Charles had not happened to want his handkerchief, and gone down to look for it on the floor—its usual situation when it was needed—he would not have seen the book either.
Charles picked up Thessalonians, and the cover 'came off in his hand,' as the handles of cups do in the hands of washing-up maids.
What was inside the cover fell on the floor with a thump, and Caroline picked that up.
'Shadoxhurst on Thessalonians,' Charles read from the cover.
'This isn't,' said Caroline, looking at what had been inside. 'It's—I say! Suppose it was the book——'
She looked up at the picture.
It was certainly like the painted book.
'Only it hasn't any brass clasps,' said Caroline. 'But look—it used to have clasps. You can see the marks where they used to go.'
'Glory!' cried Charlotte. 'Fancy finding it the very first day! Let's take it to Uncle Charles.'
'Perhaps it isn't it,' suggested Caroline. 'Then he'd be furious, perhaps.'
'We'll soon see.' Charles reached out a hand. 'Let's have a squint. It ought to be all magic, and abracadabra, and crossed triangles, like in Ingoldsby Legends.'
'I'll have first look, any way,' said Caroline. 'I found it.'
'I found it,' said Charles. 'You only picked it up.'
'You only dropped it. Oh, bother——' she had opened the book and now let her hands fall, still holding it.
'Bother what?' asked the others.
'It isn't English. It's French, or Latin, or something. Isn't that just like things? Here, you can look.'
Charles took the book.
'It's Latin,' he said. 'I could read it if I knew a little more Latin. I can read some of it as it is. I know quam, and apud, and rara. Let's take it to the Uncle.'
'Oh, no,' said Caroline. 'Let's find out what it is first.'
It was not easy to find out. The title-page was missing, and quam, apud, and rara, though quite all right in their way, gave but little clue to what the book was about.
'I wish we'd someone we could ask,' said Charles. 'I don't suppose the Wilmington knows any Latin. I don't suppose she knows even apud and quam and rara. If we had the Murdstone chap handy, he could tell us, I suppose.'
'I'm glad we haven't,' Charlotte said. 'I don't suppose he'd tell us. And he'd take it away. I say. I suppose there's a church somewhere near, and a clergyman. He'd know.'
'Of course he would,' Caroline said, with returning brightness. 'Let's go and ask him.'
Half an hour later the children, coming down a deep-banked lane, saw before them the grey tower of the church, with elm trees round it, standing among old gravestones and long grass.
A white-faced house stood on the other side of the churchyard.
'I suppose the clergyman lives there,' observed Caroline. 'Please,' she said to a pleasant-looking, hook-nosed man who was mending the churchyard wall, and whistling "Blow away the morning dew" as he slapped on the mortar and trimmed off the edges with a diamond-shaped trowel, 'please does the clergyman live in that house?'
'He does,' answered the man with the trowel. 'Do you want him?'
'Yes,' said Caroline.
'Well, here he is,' said the man with the trowel. 'What can I do for you?'
'Do you mean to say that you're It?—the clergyman, I mean,—I beg your pardon,' said Caroline; and the man with the trowel replied, 'At your service.'
'I beg your pardon,' said Caroline again, very red as to her ears. 'I thought you were a working man.'
'So I am, thank God,' said the man with the trowel. 'You see, we haven't much money to spare, the parish is so poor, so we do any little repairs ourselves. Did you ever set a stone? It's awfully jolly. The mortar goes on so nicely, and squeezes out pleasantly. Like to try?' he asked Charles.
Of course, they all liked to try. And it was not till each had laid a stone and patted it into place and scraped off the mortar and got thoroughly dusty and dirty and comfortable that any one remembered why they had come.
Of course they all liked to try.
'Oh, this!' said the clergyman—for so I must call him, though anything less clergymanlike than he looked in his mortar-stained flannels and blue blazer you can't imagine. 'It looks interesting. Latin,' he, said, opening it carefully, for his hands were very dirty.
'Yes,' said Charles, with modest pride. 'I told them it was. I saw rara and quam and apud.'
'Quite so,' said the clergyman; 'rara, quam, and apud. Words of power.'
