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By Andre Norton
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1965 Andre Norton
All rights reserved.
The Lake and the Castle
The adventure began with the picnic basket that Sara Lowry won at the Firemen's Strawberry Festival at Ternsport Village. Because it was the first time any of the junior Lowrys had ever won anything, they could hardly believe it when Chief Loomis called out the number of the ticket Sara had knotted into one corner of her handkerchief. Both Greg and Eric had to hustle her up to the platform where Chief Loomis waited beside the loud-speaker.
The basket was super, the boys agreed as soon as they had a chance to examine it. Inside the lid, fastened in a piece of webbing, were forks, spoons, and knives of stainless steel, and there was a set of four cups — blue, yellow, green, and fire-engine red — with matching plastic plates. Sara was still so surprised at her luck that she would not have been astonished if the basket had vanished completely before she carried it back to Uncle Mac's station wagon.
When Uncle Mac slowed down for the sharp turn into the Tern Manor private road, Sara clutched the basket handles tighter. Greg's sharp elbow dug into her ribs, but she did not try to wriggle away. This place was spooky at night, and she did not wonder that Greg moved back from the window when ragged branches reached out as if they were trying to drag the car off the narrow road into all those shadows. At night you had to keep thinking about how this was still New York State, with the Hudson River only two hills and three fields away — and not a scary country out of a fairy tale.
Now they were passing the dark place where the big house had once stood. Twenty years ago it had burned down, long before Uncle Mac had bought the old carriage house and the ground with the gardens for what he called his hideaway. Uncle Mac wrote books and wanted peace and quiet when he was working — lots of it. But the old cellar holes still marked where the house had stood, and the Lowrys had been strictly warned not to explore there. Since Uncle Mac was perfectly reasonable about letting them go everywhere else through the overgrown gardens and the little piece of woodland, the Lowrys were content.
They drove into the old stable yard. When the big house had been built fifty years ago, there had been horses here, and people had actually ridden in the funny carriage the children had found crowded into part of an old barn. But now the station wagon occupied the main part of the barn and there were no horses.
Mrs. Steiner, the housekeeper, was waiting on the doorstep of the carriage house and she waved an air mail — special delivery letter at Uncle Mac the minute he got out of the car. She was also wearing one of her own special "past-your-bedtime-and-hurry-in-before-I-miss-my-favorite-TV-program," looks for the Lowrys. Mrs. Steiner spoke with authority, whereas Uncle Mac, especially while writing, would sometimes absentmindedly agree to interesting changes of rules and regulations. Uncle Mac was not used to children. Mrs. Steiner was, and an opponent to be respected in any tug of wills.
On the whole the Lowry children had been looking forward to a good summer. In spite of Mrs. Steiner there were advantages to staying at Tern Manor. Since Dad had been ordered to Japan on special service and had taken Mother with him for two months, Uncle Mac's was far better than just second best.
When one was used to towns and not the country, though, what was left of the old estate could be frightening at times. Greg had gone to scout camp, and Eric had taken overnight hikes in the state park when Dad was stationed at the big air base in Colorado. But this was Sara's first visit to a piece of the outdoors that had been allowed to run wild, just as it pleased. She was still afraid of so many big, shaggy bushes and tall trees, and managed to have one of the boys with her whenever she went too far from the stable yard or the road.
Mrs. Steiner spoke darkly of snakes, but they did not frighten Sara. Pictures of snakes in library books were interesting, and to watch one going about its business might be fun. But poison ivy and "those nasty bugs," which Mrs. Steiner also mentioned at length, were another matter. Sara did not like to think about bugs, especially the kind that had a large number of legs and might investigate humans. Spiders were far more unpleasant than snakes, she had long ago decided. She was really afraid of them, though she knew that was silly. But to see one scurrying along on all those legs — ugh! As they climbed the stairs to the small bedrooms in the top story of the carriage house, Eric joggled the basket Sara still carried.
"Let's fill this up tomorrow and really go exploring — for the whole day!"
"Might be a good time to hunt for the lake," Greg agreed. "We'll ask Uncle Mac at breakfast — after he's had his third cup of coffee."
"Mrs. Steiner say there's liable to be snakes there," Sara offered. Please, she added to herself, just no big spiders, little ones were bad enough. Greg snorted and Eric stamped hard on the next step. "Mrs. Steiner sees snakes everywhere, when she isn't seeing something else as bad. Water snakes, maybe, and I'd like to get me one of those for a pet. Anyway, we've wanted to find the lake ever since Uncle Mac told us there was one."
This was perfectly true. The legend of the lost lake as Uncle Mac had told it was enough to excite all three Lowrys. The gardens were now a matted jungle, but they had been planned to encircle an ornamental lake. Mr. Brosius had bought the land more than fifty years ago, throwing three riverside farms together and spending a great deal of time and money developing the estate. He was a legend, too, was Mr. Brosius, a stranger with a long beard, who had paid for all the costs of the manor's building in gold coins. Then he had gone and the house had burned.
