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CHAPTER XII

 

"WELL—JEM!"

 

 HOW tired they were when they came out from the world of pictures into the world of thronging people! How their limbs ached, and they were brought back to the realisation that they were creatures with human bodies, which somehow they seemed to have forgotten.

When they stood in the sunshine again Robin drew a long breath.

"It is like coming out of one dream into another," he said. "We must have been there a long time. I didn't know I was tired, and I didn't know I was hungry; but I am. Are you?"

She was as tired and hungry as he was.

"Dare we buy a sandwich to eat with our eggs?' she said.

"Yes, I think we dare," Robin answered. "Where shall we go and eat them?"

There was no difficulty in deciding. She had planned it all out, and they so knew the place by heart that they did not need to ask their way. It was over one of the fairy bridges which led to a fairy island. It was softly wooded, and among the trees were winding paths and flowers and rustic seats and quaint roofs peering above the greenness of branches. And it was full of the warm scent of roses growing together in sumptuous thousands, their heavy sweet heads uplifted to the sun, or nodding and leaning towards their neighbour clusters.

The fairy bridge linked it to the wonderful world beyond, but by comparison its bowers were almost quiet. The crowd did not jostle there.

"And we shall be eating our lunch near thousands and thousands of roses. It will be like the Arabian Nights. Let us pretend that the rose who is queen of them all invited us—because we belong to nobody," Meg said.

They brought the modest addition to their meal and carried the necessary ever-present satchel to their bower. They were tired of dragging the satchel about, but they were afraid to lose sight of it.

"It's very well that it is such a small one, and that we have so little in it," Robin said.

They chose the most secluded corner they could find, as near to the Rose Garden as possible, and sat down and fell upon their scant lunch as they had fallen upon their breakfast.

It was very scant for two ravenously hungry children, and they tried to make it last as long as possible. But scant as it was and tired as they were, their spirits did not fail them.

"Perhaps if we eat it slowly it will seem more," said Meg, peeling an egg with deliberation, but with a very undeliberate feeling in her small stomach.

"Robin, did you notice our man?"

"I saw him, of course," answered Rob. "He's too big not to see."

"I noticed him," continued Meg. "Robin, there's something the matter with that man. He is a gloomy man."

"Well, you noticed him quickly," Robin responded, with a shade of fraternal incredulity. "What's happened to him."

Meg's eyes fixed themselves on a glimpse of blue water she saw through the trees. She looked as if she was thinking the matter over.

"How do I know?" she said. "I couldn't. But somehow he has a dreary face—as if he had been thinking of dreary things. I don't know why I thought that all in a minute—but I did, and I believe it's true."

"Well, if we should see him again," Robin said, "I'll look and see."

"I believe we shall see him again," said Meg. "How many eggs have we left, Robin? "

"We only brought three dozen," he answered, looking into the satchel. "And we ate seven this morning."

"When you have nothing but eggs you eat a good many," said Meg reflectively. "They won't last very long. "But we couldn't have carried a thousand eggs, even if we had had them." Which was a sage remark.

"We shall have to buy some cheap things," was Robin's calculation. "They'll have to be very cheap though. We have to pay a dollar, you know, every day to come in, and if we have no money we can't go into the places that are not free—and we want to go into everything."

"I'd rather go in hungry, than stay outside and have real dinners, wouldn't you?" Meg put it to him.

"Yes, I would," he answered. "Though it's pretty hard to be hungry."

They had chosen a secluded corner to sit in, but it was not so secluded that they had it entirely to themselves,

Just after they sat down and opened their satchel they saw two people turn into the place they had hit upon as the one where they would be the least likely to be disturbed by passers-by. But these were not passers-by, and did not look as if they were likely to disturb anyone. They were evidently on the lookout for a quiet spot themselves. They seemed to be a young country couple, husband and wife, plain and awkward, and making the most of their holiday visit to the Fair. They looked simple and primitive and good-natured, and as if they had been enjoying themselves immensely. The man was tall and broad-shouldered and gawky. He had on a broadcloth coat which shone with obtrusive newness, wrinkled on the shoulders, and was too short in the sleeves. He had a starched shirt-front and collar, which the heat had destroyed the stiffness of, and which were at once creased and crackling; he wore a Derby hat, rather too small for him and set on the back of his head. He was neither handsome nor particularly intelligent-looking, but he had a face which somehow said he was a good fellow just as surely as he was a very unfashionable one. His wife was of the same style as himself. She was tall and big-boned; her dress did not fit her, and was a desperate country dressmaker attempt at following the prevailing fashion, though at a very safe distance. But she had a nice common face too, and while it was glowing and shining with heat, it was also glowing and shining with enjoyment.

Both Robin and Meg cast a quiet glance over them as they drew near.

