THE TAPESTRY ROOM
A Child's Romance
By MRS. MOLESWORTH
AUTHOR OF 'CARROTS,' 'CUCKOO CLOCK,' 'GRANDMOTHER DEAR,' 'TELL ME A STORY,' ETC.
'What tale did Iseult to the children say, Under the hollies, that bright winter's day?' MATTHEW ARNOLD
ILLUSTRATED BY WALTER CRANE
London MACMILLAN AND CO., Limited NEW YORK: THE MACMILLAN COMPANY 1899
TO H.R.H. VITTORIO EMANUELE PRINCE OF NAPLES CROWN PRINCE OF ITALY ONE OF THE KINDLIEST OF MY YOUNG READERS
MAISON DU CHANOINE, October 1879.
CHAPTER I. PAGE MADEMOISELLE JEAN 1
CHAPTER II. PRINCE CHERI 20
CHAPTER III. ON A MOONLIGHT NIGHT 37
CHAPTER IV. THE FOREST OF THE RAINBOWS 56
CHAPTER V. FROG-LAND 75
CHAPTER VI. THE SONG OF THE SWAN 94
CHAPTER VII. WINGS AND CATS 114
CHAPTER VIII. "THE BROWN BULL OF NORROWA" 135
CHAPTER IX. THE BROWN BULL—(Continued) 158
CHAPTER X. THE END OF THE BROWN BULL 177
CHAPTER XI. DUDU'S OLD STORY 197
CHAPTER XII. AU REVOIR 218
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS.
"DUDU" Vignette on Title-Page.
"ISN'T IT A FUNNY ROOM, CHERI?" To face Page 25
IT WAS DUDU " 51
ONWARDS QUIETLY STEPPED THE LITTLE PROCESSION " 75
TWO CHRISTMAS ANGELS " 122
STORY SPINNING " 141
THE BROWN BULL OF NORROWA " 162
"IS THIS A NEW PART OF THE HOUSE?" " 201
"Maitre Corbeau, sur un arbre perche." LA FONTAINE.
It was so cold. Ah, so very cold! So thought the old raven as he hobbled up and down the terrace walk at the back of the house—the walk that was so pleasant in summer, with its pretty view of the lower garden, gay with the bright, stiffly-arranged flowerbeds, so pleasantly warm and yet shady with the old trees overhead, where the raven's second cousins, the rooks, managed their affairs, not without a good deal of chatter about it, it must be confessed. "Silly creatures," the raven was in the habit of calling them with contempt—all to himself, of course, for no one understood the different tones of his croaking, even though he was a French raven and had received the best of educations. But to-day he was too depressed in spirit by the cold to think of his relations or their behaviour at all. He just hopped or hobbled—I hardly know which you would call it—slowly and solemnly up and down the long walk, where the snow lay so thick that at each hop it came ever so far up his black claws, which annoyed him very much, I assure you, and made him wish more than ever that summer was back again.
Poor old fellow! he was not usually of a discontented disposition; but to-day, it must be allowed, he was in the right about the cold. It was very cold.
Several others beside the raven were thinking so—the three chickens who lived in a queer little house in one corner of the yard thought so, and huddled the closer together, as they settled themselves for the night. For though it was only half-past three in the afternoon, they thought it was no use sitting up any longer on such a make-believe of a day, when not the least little ray of sunshine had succeeded in creeping through the leaden-grey sky. And the tortoise would have thought so too if he could, but he was too sleepy to think at all, as he "cruddled" himself into his shell in the corner of the laurel hedge, and dreamt of the nice hot days that were past.
And upstairs, inside the old house, somebody else was thinking so too—a little somebody who seemed to be doing her best to make herself, particularly her nose, colder still, for she was pressing it hard on to the icy window-pane and staring out on to the deserted, snow-covered garden, and thinking how cold it was, and wishing it was summer time again, and fancying how it would feel to be a raven like old "Dudu," all at once, in the mixed-up, dancing-about way that "thinking" was generally done in the funny little brain of Mademoiselle Jeanne.
Inside the room it was getting dark, and the white snow outside seemed to make it darker.
"Mademoiselle Jeanne," said a voice belonging to a servant who just then opened the door; "Mademoiselle Jeanne, what are you doing at the window? You will catch cold."
Jeanne gave a little start when she heard herself spoken to. She had been all alone in the room for some time, with not a sound about her. She turned slowly from the window and came near the fire.
"If I did catch cold, it would not be bad," she said. "I would stay in bed, and you, Marcelline, would make me nice things to eat, and nobody would say, 'Don't do that, Mademoiselle.' It would be charming."
Marcelline was Jeanne's old nurse, and she had been her mother's nurse too. She was really rather old, how old nobody seemed exactly to know, but Jeanne thought her very old, and asked her once if she had not been her grandmother's nurse too. Any one else but Marcelline would have been offended at such a question; but Marcelline was not like any one else, and she never was offended at anything. She was so old that for many years no one had seen much difference in her—she had reached a sort of settled oldness, like an arm-chair which may once have been covered with bright-coloured silk, but which, with time and wear, has got to have an all-over-old look which never seems to get any worse. Not that Marcelline was dull or grey to look at—she was bright and cheery, and when she had a new clean cap on, all beautifully frilled and crimped round her face, Jeanne used to tell her that she was beautiful, quite beautiful, and that if she was very good and always did exactly what Jeanne asked her, she—Jeanne—would have her to be nurse to her children when she had grown up to be a lady, married to some very nice gentleman.
And when Jeanne chattered like that, Marcelline used to smile; she never said anything, she just smiled. Sometimes Jeanne liked to see her smile; sometimes it would make her impatient, and she would say, "Why do you smile like that, Marcelline? Speak! When I speak I like you to speak too."
But all she could get Marcelline to answer would be, "Well, Mademoiselle, it is very well what you say."
This evening—or perhaps I should say afternoon, for whatever hour the chickens' timepiece made it, it was only half-past three by the great big clock that stood at the end of the long passage by Jeanne's room door;—this afternoon Jeanne was not quite as lively as she sometimes was. She sat down on the floor in front of the fire and stared into it. It was pretty to look at just then, for the wood was burning redly, and at the tiniest touch a whole bevy of lovely sparks would fly out like bees from a hive, or a covey of birds, or better still, like a thousand imprisoned fairies escaping at some magic touch. Of all things, Jeanne loved to give this magic touch. There was no poker, but she managed just as well with a stick of unburnt wood, or sometimes, when she was quite sure Marcelline was not looking, with the toe of her little shoe. Just now it was Marcelline who set the fairy sparks free by moving the logs a little and putting on a fresh one behind.
"How pretty they are, are they not, Marcelline?" said Jeanne.
Marcelline did not speak, and when Jeanne looked up at her, she saw by the light of the fire that she was smiling. Jeanne held up her forefinger.
"Naughty Marcelline," she said; "you are not to smile. You are to speak. I want you to speak very much, for it is so dull, and I have nothing to do. I want you to tell me stories, Marcelline. Do you hear, you naughty little thing?"
"And what am I to tell you stories about then, Mademoiselle? You have got all out of my old head long ago; and when the grain is all ground what can the miller do?"
"Get some more, of course," said Jeanne. "Why, I could make stories if I tried, I daresay, and I am only seven, and you who are a hundred—are you quite a hundred, Marcelline?"
Marcelline shook her head.
"Not quite, Mademoiselle," she said.
"Well, never mind, you are old enough to make stories, any way. Tell me more about the country where you lived when you were little as I; the country you will never tell me the name of. Oh, I do like that one about the Golden Princess shut up in the castle by the sea! I like stories about princesses best of all. I do wish I were a princess; next to my best wish of all, I wish to be a princess. Marcelline, do you hear? I want you to tell me a story."
Still Marcelline did not reply. She in her turn was looking into the fire. Suddenly she spoke.
"One, two, three," she said. "Quick, now, Mademoiselle, quick, quick. Wish a wish before that last spark is gone. Quick, Mademoiselle."
"Oh dear, what shall I wish?" exclaimed Jeanne. "When you tell me to be quick it all goes out of my head; but I know now. I wish——"
"Hush, Mademoiselle," said Marcelline, quickly again. "You must not say it aloud. Never mind, it is all right. You have wished it before the spark is gone. It will come true, Mademoiselle."
Jeanne's bright dark eyes glanced up at Marcelline with an expression of mingled curiosity and respect.
"How do you know it will come true?" she said.
Marcelline's old eyes, nearly as bright and dark still as Jeanne's own, had a half-mischievous look in them as she replied, solemnly shaking her head,
"I know, Mademoiselle, and that is all I can say. And when the time comes for your wish to be granted, you will see if I am not right."
"Shall I?" said Jeanne, half impressed, half rebellious. "Do the fairies tell you things, Marcelline? Not that I believe there are any fairies—not now, any way."
"Don't say that, Mademoiselle," said Marcelline. "In that country I have told you of no one ever said such a thing as that."
"Why didn't they? Did they really see fairies there?" asked Jeanne, lowering her voice a little.
"Perhaps," said Marcelline; but that was all she would say, and Jeanne couldn't get her to tell her any fairy stories, and had to content herself with making them for herself instead out of the queer shapes of the burning wood of the fire.
She was so busy with these fancies that she did not hear the stopping of the click-click of Marcelline's knitting needles, nor did she hear the old nurse get up from her chair and go out of the room. A few minutes before, the facteur had rung at the great wooden gates of the courtyard—a rather rare event, for in those days letters came only twice a week—but this, too, little Jeanne had not heard. She must have grown drowsy with the quiet and the heat of the fire, for she quite started when the door again opened, and Marcelline's voice told her that her mother wanted her to go down to the salon, she had something to say to her.
"O Marcelline," said Jeanne, rubbing her eyes, "I didn't know you had gone away. What does mamma want? O Marcelline, I am so sleepy, I would like to go to bed."
"To go to bed, Mademoiselle, and not yet five o'clock! Oh no, you will wake up nicely by the time you get down to the salon."
"I am so tired, Marcelline," persisted Jeanne. "These winter days it is so dull. I don't mind in summer, for then I can play in the garden with Dudu and the tortoise, and all the creatures. But in winter it is so dull. I would not be tired if I had a little friend to play with me."
"Keep up your heart, Mademoiselle. Stranger things have happened than that you should have some one to play with."
"What do you mean, Marcelline?" said Jeanne, curiously. "Do you know something, Marcelline? Tell me, do. Did you know what my wish was?" she added, eagerly.
