Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY BOSTON
The Riverside Press Cambridge
Copyright, 1952, by
CARLEY DAWSON and LYND WARD
* * * * *
* * * * *
Christopher Mason felt numb. It seemed to him that he was as good as an orphan already, for his father, a Commander in the Navy, was far away at sea, and Chris's mother was in a hospital, not expected to live.
Chris scuffed along the brick pavements of Georgetown, but he did not, as he usually did, look about at its familiar houses. This friendly core of the growing city of Washington, D.C., today seemed to him almost hostile.
Georgetown, where Chris lived, is the oldest part of the capital city, built by early English settlers long years before Washington itself was even planned. Grouped at the head of the navigable part of the Potomac River, above Georgetown's bluffs, the Potomac foams and dashes over wild rocks and waterfalls, and across the river, the country starts.
Chris had just left his mother's sister, his Aunt Rachel. Aunt Rachel, white-faced, was preparing to go to the hospital to be with his mother and had asked him, "Don't you want to come too, Chris? For a little while?" But a cold-edged wing of fear had brushed the boy like a bat wing in the night. He had shaken his head, speechless, grabbed his sweater, and slammed the front door.
Now he hesitated on a corner, suddenly dismayed, not knowing quite where to go or what to do. The whole city with its white marble buildings and templed memorials, its elm-lined avenues, seemed all at once very empty.
He looked down to the Potomac, always, for Chris, just "the river," where it glinted distantly blue and silver at the end of the street. Factories along the riverbank cut off all but the farthest stretches of water as the river moved under bridge after bridge beside the banks of Maryland and Virginia.
Chris made up his mind to see what might be in the Pep Boys' store, far down the hill and along traffic-filled M Street. Somehow the tawdry bustle of this street, with its many shops, appealed to the boy who carried misery inside him like a cold, heavy stone. Running, he started down the hill between the lines of old brick houses, left Rock Creek Park behind him, and turning to the right up M Street, reached the hardware glitter of The Pep Boys'.
And it was there, as he stood staring in at the chromium bicycle lamps, red glass tail lights, and wire baskets, that Mike Dugan found him.
Mike was in his class at public school, the eighth grade. Mike was all right. Chris liked him.
"Nothin' much. Just looking."
"Say—you know sumthin'?" Mike wiggled himself across part of the Pep Boys' window to gain Chris's attention. "Old Wicker's got a sign in his window—he needs a boy. For after school, I guess. Think he'd pay, huh? Whyncha try?"
Chris looked from a nickel-plated flashlight to a car jack and spark plug.
"Oh—I don't know."
Mike persisted. "Well, I'll tell you what. Know who needs a job bad? That's Jakey Harris. His mother's sick, and he's got that bad foot. Whyncha ask for him, huh? You sit next to him at school."
All Chris heard was "—needs a job bad—mother's sick."
"O.K.," he said. "Only why didn't you ask him yourself?"
Mike became uneasy and fished an elastic band out of his pocket, made a flick of paper and sent it soaring out into M Street.
"Well—" he admitted, "I did. Wicker's such a queer old guy. That ol' antique shop is dark an' spooky, an'—Well, I went in, and there wasn't nobody there, on'y him and me."
Mike stopped, and after a pause Chris said, "So what?"
"So—" Mike swallowed. "So I said I was there about the job, an' do you know what he said? He said"—he went on without urging, but with a frown of perplexity ridging his forehead—"He said, 'Turn around and look out that window, son, and tell me what you see.'"
Mike stopped and looked at Chris with a comical expression. "Everybody knows what's outside his window!" he burst out. "Of all the silly things! But I turned around and looked, like he told me to, and of course there was the traffic goin' by, and trucks, and cabs, and people crossin' the street, and the freeway overhead, an'—you know."
"So what did he say?" Chris asked, and for the first time that day the heavy weight he carried within him lifted and lightened a little.
Mike examined the toe of his worn shoe. "Oh, he just smiled, that funny little crackly smile, and said, 'I'm sorry, young man, you won't do.'"
For a moment both boys stared into one another's eyes, each questioning, wondering, and neither being able to supply the answer.
At last, Chris broke the silence.
"Queerest thing I ever heard. Gee! Whaddaya suppose?"
Mike took heart, his experience believed and his bafflement shared. He spoke cheerfully. "It doesn't make sense, but old Wicker's so old he may be addled, don't you reckon? Who else would keep an antique store where nobody ever looks? All the other antique places are along Wisconsin Avenue where people go to shop."
"You reckon Jakey really could use the job?" Chris asked, his courage ebbing as he pictured to himself the dark little shop with its bow window of small panes, and Mr. Wicker, so thin and wizened he seemed only bones and wrinkles. "Think he really needs it?" he pursued.
But Mike was certain, or perhaps he needed a companion in this curious experiment.
"You bet he does! He tol' me at noon today he wished he could find something that would help bring some money in. His mother's sick," he repeated, "an' Jakey don' look so good himself."
"Well—" Chris said, half agreeing.
"I'll go with ya!" Mike announced, as if that finished the argument; which, as a matter of fact, it did.
Chris did not feel too happy about his mission and hung back a moment longer, looking in the Pep Boys' window at things he had already seen. He would have liked to get the job for Jakey, who needed it, but somehow the task of facing Mr. Wicker, especially now that the light was going and dusk edging into the streets, was not what Chris had intended for ending the afternoon. Although he had not been quite certain how he had meant to spend the rest of the remaining daylight, Mike's plan did not seem to fit his present mood.
"Are you coming?" Mike challenged, with a hint of derision.
"Yes," said Chris suddenly, "I'm coming. I'll ask for Jakey."
Mike's expression changed at once to one of triumph, but Chris was only partly encouraged.
The two boys walked to the corner of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue. Traffic roared up the first short block of Wisconsin from under the high steel freeway down to their left.
Chris glanced down the slope of Wisconsin. Houses and shops thinned suddenly on both sides of the street. Far down at the very end, on his side, he could see the brick walls and slate roof of Mr. Wicker's house. Chris knew it well, for times without number he had pressed his nose to the square Georgian panes of Mr. Wicker's window to gaze at the strangely fascinating jumble of oddments that were displayed. Now, however, he felt in no mood to visit the curiosity shop and stood shifting his feet and looking aimlessly about. Mike, beside him, was becoming restive, and gave him a poke.
"Betcha aren't goin' after all!"
Chris turned on him. "Am too!"
Mike looked disdainful. "Aw—you're stalling!"
"Not any sucha thing. I'm going now."
"O.K. Let's see you."
Chris turned his back on Mike and started down the hill. After a step or two, not finding his friend beside him, he turned. Mike was standing on the corner.
"Hi!" Chris called, indignant. "You said you were coming with me!"
"Well, I was," Mike howled back, "but I just remembered. My mother told me to bring her some stuff from the Safeway. I'll run all the way and come back and meet you."
"Aw shucks!" Chris kicked at a nonexistent pebble and scowled. But a chore was a chore, and was never worth discussion.
"I'll meetcha in fifteen or twenty minutes," Mike shouted. "It won't take me long," and throwing out his hands to signify that there was nothing he could do about it he disappeared.
Chris started off once more, passing the bleak little Victorian church perched on the hill above Mr. Wicker's house. An empty lot cut into by Church Lane gave a look of isolation to the L-shaped brick building that served Mr. Wicker as both house and place of business. Chris paused to look below him. Even from where he stood, fifty feet above the house, the slope of the hill was sharp and the plan of the house below him could be plainly seen.
It was built like an inverted L, the short wing faced towards the street and the traffic of Wisconsin Avenue. The longer wing, toward the back, had a back door that opened onto Water Street. The space between the house and Wisconsin Avenue had been made into a neat oblong flower garden, fenced off from the sidewalk by box shrubs and a white picket fence. Behind it, along the other side of the long wing, lay a meticulously arranged vegetable garden and a few apple trees.
His gaze moved back to the house itself. It seemed to have been built at about the same time as the vacant storehouses opposite, for they had a similar look of design and age. The windows of Mr. Wicker's house had smaller panes of glass than were used nowadays, and like the warehouses across from it, Mr. Wicker's had many dormer windows jutting out from the slated roof. Unlike the warehouses, however, which were rickety and down-at-heel, Mr. Wicker's home was well cared for. The windows—except for the bow window of the shop to the right of the front door—had shutters painted a pleasing bluey-green, and at their sides could be seen the edges of gay curtains. The traffic freeway rose high above the roof, dwarfing the old house and casting a deepening shadow over the whole length of Water Street, shading even Mr. Wicker's back door, so close did it rise beside the house. The air was filled with mechanical sounds—the roar of cars speeding up the hill, the grind of gears, the shuddering throb of wheels along the freeway, and the clanking bang of chains and weights in the factories along the shore.