"That's the kind of people this means everything in the world to," Robin said in a low voice; "it means as much to them as it does to us. They are just like us, Meg. They live on a farm, I imagine. They look as if they did. They never see anything or go anywhere or learn anything. I suppose they can't afford books."

"I don't believe they have been educated enough to know what books to choose, even if they could afford to buy them," said Meg. "She cooks and scrubs and churns and washes, and he ploughs and does all the other farmer things. But they look as if they were good-natured; don't they? And I guess they are tramping about to see everything."

"And they will look at pictures and statues and things from strange countries and people from foreign lands," Robin said, with another furtive glance at them. "They'll go home and tell their children all they can remember, if they have any children. Won't it be fun for the children? They'll play World's Fair for ever so long, I believe."

"Just as we used to play circus when father and mother couldn't afford to send us," Meg said.

The young couple loitered along the walk, looking around them for a few yards, and then they seemed to decide to come back to a seat not far from where the children were making the most of their eggs. As she passed Meg and Robin, the woman glanced at the scanty little spread on the seat between them. She did not do it curiously or rudely, and she looked away and went on talking to her husband at once.

"This is as good a place as any, Jem," they heard her say. "Let's sit here; I'm ready to drop. I'm so tired, and I'm starving hungry; ain't you?"

"Guess I am," he answered, with a grin; "I hope you have got plenty in your basket, Em. I could eat a steer an' not stop to chaw him nuther."

The woman laughed too. "Well," she said, "I know what you can get outside of when you've been ploughing, an' I'm used to perviding fer ye. I ain't one to stint a man; I guess ye know that by experience; I believe ye'll have a plenty."

"If there was any poor appetites come in at the gate this morning," said Jem, "I guess they won't be likely to be took through it when night comes."

They sat down, and when they did it each of them heaved a sigh of relieved fatigue. The woman opened the basket and took a coarse but big and clean napkin out and laid it between them on the seat, just as Meg and Robin had done their pieces of newspaper. And as she did this she was so near that Meg could not avoid glancing at her and seeing what she did. It was not a fortunate thing that the seat was so near. It is easier, when one is ravenously hungry, to force oneself to pretend one is satisfied with a little when there is nothing more within sight, than it is when someone else is making an agreeable and hearty meal within sight and scent. Meg was suddenly conscious of the odour of something savoury, and of wishing it was not so near her at the same time. In spite of their neighbours' cheap clothes and tanned, hardworked hands and faces, their basket evidently contained good home-made things to eat. Meg caught glimpses of ham and chicken, and something that looked like cake. Just at that moment they looked so desperately good that she turned away her eyes, because she did not want to stare at them rudely. And as she averted them she saw that Robin had seen too.

"Those people have plenty to eat," he said, with a short awkward laugh.

"Yes," she answered. "Don't let us look. We are here, Robin, anyway—and we knew we couldn't come as the other people do."

"Yes," he said. "We are here."

The man and his wife finished their lunch and began putting things in order in their basket. As they did it, they talked together in a low voice, and seemed to be discussing something. Somehow, in spite of her averted eyes, Meg suddenly felt as

test

"those people have plenty to eat."

if they were discussing Robin and herself, and she wondered if they had caught her involuntary look.

"I think," Robin said, "Meg—I think that woman is going to speak to us."

It was evident that she was. She got up and came towards them, her husband following her rather awkwardly.

She stopped before them, and the two pairs of dark eyes lifted themselves to her face.

"I've just been talking to my man about you two," she said. "We couldn't help looking at you. Have you lost your friends?"

"No, ma'am," said Robin. "We haven't got any. I mean we're not with anyone."

The woman turned and looked at her husband.

"Well—Jem!" she exclaimed.

The man drew near and looked them over. He was a raw-boned, big young man, with a countrified, good-natured face.

"You hain't come here alone?" he said.

"Yes," said Robin. "We couldn't have come if we hadn't come alone. We're not afraid, thank you. We're getting along very well."

"Well—Jem!" said the woman again.

She seemed quite stirred. There was something in her ordinary good-natured face that was quite like a sort of rough emotion.

"Have you plenty of money?" she asked.

"No," said Rob. "Not plenty—but we have a little."

She put her basket down, and opened it. She took out some pieces of brown fried chicken; then she took out some big slices of cake with raisins in it. She even added some biscuits and slices of ham. Then she put them in a coarse clean napkin.

"Now, look here," she said. "Don't you go filling up with candy and peanuts just because you are by yourselves. You put this in your bag and eat it when you're ready. 'Tanyrate it's good home-made victuals and won't harm you."

And, in the midst of their shy thanks. she shut the basket again and went oft with her husband, and they heard her say again before she disappeared—

"Well—Jem!"