"I know, Mademoiselle, that Madame will be waiting for you in the salon. We can talk about your wish later; when I am putting you to bed."
She would say no more, but smoothed Jeanne's soft dark hair, never very untidy it must be owned, for it was always neatly plaited in two tails that hung down her back, as was then the fashion for little girls of Jeanne's age and country, and bade her again not to delay going downstairs.
Jeanne set off. In that great rambling old house it was really quite a journey from her room to her mother's salon. There was the long corridor to pass, at one end of which were Jeanne's quarters, at the other a room which had had for her since her babyhood a mingled fascination and awe. It was hung with tapestry, very old, and in some parts faded, but still distinct. As Jeanne passed by the door of this room, she noticed that it was open, and the gleam of the faint moonlight on the snow-covered garden outside attracted her.
"I can see the terrace ever so much better from the tapestry room window," she said to herself. "I wonder what Dudu is doing, poor old fellow. Oh, how cold he must be! I suppose Grignan is asleep in a hole in the hedge, and the chickens will be all right any way. I have not seen Houpet all day."
"Houpet" was Jeanne's favourite of the three chickens. He had come by his name on account of a wonderful tuft of feathers on the top of his head, which stuck straight up and then waved down again, something like a little umbrella. No doubt he was a very rare and wonderful chicken, and if I were clever about chickens I would be able to tell you all his remarkable points. But that I cannot do. I can only say he was the queerest-looking creature that ever pecked about a poultry-yard, and how it came to pass that Jeanne admired him so, I cannot tell you either.
"Poor Houpet!" she repeated, as she ran across the tapestry room to the uncurtained window; "I am sure he must have been very sad without me all day. He has such a loving heart. The others are nice too, but not half so loving. And Grignan has no heart at all; I suppose tortoises never have; only he is very comical, which is nearly as nice. As for Dudu, I really cannot say, he is so stuck up, as if he knew better than any one else. Ah, there he is, the old fellow! Well, Dudu," she called out, as if the raven could have heard her so far off and through the closely shut window; "well, Dudu, how are you to-day, my dear sir? How do you like the snow and the cold?"
Dudu calmly continued his promenade up and down the terrace. Jeanne could clearly distinguish his black shape against the white ground.
"I am going downstairs to see mamma, Dudu," she went on. "I love mamma very much, but I wish she wasn't my mother at all, but my sister. I wish she was turned into a little girl to play with me, and that papa was turned into a little boy. How funny he would look with his white hair, wouldn't he, Dudu? Oh, you stupid Dudu, why won't you speak to me? I wish you would come up here; there's a beautiful castle and garden in the tapestry, where you would have two peacocks to play with;" for just at that moment the moon, passing from under a cloud, lighted up one side of the tapestry, which, as Jeanne said, represented a garden with various curious occupants. And as the wavering brightness caught the grotesque figures in turn, it really seemed to the little girl as if they moved. Half pleased, half startled at the fancy, she clapped her hands.
"Dudu, Dudu," she cried, "the peacocks want you to come; they're beginning to jump about;" and almost as she said the words a loud croak from the raven sounded in her ears, and turning round, there, to her amazement, she saw Dudu standing on the ledge of the window outside, his bright eyes shining, his black wings flapping, just as if he would say,
"Let me in, Mademoiselle, let me in. Why do you mock me by calling me if you won't let me in?"
Completely startled by this time, Jeanne turned and fled.
"He must be a fairy," she said by herself; "I'll never make fun of Dudu any more—never. He must be a fairy, or how else could he have got up from the terrace on to the window-sill all in a minute? And I don't think a raven fairy would be nice at all; he'd be a sort of an imp, I expect. I wouldn't mind now if Houpet was a fairy, he's so gentle and loving; but Dudu would be a sort of ogre fairy, he's so black and solemn. Oh dear, how he startled me! How did he get up there? I'm very glad I don't sleep in the tapestry room."
But when she got down to the brightly-lighted salon her cheeks were so pale and her eyes so startled-looking that her mother was quite concerned, and eagerly asked what was the matter.
"Nothing," said Jeanne at first, after the manner of little girls, and boys too, when they do not want to be cross-questioned; but after a while she confessed that she had run into the tapestry room on her way down, and that the moonlight made the figures look as if they were moving—and—and—that Dudu came and stood on the window-sill and croaked at her.
"Dudu stood on the window-sill outside the tapestry room!" repeated her father; "impossible, my child! Why, Dudu could not by any conceivable means get up there; you might as well say you saw the tortoise there too."
"If I had called him perhaps he would have come too; I believe Dudu and he are great friends," thought Jeanne to herself, for her mind was in a queer state of confusion, and she would not have felt very much astounded at anything. But aloud she only repeated, "I'm sure he was there, dear papa."
And to satisfy her, her kind father, though he was not so young as he had been, and the bad weather made him very rheumatic, mounted upstairs to the tapestry room, and carefully examined the window inside and out.
"Nothing of the kind to be seen, my little girl," was his report. "Master Dudu was hobbling about in the snow on his favourite terrace walk as usual. I hope the servants give him a little meat in this cold weather, by the by. I must speak to Eugene about it. What you fancied was Dudu, my little Jeanne," he continued, "must have been a branch of the ivy blown across the window. In the moonlight, and with the reflections of the snow, things take queer shapes."
"But there is no wind, and the ivy doesn't grow so high up, and the ivy could not have croaked," thought Jeanne to herself again, though she was far too well brought up a little French girl to contradict her father by saying so.
"Perhaps so, dear papa," was all she said.
But her parents still looked a little uneasy.
"She cannot be quite well," said her mother. "She must be feverish. I must tell Marcelline to make her a little tisane when she goes to bed."
"Ah, bah!" said Jeanne's white-headed papa. "What we were speaking of will be a much better cure than tisane. She needs companionship of her own age."
Jeanne pricked up her ears at this, and glanced at her mother inquiringly. Instantly there started into her mind Marcelline's prophecy about her wish.
"The naughty little Marcelline!" she thought to herself. "She has been tricking me. I believe she knew something was going to happen. Mamma, my dear mamma!" she cried, eagerly but respectfully, "have you something to tell me? Have you had letters, mamma, from the country, where the little cousin lives?"
Jeanne's mother softly stroked the cheeks, red enough now, of her excited little daughter.
"Yes, my child," she replied. "I have had a letter. It was for that I sent for you—to tell you about it. I have a letter from the grandfather of Hugh, with whom he has lived since his parents died, and he accepts my invitation. Hugh is to come to live with us, as his mother would have wished. His grandfather can spare him, for he has other grandchildren, and we need him, do we not, my Jeanne? My little girl needs a little brother—and I loved his mother so much," she added in a lower voice.
Jeanne could not speak. Her face was glowing with excitement, her breath came quick and short, almost, it seemed, as if she were going to cry. "O, mamma!" was all she could say—"O mamma!" but her mother understood her.
"And when will he come?" asked Jeanne next.
"Soon, I hope. In a few days; but it depends on the weather greatly. The snow has stopped the diligences in several places, they say; but his grandfather writes that he would like Hugh to come soon, as he himself has to leave home."
"And will he be always with us? Will he do lessons with me, mamma, and go to the chateau with us in summer, and always be with us?"
"I hope so. For a long time at least. And he will do lessons with you at first—though when he gets big he will need more teachers, of course."
"He is a year older than I, mamma."
"Yes, he is eight."
"And, mamma," added Jeanne, after some consideration, "what room will he have?"
"The tapestry room," said her mother. "It is the warmest, and Hugh is rather delicate, and may feel it cold here. And the tapestry room is not far from yours, my little Jeanne, so you can keep your toys and books together. There is only one thing I do not quite understand in the letter," went on Jeanne's mother, turning to her husband as she always did in any difficulty—he was so much older and wiser than she, she used to say. "Hugh's grandfather says Hugh has begged leave to bring a pet with him, and he hopes I will not mind. What can it be? I cannot read the other word."
"A little dog probably," said Jeanne's father, putting on his spectacles as he took the letter from his wife, "a pet—gu—ga—and then comes another word beginning with 'p.' It almost looks like 'pig,' but it could not be a pet pig. No, I cannot read it either; we must wait to see till he comes."
* * * * *
As Marcelline was preparing to put Jeanne to bed that night, the little girl suddenly put her arms round her nurse's neck, and drew down her old face till it was on a level with her own.
"Look in my face, Marcelline," she said. "Now look in my face and confess. Now, didn't you know that mamma had got a letter to-night and what it said, and was not that how you knew my wish would come true?"
"That was one way I knew, Mademoiselle," she said.
"Well, it shows I'm right not to believe in fairies any way. I really did think at first that the fairies had told you something, but——" suddenly she stopped as the remembrance of her adventure in the tapestry room returned to her mind. "Dudu may be a fairy, whether Marcelline has anything to do with fairies or not," she reflected. It was better certainly to approach such subjects respectfully. "Marcelline," she added, after a little silence, "there is only one thing I don't like. I wish the little cousin were not going to sleep in the tapestry room."
"Not in the tapestry room, Mademoiselle?" exclaimed Marcelline, "why, it is the best room in the house! You, who are so fond of stories, Mademoiselle—why there are stories without end on the walls of the tapestry room; particularly on a moonlight night."
"Are there?" said Jeanne. "I wonder then if the little cousin will be able to find them out. If he does he must tell them to me. Are they fairy stories, Marcelline?"
But old Marcelline only smiled.
"I'll take my guinea-pig always to church." CHILD WORLD.
If it were cold just then in the thick-walled, well-warmed old house, which was Jeanne's home, you may fancy how cold it was in the rumbling diligence, which in those days was the only way of travelling in France. And for a little boy whose experience of long journeys was small, this one was really rather trying. But Jeanne's cousin Hugh was a very patient little boy. His life, since his parents' death, had not been a very happy one, and he had learnt to bear troubles without complaining. And now that he was on his way to the kind cousins his mother had so often told him of, the cousins who had been so kind to her, before she had any home of her own, his heart was so full of happiness that, even if the journey had been twice as cold and uncomfortable, he would not have thought himself to be pitied.
It was a pale little face, however, which looked out of the diligence window at the different places where it stopped, and a rather timid voice which asked in the pretty broken French he had not quite forgotten since the days that his mother taught him her own language, for a little milk for his "pet." The pet, which had travelled on his knees all the way from England—comfortably nestled up in hay and cotton wool in its cage, which looked something like a big mouse-trap—much better off in its way certainly than its poor little master. But it was a great comfort to him: the sight of its funny little nose poking out between the bars of its cage made Hugh feel ever so much less lonely, and when he had secured a little milk for his guinea-pig he did not seem to mind half so much about anything for himself.
