Read an Excerpt
A terrible sound . . .
In mid-gallop Maria was halted by a strange and terrible sound, a thin high screaming that came threading through the happy sounds of the wind and the crying gulls and Periwinkle’s galloping feet, and pushing into her heart like a sharp needle.
She pulled in her pony and sat listening, her heart beating fast with sudden fear. Away to her right, beyond a sombre belt of pine-trees, was a deep hollow filled with gorse and blackberry bushes, and from it came the frightening sound. Somewhere down there some child or animal was being hurt. She hesitated for only a moment, and then, gulping down the fear that had come up like a hard lump in her throat, she turned Periwinkle and rode hard for the hollow beyond the pines. . . .
“For imaginative readers . . . this tale will have a strong appeal. There are richness of detail and a lovely use of color and light—sunshine, moonlight, and shadows, symbolically contrasted—to catch the fancy, and a spiritual quality in this parable of greed and pride vanquished by innocence and goodwill.”
—The New York Times
“Fantasy and reality meet on equal terms in an exciting mystery story in which all of the characters, both humans and animals, come alive, and stay alive from start to finish.”
—The Horn Book
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The Lost Flower Children Janet Taylor Lisle
The Secret Garden Frances Hodgson Burnett
Time Cat Lloyd Alexander
Little White Horse
With my thanks
THE LITTLE WHITE HORSE
IT was under the white moon that I saw him,
The little white horse, with neck arched high in pride.
Lovely his pride, delicate, no taint of self
Staining the unconscious innocence denied
Knowledge of good and evil, burden of days
Of shame crouched beneath the flail of memory.
No past for you, little white horse, no regret,
No future of fear in this silver forest —
Only the perfect now in the white moon-dappled ride.
A flower-like body fashioned all of light,
For the speed of light, yet momently at rest,
Balanced on the sheer knife-edge of perfection;
Perfection of grass silver upon the crest
Of the hill, before the scythe falls, snow in sun,
Of the shaken human spirit when God speaks
In His still small voice and for a breath of time
All is hushed; gone in a sigh, that perfection,
Leaving the sharp knife-edge turning slowly in the breast.
The raised hoof, the proud poised head, the flowing mane,
The supreme moment of stillness before the flight,
The moment of farewell, of wordless pleading
For remembrance of things lost to earthly sight —
Then the half-turn under the trees, a motion
Fluid as the movement of light on water . . .
Stay, oh stay in the forest, little white horse! . . .
He is lost and gone and now I do not know
If it was a little white horse that I saw,
Or only a moonbeam astray in the silver night.
Table of Contents
THE carriage gave another lurch, and Maria Merryweather, Miss Heliotrope, and Wiggins once more fell into each other’s arms, sighed, gasped, righted themselves, and fixed their attention upon those objects which were for each of them at this trying moment the source of courage and strength.
Maria gazed at her boots. Miss Heliotrope restored her spectacles to their proper position, picked up the worn brown volume of French essays from the floor, popped a peppermint into her mouth, and peered once more in the dim light at the wiggly black print on the yellowed page. Wiggins meanwhile pursued with his tongue the taste of the long-since-digested dinner that still lingered among his whiskers.
Humanity can be roughly divided into three sorts of people — those who find comfort in literature, those who find comfort in personal adornment, and those who find comfort in food; and Miss Heliotrope, Maria, and Wiggins were typical representatives of their own sort of people.
Maria must be described first, because she is the heroine of this story. In this year of grace 1842 she was thirteen years old and was considered plain, with her queer silvery-grey eyes that were so disconcertingly penetrating, her straight reddish hair and thin pale face with its distressing freckles. Yet her little figure, small as that of a fairy’s child, with a backbone as straight as a poker, was very dignified, and she had exquisitely tiny feet, of which she was inordinately proud. They were her chief beauty, she knew, which was why she took, if possible, a more burning interest in her boots than in her mittens and gowns and bonnets.
And the boots she had on today were calculated to raise the lowest spirits, for they were made of the softest grey leather, sewn with crystal beads round the tops, and were lined with snow-white lamb’s-wool. The crystal beads, as it happened, could not be seen, because Maria’s grey silk dress and warm grey wool pelisse, also trimmed with white lamb’s-wool, reached to her ankles, but she herself knew they were there, and the thought of them gave her a moral strength that can scarcely be overestimated.