The sun was dropping, and the sky behind Chris made a sinister promise for the following day. A livid yellow stained the horizon beyond the factories and gray clouds lowered and tumbled above. The air was growing chill and Chris decided to finish his job. All at once he wondered how his mother was, and everything in him pinched and tightened itself.
At the foot of the hill he reached the house. As he came to the bow front the old familiar excitement that always seized Chris when he looked in Mr. Wicker's window touched him again, and he stopped to look at its well-memorized display.
For as long as he had stopped to look into Mr. Wicker's window, which was as far back as he could remember, Chris had never known the objects to vary or be changed. There were three things that always caught his eye, amid the litter of dusty pieces. On the left, the coil of rope; in the center, the model of a sailing ship in a green glass bottle, and on the right, the wooden statue of a Negro boy in baggy trousers, Turkish jacket, and white turban. The figure was holding up a wooden bouquet, the yellow paint peeling from the carved flowers. The figure's mouth was open in an engaging toothy smile, and its right hand was on one hip, on the chipped red paint of the baggy trousers. The ship, so often contemplated by Chris that he knew every tiny thread and delicately jointed board, was a three-masted schooner, sleek of line, painted—at one time—a dazzling white. Now with dust dulling the green sides of the bottle, its sails looked loose, its sides grimed. But the name still showed at the prow, and many a time Chris, safe at home in bed, had sailed imaginary voyages in the Mirabelle. It lay there snug and captured, as if at the bottom of a tropical sea, seen through the glass sides of the bottle, and Chris never tired of looking at it.
But perhaps the coil of rope, so meaningless, so meaningful, held his imagination by an even stronger hold. Why a coil of rope in an antique shop? Who would want it? People bought rope in a hardware store—there was one farther along M Street near the old deserted Lido Theatre. But here, in an antique shop? Chris shook his head as he stared. He had never seen anyone go into Mr. Wicker's shop, now he thought of it. How then, did he live, and what did he ever sell?
A sudden car horn woke him from his dream. He looked up, seeing for the first time the small card hung at eye level in the window. In a beautiful script such as Chris had never seen before, but very legible, the card read:
Boy Wanted. Good Pay. W. Wicker.
Jakey Harris came back into Chris's thoughts. He looked over his shoulder at the darkening sky streaked luridly with citrous strokes; noticed the wheel and tackle high up at the loft door of the warehouse opposite, and put his hand on the doorknob. The last flicker of light scudded across the steel sides of the freeway to pick out the lettering above the shop window.
W-LLM. WICKER, CURIOSITIES
Chris opened the door and a bell jangled, very faintly, but with persistence, far away in some distant part of the house.
The last reverberations of sound hung in the air and jangled in Chris's head. Of the many times he had examined Mr. Wicker's window and pored over the rope, the ship and the Nubian boy, he had never gone into Mr. Wicker's shop. So now, alone until someone should answer the bell, he looked eagerly, if uneasily, around him.
What with the one window and the lowering day outside, the long narrow shop was somber. The ceiling seemed close above Chris's head. Heavy hand-hewn beams crossed it from one side to the other. A few dusty pieces of furniture stood about, whether for sale or for use Chris could not determine, and almost lost in the black shadows at the far end were what appeared to be boxes and bales, piled one upon the other.
The growing silence, now the bell had stopped, gripped Chris. A chill made itself felt in his feet and spread rapidly over his body so that he gave a convulsive shiver. He was about to turn and go out when, at the farthest end of the gloomy shop, a small primrose oblong of light seeped for a little way along the floor and a door opened. Fascinated, Chris stared, as into this distant pallor stepped the short and remarkably spidery figure of a man. Mr. Wicker's back being toward the source of light, Chris could not see his face. The figure paused, with a fragile hand scarcely bigger than that of a child's on the doorhandle, and then came forward.
The silence, Chris noticed, was still unbroken as Mr. Wicker advanced toward him, and Chris shuddered again as he stood waiting and watching, but whether it was with cold or with fear—and the room was indeed very dank and unaired—it would have been hard to say.
When Mr. Wicker had come within a few feet of Chris, the final vestiges of daylight from outside reached the extraordinary man facing the boy, and for the first time Chris was able to examine the old man who was more legend than fact throughout Georgetown.
William Wicker's face in itself was not forbidding. What made an icy mouse seem to run the length of Chris's spine was the impression of enormous age in the appearance of the man confronting him. The thin lips crackled the withered and multi-wrinkled cheeks in the ghost of what had once been a smile. The nose, once hawk-like and proud and denoting strength of character and purpose, was now pinched by the ever-tightening fingers of a progression of years. The double fans of minute wrinkles breaking from eye corner to temple and joining with those over the cheekbones were drawn into the horizontal lines across the domed forehead. Little tufts of white fuzz above the ears were all that remained of the antiquarian's hair, but what drew and held Chris's gaze were the old man's eyes.
Mr. Wicker's eyes were not those of an old man at all. They had the vigor of a man in the prime of life, and their presence in that puckered face of age which confronted Chris was horribly disconcerting. Chris blinked and looked again. Yes, they were still there. Eyes so deeply brown they might well have been black, but clear, sparkling, and with a decided glint of humor and mischief. While the boy had been too frightened to move at the sight of Mr. Wicker's ancient cheeks, pinched nose, and hairless head, he was encouraged by the friendly eyes. Chris could not help but like those eyes, even though it was hard to believe they belonged to the man before him.
As though from a great distance Mr. Wicker's voice came to his ears, and this too, Chris found difficult to credit. There, not four feet in front of him was the old shopkeeper, and yet the high thin voice might have come from anywhere else—the rafters, the room beyond the lighted door; anywhere.
"Well, my boy? You wanted something?"
Chris swallowed and his voice came back to him. "Yes sir," he said. "I saw your sign, and I know a boy who needs the job." He looked at Mr. Wicker as though he were unable to look elsewhere. "He's a schoolmate of mine. Jakey Harris, his name is, and he really needs the job. I wondered—" Mr. Wicker's eyes, laughing at him just a little, confused Chris and he began to stammer.
"I—I just wondered if the place was still open."
Mr. Wicker studied Chris for a moment or two before he replied. What he saw was a fresh-cheeked lad tall for thirteen, sturdy, with sincerity and good humor in his face, and something sensitive and appealing about his eyes. His chin showed obstinacy and tenacity; his nose would shape itself well as he grew older. Unruly tawny hair was blown and ruffled in every direction and his hands, even young as he was, showed ability and strength.
"Hm-mm," said Mr. Wicker, and his remote smile broadened while his eyes sparkled with the warmth of a fire on a winter's night. "Hm-mm. Yes. The job is still open, young man, but while you're here, why not apply for it yourself?"
Chris, somewhat less ill at ease, now he had got his message out, shifted his feet and gave a short laugh.
"Oh no, thank you, sir. You see, I don't really need it, and Jakey does. It wouldn't be fair for me to take it if Jakey has a chance."
He looked away, and saw that the light from the distant hidden room was jumping and flickering on the shadowed walls. He guessed there must be a lively fire in that room beyond.
"Of course," Chris added anxiously, "I don't know what the job is. You don't say, on the sign, and Jakey isn't awfully well. He has a twisted foot and it makes him slow in walking. Would that interfere with Jakey's getting the job, sir?" Chris enquired.
The reply was slow in coming, and Chris heard as if the words had been spoken, not before him, where the black outlined figure still stood, but as if at his very ear. Soft but clear, the words sounded.
"It would not interfere, Christopher my boy. But now that you are here, you must make the test. Jakey will be cared for, never fear."
Almost as in a dream, Chris felt an atmosphere drenching him as though a powerful scent filled the air. His head swam a little, and he realized that it was a long time since he had had lunch. He thought he detected a pleasant smell of herbs, like the potpourri his mother had in bowls in their house. The sharp black outline of Mr. Wicker impressed itself on his eyeballs, and in the room, now totally dark except for the light that streamed from the faraway open door, Mr. Wicker's body seemed to radiate a bright edge, like a carbon paper held up to the sun. The voice at his ear once more filled his head and his hearing.
"You will make the test, my boy. Now. Just turn around, and tell me what you see out my window."
Chris, in spite of the strangeness rising about him like a mist, remembered very well what lay outside the window. But even as he slowly turned, the thought pierced his mind, Why had he not seen the reflection of the headlights of the cars moving up around the corner of Water Street and up the hill toward the traffic signals? And why had the sound of wheels, of gears and of horns, been so completely muffled out? The room seemed overly still.
Then, in that second, he turned and faced about. The wide bow window was there before him, the three objects he liked best showing frosty in the moonlight that poured in from across the water.
Across the water! Where was the freeway? It was no longer there, nor were the high walls and smokestacks of factories to be seen. The warehouses were still there. They were the very same, for Chris could make out the winch and tackle he had noticed as he opened the door. But instead of factories, instead of the freeway, the river flickered silver under the moon, and the hulls and masts of countless ships broke the starry sky.