Still it was a long and weary journey, and poor Hugh felt very glad when he was wakened up from the uncomfortable dose, which was all in the way of sleep he could manage, to be told that at last they had arrived. This was the town where his friends lived, and a "monsieur," the conductor added, was inquiring for him—Jeanne's father's valet it was, who had been sent to meet him and take him safe to the old house, where an eager little heart was counting the minutes till he came.
They looked at each other curiously when at last they met. Jeanne's eyes were sparkling and her cheeks burning, and her whole little person in a flutter of joyful excitement, and yet she couldn't speak. Now that the little cousin was there, actually standing before her, she could not speak. How was it? He was not quite what she had expected; he looked paler and quieter than any boys she had seen, and—was he not glad to see her?—glad to have come?—she asked herself with a little misgiving. She looked at him again—his blue eyes were very sweet and gentle, and, tired though he was, Jeanne could see that he was trying to smile and look pleased. But he was very tired and very shy. That was all that was the matter. And his shyness made Jeanne feel shy too.
"Are you very tired, my cousin?" she said at last.
"Not very, thank you," said Hugh. "I am rather tired, but I am not very hungry," he added, glancing at a side-table where a little supper had been laid out for him. "I am not very hungry, but I think Nibble is. Might I have a little milk for Nibble, please?"
As he spoke he held up for Jeanne to see the small box he was carrying, and she gave a little scream of pleasure when, through the bars, she caught sight of the guinea-pig's soft nose, poking out, saying as plainly almost as if he had spoken, "I want my supper; please to see at once about my supper, little girl."
"Neeble," cried Jeanne, "O my cousin, is Neeble your pet? Why, he is a 'cochon de Barbarie!' O the dear little fellow! We could not—at least papa and mamma could not—read what he was. And have you brought him all the way, my cousin, and do you love him very much? Marcelline, Marcelline, oh, do give us some milk for the cochon de Barbarie—oh, see, Marcelline, how sweet he is!"
Once set free, her tongue ran on so fast that sometimes Hugh had difficulty to understand her. But the ice was broken any way, and when, an hour or two later, Jeanne's mother told her she might take Hugh up to show him his room, the two trotted off, hand-in-hand, as if they had been close companions for years.
"I hope you will like your room, cheri," said Jeanne, with a tiny tone of patronising. "It is not very far from mine, and mamma says we can keep all our toys and books together in my big cupboard in the passage."
Hugh looked at Jeanne for a moment without speaking. "What was that name you called me just now, Jeanne?" he asked, after a little pause.
Jeanne thought for a minute.
"'Mon cousin,' was it that?" she said. "Oh no, I remember, it was 'cheri.' I cannot say your name—I have tried all these days. I cannot say it better than 'Ee-ou,' which is not pretty."
She screwed her rosy little mouth into the funniest shape as she tried to manage "Hugh." Hugh could hardly help laughing.
"Never mind," he said. "I like 'cheri' ever so much better. I like it better than 'mon cousin' or any name, because, do you know," he added, dropping his voice a little, "I remember now, though I had forgotten till you said it—that was the name mamma called me by."
"Cheri!" repeated Jeanne, stopping half-way up the staircase to throw her arms round Hugh's neck at the greatest risk to the equilibrium of the whole party, including the guinea-pig—"Cheri! I shall always call you so, then. You shall be my Prince Cheri. Don't you love fairy stories, mon cousin?"
"Awfully," said Hugh, from the bottom of his soul.
"I knew you would," said Jeanne triumphantly. "And oh, so do I! Marcelline says, Cheri, that the tapestry room—that's the room you're going to have—is full of fairy stories. I wonder if you'll find out any of them. You must tell me if you do."
"The tapestry room?" repeated Hugh; "I don't think I ever saw a tapestry room. Oh," he added, as a sudden recollection struck him, "is it like what that queen long ago worked about the battles and all that? I mean all about William the Conqueror."
"No," said Jeanne, "it's quite different from that work. I've seen that, so I know. It isn't pretty at all. It's just long strips of linen with queer-shaped horses and things worked on. Not at all pretty. And I think the pictures on the walls of your room are pretty. Here it is. Isn't it a funny room, Cheri?"
She opened the door of the tapestry room as she spoke, for while chattering they had mounted the staircase and made their way along the corridor. Hugh followed his little cousin into the room, and stood gazing round him with curious surprise and pleasure. The walls were well lighted up, for Marcelline had carried a lamp upstairs and set it down on the table, and a bright fire was burning in the wide old-fashioned hearth.
"Jeanne," said Hugh, after a minute's silence, "Jeanne, it is very funny, but, do you know, I am sure I have seen this room before. I seem to know the pictures on the walls. Oh, how nice they are! I didn't think that was what tapestry meant. Oh, how glad I am this is to be my room—is yours like this too, Jeanne?"
Jeanne shook her head.
"Oh no, Cheri," she said. "My room has a nice paper—roses and things like that running up and down. I am very glad my room is not like this. I don't think I should like to see all these funny creatures in the night. You don't know how queer they look in the moonlight. They quite frightened me once."
Hugh opened his blue eyes very wide.
"Frightened you?" he said. "I should never be frightened at them. They are so nice and funny. Just look at those peacocks, Jeanne. They are lovely."
Jeanne still shook her head.
"I don't think so," she said. "I can't bear those peacocks. But I'm very glad you like them, Cheri."
"I wish it was moonlight to-night," continued Hugh. "I don't think I should go to sleep at all. I would lie awake watching all the pictures. I dare say they look rather nice in the firelight too, but still not so nice as in the moonlight."
"No, Monsieur," said Marcelline, who had followed the children into the room. "A moonlight night is the time to see them best. It makes the colours look quite fresh again. Mademoiselle Jeanne has never looked at the tapestry properly by moonlight, or she would like it better."
"I shouldn't mind with Cheri," said Jeanne. "You must call me some night when it's very pretty, Cheri, and we'll look at it together."
Marcelline smiled and seemed pleased, which was rather funny. Most nurses would have begun scolding Jeanne for dreaming of such a thing as running about the house in the middle of the night to admire the moonlight on tapestry or on anything else. But then Marcelline certainly was rather a funny person.
"And the cochon de Barbarie, where is he to sleep, Monsieur?" she said to Hugh.
Hugh looked rather distressed.
"I don't know," he said. "At home he slept in his little house on a sort of balcony there was outside my window. But there isn't any balcony here—besides, it's so very cold, and he's quite strange, you know."
He looked at Marcelline, appealingly.
"I daresay, while it is so cold, Madame would not mind if we put him in the cupboard in the passage," she said; but Jeanne interrupted her.
"Oh no," she said. "He would be far better in the chickens' house. It's nice and warm, I know, and his cage can be in one corner. He wouldn't be nearly so lonely, and to-morrow I'll tell Houpet and the others that they must be very kind to him. Houpet always does what I tell him."
"Who is Houpet?" said Hugh.
"He's my pet chicken," replied Jeanne. "They're all pets, of course, but he's the most of a pet of all. He lives in the chicken-house with the two other little chickens. O Cheri," she added, glancing round, and seeing that Marcelline had left the room, "do let us run out and peep at Houpet for a minute. We can go through the tonnelle, and the chickens' house is close by."
She darted off as she spoke, and Hugh, nothing loth, his precious Nibble still in his arms, followed her. They ran down the long corridor, on to which opened both the tapestry room and Jeanne's room at the other end, through a small sort of anteroom, and then—for though they were upstairs, the garden being built in terraces was at this part of the house on a level with the first floor—then straight out into what little Jeanne called "the tonnelle."
Hugh stood still and gazed about him with delight and astonishment.
"O Jeanne," he exclaimed, "how pretty it is! oh, how very pretty!"
Jeanne stopped short in her progress along the tonnelle.
"What's pretty?" she said in a matter-of-fact tone. "Do you mean the garden with the snow?"
"No, no, that's pretty too, but I mean the trees. Look up, Jeanne, do."
There was no moonlight, but the light from the windows streamed out to where the children stood, and shone upon the beautiful icicles on the branches above their heads. For the tonnelle was a kind of arbour—a long covered passage made by trees at each side, whose boughs had been trained to meet and interlace overhead. And now, with their fairy tracery of snow and frost, the effect of the numberless little branches forming a sparkling roof was pretty and fanciful in the extreme. Jeanne looked up as she was told.
"Yes," she said, "it's pretty. If it was moonlight it would be prettier still, for then we could see right along the tonnelle to the end."
"I don't think that would be prettier," said Hugh; "the dark at the end makes it look so nice—like as if it was a fairy door into some queer place—a magic cavern, or some place like that."
"So it does," said Jeanne. "What nice fancies you have, Cheri! But I wish you could see the tonnelle in summer. It is pretty then, with all the leaves on. But we must run quick, or else Marcelline will be calling us before we have got to the chicken-house."
Off she set again, and Hugh after her, though not so fast, for Jeanne knew every step of the way, and poor Hugh had never been in the garden before. It was not very far to go, however—the chickens' house was in a little courtyard just a few steps from the tonnelle, and guided by Jeanne's voice in front as much as by the faint glimpses of her figure, dark against the snow, Hugh soon found himself safe beside her at the door of the chickens' house. Jeanne felt about till she got hold of the latch, which she lifted, and was going to push open the door and enter when Hugh stopped her.
"Jeanne," he said, "it's quite dark. We can't possibly see the chickens. Hadn't we better wait till to-morrow, and put Nibble in the cupboard, as Marcelline said, for to-night?"
"Oh no," said Jeanne. "It doesn't matter a bit that it's dark." She opened the door as she spoke, and gently pulled Hugh in after her. "Look," she went on, "there is a very, very little light from the kitchen window after all, when the door is opened. Look, Cheri, up in that corner sleep Houpet and the others. Put the cochon de Barbarie down here—so—that will do. He will be quite safe here, and you feel it is not cold."
"And are there no rats, or naughty dogs about—nothing like that?" asked Hugh rather anxiously.
"Of course not," replied Jeanne. "Do you think I'd leave Houpet here if there were? I'll call to Houpet now, and tell him to be kind to the little cochon."
