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Two Little Pilgrims' Progress/The big house would seem empty no more







 THE two children did not know exactly whether they were frightened or not. If it had not seemed impossible that anything should go entirely wrong while John Holt was near them, they would have felt rather queer. But John Holt was evidently not the least alarmed.

"Look here," he said, "I'm glad of it. I want to see that woman."

"Do you?" exclaimed Robin and Meg together.

"Yes, I do," he said. "Come along, and let's go and find her." And he strode out towards the Agricultural Building as if he were going towards something interesting.

It is true that the Agricultural Building had been too nearly connected with Aunt Matilda's world to hold the greatest attractions for the little pilgrims. It had indeed gone rather hard with them to find a name for it with a beautiful sound.

"But it is something," Meg had said; "and it's a great huge thing whether we care for it or not. That it isn't the thing we care for doesn't make it any less. We should be fools if we thought that, of course. And you know we're not fools, Rob."

"No," Rob had said, standing gazing at rakes and harrows with his brows knit and his legs pretty wide apart. "And if there's one thing that shows human beings can do what they set their minds to, it's this place. Why, they used to thresh wheat with flails—two pieces of wood hooked together. They banged the wheat on the barn floor—with things like that! I'll tell you what—as soon as a man gets any sense he begins to make machines. He bangs at things with his brain, instead of with his arms and legs."

And in the end they had called it the Palace of the Genie of the Earth and the Seasons and the Sun. They walked manfully by John Holt through the place, Robin leading the way, until they came to the particular exhibit where he had caught sight of Aunt Matilda. Being a business-like and thorough person, she was still there, though she had left the steam-plough and directed her attention to a side-delivery hay-rake, which she seemed to find very well worth study.

If the children and John Holt had not walked up and planted themselves immediately in her path, she would not have seen them. It gave Meg a little shudder to see how like her world she looked, with her hard, strong-featured face, her straight skirt and her square shoulders. They waited until she moved, and then she looked up and saw them. She did not start or look nervous in the least. She stared at them.

"Well," she said; "so this was the place you came to."

"Yes, Aunt Matilda," said Robin. "We couldn't let it go by us—and we took our own money."

"And we knew you wouldn't be anxious about us," said Meg, looking up at her, with a shade of curiosity.

Aunt Matilda gave a dry laugh.

"No," she said, "I've no time to be anxious about children. I took care of myself when I was your age; and I had a sort of notion you'd come here. Who are you with?"

John Holt lifted his hat, but without too much ceremony. He knew Mrs. Matilda Jennings' principles were opposed to the ceremonious.

"I'm a sort of neighbour of yours, Mrs. Jennings," he explained. "I have some land near your farm, though I don't live on the place. My name is John Holt."

Aunt Matilda glanced from him to Robin.

She knew all about John Holt, and was quite sufficiently business-like to realise that it would be considered good luck to have him for a friend.

"Well," she said to them, "you've got into good hands."

John Holt laughed.

"By this time we all three think we've got into good hands," he said, "and we're going to see this thing through."

"They haven't money enough to see much of it," said Mrs. Jennings.

"No," said John Holt, "but I have, and it's to be my treat."

"Well," said Aunt Matilda, "I suppose you can afford it. I couldn't. I've come here on business."

"You'd better let us help you to combine a little pleasure with it," said John Holt. "This won't happen twice in your life or mine."

"There's been a lot of money wasted in decorations," said Mrs. Jennings. "I don't believe it will pay them."

"Oh, yes; it will pay them," said John Holt. "It would pay them if they didn't make a cent out of it. It would have paid me, if I'd done it, and lost money."

"Now, see here," said Mrs. Matilda Jennings, with a shrewd air, "the people that built this didn't do it for their health—they did it for what they'd make out of it."

"Perhaps they did," said John Holt, "and perhaps all of them didn't. And even those that did have made a bigger thing than they knew—by Jupiter!"

They were all sauntering along together as they spoke. Meg and Robin wondered what John Holt was going to do. It looked rather as if he wanted to see more of Aunt Matilda. And it proved that he did. He had a reason of his own, and combined with this a certain keen sense of humour made her entertaining to him. He wanted to see how the place affected her, as he had wanted to look on at its effect on Meg and Robin. But he knew that Aunt Matilda had come to accumulate new ideas on agriculture, and that she must be first allowed to satisfy herself on that point, and he knew the children were not specially happy in the society of ploughs and threshing-machines, and he did not think Aunt Matilda's presence would add to their pleasure in the Palace of the Earth, the Seasons, and the Sun; besides, he wanted to talk to Mrs. Jennings a little alone.

"You know where Ben and his mother are?" he said to Robin after a few minutes.

"Yes," Robin answered.

"Then take Meg and go to them for a while. Mrs. Jennings wants to stay here about an hour more, and I want to walk round with her. In an hour come back to the entrance here, and I will meet you."

Meg and Robin went away as he told them. It was in one sense rather a relief.

"I wonder what she'll say to him?" said Meg.

"There's no knowing," Robin answered. "But whatever it is he will make it all right. He's one of those who have found out that human beings can do things if they try hard enough. He was as lonely and poor as we are when he was twelve. He told me so."

What Aunt Matilda said was very matter of fact.

"I must say," she said as the children walked off, "you seem to have been pretty good to them."

"They've been pretty good to me," said John Holt.

"They've been pretty good for me though they're not old enough to know it."