Flabbergasted and breathless, Chris was unaware that he had moved closer to peer out the window in every direction. No electric signs, no lamplit streets. Going as far as the wall to his left and leaning forward, Chris looked up toward M Street.
Where the People's Drugstore had stood but a half-hour before, rose the roofs of what was evidently an inn. A courtyard was sparsely lit by a flaring torch or two, showing a swinging sign hung on a post. The post was planted at the edge of what was now a broad and muddy road. Even as Chris stared, not knowing whether to believe what his eyes saw or not, there was a great sound of hoofs and of a cracking whip. A coach with its top piled high with luggage stamped to a halt beside the flagged courtyard. Ostlers ran out to hold the team of horses steaming in the cool night air, and linkboys carrying torches and orange lanterns ran out to help the travelers in. The coachman wore knee breeches and a cockaded hat; two gentlemen got down from the interior of the coach, stretching their cramped legs. Chris could catch the shine as lantern glow touched the silver buckles on their shoes. Their full-backed coats were slightly lifted, on the left, by the tips of their rapiers, and a froth of white, lace or muslin, fell from their necks onto satin waistcoats. They moved into the inn; the coach rattled off to the stable. Before the window, farm carts rumbled by, and instead of the crowded outline of Georgetown roofs, Chris could see only a few chimneys against the stars, and many lofty trees.
"What do you see, boy?" asked the voice, so gentle, at his ear. Chris, frightened and dumbfounded, shook his head.
"I will tell you," Mr. Wicker said. "My window has a power for those few who are to see. You are looking back into the past, my boy. The way it used to be."
Then the coldness, the strangeness, the fluttering of the light was too much for Chris. Blackness descended on him as if a hood had been dropped over his head, but before he was quite gone, he heard what he thought was Mr. Wicker's voice saying kindly:
"You will do."
When Chris came to himself he woke from sleep and lay for a moment without opening his eyes. He waited with his usual sense of irritation for Aunt Rachel's step at the door, and her voice saying, "Get up, Chris! You're late again!" But the step did not come, and feeling rested and hungry, Chris opened his eyes.
What was this? The high regular walls of his bedroom were not around him, nor the familiar furniture. Chris sat up, rubbing at his eyes as if this would help to clear his vision, and looked about him.
He was in a narrow bed in a small sunny room. An attic room, it would seem to be, for the walls slanted down in different sharp angles from the low ceiling to the broad wood planks of the floor. Two dormer windows projected from the room beyond the roof, making two niches in the wall across from where Chris lay, and a third window in the wall above his head showed that the room, as well as being at the top of the house, was also at a corner of it. A door was just beyond the foot of the bed; a chest of drawers and a table with a blue and white porcelain wash bowl and pitcher, stood along the farther side. Wooden pegs were placed at hand level here and there, and a rag rug in bright colors lay on the floor by the bed. The walls were white and the sunlight poured in to dash itself upon the floor and splash up the walls in irresistible gaiety. There was no doubt about it, bare though it was, it was a pleasing room, snug, clean and cheerful, and somehow well suited to a thirteen-year-old boy. Chris half smiled as he looked, leaning on one elbow, and then his smile faded as he caught sight of the chair and what it held.
The only chair in the room was laid with carefully folded clothes. But they were not Chris's clothes. Chris jumped out of bed and then looked down with a quick startled intake of his breath. He was wearing a white nightshirt, something he had never even seen before and barely heard of. The sleeves were long and cuffed, and the nightshirt fell in linen lines to his feet.
"Golly Moses!" Chris exclaimed, completely baffled.
He returned to the examination of the clothes that were obviously laid out for him. There was a fine white shirt with full sleeves and turned-back cuffs. White cotton stockings; knee breeches of a blue-gray worsted material, and matching frock coat with silver carved buttons. Below the chair, Chris saw, was a pair of black leather shoes with polished silver buckles.
"Fancy dress, huh?" Chris murmured, and then, as if he had been slapped into full awareness, came the remembrance of the evening before, of Mr. Wicker, and of the dark flickering shop.
Chris sat down suddenly on the edge of the bed, his mouth, in spite of all his efforts, drawn down at the corners, and his eyes blank with confusion and misery.
"Oh my golly!" Chris said, and stared at the clothes he still held in his hands.
Then another idea struck him, and he jumped up to run to the nearest dormer window, the floorboards, where the sun had lain on them, warm under his bare feet.
But no. No freeway, no factories. The window looked out over Water Street, skirting the edge of the Potomac banks, and there below Chris's amazed eyes rose a forest of masts and spars of ships at anchor along the shore. Water Street, below him, was swarming with activity, but not the activity that Chris had previously known. Men dressed in the same sort of clothes as those laid out for him pushed at cotton bales, rolled hogsheads along to the docks, or rowed out to ships anchored in midstream. Most of the stevedores were hatless, and Chris snickered at the sight of the short braid of hair at the napes of their necks. Many wore brilliant scarves tied around their heads, red, or mustard-yellow or green, and the sound of deep voices swearing, laughing, or rising in unfamiliar sea chanteys excited Chris and sent the blood tingling along his veins.
He rushed to the high-placed window overlooking Wisconsin Avenue. No Key Bridge was to be seen in the distance, only stretches of fields and orchards, scattered with occasional houses of russet brick, and when he craned his neck there was the inn where the People's Drugstore ought to be, the sign swinging high above the road.
Wisconsin Avenue! Chris had to laugh. If it could see itself! Only a wide muddy road full of ruts and puddles, along which someone's line of geese was waddling, impervious to the cursing of passing carters and riders on horseback. A little below him Chris could see the two old warehouses he remembered from the night before. But now they looked quite new, their bricks bright and their walls solid. Barrels were being lifted by the winch and tackle into the upper loft, and Chris watched the busy scene for quite some time.
His rolling stomach and a simultaneous smell of food reminded him of his hunger. Dressing quickly in the strange new clothes, he opened the door and peered outside.
His bedroom door was at the top of a narrow curling stair that twisted away to the left out of sight. It was steep, and Chris stood silent and intent on the top step, listening. A deep woman's voice loudly singing, "Farewell and Adieu, to you, Spanish ladies—" came rolling up the stairwell to the accompaniment of a brisk clatter of pots and pans. What rose also to Chris's nostrils was a smell of newly baked bread, frying bacon, and woodsmoke, and the combination put an end to his indecision. For a while he decided to call a truce to any attempt at solving the mystery in which he found himself, and following his nose, went softly down the stairs.
Rounding the last turn of the staircase, Chris remained in its shadow while he stared with unbelieving eyes at the room and figure before him. If this is a dream, he said in himself, it's the best one I've ever had—the very best!
What confronted Chris was Mr. Wicker's kitchen. This room took up almost all of the side wing of the house. Across from Chris two casement windows showed the shrubs and flowers and white picket fence of Mr. Wicker's garden, and at his left was the back door opening onto Water Street, flanked by two smaller windows. These seemed most inviting, each possessing a window seat from which one could watch the busy comings and goings of the docks, with a view of the ships beyond.
But what drew Chris's eyes and made them grow round with wonder was the extraordinary figure in front of the fireplace. The vast, deeply set fireplace was in the wall that faced the back door. So deep it was, that there was even a bench on one side of it, and over the smoking logs were hung all manner of trivets, spits, and cooking irons. It was, in short, a fireplace such as Chris had never dreamed of. Yet the tall buxom woman stirring the hissing pots and singing to herself was what held Chris rooted to the last step of the attic stair.
The woman stood easily six feet, broad and brawny enough to be a match for almost any man. Countless yards of sprigged cotton must have gone into the making of her dress, to say nothing of her apron. A massive fichu of freshly laundered muslin went around her neck and was tucked into her bodice; a white turban was on her head, but on top of the turban—! Chris simply could not believe his eyes as he counted rapidly. On top of this amazing woman's head was a gigantic hat supporting twenty-four roses and twelve waving black plumes! Chris's jaw dropped at the sight of the turbaned, hatted head, the flowers bobbing and swaying, the ostrich plumes blowing and curtseying with every slightest movement.
As if blissfully unaware that her costume was not the usual one for cooking, the woman hummed and stirred, tasted, and hung up her ladle. But the sight was too much for Chris. Before he could stop it a shout of laughter exploded from his lips. He laughed and laughed, and the indignant expression on the woman's face when she turned, to stand glaring at him with her hands on her jutting hips, only added to Chris's laughter. At last, sobering up somewhat as he realized that his behavior was rude, to put it mildly, Chris stopped and caught his breath, shaken only now and again by a diminishing paroxysm. Seeing the spark of bad temper in the red face of the enormous woman, Chris decided to pour oil on the troubled waters.
"Good morning, ma'am. I—I'm Chris Mason, from upstairs, and I'm sorry I laughed so loud. I—" he floundered and grabbed desperately at any passing idea "—I saw something comical out the window there"—he pointed wildly—"and it just set me off. I hope I didn't disturb you?"
