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CHAPTER XVIII

 

ENTER AUNT MATILDA

 

 YES, they went home in a carriage. John Holt put them into it, and settled back into it himself, as if comfortable cushions were only what belonged to tired people. And he took them to one of the hotels whose brilliantly lighted fronts they had trudged wearily by the night before; and they had a good supper and warm baths and delicious beds, and Meg went to sleep with actual tears of wonder and gratitude on her lashes, and they all three slept the sleep of Eden, and dreamed the dreams of Paradise. And in the morning they had breakfast with John Holt in the hotel dining-room, and a breakfast as good as the princely dinner he had given them, and after it, they all went back with him to the City Beautiful, and the fairy story began again. For, near the entrance where they went in, they actually found Ben's mother in a state of wonder beyond words, for by the use of some magic messenger, that wonderful John Holt had sent word to her that Ben was in safe hands and that she must come and join him, and the money to make this possible had been in the letter.

Poor, tired, discouraged, down-trodden woman, how she lost her breath when Ben threw himself upon her and poured forth his story! And what a face she wore through all that followed! How Ben led her from triumph to triumph with the exultant air of one to whom the City Beautiful almost belonged, and who, consequently, had it to bestow as a rich gift on those who did not know it as he did. What wondering glances his mother kept casting on his face, which had grown younger with each hour! She had never seen him look like this before. And what glances she cast aside at John Holt! This was one of the rich men poor people heard of. She had never been near one of them. She had often rather hated them.

Before the day was over, Robin and Meg realised that this wonder was to go on as long as there was anything of the City Beautiful they had not seen. They were to drink deep draughts of delight as long as they were thirsty for more. John Holt made this plain to them in his blunt, humorous way. He was going to show them everything and share all their pleasures, and they were to stay at the golden hotel every night.

And John Holt was getting almost as much out of it as they were. He wandered about alone no more; he did not feel as if he were only a ghost with nothing in common with the human beings passing by. In the interest and excitement of generalship and management, and the amusement of seeing this unspoiled freshness of his charges' delight in all things, the gloomy look faded out of his face, and he looked like a different man. Once they came upon two men who seemed to know him, and the first one who spoke to him glanced at the children in some surprise.

"Hello, John!" he said; "set up a family?"

"Just what I've done," answered John Holt. "Set up a family. A man's no right to be going round a place like this without one."

"How do you get on with it?" asked the other. "Find it pay?"

"Pay!" said John Holt, with a big laugh. "Great Scott! I should say so! It's worth twice the price of admission!"

"Glad of it," said his friend, giving him a curious look.

And, as he went away, Meg heard him say to his companion—

"It was time he found something that paid—John Holt. He was in a pretty bad way—a pretty bad way."

As they became more and more intimate and spoke more to each other, Meg understood how bad a "way" he had been in. She was an observing, old-fashioned child, and she saw many things a less sympathetic creature might have passed by; and when John Holt discovered this—which he was quite shrewd enough to do rather soon—he gradually began to say things to her he would not have said to other people. She understood somehow that though the black look passed away from his face, and he laughed and made them laugh, there was a thing that was never quite out of his mind. She saw that pictures brought it back to him, that strains of music did, that pretty mothers with children hurt him when they passed, and that every now and then he would cast a broad glance over all the whiteness and blueness and beauty and grace, and draw a long, quick sigh, as if he was homesick for something.

"You know," he said once when he did this and looked round and found Meg's eyes resting yearningly upon him—"you know she was coming with me! We planned it all. Lord! how she liked to talk of it! She said it would be an enchanted city—just as you did, Meg. That was one of the first things that made me stop to listen—when I heard you say that. An enchanted city!" he repeated pondering. "Lord, Lord!"

"Well," said Meg, with a little catch in her breath—"well, you know, John Holt, she's got to an enchanted city that won't vanish away; hasn't she? "

She did not say it with any sanctified little air. Out of their own loneliness and the Pilgrim's Progress and her ardent fancies, the place she and Robin had built to take refuge in was a very real thing. It had many modern improvements upon the vagueness of harps and crowns. There were good souls who might have been astounded and rather shocked by it, but they believed in it very implicitly, and found great comfort in their confidence in its joyfulness. They thought of themselves as walking about its streets exactly as rapturously as they walked about this earthly City Beautiful And because it was so real, there was a note in Meg's voice which gave John Holt a sudden touch of new feeling as he looked back at her.

"Do you suppose she is?" he said. "You believe in that, don't you—you believe in it?"

