Two Little Pilgrims' Progress/The fairy story continued
THE FAIRY STORY CONTINUED
WHAT a feast it was—what a feast! They were so hungry, they were so happy, they were so rejoiced. And John Holt watched them as if he had never enjoyed himself so much before. He laughed, he made jokes, he handed out good things, he poured out lemonade.
"Let's drink to the Great Magician!" he said, filling the little glasses he had brought, and he made them drink it, standing, as a toast. In all the grounds that day there was not such a party. It was so exhilarated and so amazed at itself. Little Ben looked and ate and laughed as if the lemonade had gone to his head.
"Oh, my!" he said, "if mother could see me!"
"We'll bring her to-morrow!" said John Holt.
"Are you" faltered Meg, looking at him with wide eyes—"are you coming again to-morrow?"
"Yes," John Holt answered, "and you are coming with me—and we'll come every day until you've seen it all—if you three will pilot me around."
"You must be very rich, John Holt," said Meg. She had found out that it was his whim to want her to call him so.
"I have plenty of money,' he said, "if that's being rich. Oh! yes, I've got money enough. I've more land than Aunt Matilda."
And then it was that suddenly Robin remembered something. "I believe," he said, "that I've heard Aunt Matilda speak about you to Jones. I seem to remember your name. You have the biggest farm in Illinois, and you have houses and houses in town. Meg, don't you remember—when he got married, and everybody talked about how rich he was?"
And Meg did remember. She looked at him softly, and thought she knew why he had seemed gloomy, for she remembered that this rich and envied man's wife had had a little child and died suddenly. And she had even heard once that it had almost driven him mad, because he had been fond of her.
"Are you—that one?" she said.
"Yes," he answered. "I'm the one who got married." And the cloud fell on his face again, and for a minute or so rested there. For he thought this thing which had happened to him was cruel and hideous, and he had never ceased to rebel against it bitterly.
Meg drew a little closer to him, but she said no more about what she knew he was thinking of. She was a clever little thing, and knew this was not the time.
And after they had eaten of the good things, until hunger seemed a thing of the past, the afternoon began as a fairy story indeed. Little by little they began to realise that John Holt was their good and powerful giant, for it seemed that he was not only ready to do everything for them, but was rich enough.
"Have you been to the Midway Plaisance?" he asked them. He felt very sure, however, that they had not, or that if they had, with that scant purse, they had not seen what they longed to see.
"No, we haven't," said Meg. "We thought we would save it until we had seen so many other things that we should not mind so very much only seeing the outsides of places. We knew we should have to make up stories all the time."
"We won't save it," said John Holt. "We'll go now. We will hobnob with Bedouins and Japanese and Turks, and shake hands with Amazons and Indians; we'll ride on camels and go to the Chinese Theatre. Come along."
And to this Arabian Nights' Entertainment he took them all. They felt as if he was a prince. And oh! the exciting strangeness of it! To be in such a place and amid such marvels with a man who seemed to set no limit to the resources of his purse. They had never even been near a person who spent money as if it were made for spending, and the good things of life were made to be bought by it. What John Holt spent was only what other people with full purses spent in the Midway Plaisance, but to Meg and Robin and Ben it seemed that he poured forth money in torrents. They looked at him with timorous wonder and marvelling gratitude. It seemed that he meant them to see everything and to do everything. They rode on camels down a street in Cairo, they talked to chiefs of the desert, they listened to strange music, they heard strange tongues, and tasted strange confections. Robin and Ben went about like creatures in a delightful dream. Every few minutes during the first hour Robin would sidle close to Meg and clutch her dress or her hand with a grasp of rapture.
"Oh, Meg!" he would say, "and yesterday we were so poor! And now we are seeing everything!"
And when John Holt heard him, he would laugh half to himself, a laugh with a touch of pleasant exultation in it and no gloom at all. He had found something to distract him at last.
He liked to watch Meg's face as they went from one weirdly foreign place to another. Her eyes were immense with delight, and her face had the flush of an Indian peach. Once she stopped suddenly in such a glow of strange delight that her eyes were full of other brightness than the shining of her pleasure.
"Fairy stories do happen!" she said. "You have made one! It was a fairy story yesterday—but now—oh! just think how like a fairy king you are, and what you are giving to us! It will be enough to make stories of for ever!"
He laughed again. She found out in time that he often laughed—that short half laugh—when he was moved by something. He had had a rough sort of life, successful as it had been, and it was not easy for him to express all he felt.
"That's all right," he said. "That's just as it should be. But you are giving something to me too—you three."
And so they were, and it was not a little thing.
Their afternoon was a thing of which they could never have dreamed, and for which they could never have hoped. Before it was half over, they began to feel that not only John Holt was a prince, but that by some magic metamorphosis they had become princes themselves. It seemed that nothing in that City Beautiful was to be closed to them. It was John Holt's habit to do things in a thorough business-like way, and he did this thing in a manner which was a credit to his wit and good sense.
Ben, who had never been taken care of in his life, was taken about in a chair, and looked after in a way that made him wonder if he was not dreaming, and if he should not be wakened presently by the sound of his father's drunken voice.
