The Enchanted Castle/Chapter 7
"Can you recommend me to a good hotel?" The speaker had no inside to his head. Gerald had the best of reasons for knowing it. The speaker's coat had no shoulders inside it—only the cross-bar that a jacket is slung on by careful ladies. The hand raised in interrogation was not a hand at all; it was a glove lumpily stuffed with pocket-handkerchiefs; and the arm attached to it was only Kathleen's school umbrella. Yet the whole thing was alive, and was asking a definite, and for anybody else, anybody who really was a body, a reasonable question.
With a sensation of inward sinking, Gerald realized that now or never was the time for him to rise to the occasion. And at the thought he inwardly sank more deeply than before. It seemed impossible to rise in the very smallest degree.
"I beg your pardon" was absolutely the best he could do; and the painted, pointed paper face turned to him once more, and once more said:—
"Aa oo ré o me me oo a oo ho el?"
"You want a hotel?" Gerald repeated stupidly, "a good hotel?"
"A oo ho el," reiterated the painted lips.
"I'm awfully sorry," Gerald went on—one can always be polite, of course, whatever happens, and politeness came natural to him—"but all our hotels shut so early—about eight, I think."
"Och em er," said the Ugly-Wugly. Gerald even now does not understand how that practical joke—hastily wrought of hat, overcoat, paper face and limp hands—could have managed, by just being alive, to become perfectly respectable, apparently about fifty years old, and obviously well known and respected in his own suburb—the kind of man who travels first class and smokes expensive cigars. Gerald knew this time, without need of repetition, that the Ugly-Wugly had said:—
"Knock 'em up."
"You can't," Gerald explained; "they re all stone deaf—every single person who keeps a hotel in this town. It's—" he wildly plunged—"it's a County Council law. Only deaf people are allowed to keep hotels. It's because of the hops in the beer," he found himself adding; "you know, hops are so good for ear-ache."
"I o wy ollo oo," said the respectable Ugly-Wugly; and Gerald was not surprised to find that the thing did "not quite follow him."
"It is a little difficult at first," he said. The other Ugly-Wuglies were crowding round. The lady in the poke bonnet said—Gerald found he was getting quite clever at understanding the conversation of those who had no roofs to their mouths:—
"If not a hotel, a lodging."
"My lodging is on the cold ground," sang itself unbidden and unavailing in Gerald's ear. Yet stay—was it unavailing?
"I do know a lodging," he said slowly, "but——" The tallest of the Ugly-Wuglies pushed forward. He was dressed in the old brown overcoat and top-hat which always hung on the school hat-stand to discourage possible burglars by deluding them into the idea that there was a gentleman-of-the-house, and that he was at home. He had an air at once more sporting and less reserved than that of the first speaker, and anyone could see that he was not quite a gentleman.
"Wa I wo oo oh," he began, but the lady Ugly-Wugly in the flower-wreathed hat interrupted him. She spoke more distinctly than the others, owing, as Gerald found afterwards, to the fact that her mouth had been drawn open, and the flap cut from the aperture had been folded back—so that she really had something like a roof to her mouth, though it was only a paper one.
"What I want to know," Gerald understood her to say, "is where are the carriages we ordered?"
"I don't know," said Gerald, "but I'll find out. But we ought to be moving," he added; "you see, the performance is over, and they want to shut up the house and put the lights out. Let's be moving."
"Eh—ech e oo-ig," repeated the respectable Ugly-Wugly, and stepped towards the front door.
"Oo um oo," said the flower-wreathed one; and Gerald assures me that her vermilion lips stretched in a smile.
"I shall be delighted," said Gerald with earnest courtesy, "to do anything, of course. Things do happen so awkwardly when you least expect it. I could go with you, and get you a lodging, if you'd only wait a few moments in the—in the yard. It's quite a superior sort of yard, he went on, as a wave of surprised disdain passed over their white paper faces not a common yard, you know; the pump," he added madly, "has just been painted green all over, and the dustbin is enamelled iron."