She rested herself against the thought of those beads, just as in a lesser degree she rested herself against the thought of the piece of purple ribbon that was wound about her slender waist beneath the pelisse, the little bunch of violets that was tucked so far away inside the recesses of her grey velvet bonnet that it was scarcely visible, and the grey silk mittens adorning the small hands that were hidden inside the big white muff. For Maria was one of your true aristocrats; the perfection of the hidden things was even more important to her than the outward show. Not that she did not like the outward show. She did. She was a showy little thing, even when dressed in the greys and purples of the bereaved.
For Maria was an orphan. Her mother had died in her babyhood and her father just two months ago, leaving so many debts that everything he possessed, including the beautiful London house with the fanlight over the door and the tall windows looking out over the garden of the quiet London Square, where Maria had lived throughout the whole of her short life, had had to be sold to pay them. When the lawyers had at last settled everything to their satisfaction, it was found that there was only just enough money left to convey her and Miss Heliotrope and Wiggins by coach to the West Country, a part of the world that they had never seen, where they were to live with Maria’s second cousin, her nearest living relative, Sir Benjamin Merryweather, whom they had never seen either, in his manor-house of Moonacre in the village of Silverydew.
But it was not her orphaned state that had depressed Maria and made her turn to the contemplation of her boots for comfort. Her mother she did not remember, her father, a soldier, who had nearly always been abroad with his regiment, and who did not care for children anyhow, had never had much hold upon her affections; not the hold that Miss Heliotrope had, who had come to her when she was only a few months old, had been first her nurse and then her governess, and had lavished upon her all the love that she had ever known. No, what was depressing Maria was the wretchedness of this journey and the discomfort of country life that it surely foreboded.
Maria knew nothing about the country. She was a London lady born and bred, and she loved luxury, and in that beautiful house looking out on the London Square she had had it; even though it had turned out at her father’s death that he really oughtn’t to have had it, because there had not been the money to pay for it.
And now? Judging by this carriage, there would not be many comforts at Moonacre Manor. It was an awful conveyance. It had met them at Exeter, and was even more uncomfortable than the stage-coach that had brought them from London. The cushions on the seat were hard and moth-eaten, and the floor had chickens’ feathers and bits of straw blowing about in the icy draughts that swept in through the ill-fitting doors. The two piebald horses, though they had shining coats and were obviously well loved and well cared-for, a fact which Maria noticed at once because she adored horses, were old and stout and moved slowly.
And the coachman was a wizened little old man who looked more like a gnome than a human creature, clothed in a many-caped greatcoat so patched that it was impossible even to guess at its original colour, and a huge curly-brimmed hat of worn beaver that was so much too large for him that it came right down over his face and rested upon the bridge of his nose, so that one could scarcely see anything of his face except his wide toothless smile and the grey stubble upon his ill-shaven chin. Yet he seemed amiable and had been full of conversation when he tucked them up in the carriage, covering their knees tenderly with a torn and tattered rug, only owing to his lack of teeth they had found it difficult to understand him. And now, in the thick February mist that shrouded the countryside, they could scarcely see him through the little window in the front of the carriage.
Nor could they see anything of the country through which they were passing. The only thing they knew about it was that the road was so full of ruts and pits that they were jolted from side to side and flung up and down as though the carriage were playing battledore and shuttle-cock with them. And soon it would be dark and there would be none of the fashionable new gas-lamps that nowadays illumined the London streets, only the deep black awful darkness of the country. And it was bitterly cold and they had been travelling for what seemed like a century, and still there seemed no sign of their ever getting there.
Miss Heliotrope raised her book of essays and held it within an inch of her nose, determined to get to the end of the one about endurance before darkness fell. She would read it many times in the months to come, she had no doubt, together with the one upon the love that never fails. This last essay, she remembered, she had read for the first time on the evening of the day when she had arrived to take charge of the motherless little Maria, and had found her charge the most unattractive specimen of a female infant that she had ever set eyes upon, with her queer silvery eyes and her air, even in babyhood, of knowing that her Blood was Blue and thinking a lot of herself in consequence. Nevertheless, after reading that essay she had made up her mind that she would love Maria, and that her love would never fail the child until death parted them.