"But Houpet's asleep, and, besides, how would he know what you say?" objected Hugh.
For all answer Jeanne gave a sort of little whistle—half whistle, half coo it was. "Houpet, Houpet," she called softly, "we've brought a little cochon de Barbarie to sleep in your house. You must be very kind to him—do you hear, Houpet dear? and in the morning you must fly down and peep in at his cage and tell him you're very glad to see him."
A faint, a very faint little rustle was heard up above in the corner where Jeanne had tried to persuade her cousin that the chickens were to be seen, and delighted at this evidence that any way they were to be heard, she turned to him triumphantly.
"That's Houpet," she said. "Dear little fellow, he's too sleepy to crow—he just gives a little wriggle to show that he's heard me. Now put down the cage, Cheri—oh, you have put it down—and let's run in again. Your pet will be quite safe, you see, but if we're not quick, Marcelline will be running out to look for us."
She felt about for Hugh's hand, and having got it, turned to go. But she stopped to put her head in again for a moment at the door.
"Houpet, dear," she said, "don't let Dudu come into your house. If he tries to, you must fly at him and scold him and peck him."
"Who is Dudu?" said Hugh, as they were running back to the house together along the snowy garden path.
"He is——" began Jeanne. "Hush," she went on, in a lower voice, "there he is! I do believe he heard what I said, and he's angry." For right before them on the path stood the old raven, on one leg as usual, though this it was too dark to see clearly. And, as Jeanne spoke, he gave a sharp, sudden croak, which made both the children jump, and then deliberately hopped away.
"He's a raven!" said Hugh with surprise. "Why, what funny pets you have, Jeanne!"
"Dudu isn't my pet," she said. "I don't like him. To tell you the truth, Cheri, I'm rather frightened of him. I think he's a sort of a fairy."
Hugh looked much impressed, but not at all surprised.
"Do you really, Jeanne?" he said.
"Yes," she said, "I do. And I'm not sure but that Grignan is too. At least I think Grignan is enchanted, and that Dudu is the spiteful fairy that did it. Grignan is the tortoise, you know."
"Yes," said Hugh, "you told me about him. I do wonder if what you think is true," he added reflectively. "We must try to find out, Jeanne."
"But we mustn't offend Dudu," said Jeanne. "He might, you know, turn us into something—two little mice, perhaps—that wouldn't be very nice, would it, Cheri?"
"I don't know," Hugh replied. "I wouldn't mind for a little, if he would turn us back again. We could get into such funny places and see such funny things—couldn't we, Jeanne?"
They both laughed merrily at the idea, and were still laughing when they ran against Marcelline at the door which they had left open at the end of the tonnelle.
"My children!" she exclaimed. "Monsieur Cheri and Mademoiselle Jeanne! Where have you been? And in the snow too! Who would have thought it?"
Her tone was anxious, but not cross. She hurried them in to the warm fire, however, and carefully examined their feet to make sure that their shoes and stockings were not wet.
"Marcelline is very kind," said Hugh, fixing his soft blue eyes on the old nurse in surprise. "At home, grandmamma's maid would have scolded me dreadfully if I had run out in the snow."
"Yes," said Jeanne, flinging her arms round the old nurse's neck, and giving her a kiss first on one cheek then on the other; "she is very kind. Nice little old Marcelline."
"Perhaps," said Hugh, meditatively, "she remembers that when she was a little girl she liked to do things like that herself."
"I don't believe you ever were a little girl, were you, Marcelline?" said Jeanne. "I believe you were always a little old woman like what you are now."
Marcelline laughed, but did not speak.
"Ask Dudu," she said at last. "If he is a fairy, he should know."
Jeanne pricked up her ears at this.
"Marcelline," she said solemnly, "I believe you do know something about Dudu. Oh, do tell us, dear Marcelline."
But nothing more was to be got out of the old nurse.
When the children were undressed, Jeanne begged leave to run into Hugh's room with him to tuck him into bed, and make him feel at home the first night. There was no lamp in the room, but the firelight danced curiously on the quaint figures on the walls.
"You're sure you're not frightened, Cheri?" said little Jeanne in a motherly way, as she was leaving the room.
"Frightened! what is there to be frightened at?" said Hugh.
"The funny figures," said Jeanne. "Those peacocks look just as if they were going to jump out at you."
"I think they look very nice," said Hugh. "I am sure I shall have nice dreams. I shall make the peacocks give a party some night, Jeanne, and we'll invite Dudu and Grignan, and Houpet and the two little hens, and Nibble, of course, and we'll make them all tell stories."
Jeanne clapped her hands.
"Oh, what fun!" she exclaimed. "And you'll ask me and let me hear the stories, won't you, Cheri?"
"Of course," said Hugh. So Jeanne skipped off in the highest spirits.
ON A MOONLIGHT NIGHT.
"O moon! in the night I have seen you sailing, And shining so round and low." CHILD NATURE.
"And what did you dream, Cheri?" inquired Jeanne the next morning in a confidential and mysterious tone.
"I don't know," he said at last. "At least——" he stopped and hesitated again.
The two children were having their "little breakfast," consisting of two great big cups of nice hot milky coffee and two big slices of bread, with the sweet fresh butter for which the country where Jeanne's home was is famed. They were alone in Jeanne's room, and Marcelline had drawn a little table close to the fire for them, for this morning it seemed colder than ever; fresh snow had fallen during the night, and out in the garden nothing was to be seen but smoothly-rounded white mounds of varying sizes and heights, and up in the sky the dull blue-grey curtain of snow-cloud made one draw back shivering from the window, feeling as if the sun had gone off in a sulky fit and would never come back again.
But inside, close by the brightly-blazing wood fire, Jeanne and Hugh found themselves "very well," as the little girl called it, very well indeed. And the hot coffee was very nice, much nicer, Hugh thought, than the very weak tea which his grandmother's maid used to give him for breakfast at home. He stirred it round and round slowly with his spoon, staring into his cup, while he repeated, in answer to little Jeanne's question about what he had dreamt, "No, I don't know."
"But you did dream something," said Jeanne rather impatiently. "Can't you tell me about it? I thought you were going to have all sorts of funny things to tell me. You said you would have a party of the peacocks and all the pets, and make them tell stories."
"Yes," said Hugh slowly. "But I couldn't make them—I must wait till they come. I think I did dream some funny things last night, but I can't remember. There seemed to be a lot of chattering, and once I thought I saw the raven standing at the end of the bed, but that time I wasn't dreaming. I'm sure I wasn't; but I was very sleepy, and I couldn't hear what he said. He seemed to want me to do something or other, and then he nodded his head to where the peacocks are, and do you know, Jeanne, I thought they nodded too. Wasn't that funny? But I daresay it was only the firelight—the fire had burnt low, and then it bobbed up again all of a sudden."
"And what more?" asked Jeanne eagerly. "O Cheri, I think that's wonderful! Do tell me some more."
"I don't think I remember any more," said Hugh. "After that I went to sleep, and then it was all a muddle. There were the chickens and Nibble and the tortoise all running about, and Dudu seemed to be talking to me all the time. But it was just a muddle; you know how dreams go sometimes. And when I woke up the fire was quite out and it was all dark. And then I saw the light of Marcelline's candle through the hinge of the door, and she came to tell me it was time to get up."
"Oh dear," said Jeanne, "I do hope you'll dream some more to-night."
"I daresay I shan't dream at all," said Hugh. "Some nights I go to sleep, and it's morning in one minute. I don't like that much, because it's nice to wake up and feel how cosy it is in bed."
"But, Cheri," pursued Jeanne after a few moments' silence, and a few more bites at her bread and butter, "there's one thing I don't understand. It's about Dudu. You said it wasn't a dream, you were sure. Do you think he was really there, at the foot of the bed? It might have been the firelight that made you think you saw the peacocks nodding, but it couldn't have been the firelight that made you think you saw Dudu."
"No," said Hugh, "I can't understand it either. If it was a dream it was a very queer one, for I never felt more awake in my life. I'll tell you what, Jeanne, the next time I think I see Dudu like that I'll run and tell you."
"Yes, do," said Jeanne, "though I don't know that it would be much good. Dudu's dreadfully tricky."
She had not told Hugh of the trick the raven had played her, though why she had not done so she could hardly have explained. Perhaps she was a little ashamed of having been so frightened; perhaps she was still a little afraid of Dudu; and most of all, I think, she had a great curiosity to find out more about the mysterious bird, and thought it best to leave Hugh to face his own adventures.
"If Dudu thinks I've told Cheri all about his funny ways," she thought, "perhaps he'll be angry and not do any more queer things."
The snow was still, as I said, thick on the ground, thicker, indeed, than the day before. But the children managed to amuse themselves very well. Marcelline would not hear of their going out, not even as far as the chickens' house, but she fetched Nibble to pay them a visit in the afternoon, and they had great fun with him.
"He looks very happy, doesn't he, Cheri?" said Jeanne. "I am sure Houpet has been kind to him. What a pity pets can't speak, isn't it? they could tell us such nice funny things."
"Yes," said Hugh, "I've often thought that, and I often have thought Nibble could speak if he liked."
"Houpet could, I'm quite sure," said Jeanne, "and I believe Dudu and he do speak to each other. You should just see them sometimes. Why, there they are!" she added, going close up to the window near which she had been standing. "Do come here, Cheri, quick, but come very quietly."
Hugh came forward and looked out. There were the four birds, making the quaintest group you could fancy. Houpet with his waving tuft of feathers was perched on the top rung of a short garden ladder, his two little hens as usual close beside him. And down below on the path stood the raven, on one leg of course, his queer black head very much on one side, as he surveyed the little group above him.
"Silly young people," he seemed to be saying to himself; but Houpet was not to be put down so. With a shrill, clear crow he descended from his perch, stepped close up to Dudu, looked him in the face, and then quietly marched off, followed by his two companions. The children watched this little scene with the greatest interest.
"They do look as if they were talking to each other," said Hugh. "I wonder what it's about."
"Perhaps it's about the party," said Jeanne; "the party you said you'd give to the peacocks on the wall, and all the pets."
"Perhaps," said Hugh. "I am sure there must be beautiful big rooms in that castle with the lots of steps up to it, where the peacocks stand. Don't you think it would be nice to get inside that castle and see what it's like?"
"Oh, wouldn't it!" said Jeanne, clapping her hands. "How I do wish we could! You might tell Dudu to take us, Cheri. Perhaps it's a fairy palace really, though it only looks like a picture, and if Dudu's a fairy, he might know about it."