The Ugly-Wuglies turned to each other in consultation, and Gerald gathered that the greenness of the pump and the enamelled character of the dustbin made, in their opinion, all the difference.
"I'm awfully sorry," he urged eagerly, "to have to ask you to wait, but you see I've got an uncle who's quite mad, and I have to give him his gruel at half-past nine. He won't feed out of any hand but mine." Gerald did not mind what he said. The only people one is allowed to tell lies to are the Ugly-Wuglies; they are all clothes and have no insides, because they are not human beings, but only a sort of very real visions, and therefore cannot be really deceived, though they may seem to be.
Through the back door that has the blue, yellow, red, and green glass in it, down the iron steps into the yard, Gerald led the way, and the Ugly-Wuglies trooped after him. Some of them had boots, but the ones whose feet were only broomsticks or umbrellas found the open-work iron stairs very awkward.
"If you wouldn't mind," said Gerald, "just waiting under the balcony? My uncle is so very mad. If he were to see—see any strangers—I mean, even aristocratic ones—I couldn't answer for the consequences."
"Perhaps, said the flower-hatted lady nervously, "it would be better for us to try and find a lodging ourselves?"
"I wouldn't advise you to," said Gerald as grimly as he knew how; "the police here arrest all strangers. It's the new law the Liberals have just made," he added convincingly, "and you'd get the sort of lodging you wouldn't care for—I couldn't bear to think of you in a prison dungeon," he added tenderly.
"I ah wi oo er papers," said the respectable Ugly-Wugly, and added something that sounded like "disgraceful state of things."
However, they ranged themselves under the iron balcony. Gerald gave one last look at them and wondered, in his secret heart, why he was not frightened, though in his outside mind he was congratulating himself on his bravery. For the things did look rather horrid. In that light it was hard to believe that they were really only clothes and pillows and sticks—with no insides. As he went up the steps he heard them talking among themselves—in that strange language of theirs, all oo's and ah's; and he thought he distinguished the voice of the respectable Ugly-Wugly saying, "Most gentlemanly lad," and the wreathed-hatted lady answering warmly: "Yes, indeed."
The coloured-glass door closed behind him. Behind him was the yard, peopled by seven impossible creatures. Before him lay the silent house, peopled, as he knew very well, by five human beings as frightened as human beings could be. You think, perhaps, that Ugly-Wuglies are nothing to be frightened of. That's only because you have never seen one come alive. You must make one—any old suit of your father s, and a hat that he isn't wearing, a bolster or two, a painted paper face, a few sticks and a pair of boots will do the trick; get your father to lend you a wishing ring, give it back to him when it has done its work, and see how you feel then.
Of course the reason why Gerald was not afraid was that he had the ring; and, as you have seen, the wearer of that is not frightened by anything unless he touches that thing. But Gerald knew well enough how the others must be feeling. That was why he stopped for a moment in the hall to try and imagine what would have been most soothing to him if he had been as terrified as he knew they were.
"Cathy! I say! What ho, Jimmy! Mabel ahoy!" he cried in a loud, cheerful voice that sounded very unreal to himself.
The dining-room door opened a cautious inch.
"I say—such larks!" Gerald went on, shoving gently at the door with his shoulder. "Look out! what are you keeping the door shut for?"
"Are you—alone?" asked Kathleen in hushed, breathless tones.
"Yes, of course. Don't be a duffer!"
The door opened, revealing three scared faces and the disarranged chairs where that odd audience had sat.
"Where are they? Have you unwished them? We heard them talking. Horrible!"
"They're in the yard," said Gerald with the best imitation of joyous excitement that he could manage. "It is such fun! They're just like real people, quite kind and jolly. It's the most ripping lark. Don't let on to Mademoiselle and Eliza. I'll square them. Then Kathleen and Jimmy must go to bed, and I'll see Mabel home, and as soon as we get outside I must find some sort of lodging for the Ugly-Wuglies—they are such fun though. I do wish you could all go with me."
"Fun?" echoed Kathleen dismally and doubting.