Mollified, though not entirely, the woman accepted this effort at peacemaking and her face eased a little.
"Well now. So you are awake at the last, eh? And hungry, bein' a boy, I don't doubt?"
She moved to the dresser and took down a mug and plate, the roses and ostrich plumes nodding in evident agreement.
"So you are Chris, did you say? Christopher, that would be? And I am Mistress Rebecca Boozer, should you be wanting to know. Becky Boozer, they call me."
She bustled over to a covered bowl, dipped out creamy milk with a long-handled dipper, and set bread, butter, and bacon in front of Chris at a table pulled up to one of the window seats.
"Eat up now, young man," Becky Boozer advised, every red rose and feather accenting her words, "for Mr. Wicker will be wanting to see you when you have done. It's late. Past eight of the clock." She glanced out the window. "It might be just possible that Master Cilley will be passing by before long for a midmorning snack and here I am gossiping with you instead of getting on with my work."
Chris ate with a will, looking around as he chewed. The spotless brick floor and the starched curtains at the windows, the shining copper pans hung beside the huge fireplace, were proof of Becky Boozer's housekeeping.
"Don't you have an icebox?" Chris asked, his mouth full.
"What may that be?" Becky asked sharply.
"To keep the food cool," Chris answered.
Becky stopped to consider this, her hands on her hips. "We have a larder on the cool side of the house, if that be what you mean," she told him, nodding. "Keeps the food pretty well up to April or May. Then the heat makes everything go. Oh! This heat! Prosperity, Maryland, where I come from, and on the sea coast as it is, was never like this!"
A table with a wooden tub and dishes stacked nearby caught Chris's eye. Buckets of water stood beneath the table, and presently Becky Boozer took off a small pot of steaming water from a hook above the fire, poured it in the tub, and dipped cold water from one of the buckets into it.
What a system! Chris thought as he watched Becky busy with her dishes, thinking of the neat white kitchen he knew at home.
Aloud he said: "If you had a little wooden trough that led from that tub out through the window there, you could pull out a bung when you were ready and the water would run outdoors. It would save you carrying that great tub about, when you are in a hurry."
Becky Boozer rested her soapy hands on the edge of the tub and looked at him admiringly over her shoulder.
"I would never have thought it," she said, "by the look of you. Never in this world. You have brains, young lad, that's what you have. A better idea than that I never heard! Indeed, it is just what I have been a-needin' since years, and that simple I might have thought it out myself! I shall set Master Cilley to work on it when he comes. He's right handy with tools, is Ned Cilley."
At this moment a short knock sounded on the back door, and an instant change came over Becky Boozer. It was impossible to imagine that anyone as ponderous as Becky could be coy, but at the sound of the knock, this is what she became. Wiping her hands hastily on one of many petticoats, she pushed and pulled at her hat (which remained immovable), straightened her fichu, and smoothing her dress, she minced her huge bulk to the door with a welcoming smile.
A little man scarcely higher than Becky's barrel waist, with a rolling sea gait and twinkling blue eyes, bounced into the room and strained up on tiptoe toward Miss Boozer's blushing cheek. Chris, behind the opened door, had not yet been perceived.
"Come now, Becky me love!" shouted Cilley the sailor in a good-humored roar, "How can I start the day right 'thout a kiss from my Boozer?"
Becky blushed and simpered and cast down her eyes. "Get along with you, Cilley! What a way to behave," she admonished, delighted and abashed. "See—there's company here."
She pushed her suitor off with an elephantine shove and gestured to Chris.
Chris was feeling the contagion of laughter catching up with him again at the scene he had watched, and was glad when the sailor turned and came over to where he sat.
"A visitor, eh? Well, well. Off a ship?"
"No—no!" Becky put in quickly, and gave Chris a look. "No. He is a friend of the master's, from—" she searched her mind—"from another part of the country. He got here last night and slept late, as you see."
"Indeed and indeed!" said the sailor, settling himself comfortably, and as if for a long stay, in his chair and observing Chris through his keen blue eyes. "Well, young man," he announced genially, "I am Cilley," he said, and stretched out a hard brown hand.
"Christopher Mason," Chris said in return, and they solemnly shook hands, taking account of each other as men do when they meet.
"I shall sit here, Mistress Becky, by your leave," Cilley called out, as if Becky Boozer were a mile away, "to keep this lad company, as it were."
"So you shall!" Becky answered warmly, smiling broadly, wrinkles of pleasure at the corners of her eyes. "And could I tempt you with a morsel, Master Cilley?"
Ned Cilley appeared to consider this invitation from all sides before he gave his reply, cocking his head on one side like a parrot as he reflected. Finally, he answered.
"How could I refuse when I know your fame as a cook?" he said with a smile at Becky and a wink at Chris, and put his horny forefinger and thumb the distance of a thread apart. "But a crumb, Mistress Becky. A morsel. A taste. Just to pay my respects to your art, as it were."
Then such a commotion took place in the kitchen. Chris watched flabbergasted, as Becky set before Cilley a meat pie, a large cheese, fruit preserves, two kinds of bread, cakes and cookies, latticed tarts, and pickles in jars. And with a beaming smile Becky drew from a cask a jugful of ale which she set down on the table with a thud.
"Just a morsel, Master Cilley," she said, adding in a coaxing tone, "Try just a taste, to please me."
Ned Cilley, his eyes winking with anticipation and smacking his lips, attacked the meat pie and the cheese, tarts and pickles, with a will.
"Here—try this," he urged Chris, heaping the boy's plate as lavishly as his own, and the two ate in silence and gusto while Becky stood by with roses and feathers bobbing.
"You must keep your strength up, Ned Cilley," she admonished, "for 'tis a hard life that you lead," she warned him.
Ned paused long enough to swallow. "Aye, that it is, that it is!" he agreed, wagging his head, champing his jaws, and digging into the food. "A hard life, has a sailor," Ned said with an effort at sorrow, which failed signally, and he took a great draught of the ale.
After a while Cilley slowed, wiped his mouth with his hand and leaned back in his chair, rolling a dazed eye at the anxious face of the waiting Becky Boozer.
"Mistress Boozer," he announced, "I am a new man." He heaved a sigh of repletion. "You have saved me again. Ah! Mistress Becky, what a treasure you are!"
Becky curtsied and giggled, her fabulous hat shaking as if with a secret all its own. Just then a bell tinkled, at the end of the kitchen passage.
"That will be the master," Becky said, bustling away. Then she turned. "I shall be back, Master Cilley! I pray you, do not leave!"
Chris seized his opportunity. "Please, Master Cilley," he asked, leaning across the empty plates in his interest, "Why does she wear that queer hat?"
Master Cilley cocked an eye at the boy before him, picked comfortably at his teeth with an iron nail which he took from his pocket, and loosened his belt buckle.
"Ah!" he said, "So you've not heard? Quick, then, I shall tell you, for that is truly a tale."
The sailor stretched back in his chair, one hand holding the mug of ale. His short nose and red, wind-burned cheeks seemed to share the joke with his eyes as he finally leaned forward across the table with an air of conspiracy.
"Well now," began Cilley, "that's a tale that not everyone knows, don't you see. And Mistress Becky would not care to be reminded of it, mark you, for reasons I shall shortly tell."
His eyes, humorous as they were, took on a shrewdness under their sandy brows as if judging the character of the boy before him and his ability to keep a secret.
"First and foremost," he said, "You had best know who I am." He leaned back and hooked his thumbs under his armpits in a prideful gesture.
"My lad," said Ned Cilley, thrusting out his chin, "I am a member of the Mirabelle's crew!"
"The Mirabelle!" Chris exclaimed, "Why—that's the ship in the bottle!"
"Aye," agreed Cilley, nodding sagely, "The model of it's in a bottle right enough, since it's meself that made it, the last trip home from the Chiny Seas."
"You made it yourself?" Chris breathed, looking aghast at the gnarled knotted fingers, thick and roughened by work and weather, picturing to himself the delicacy of the miniature ship that lay so snugly in its transparent walls. "How in the world could you get it inside?" he asked.
Ned wagged his head. "Ah, 'tis a trick and a tedious thing, no mistaking, but there's time and to spare for it, coming home from China."
"China? You've been there? What's it like?" Chris wanted to know, his eyes eager.
Cilley smiled at him, a snaggled-toothed friendly grin. "That's a tale for another time, my boy, for there's much telling there. You wanted the story of Becky's fine hat."
"Yes—yes!" Chris urged. "Before she comes back."
"Well, now," began Cilley, "Bein' a member of the Mirabelle and all, means I see quite a bit of this port when we're home." He looked arch as if Chris must know the reason for that. "An' seein' as how Mistress Becky and me are fast friends, well—she's told me a thing or two that not everyone knows."
He took a pull on the mug and wiped the froth from his lips.
