Two Little Pilgrims' Progress/The beginning of a fairy story

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CHAPTER XVI

 

THE BEGINNING OF A FAIRY STORY

 

 IT was such a strange thing—so unlike the things of every day, and so totally an unexpected thing, that for a little while they all three had a sense of scarcely knowing what to do with themselves. If Robin and Meg had not somehow rather liked the man and vaguely felt him friendly, and if there had not been in their impressionable minds that fancy about his being far from as happy as the other people of the crowds looked, it is more than probable that they would not have liked their position, and would have felt that it might spoil their pleasure.

But they were sympathetic children, and they had been lonely and sad enough themselves to be moved by a sadness in others, even if it was an uncomprehended one.

As she walked by the man's side, still letting her hand remain in his, Meg kept giving him scrutinising looks aside, and trying in her way to read him. He was a man just past middle life; he was powerful and well built, and had keen and at the same time rather unhappy-looking blue eyes, with brows and lashes as black as Rob's and her own. There was something strong in his fine-looking, clean-cut face, and the hand which held hers had a good, firm grasp, and felt like a hand which had worked in its time.

As for the man himself, he was trying an experiment. He had been suddenly seized with a desire to try it and see how it would result. He w T as not sure that it would be a success, but if it proved one it might help to rid him of gloom he would be glad to be relieved of. He felt it rather promising when Meg went at once to the point and asked him a practical question.

"You don't know our names?" she said.

"You don't know mine," he answered. "It's John Holt. You can call me that."

"John Holt," said Meg. "Mr. John Holt."

The man laughed. Her grave, practical, little air pleased him.

"Say John Holt without the handle to it," he said. "It sounds well"

Meg looked at him inquiringly. Though he had laughed, he seemed to mean what he said.

"It’s queer, of course," she said, "because we don’t know each other well; but I can do it, if you like.”

"I do like,” he said, and he laughed again.

“Very well,” said Meg. “My name’s Margaret Macleod. I’m called Meg, for short. My brother’s name is Robin, and Ben’s is Ben Nowell. Where shall we go first?”

"You are the leader of the party,” he answered, his face beginning to brighten a little. “Where shall it be?”

"The Palace of the Genie of the Flowers,” she said.

"Is that what it is called? "he asked.

“That’s what we call it,” she explained. “That’s part of the fairy story. We are part of a fairy story, and all these are palaces that the Genii built for the Great Magician.”

“That’s first-rate,” he said. “Just tell us about it. Ben and I have not heard.”

At first she had wondered if she could tell her stories to a grown-up person, but there was something in his voice and face that gave her the feeling that she could. She laughed a little when she began; but he listened with enjoyment that was so plain, and Ben walking by her side looked up with such eager, enraptured, and wondering eyes, that she went on bravely. It grew, as stories will, in being told, and it was better than it had been the day before. Robin himself saw that and leaned towards her as eagerly as Ben.

By the time they entered the Palace of the Flowers, and stood among the flame of colours and beneath the great palm-fronds swaying under the crystal globe that was its dome, she had warmed until she was all aglow and as full of fancies as the pavilions were of blossoms.

As she dived into the story of the Genie who strode through tropical forests and deep jungles, over purple moors and up mountain-sides where strange-hued, pale or vivid things grew in tangles, or standing in the sun alone, John Holt became of the opinion that his experiment would be a success. It was here that he began to find he had gifts to give. She asked him questions, Robin and Ben asked him questions, the three drew close to him and hung on his every word.

"You know the things and the places where they grow," Meg said. "We have never seen anything. We can only try to imagine. You can tell us." And he did tell them, and as they went from court to pavilion, surrounded by sumptuous bloom and sumptuous leafage and sumptuous fragrance, the three began to cling to him, to turn to him with every new discovery, and to forget he was a stranger. He knew that he was less gloomy than he had been before, and that somehow this thing seemed worth doing.

And in this way they went from place to place. As they had seen beauties and wonders the day before, they saw wonders and beauties to-day, but to-day their pleasure had a flavour new to them. For the first time in years, since they had left their little seat at their own fireside, they were not alone, and someone seemed to mean to look after them. John Holt was an eminently practical person, and when they left the Palace of the Flowers they began vaguely to realise that, stranger or not, he had taken charge of them. It was evident that he was in the habit of taking charge of people and things. He took charge of the satchel. It appeared that he knew where it was safe to leave it.