Nobody had been quite sure who really owned the manor, and finally it had been sold for taxes. Farmers had bought the fields, and the part with the gardens had gone to a real-estate man who finally sold it to Uncle Mac. And Uncle Mac had never cared enough to plow through all the brambles and brush to see if there was a lake any more. In fact he said he was sure it must have dried up a long time ago.
Sara wondered if that was true. She paused in her undressing to open the picnic basket and gloat over its contents just once more. What if Uncle Mac had not taken them to the festival tonight, or if she had not had her allowance in her purse and could not have bought that dime ticket? Maybe if she had not won the basket the boys would not have included her in the lake hunt. This was going to be a fine summer!
After she had turned off the light, she sat up in bed. This was the first night she had not stood by the window listening to all the queer little sounds which were a part of the night outside. It was so easy to believe that there were things out there which were never to be sighted by day, things as lost as the lake and maybe even stranger....
But tonight she thought instead of packing the picnic basket. And with plans of peanut-butter sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs, cookies and Cokes, Sara lay back at last to pull up sheet and quilt.
Their plan went well the next morning. Uncle Mac's letter had summoned him to New York City, and Mrs. Steiner drowned out the crackles and pops of rapidly disappearing breakfast food with the statement that she would give the house a really good cleaning.
When Sara produced the basket and asked for the raw materials of picnicking she met no opposition at all. Mrs. Steiner even made up a Thermos of frozen lemonade. Luck was on their side and it was the perfect day to go lake hunting.
Greg used a compass and led the way in what he claimed was the proper direction to reach the center of the wild gardens, but as they went the basket began to prove a nuisance. When it was necessary for the explorers to wriggle on all fours through thickets, it had to be bumped and pushed along in a way which Sara was sure mixed its contents more than was desirable. And she stoutly protested the frequent suggestions that she alone carry it, since it belonged to her anyway.
They were wrangling loudly on this point when they came, quite unexpectedly, to the top of a flight of crumbling, moss-greened stairs and saw the lake below — but not only the lake!
"It's Camelot!" Eric cried first. "Remember the picture in the Prince Valiant book? It's Camelot — King Arthur's castle!"
Sara, who had different reading tastes, dropped down on the top step and rubbed a brier-scratched hand back and forth across her knee. Her eyes were round with happy wonder as she half whispered, "Oz!"
Greg said nothing at all. It was real, it must be. And it was the most wonderful find the Lowrys had ever made. But what was it doing here and why hadn't Uncle Mac ever told them about it when he spoke of the lost lake? Who had built it and why — because real castles, even if very small ones, didn't just grow on islands in the middle of lakes these days!
Part of Uncle Mac's prophecy that the lake might be dried or drying was true. Shore marks showed it had shrunk a lot, and a stretch of sand and gravel made a bridge between the island and the shore. As he studied the building, Greg could see the castle was a ruin. Part of one tower had fallen to choke the small courtyard. But maybe they could put the stones back and rebuild it.
Excited as they all were, they descended the steps slowly. Eric looked at the murky water — it might be deeper than it looked. He hoped no one would suggest swimming, because then he might just have to try and he didn't want to, not in this lake — or, to be honest, not anywhere. He pointed into the water as he caught sight of something else. "There's a boat sunk there. Maybe they had to use that once to get to the island."
"Who built it?" Sara wondered. "There never were any knights in America. People had stopped living in castles before the Pilgrims came."
Greg teetered from heels to toes and back again. "Must have been Mr. Brosius. Maybe he came from a place where they still had castles, and wanted a little one to make him feel at home. But it's funny Uncle Mac didn't say anything about a castle here. You'd think people would remember that if they remembered the lake."
Sara picked up the basket. "Anyway we can walk right out to it now." It seemed almost as if this really were Oz and she were Dorothy approaching the Emerald City!
"We sure can!" Eric jumped a short space of green-scummed water, giving himself a good margin for landing on the shelf of gravel. He kicked a stone into the lake, watched the ripples lap back. Water could never be trusted, there was nothing safe or solid about it. He was very glad they had that sand-and-gravel path. This lake was unpleasantly full of shadows — shadows which might hide almost anything.
Although the castle was a miniature, it had not been built for a garrison of toy soldiers. Even Uncle Mac, tall as he was, could have passed through the front gateway without having to stoop. But when they got beyond the pile of stones fallen from the tower, they faced a blank wall. Greg was surprised — from his survey taken from the stairs he had thought it much larger.
"What a fake!" Eric exploded. "I thought it was a real castle. It sure looked bigger from the shore."