At first Miss Heliotrope’s love for Maria had been somewhat forced. She had made and mended her clothes with grim determination and with a rather distressing lack of imagination, and however naughty she was had applied the cane only very sparingly, being more concerned with winning the child’s affection than with the welfare of her immortal soul. But gradually all that had changed. Her tenderness, when Maria was in any way afflicted, had become eager; the child’s clothes had been created with a fiery zeal that made of each small garment a work of art; and she herself had been whipped for her peccadilloes within an inch of her life, Miss Heliotrope caring now not two hoots whether Maria liked her or not, if only she could make of the child a fine and noble woman.
This is true love and Maria had known it; and even when her behind had been so sore that she could scarcely sit upon it, her affection for Miss Heliotrope had been no whit abated. And now that she was no longer a child but a young lady in her teens, it was the best thing in her life.
For Maria from babyhood had always known a good thing when she saw it. She always wanted the best, and was quick to recognize it even’ when, as in the case of Miss Heliotrope, the outer casket gave little indication of the gold within. She was, perhaps, the only person who had ever discovered what a dear person Miss Heliotrope really was; and that, no doubt, was why Miss Heliotrope’s feeling for her had become so eager.
Miss Heliotrope’s outer casket was really very odd, and it just shows how penetrating were Maria’s silvery eyes, that they had pierced through it so very soon. Most people when confronted with Miss Heliotrope’s nose and style of dress stopped there and could not get any further. Miss Heliotrope’s nose was hooked like an eagle’s beak, and in colour was a deep unbecoming puce which aroused most people’s instant suspicions. They thought she ate and drank too much and that that was why her nose was puce; but, as a matter of fact, Miss Heliotrope scarcely ate or drank anything at all, because she had such dreadful indigestion.
It was the indigestion that had ruined her nose, not overindulgence. She never complained of her indigestion, she just endured it, and it was because she never complained that she was so misunderstood by everyone except Maria. Not that she had ever mentioned her indigestion even to Maria, for she had been brought up by her mother to believe that it is the mark of a True Gentlewoman never to say anything to anybody about herself ever. But Miss Heliotrope’s passion for peppermints was in the course of time traced by the discerning Maria to its proper source.
So distressing was Miss Heliotrope’s nose, set in the surrounding pallor of her thin pale face, that the great beauty of her forget-me-not-blue eyes was not noticeable, nor the delicate arch of her fine dark eyebrows. Her scanty grey hair she wore in tight corkscrew ringlets all round her face, a mode of hairdressing which had been suitable when she had adopted it at the age of eighteen, but was not very becoming to her now that she was sixty.
Miss Heliotrope was tall and very thin, and stooped, but her thinness was not noticeable because she wore her old-fashioned dress of purple bombasine over a hoop, and winter and summer alike she wore a black shawl over her shoulders and crossed over her chest, so that she was well padded. Out of doors she always carried a large black umbrella and wore a voluminous shabby black cloak and a huge black poke bonnet with a purple feather in it, and indoors a snow-white mob-cap trimmed with black velvet ribbon. She always wore black silk mittens, and carried a black reticule containing a spotless white handkerchief scented with lavender, her spectacles and box of peppermints, and round her neck she wore a gold locket the size of a duck’s egg, that held Maria did not know what, because whenever she asked Miss Heliotrope what was inside her locket Miss Heliotrope made no answer. There was not much that Miss Heliotrope denied her beloved Maria, if what Maria wanted was not likely to injure her immortal soul, but she did consistently deny her a sight of what was inside her locket . . . It was, she said, a matter that concerned herself alone . . . Maria had no chance to have a look on the sly, because Miss Heliotrope was never parted from her locket; when she went to bed at night she put it under her pillow. But, in any case, Maria would not have looked on the sly, because she was not that kind of girl.
Maria, though decidedly vain and much too inquisitive, was possessed of the fine qualities of honour and courage and fastidiousness, and Miss Heliotrope was entirely made of love and patience. But it is difficult to draw up a list of Wiggins’s virtues . . . In fact impossible, because he hadn’t any . . . Wiggins was greedy, conceited, bad-tempered, selfish, and lazy. It was the belief of Maria and Miss Heliotrope that he loved them devotedly because he always kept close at their heels, wagged his tail politely when spoken to, and even kissed them upon occasion. But all this Wiggins did not from affection but because he thought it good policy. He was aware that from Miss Heliotrope and Maria there emanated all those things which made his existence pleasant to him — his food, always of good quality and served to him with punctuality in a green dish to which he was much attached; his green leather collar; his brush and comb and scented powder and soap. Other mistresses, Wiggins was aware from the conversation of inferior dogs met in the park, could not always be relied on to make the comforts of their pets their first consideration . . . His could . . . Therefore Wiggins had made up his mind at an early age to ingratiate himself with Maria and Miss Heliotrope, and to remain with them for as long as they gave satisfaction.
