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Two Little Pilgrims' Progress/The bottom of the hill of difficulty

< Two Little Pilgrims' Progress
 

 

CHAPTER II

 

THE BOTTOM OF THE HILL OF DIFFICULTY

 

 THEY drew as near to the edge as they could without being seen. Meg did not understand in the least. Robin was not given to practical jokes, but what he had said sounded rather as if there was a joke somewhere. But she saw Jones and Jerry enter the barn, and saw before they entered that they were deep in talk. It was Jones who was speaking. Jones was Aunt Mathilda's head man, and was an authority on many things.

"There's been exhibitions and fairs all over the world," he was saying, "but there's been nothing like what this will be. It will be a City—that's what it'll be—and all the world is going to be in it. They are going to build it fronting on the water. and bank the water up into lakes and canals, and build places like white palaces beside them and decorate the grounds with statues and palms and flowers and fountains, and there's not a country on earth that won't send things to fill the buildings, and there won't be anything a man can't see by going through 'em. It'll be as good as a college course to spend a week there."

Meg drew a little closer to Robin on the straw.

"What are they talking about?" she whispered.

"Listen," said Rob.

Jerry, who was moving about at some work below, gave a chuckling laugh.

"Trust 'em to do the biggest thing yet—or bust—them Chicago people," he said. "It's got to be the biggest thing—a Chicago Fair."

"It's not goin' to be the Chicago Fair," Jones said.

"They're not goin' to put up with no such idea as that! It's the World's Fair! They're goin' to ring in the universe."

"That's Chicago out and out," said Jerry. "Buildin's twenty stories high, an' the thermometer twenty-five degrees below zero—an' a World's Fair—Christopher Columbus! I'd like to see it!"

"I bet Christopher Columbus would like to see it!" said Jones. "It's out of compliment to him they're getting it up—for discovering Chicago."

"Well, I didn't know he made his name that way partic'lar," said Jerry. "Thought what he prided himself on was discoverin' America."

"Same thing," said Jones, "same thing! Wouldn't have had much to blow about and have statues set up and comic operas written about him if it had only been America he'd discovered. Chicago does him full justice, an' she's goin' to give him a send-off that'll be a credit to her."

Robin smothered a little laugh in his coat sleeve. He was quite used to hearing jokes about Chicago. The people in the country round were enormously proud of it, and its great schemes and great buildings and multi-millionaires, but those who were given to jokes had the habit of being jocular about it, just as they had the habit of proclaiming and dwelling upon its rush and wealth and enterprise. But Meg was not a jocular person. She was too intense and easily excited. She gave Robin an impatient nudge with her elbow, not in reproof, but as a sort of irrepressible ejaculation.

"I wish they wouldn't be funny!" she exclaimed. "I want them to tell more about it. I wish they'd go on."

But they did not go on—at least not in the way that was satisfactory. They only remained in the barn a short time longer, and they were busy with the work they had come to do. Meg craned her neck and listened, but they did not "tell more," and she was glad when they went away, so that she could turn to Robin.

"Don't you know more than that?" she said. "Is it true? What have you heard? Tell me yourself!"

"I've heard a lot to-day," said Robin. "They were all talking about it all the time, and I meant to tell you myself, only I saw Jones and Jerry coming, and thought perhaps we should hear something more if we listened."

They clambered over to the corner and made themselves comfortable. Robin lay on his back, but Meg leaned on her elbows as usual, with her cheek resting on her hands. Her black elf locks hung over her forehead, and her big eyes shone.

"Rob," she said, "go on. What's the rest?"

"The rest?" he said. "It would take a week to tell it all, I should think. But it's going to be the most wonderful thing in the world. They are going to build a place that will be like a white, beautiful city on the borders of the lake—that was why I called it the City Beautiful. It won't be on the top of a hill, of course."

"But if it is on the edge of the lake, and the sun shines and the big water is blue, and there are shining white places, it will be better, I believe," said Meg. 'What is going to be in the city?"

"Everything in the world," said Robin. "Things from everywhere—from every country."

"There are a great many countries," said Meg.

"You know how it is in the geography. Europe, Asia, and Africa, as well as America, Spain and Portugal, and France and England, and Norway and Russia and Lapland, and India, and Italy and Switzerland, and all the others."

"There will be things, and people, brought from them all. I heard them say so. They say there will be villages with people walking about in them."

"As they walk about when they are at home?" exclaimed Meg.

"Yes, in the queer clothes they wear in their own countries. There's going to be an Esquimaux village."

"With dogs and sledges?" cried Meg, lifting her head.

"Yes, and you know that place in Italy, where the streets are made of water"—

"It's Venice," said Meg. "And they go about in boats called gondolas"—

"And the men who take them about are called gondoliers," interrupted Robin. "And they have scarves and red caps. There will be gondolas at the Fair, and people can get into them and go about the canals."

"Just as they do in Venice?" Meg gasped.

"Just as they do in Venice. And it will be the same with all the other countries. It will be as if they were all brought there—Spanish places and Egyptian places and German places, and French and Italian and Irish and Scotch and English, and all the others."

"To go there would be like travelling all over the world," cried Meg.