"I'll ask him if I get a chance," said Hugh. "Good morning, Monsieur Dudu," he went on, bowing politely from the window to the raven, who had cocked his head in another direction, and seemed now to be looking up at the two children with the same supercilious stare he had bestowed upon the cock and hens. "Good morning, Monsieur Dudu; I hope you won't catch cold with this snowy weather. It's best to be very polite to him, you see," added Hugh, turning to Jeanne; "for if he took offence we should get no fun out of him."
"Oh yes," said Jeanne, "it is much best to be very polite to him. Look at him now, Cheri; doesn't he look as if he knew what we were saying?"
For Dudu was eyeing them unmistakably by this time, his head more on one side than ever, and his lame leg stuck out in the air like a walking-stick.
"That's just how he stood at the foot of the bed, on the wood part, you know," said Hugh, in a whisper.
"And weren't you frightened, Cheri?" said Jeanne. "I always think Dudu looks not at all like a good fairy, when he cocks his head on one side and sticks his claw out like that. I quite believe then that he's a wicked enchanter. O Cheri," she went on, catching hold of Hugh, "what should we do if he was to turn us into two little frogs or toads?"
"We should have to live in the water, and eat nasty little worms and flies, I suppose," said Hugh gravely.
"And that sort of thick green stuff that grows at the top of dirty ponds; fancy having that for soup," said Jeanne pathetically. "O Cheri, we must indeed be very polite to Dudu, and take great pains not to offend him; and if he comes to you in the night, you must be sure to call me at once."
But the following night and several nights after that went by, and nothing was heard or seen of Monsieur Dudu. The weather got a little milder; that is to say, the snow gradually melted away, and the children were allowed to go out into the garden and visit their pets. Nibble seemed quite at home in his new quarters, and was now permitted to run about the chicken-house at his own sweet will; and Jeanne greatly commended Houpet for his kindness to the little stranger, which commendation the chicken received in very good part, particularly when it took the shape of all the tit-bits left on the children's plates.
"See how tame he is," said Jeanne one day when she had persuaded the little cock to peck some crumbs out of her hand; "isn't he a darling, Cheri, with his dear little tuft of feathers on the top of his head?"
"He's awfully funny-looking," said Hugh, consideringly; "do you really think he's very pretty, Jeanne?"
"Of course I do," said Jeanne, indignantly; "all my pets are pretty, but Houpet's the prettiest of all."
"He's prettier than Grignan, certainly," said Hugh, giving an amiable little push to the tortoise, who happened to be lying at his feet; "but I like Grignan, he's so comical."
"I think Grignan must know a great deal," said Jeanne, "he's so solemn."
"So is Dudu," said Hugh. "By the by, Jeanne," he went on, but stopped suddenly.
"What?" said Jeanne.
"It just came into my head while we were talking that I must have dreamt of Dudu again last night; but now I try to remember it, it has all gone out of my head."
"What a pity," said Jeanne; "do try to remember. Was it that he came and stood at the foot of the bed again, like the last time? You promised to call me if he did."
"No, I don't think he did. I have more a sort of feeling that he and the peacocks on the wall were whispering to each other—something about us—you and me, Jeanne—it was, I think."
"Perhaps they were going to give a party, and were planning about inviting us," suggested Jeanne.
"I don't know," said Hugh; "it's no good my trying to think. It's just a sleepy feeling of having heard something. I can't remember anything else, and the more I think, the less I remember."
"Well, you must be sure to tell me if you do hear anything more. I was awake ever so long in the night, ever so long; but I didn't mind, there was such nice moonlight."
"Moonlight, was there?" said Hugh; "I didn't know that. I'll try to keep awake to-night, because Marcelline says the figures on the walls are so pretty when it's moonlight."
"And if Dudu comes, or you see anything funny, you'll promise to call me?" said Jeanne.
Hugh nodded his head. There was not much fear of his forgetting his promise. Jeanne reminded him of it at intervals all that day, and when the children kissed each other for good-night she whispered again, "Remember to call me, Cheri."
Cheri went to sleep with the best possible intentions as to "remembering." He had, first of all, intended not to go to sleep at all, for his last glance out of the window before going to bed showed him Monsieur Dudu on the terrace path, enjoying the moonlight apparently, but, Hugh strongly suspected, bent on mischief, for his head was very much on one side and his claw very much stuck out, in the way which Jeanne declared made him look like a very impish raven indeed.
"I wonder what Marcelline meant about the moonlight," thought Hugh to himself as he lay down. "I hardly see the figures on the wall at all. The moon must be going behind a cloud. I wonder if it will be brighter in the middle of the night. I don't see that I need stay awake all the night to see. I can easily wake again. I'll just take a little sleep first."
And the little sleep turned out such a long one, that when poor Hugh opened his eyes, lo and behold! it was to-morrow morning—there was Marcelline standing beside the bed, telling him it was time to get up, he would be late for his tutor if he did not dress himself at once.
"Oh dear," exclaimed Hugh, "what a pity! I meant to stay awake all night to watch the moonlight."
Marcelline smiled what Jeanne called her funny smile.
"You would find it very difficult to do that, I think, my little Monsieur," she said. "However, you did not miss much last night. The clouds came over so that the moon had no chance. Perhaps it will be clearer to-night."
With this hope Hugh had to be satisfied, and to satisfy also his little cousin, who was at first quite disappointed that he had nothing wonderful to tell her.
"To-night," she said, "I shall stay awake all night, and if the moonlight is very nice and bright I shall come and wake you, you sleepy Cheri. I do so want to go up those steps and into the castle where the peacocks are standing at the door."
"So do I," said Hugh, rather mortified; "but if one goes to sleep, whose fault is it? I am sure you will go to sleep too, if you try to keep awake. There's nothing makes people go to sleep so fast as trying to keep awake."
"Well, don't try then," said Jeanne, "and see what comes then."
And when night came, Hugh, partly perhaps because he was particularly sleepy—the day had been so much finer that the children had had some splendid runs up and down the long terrace walk in the garden, and the unusual exercise had made both of them very ready for bed when the time came—took Jeanne's advice, tucked himself up snugly and went off to sleep without thinking of the moonlight, or the peacocks, or Dudu, or anything. He slept so soundly, that when he awoke he thought it was morning, and brighter morning than had hitherto greeted him since he came to Jeanne's home.
"Dear me!" he said to himself, rubbing his eyes, "it must be very late; it looks just as if summer had come," for the whole room was flooded with light—such beautiful light—bright and clear, and yet soft. No wonder that Hugh rubbed his eyes in bewilderment—it was not till he sat up in bed and looked well about him, quite awake now, that he saw that after all it was moonlight, not sunshine, which was illumining the old tapestry room and everything which it contained in this wonderful way.
"Oh, how pretty it is!" thought Hugh. "No wonder Marcelline told us that we should see the tapestry in the moonlight. I never could have thought it would have looked so pretty. Why, even the peacocks' tails seem to have got all sorts of new colours."
He leant forward to examine them better. They were standing—just as usual—one on each side of the flight of steps leading up to the castle. But as Hugh gazed at them it certainly seemed to him—could it be his fancy only?—no, it must be true—that their long tails grew longer and swept the ground more majestically—then that suddenly—fluff! a sort of little wind seemed to rustle for an instant, and fluff! again, the two peacocks had spread their tails, and now stood with them proudly reared fan-like, at their backs, just like the real living birds that Hugh had often admired in his grandfather's garden. Hugh was too much amazed to rub his eyes again—he could do nothing but stare, and stare he did with all his might, but for a moment or two there was nothing else to be seen. The peacocks stood still—so still that Hugh now began to doubt whether they had not always stood, tails spread, just as he saw them now, and whether these same tails having ever drooped on the ground was not altogether his fancy. A good deal puzzled, and a little disappointed, he was turning away to look at another part of the pictured walls, when again a slight flutter of movement caught his eyes. What was about to happen this time?
"Perhaps they are going to furl their tails again," thought Hugh; but no. One on each side of the castle door, the peacocks solemnly advanced a few steps, then stood still—quite still—but yet with a certain waiting look about them as if they were expecting some one or something. They were not kept waiting long. The door of the castle opened slowly, very slowly, the peacocks stepped still a little farther forward, and out of the door of the castle—the castle into which little Jeanne had so longed to enter—who, what, who do you think came forth? It was Dudu!
A small black figure, black from head to foot, head very much cocked on one side, foot—claw I should say—stuck out like a walking-stick; he stood between the peacocks, right in Hugh's view, just in front of the door which had closed behind him, at the top of the high flight of steps. He stood still with an air of great dignity, which seemed to say, "Here you see me for the first time in my rightful character—monarch of all I survey." And somehow Hugh felt that this unspoken address was directed to him. Then, quietly and dignifiedly still, the raven turned, first to the right, then to the left, and gravely bowed to the two attendant peacocks, who each in turn saluted him respectfully and withdrew a little farther back, on which Dudu began a very slow and imposing progress down the steps. How he succeeded in making it so imposing was the puzzle, for after all, his descent was undoubtedly a series of hops, but all the same it was very majestic, and Hugh felt greatly impressed, and watched him with bated breath.
"One, two, three, four," said Hugh to himself, half unconsciously counting each step as the raven advanced, "what a lot of steps! Five, six, seven," up to twenty-three Hugh counted on. And "what is he going to do now?" he added, as Dudu, arrived at the foot of the stairs, looked calmly about him for a minute or two, as if considering his next movements. Then—how he managed it Hugh could not tell—he suddenly stepped out of the tapestry landscape, and in another moment was perched in his old place at the foot of Hugh's bed.
He looked at Hugh for an instant or two, gravely and scrutinisingly, then bowed politely. Hugh, who was half sitting up in bed, bowed too, but without speaking. He remembered Jeanne's charges to be very polite to the raven, and thought it better to take no liberties with him, but to wait patiently till he heard what Monsieur Dudu had to say. For somehow it seemed to him a matter of course that the raven could speak—he was not the very least surprised when at last Dudu cleared his throat pompously and began—
"You have been expecting me, have you not?"
"I don't know exactly. I'm not quite sure. Yes, I think I thought perhaps you'd come. But oh! if you please, Monsieur Dudu," he exclaimed, suddenly starting up, "do let me go and call Jeanne. I promised her I would if you came, or if I saw anything funny. Do let me go. I won't be a minute."
But the raven cocked his head on one side and looked at Hugh rather sternly.