"We can pretend it is." Sara refused to be disappointed. Even half a castle was much better than none. "If we pull all these blocks out of the way it will seem larger."
Eric kicked, sand and gravel spurting from the toe of his shoe. "Maybe."
Clearing out all those stones seemed to him a job about equal to running the lawn mower completely around the piece of garden Uncle Mac was trying to retame.
Greg moved slowly along the walls, studying the way the stones had been put together. Had the castle just been built to look pretty — something like the summer-house, which was not too far from the stable yard but which they could not play in because of the rotted floor?
The part of the wall directly facing the entrance was largely concealed by a creeper that had forced its way through a crack to stretch a curtain over the stone. But when he parted those leaves in one place, he made a new discovery which suggested that his first impression of the castle's size might not have been wrong after all.
"Hey! Here's another doorway, but somebody filled it up!"
Sara's hands gripped the handles of the picnic basket so tightly that the wood cut into her palms. "Maybe —" she wet her lips "— maybe that's where he went —"
"Who went?" Eric demanded.
"Mr. Brosius — when he disappeared and they never found him at all —"
Greg laughed. "That's silly! You know what Uncle Mac said, Mr. Brosius was drowned in the river, they found his boat floating."
"But they didn't find him," Sara said stubbornly.
"No, but it was his boat and he went out in it a lot. And the river's bad along there." Greg piled up the evidence. "Remember how Mrs. Steiner harped about its being dangerous, even on the first night we came, and Uncle Mac made us promise not to go there at all?"
Eric came to Greg's support. Sure, that was the story and Mrs. Steiner had been quick to tell it to them, one of her awful warnings. Uncle Mac had even driven them down to the water and pointed out where the current was so strong and tricky. Eric shook his head to spill the picture of that rolling water out of his mind.
Last summer, and the summer before, he had had swimming lessons. And, well, it had been easy to go in with Dad, or with Slim, the instructor at the beach. But even so he didn't like or really trust a lot of water. He never had.
Maybe Greg felt the same way when he sometimes got all stiff and quiet in the dark. There was that time when they broke the flashlight going downstairs to fix a burned-out fuse and Dad had finally come down to see what was keeping them. Greg hadn't moved from the last step of the stairs at all. Well, now it wasn't dark, and they didn't have to get into the dirty old lake, so why think about things like that?
Greg was tearing away a big handful of creeper, leaving the wall bare but speckled with little patches of suckers from the vine. Whoever had sealed up that doorway long ago had been in a big hurry or careless. Because at the very top one of the filling stones was missing, leaving a dark hole.
Greg scrambled up a tottery ladder of fallen rubble and thrust his hand into the hole, which was still well above eye level.
"There's a lot of space beyond," he reported eagerly. "Maybe another room."
"Do you suppose we could pull out the rest of the stones?" Sara asked. But she was not too happy. She had not liked seeing Greg's hand disappear that way, it made her feel shivery — but excited too.
Greg was already at work, ripping free more of the creeper. Now he picked at some more of the blocks.
"Got to have something to pry this mortar loose."
None of them wanted to make the long trip back to the house for a tool. It was Eric who demanded that Sara hand over one of the forks from the picnic basket.
"They're made of stainless steel, aren't they? Well, steel's awfully tough. And anyway there're only three of us and four of them. Won't matter if we break one."
Sara protested hotly, but she did want to see what lay behind the wall and finally she handed over a fork. The boys took turns picking out crumbling mortar and, as the fork did the job very easily, they were able to pass the loose stones to their sister to stack to one side. Midges buzzed about, and some very hungry mosquitoes decided it was lunch time. Spiders, large, hairy, and completely horrible, ran from disturbed homes in the creeper and made Sara a little sick as they scuttled madly by.
At last Greg pulled up to look through the irregular window they had cleared.
"What's inside?" Sara jerked at Greg's dangling shirt tail and Eric clamored to be allowed to take his place.
There was an odd expression on Greg's tanned face.
"Answer a person, can't you? What's there?"
"I don't know —"
"Let me see!" Eric applied an elbow to good purpose and took his brother's place.
"Why, it's all gray!" he cried out a moment later. "Maybe just a sealed-up room without any windows — the kind to keep treasure in. Maybe this is where Mr. Brosius kept all his gold."
The thought of possible treasure banished some of Sara's doubts. It also spurred the boys on to harder efforts and they soon had a larger space cleared so Sara could see in too.
It was gray in there, as if the space on the other side of the wall were full of fog. She did not like it, but if it was a treasure place ... Mr. Brosius had always spent gold in the village. That story was true; people still talked about it a lot.
"I'm the oldest." Greg broke the silence with an assertion that had led them into — and sometimes out of — trouble many times in the past. "I'll go first."
Excerpted from Steel Magic by Andre Norton. Copyright © 1965 Andre Norton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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