"Perfectly killing," Gerald asserted resolutely. "Now, you just listen to what I say to Mademoiselle and Eliza, and back me up for all you're worth."
"But," said Mabel, "you can't mean that you're going to leave me alone directly we get out, and go off with those horrible creatures. They look like fiends."
"You wait till you've seen them close," Gerald advised. "Why, they re just ordinary—the first thing one of them did was to ask me to recommend it to a good hotel! I couldn't understand it at first, because it has no roof to its mouth, of course."
It was a mistake to say that, Gerald knew it at once.
Mabel and Kathleen were holding hands in a way that plainly showed how a few moments ago they had been clinging to each other in an agony of terror. Now they clung again. And Jimmy, who was sitting on the edge of what had been the stage, kicking his boots against the pink counterpane, shuddered visibly.
"It doesn't matter," Gerald explained—"about the roofs, I mean; you soon get to understand. I heard them say I was a gentlemanly lad as I was coming away. They wouldn't have cared to notice a little thing like that if they'd been fiends, you know."
"It doesn't matter how gentlemanly they think you; if you don't see me home you aren't, that's all. Are you going to?" Mabel demanded.
"Of course I am. We shall have no end of a lark. Now for Mademoiselle."
He had put on his coat as he spoke and now ran up the stairs. The others, herding in the ing in the hall, could hear his light-hearted there's-nothing-unusual-the-matter-whatever-did-you-bolt-like-that-for knock at Mademoiselle's door, the reassuring "It's only me—Gerald, you know," the pause, the opening of the door, and the low-voiced parley that followed; then Mademoiselle and Gerald at Eliza's door, voices of reassurance; Eliza's terror, bluntly voluble, tactfully soothed.
"Wonder what lies he's telling them," Jimmy grumbled.
"Oh! not lies," said Mabel; "he's only telling them as much of the truth as it's good for them to know."
"If you'd been a man," said Jimmy witheringly, "you'd have been a beastly Jesuit, and hid up chimneys."
"If I were only just a boy," Mabel retorted, "I shouldn't be scared out of my life by a pack of old coats."
"I'm so sorry you were frightened," Gerald's honeyed tones floated down the staircase; "we didn't think about you being frightened. And it was a good trick, wasn't it?"
"There!" whispered Jimmy, "he's been telling her it was a trick of ours."
"Well, so it was," said Mabel stoutly.
"It was indeed a wonderful trick," said Mademoiselle; "and how did you move the mannikins?"
"Oh, we've often done it—with strings, you know," Gerald explained.
"That's true, too," Kathleen whispered."Let us see you do once again this trick so
"WONDER WHAT LIES HE'S TELLING THEM," JIMMY GRUMBLED.
"Oh, I've cleared them all out," said Gerald. ("So he has," from Kathleen aside to Jimmy.) "We were so sorry you were startled; we thought you wouldn't like to see them again."
"Then," said Mademoiselle brightly, as she peeped into the untidy dining-room and saw that the figures had indeed vanished, "if we supped and discoursed of your beautiful piece of theatre?"
Gerald explained fully how much his brother and sister would enjoy this. As for him—Mademoiselle would see that it was his duty to escort Mabel home, and kind as it was of Mademoiselle to ask her to stay the night, it could not be, on account of the frenzied and anxious affection of Mabel's aunt. And it was useless to suggest that Eliza should see Mabel home, because Eliza was nervous at night unless accompanied by her gentleman friend.
So Mabel was hatted with her own hat and cloaked with a cloak that was not hers; and she and Gerald went out by the front door, amid kind last words and appointments for the morrow.
The moment that front door was shut Gerald caught Mabel by the arm and led her briskly to the corner of the side street which led to the yard. Just round the corner he stopped.
"Now," he said, "what I want to know is—are you an idiot or aren't you?"
"Idiot yourself!" said Mabel, but mechanically, for she saw that he was in earnest.
"Because I'm not frightened of the Ugly-Wuglies. They're as harmless as tame rabbits. But an idiot might be frightened, and give the whole show away. If you're an idiot, say so, and I'll go back and tell them you're afraid to walk home, and that I'll go and let your aunt know you're stopping."
