Open main menu
 

CHAPTER V
The Midnight Adventure


Now, the fern-seed was only warranted to show the invisible, not to make the unbearable heard. If there should be no sound when that raised hand tapped at the window, then the children would know that the fern-seed was doing what it was warranted to do by the Latin book. If, on the other hand, the hand tapped and made, in tapping, the usual noise produced by a common tapper, then one of two things might he true. Either the fern-seed was stronger than the Latin book bargained for, and was able to make people hear the unbearable even if they did not cover their ears with the charm that had covered their eyes, or else the fern-seed spell was all nonsense and the face outside the window was a real person's face and the hand was a real person's hand and the hand was a real person's hand, and the tap that was coming on the window as a really-tap that would sound hard and rattly on the glass of the window, as taps sound when fingers of bone and flesh make them.

All the children felt quite sure that they were not at all sure whether they wanted the face to be the face of a real person, or whether they wished it to be the Invisible made visible by fern-seed. But when the hand tapped at the window and a sound came to the children within—a sound quite distinct, and just the noise you or I might make if we tapped at a window and didn't want every one in the house to hear us—the children, though startled, no longer felt any doubt as to what they wished that face to be.

'It's only a real person,’ whispered Charles, and sighed deeply.

'It’s only a boy,’ said Caroline. 'What does he want?'

'It's that Rupert chap we saw in the train,' said Charlotte.

Every one breathed much more freely, and they all smiled and nodded towards the window; and the face nodded back, but it did not smile.

'He must have run away,' said Charles, 'like I told him to.'

'It wasn't you; it was me,' said Charlotte, promptly.

'I like this much better than its being invisible people,' said Charles, changing the subject a little. 'This is something like an adventure.'

'We shouldn’t have had it without coming down for the fern-seed,’ Caroline reminded him. And again they all nodded and smiled. The face outside moved its lips. It was saying something, but they could not hear what it said.

'It is that Rupert boy,' Caroline insisted; 'and he's run away to us. What larks!'

And again she nodded, and so did Charles. But Charlotte said, 'Don't let's go on nodding like Chinese pagodas. Of course, it wants to come in.' And at once the others saw that this was the case.

'He can't get in here,' Charlotte said; and, indeed, to have moved that table on which the fern-filled bell-glass stood surrounded by unhappy-looking little ferns in little dry pots, with bits of old tumbler arched protectively over them, would have been dangerous, and probably noisy. And, unless they removed the ferny difficulties, it was quite lain that the window would not be opened.

'The morning-room is next door—Mrs. Wilmington called it that,' said Caroline. 'It's a French window. She said so. It opens all right. I know how the fastenings go.'

'Why "French"?' asked Charlotte, eager for information even at that exciting moment, while Caroline was trying to explain to the face by signs that if it would just go along till it came to a French window it would find someone ready to let it in. 'Why "French"?'

'Because it’s like a door,' said Charles, joining in the sign-message. 'Everything in France is the opposite of here. They say "we" for "yes," and "two" is "you," and "four" is an "oven." Silly, I call it.'

'Hush!' whispered Caroline. 'Tread softly, and don't tumble over the wolf-skins.'

Candle-bearing, the little procession passed along to the morning-room. The face had understood the signs. At any rate, there it was, framed in glass panes, and when the French window, which was, indeed, just like a door, was opened, there was the face, as well as the hands, arms, legs, body, and feet, of Rupert, the platform boy, or somebody exactly like him.

'Come in,' said Caroline, holding the door open. And Charlotte added: 'Fear nothing! We will baffle your pursuers. We are yours to the death.'

He came in, a drooping, dusty figure, and the French window, which had permitted itself to be opened with the most gentle and noiseless submission, now, in closing, uttered what was little less than a tactless squawk.

'Fly!' whispered Caroline, swiftly turning the handle that fastened it. 'But your boots will betray us.'

Flight was the only thing, you see, and they had to risk the boots. Yet Rupert in his flight was noiseless as the others, who were all bath-slippered, and therefore shod with—if you were only reasonably careful and looked where you were going—the shoes of silence.

When the whole party was safe in Charles's room, with the door shut, they blew out the candles and stood holding each other and their breaths as they listened in the dark for what they fully expected to hear—the opening click of Mrs. Wilmington's lock, the opening creak of Mrs. Wilmington's door, the approaching rustle of Mrs. Wilmington's gown, the mincing amazement of Mrs. Wilmington's voice.

But all was still—still as the inside of a palm-house, which, as no doubt you know, is very much quieter than most of the few quiet places in this noisy world.