Meg looked a little troubled for a moment

Why," she said, "Rob and I talk to each other and invent things about it, just as we talked about this. We just have to, you see. Perhaps we say things that would seem very funny to religious people. I don't think we're religious—but—but we do like it."

"Do you?" said John Holt. "Perhaps I should too. You shall tell me some stories about it—and you shall put her there. If I could feel as if she was somewhere!"

"Oh," said Meg, "she must be somewhere, you know! She couldn't go out, John Holt."

He cast his broad glance all round, and caught his breath as if remembering.

"Lord, Lord!" he said. "No! She couldn't go out!"

Meg knew afterwards why he said this with such force. "She" had been a creature who was so full of life and of the joy of living. She had been gay, and full of laughter and humour. She had had a wonderful, vivid mind, which found colour and feeling and story in the commonest things. She had been so clever and so witty, and such a bright and warm thing in her house. When she had gone away from earth so suddenly people had said with wonder, "But it seemed as if she could not die!" But she had died, and her child had died too, scarcely an hour after it was born, and John Holt had been left stunned and aghast, and almost stricken into gloomy madness. And in some way Meg was like her, with her vivid little face and her black-lashed eyes, her City Beautiful and her dreams and stories, which made the realities of her life. It was a strange chance—a marvellously kind chance—which had thrown them together—these two who were of such different worlds, and yet who needed each other so much.

During the afternoon, seeing that Meg looked a little tired, and also realising in his practical fashion that Ben's mother would be more at ease in the society she was used to, John Holt sent her to ramble about with her boy, and Robin went with them, and Meg and John went to rest with the thousands of roses among the bowers of the fairy island, and there they said a good deal to each other. John Holt seemed to find a kind of comfort in finding words for some of the thoughts he had been silent about in the past.

"It's a queer thing," he said, "but when I talk to you about her, I feel as if she was somewhere near."

"Perhaps she is," said Meg, in her matter-of-fact little way. "We don't know what they are doing. But if you had gone into another world, and she had stayed here, you know you would have come to take care of her."

"That's true," said John Holt. "I took care of her when she was here, the Lord knows. There wasn't anything on earth she liked that I wouldn't have broken my neck to get at. When I built that house for her,—I built a big house to take her to when we were married,—she said I hadn't left out a thing she cared for. And she knew what things ought to be. She wasn't like me, Meg. I'd spent my life trying to make a fortune. I began when I was a boy, and I worked hard. She belonged to people with money, and she'd read books, and travelled and seen things. She knew it all. I didn't, when first I knew her, but I learned fast enough afterwards. I couldn't help it while I was with her. We planned the house together. It was one of the best in the country—architecture, furniture, pictures, and all the rest. The first evening we spent there"— He stopped and cleared his throat, and was silent a few seconds. Then he added, in a rather unsteady voice, "We were pretty happy people that evening."

Later he showed Meg her miniature. He carried it in an oval case in his inside pocket. It was the picture of a young woman with a brilliant face, lovely laughing eyes, and a bright, curving, red mouth.

"No," he said as he looked at it, "she couldn't go out. She's somewhere."

Then he told Meg about the rooms they had made ready for "John Holt, Junior," as they had called the little child who died so quickly.

"It was her idea," he said. "There was a nursery with picture-paper on the walls. There was a bathroom with tiles that told stories about little mermen and mermaids that she had made up herself. There was a bedroom with a swinging cot, frilled with lace and tied with ribbons. And there were picture-books and toys. The doors never were opened. John Holt, Junior, never slept in his cot. He slept with his mother."

There he broke off a moment again.

"She used to be sorry he wouldn't be old enough to appreciate all this," he said next. "She used to laugh about him and say, he was going to be cheated out of it. But she said he should come with us, so that he could say he had been. She said he had to see it, if he only stared at it and said 'goo.' "

"Perhaps he does see it," said Meg. "I should think those who have got away from here, and know more what being alive really means, would want to see what earth people are trying to do—though they know so little."

"That sounds pretty good," said John Holt. "I like that."

They had been seated long enough to feel rested, and they rose and went on their way to begin their pilgrimage again. Just as they were crossing the bridge, they saw Robin coming tearing towards them. He had evidently left Ben and his mother somewhere. He was alone. His hat was on the back of his head, and he was hot with running.

"Something has happened," said Meg. "And I believe I know".

But Robin had reached them.

"Meg," he said, panting for breath, "Aunt Matilda's here! She didn't see me, but I saw her. She's in the Agricultural Building, standing before a new steam plough and she's chewing a sample of wheat."