"I'm not an idiot," said Mabel; "and," she added, glaring round her with the wild gaze of the truly terror-stricken, "I'm not afraid of anything."
"I'm going to let you share my difficulties and dangers," said Gerald; "at least, I'm inclined to let you. I wouldn't do as much for my own brother, I can tell you. And if you queer my pitch I'll never speak to you again or let the others either."
"You're a beast, that's what you are! I don't need to be threatened to make me brave. I am."
"Mabel," said Gerald, in low, thrilling tones, for he saw that the time had come to sound another note, "I know you're brave. I believe in you, That's why I've arranged it like this. I'm certain you've got the heart of a lion under that black-and-white exterior. Can I trust you? To the death?"
Mabel felt that to say anything but "Yes" was to throw away a priceless reputation for courage. So "Yes" was what she said.
"Then wait here. You're close to the lamp. And when you see me coming with them remember they re as harmless as serpents—I mean doves. Talk to them just like you would to anyone else. See?"
He turned to leave her, but stopped at her natural question:
"What hotel did you say you were going to take them to?"
"Oh, Jimminy!" the harassed Gerald caught at his hair with both hands. "There! you see, Mabel, you're a help already"; he had, even at that moment, some tact left. "I clean forgot! I meant to ask you—isn't there any lodge or anything in the Castle grounds where I could put them for the night? The charm will break, you know, some time, like being invisible did, and they'll just be a pack of coats and things that we can easily carry home any day. Is there a lodge or anything?"
"There's a secret passage," Mabel began—but at the moment the yard-door opened and an Ugly-Wugly put out its head and looked anxiously down the street.
"Righto!"—Gerald ran to meet it. It was all Mabel could do not to run in an opposite direction with an opposite motive. It was all she could do, but she did it, and was proud of herself as long as ever she remembered that night.
And now, with all the silent precaution necessitated by the near presence of an extremely insane uncle, the Ugly-Wuglies, a grisly band, trooped out of the yard door.
"Walk on your toes, dear," the bonneted Ugly-Wugly whispered to the one with a wreath; and even at that thrilling crisis Gerald wondered how she could, since the toes of one foot were but the end of a golf club and of the other the end of a hockey-stick.
Mabel felt that there was no shame in retreating to the lamp-post at the street corner, but, once there, she made herself halt—and no one but Mabel will ever know how much making that took. Think of it—to stand there, firm and quiet, and wait for those hollow, unbelievable things to come up to her, clattering on the pavement with their stumpy feet or borne along noiselessly, as in the case of the flower-hatted lady, by a skirt that touched the ground, and had, Mabel knew very well, nothing at all inside it.
She stood very still; the insides of her hands grew cold and damp, but still she stood, saying over and over again: "They re not true they can't be true. It's only a dream they aren't really true. They can't be." And then Gerald was there, and all the Ugly-Wuglies crowding round, and Gerald saying:—
"This is one of our friends, Mabel—the Princess in the play, you know. Be a man!" he added in a whisper for her ear alone.
Mabel, all her nerves stretched tight as banjo strings, had an awful instant of not knowing whether she would be able to be a man or whether she would be merely a shrieking and running little mad girl. For the respectable Ugly-Wugly shook her limply by the hand. ("He can't be true," she told herself), and the rose-wreathed one took her arm with a soft-padded glove at the end of an umbrella arm, and said:—
"You dear, clever little thing! Do walk with me!" in a gushing, girlish way, and in speech almost wholly lacking in consonants.
Then they all walked up the High Street as if, as Gerald said, they were anybody else.
It was a strange procession, but Liddlesby goes early to bed, and the Liddlesby police, in common with those of most other places, wear boots that one can hear a mile off. If such boots had been heard, Gerald would have had time to turn back and head them off. He felt now that he could not resist a flush of pride in Mabel's courage as he heard her polite rejoinders to the still more polite remarks of the amiable Ugly-Wuglies. He did not know how near she was to the scream that would throw away the whole thing and bring the police and the residents out to the ruin of everybody.