"Can we get it at lunch-time?" Robin asked, with some anxiety.

"You can get it when you want it," said John Holt.

A little later he looked at Ben's pale small face scrutinisingly.

"Look here," he said, "you're tired." And without any further question he called up a rolling chair.

"Get into that," he said.

"Me?" said Ben, a little alarmed.

"Yes."

And almost a shade paler at the thought of such grandeur, Ben got in and fell back with a luxurious sigh.

And at midday, when they were beginning to feel

test

"look here," he said, "you're tired."

ravenous, though no one mentioned the subject, he asked Meg a blunt question.

"Where did you eat your lunch yesterday?" he asked.

Meg flushed a little, feeling that hospitality demanded that they should share the remaining eggs with such a companion, and she was afraid there would be very few to offer when Ben was taken into consideration.

"We went to a quiet place on the Wooded Island," she said, "and ate it with the roses. We pretended they invited us. We had only hard-boiled eggs and a sandwich each; but a kind woman gave us something of her own."

"We brought the eggs from home," explained Rob.

"We have some chickens of our own who laid them. We thought that would be cheaper than buying things."

"Oh!" said John Holt. "So you've been living on hard-boiled eggs. Got any left?"

"A few," Meg answered. "They're in the satchel. We shall have to go and get it."

"Come along then," said John Holt. "Pretty hungry by this time, aren't you?"

"Yes," said Meg, with heartfelt frankness. "We are!"

It was astonishing how much John Holt had found out about them during this one morning. They did not know themselves how much their answers to his occasional questions had told him. He had not known himself when he asked the questions, how much their straightforward, practical replies would reveal. They had not sentimentalised over their friendless loneliness, but he had found himself realising what desolate, unnoticed, and uncared-for things their lives were. They had not told him how they had tired their young bodies with work too heavy for them, but he had realised it. In his mind there had risen a picture of the Straw Parlour under the tent-like roof of the barn, with these two huddled together in the cold, buried in the straw while they talked over their desperate plans. They had never thought of calling themselves strong and determined and clear of wit, but he knew how strong and firm of purpose and endurance two creatures so young and unfriended and so poor must have been to form a plan so bold, and carry it out in the face of the obstacles of youth and inexperience and empty pockets and hands. He had laughed at the story of the Treasure saved in pennies and hidden deep in the straw, but as he had laughed he had thought with a quick, soft throb of his heart, that the woman he had loved and lost would have laughed with him with tears in the eyes which Meg's reminded him of. He somehow felt as if she might be wandering about with them in their City Beautiful this morning, they were so entirely creatures she would have been drawn to, and longed to make happier.

He liked their fancy of making their poor little feast within scent of the roses. It was just such a fancy as she might have had herself. And he wanted to see what they had to depend on. He knew it must be little, and it touched him to know that, little as they had, they meant to share it with their poorer friend.

They went for the satchel, and when they did so they began to calculate as to what they could add to its contents. They were few things and poor ones.

He did not sit down, but stood by and watched them for a moment, when, having reached their sequestered nook, they began to spread out their banquet. It was composed of the remnant eggs, some bread, and a slice of cheese. It looked painfully scant, and Meg had an anxious eye.

"Is that all?" asked John Holt abruptly.

"Yes," said Meg. "We shall have to make it do."

"My Lord!" ejaculated John Holt suddenly in his blunt fashion. And he turned round and walked away.

"Where's he gone?" exclaimed Ben timidly.

But they none of them could guess. Nice as he had been, he had a brusque way, and perhaps he meant to leave them.

But by the time they had divided the eggs and the bread and cheese, and had fairly begun, he came marching back. He had a basket on his arm, and two bottles stuck out of one coat pocket, while a parcel protruded from the other. He came and threw himself down on the grass beside them and opened the basket. It was full of good things.

"I'm going to have lunch with you," he said; "and I have a pretty big appetite, so I've brought you something to eat. You can't tramp about on that sort of thing."

The basket they had seen the day before had been a poor thing compared to this. The contents of this would have been a feast for much more fastidious creatures than three ravenous children. There were chicken and sandwiches and fruit and cake, the bottles held lemonade, and the package in the coat pocket was a box of candy.

"We—never had such good things in our lives," Meg gasped amazed.

"Hadn't you?" said John Holt, with a kind and even a happy grin, "Well, pitch in!"