'Oh, do you know about words of power?'
'Rather! Do you?'
'Rather!' they said. And if anything had been needed to cement this new friendship, well, there it was.
'Look here,' said the clergyman. 'If you'll just wait while I wash my hands I'll walk up with you. And I'll look through the book and report to you to-morrow.'
'But what's it about?'
'About?' said he, turning the leaves delicately with the least mortared of his fingers. 'Oh, it's about spells and charms and things.'
'How perfectly too lovely!' exulted Charlotte. 'Oh, do read us one—just only one.'
'Right O,' was the response of this unusual clergyman, and he read: '"The seed of the fern, if pulverised"—pounded—smashed, you know—"and laid upon the eyes at the twelfth hour"—midnight, you know—at least, I think that's it—"last before the feast of St. John"—that's to-morrow by the way—"shall give to the eyes thus doctored"—treated—dealt with, you know—"the power to see that which is not to be seen." It means you'll see invisible things. I say, I must wash. I feel the dirt soaking into my bones. Will you wait?'
The children looked at each other. Then Charlotte said:
'Look here. Don't think we don't like you. We do—awfully. But if you walk up with us will you feel bound to tell Uncle about the book? Because it's a secret. He's looking for a book, and we think perhaps this is it. But we don't want to tell him till we are quite sure.'
'I found it inside Somebody-or-other-quite-dull on Thessalonians, you know,' said Charles; 'and I saw it was Latin because of quam and——'
'My dear sir—and ladies,' said the agreeable clergyman, 'I am the soul of honour. I would perish at the stake before I would reveal a centimetre of your least secret. Trust me to the death.'
And off he went.
'What a different clergyman!'said Charles; 'he is just like anybody else—only nicer.'
'He said thank God,' Caroline reminded him; 'he said it like being in church, too, not like cabmen and people in the street.'
'He said, "Thank God he was a working man,"' said Charlotte. 'I wonder what he meant?'
'I shall ask him some day,' said Caroline, 'when we know him better.'
But any one who had met the party as they went talking and laughing up the hill would have thought they had known each other for long enough, and could hardly know each other any better than they did.
Charles was dreaming of mortaring the Murdstone gentleman securely into a first-class railway carriage, and tapping him on the head with a brass trowel which was also a candlestick, when he was awakened by a pinch given gently. At the same moment a hand was laid on his mouth, and a whisper said:
'Hist!—not a word!'
'Shut up,' said Charles, recognising at once the voice of his sister Charlotte. 'I'm asleep. Don't be a duffer. Go to bed.'
'No, but,' said Charlotte, in the dark, 'Caroline and I have been talking about the fern-seed. And we're going to try it. Putting it on our eyes, I mean. To see whether we can see invisible things.'
'Silly,' said Charles, briefly.
'All right. Only don't say we didn't ask you to join in.'
'There isn't any fern-seed,' objected Charles.
'Yes, there is. Mrs. Wilmington's got some in the room they call her housekeeper's room, under a bell glass. Stupid little ferns, but I expect the seed's all right. Caro saw them when she went in to ask the Wilmington if we might get up at seven instead of half-past, because of everything being so new and lovely. She meant because of the charm book, of course. And she saw the ferns then.'
'Are you really going to?' asked Charles, warm in bed.
'Yes,' said Charlotte, in a take-it-or-leave-it tone.
'Oh, very well,' said Charles, 'only don't forget I told you it was silly rot. And, of course, nothing will happen. I was right about the Latin, you know.'
'Here's your dressing-gown,' answered Charlotte, who had been feeling for it in the mahogany wardrobe. 'You can scrabble for your shoes with your feet. I suppose they're beside the bed. Hurry up.'
Charles got up, grumbling gently. It was not to be expected that he would feel the same about this wild fern-seed idea as his sisters, who had thought and talked of nothing else for more than three hours, and had had to pinch each other to keep awake. Still, he got up, and they all went down to Mrs. Wilmington's room, which was warm and seemed full of antimacassars, china ornaments, and cheerfully-bound copies of the poets—the kind that are given for birthday presents and prizes, beautiful outside, and inside very small print on thin paper that lets the printing on the other side show through. Charlotte found this out as they waited, by the light of their one candle, for it to be twelve o'clock.