They met no one, except one man, who murmured, "Guy Fawkes, swelp me!" and crossed the road hurriedly; and when, next day, he told what he had seen, his wife disbelieved him, and also said it was a judgement on him, which was unreasonable.Mabel felt as though she were taking part in a very completely arranged nightmare, but Gerald was in it too Gerald, who had asked if she was an idiot. Well, she wasn't. But she soon would be, she felt. Yet she went on answering the courteous vowel-talk of these impossible people. She had often heard her
IT WAS A STRANGE PROCESSION.
Summer twilight had melted into summer moonlight. The shadows of the Ugly-Wuglies on the white road were much more horrible than their more solid selves. Mabel wished it had been a dark night, and then corrected the wish with a hasty shudder.
Gerald, submitting to a searching interrogatory from the tall-hatted Ugly-Wugly as to his schools, his sports, pastimes, and ambitions, wondered how long the spell would last. The ring seemed to work in sevens. Would these things have seven hours' life—or fourteen—or twenty-one? His mind lost itself in the intricacies of the seven-times table (a teaser at the best of times) and only found itself with a shock when the procession found itself at the gates of the Castle grounds.
"You see," he explained, as the Ugly-Wuglies vainly shook the iron gates with incredible hands; "it's so very late. There is another way. But you have to climb through a hole."
"The ladies," the respectable Ugly-Wugly began objecting; but the ladies with one voice affirmed that they loved adventures. "So frightfully thrilling," added the one who wore roses.
So they went round by the road, and coming to the hole—it was a little difficult to find in the moonlight, which always disguises the most familiar things—Gerald went first with the bicycle lantern which he had snatched as his pilgrims came out of the yard; the shrinking Mabel followed, and then the Ugly-Wuglies, with hollow rattlings of their wooden limbs against the stone, crept through, and with strange vowel-sounds of general amazement, manly courage, and feminine nervousness, followed the light along the passage through the fern-hung cutting and under the arch.
When they emerged on the moonlit enchantment of the Italian garden a quite intelligible "Oh!" of surprised admiration broke from more than one painted paper lip; and the respectable Ugly-Wugly was understood to say that it must be quite a show-place—by George, sir! yes.
Those marble terraces and artfully serpentining gravel walks surely never had echoed to steps so strange. No shadows so wildly unbelievable had, for all its enchantments, ever fallen on those smooth, grey, dewy lawns. Gerald was thinking this, or something like it (what he really thought was, "I bet there never was such ado as this, even here!"), when he saw the statue of Hermes leap from its pedestal and run towards him and his company with all the lively curiosity of a street boy eager to be in at a street fight. He saw, too, that he was the only one who perceived that white advancing presence. And he knew that it was the ring that let him see what by others could not be seen. He slipped it from his finger. Yes; Hermes was on his pedestal, still as the snow man you make in the Christmas holidays. He put the ring on again, and there was Hermes, circling round the group and gazing deep in each unconscious Ugly-Wugly face.
"This seems a very superior hotel," the tall-hatted Ugly-Wugly was saying; "the grounds are laid out with what you might call taste."
"We should have to go in by the back door," said Mabel suddenly. "The front door's locked at half-past nine."
A short, stout Ugly-Wugly in a yellow and blue cricket cap, who had hardly spoken, muttered something about an escapade, and about feeling quite young again.
And now they had skirted the marble-edged pool where the gold fish swam and glimmered, and where the great prehistoric beast had come down to bathe and drink. The water flashed white diamonds in the moonlight, and Gerald alone of them all saw that the scaly-plated vast lizard was even now rolling and wallowing there among the lily pads.
They hastened up the steps of the Temple of Flora. The back of it, where no elegant arch opened to the air, was against one of those sheer hills, almost cliffs, that diversified the landscape of that garden. Mabel passed behind the statue of the goddess, fumbled a little, and then Gerald's lantern, flashing like a searchlight, showed a very high and very narrow doorway: the stone that was the door, and that had closed it, revolved slowly under the touch of Mabel's fingers.