The four fugitives let their breaths go cautiously, and again held them. And still the silence wrapped them round, thick and unbroken as the darkness in which they stood.

'It's all right,' whispered Caroline, at last. 'Light up.'

Fortunately, each silver candlestick had its box of safety-matches in a silver holder fastened to its handle by a silver chain. This does happen in really well-managed houses. The candles were lighted.

'We are saved,' said Charlotte, dramatically.

'You came up like a mouse,' said Caroline to Rupert,—'a quiet mouse.'

It was then seen that Rupert's boots were not on his feet but in his hand, very muddy, and tied together by frayed boot-laces.

'I took them off,' he explained, 'when I got into your park. My feet hurt so, and the grass was so soft and jolly. Oh, I am so tired—and hungry!' His voice broke a little, and if he had not been a boy I think he would have cried.

'Get on to the bed,' said. Charlotte, with eager friendliness, 'and lie down. You be a wounded warrior and we'll be an Arab oasis that you've come to. That's the tent of the sheikh,' she added, as Charles gave the weary Rupert a 'leg up' and landed him among the billows of the vast feather-bed. 'Repose there, weary but honoured stranger. Though but humble Arabs, we are hospitable to strangers. We will go and slay a desert deer for you.'

'There are lots of biscuits in the sideboard in the dining-room,' said Caroline. 'I'll stay with the wounded—or else you can stay and I'll go with whichever doesn't.'

Though it was the middle of the night no one even thought of being sleepy. Perhaps it was the excitement of this most real adventure, or perhaps the seeds of the fern have an awakening effect. At any rate, the three C.'s were as ready to begin a new game as though it had been ten o'clock in the morning of the first day of the holidays, instead of half-past twelve of a night that wasn’t any night in particular except the Eve of St. John.

Charlotte and Charles set off, important and tip-toeing, on a biscuit-hunt, and Caroline, like a good little nurse, fetched a basin and sponge and washed the face of the stranger, taking no notice of his objections that he was not a baby, and earnestly hoping that in her long dressing-gown she looked at least a little like an Arab maiden ministering to a Feringhee warrior.

'Now I'm going to wash your weary feet, if you will stick them out over the side of the bed,' she said. 'They always do in Saracen countries, and if you think it's like a baby, I'll call it dressing your wounds.'

She brought a chair and a basin of water very carefully, and a big sponge, and then she peeled off Rupert's stockings and bathed his tired, swollen feet with great care and gentleness. And if a little of the water did go on the bed—well, you can't think of everything all in a minute, and she did put a towel under his legs afterwards.

'That's jolly,' said the wounded knight, graciously.

'You are terribly wounded,' said Caroline comfortingly. 'You must have been fighting dragons or walking over red-hot ploughshares, or perhaps it was a pilgrimage with peas in your shoes. We play pilgrims sometimes, with cockles in our hats and pilgrims' staffs—only we always pretend the peas. I think it's quite fair to pretend the shoes, don't you?'

When the others came back from their hunting, with a good 'bag' (it was a tin, really) of biscuits, the Saracen maiden greeted them with—

'Hist! The stranger sleeps. Let's pretend he's fainted, and we'll rouse him with a skin of wine. Get some water in the tooth-mug. And where are the biscuits?'

'We might as well have turbans,' said Charlotte, hastily twining a bath-towel round her head. 'All really Arab maidens are turbaned Turks.'

'Let's make it more tent-like before we wake him,' Charles suggested, drawing the curtains round two sides of the four-poster; 'and we might put the candles out of sight and pretend they're Arabian knights' lanterns.'

'Or put them in a line on the chest, and let them be the sun rising over the sands of the desert,’ said Charlotte, putting the three candlesticks in a row.

When all was arranged, the three towel-turbaned children climbed into the tent and looked at the wounded knight, who lay asleep, looking very tired indeed, his feet still wrapped in the towel and his head half fallen off the pillow.

'Let him sleep a little longer,' said Caroline, 'ere we rouse him to eat of the flesh of the deer which my brothers have brought to the wigwam for the benefit of the poor pale-face.'

'We're not Indians, silly,' said Charlotte 'We're Arabs, and I could do with a bit of the flesh of the deer myself, if you come to that.'

'So could I,' said Charles, his turban over one eye. 'It's jolly not being asleep. They say you get sleepy and cross if they let you sit up—but look at us.'

'Yes, look at us,' the others agreed, and ate the best mixed biscuits in a contented silence, broken only by the sound of crunching.