But though Wiggins’s moral character left much to be desired, it must not be thought that he was a useless member of society, for a thing of beauty is a joy for ever, and Wiggins’s beauty was of that high order that can only be described by that tremendous trumpet-sounding word ‘incomparable’. He was a pedigree King Charles Spaniel. His coat was deep cream in colour, smooth and glossy everywhere upon his body except upon his chest, where it broke into an exquisite cascade of soft curls like a gentleman’s frilled shirt-front. It was not then the fashion for spaniels to have their tails cut, and Wiggins’s tail was like an ostrich feather. He was very proud of it and carried it always like a pennon in the wind, and sometimes when the sun shone through the fine hairs it scintillated with light to such an extent that it was almost dazzling to behold.
The only parts of Wiggins that were not cream-coloured were his long silky ears and the patches over his eyes, that were the loveliest possible shade of chestnut brown. His eyes were brown, too, and of a liquid melting tenderness that won all hearts; the owners of the said hearts being quite unaware that Wiggins’s tenderness was all for himself, not for them. His paws and the backs of his legs were most delicately feathered, like those of a heraldic beast. Wiggins’s nose was long and aristocratic, and supported fine golden whiskers that were always well under control. His nose was jet black, shining, and cold, and his beautiful rose-pink tongue was never unpleasantly moist. For Wiggins was not one of those emotional dogs who let themselves go with quivering whiskers, hot nose, and dribbling tongue.
Wiggins was aware that excessive emotion is damaging to personal beauty, and he never indulged in it . . . Except, perhaps, a very little, in regard to food. Good food did make him feel emotional, so intense was his delight in it, so deep his thankfulness that the good fairies who at his birth had bestowed upon him an excellent digestion had also seen to it that over-eating never seemed to impair the exquisite slenderness of his figure . . . That dinner that he had had at the inn at Exeter had really been excellent, the chop, greens, and baked potatoes that had really been meant for Miss Heliotrope, but which she had not felt equal to . . . Thoughtfully his beautiful pink tongue caressed his golden whiskers. If the food of the West Country was always going to be as good as that meal at Exeter he would, he thought, be able to put up with cold mists and draughty carriages with calm and patience.
Presently it was quite dark, and the queer old coachman got down, grinned at them and lit the two antique lanterns that swung one on each side of the box. But they did not give much light, and all that could be seen from the coach windows were the drifting mist and steep precipitous banks covered with wet ferns. The road grew narrower and narrower, so that the ferns brushed against the carriage upon either side, and bumpier, and bumpier and more and more precipitous, so that they were always either crawling painfully uphill or sliding perilously down what felt like the side of some horrible cliff.
In the darkness Miss Heliotrope could no longer read, nor Maria contemplate her boots. But they did not grumble at all, because True Gentlewomen never grumble. Maria clasped her hands tightly inside her muff, and Miss Heliotrope clasped hers under her cloak, and they set their teeth and endured.
Perhaps in spite of the cold, they all three dozed a little from sheer weariness, because it was with a shock of complete surprise that they discovered that the carriage had stopped. And it must have been that between their loss of consciousness and its return they had come a long way, because everything was completely different. For one thing, the mist had gone and the moon was shining, so that they could see each other’s faces quite plainly.
Their depression had completely vanished and their hearts were beating fast with a sense of adventure. With the eagerness of small children Miss Heliotrope and Maria let down the carriage windows upon either side and leaned out, Wiggins pushing himself in beside Maria that he might lean out too.
The fern-covered banks that had been on each side of them had disappeared, and in their place, close up against the windows of the carriage, were walls of solid rock of a beautiful silvery grey, and in front of them, too, completely blocking their passage, was solid rock.
‘Can we have come the right way?’ asked Miss Heliotrope.
‘There’s a door in the rock!’ said Maria, who was leaning so far out of the window that she was in danger of falling headlong into the narrow lane. ‘Look!’
Miss Heliotrope also leaned out at a perilous angle, and saw that Maria was quite right. There was a door of weathered oak set in the rock, so old that it was of the same colour as the stone and hardly distinguishable from it. It was very large, big enough to admit a carriage. Close beside it there hung a rusty chain that issued from a hole in the wall.
