The Book of Betty Barber/Chapter 6
WHAT THE WHITE OWL KNEW
Now in the hollow trunk of the tree in which Betty Barber’s book was hidden, lived the very sleepiest of all sleepy owls, and she hated being disturbed.
“Peace!” she said to her friend, Mrs. Bat, “there’s not a bit of peace. Ever since Betty Barber hid that book in my tree, it’s coming and going, it’s fussing and fuming, it’s raging and ramping, but never a bit of peace and quiet. I’m getting about tired of it. What with majors and fairies, and persons that are not even whole numbers, my tree is not my own.”
“Get rid of the book,” said Mrs. Bat sleepily, “peck it to pieces; it seems to be the cause of all the trouble. Ah! There’s the dawn breaking. I thought so, that’s why I am so sleepy—Day—day—Peck it to pieces, and you’ll be able to sleep in peace.”
“I only hope I shall get some sleep,” said Mrs. Owl, and as the Bat flew away she settled herself down in her favourite corner, blinked and winked, and nodded, and was beginning to feel quite dosy and comfortable, when she heard a scratch, scratch, at the foot of her tree.
“At it again,” sighed Mrs. Owl, “there’s somebody after that book, and at this time of day, too.”
Scratch, scratch, scrape, scrape!
“Well, I shan’t move to see who it is,” said Mrs. Owl, “if only there are not two of them, and if only they don’t talk, I shall get a nap.”
But the scratching and scraping and digging went on, and Mrs. Owl could not sleep.
“There is only one of them,” she said, “I wonder which it is. The Major, the little girl, one of the fairies, perhaps. Yes, I almost think I will just hop down. Hullo! they are going away—I mean he is going away, or perhaps it is a she.”
Mrs. Owl flew down from her comfortable corner and peeped out of the tree.
“Well, here’s a pretty mess,” she said, looking at the bark and twigs and moss scattered over the ground, “and nobody in sight, and, dear me, surely never,” and she began scratching about in the moss, and searching inside the tree. “I do believe—well, now, isn’t that a good thing! I really shall have some hope of getting a good sleep at last.”
The Owl flew back to her perch, settled herself comfortably, and murmuring, “Well, who would have thought it! I call that a real blessing!” blinked herself to sleep.
The birds began to twitter, and the sun half opened one eye, the sleepy wood began to waken; but the Owl, tight asleep, heard nothing. A rabbit ran past the tree, and stared at the scraps of moss and bark, a robin picked up some of the loose pieces and carried them off, a large beetle tumbled over one of the twigs and grumbled at the mess.
Still Mrs. Owl slept on peacefully and happily, and dreamt she was having a most delightful supper of teeny tiny mice.
Then through the wood came the sound of footsteps, and Half-term walked slowly up to the tree, threw himself down beneath it, and yawned three great big yawns.
Such big yawns that Mrs. Owl’s dream-supper disappeared, and Mrs. Owl opened one eye.
More footsteps sounded.
Half-term did not even trouble to look up to see who was coming, and when Thirteen-fourteenths threw himself on the ground on the other side of the tree he only yawned again.
Thirteen-fourteenths sighed, such a sigh that Mrs. Owl opened the other eye, and began to blink at the daylight, which peeped in at her through the chinks of the tree.
A yawn from Half-term, a sigh from Thirteen-fourteenths, then three groans from each of them. Then they both rolled over and met face to face.
“Oh, it’s you,” said Half-term, “and you don’t seem quite chirpy.”
“You seem a bit depressed yourself,” said Thirteen-fourteenths.
“I’m sick of it,” said Half-term.
“So am I,” said Thirteen-fourteenths.
“I’m tired of painting all the time,” said Half-term.
“Not half as tired as I am of seeing those children paint all the time,” said Thirteen-fourteenths. ‘Not a girl, not a boy, will do anything but paint, paint, paint. I can’t think what has come over them all.”
“Oh, well, you see, I thought it would be fun to paint all day long, so did Easter, so did Summer, so did dear old Christmas,” said Half-term, “and we told the children so; but really, even I have had enough of it.”
“Had enough of it!” said Thirteen-fourteenths, quite angrily. “So you are the cause of all this trouble. And, pray, did you think what would happen in Paint Land?”
Half-term picked himself up from the ground, and gave a long, low whistle.
“My young friend,” said Half-term quite solemnly, “if you’ll believe me, I never thought of that at all.”
“Well, then, perhaps you may as well have a look and see,” said Thirteen-fourteenths crossly, and he pointed to the tree.