"This way," she said, and panted a little. The back of her neck felt cold and goose-fleshy.
"You lead the way, my lad, with the lantern," said the suburban Ugly-Wugly in his bluff, agreeable way.
"I—I must stay behind to close the door," said Gerald.
"The Princess can do that. We'll help her," said the wreathed one with effusion; and Gerald thought her horribly officious.
He insisted gently that he would be the one responsible for the safe shutting of that door.
"You wouldn't like me to get into trouble, I'm sure," he urged; and the Ugly-Wuglies, for the last time kind and reasonable, agreed that this, of all things, they would most deplore.
"You take it," Gerald urged, pressing the bicycle lamp on the elderly Ugly-Wugly; "you're the natural leader. Go straight ahead. Are there any steps?" he asked Mabel in a whisper.
"Not for ever so long," she whispered back. "It goes on for ages, and then twists round."
"Whispering," said the smallest Ugly-Wugly suddenly, "ain't manners."
"He hasn't any, anyhow," whispered the lady Ugly-Wugly; "don't mind him—quite a self-made man," and squeezed Mabel's arm with horrible confidential flabbiness.
The respectable Ugly-Wugly leading with the lamp, the others following trustfully, one and all disappeared into that narrow doorway; and Gerald and Mabel standing without, hardly daring to breathe lest a breath should retard the procession, almost sobbed with relief. Prematurely, as it turned out. For suddenly there was a rush and a scuffle inside the passage, and as they strove to close the door the Ugly-Wuglies fiercely pressed to open it again. Whether they saw something in the dark passage that alarmed them, whether they took it into their empty heads that this could not be the back way to any really respectable hotel, or whether a convincing sudden instinct warned them that they were being tricked, Mabel and Gerald never knew. But they knew that the Ugly-Wuglies were no longer friendly and commonplace, that a fierce change had come over them. Cries of "No, No!" "We won't go on!" "Make him lead!" broke the dreamy stillness of the perfect night. There were screams from ladies voices, the hoarse, determined shouts of strong Ugly- Wuglies roused to resistance, and, worse than all, the steady pushing open of that narrow stone door that had almost closed upon the ghastly crew. Through the chink of it they could be seen, a writhing black crowd against the light of the bicycle lamp; a padded hand reached round the door; stick-boned arms stretched out angrily towards the world that that door, if it closed, would shut them off from for ever. And the tone of their consonantless speech was no longer conciliatory and ordinary; it was threatening, full of the menace of unbearable horrors.
The padded hand fell on Gerald's arm, and instantly all the terrors that he had, so far, only known in imagination became real to him, and he saw, in the sort of flash that shows drowning people their past lives, what it was that he had asked of Mabel, and that she had given.
"Push, push for your life!" he cried, and setting his heel against the pedestal of Flora, pushed manfully.
"I can't any more—oh, I can't!" moaned Mabel, and tried to use her heel likewise but her legs were too short.
"They mustn't get out, they mustn't!" Gerald panted.
"You'll know it when we do," came from inside the door in tones which fury and mouth-rooflessness would have made unintelligible to any ears but those sharpened by the wild fear of that unspeakable moment.
"What's up, there?" cried suddenly a new voice a voice with all its consonants comforting, clean-cut, and ringing, and abruptly a new shadow fell on the marble floor of Flora's temple.
"Come and help push!" Gerald's voice only just reached the newcomer. "If they get out they'll kill us all."
A strong, velveteen-covered shoulder pushed suddenly between the shoulders of Gerald and Mabel; a stout man's heel sought the aid of the goddess's pedestal; the heavy, narrow door yielded slowly, it closed, its spring clicked, and the furious, surging, threatening mass of Ugly-Wuglies was shut in, and Gerald and Mabel—oh, incredible relief!—were shut out. Mabel threw herself on the marble floor, sobbing slow, heavy sobs of achievement and exhaustion. If I had been there I should have looked the other way, so as not to see whether Gerald yielded himself to the same abandonment.