"It seems," he began, "that in her younger days, Mistress Becky had one craving. She'd seen this hat that she now wears, in a milliner's, and have it she must.
"Now—" and the sailor leaned forward as the story held his own interest—"now a hat of that sort costs many a shilling, and Becky worked and saved for that bonnet for over a year." He eyed Chris again closely. "If you tell what I tell ye, Chris lad," Cilley conjured him, "I shall get even with ye, I swear I will! For I would never want to hurt the feelin's of Becky Boozer, on my oath."
"I'll not tell, sir. Not to anyone," Chris assured him.
Ned Cilley seemed satisfied. "Well now," hunching closer with his chair, "It seems at long last she paid for that bonnet, and decided to wear it to the spectacle, that very afternoon."
"The spectacle?" Chris questioned, his forehead wrinkled. "What's that?"
"Haw—Haw!" cackled Cilley, "You are a country boy! Why—the spectacle, where the players are. The theatre—what else?"
"Oh," Chris said shortly, and thought of television and the movies, and held his tongue. He was beginning to try to fit himself into two centuries before his own time.
"Yes," took up Cilley, "so as I was saying, Mistress Boozer bein' young and flighty in them days, and rightful proud of the bonnet she had took so long to earn, wore it to the spectacle, together with her best gown.
"Now as you seem not acquainted with the theatre, me lad, let me tell you that we give it here in any hall standing vacant, and out of doors in fair weather, and we set the benches in rows for those that pay for seats."
He pulled out an evil-smelling clay pipe and stuffed it with tobacco, tamping it down with one grubby forefinger, and when it was well lit, pointed the stem at Chris by way of emphasis.
"Mistress Becky gets herself a good place, on this occasion, and sits herself down, a-tossin' of her feathers and her flowers, and as proud as a peacock, every inch of her. The people pack the benches, and the performance then begins.
"Rightly—" and Cilley jabbed the pipestem at Chris—"Rightly, only ladies of quality wear such hats as Becky wore, and should they go to the spectacle—which would be doubtful, for the crowd makes it no place for gentlewomen—they would be sitting off apart, don't you see?
"But Becky sat spang in the center of the hall, and—you've seen the hat? 'Tis big enough for two and no mistake, and spreads along as well as up—well, the time came to begin. The players came out on the stage, a-speakin' of their parts and abrandishin' of their arms as they do, when all at once a gentleman sitting behind Becky Boozer leaned forward and asked her—ever so polite—'Madam,' sez he, 'please be so good as to remove your bonnet!'"
Here Cilley leaned forward, one hand on his stomach to facilitate a bow, aping as best he could the speech and manners of a gentleman. In a flash he resumed his own character and turned to Chris.
"Well, did she take it off?" Ned demanded of Chris, frowning with concentration. "'Twas asked with rare politeness, anyone would agree to that." He shook his head solemnly. "Why no, Master Christopher, that she did not! Our Becky had just paid the final pence upon that hat, and after a year, seven months and eighteen days, the hat was hers. She wanted all beholders to admire it. What cared she if the gentleman seated on the bench behind her saw more of her bonnet than of the play? In Becky Boozer's opinion, 'twas a more than fair exchange! So she tossed her head, did Becky, and deigned not even a reply."
Cilley tossed his own sun-bleached thatch and pursed up his mouth in imitation of Becky. Then, with another rapid change of grimace, he squinted up his eyes to signify the growing intensity of the situation, and leaning half-way across the table, shoved the dishes, pies, and pickles out of his way with his elbows. His deep voice sank to a husky whisper.
"So the performance went on, and never a glimpse of it did the poor gentleman see, seated as he was behind our Becky Boozer. So once more he bends forward and he speaks at her ear, urgent-like—"
Cilley's eyebrows rose and fell with his agitation. So strong was the grip of the story upon him that it was evident that he fancied himself at the play, and could see the whole thing before him as plain as day.
"The poor gentleman says again," he took up, "'Madam,' he says, 'I beg of you—please to be so kind! Nothing of the spectacle can I see! Please and be so good as to remove your hat!'
"And would you believe it, my lad—no." Ned Cilley shook his head from side to side, "No, no, you would not." He leaned back, waving his hand as if to wipe away any lingering doubt in Chris's mind. "Mistress Rebecca Boozer was that proud—that proud"—he dropped his voice—"that not for the world would she remove her bonnet. Dear me no! She tossed her head again, feeling all them plumes a-tossin' too, and sat up straighter than before. An' she a tall woman."
Master Cilley took a red bandanna handkerchief from his coattail pocket and mopped his face, so excited and heated had he become at his own telling of the tale. Then once more he leaned forward confidentially.
"Well, little did she dream, our Becky Boozer. For when she tossed her head the second time and made no motion to remove her hat, the gentleman bent toward her, and—no doubt, his words were for her alone. And this is what he said."
Ned Cilley's blue eyes popped and he cupped his hand by the side of his mouth so that his words could carry no further than the few inches dividing the boy and the man.
"He said—and so she told me, it did sound like a roar of thunder, though no one else did seem aware of it—'So, then, Rebecca Boozer, wear your hat!' the gentleman said. 'The Devil himself shall have no power to take it off'n you'!
"And do you know," whispered Cilley in a low rumble, his eyes starting out of his head as were Chris's own, "'Tis our belief it must have been the Devil himself who sat behind her there, for from that very time Rebecca Boozer has been unable to remove that hat, neither by pushing, pulling, prying, steaming, cutting, tearing, nor by any method howsomever! The Devil it was! The Devil it must have been!"
Master Cilley, exhausted by his recital, fell back in his chair, with just strength enough left to replenish his pewter mug from the jug of ale. Then, refreshed, he set the mug down, wiped his lips, and cocked an eye at Chris who sat staring at him open-mouthed.
"Try it yourself," he suggested wagging his head. "I have. You'll not be able to heave it off, that I promise you. That hat is there for good and all. Mistress Boozer will doubtless be buried in that bonnet." He cocked his head the other way. "And what do you think of that?" Ned Cilley enquired.
After a long and thoughtful pause Chris found his voice.
"Master Cilley," he said respectfully, "Does she—does she sleep in it?" he asked.
The picture of the elephantine Becky Boozer with a counter-pane under her chin and the hat with twenty-four red roses and twelve waving black plumes rising above the pillow took hold of the sailor's fancy. He tipped back in his chair and laughed till he cried, and as he was coughing and spluttering, Mistress Boozer herself came rustling out of the passageway and across the kitchen to the table.
"Be off with you, boy!" she cried. "You and Cilley—you're two of a kind, that is plain to be seen!"
She looked from one to the other and Chris decided that it was a good thing for him that Becky likened him to the object of her doting, Master Cilley.
"Get along with you!" she cried again, pulling Chris up out of his chair by his coat collar. "You are wanted by the master in his study, so look sharp! It's down the passage and to your right," Becky said, "and knock before you go in!"
Chris started off, but in the dusk of the passage he looked back in time to see Becky Boozer lost in tittering giggles and wild blushes as Master Cilley, reaching up as high as his arm would go, chucked her under the chin.
Chris stood for a moment before the closed door of Mr. Wicker's study. His head was full of the story of Becky Boozer's hat or he might have glimpsed the room beside him—for the passage stopped at this point. Beyond the passage lay the dimly glimmering shop with its bow window at the far end, and the door to the street beside it. He might have been able, had he not been so intent on Becky's story, to slip past the dusty bales and cases and out into—what? But Chris's head was ringing with Ned Cilley's tale, and with all the things, so different and so absorbing, that surrounded him. He put out his hand, knocked, and on hearing a low reply, stepped inside.
The room Chris entered, his eyes round in order to take in every new sight, was a small study. It stretched across the back of the house. The kitchen fireplace had its echo in a fireplace on this side of the wall, and facing Chris three windows looked out onto the pleached pear and apple trees; the ordered rows of the vegetable and herb garden. A final window at the end of the room, at Chris's left, looked out on a little hill behind the house. Chris, without thinking, stepped forward a pace or two in order to look for the familiar ugly red and gray church at the end of Church Lane. It was not to be seen. There was only a pasture hemmed by woods and fine trees with, in the distance where M Street should be, a roof or two.
A thin voice, that came from nowhere and was everywhere, broke in to Chris.
"No, my boy. The church is not yet built. That will come in seventy years. In eighteen-sixty, to be exact. Confusing, is it not?"
Chris whipped about at the sound of the antiquarian's voice but for a moment longer he could not see him, and looked toward the other end of the room with interest.