Robin found himself more than once rubbing his forehead in a puzzled fashion.
Meg felt rather as if she had become a princess. Somehow she and John Holt seemed to have known each other a long time. He seemed to like to keep her near him, and always kept his eye on her, to see if she was enjoying herself, and was comfortable or tired. She found herself being wheeled by Ben's side when John Holt decided it was time for her to rest. He walked by her, and talked to her, answering all her questions. More than once it flashed into her mind that it would be very awful when all this joy was over, and they parted, as they would. But they were going to see him to-morrow, he had said.
It seemed as if they marched from one climax of new experience to another.
"You're going to dine with me," he announced. "You've had enough hard-boiled eggs. And we'll see the illuminations afterwards."
He took them to what seemed to them a dining place for creatures of another world. It was so brilliant with light, so decorated, so gorgeous. Servants moved to and fro, electric globes gleamed, palms and flowers added to the splendour of colour and brightness. John Holt gave them an excellent dinner; they thought it was a banquet. Ben kept his eyes on John Holt's face at every mouthful. He felt as if he might vanish away. He looked as if he had done this every day of his life. He called the waiters as if he knew no awe of any human being, and the waiters flew to obey him.
In the evening he took them to see the City Beautiful as it looked at night. It was set, it seemed to them, with myriads of diamonds all alight. Endless chains of jewels seemed strung and wound about it. The Palace of the Flowers held up a great crystal of light glowing against the dark blue of the sky, towers and domes were crowned and diademed, thousand of jewels hung among the masses of leaves, or reflected themselves sparkling in the darkness of the lagoons, fountains of molten jewels sprung up and flamed and changed. The City Beautiful stood out whiter and more spirit-like than ever in the pure radiance of these garlands of clearest flame.
When first they came out upon it, Robin involuntarily pressed close to Meg, and their twin hands clasped each other.
"Oh, Meg!" cried Robin.
"Oh, Robin!" breathed Meg, and she turned to John Holt and caught his hand too.
"Oh, John Holt!" she said, "John Holt!"
Very primitive and brief exclamations of joy, but somehow human beings have uttered them just as simply in all great moments through centuries.
John Holt knew just the degree of rapturous feeling they expressed, and he held Meg's hand close and with a warm grasp.
They saw the marvellously fairy spectacle from all points and from all sides. Led by John Holt, they lost no view and no beauty. They feasted full of all the delight of it, and at last he took them to a quiet corner, where through the trees sparkled lights and dancing water, and let them talk it out.
The day had been such an incredible one, with its succession of excitements and almost unreal pleasures, that they had actually forgotten that the night must come. They were young enough for that indiscretion, and when they sat down and began to realise how tired they were, they also began to realise a number of other things.
A little silence fell upon them. Ben's head began to droop slightly upon his shoulder, and John Holt's quick eye saw it.
"Have you had a good day?" he asked.
"Rob," said Meg, "when we sat in the Straw Parlour and talked about the City Beautiful, and the people who would come to it—when we thought we could never see it ourselves—did we ever dream that anybody—even if they were kings and queens—could have such a day?"
"Never," answered Robin—"never! We didn't know such a day was in the world."
"That's right," said John Holt. "I'm glad it's seemed as good as that. Now, where did you think of spending the night?"
Meg and Rob looked at each other. Since Rob had suggested to her in the morning a bold thought, they had had no time to discuss the matter, but now each one remembered the bold idea. Rob got up and came close to John Holt.
"This morning I thought of something," he said, "and once again this afternoon I thought of it. I don't know whether we could do it, but you could tell us. Do you think—this is such a big place and there are so many corners we could creep into, and it's such a fine night—do you think we could wait until all the people are gone, and then find a place to sleep without going out of the grounds. It would save us buying the tickets in the morning, and Ben could stay with us. I told his mother that perhaps he might not come home—and he could have another day."
John Holt laughed his short laugh.
"Were you thinking of doing that?" he said; "well, you have plenty of sand, anyway."
"Do you think we could do it?" asked Meg. "Would they find us and drive us out? "
John Holt laughed again.
"Great Caesar!" he said. "No, I don't think they'd find you two. Luck would be with you. But I know a plan worth two of that. I'm going to take you all three to my hotel."
"A hotel?" said Meg.
Ben lifted his sleepy head from his shoulder.
"Yes," said John Holt. "I can make them find corners for you, though they're pretty crowded. I'm not going to lose sight of you. This has begun to be my tea-party."
Meg looked at him with large and solemn eyes.
"Well," she said, "it's a fairy story, and it's getting fairyer and fairyer every minute."
She leaned forward with her heart quite throbbing. Because it was he who did this splendid thing—he to whom all things seemed possible—it actually seemed a thing to be accepted as if a magician had done it.
"Oh, how good you are to us!" she said. "How good and how good! And what is the use of saying only ‘Thank you.’ I should not be surprised," with a touch of awe, "if you took us to a hotel built of gold."
How heartily John Holt laughed then.
"Well, some of them ought to be by the time this thing's over," he said. "But the lights will soon be out, the people are going, and Ben's nearly dead. Let's go and find a carriage.