"No," he said. "You cannot go for Jeanne. I do not wish it at present."
Hugh felt rather angry. Why should Dudu lay down the law to him in this way?
"But I promised," he began.
"People should not promise what they are not sure of being able to perform," he said sententiously. "Besides, even if you did go to get Jeanne, she couldn't come. She is ever so far away."
"Away!" repeated Hugh in amazement, "away! Little Jeanne gone away. Oh no, you must be joking Du—, I beg your pardon, Monsieur Dudu."
"Not at all," said Dudu. "She is away, and farther away than you or she has any notion of, even though if you went into her room you would see her little rosy face lying on the pillow. She is away."
Hugh still looked puzzled, though rather less so.
"You mean that her thinking is away, I suppose," he said. "But I could wake her."
Again the raven cocked his head on one side.
"No," he said. "You must be content to do my way at present. Now, tell me what it is you want. Why did you wish me to come to see you?"
"I wanted—at least I thought, and Jeanne said so," began Hugh. "We thought perhaps you were a fairy, Monsieur Dudu, and that you could take us into the castle in the tapestry. It looked so bright and real a few minutes ago," he added, turning to the wall, which was now only faintly illumined by the moonlight, and looked no different from what Hugh had often seen it in the daytime. "What has become of the beautiful light, Monsieur Dudu? And the peacocks? They have shut up their tails again——"
"Never mind," said the raven. "So you want to see the castle, do you?" he added.
"Yes," said Hugh; "but not so much as Jeanne. It was she wanted it most. She wants dreadfully to see it. I thought," he added, rather timidly, "I thought we might play at giving a party in the castle, and inviting Houpet, you know, and Nibble."
"Only," observed the raven, drily, "there is one little objection to that. Generally—I may be mistaken, of course, my notions are very old-fashioned, I daresay—but, generally, people give parties in their own houses, don't they?"
And as he spoke he looked straight at Hugh, cocking his head on one side more than ever.
THE FOREST OF THE RAINBOWS.
"Rose and amethyst, gold and grey." "ONCE."
Hugh felt rather offended. It was natural that he should do so, I think. At least I am sure that in his place I too should have felt hurt. He had said nothing to make the raven speak in that disagreeably sarcastic way.
"I wish Jeanne were here," he said to himself; "she would think of something to put him down a little."
But aloud he said nothing, so, great was his surprise, when the raven coolly remarked in answer to his unspoken thoughts,
"So Jeanne could put me down, you think? I confess, I don't agree with you. However, never mind about that. We shall be very good friends in time. And now, how about visiting the castle?"
"I should like to go," replied Hugh, thinking it wiser, all things considered, to get over his offended feelings. "I should like to see the castle very much, though I should have liked Jeanne to be with me; but still," he went on, reflecting that Jeanne would be extremely disappointed if he did not make the most of his present opportunity, such as it was, "if you will be so kind as to show me the way, Monsieur Dudu, I'd like to go, and then, any way, I can tell Jeanne all about it."
"I cannot exactly show you the way," said the raven, "I am only the guardian on this side. But if you will attend to what I say, you will get on very well. Here, in the first place, is a pair of wall-climbers to put on your feet."
He held out his claw, on the end of which hung, by a narrow ribbon, two round little cushions about the size of a macaroon biscuit. Hugh took them, and examined them curiously. They were soft and elastic, what Hugh in his own words would have described as "blobby." They seemed to be made of some stuff like indiarubber, and were just the colour of his skin.
"What funny things!" said Hugh.
"They are made after the pattern of the fly's wall-climbers," remarked the raven. "Put them on—tie them on, that is to say, so that they will be just in the middle of your foot, underneath of course. That's right; now jump out of bed and follow me," and before Hugh knew what he was doing he found himself walking with the greatest ease straight up the wall to where the long flight of steps to the tapestry castle began. On the lowest steps the raven stopped a moment.
"Shall I take them off now?" asked Hugh. "I don't need them to walk up steps with."
"Take them off?" said the raven; "oh dear no. When you don't need them they won't incommode you, and they'll be all ready for the next time. Besides, though it mayn't seem so to you, these steps are not so easy to get up as you think. At least they wouldn't be without the wall-climbers."
With them, however, nothing could have been easier. Hugh found himself in no time at the top of the flight of steps in front of the door from which the raven had come out. The peacocks, now he was close to them, seemed to him larger than ordinary peacocks, but the brilliant colours of their feathers, which he had noticed in the bright moonlight, had disappeared. It was light enough for him to distinguish their figures, but that was all.
"I must leave you now," said the raven; "but you will get on very well. Only remember these two things—don't be impatient, and don't take off your wall-climbers; and if you are very much at a loss about anything, call me."
"How shall I call you?" asked Hugh.
"Whistle softly three times. Now, I think it is time to light up. Peacocks."
The peacocks, one on each side of the door, came forward solemnly, saluting the raven with the greatest respect.
"Ring," said the raven, and to Hugh's surprise each peacock lifted up a claw, and taking hold of a bell-rope, of which there were two, one on each side of the door, pulled them vigorously. No sound ensued, but at the instant there burst forth the same soft yet brilliant light which had so delighted Hugh when he first awoke, and which he now discovered to come not from the moon, still shining in gently at the window of the tapestry room down below, but from those of the castle at whose door he was standing. He had never before noticed how many windows it had. Jeanne and he had only remarked the door at the top of the steps, but now the light which flowed out from above him was so clear and brilliant that it seemed as if the whole castle must be transparent. Hugh stood in eager expectation of what was to happen next, and was on the point of speaking to the raven, standing, as he thought, beside him, when a sudden sound made him turn round. It was that of the castle door opening, and at the same moment the two peacocks, coming forward, pushed him gently, one at each side, so that Hugh found himself obliged to enter. He was by no means unwilling to do so, but he gave one last look round for his conductor. He was gone.
For about half a second Hugh felt a little frightened and bewildered.
"I wish Dudu had come with me," he said. But almost before he had time to think the wish, what he saw before him so absorbed his attention that he forgot everything else.
It was a long, long passage, high in the roof, though narrow of course in comparison with its length, but wide enough for Hugh—for Hugh and Jeanne hand-in-hand even—to walk along with perfect comfort and great satisfaction, for oh, it was so prettily lighted up! You have, I daresay, children, often admired in London or Paris, or some great town, the rows of gas lamps lighting up at night miles of some very long street. Fancy those lights infinitely brighter and clearer, and yet softer than any lamps you ever saw, and each one of a different colour, from the richest crimson to the softest pale blue, and you will have some idea how pretty the long corridor before him looked to Hugh. He stepped along delightedly, as well he might. "Why, this of itself is worth staying awake ever so many nights to see," he said to himself; "only I do wish Jeanne were with me."
Where did the corridor lead to? He ran on and on for some time without thinking much about this, so interested was he in observing the lamps and the pretty way in which the tints were arranged; but after a while he began to find it a little monotonous, especially when he noticed that at long intervals the colours repeated themselves, the succession of shades beginning again from time to time.
"I shall learn them by heart if I go on here much longer," thought Hugh. "I think I'll sit down a little to rest. Not that I feel tired of walking, but I may as well sit down a little."
He did so—on the ground, there was nothing else to sit on—and then a very queer thing happened. The lamps took to moving instead of him, so that when he looked up at them the impression was just the same as when he himself had been running along. The colours succeeded each other in the same order, and Hugh began to wonder whether his eyes were not deceiving him in some queer way.
"Anyhow, I'll run on a little farther," he said to himself, "and if I don't come to the end of this passage soon, I'll run back again to the other end. It feels just as if I had got inside a kaleidoscope."
He hastened on, and was beginning really to think of turning back again and running the other way, when, all of a sudden—everything in this queer tapestry world he had got into seemed to happen all of a sudden—a little bell was heard to ring, clear and silvery, but not very loud, and in another instant—oh dear!—all the pretty coloured lamps were extinguished, and poor Hugh was left standing all in the dark. Where he was he did not know, what to do he did not know; had he not been eight years old on his last birthday I almost think he would have begun to cry. He felt, too, all of a sudden so cold, even though before he had got out of bed he had taken the precaution to put on his red flannel dressing-gown, and till now had felt quite pleasantly warm. It was only for half a moment, however, that the idea of crying came over him.
"I'm very glad poor little Jeanne isn't here," he said to himself by way of keeping up his own courage; "she would have been afraid. But as I'm a boy it doesn't matter. I'll just try to find my way all the same. I suppose it's some trick of that Dudu's."
He felt his way along bravely for a few minutes, and more bravely still was forcing back his tears, when a sound caught his ears. It was a cock's crow, sharp and shrill, but yet sounding as if outside the place where he was. Still it greatly encouraged Hugh, who continued to make his way on in the dark, much pleased to find that the farther he got the nearer and clearer sounded the crow, repeated every few seconds. And at last he found himself at the end of the passage—he knew it must be so, for in front of him the way was barred, and quite close to him now apparently, sounded the cock's shrill call. He pushed and pulled—for some time in vain. If there were a door at this end of the passage, as surely there must be—who would make a passage and hang it so beautifully with lamps if it were to lead to nowhere?—it was a door of which the handle was very difficult to find.
"Oh dear!" exclaimed Hugh, half in despair, "what shall I do?"
"Kurroo—kurroorulloo," sounded the cock's crow. "Try again," it seemed to say, encouragingly. And at last Hugh's hand came in contact with a little round knob, and as he touched it, all at once everything about him was lighted up again with the same clear, lovely light coming from the thousands of lamps down the long corridor behind him. But Hugh never turned to look at them—what he saw in front of him was so delightful and surprising.