Mr. Wicker's study was cosy and bright, well warmed by a cheerfully burning fire. The heavy curtains, drawn back now from the windows to let in the morning sun, were of a fine ruby damask. The furniture consisted, as far as Chris was concerned, of antiques. Two wing chairs covered in red leather, tacked at the edges with brassheaded nails, looked invitingly comfortable. One had its back to Chris and the door, and the other was empty. Both were drawn close to the snapping logs. A grandfather clock stood in the corner between the fireplace and the first window, and gave out a steady deep tock. The carpet was a soft Indian rug of fine texture and many colors, red, blue, and gold predominating. Most surprisingly, a steep spiral staircase of polished wood came down into the room in the right-hand corner near where Chris stood, and Chris wondered for a moment, if Mr. Wicker's voice had come from the top of the stair.
Turning back, he saw that a desk, opposite him, stood between the two windows that faced the garden. It seemed very old-fashioned, to Chris—no neat folded writing paper, but large bold sheets covered in Mr. Wicker's delicate handwriting lay on the open top, with several goose-quill pens standing at the back in a penholder. Chris noticed prints of sailing ships on the walls, and candlesticks holding candles and candle snuffers on the desk, table, and mantelpiece. A closed cupboard with carved doors stood at the far end of the room.
Once again Chris turned back to look for Mr. Wicker, and to his astonishment, now saw him in the chair that he had thought empty a moment before. Mr. Wicker, his elbows on the arms of the chair and his fingertips touched lightly together, was watching Chris with interest and amusement. When the boy caught sight of him, Mr. Wicker nodded, smiling, and motioned Chris toward the other leather chair across from him.
"Good morning, my boy," said the old man. "I trust you slept well?"
Chris slowly let himself down into the offered chair. "Oh yes, thank you sir," he replied. "I don't even know how I got to bed."
Mr. Wicker made a sound that seemed to indicate that that did not matter.
"And breakfast?" Mr. Wicker asked. "Becky fed you?"
"Yes sir. And Mr. Cilley—he fed me too."
"Indeed?" Mr. Wicker's eyebrows went up in an inverted V above his bright dark eyes. "Ned Cilley so early? Well, he is a loyal soul, is Cilley. You shall know more of him."
He fell silent, observing the boy sitting on the edge of the big chair. Mr. Wicker looked, as if casually, at the clothes Chris now wore and which fitted him as though made to his measure. What he saw seemed to please the old man for he nodded his bald head and his wrinkles multiplied themselves across his face in a way Chris took to be his smile. At last he spoke again, and his voice was strangely gentle and kind. So kind that the forlornness Chris had momentarily forgotten at the mystery of his position, the puzzlement and lost feeling that reclaimed him instantly should he allow himself to wonder at how he could get back again into his own life and time, was reawakened by the something he heard in Mr. Wicker's voice. The tears gathered in his throat and he had to swallow and cough several times before he could reply with any degree of clearness.
"Feel? Well—all right, I guess, in a way. But there's a sort of spinning in my head and my stomach if I try to figure any of this out. I just don't get it." He shook his head dubiously. "I feel alive all right, and the food tasted good just now, but how in the world can all the changes come about, or be? And there's something I should see to, at home—" All at once he needed desperately to know how his mother was, that morning. He stood up abruptly.
"If I can just go now, please?" Chris asked politely but firmly. "It's been very interesting, but I—"
His throat tightened up again and he made a helpless gesture with his hand, and looking toward the window, wondered if he could jump out into the flower beds and be off. Mr. Wicker's voice, soft but with such authority that one did not question it, came again, and it had a healing in its sound.
"Sit down, Christopher my lad," he said, and his eyes were kind, intent and eager. "We have much to talk of, you and I. But first, your mind and heart shall be put at ease. Do you know who I am?"
Restive and anxious to be off, Chris nevertheless found it necessary to reply.
"You sell old stuff. That's all I know," he answered, beginning to feel a trifle surly.
Mr. Wicker nodded, tapping his fingertips together. "Yes," he agreed, "I sell old things—in your time. But now—in this time, what do you know of me?"
As he spoke there was a change of tone, as if a younger man was speaking, and in spite of his impatience to get home, Chris looked up sharply. Mr. Wicker was leaning forward, and Chris felt himself immovable under the vigor of those dark eyes.
"Nothing, sir," he heard himself saying, not taking his eyes from those of the man before him.
"I am a shipowner, Christopher, for one thing," Mr. Wicker drew a slow breath. "A merchant trading in tobacco, cotton, corn, and flour. But I am also—" he paused as if to give Chris time to hear each word, "I am also quite a fine magician," said Mr. Wicker.
Chris leaned back, disappointed and scornful. "Rabbits out of hats?" he inquired.
"No, young man," Mr. Wicker answered with no show of annoyance, "Not rabbits out of hats. That—as you would say—is for toddlers. Suppose I prove to you just how good?"
"Go ahead," said Chris, whose only thought was still to get home but who admitted to himself a faint stir of curiosity.
"Watch closely then," commanded Mr. Wicker. "I have been in my twentieth-century shape so that you would recognize me. Now I shall regain my appearance of this time—not a great change, I grant you, but there will be a difference. Watch me closely."
Chris leaned forward in his chair. The room was well lit from three sides; sunlight and firelight mingled to wash Mr. Wicker in their joined apricot glow. Added to this, the two chairs—Chris's and Mr. Wicker's—were not more than four feet apart. Chris hunched forward yet a little more to lessen this space and watch for any movement, however swift. He had seen magicians before, he told himself.
But what he saw was so amazing that Chris's lips parted in astonishment and his eyes stared unblinkingly. For the tiny figure of the old man before him, wizened with age and wrinkled past belief, before his eyes shook off not ten or twenty years, but one hundred and fifty! It left him, while not a young man, middle-aged; a vigorous man of forty years. The face was smoothed out and firm; thick chestnut hair was caught back with a black ribbon bow. Dark eyebrows were level above the steady eyes.
"I don't believe it!" Chris breathed. "You looked almost like a mummy, before. And now—"
Mr. Wicker rose from his chair, and now he stood six feet, no longer wizened, no longer feeble.
"Fascinating, is it not?" he remarked, with a sardonic smile. "A good trick, do you not agree?"
Chris sat looking at him, amazed but still incredulous. "Well yes," he admitted, "but maybe with make-up, or something—"
"Ah," said Mr. Wicker, and his voice was deeper and more vigorous too. "Ah. Then we shall try another. See if you can find me." And before Chris's eyes Mr. Wicker vanished into thin air.
Chris looked about and got up. He looked under the chairs, under the table, behind the curtains, up the chimney, up the spiral staircase, out the windows—in short, everywhere and anywhere a man might hide, and in a great many places where it was impossible for him to be. Finally he stood in the middle of the room.
"You're not here," he said aloud.
"Oh, yes, I am," said Mr. Wicker's voice. "Look on the table."
Chris looked on the table. A bowl of flowers stood in the center. A small silver tray with a finely blown glass and a round-bellied silver pitcher of water stood at one side. A few leather-bound books were all else to be seen, except—if one could count that—a bluebottle fly that buzzed, lit on the flowers, and buzzed again.
"It's not fair!" Chris challenged aloud. "You've got some trick hiding place. You're just not here."
"Yes I am," came the voice. "I am within reach of your hand, Christopher," Mr. Wicker told him. "And I will reappear in whatever part of the room you wish. Choose."
Chris looked around him, and then pointed to the end window.
"There," he said, "by the window. There's nothing anywhere around it. Come back there."
"Very well," sounded Mr. Wicker's deep new voice.
The bluebottle fly buzzed upward from the table, flew directly at Chris's nose, hit it, flew around his head, and bumped into his ear.
"Darn that ol' fly!" Chris muttered, and made a grab at it. The bluebottle buzzed towards the window, swirled about, hit Chris on the nose again with remarkable stupidity, and blundered off once more towards the window.
Chris ran after it, saw it on a pane of glass, swooped down, and felt the angry wings and heard the enraged buzz in his cupped hand. But before he could either squeeze the fly or open his hand to let it free, Mr. Wicker stood before him, and Chris found himself holding on to the tail of Mr. Wicker's coat.
"And what did you think of that trick?" asked Mr. Wicker smiling.
Chris was speechless, and Mr. Wicker answered himself.
"Yes, it is a good trick, but before we talk, I should like to show you one more."
He dropped his hand on Chris's shoulder and somehow the firm touch was wonderfully comforting to the boy.
"You want to be at home, do you not, Christopher?" Mr. Wicker asked.
"Yes sir. Please."
"Well, that cannot be for a time," Mr. Wicker replied, "for you have important work to do."
Mr. Wicker turned and walked back to the two leather chairs with his hand still on Chris's shoulder. He stopped near the table and looked down.
"I know that all this—" he waved a hand to take in not only the room but, Chris thought, the different time as well, "—all this seems impossible to understand." He paused, pondering. "Perhaps we had better sit down and I will try to make it understandable."
"Let me put it this way," Mr. Wicker began when they were seated once more in their chairs before the fire. "You have a television set at home?"
"Oh yes!" Chris agreed enthusiastically, "And say! Some of the programs—"
"Yes, they are splendid, I know," Mr. Wicker broke in. "But will you please explain to me how television works?"