‘The coachman is getting down!’ ejaculated Maria and with eyes shining with excitement she watched the gnome-like little man as he scurried to the rusty chain, seized hold of it, lifted both legs off the ground, and swung there like a monkey on a stick. The result was a deep hollow clanging somewhere within the recesses of the rock. When there had been three clangs the coachman dropped to the ground again, grinned at Maria, and climbed back upon the box.
Slowly the great door swung open. The coachman clucked to the old piebald horses, Miss Heliotrope and Maria sat down again, and they moved forward, the door closing behind them as noiselessly as it had opened, shutting out the moonlight and leaving them once more with no illumination but that of the flickering lantern light gleaming upon the wet moss-grown walls of an underground tunnel. It gleamed also, Maria fancied, over some sort of shadowy figure, but of this she could not be sure, because the carriage moved forward before she could get a proper look.
‘Ugh!’ said Miss Heliotrope, not quite so happy as she had been, for it struck very clammy and cold, the tunnel seemed to go on for a very long time, and the echoing of the coach wheels made a roar like thunder. But before they had time to get really frightened they were out in the moonlight again, and in a place so beautiful that it seemed hardly to be of this world.
It was all silver. Upon each side of them the trunks of tall trees rose from grass so silvered by the moonlight that it glimmered like water. The trees were not thickly planted, and beautiful glades opened between them, showing glimpses of an ebony sky set with silver stars. Nothing moved. It was all quite still, as though enchanted under the moon. The silvery tracery of twigs and branches above the silver tree trunks was so delicate that the moonlight sifted through it like a fine film of silver dust.
But there was life among the trees, though it was life that did not move. Maria saw a silver owl sitting on a silver branch, and a silver rabbit sitting up on its haunches beside the road blinking at the lantern light, and a beautiful group of silver deer . . . And for a fleeting instant, at the far end of a glade, she thought she saw a little white horse with flowing mane and tail, head raised, poised, halted in mid-flight, as though it had seen her and was glad.
‘Look,’ she cried to Miss Heliotrope. But when Miss Heliotrope looked she could not see anything.
They drove on for a long time, over a thick carpet of moss that deadened the sound of the carriage wheels, until at last they found themselves driving through an archway in an old grey wall; not natural rock this time but a man-made wall crowned with battlements. Maria had just time to notice the battlements with a throb of excitement, and they were within the walls and the beautiful park had given place to a formal garden, with flower-beds and paved walks surrounding a water-lily pool, and yew-trees cut into strange fantastic shapes of crowing cocks and knights on horseback.
The garden, like the park, was all silver and black under the moon, and a little tremor of fear seized Maria as they drove through it, for it seemed to her that the black knights and black cocks turned their heads to look very coldly at her as she went past. Wiggins, though he was down on the floor and couldn’t see the shadowy black figures, must have felt a bit queer too, because he growled. And Miss Heliotrope also must have felt not altogether happy, because she said in quite a quavery voice, ‘Aren’t we nearly at the house?’
‘We are at the house,’ rejoiced Maria. ‘Look, there’s a light!’
‘Where?’ demanded Miss Heliotrope.
‘There!’ said Maria. ‘High up behind that tree.’ And she pointed to where an orange eye of light was winking at them cheerfully through the topmost branches of a huge black cedar that towered up in front of them like a mountain. There was something wonderfully reassuring about that wink of orange, set like a jewel in the midst of all the black and silver. It was a bit of earthliness amongst so much that was unearthly, something that welcomed and was pleased to see her in place of those cold black shadows who had not wanted her to come.
‘But it’s right up in the sky!’ ejaculated Miss Heliotrope in astonishment, and then the carriage took a wide sweep round the cedar-tree and they knew why the light was shining so high up. For the house was not the sort of modern house they were accustomed to, but a very old house, almost more of a castle than a house, and the light was shining in a window at the top of a tall tower.
Miss Heliotrope let out a cry of dismay (quickly stifled, because only the ill-bred cry out when confronted by an alarming prospect), thinking of mice and spiders of both of which she was terrified; but Maria gave a cry of delight. She was going to live in a house with a tower, like a princess in a fairy-tale.
Oh, but it was a glorious house! It towered up before them, its great walls confronting the shadowy garden with a sort of timeless strength that was as reassuring as the light in a window of the tower. And though she had never seen it before, it gave her a feeling of home. For Merryweathers had lived in it for generations, and she was a Merryweather. She was ashamed of her previous dread of coming here. This was home, as the London house had never been. She would rather live here austerely than in the most luxurious palace in the world.