“I will go and see,” said Half-term, solemnly, “but first I should like to explain that if mischief has been done I am not the real cause of the mischief.”
“What do you mean?” cried Thirteen-fourteenths. “You say you and your precious sisters told the children to paint all day long.”
“So we did,” said Half-term, “but only because I saw it in the book.”
“Saw what, in what book?” said Thirteen-fourteenths, angrily jumping to his feet, for he thought Half-term was only making excuses.
“In the Book of Betty Barber,” said Half-term. “Don’t you remember, she says, “I shall let my children paint all day long?”
Thirteen-fourteenths began to think.
“Don’t you know the Book of Betty Barber?” said Half-term. “Why, I read it through, and, by the way, I wonder how the Major is getting on with the Sharps and Flats, and good little Lucy, too. She promised to try to get into three verses.”
“I wonder where Lucy is,” said the Fraction. “I haven’t seen her lately. I hope she hasn’t got into Nonsense Land with her three verses. If she is there, she’ll find it is far easier to get in than to get out.”
“Dear, dear,” said Half-term, “I’m afraid that book has caused a great deal of mischief. But I should like to find out about Paint Land. Let us climb the tree.”
He jumped up from the ground, and began to climb the tree, and Thirteen-fourteenths followed him slowly.
“Mischief!” he said. “Mischief! He thinks the book has caused mischief, does he? If Lucy is lost in Nonsense Land—and she was talking nonsense the last time I saw her—I shall wish I had torn that book to pieces. Where did I put it? I know, in a hollow tree, and the trunk of this tree is hollow. I believe it was this very tree,” and Thirteen-fourteenths nearly tumbled out of the tree in his excitement. “It is not too late,” he cried. “I’ll go down this minute and tear the book up.”
But Half-term had reached the top of the tree, and he was calling loudly:
“Come up, come up. We must do something, we must get somebody to help. Look at Paint Land!”
Thirteen-fourteenths followed Half-term up to the top of the tree.
He looked across to Paint Land, and sighed.
“Yes,” he said, “it is as I thought.”
Though they could only see Paint Land in the distance beneath them, they could see enough to guess that terrible things were happening.
“The Paint Lakes have disappeared, the water in the wells is all used up,” said Half-term. “I know there are no more brushes, for I used up the last this morning.”
“The children are painting with sticks,” said Thirteen-fourteenths, “and they are painting so carelessly—blue noses, red eyes, and green hair; and they are making such a mess, very soon all the soap in the world will be used up.”
“Dear, dear, dear,” said Half-term. “Let us go to Paint Land. I will fetch my sisters, they will help. The children must be stopped.”
Half-term began to climb down the tree, as quickly as he had climbed up it.
Thirteen-fourteenths followed slowly.
“It has gone too far,” he said, “the mischief is done; but we can destroy the book, and we will.”
Half-term was nearly down, when he suddenly stopped, and held up a warning finger to Thirteen-fourteenths.
“There’s somebody at the foot of the tree,” he whispered, “two somebodies, and they are searching for something, I think.”
“They are looking for the book,” whispered Thirteen-fourteenths. “How do they know I hid it there? Can you see who they are?”
“I can see a girl,” said Half-term, “but I never saw her before I don’t know who she is.”’
“But there’s Major C,” cried Thirteen-fourteenths. “Hurry up, old boy, we must talk to him, he may know something about Lucy.”
But in his eagerness to hurry Half-term slipped, there was a sound of crashing and cracking, and Half-term found himself tumbling down, down in the dark, inside the tree, instead of outside, to the great annoyance of Mrs. Owl, who flew at him and tried to strike him with her wings.
“Help! Help!” he shouted.
Major C and Minora—for, of course, it was Minora—were frightened out of their wits.
“Come away, come away,” said Minora, seizing the Major’s arm, “there are fairies protecting it, it must be a magic book.”
And the Major would have hurried away, had not Thirteen-fourteenths, who was recovering from his hasty descent of the tree, seized his arm.
“It’s all right,” he said. “We’ll get you out, old chap,” he called to Half-term, who was still calling for help, though he had managed to frighten Mrs. Owl away.
“Who is it?” said the Major.
“It’s only Half-Term,” said Thirteen-fourteenths, “and he has slipped inside the tree, instead of outside. All right, old chap,” he called once more to Half-term. “I’ll come and give you a hand.’
“It’s easy for you to say it’s all right,” shouted Half-term, “there’s an old Owl inside here, and the stupid old thing keeps flapping her wings; but I’ve caught her now. So come along and get me out.”
“I think perhaps I had better help him out,” said Thirteen-fourteenths, and he began to climb the trunk.