Caroline was plucking fronds of fern, carefully, so that the lack of them should not disfigure the plants.
'It's all duffing,' grumbled Charles. 'Don't forget I said so. And how are you going to pound the beastly stuff? You'll wake the Wilmington and the uncle and the whole lot if you pound.'
'I thought,' said Caroline, hesitating with the fern-fronds in her hand and her little short pigtail sticking out like a saucepan handle, as Charles put it later, 'I thought—it sounds rather nasty, but it isn't really, you know, if you remember it's all you—I thought we might chew them. Each do our own, you know, and put them on our eyes like a poultice. I know you hated it when Aunt Emmeline chewed the lily leaves and put them on your thumb when you burnt it,' she told Charles; 'but then her chewing is quite different from you doing it.'
'I don't care,' said Charles; 'it's only a bit more of your nonsense. Give us the beastly seeds.'
'They won't come off the leaves,' said Caroline. 'We shall have to chew the lot.'
'In for a penny, in for a sheep,' said Charlotte, cheerfully. 'I mean, we may as well be hanged for a pound as a lamb. I mean——'
'I know what you mean,' Caroline interrupted. 'Here you are. It's just on twelve. Chew for all you're worth, and when the Wilmington's clock has half-struck put it on your eyes. And when it's struck all the strikes take it off. Yes. I've thought about it all. I'm sure that's right. Now then, chew.'
'I hope it's not poison,' said Charles; 'you'll remember I told you——'
'Of course it isn't,' said Caroline. 'I've often licked ferns, and I'm not dead. I say—I daresay nothing will happen. But think how silly we should feel if we hadn't tried it. And this is the only night. He said so.'
'Oh, all right,' said Charles. 'At any rate, if we do it you can't be always saying we ought to have.'
'Chew,' said Charlotte; and the clock began to strike.
'One, two, three, four, five, six,' said Mrs. Wilmington's highly ornamented pink china clock; each child had thrust a little bunch of fern fronds into its mouth.
'Seven,' said the clock.
'Now,' said Caroline. And each child. . . But you picture the scene.
'Nine, ten, eleven, twelve, purr,' said the clock, and said no more.
'I don't like to take it off,' said Charlotte, her hands to her eyes. 'Suppose we did see something?'
'We shan't,' said Charles.
'You must,' said Caroline.
'Oh, well,' said Charlotte, and took away the little poultice of chewed fern from each eye.
'There's nothing,' she said.
'I knew there wouldn't be,' said Charles. 'Perhaps another time you'll know I'm right.'
'Never mind,' said Caroline; 'we did it, so we can't keep bothering about what might have happened if we had. Let's go to bed. It was decent of you to try, Charles, when you didn't want to so much—Oh!'
'What?' said the others.
'Poisoned,' said Charles, gloomily. 'I knew it wasn't safe. I expect you chewed harder than we did and—Oh!'
Charlotte had already said her 'Oh!' And now all three children were staring straight before them at the window. And there, where a moment ago was just black, bare, outside night, was a face—a white face with wide, dark eyes.
'It's true,' gasped Caroline; 'it is true—the fern-seed does——'
'It's not true,' said Charles, stoutly, his eyes on the face.
'Oh, but it is,' said Charlotte. 'Oh, what's going to happen now?'
And each child felt that the fern-seed had done what no one had, in its deep, deep heart, believed that it would do, and that their eyes now gazed—seeing—upon the unseen.
'I wish we hadn't,' said Charles. 'I told you not to.'
The lips of the face outside moved, as though it were speaking.
'No,' cried Charlotte. 'I don't want it to be true.'
A hand was raised—a hand outside the window. Would it knock at the window? The fern-seed only made you see the unseen, not hear the unheard. If the hand knocked at the window, and plainly it was going to knock. . . if the hand knocked, would they hear it?
The hand knocked.
A hand was raised.