And she was out of the carriage almost before it had stopped, and running up a flight of stone steps that were built sideways against the wall and led up to the great oak front door, and beating upon it with her fists to be let in. Neither her light feet nor her small fists made much sound, but someone inside must have been listening for the sound of the carriage wheels, for the great door opened almost at once, revealing the most extraordinary-looking elderly gentleman Maria had ever set eyes upon, standing upon the threshold with a lighted lantern held high in his hand.
‘Welcome, Cousin,’ he said in a deep, rich, fruity voice, and held out his free hand to her.
‘Thank you, Sir,’ she replied, and curtsied and put her hand into his, and knew that she would love him from that moment on for always.
But her cousin was really very odd to look at, and once she started looking at him she found it very difficult to leave off. He was so tall and so broad that he seemed to fill the big doorway. His face was round and red and clean-shaven, and his big hooked nose put Miss Heliotrope’s entirely in the shade. He had three double chins, a large smiling mouth, and twinkling eyes of a warm tawny-brown, almost lost beneath bushy white eyebrows. His clothes, most scrupulously cared for, were very old-fashioned and most oddly assorted.
He had a huge white wig like a cauliflower on his head, and his double chins were propped by a cravat of Honiton lace. His waistcoat was of pale-blue satin embroidered with yellow roses and crimson carnations, and was so beautiful that it contrasted oddly with his faded and patched riding-coat and breeches and the mud-splashed top-boots. He was slightly bow-legged, as men are who have spent most of their life in the saddle. His hands were big and red like his face, with palms as hard as leather from much holding of the bridle, but beautiful lace fell over the wrists, and on one finger was a ring with a great ruby in it that flashed like fire.
Indeed, everything about Sir Benjamin Merryweather was warm and glowing; his round red face, his smile, his voice, his tawny eyes, his ruby ring. After he had taken Maria’s hand he looked at her very attentively, as though he were asking himself some question about her. And she trembled a little under his scrutiny, as though she feared herself lacking in some quality he looked for; yet she looked steadily up into his face and did not blink at all.
‘A true Merryweather,’ he said at last in his deep rumbling voice. ‘One of the silver Merryweathers, straight and arrogant and fastidious, brave and the soul of honour, born at the full moon. We shall like each other, my dear, for I was born at midday; and your moon Merryweathers and your sun Merryweathers always take a fancy for one another . . .’
He broke off abruptly, suddenly aware of Miss Heliotrope and Wiggins, who by this time had got themselves out of the carriage and up the steps, and were standing behind Maria.
‘My dear Madam!’ he cried to Miss Heliotrope, after subjecting her to one long keen glance. ‘My dear Madam! Allow me!’ And bowing very low he took her hand and led her ceremoniously over the threshold. ‘Welcome, Madam!’ he said to her. ‘Welcome to my poor unworthy home.’
And his words rang out like a note that strikes true. He did really and truly think his home unworthy to house Miss Heliotrope.
‘My dear Sir!’ cried Miss Heliotrope, all of a flutter, for owing to her unattractive appearance gentlemen seldom bestowed upon her these flattering attentions. ‘My dear Sir, you are too kind!’
Maria, picking up Wiggins, who was snorting disagreeably because no one was paying the least attention to him, pushed the great door shut and turned to follow her elders with a sigh of content. For she was aware that Sir Benjamin had seen at a glance of what fine stuff her dear Miss Heliotrope was made . . . They were all going to like each other.
But no, perhaps not, for a low disagreeable growl from under her arm, where she had Wiggins, was echoed by a rumble like thunder from the hearth of the great log fire which was burning in the stone-paved raftered hall into which Sir Benjamin had led them.
An animal of sorts, a rather alarmingly large animal, whose body seemed to stretch the length of the hearth, had raised a huge shaggy head from his forepaws and was gazing at Wiggins’s exquisite little face peeping out from beneath Maria’s arm. He sniffed once loudly, got the aroma of Wiggins’s character, thought apparently little of it, blinked once contemptuously, and laid his head back on his paws. But he did not go to sleep. Through the cascade of reddish hair that fell over them, eyes like yellow lamps shone disconcertingly upon the assembled company; disconcertingly because they were so terribly penetrating.