The door had opened, Hugh found himself standing at the top of two or three steps, which apparently were the back approach to the strange long passage which he had entered from the tapestry room. Outside it was light too, but not with the wonderful bright radiance that had streamed out from the castle at the other side. Here it was just very soft, very clear moonlight. There were trees before him—almost it seemed as if he were standing at the entrance of a forest. But, strange to say, they were not winter trees, such as he had left behind him in the garden of Jeanne's house—bare and leafless, or if covered at all, covered only with their Christmas dress of snow and icicles—these trees were clothed with the loveliest foliage, fresh and green and feathery, which no winter's storms or nipping frosts had ever come near to blight. And in the little space between the door where Hugh stood and these wonderful trees was drawn up, as if awaiting him, the prettiest, queerest, most delicious little carriage that ever was seen. It was open; the cushions with which it was lined were of rose-coloured plush—not velvet, I think; at least if they were velvet, it was of some marvellous kind that couldn't he rubbed the wrong way, that felt exquisitely smooth and soft whichever way you stroked it; the body of the carriage was shaped something like a cockle-shell; you could lie back in it so beautifully without cricking or straining your neck or shoulders in the least; and there was just room for two. One of these two was already comfortably settled—shall I tell you who it was now, or shall I keep it for a tit-bit at the end when I have quite finished about the carriage? Yes, that will be better. For the funniest things about the carriage have to be told yet. Up on the box, in the coachman's place, you understand, holding with an air of the utmost importance in one claw a pair of yellow silk reins, his tufted head surmounted by a gold-laced livery hat, which, however, must have had a hole in the middle to let the tuft through, for there it was in all its glory waving over the hat like a dragoon's plume, sat, or stood rather, Houpet; while, standing behind, holding on each with one claw to the back of the carriage, like real footmen, were the two other chickens. They, too, had gold-laced hats and an air of solemn propriety, not quite so majestic as Houpet's, for in their case the imposing tuft was wanting, but still very fine of its kind. And who do you think were the horses? for there were two—or, to speak more correctly, there were no horses at all, but in the place where they should have been were harnessed, tandem-fashion, not abreast, Nibble the guinea-pig and Grignan the tortoise! Nibble next to the carriage, Grignan, of all creatures in the world, as leader.
On sight of them Hugh began to laugh, so that he forgot to look more closely at the person in the carriage, whose face he had not yet seen, as it was turned the other way. But the sound of his laughing was too infectious to be resisted—the small figure began to shake all over, and at last could contain itself no longer. With a shout of merriment little Jeanne, for it was she, sprang out of the carriage and threw her arms round Hugh's neck.
"O Cheri," she said, "I couldn't keep quiet any longer, though I wanted to hide my face till you had got into the carriage, and then surprise you. But it was so nice to hear you laugh—I couldn't keep still."
Hugh felt too utterly astonished to reply. He just stared at Jeanne as if he could not believe his own eyes. And Jeanne did not look surprised at all! That, to Hugh, was the most surprising part of the whole.
"Jeanne!" he exclaimed, "you here! Why, Dudu told me you were ever so far away."
"And so I am," replied Jeanne, laughing again, "and so are you, Cheri. You have no idea how far away you are—miles, and miles, and miles, only in this country they don't have milestones. It's all quite different."
"How do you mean?" asked Hugh. "How do you know all about it? You have never been here before, have you? I couldn't quite understand Dudu—he meant, I think, that it was only your thinking part or your fancying part, that was away."
Jeanne laughed again, Hugh felt a little impatient.
"Jeanne," he said, "do leave off laughing and speak to me. What is this place? and how did you come here? and have you ever been here before?"
"Yes," said Jeanne, "I think so; but I don't know how I came. And I don't want to do anything but laugh and have fun. Never mind how we came. It's a beautiful country, any way, and did you ever see anything so sweet as the little carriage they've sent for us, and wasn't it nice to see Houpet and all the others?"
"Yes," said Hugh, "very. But whom do you mean by 'they,' Jeanne?"
"Oh dear, dear!" exclaimed Jeanne, "what a terrible boy you are. Do leave off asking questions, and let us have fun. Look, there are Grignan and the little cochon quite eager to be off. Now, do jump in—we shall have such fun."
Hugh got in, willingly enough, though still he would have preferred to have some explanation from Jeanne of all the strange things that were happening.
"Isn't it nice?" said Jeanne, when they had both nestled down among the delicious soft cushions of the carriage.
"Yes," said Hugh, "it's very nice now, but it wasn't very nice when I was all alone in the dark in that long passage. As you seem to know all about everything, Jeanne, I suppose you know about that."
He spoke rather, just a very little, grumpily, but Jeanne, rather to his surprise, did not laugh at him this time. Instead, she looked up in his face earnestly, with a strange deep look in her eyes.
"I think very often we have to find our way in the dark," she said dreamily. "I think I remember about that. But," she went on, with a complete change of voice, her eyes dancing merrily as if they had never looked grave in their life, "it's not dark now, Cheri, and it's going to be ever so bright. Just look at the lovely moon through the trees. Do let us go now. Gee-up, gee-up, crack your whip, Houpet, and make them gallop as fast as you can."
Off they set—they went nice and fast certainly, but not so fast but that the children could admire the beautiful feathery foliage as they passed. They drove through the forest—for the trees that Hugh had so admired were those of a forest—on and on, swiftly but yet smoothly; never in his life had Hugh felt any motion so delightful.
"What a good coachman Houpet is!" exclaimed Hugh. "I never should have thought he could drive so well. How does he know the road, Jeanne?"
"There isn't any road, so he doesn't need to know it," said Jeanne. "Look before you, Cheri. You see there is no road. It makes itself as we go, so we can't go wrong."
Hugh looked straight before him. It was as Jeanne had said. The trees grew thick and close in front, only dividing—melting away like a mist—as the quaint little carriage approached them.
Hugh looked at them with fresh surprise.
"Are they not real trees?" he said.
"Of course they are," said Jeanne. "Now they're beginning to change; that shows we are getting to the middle of the forest. Look, look, Cheri!"
Hugh "looked" with all his eyes. What Jeanne called "changing" was a very wonderful process. The trees, which hitherto had been of a very bright, delicate green, began gradually to pale in colour, becoming first greenish-yellow, then canary colour, then down to the purest white. And from white they grew into silver, sparkling like innumerable diamonds, and then slowly altered into a sort of silver-grey, gradually rising into grey-blue, then into a more purple-blue, till they reached the richest corn-flower shade. Then began another series of lessening shades, which again, passing through a boundary line of gold, rose by indescribable degrees to deep yet brilliant crimson. It would be impossible to name all the variations through which they passed. I use the names of the colours and shades which are familiar to you, children, but the very naming any shade gives an unfair idea of the marvellous delicacy with which one tint melted into another,—as well try to divide and mark off the hues of a dove's breast, or of the sky at sunset. And all the time the trees themselves were of the same form and foliage as at first, the leaves—or fronds I feel inclined to call them, for they were more like very, very delicate ferns or ferny grass than leaves—with which each branch was luxuriantly clothed, seeming to bathe themselves in each new colour as the petals of a flower welcome a flood of brilliant sunshine.
"Oh, how pretty!" said Hugh, with a deep sigh of pleasure. "It is like the lamps, only much prettier. I think, Jeanne, this must be the country of pretty colours."
"This forest is called the Forest of the Rainbows. I know that," said Jeanne. "But I don't think they call this the country of pretty colours, Cheri. You see it is the country of so many pretty things. If we lived in it always, we should never see the end of the beautiful things there are. Only——"
"Only what?" asked Hugh.
"I don't think it would be a good plan to live in it always. Just sometimes is best, I think. Either the things wouldn't be so pretty, or our eyes wouldn't see them so well after a while. But see, Cheri, the trees are growing common-coloured again, and Houpet is stopping. We must have got to the end of the Forest of the Rainbows."
"And where shall we be going to now?" asked Hugh. "Must we get out, do you think, Jeanne? Oh, listen, I hear the sound of water! Do you hear it, Jeanne? There must be a river near here. I wish the moonlight was a little brighter. Now that the trees don't shine, it seems quite dull. But oh, how plainly I hear the water. Listen, Jeanne, don't you hear it too?"
"Yes," said Jeanne. "It must be——" but before she had time to say more they suddenly came out of the enchanted forest; in an instant every trace of the feathery trees had disappeared. Houpet pulled up his steeds, the two chickens got down from behind, and stood one on each side of the carriage door, waiting apparently for their master and mistress to descend. And plainer and nearer than before came the sound of fast-rushing water.
"You see we are to get down," said Hugh.
"Yes," said Jeanne again, looking round her a little timidly. "Cheri, do you know, I feel just a very, very little bit frightened. It is such a queer place, and I don't know what we should do. Don't you think we'd better ask Houpet to take us back again?"
"Oh no," said Hugh. "I'm sure we'll be all right. You said you wanted to have some fun, Jeanne, and you seemed to know all about it. You needn't be frightened with me, Jeanne."
"No, of course not," said Jeanne, quite brightly again; "but let us stand up a minute, Hugh, before we get out of the carriage, and look all about us. Isn't it a queer place?"
"It" was a wide, far-stretching plain, over which the moonlight shone softly. Far or near not a shrub or tree was to be seen, yet it was not like a desert, for the ground was entirely covered with most beautiful moss, so fresh and green, even by the moonlight, that it was difficult to believe the hot sunshine had ever glared upon it. And here and there, all over this great plain—all over it, at least, as far as the children could see—rose suddenly from the ground innumerable jets of water, not so much like fountains as like little waterfalls turned the wrong way; they rushed upwards with such surprising force and noise, and fell to the earth again in numberless tiny threads much more gently and softly than they left it.
"It seems as if somebody must be shooting them up with a gun, doesn't it?" said Hugh. "I never saw such queer fountains."
"Let's go and look at them close," said Jeanne, preparing to get down. But before she could do so, Houpet gave a shrill, rather peremptory crow, and Jeanne stopped short in surprise.
"What do you want, Houpet?" she said.
By way of reply, Houpet hopped down from his box, and in some wonderfully clever way of his own, before the children could see what he was about, had unharnessed Nibble and Grignan. Then the three arranged themselves in a little procession, and drew up a few steps from the side of the carriage where still stood the chicken-footmen. Though they could not speak, there was no mistaking their meaning.
"They're going to show us the way," said Hugh; and as he spoke he jumped out of the carriage, and Jeanne after him.
"They have a pretty island, Whereon at night they rest; They have a sparkling lakelet, And float upon its breast." THE TWO SWANS.
Onwards quietly stepped the little procession, Houpet first, his tuft waving as usual, with a comfortable air of importance and satisfaction; then Nibble and Grignan abreast—hand-in-hand, I was going to have said; next Hugh and Jeanne; with the two attendant chickens behind bringing up the rear.
"I wonder where they are going to take us to," said Hugh in a low voice. Somehow the soft light; the strange loneliness of the great plain, where, now that they were accustomed to it, the rushing of the numberless water-springs seemed to be but one single, steady sound; the solemn behaviour of their curious guides, altogether, had subdued the children's spirits. Jeanne said no more about "having fun," yet she did not seem the least frightened or depressed; she was only quiet and serious.