Chris stared at his questioner for a moment and then settled back in his chair, his forehead puckered with concentration.
"Well, gee—" He stopped. "Well," he began again, "I think it has to do with light rays passing through a—well, hm-mm, there's an electric impulse, see—I guess it's that that sends out—" He stopped altogether. "Well golly Moses, Mr. Wicker," he ended lamely, "it seems to be pretty complicated to go into."
Mr. Wicker smiled, a wide engaging smile showing strong white teeth.
"It is," he agreed warmly, his eyes twinkling, "Is it not? Very complicated. You probably would not be able to describe to me the details of how the radio or long-distance telephone work either, would you, young man?"
Chris had to grin back when he saw that Mr. Wicker was not laughing at him, but rather at the complexity of such mechanical things.
"No, sir, I guess not. We're just glad to be able to use them, I expect."
"Ah!" said Mr. Wicker in a tone of immense satisfaction, "Quite so. You are just glad to be able to use and enjoy them. Well, then, my boy, the things I have just shown you, and what I am about to show you now, are parts of knowledge which are yet to be discovered and learned, in a time beyond your own. And the ability to move within Time—within Time," Mr. Wicker stressed, leaning forward toward Chris, "that faculty is also still in the future. In the meantime it remains a rare gift."
Mr. Wicker put out a lean strong hand and tapped Chris's knee.
"You have it, Christopher. You were born with the ability to move backward into time that has passed. Whether or not you will ever master the gift of moving into the future, that, of course"—Mr. Wicker shrugged—"is impossible to tell. You may. But for my purposes, that you have been able to return this far is enough." He looked searchingly at Chris. "Have you understood what I have been saying up to now?" he asked.
"I think so, sir," Chris answered slowly.
"This ability to move back and forth in Time," Mr. Wicker continued, "is no more farfetched than the ability to send colored images and sound across the land into your own house, where you can see and hear them. It is something which, so far, and I mean, of course, in your time, has not yet been discovered. But it will be," mused Mr. Wicker thoughtfully, pulling at his underlip with thumb and forefinger. "Yes, it will be." He looked across at Chris as if returning from a great distance. "But until it has been it appears fantastic, does it not?"
"It certainly does!" Chris replied with fervor. "If it weren't happening to me I wouldn't believe it!"
"No," nodded Mr. Wicker, "and I would not blame you. But now," he announced, rising and turning toward the table, "you must have your mind set at rest regarding your mother." He motioned for Chris to join him. "You will need to know only once and they say—" he smiled down at the boy beside him "—they say that seeing is believing, so you shall see for yourself."
Mr. Wicker picked up the round-bellied silver pitcher and set it in front of Chris.
"They say too," Mr. Wicker said scornfully, "that crystal balls are the things to look into. Perfect tommyrot. This will do equally well. Look and see."
Chris bent to peer at the polished silver side of the pitcher. At first, it shone as no doubt it always did from Becky Boozer's powerful rubbing. Then, as he watched, the rounded side of the pitcher misted over, as if it had been filled with ice water. Next, the center of the misted portion cleared away, and as it cleared a picture formed, welling up into his sight as if from within the pitcher through the silver of its sides.
What Chris saw was a hospital room. On a white bed lay his mother, and beside her were his Aunt Rachel and a white-coated man Chris took to be a doctor. Then, as if inside his head, for he was not conscious of sound within the room which had grown deeply still, he heard voices and words, and saw the lips of the doctor and his Aunt Rachel move.
The doctor said, "The turn has come. She will pull through, but she will need watchful care."
"Oh, thank God! Thank God!" his Aunt Rachel cried, and covering her face with her hands, she burst into tears.
The scene misted over once again and when it cleared, the pitcher was merely a pitcher on a table in Mr. Wicker's room. Chris looked up at the man who regarded him gravely.
"Is that a trick too?" he asked. "Just to make me stay?" he demanded more loudly.
"No, son," the man replied, and his eyes confirmed his words. "That is how it really is. My word of honor."
And to Chris's great surprise, all at once he felt tears on his cheeks while simultaneously a great lightness invaded him, and a wild wish to laugh.
Mr. Wicker poured him a glass of water and held it out.
"Drink this," he said. "All is well. You can be at peace. And now," he went on in a brisker tone, replacing the glass Chris had drained, "let us begin our talk."
Chris returned happily to his chair and curled up in it as if he were at home. Even Mr. Wicker's expression seemed to have changed, and as a matter of fact it had, for the relief and portion of content that showed now in the boy's face, was reflected in some measure in that of the man. Before seating himself Mr. Wicker rang a silver bell on the tray by the pitcher. In a moment Becky Boozer knocked on the door and stuck her gigantic hat through the opening.
"You rang, sir?" she inquired, the feathers and roses bobbing as cheerily as live things around the sweeping brim.
"I did, Becky. It occurred to me," said Mr. Wicker, looking sideways at Chris, "that some hot chocolate for Master Christopher and coffee for me would not be amiss at this hour of the morning. And," he added, seeing the interested spark in the boy's eyes, "some of your delicious little cakes, perhaps?"
"Most certainly," beamed Becky, "most certainly sir. I have the chocolate hot, as it so happens, and some cakes new-baked."
She bustled off and in no time returned with a tray of china cups, matching flowered pots for coffee and for chocolate, a bowl of sugar, and a plate piled high with cakes. From one corner Becky pulled out a small table which she placed between the two chairs. The tray was safely settled, the fire given a poke and a fresh log before Mistress Boozer removed herself, in her starched dress and apron and her outrageous hat, from her master's study.
"Now," said Mr. Wicker, pouring out the steaming drinks, "we shall refresh ourselves and you shall listen, if you will."
Chris took a sip of the hot chocolate and a bite of golden cake, deciding that he had never tasted better. This point decided on within himself, he gave his attention to the man across from him.
"I told you," Mr. Wicker said, "that I was a shipowner and a merchant. That is true. But these are troubled times. A revolution has had the land in its grasp. Times are bad, and this vast land is now convulsed with the birth throes of democracy. Money is hard to come by, and much needed, for General Washington's troops were farmers called away from their harvesting or sowing. The period of healing, for them and for the land, will be long and costly."
He paused to sip his coffee and then put the cup down.
"Destruction is so fast, and to construct and build," Mr. Wicker said, staring at the fire, "that is what is slow." He turned to Chris. "Without financial help, without money for the beginning of this new land and this new government that is struggling to be born, this free place and this fine democratic experiment will fail. I know a way to save it, and you have been sent back into the past from our future—my future and yours, and that of the land—to help us and make it real. You will not disappoint me, Christopher?" Mr. Wicker turned burning eyes on Chris's face. "You will help your country get its start?"
A wave of excitement such as he had never known surged over Chris and he started to his feet, almost upsetting the table and making the cups rattle on their saucers.
"Oh, yes sir! You bet! If I can, I'll help!"
Mr. Wicker's face expressed his satisfaction. He rose too and held out his hand.
"I knew you would," he said. "It had to be, for it could be no other way. But there is always doubt. Your hand, my boy, for we have work to do together."
The two hands, large and small, were firm, one in the other, and Chris felt a new power coming to him from the man whose hand he grasped.
"Listen closely," Mr. Wicker said, and Chris drew nearer. "There is a wondrous thing, unique in the world, and which, for the benefit of this growing country, we must obtain. Its possession will mean we can pay for many things—a new city here, tools; building materials. This wonderful object is the Jewel Tree belonging to the Princess of China."
Chris waited, listening.
"This Jewel Tree," Mr. Wicker went on, "is a tree that grows, that puts out leaves and flowers and bears fruit, but here is the wonder of it," and he bent his piercing eyes on Chris's intent face. "This growing tree is made of jewels; leaves and flowers and even seeded fruit. The leaves are emeralds; the flowers, diamonds and sapphires; the fruits, huge rubies seeded thick with pearls. Imagine such a treasure if you can!" He spread his arms wide and Chris's eyes were shining with excitement.
"Imagine the possession of such a plant!" Mr. Wicker went on. "Break off a branch of it—another grows. And flowers and fruit—much like your orange trees—bear both their fruit and flowers at the same time."
They sat down again, the better to continue their conversation.
"The taking of such a prize would be hard enough," Mr. Wicker continued, "for it is well guarded. But there is a greater hazard." He rose from his chair to walk about in his nervousness and eagerness at what lay ahead. Then he went on.
"There is a man here, posing as a merchant. Claggett Chew. You will see him in the town when you walk there, which you shall do, presently. But he has some magic powers, and knows me well. Too well." Mr. Wicker shook his head and his eyes became slits of rage. "We have been enemies for long," said Mr. Wicker, "but he has yet to get the better of me."
"Is he after the Jewel Tree too?" Chris wanted to know.