"They're older than their age," said Aunt Matilda.

"If they'd been like other children, the Lord knows what I should have done with them. They've been no trouble in particular."

"I should imagine not," said John Holt.

"It was pretty business-like of them," said Mrs. Jennings, with another dry laugh, "to make up their minds without saying a word to anyone, and just hustle around and make their money to come here. They both worked pretty steady, I can tell you, and it wasn't easy work either. Most young ones would have given in. But they were bound to get here."

"They'll be bound to get pretty much where they make up their minds to, as life goes on," remarked John Holt. "That's their build."

"Thank goodness, they're not like their father," Mrs. Jennings commented. "Robert hadn't any particular fault, but he never made anything."

"He and his wife seem to have made a home that was a pretty good start for these children," was what John Holt said.

"Well," said Mrs. Jennings, "they've got to do the rest themselves. He left them nothing."

"No other relations but you?" John Holt asked.

"Not a soul. I shall keep them and let them work on the farm, I suppose."

"It would pay to educate them well and let them see the world," said John Holt.

"I daresay it would pay them," replied Aunt Matilda, "but I've got all I can do, and my husband's family have a sort of claim on me. Half the farm belonged to him."

They spent their remaining hours in the Agricultural Building very profitably. Mrs. Jennings found John Holt an excellent companion. He knew things very thoroughly, and had far-seeing ideas of how far things would work, and how much they would pay. He did not expect Mrs. Jennings to tell him fairy stories, and he told her none, but before they left the place they had talked a good deal. John Holt had found out all he wanted to know about the two children, and he had made a proposition which certainly gave Aunt Matilda something new to think of.

She was giving some thought to it when they went out to meet the party of four at the entrance. She looked as if she had been rather surprised by some occurrence, but she did not look displeased, and the glances she gave to Meg and Robin expressed a new sense of appreciation of their practical value.

"I've promised Mr. Holt that I'll let him take me through the Midway Plaisance," she said. "I've seen the things I came to see, and I may as well get my ticket's worth."

Meg and Robin regarded her with interest. Aunt Matilda and the Midway Plaisance taken together would be such a startling contrast that they must be interesting. And as she looked at John Holt's face as they went on their way, Meg knew he was thinking the same thing. And it was a singular experience. Mrs. Jennings strode through the curious places rather as if she were following a plough down a furrow. She looked at Samoan beauties, Arab chiefs, and Persian Jersey Lilys with unmovedly scrutinising eyes. She did not waste time anywhere, but she took all in as if it were a matter of business. Camel drivers and donkey boys seemed to strike her merely as samples of slow travelling; she ascended, as it were, into mid-heaven on the Ferris Wheel with a grim air of determination. Being so lifted from earth and poised above in the clear air, Meg had thrilled with a strange exultant sense of being a bird, and felt that with a moment's flutter of wings she could soar higher and higher and lose herself in the pure sea of blue above. Aunt Matilda only looked below with cool interest.

"Pretty big power this," she said to John Holt "I guess it's made one man's fortune."

John Holt was a generous host. He took her from place to place to Lapland villages, cannibals' huts, and Moorish palaces. She tramped about and inspected them all with a sharp, unenthusiastic eye. She looked at the men and women and their strange costumes, plainly thinking them rather mad.

"It's a queer sight," she said to John Holt; "but I don't see what good all this is going to do anyone."

"It saves travelling expenses," answered John Holt, laughing. His shrewd, humorous face was very full of expression all the time they were walking about together. She had only come for the day, and she was going back by a night train. When she left them, she gave them both one of those newly appreciative looks.

"Well," she said, "Mr. Holt's going to look after you, he says. He's got something to tell you when I'm gone. We've talked it over, and it's all right. There's one thing sure. You're two of the luckiest young ones Ive heard of." And she marched away briskly.

Meg and Robin looked at each other and at John Holt. What was he going to tell them? But he told them nothing until they had all dined, and Ben and his mother had gone home, prepared to come again the next day.

By that time the City Beautiful was wreathed with its enchanted jewels of light again, and in the lagoon's depths they trembled and blazed. John Holt called a gondola with a brilliant gondolier, and they got into it and shot out into the radiant night.

The sight was so unearthly in its beauty that for a few moments they were quite still. Meg sat in her Straw Parlour attitude, with her elbows on her knees and her chin on her hands. Her eyes looked very big, and as lustrous as the jewels in the lagoon.

"I'm going to ask you something," said John Holt, in a quiet sort of voice at last.

"Yes," said Meg dreamily.

"Would you two like to belong to me?"

Meg's hands dropped, and she turned her shining eyes.

"I've been talking to your Aunt Matilda about that big house of mine," he went on. "It's empty. There's too much room in it. I want to take you two and see if you can fill it up. Will you come and live with me?"

Meg and Robin turned their eyes upon each other in a dazed way.

"Will we come?" they stammered. "Live with you!"

"Mrs. Jennings is willing," said John Holt. "You two have things to do in the world. I'll help you to learn to do them. You"—with the short laugh—"you shall tell me fairy stories."

Fairy stories! What was this? Their hearts beat in their breasts like little hammers. The gondola moved smoothly over the scintillating water, and the jewel-strung towers and domes rose white against the lovely night. Meg looked around her, and uttered a little cry.

"Oh, Rob!" she said. "Oh, dear John Holt. We have got into the City Beautiful, and you are going to let us live there always."

And John Holt knew that the big house would seem empty no more.