If the eyes of Sir Benjamin had seemed to see a good deal, the eyes of the shaggy creature on the hearth saw infinitely more. What sort of a creature was he, Maria wondered. She supposed he was a dog, and yet, somehow, he wasn’t quite like a dog . . .
‘The dog Wrolf,’ said Sir Benjamin, answering her unspoken question. ‘There are those who find him alarming, but I assure you that you need to have no fear of him. He is an old dog. He came out of the pine-wood behind the house on Christmas Eve more than twenty years ago, and stayed with us for a while, and then after some trouble in the household he went away again. But just over a year ago — also on Christmas Eve — he came back, and has lived with me ever since, and never to my knowledge harmed even a mouse.’
‘You have mice?’ whispered Miss Heliotrope.
‘Hundreds,’ boomed Sir Benjamin cheerfully. ‘But we keep ’em down with traps, you know. Traps, and Zachariah the cat. Zachariah is not here just now. Now, dear ladies, you must see your rooms and lay aside your wraps, and then you will come down to the hall again and we will eat together.’
Sir Benjamin took three large brass candlesticks from a table beside the fire, lit their candles, handed one each to Miss Heliotrope and Maria, and led the way with his into an adjoining room that Maria guessed was the parlour, though in the dim light she could scarcely see anything of it.
He opened a door in the wall, passed through it, and they were on a turret staircase. The steps were of stone, worn in the middle because so many feet had trodden them during the centuries, and wound round and round the central newel in a fashion that poor Miss Heliotrope found most dizzying; though Sir Benjamin, going on ahead with his candle, mounted them as merrily as a boy, in spite of his age and bulk, and Maria, bringing up the rear, stepped up them with the agility of a happy monkey.
‘Six hundred years old,’ said Sir Benjamin cheerfully. ‘Built in the thirteenth century by Wrolf Merryweather, armour-bearer to King Edward I, and the founder of our family, on land ceded him by the king in gratitude for Wrolf’s valiant bearing in battle. In our family, Miss Heliotrope, we spell Wrolf with a W, for we are of Viking ancestry, and great fighters.’
‘Yes,’ sighed Miss Heliotrope. ‘When Maria was little, I had great trouble in getting her to eat rice pudding.’
‘Did you call the dog that came out of the pine-wood after that Wrolf?’ asked Maria. She had hesitated a little before she spoke of that great beast down in the hall as a dog, because she still somehow could not think that he was.
‘I did,’ said Sir Benjamin. ‘For tradition has it that Wrolf Merryweather was auburn-haired, and Wrolf the dog, as you may have noticed, has a reddish mane.’
‘Yes, I noticed,’ said Maria.
Sir Benjamin had stopped outside a door. ‘Here, ladies, I leave you,’ he said. ‘This is Miss Heliotrope’s room, over the parlour. Maria’s is higher up still, right at the top of the tower.’ And he bowed to them and went away down the stairs with his candle.
Miss Heliotrope, who had thought that perhaps she would have to sleep on a straw pallet on a rush-strewn floor, gave a gasp of relief upon seeing her room. It was a fair-sized room, and its oak floor was almost entirely covered by a crimson carpet. It was a very shabby carpet with large holes in it, but it was a carpet and not rushes.
There was a big four-poster with a flight of steps leading up to it, and crimson velvet curtains to keep the draught out. There was a bow-fronted mahogany chest of drawers, a huge mahogany wardrobe, a dressing-table with a chintz petticoat, and a winged armchair with a foot-stool for her feet. The stone walls had been panelled in warm dark wood, and the window was closely shuttered, with chintz curtains covering the shutters. All the curtains needed mending, but the furniture was well polished and it was all scrupulously clean.
And someone, it seemed, had been giving much thought to her comfort, for a log fire was burning brightly on the hearth, candles were burning on the chest of drawers and the dressing-table, and there was a warming-pan between the sheets. And their luggage was already here, piled neatly at the foot of the four-poster.
But Maria did not linger in Miss Heliotrope’s room. She waited only to see that she was happy, and then she went quietly off with her candle and pursued her way up the turret stairs, up and up and round and round for quite a long way. A room of her own! She had never had a room of her own before. She had always slept with Miss Heliotrope and, loving her as she did, she had not minded that; but yet, just lately, she had thought it would be nice to have a room of her own.