"He is. He heard of it, by power of magic certainly, for it is a secret so well guarded that those who carry knowledge of it—all but myself, up to this time—all others have died before they could make use of it. You can well imagine," Mr. Wicker enlarged, turning his gaze on Chris, "that a treasure that replenishes itself is beyond price. The Chinese Emperor knows it well. So do the guards about his palaces, and so does Claggett Chew."
Mr. Wicker strode about, striking the closed fist of one hand into the palm of the other, and Chris scrambled out of his chair to stand watching the pacing figure. And it came to Chris as he followed with his eyes the black swinging coat, the silver-buckled black knee breeches, the neat white stock and black-brocaded waistcoat of the magician, it came to him that he had a great confidence and affection for this man. Even knowing him as little as he did, having to take so much on trust, still, in Chris's mind there was no smallest grain of doubt, suspicion, or distrust. He knew, without having to think it out, that Mr. Wicker was a great man, great in knowledge and in heart. Reliable and kind and wise. In that moment Chris put his whole faith in a man he had not known yet for a day.
"There is one way," Mr. Wicker said, wheeling about and standing still, "and that is where I need your help." He strode back across the room towards Chris. "This villain, Claggett Chew—for that is what he is, no better—this villain knows me and he knows my power. But if my power were in a boy—a lad he never would suspect—then—" Mr. Wicker put both hands on Chris's shoulders and looked searchingly at him—"then only would we have an opportunity to seize the Jewel Tree. Can you learn what I know?" demanded Mr. Wicker. "Can you learn my magic?"
"Magic?" Chris stammered. "Those tricks—the fly—and others?"
"Yes," said Mr. Wicker quietly. "Many more."
"Well," Chris answered after a moment's thought, "I got here, didn't I? I've gone back all these years, so I guess I could." He looked up with a grin. "At least I can try," he said.
Mr. Wicker gave Chris's shoulder a little shake of pride and acceptance. "Good lad!" he said. "I know that you can learn. For you it will not be hard."
"There's just one thing," Chris said, with puzzlement in his voice. "You say, sir, 'Seize the Tree.' That means just stealing it? Must we do that?"
Mr. Wicker looked at Chris and his face was serene and smooth with the great satisfaction of his feelings.
"You are the lad for me!" he cried, and Chris felt himself coloring with pleasure at the tone of Mr. Wicker's voice. "I knew it from the first! It would be stealing, boy, but for one thing. When—and heaven willing, if—you reach the Tree, you will break a branch from it and stick it in the ground. It will root itself and grow and thrive, and the Princess will still have delicate jewel flowers for her hair."
"And now," he said, "I smell a broiling chicken. Off you go and eat your lunch, and later we shall talk again."
Chris went out smiling.
In the kitchen, Chris leaned against the corner of the passage and kitchen wall to watch Becky at her tasks. How different from the compact white kitchen they had at home! And yet there was a cosy feeling about the huge room in front of him with its ruddy copper utensils, tub-size wicker basket of vegetables, steaming pots hung over the fire, and the browning row of four chickens on a revolving spit, that gave out a friendliness and welcome modern kitchens did not have. Becky finally paused in her work long enough to glance out from under her hat at Chris.
"Now then, me lad! 'Tis not yet time to eat. That young belly of yours takes a bit of filling, and no mistake! Be off now, and do you not go a-bothering Becky for a bit. I will soon call you when all's done."
Chris would have liked to go outside and put his hand on the handle of the back door, when a momentary confusion overtook him. He wondered if in going out he would step back into his own time before he had completed the work Mr. Wicker wanted him to do, and suddenly unsure, turned away regretfully. Not knowing where else to go, he climbed the stairs to his bedroom.
Becky had made his bed, and the little room looked spruce. Chris walked into one of the niches made by the projecting windows, pushed up the sash, and leaned perilously out.
This was to be the first of many such times that Chris was to lean out so, king of this new world spread out below him as far as the eye could reach. A vast and absorbing panorama lay beneath and beyond him. Immediately below turned Water Street, narrow and muddy, while the broad wharves and wooden storehouses spaced themselves at intervals along the shore. Beyond, the sailing ships of all kinds that he had admired that morning pointed their bowsprits along the docks or swung at anchor along the river.
Chris looked down at the many vessels. He could not tell one from another, but names began to drift into his mind from some forgotten trip to a museum, or from the pages of a book read long ago. Frigate, schooner, brigantine. Good ships all. The creak of rigging sounded in the names, the harsh whip of salty winds, and the heart-lifting sight of white sails cutting across blue water. Chris leaned on his arms, his eyes shining. If he should ever go to sea in a sailing ship, what a day that would be! And then he remembered that he must do so if he were ever to obtain the fabulous Jewel Tree. All at once the dangers of such a quest were terrifying, and Chris turned his thoughts away from them to look at the view.
Where the city of Washington lay in his time were only woods and marshlands. No Monument, no Lincoln Memorial, no houses. Lying in the river like a great green ship, he could see the island which had once belonged to his ancestor, George Mason. Once? Now it probably still did. He could make out figures moving at the bank of it, and a ferry pushing off from the shore.
What fun this was! Chris gave a chuckle out loud. What a chance—to see what once had been! He was enjoying himself increasingly as he glanced down at the activity along the riverbanks.
So close to noon, the sailors and stevedores had vanished to eat their meal, and passers-by were few. The street was nearly deserted when along the hardened muddy ruts of Water Street Chris heard a wailing cry: "Pity the blind! Pity the pore blind!" The boy looked down, and the drop below him to the road made his head swim, until he refused to think of it. He saw below him a grotesque figure making its way, turning its head toward the houses as it made its cry.
It was a hunchbacked man with a wooden peg leg and a crutch. Tied crisscross over his snarled hair were two black eye patches. He was unshaven and in a rare state of filth, his coat green with age and speckled with greasy stains, the stocking on his one good leg wrinkling down into his shoe, and his hands gnarled with long-nailed fingers. Chris gave an involuntary shudder, but the sight of the man held his gaze, for he had never seen anyone quite like him before.
As the cripple advanced slowly past the few houses of Water Street, here and there a window was opened and a coin tossed out, which the cripple held his cap for, or grubbed with his filthy hands where he heard it fall. Watching his progress, Chris became fascinated with the accuracy with which the blind man caught the coins or found them in the road. After a passing gentleman on horseback had tossed a silver piece in his direction, the hunchback made off around the corner of the stables beyond Mr. Wicker's garden.
The boy hung out even farther and craned his neck to see what the blind man would do, for from his determined gait he seemed to have a purpose. Feeling along the side of the barn to guide himself, when he came to the back of it the cripple darted around, and then, to Chris's amazement, lifted the corner of one black eye patch and peered out from under it! Seeing no one, and thinking himself unobserved, the cripple nonchalantly pushed both eye patches onto his forehead, fished in his pocket, and began examining the silver piece he had just retrieved. It appeared to satisfy his scrutiny, turn it over and over though he did, but to be quite sure of its value he bit tentatively on it with his back teeth. This seemed to be the final test, for the cripple grinned from ear to ear, disclosing even fewer teeth than Master Cilley.
Next, the hunchback sat down upon a heap of straw, laying his crutch beside him, and with a quick movement, wriggled himself out of not only his jacket but his humpback too!
Chris could scarcely believe his eyes, but he now saw that a false hump had been cleverly sewn into the jacket from inside. The cripple untied a patch that formed a trap door in the hump, and putting his hand inside the hollow, drew from its hiding place in the false hump a small bag tied at the neck with a string. Then, as Chris watched, he counted the contents of the bag, pieces of money that winked in the sun, and added to his horde those pieces he had begged that morning. The bag was then retied, replaced, and the jacket and hump put back on its wearer with evident satisfaction.
But the cripple had not yet completed his work. Holding the silver piece between the blackened stubs of his front teeth, with difficulty he managed to hoist his peg leg over his good knee. Then, after darting many a sly look all about him, he unstrapped the wooden peg off the stump of his leg.
First, from the interior of the stump he pulled out an assortment of rags used for stuffing, and to cushion the weight of his stump. Then, after spreading a torn bandanna handkerchief near him, he tipped up the stump and from its hollow peg, out rained a shower of coins!
Chris looked, and looked again. Gold and silver money flashed on the crumpled handkerchief, and adding to it the last silver piece he had held in his teeth, the loathsome cripple stirred the heap around and around with one dirty forefinger, his mouth stretched in a cackle of greed.
After a while he caught up the coins, counting them over not once but many times, and at last let them fall slowly one by one into the hollow peg of his stump, strapping it back securely. Finally, after looking about with his face close to the ground to make sure that no smallest coin had escaped him, the cripple replaced his eye patches and heaved himself up with his crutch under his arm, turning to make his way once more toward the docks and the ships. His wailing cry lagged behind him like a cur dog: "Pity the blind! Pity the pore crippled blind!" Yet Chris now noticed that his head was tilted back to enable him to see under the patches as he went.