"Yes," said Rob excitedly; "and all the trades will be there, and all the machines, and inventions, and books, and statues, and scientific things, and wonderful things, and everything anyone wants to learn about in all the world!"

In his excitement his words had become so rapid that they almost tumbled over each other, and he said the last sentence in a rush. There were red spots on his cheeks, and a queer look in his black eyes. He had been listening to descriptions of this thing all day. A new hand, hot from the excitement in Chicago, had been among the workers. Apparently he had heard of nothing else, thought of nothing else, talked of nothing else, and dreamed of nothing else but the World's Fair for weeks. Finding himself among people who had only bucolic and vague ideas about it, he had poured forth all he knew, and, being a rather good talker, had aroused great excitement. Robin had listened with eyes and ears wide open. He was a young human being born so full of energy and enterprise that the dull prosaic emptiness of his life in Aunt Matilda's world had been more horrible than if he had been old enough to realise. He could not have explained why it had seemed so maddening to him, but the truth was that in his small boyish body was imprisoned the force and ability which in manhood build great schemes, and not only build but carry them out. In him was imprisoned one of the great business men, inventors or political powers of the new century. But of this he knew nothing, and so ate his young heart out in Aunt Matilda's world, sought refuge with Meg in the Straw Parlour, and was bitterly miserable and at a loss.

How he had drunk in every word the man from Chicago had uttered! How he had edged near to him, and tried not to lose him for a moment, and had hoarded up every sentence! If he had not been a man in embryo, and a strong and clear-headed creature, he would have done his work badly. But he never did his work badly. He held on like a little bull-dog, and thought of what Meg would say when they sat in the straw together. Small wonder that he looked excited when his black head appeared above the edge of the straw. He was wrought up to the highest pitch. Small wonder that there were deep red spots on his cheeks, and that there was a queer intense look in his eyes and about his obstinate little mouth. He threw up his arms with a desperate gesture.

"Everything," he said again, staring straight before him, "that anyone could want to learn about—everything in all the world."

"Oh, Robin!" said Meg, in quite a fierce little voice. "And we—we shall never see it!"

She saw Robin clench his hands though he said nothing, and it made her clench her own hands. Rob's were rough, little, square-fingered fists, brown and muscular. Meg's hands were long-fingered, flexible, and slender, but they made good little fists when they doubled themselves up.

"Rob," she said, "we never see anything—we never hear anything—we never learn anything. If something doesn't happen, we shall be—Nothings—that's what we shall be Nothings." And she struck her fists upon the straw.

Rob's jaw began to look very square, but he did not speak.

"We are twelve years old," Meg went on. "We've been here three years, and we don't know one thing we didn't know when we came here. If we had been with father and mother, we should have been learning things all the time. We haven't one thing of our own, Rob, but the chickens and the Straw Parlour, and the Straw Parlour might be taken away from us."

Rob's square jaw relaxed just sufficiently to allow of a grim little grin.

"We've got the Treasure, Meg," he said.

Meg's laugh had rather a hysterical sound. That she should not have mentioned the Treasure among their belongings was queer. They talked so much about the Treasure. At this moment it was buried, in an iron bank, deep in the straw, about four feet from where they sat. It was the very bank Robin had hoarded his savings in when he had begun at six years old with pennies, and a ten cent blank-book to keep his accounts in. Everything they had owned since then had been pushed or dropped into it; all the chicken and egg money, and all Robin had earned by doing odd jobs for anyone who would give him one. Nobody knew about the old iron bank, any more than they knew about the Straw Parlour, and the children having buried it in the straw, called it the Treasure. Meg's stories about it were numerous and wonderful. Magicians came and multiplied it a hundredfold; sometimes robbers stole it, and they pursued them with wild adventure; but perhaps the most satisfactory thing was to invent ways to spend it when it had grown to enormous proportions. Sometimes they bought a house in New York, and lived there together; sometimes they travelled in foreign lands with it; sometimes they bought land which increased in value to such an extent that they were millionaires in a month. Ah, it was a Treasure indeed!

After the little, low, overstrained laugh, Meg folded her arms on the straw, and hid her face in them. Robin looked at her with a troubled air for about a minute. Then he spoke to her.

"It's no use doing that," he said.

"It's no use doing anything," Meg answered, her voice muffled in her arms. "I don't want to do this any more than you do. We're so lonely."

"Yes, we're lonely," said Robin. "That's a fact."

And he stared up at the dark rafters above him, and at some birds who were clinging to them and twittering about a nest.

"I said I wished there was a City Beautiful," Meg said; "but it seems to make it worse—that there is going to be something like it—so near—and then that we should never get any nearer to it than two hundred miles." Rob sat up and locked his hands together round his knees.

"How do you know?" he said.

"How do I know?" cried Meg desperately, and she lifted her head, turning her wet face sideways to look at him. He unlocked his hands to give his forehead a hard rub, as if he was trying either to rub some thought out of or into it.

"Just because we are lonely there is use in doing things," he said. "There's nobody to do them for us. At any rate, we've got as far on the way to the City as the bottom of the Hill of Difficulty."

And he gave his forehead another rub, and looked straight before him; and Meg drew a little closer to him in the straw, and the family of birds filled the silence with domestic twitters.