The familiar sensation of biscuit in the mouth seemed somehow to calm the excitement of the three C.'s

The adventures of the night, which had seemed, as they happened, not so very wonderful, now began to appear more surprising, and at the same time more real. And the silence which biscuit-eating demands (unless you are prepared to behave really badly and talk with your mouth full and have the crumbs all over the place) was favourable to reflection—a friend to thought.

'Do you know,' said Caroline, at last—'pass the mug, please—do you know, I don't at all know what we're going to do with him.'

'I was just thinking that,' said Charlotte.

'So was I,' said Charles.

'But I've been thinking——'

'So have I,' said the other two together.

'What?' asked Caroline, stopping short.

'What you have.' said Charlotte, and Charles repeated her words.

'Then I needn't tell you what I thought,' said Caroline, briefly.

I think they were all getting, perhaps, a little sleepy—or the effect of the fern-seed was wearing off.

'Oh, don't be crabby,' Charlotte said. 'We only meant we didn't see what on earth we could do with him. I suppose he must sleep with Charles. There's lots of room.' She leaned back on a pillowy bunch of featherbed and closed her eyes.

'No you don't,' said Caroline, firmly, pulling her sister up again into a sitting position by a limp arm. 'I could go to sleep myself if it comes to that. Take your turban off. It'll cool your sleepiness.'

'I said'—Charlotte spoke very slowly and distinctly, as people do when they are so sleepy they aren't quite sure whether they can speak at all—'I said, "Let him sleep with Charles."'

'Oh yes!' said Caroline. 'And be found in the morning when they call us, and taken alive and delivered back to the Murdstone man. No. We must hide him, and wake him before they call us. I can always wake up if I hang my head the right number of times on the pillow before I go to sleep.'

Charlotte was nodding happily.

'Get up!' said Caroline, exasperated. 'Get up! Get down! Get off the bed and stand on your feet. Now, then, Charles!'

But Charles was deeply slumbering, with his mouth very much more open than it ought to have been.

'That's it!' said Caroline, as Charlotte responded to her pull. 'That's it. It's just you and me! Women always have to do the work of the world! Aunt Emmeline said so once. She said it's not "Men must work and women must weep"; it's "Men must talk and women must work." Come on and give me a hand.'

'All right. I'm awake now,' said Charlotte, cheerfully. 'I've been biting my tongue all that awful time you've been talking. What's the idea?'

'We'll make him an upper berth, like in ships,' Caroline explained, 'and then we'll wake him up and water him and biscuit him and explain things, and get Charles into bed and all traces concealed. It'll be just you and me that did it. That's glory, you know.'

'Oh, do stop talking,' said Charlotte. 'I'll do anything you like, only stop talking.'

There was a great mahogany wardrobe in the room, with a mahogany hanging-cupboard at each side, and between the mahogany cupboards a space with mahogany drawers below and mahogany shelves above. And the shelves were like shallow drawers or deep trays, and you could pull them in and out. There was nothing on the shelves but clean white paper, and on each shelf a little bag made of white muslin and filled with dried lavender, which smelt very sweet through the fine mesh of the muslin.

The girls took out two of the trays and hid them under the bed. This left as much space above the lowest tray and the highest as they leave you on a steamer between the upper and lower berths. The girls made up a shake-down bed with blankets and pillows, and when all was ready they woke the boys gently and firmly by a damp sponge on the forehead and a hand over the mouth in case the sleeper should wake up yelling.

But both boys woke quietly. Charles had just enough wakefulness to submit to being got out of his overcoat and slippers and bundled into bed, but Rupert was thoroughly awake—ate biscuit, drank water, and understood exactly where and how he was to spend what was left of the night, as well as why he was to spend it there and thus.

He got into the wardrobe by means of a chair. The girls took away the chair and almost shut the doors of the wardrobe.

'We'll have a grand council to-morrow,' said Charlotte. 'Don't be anxious. Just remember we're yours to the death, like I told you on the platform.'

'It was me said that,' said Charles, almost in his sleep.

'And don't move out of here, whatever you do,' said Caroline. 'I shall come quite early, and we'll hide you somewhere. I expect I shall think of something in my sleep. I often do. Good night.'

'Good night,' said Rupert, in the wardrobe. 'I say! You are bricks—and you won't let them catch me?'

'Of course not,' said the three C.'s, confidently. (Charles said it quite in his sleep.)

Five minutes later the others were sleeping as soundly as Charles, and out Tonbridge way, the Murdstone man and his groom and his gardener and the local police were still looking for Rupert with anxious feelings, with lanterns that flickered yellow in the pale grey of dawn.


The Wonderful Garden -p081.jpg

'Just remember we're yours to the death.'