The newcomer—he appeared to be a gamekeeper Gerald decided later—looked down on—well, certainly on Mabel, and said:
"Come on, don't be a little duffer." (He may have said, "a couple of little duffers .) "Who is it, and what's it all about?"
"I can't possibly tell you," Gerald panted.
"We shall have to see about that, shan't we," said the newcomer amiably. "Come out into the moonlight and let's review the situation."
Gerald, even in that topsy-turvy state of his world, found time to think that a gamekeeper who used such words as that had most likely a romantic past. But at the same time he saw that such a man would be far less easy to "square" with an unconvincing tale than Eliza, or Johnson, or even Mademoiselle. In fact, he seemed, with the only tale that they had to tell, practically unsquarable.
Gerald got up—if he was not up already, or still up—and pulled at the limp and now hot hand of the sobbing Mabel; and as he did so the unsquarable one took his hand, and thus led both children out from under the shadow of Flora's dome into the bright white moonlight that carpeted Flora's steps. Here he sat down, a child on each side of him, drew a hand of each through his velveteen arm, pressed them to his velveteen sides in a friendly, reassuring way, and said: "Now then! Go ahead!"
Mabel merely sobbed. We must excuse her. She had been very brave, and I have no doubt that all heroines, from Joan of Arc to Grace Darling, have had their sobbing moments.
But Gerald said: "It's no use. If I made up a story you'd see through it."
"That's a compliment to my discernment, anyhow," said the stranger. "What price telling me the truth?"
"If we told you the truth," said Gerald, "you wouldn't believe it."
"Try me," said the velveteen one. He was clean-shaven, and had large eyes that sparkled when the moonlight touched them.
"I can't," said Gerald, and it was plain that he spoke the truth. "You'd either think we were mad, and get us shut up, or else—Oh, it's no good. Thank you for helping us, and do let us go home."
"I wonder," said the stranger musingly, "whether you have any imagination."
"Considering that we invented them," Gerald hotly began, and stopped with late prudence.
"If by 'them' you mean the people whom I helped you to imprison in yonder tomb," said the stranger, loosing Mabel's hand to put his arm round her, "remember that I saw and heard them. And with all respect to your imagination, I doubt whether any invention of yours would be quite so convincing."
Gerald put his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands.
"Collect yourself," said the one in velveteen; "and while you are collecting, let me just put the thing from my point of view. I think you hardly realize my position. I come down from London to take care of a big estate."
"I thought you were a gamekeeper," put in Gerald.
Mabel put her head on the stranger's shoulder. "Hero in disguise, then, I know," she sniffed.
"Not at all," said he; "bailiff would be nearer the mark. On the very first evening I go out to take the moonlit air, and approaching a white building, hear sounds of an agitated scuffle, accompanied by frenzied appeals for assistance. Carried away by the enthusiasm of the moment, I do assist and shut up goodness knows who behind a stone door. Now, is it unreasonable that I should ask who it is that I've shut up—helped to shut up, I mean, and who it is that I've assisted?"
"It's reasonable enough," Gerald admitted.
"Well then," said the stranger.
"Well then," said Gerald, "the fact is—— No," he added after a pause, "the fact is, I simply can't tell you."
"Then I must ask the other side," said Velveteens. "Let me go—I'll undo that door and find out for myself."
"Tell him," said Mabel, speaking for the first time. "Never mind if he believes or not. We can't have them let out."
"Very well," said Gerald, "I'll tell him. Now look here, Mr. Bailiff, will you promise us on an English gentleman's word of honour—because, of course, I can see you're that, bailiff or not—will you promise that you won't tell any one what we tell you and that you won't have us put in a lunatic asylum, however mad we sound?"
"Yes," said the stranger, "I think I can promise that. But if you've been having a sham fight or anything and shoved the other side into that hole, don't you think you'd better let them out? They'll be most awfully frightened, you know. After all, I suppose they are only children."
"Wait till you hear," Gerald answered. "They're not children—not much! Shall I just tell about them or begin at the beginning?"