“Here, I say, Thirteen-fourteenths,” shouted Half-term, “are you coming to help me out? I want to show you the Owl, and she’ll get away if I try to get out by myself.”
“But make him search well first for the book,” said Minora.
“Which book?” said Thirteen-fourteenths, dropping lightly to the ground. “Not the Book of Betty Barber?”
“But I thought I saw you getting that out of the trunk a minute ago,” said the Fraction.
“We were trying to get it,” said Minora, “but we can’t find it—it’s gone.”
“Gone!” shouted Thirteen-fourteenths.
“Yes, gone,” shouted Half-term from inside the tree. ‘ Catch her if you can, I couldn’t hold her any longer.”
“Half-Term found Himself Tumbling Down” (p. 65)
Mrs. Owl fluttered out and flew away.
Thirteen-fourteenths was not troubling about Half-term, he was poking his arm through the hole in the trunk at the foot of the tree, trying to find the book.
“We thought it was inside the tree,” said Minora.
“Of course it is, and so is my arm,” said Thirteen-fourteenths, “but I can’t feel it, and I can’t find Half-term’s feet, or I’d tickle his toes. It’s really a good thing he tumbled in, he must make a thorough search.”
But as he spoke Half-term’s head and shoulders appeared in the branches of the tree.
“Wait,” screamed Minora, the Major, and the Fraction.
“Not a bit of it,” cried Half-term. “I’ve had enough of this,” and he pulled and tugged to get himself out.
“The Book of Betty Barber is somewhere inside the tree,” shouted Minora.
“I’m coming out,” said Half-term; but as he spoke something white flew before his eyes, almost striking his face, his foot slipped, and down he fell, grumbling and shouting.
Thirteen-fourteenths started to climb the trunk; but as he looked up something white fluttered in front of his eyes, and he, too, fell down.
“I’ve fallen,” shouted Half-term inside the tree.
“So have I,” called the Fraction, outside.
“It’s that Owl,” shouted Half-term. “Catch her.”
But Mrs. Owl was not to be caught a second time.
“I’ll keep her away until you are up in the branches,” said Minora.
“She’d better keep out of my way,” shouted Half-term.
Minora picked up a big stick, and the Major waved his hat. Mrs. Owl flew away to look for a quieter sleeping place, and Half-term and Thirteen-fourteenths met in the branches of the tree.
Then the Fraction explained about the book; but as Half-term refused to go down inside the tree again, Thirteen-fourteenths had to go himself. But it was of no use, the book was not there.
“Then where is it?” said Major C, as Half-term and Thirteen-fourteenths threw themselves down on the grass, tired out.
“I don’t know, and I hope I shall never see it again,” said Half-term, who was rather out of temper. “If it hadn’t been for that silly old book I shouldn’t have been in that tree all that time.”
“If it hadn’t been for that silly old book, I should never have troubled about Sharps and Flats,” said Major C.
“Oh, how did you get on?” said Half-term.
“Get on!” cried the Major.
“We had to get out,” said Minora, and then the Major told his sad tale.
“Well, this seems to be a very serious business,” said Thirteen-fourteenths, when he had finished. ‘Major C is driven out—I mean, thinks it well to leave Music Land. Paint Land is nearly dried up, and I strongly suspect Lucy is lost in Nonsense Land.”
“And I’m all bruised and sore and tired out,” said Half-term. “Well, it’s a good job the book of Betty Barber is lost.”
“But it may be found,” said Thirteen-fourteenths.
“Indeed, it must be found. We must not rest until the book of Betty Barber is found and destroyed. If it is only lost, someone may find it, and it will make more mischief. We will make it our business to find it.”
“And tear it into teeny tiny little bits,” said Minora.
“Certainly, certainly,” said the Major, “but how are we to find it?”
“It seems to me we ought to help them in Paint Land before we bother about the stupid old book,” said Half-term. “Let me fetch my sisters; then we will all talk the matter over, and see if something cannot be done.”
“Very well,” said Thirteen-fourteenths, “we’ll have a conference. You fetch your sisters, and until they come we will be looking for the book.”
“What’s that?” said Minora, as something white flew up into the tree. ‘Perhaps the book has wings, perhaps it is a magic book, after all.”
“That was only the old white Owl,” said Half-term, as he bounded away, “the one I caught.”
“Only the old white Owl!” muttered Mrs. Owl. “If he only knew it, I could tell him a pretty tale about the Book of Betty Barber, but they won’t see that again, I know. It’s gone to———” And still muttering to herself, Mrs. Owl flew away through the wood.