The turret stairs ended at a door so small that a large grown-up could not possibly have got through it. But for a slim girl of thirteen it was exactly right. Maria stopped and gazed at it with a beating heart, for though this little, narrow, low door was obviously hundreds of years old, yet she felt as though it had been made especially for her. For if she had been able to choose her own door, this was the door she would have chosen. It was more like a front door than a bedroom door, like the door of her very own house. It was of silvery grey oak studded with silver nails, and it had a knocker made of the smallest, daintiest horseshoe Maria had ever seen, polished so brightly that it shone like silver. At sight of it Maria thought instantly of the lovely little white horse she had thought she had seen in the park and that she had pointed out to Miss Heliotrope . . . only Miss Heliotrope hadn’t been able to see it . . . The door was opened by a silver latch that clicked in a friendly sort of way, when Maria lifted it, as though it was welcoming her.
She went in, latched the door behind her, put her candle carefully down on the floor, leaned back against the door and gazed and gazed, with her lips parted and her usually pale face glowing like a pink rose, and her eyes like stars.
No pen could possibly do justice to the exquisite charm and beauty of Maria’s room. It was at the top of the tower, and the tower was a round one, so Maria’s room was circular, neither too large nor too small, just the right size for a girl of thirteen. It had three windows, two narrow lancet windows and one large one with a window-seat in the thickness of the wall. The curtains had not been drawn across the windows, and through them she could see the stars. In each of the windows stood beautiful silver branched candlesticks with three lighted candles burning in each of them.
It was the light from one of these, Maria realized, that she had seen from outside shining through the branches of the cedar-tree. The walls had not been panelled with wood, as in Miss Heliotrope’s room, but the silver-grey stone was so lovely that Maria was glad. The ceiling was vaulted, and delicate ribbings of stone curved over Maria’s head like the branches of a tree, meeting at the highest point of the ceiling in a carved representation of a sickle moon surrounded by stars.
There was no carpet upon the silvery-oak floor, but a little white sheepskin lay beside the bed, so that Maria’s bare toes should meet something warm and soft when they went floorwards of a morning. The bed was a little four-poster, hung with pale-blue silk curtains embroidered with silver stars, of the same material as the window curtains, and spread with a patchwork quilt made of exquisite squares of velvet and silk of all colours of the rainbow, gay and lovely.
There was very little furniture in the room, just a couple of silvery-oak chests for Maria’s clothes, a small round mirror hung upon the wall above one of them, and a stool with a silver ewer and basin upon it. But Maria felt that she wanted no more than this. Heavy furniture such as Miss Heliotrope had, would have ruined this exquisite little room. Nor did she mind that the fireplace was the tiniest she had ever seen, deeply recessed in the wall. It was big enough for the fire of pine-cones and apple wood that burned in it, filling the room with fragrance.
But when Maria started to explore her room she found that it was not without luxuries. Over the fireplace was a shelf, and on it stood a blue wooden box filled with dainty biscuits with sugar flowers on them, in case she should feel hungry between meals. And beside the fireplace stood a big basket filled with more logs and pine-cones — enough to keep her fire burning all through the night.
It was all perfect. It was the room Maria would have designed for herself if she had had the knowledge and skill. For she realized that very much knowledge and skill had gone to the making of this room. Fine craftsmen had carved the moon and stars and fashioned the furniture, and an exquisite needlewoman had made the patchwork quilt and embroidered the curtains.
This way and that she stepped, putting her pelisse and bonnet and muff away in one of the chests, smoothing her hair before the mirror, washing her hands in the water that she poured out of the little silver ewer into the silver basin, touching all the beautiful things with the tips of her fingers, as though caressing them, saying thank you in her heart to the people who had made them, and whoever it was who had arranged them. Was it Sir Benjamin? But it couldn’t have been, because he couldn’t have got through the door.
A knock on the door, and the startled voice of Miss Heliotrope outside, reminded her that her governess, with her height and her hoop, would not be able to get through the door either, and in spite of her love for Miss Hellotrope she felt a little thrill of glee . . . This room was indeed her own . . . When she opened the door there was a mischievous dimple in her left cheek that had never been there before.
‘My dear! My dear!’ lamented Miss Heliotrope, who had now removed her outdoor garments and was wearing her mob-cap and her black shawl folded across her chest, ‘what a ridiculous little door! I shall never be able to get inside your room!’
‘No!’ giggled Maria.
‘But what shall we do when you’re ill?’ asked poor Miss Heliotrope.
‘I shan’t be ill,’ said Maria. ‘Not here!’