"The beginning, of course," said the stranger.
Mabel lifted her head from his velveteen shoulder and said, "Let me begin, then. I found a ring, and I said it would make me invisible. I said it in play. And it did. I was invisible twenty-one hours. Never mind where I got the ring. Now, Gerald, you go on."
Gerald went on; for quite a long time he went on, for the story was a splendid one to tell.
"And so," he ended, "we got them in there; and when seven hours are over, or fourteen, or twenty-one, or something with a seven in it, they'll just be old coats again. They came alive at half-past nine. I think they'll stop being it seven hours—that's half-past four. Now will you let us go home?"
"I'll see you home," said the stranger in a quite new tone of exasperating gentleness. "Come—let's be going."
"You don't believe us," said Gerald. "Of course you don t. Nobody could. But I could make you believe if I chose."
All three stood up, and the stranger stared in Gerald's eyes till Gerald answered his thought.
"No, I don't look mad, do I?"
"No, you aren't. But, come, you're an extraordinarily sensible boy; don't you think you may be sickening for a fever or something?"
"And Cathy and Jimmy and Mademoiselle and Eliza, and the man who said 'Guy Fawkes, swelp me!' and you, you saw them move you heard them call out. Are you sickening for anything?"
"No—or at least not for anything but information. Come, and I'll see you home."
"Mabel lives at the Towers," said Gerald, as the stranger turned into the broad drive that leads to the big gate.
"No relation to Lord Yalding," said Mabel hastily—"housekeeper's niece." She was holding on to his hand all the way. At the servants entrance she put up her face to be kissed, and went in.
"Poor little thing!" said the bailiff, as they went down the drive towards the gate.
He went with Gerald to the door of the school.
"Look here," said Gerald at parting. "I know what you're going to do. You're going to try to undo that door."
"Discerning!" said the stranger.
"Well—don't. Or, anyway, wait till daylight and let us be there. We can get there by ten."
"All right—I'll meet you there by ten," answered the stranger. "By George! you're the rummest kids I ever met."
"We are rum," Gerald owned, "but so would you be if—— Good-night."
* * * * *
As the four children went over the smooth lawn towards Flora's Temple they talked, as they had talked all the morning, about the adventures of last night and of Mabel's bravery. It was not ten, but half-past twelve; for Eliza, backed by Mademoiselle, had insisted on their "clearing up," and clearing up very thoroughly, the "litter" of last night.
"You're a Victoria Cross heroine, dear," said Cathy warmly. "You ought to have a statue put up to you."
"It would come alive if you put it here," said Gerald grimly.
"I shouldn't have been afraid," said Jimmy.
"By daylight," Gerald assured him, "everything looks so jolly different."
"I do hope he'll be there," Mabel said; "he was such a dear, Cathy—a perfect bailiff, with the soul of a gentleman.""He isn't there, though," said Jimmy. "I
A PAINTED POINTED PAPER FACE PEERED OUT.
They went up the marble steps in the sunshine, and it was difficult to believe that this was the place where only in last night's moonlight fear had laid such cold hands on the hearts of Mabel and Gerald.
"Shall we open the door," suggested Kathleen, "and begin to carry home the coats?"
"Let's listen first," said Gerald; "perhaps they aren't only coats yet."
They laid ears to the hinges of the stone door, behind which last night the Ugly-Wuglies had shrieked and threatened. All was still as the sweet morning itself. It was as they turned away that they saw the man they had come to meet. He was on the other side of Flora's pedestal. But he was not standing up. He lay there, quite still, on his back, his arms flung wide.
"Oh, look!" cried Cathy, and pointed. His face was a queer greenish colour, and on his forehead there was a cut; its edges were blue, and a little blood had trickled from it on to the white of the marble.
At the same time Mabel pointed too—but she did not cry out as Cathy had done. And what she pointed at was a big glossy-leaved rhododendron bush, from which a painted pointed paper face peered out—very white, very red, in the sunlight—and, as the children gazed, shrank back into the cover of the shining leaves.