"Where do you think they are going to take us to?" repeated Hugh.
"I don't know—at least I'm not sure," said Jeanne; "but, Cheri, isn't it a good thing that Houpet and the others are with us to show us the way, for though the ground looks so pretty it is quite boggy here and there. I notice that Houpet never goes quite close to the fountains, and just when I went the least bit near one a minute ago my feet began to slip down."
"I haven't felt it like that at all," said Hugh. "Perhaps it's because of my wall-climbers. Dudu gave me a pair of wall-climbers like the flies', you know, Jeanne."
"Did he?" said Jeanne, not at all surprised, and as if wall-climbers were no more uncommon than goloshes. "He didn't give me any, but then I came a different way from you. I think every one comes a different way to this country, do you know, Cheri?"
"And very likely Dudu thought I could carry you if there was anywhere you couldn't climb," said Hugh, importantly. "I'm sure I——" he stopped abruptly, for a sudden crow from Houpet had brought all the party to a standstill. At first the children could not make out why their guide had stopped here—there was nothing to be seen. But pressing forward a few steps to where Houpet stood, Hugh saw, imbedded in the moss at his feet, a stone with a ring in it, just like those which one reads of in the Arabian Nights. Houpet stood at the edge of the stone eyeing it gravely, and somehow he managed to make Hugh understand that he was to lift it. Nothing loth, but rather doubtful as to whether he would be strong enough, the boy leant forward to reach the ring, first whispering, however, to Jeanne,
"It's getting like a quite real fairy tale, isn't it, Jeanne?"
Jeanne nodded, but looked rather anxious.
"I'm afraid you can't lift it, Cheri," she said. "I think I'd better stand behind and pull you—the ring isn't big enough for us both to put our hands in it."
Hugh made no objection to her proposal, so Jeanne put her arms round his waist, and when he gave a great pug to the ring she gave a great pug to him. The first time it was no use, the stone did not move in the least.
"Try again," said Hugh, and try again they did. But no—the second try succeeded no better than the first—and the children looked at each other in perplexity. Suddenly there was a movement among the animals, who had all been standing round watching the children's attempts; Jeanne felt a sort of little pecking tug at her skirts—how it came about I cannot say, but I think I forgot to tell you that, unlike Hugh in his red flannel dressing gown, she was arrayed for their adventures in her best Sunday pelisse, trimmed with fur—and, looking round, lo and behold! there was Houpet holding on to her with his beak, then came Nibble, his two front paws embracing Houpet's feathered body, Grignan behind him again, clutching with his mouth at Nibble's fur, and the two chickens at the end holding on to Grignan and each other in some indescribable and marvellous way. It was, for all the world, as if they were preparing for the finish-up part of the game of "oranges and lemons," or for that of "fox and geese!"
The sight was so comical that it was all the children could do to keep their gravity, they succeeded in doing so, however, fearing that it might hurt the animals' feelings to seem to make fun of their well-meant efforts.
"Not that they can be any use," whispered Hugh, "but it's very good-natured of them all the same."
"I am not so sure that they can't be of any use," returned Jeanne. "Think of how well Houpet drove."
"Here goes, then," said Hugh. "One, two, three;" and with "three" he gave a tremendous tug—a much more tremendous tug than was required, for, to his surprise, the stone yielded at once without the slightest resistance, and back they all fell, one on the top of the other, Hugh, Jeanne, Houpet, Nibble, Grignan, and the two chickens! But none of them were any the worse, and with the greatest eagerness to see what was to be seen where the stone had been, up jumped Hugh and Jeanne and ran forward to the spot.
"There should be," said Jeanne, half out of breath—"there should be a little staircase for us to go down, if it is like the stories in the Arabian Nights."
And, wonderful to relate, so there was! The children could hardly believe their eyes, when below them they saw the most tempting little spiral staircase of white stone or marble steps, with a neat little brass balustrade at one side. It looked quite light all the way down, though of course they could distinguish nothing at the bottom, as the corkscrew twists of the staircase entirely filled up the space.
Houpet hopped forward and stood at the top of the steps crowing softly.
"He means that we're to go down," said Hugh. "Shall we?"
"Of course," said Jeanne. "I'm not a bit afraid. We won't have any fun if we don't go on."
"Well then," said Hugh, "I'll go first as I'm a boy, just in case, you know, Jeanne, of our meeting anything disagreeable."
So down he went, Jeanne following close after.
"I suppose Houpet and the others will come after us," said Jeanne, rather anxiously. But just as she uttered the words a rather shrill crow made both Hugh and her stop short and look up to the top. They saw Houpet and the others standing round the edge of the hole. Houpet gave another crow, in which the two chickens joined him, and then suddenly the stone was shut down—the two children found themselves alone in this strange place, leading to they knew not where! Jeanne gave a little cry—Hugh, too, for a moment was rather startled, but he soon recovered himself.
"Jeanne," he said, "it must be all right. I don't think we need be frightened. See, it is quite light! The light comes up from below—down there it must be quite bright and cheerful. Give me your hand—if we go down sideways—so—we can hold each other's hands all the way."
So, in a rather queer fashion, they clambered down the long staircase. By the time they got to its end they were really quite tired of turning round and round so many times. But now the view before them was so pleasant that they forgot all their troubles.
They had found a little door at the foot of the stair, which opened easily. They passed through it, and there lay before them a beautiful expanse of water surrounded by hills; the door which had closed behind them seemed on this side to have been cut out of the turf of the hill, and was all but invisible. It was light, as Hugh had said, but not with the light of either sun or moon; a soft radiance was over everything, but whence it came they could not tell. The hills on each side of the water, which was more like a calmly flowing river than a lake, prevented their seeing very far, but close to the shore by which they stood a little boat was moored—a little boat with seats for two, and one light pair of oars.
"Oh, how lovely!" said Jeanne. "It is even nicer than the carriage. Get in, Hugh, and let us row down the river. The boat must be on purpose for us."
They were soon settled in it, and Hugh, though he had only rowed once or twice before in his life, found it very easy and pleasant, and they went over the water swiftly and smoothly. After a while the hills approached more nearly, gradually the broad river dwindled to a mere stream, so narrow and small at last, that even their tiny boat could go no farther. Hugh was forced to leave off rowing.
"I suppose we are meant to go on shore here," he said. "The boat won't go any farther, any way."
Jeanne was peering forward: just before them the brook, or what still remained of it, almost disappeared in a narrow little gorge between the hills.
"Cheri," said she, "I shouldn't wonder if the stream gets wider again on the other side of this little narrow place. Don't you think we'd better try to pull the boat through, and then we might get into it again?"
"Perhaps," said Hugh. "We may try." So out the children got—Jeanne pulled in front, Hugh pushed behind. It was so very light that there was no difficulty as to its weight; only the gorge was so narrow that at last the boat stuck fast.
"We'd better leave it and clamber through ourselves," said Hugh.
"But, O Cheri, we can't!" cried Jeanne. "From where I am I can see that the water gets wider again a little farther on. And the rocks come quite sharp down to the side. There is nowhere we could clamber on to, and I dare say the water is very deep. There are lots of little streams trickling into it from the rocks, and the boat could go quite well if we could but get it a little farther."
"But we can't," said Hugh; "it just won't go."
"Oh dear," said Jeanne, "we'll have to go back. But how should we find the door in the hillside to go up the stair; or if we did get up, how should we push away the stone? And even then, there would be the forest to go through, and perhaps we couldn't find our way among the trees as Houpet did. O Cheri, what shall we do?"
Hugh stood still and considered.
"I think," he said at last, "I think the time's come for whistling."
And before Jeanne could ask him what he meant, he gave three clear, short whistles, and then waited to see the effect.
It was a most unexpected one. Hugh had anticipated nothing else than the sudden appearance, somehow and somewhere, of Monsieur Dudu himself, as large as life—possibly, in this queer country of surprises, where they found themselves, a little larger! When and how he would appear Hugh was perfectly at a loss to imagine—he might fly down from the sky; he might spring up from the water; he might just suddenly stand before them without their having any idea how he had come. Hugh laughed to himself at the thought of Jeanne's astonishment, and after all it was Jeanne who first drew his attention to what was really happening.
"Hark, Cheri, hark!" she cried, "what a queer noise! What can it be?"
Hugh's attention had been so taken up in staring about in every direction for the raven that he had not noticed the sound which Jeanne had heard, and which now increased every moment.
It was a soft, swishy sound—as if innumerable little boats were making their way through water, or as if innumerable little fairies were bathing themselves, only every instant it came nearer and nearer, till at last, on every side of the boat in which the children were still standing, came creeping up from below lots and lots and lots of small, bright green frogs, who clambered over the sides and arranged themselves in lines along the edges in the most methodical and orderly manner. Jeanne gave a scream of horror, and darted across the boat to where Hugh was standing.
"O Cheri," she cried, "why did you whistle? It's all that naughty Dudu. He's going to turn us into frogs too, I do believe, because he thinks I laughed at him. Oh dear, oh dear, what shall we do?"
Cheri himself, though not quite so frightened as Jeanne, was not much pleased with the result of his summons to the raven.
"It does look like a shabby trick," he said; "but still I do not think the creatures mean to do us any harm. And I don't feel myself being turned into a frog yet; do you, Jeanne?"
"I don't know," said Jeanne, a very little comforted; "I don't know what it would feel like to be turned into a frog; I've always been a little girl, and so I can't tell. I feel rather creepy and chilly, but perhaps it's only with seeing the frogs. What funny red eyes they've got. What can they be going to do?"
She forgot her fears in the interest of watching them; Hugh, too, stared with all his eyes at the frogs, who, arranged in regular lines round the edge of the boat, began working away industriously at something which, for a minute or two, the children could not make out. At last Jeanne called out eagerly,
"They are throwing over little lines, Cheri—lots and lots of little lines. There must be frogs down below waiting to catch them."
So it was; each frog threw over several threads which he seemed to unwind from his body; these threads were caught by something invisible down below, and twisted round and round several times, till at last they became as firm and strong as a fine twine. And when, apparently, the frogs considered that they had made cables enough, they settled themselves down, each firmly on his two hind legs, still holding by the rope with their front ones, and then—in another moment—to the children's great delight, they felt the boat beginning to move. It moved on smoothly—almost as smoothly as when on the water—there were no jogs or tugs, as might have been the case if it had been pulled by two or three coarse, strong ropes, for all the hundreds of tiny cables pulling together made one even force.